2009 Story Submission by “The Word Millers” (Jason and Karina Miller)
“How much longer?” Samantha asks impatiently as we wait at the crosswalk for permission to cross the busy intersection. Her hand grips mine tightly in anticipation, her eyes fixed on the dance studio across the street where her friends wait to start practicing plié’s and whatever 8-year-old girls do in ballet studios. It’s only been a week, and she is already standing out amongst her peers. I’m not in the least bit surprised but I can only think one thing.
This can’t end well.
The little green, walking man appears and Samantha nearly tears my arm out of its socket as she takes off like an Olympic sprinter from the blocks. After regaining my balance, I try to walk at a leisurely pace through the crosswalk. I’m not weak, just average, but she’s pulling pretty hard, requiring me to take long, fast strides in an attempt to match pace without running.
“Hurry!” She shouts as we reach the other side. Her finger points dramatically at the ground-floor dance studio where I can see little girls in tutus lining up getting ready for class to begin. “They’re starting!”
“You run ahead,” I say as I reach into my pocket, waiting for her to get inside before I pull out my cigarettes. I started smoking again about eight years ago, shortly after Samantha was born. I realize it’s a nasty habit, and I thoroughly hate myself for it, but it really helps with the stress of raising a child alone and I figure lung cancer is a small price to pay. So I lean up against the brick wall right beside the giant window that acts as most of the studio’s front wall, put the slender stick of doom in my mouth, and light it. I inhale deeply and let it warm me from the inside out as the sun sets over a two-story office building across the street.
Closing my eyes to savor the feeling, I suddenly hear a bell jingle and open my eyes to find a petite woman staring at me accusingly. It’s Stephanie Archer, the ballet instructor. She has piercing, green eyes set off by her ivory skin. She’s about a foot shorter than me, so she has to look up a bit to meet my eyes and make me feel even guiltier for the habit I’m indulging.
I tip my OSU Beaver’s baseball cap and say, “Good evening.”
“What do you think you’re doing?” She asks, her tone suggesting that I think I’m doing something that is socially acceptable, and that she strongly disagrees.
“I think I’m smoking a cigarette. I could be wrong though.” I reply, lowering the cigarette from my mouth.
“I don’t have any tolerance for smokers.” She’s seriously fit and serious as a heart attack—or I suppose lung cancer would be a more appropriate analogy right now. “Emma has quite a natural talent. Where has she trained?” Samantha’s dance instructor says in a lilting voice that contains a hint of haughty. Right, I really must get used to calling her Emma now.
“Uh,” I stutter, “We lived up north. She has taken classes for the past couple of years, and she practices constantly. Dancing is about the only thing she ever does besides school and reading.”
“What academy? Where did you live?” she asks impatiently.
Nosy, aggressive, and way too interested.
“Uh, around Seattle. She changed dance schools quite a few times. I don’t really remember.”
“Fine,” she says. “I hope you don’t smoke in the house. That won’t help her one bit.”
“No, m’am. Only when she’s not around and I’m outside.”
“You should quit.”
“Yes, m’am,” I respond with slight sarcasm.
“Miss Archer will do.”
“Yes, m’am,” I repeat.
Miss Archer stands there with her arms at her sides, her small feet in the shape of a T, her slender figure a model of perfect posture, and an expression of mixed disgust and expectation on her face. Her long, black hair appears to absorb all of the early-evening sun.
I casually take one more drag, blow it away from her, knock the cherry off of the unfinished cigarette, and throw the remainder in the nearby garbage, just to show her that I am at least a responsible non-litterer.
“Ok, uh, well I’ll be back to pick her up at seven,” I say and stride away as smoothly as possible without looking back. I decide to seek shelter from any other estrogen that might be wandering around town and settled on the local, non-descript, hole-in-the-wall pub. Miss Archer probably wouldn’t approve of a beer, either. Too effing bad, I think. I’m the best father–and mother–Samantha could ever have.
“I’ll have whatever’s freshest on tap,” I say as I sit down at the bar and rub my lightly-stubbled chin. I look around to get a sense of what I might be dealing with for the next two hours. There are a couple of older gentlemen who look like they’ve been golfing all day playing pool at the table in the dimly-lit back corner. And there is a mid-20s at the end of the bar staring down what looks like a Guinness.
The flat screen has a baseball game. Perfection, I think, as I settle in to nurse my Belgian ale and watch the Rangers play the Angels. I don’t have any particular loyalties, but tend to favor the underdogs – in this case, the Rangers by a slight margin. That, and my “namesake,” Christopher Davis, is on the team.
My mind wanders over our travels of the past several years since Samantha entered my life in the spring of 2001. I left the tiny town of Rockport, Maine, where she was born in a home birth, to take her about as far away as I could—San Diego. After San Diego, we lived in Dallas, Texas, Seattle, and now Corvallis, Oregon, where our past few months have gone quite well, in spite of the dance school being closed for the summer. After living on Capitol Hill in Seattle, I decided a small town would be a safer and more appropriate place to raise Samantha. It’s time to settle down and let her make some friends.
She said she was fine with moving as long as there was a good ballet studio. “I want to be a serious ballerina. Not a silly one,” she said when I proposed the idea of moving again. She was getting old enough to care.
Finding a small town with a reputable dance instructor is a challenge. After some searching, we settled on Corvallis, a mid-sized, artsy, college town in Western Oregon. It’s small enough to have a low crime rate, and big enough for us to, hopefully, remain fairly anonymous. The internet lists Benton County as the least religious county per capita in the U.S. I like that. We don’t know anyone here. It’s less rainy than Seattle most years. College kids are too self absorbed to pay attention to anyone else; and Western Oregonians, in general, have a reputation for being both socially liberal and keeping to themselves. It couldn’t be much more perfect.
“Homerun, Rangers!” yells the announcer. “That makes it a 6-6 tie as Christopher Davis steps up to bat at the bottom of the 5th.” It’s a great name. I’m glad I picked it. Chris steps up to home plate, swinging with a look of casual determination on his face. He gets to a 2-3 count. He swings and hits. The ball flies into left field, and drops just inside the third-base line, and just short enough of the outfielder to be perfect for a single—a nice, safe, base hit in a tie game. Well played.
I look at my wrist watch and see that it’s almost 7–time to pick up Samantha. As I stroll down the dim sidewalk, a colorfully-clothed, middle-aged woman who reeks of patchouli bumps into me. “’Scuse me sir,” she says, looking at me oddly.
I arrive at the studio in time to see the dozen-or-so ballerinas doing their final stretches. When they finish, Samantha walks my direction with another girl and introduces her to me as Hannah. Hannah says, “Good evening, Mr. Davis. It’s very nice to meet you. Emma and I have decided to be best friends.”
Samantha begs, “Dad, can Hannah stay the night at our house? Please?”
She knows how I feel about company. “Sorry, honey, not tonight. Hannah, it was very nice to meet you,” I say as I take her hand and shake it. I look up to see Miss Archer raise an eyebrow at me. She walks over.
“Mr. Davis, I trust you had a pleasant evening.”
“Yes, a very nice walk along the river. A small glass of red wine at the jazz bar. And not a single smoke,” I say somewhat compulsively. No point in telling the truth now.
“Alright then. I’ll see Emma on Monday evening?”
“Goodnight, Emma,” Miss Archer says.
“Goodnight, Miss Archer,” says Emma. Then she turns and gives Hannah a hug and whispers something in her ear. At least she makes friends quickly.
“Mr. Davis? A moment please,” says Miss Archer. “Can we meet for coffee tomorrow morning to discuss Emma’s future?”
“Her future? She’s eight,” I say.
“Can we please discuss over coffee?”
“I think she’s quite a bit too young to be discussing a future.” I say. “Emma,” I call. She is now practicing dance moves with Hannah in front of the mirror. “Time to go.”
We walk to our old, 2-bedroom, 900-square-foot, ground-floor apartment down the most well-lit streets possible, holding hands. I breathe in the early fall air. The day lilies in front of our apartment, which are uncharacteristically still in bloom, are closed up for the night. I give Samantha’s hand a squeeze, feeling an intense confidence in my little girl, as I try to block thoughts of impending puberty and the horrors that coincide with it. Must every girl become a woman?
“What are you doing?”
“I’m doing what you can’t. I’m doing what’s right.”
“Wake up daddy!”
I open my eyes to find a small person’s face approximately three inches from mine–the brilliant blue eyes looking at mine with a kind of ferocity that can only be born from an intense desire for breakfast–her curly brown hair still damp from the shower she must’ve already taken. I’m sweating.
“Didn’t we already have a conversation about personal space?” I ask rhetorically as I sit up, give a stretch, and rub my eyes. “I distinctly remember talking to you about personal space.”
“Are you going to make breakfast or not?” She asks accusingly, hands on her hips, her attitude reminiscent of a certain ballet instructor. “It’s Saturday and you promised to make me breakfast.”
“I didn’t promise anything,” I say as I throw off my covers and go to my dresser, in my boxers, in search of some pants. The only thing clean is a pair of cargo shorts that are somewhat inappropriate for the cool, late-September weather that has started, but they seem to be standard issue around here—along with Birkenstocks, socks optional. Once fully clothed I look back at her and give her a wink. “But I’ll make some anyway.”
She lets out a little excited squeal before making a mad dash for the kitchen area. I can hear cupboards opening and closing, drawers being opened, and that little pop the refrigerator makes, as I make my slow advance down the hall, thinking, since she’s always up first, I should probably teach her how to make coffee. That thought makes me smile.
“Everything’s ready!” She announces just as I reach the counter next to the double-burner gas stove. Eggs, milk, flour, butter, a bowl, and a measuring cup are arrayed on the counter. Crepes again, I think. She misses our old neighbor, Audry, who used to make crepes for us. The perfect neighbor, never asked questions until that fateful day . . . “Ok, kiddo. What do you want in them this morning?”
“What about some fruit? We have a few really nummy, ripe, organic nectarines.”
“Fine,” she says. Then, “Dad, can we stay here forever?”
“We’ll see, sweetie,” I say, although I have a few too many hairs on my neck that insist on spiking every time I’m near her dance instructor.
“Good! Because I like it here, and I can’t leave Hannah.”
“Why’s that?” I ask.
“She needs me,” Samantha says confidently.
“You know I can’t make any promises. It depends on work.” I say lamely, accustomed to using “work” as an excuse for moving around so much.
“If we have to leave, can we take Hannah with us?” she says. I wonder if Hannah is being abused. She’s a shy child. It’s possible.
“Don’t be silly,” I say, ruffling her hair with one hand as I stir the batter.
We sit down at our little round table to enjoy breakfast. “How’s your crepe?” I ask.
“Delicious, daddy! The best ever!”
Even better than Miss Audry’s? I want to ask, but I never talk about the past.
After breakfast, we get ready for a day of fun in Corvallis. At The Book Bin, Samantha picks out a stack of 20 books in a matter of 15 minutes. “These three are for Hannah,” she says, pulling out three Junie B. Jones books that she used to own and has read at least five times each. The word precocious springs to mind.
“Ok,” I say, as I move to the checkout with her pile and a couple of used Dennis Lehane paperbacks for myself.
We head to the coffee shop for a snack and some reading. After that, it’s a walk along the river, the Saturday market for fresh produce to go with wild Coho salmon, and the park for playground time. We manage to get through the day without having to explain ourselves. Maybe we could stay here forever. Samantha is sufficiently worn out by the time we head home.
Samantha falls asleep on the couch while reading Illusions by Richard Bach. I watch her sweet and serious little face twitch in the glow of the lamp and think about the life I want to create for her—the life I have always wanted to create for her since the day she was . . . I shift my thoughts away from the past and return to my book.
As I re-read The Black Hole War, by Susskind, I hear a light knock on the door. I check my watch. Eight ‘o clock. I walk to the door nervously and look out the peep hole to see one intractable Miss Archer standing on the porch trying to look relaxed with a basket on her arm. I quickly take stock of what I’m wearing and how I look. I’m still in my shorts and a black t-shirt with a picture of the galaxy on it that Samantha picked out for me at the local thrift store when we arrived in town. I run my fingers through my coarse hair and blow into my hand to check my breath.
“Good evening, Miss Archer,” I say, as I open the door.
“You can call me Stephanie,” she says with a smile. “I brought a bottle of red wine. I trust you’ve eaten?”
What the hell? I hear a tone of incredulity in my thoughts.
“I was hoping we could speak privately,” she said, standing there insistently. And then, after a pause, “May I please come in?”
“Uh, sure, I guess. Sa . . . Emma is sleeping on the couch.” I think about leaving her there so that I am not completely alone with this woman, but decide that would look odd, and perhaps irresponsible. “Let me carry her to her room.” I pick her up gently. “Please, have a seat.”
She sits on the edge of the couch, putting the basket on the floor, and begins to thumb through Richard Bach. “May I call you Christopher, or is it Chris?” she calls after me. I don’t answer.
When I return to the living room, she is looking about the room, I assume for clues about our life. The apartment came furnished, and is fairly sparse, but I’ve managed to put out a few happy, normal-looking framed photos of Samantha and me at various locations around Seattle, which are authentic in every way. We lead a happy life. I clear my throat. “It’s Christopher. May I?” I ask, gesturing toward the basket.
“Oh, yes, please,” she says as I pull out a bottle of Velvet Devil Merlot. I look at the label with the pitchfork on it and wonder. I open the bottle in the kitchen, pour two glasses, and take one to her. I set my wine on the end table and sit cautiously on the recliner so that it doesn’t accidentally recline.
“Nice place,” she says, unenthusiastically.
“Right, thanks,” I say.
“Look, I think we got off on the wrong foot,” she says, attempting a smile. “Emma really is a very special girl. I think she has great potential and could have a career in dance. I don’t see students like her often.”
I let the silence linger.
“We’re being featured in an upcoming OPB special,” she says.
Crap, no television. That’s out of the question.
After an uncomfortable silence, she asks boldly, “What happened to her mother?”
I try to look placid as the words none of your fucking business pop into my head. I flutter my eyelids and glance down in attempt to look like I’m controlling some grief. “That’s not something I care to discuss.”
“Ok,” she says quietly. “At any rate, we have a prodigy on our hands.”
Our hands? Presumptuous bitch.
“Let me rephrase that.” She senses my tension. “You have a prodigy on your hands. I’d like to help.”
“Nothing that you’re uncomfortable with, of course. Let’s just see how things unfold,” she says gently, sipping her wine. I haven’t touched mine.
No way in hell.
“Would you excuse me?” I ask before I leave my seat, the living room, and the conversation that has my heart pounding in my chest. I take a few steps and a couple turns and end up in the bathroom, gently closing the door and locking it, before I prop myself against the sink with my arms. I feel like I could vomit and very nearly do. I run my hand through my hair and feel that their roots are becoming saturated with sweat. The nausea in my gut makes it hard to stand.
Why does this keep happening?
I open the cupboard under the sink and pull out a pack of cigarettes, carefully hidden behind several sealed packages of toothbrushes and full tubes of toothpaste. I take one out and open the small window over the bathtub. I light it and take a few drags, blowing the smoke carefully toward the small orifice. The effects are almost immediate. My stomach begins to settle, and I feel confident that I can walk around without falling over. I take my sweet time finishing the cigarette.
Now fully composed, I toss the smoldering stub in the toilet and flush it before grabbing a can of floral air freshener from below the sink and spraying it, making sure to get most of it on my body to cover the smell of my habit. I hear the front door open, and close. Good riddance. The smell of lavender fills the hallway as I open the bathroom door to confirm that Stephanie is gone.
This part’s easy. I quickly pack the SUV with our essentials stuffed into five large, military-issue duffle bags and gently move Samantha from her bed into the reclined front seat, putting her favorite blanket over her. She repositions herself on her side with her knees drawn up and lets out a stuttered sigh.
I get in the SUV and drive toward I-5 without looking back, thinking about where, on my long list of fully-researched larger cities, to head to next. Small towns are obviously a bust. I settle on the City of Angels. Samantha shifts and then sleepily asks, “Where to next, dad?”
“Don’t worry, honey. We’ll find you an excellent ballet school where you’ll fit in nicely. How do you like the name Amanda?”
“How about Hannah?” she replies sadly, looking up at me.
“Hannah Banana,” I say affectionately. I think back to Rockport, Maine, and remind myself what I’m fighting for.
© 2009 Karina and Jason Miller