Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Hero





            The only good thing about going to her daddy’s funeral in Texas, besides the prospect of an inheritance, was that Lydia’s foot was in a cast as the result of having a bunion on her little toe removed. Texans, especially old ones, liked to talk about their operations. If her stepmother got aggressive, there might even be a sympathetic reaction–Shirley versus the bereaved, disabled daughter.
            “The funeral is in two days,” Shirley called to say.  When Lydia didn’t react fast enough, she added, “Don’t feel like you need to come.”
            Just hearing that her daddy was dead had shot Lydia down a tunnel of recollection she hadn’t anticipated. The scent of daddy-hunting in the East Texas night saturated her senses, and wet heat–heavy with honeysuckle and cigarette smoke–tickled her nose. She’d been her mom’s sidekick while they searched honky-tonk parking lots for his pickup. Parking lots? More like hard-packed dirt and weeds. When her mom spotted his truck, she’d send six-year-old Lydia into the bar to get him.
            He was always happy to see her. “Well, sweetheart, look at you,” he’d say, and sit her on top of the bar and hand her a bag of Fritos and a Dr Pepper. All the drunks would say how pretty she was, and she’d forget about her momma sitting outside in the car.
           
            Lydia heard the flick of a lighter on the other end of the telephone. “I’ll be there,” she said to her stepmother. “My daddy and I had some good times.” She hung up and called her brother in Arizona to coordinate their defenses.
            “She was sweet to me when she called,” Bill said, a barely concealed smile in his voice. “Said Daddy’d be real pleased I showed my respect if he wasn’t so dead and finally, thank the Lord above, beyond pleasure.” He laughed, his breath coming in hiccups. “She didn’t say that last part.”
            “Yeah, you folks with the penises always get on the good side of Southern belles,” Lydia said. “She told me once that she didn’t think you looked a bit like daddy.”
            “Ouch! At least she didn’t ask me for my blood type.” Bill laughed harder.
            Long before her father entered the lingering death phase of his decline, Lydia had visited the lake house where he’d retired. She and her dad and Shirley watched an episode of Law & Order where paternity was an issue. Afterward, not only had her stepmother asked for her blood type, but her father had piped up equally eager for the info. “Cause mine is AB negative and there’s only certain outcomes with that.”
            I’m not a daughter. I’m an outcome, Lydia thought.
            She’d answered that she didn’t know her blood type, but when Lydia returned home to New Mexico, she’d immediately called her mother and asked if there was any chance her daddy wasn’t really her daddy.
            There was silence on the line for a split second, and then her mom railed about what a cheating bastard her ex-husband had been.  “He tried to take me to bed every time he came out here to visit you kids!” She went on to say that she’d wanted to leave him a year earlier than she did, but he’d deliberately gotten her pregnant with Lydia’s brother.
            “So, Bill is for real his kid then?”
            A long sigh followed by her mom slamming down the phone was her answer.
           
            “Well, he’s finally dead,” Lydia now said to her brother. “All that AB negative has been drained from his desiccated body.”
            “Don’t go dark on me, Sis.” Bill had been barely one-year-old when their parents divorced; he’d never been close to their daddy.
            “Could you hear her face twitching over the telephone?” Lydia asked. They always bonded over Shirley caricatures.
            “She’s taking meds for that now, but there’ve been some side effects.”
            “Oh, goody.”
            “Try to keep a straight face when she starts.”
            “I plan on talking about my toe.”      
            They coordinated arrival times so sharing a taxi from the hotel to the funeral home would be cheaper, and agreed not to waste more than a night out there.  The countdown began, and two days later they were both in the air on their way to East Texas.
           
            Lydia had to change planes at Love Field in Dallas. She’d done this countless times when visiting her father for summer vacation. The switch to a prop plane meant a trek across an airport that had been designed by people with no land or space constraints. Spread out and take what God delivers is how a Texan thought.
            She was able to play the disabled card and hitch a ride on an electric airport cart with some old ladies, all of whom wanted to know what happened to her foot. They tsk-tsked with delight when Lydia embellished the story, saying she’d been helping her husband in his tool shed when a power tool got away from her and lopped off her toe.
            “Almost got my whole foot!”
            When she told them she was on her way to her daddy’s funeral, one plump lady with glasses that magnified her eyes like an owl’s in moonlight patted her hand and said, “You poor thing. Well, funerals can run a person ragged. You just take it easy now.”
           
            Bill was already in the hotel bar when Lydia arrived, and they had time for a quick drink before the viewing.  He called a taxi while she changed into a suit and redid her lipstick. At the funeral home, people milled around telling stories on her daddy. Lydia didn’t see her stepmother, but recognized Shirley’s braying laugh from somewhere in the middle of the group.
            A skinny old man reeking of Eau de Lifetime Smoker cornered Lydia with a story about her daddy. “After Mel’s last stroke, he decided to take up golf. I don’t think he liked the game so much as driving that golf cart all over kingdom come.” People standing around them leaned in to hear.  One even cupped his ear.
            “ He drove that golf cart to the trash bins,” a man said. He paused to take a wheezy breath.  “And to the liquor store.” Laughter and nods.
             “Let me finish my story,” the skinny man said. “One morning I was late for our game and they told me in the pro shop that he’d already gone out.” The room grew quiet. “Sure nuff, I saw his cart but Mel was nowheres in sight. I walked around it, and there he was layin on the ground, lookin at me like he didn’t have a care in the world. He’d fell down and couldn’t get up. ‘Watcha doin there, Mel?’ I asked. ‘Takin a suntan,’ he said.”
            Everyone laughed, shaking their heads like they couldn’t believe how clever her daddy was, and then like the pop of a tick with a bellyful of blood, Shirley yelled across the room, “That golf cart is for sale if anyone’s interested.”
            The skinny man laughed hard and his face turned the color of scalded flesh. Lydia’s daddy had been red-skinned, too, and had a hooknose like a nickel-Indian, but his eyes were a flirty turquoise. He could also tell a good story on himself.
            After he’d had a series of strokes they’d hired a male nurse who wore a badly fitted wig. He’d bathe her daddy and massage his twisted muscles. He was a comforting addition to their lives until Shirley discovered that the man was gay.
            “She up and fired him,” Mel said when he told the story to Lydia.
            “He was a pervert!” Shirley said.  “He might have molested you.”
            Mel winked at Lydia. “Beggars can’t be choosers.”
            Now that was funny. And anyone who really knew the depth of her daddy’s hedonism couldn’t deny it. Lydia chose not to repeat the story, but remembering it made her smile, which the old folk took as permission to tell more of their PG tales. You can bet they knew more than they were saying in this mixed crowd. Shirley was his third wife, and no telling how many mistresses he’d had. He’d even gotten a vasectomy because of a paternity lawsuit.
            The preacher came up and introduced himself. “I want you to know that your daddy found Jesus before he went over,” Reverend Fuller said.
            “He prayed?” Lydia asked.
            A solemn nod. “He asked for forgiveness.”
            “Did he say for what? Specifically?”
            The preacher blinked hard. “For all his trespasses.” His lips formed a tight smile.
            “Did he mention his children, me or Bill?”
            Another blink. “No. He didn’t.”
            Lydia set her mouth in the exasperated line she’d learned from Shirley, one corner curled down. “Figures. Well, I want to take some pictures so I’m going in now.”
            “Pictures?”
            “Oh, yes. Casket shots are a family tradition. Daddy had some good ones of his own daddy and of his granddaddy.” She tapped her cheek, eyes turned upward. “Come to think of it, when his granddaddy died they posed him sitting in a chair holding his favorite mutt. They couldn’t get the dog to sit still so they killed it and had it stuffed to make the sweetest photo you ever saw.”
            Satisfied with the preacher’s stunned silence, Lydia limped into the chapel dragging her cast in an exaggerated way while she circled the casket. She was disappointed that no one had mentioned her injury. She studied her father’s corpse and touched his crossed hands. She stroked his cheek.
            He still had some hair, but he was emaciated. Shirley must have starved him. His skin was mottled with liver spots and the mortician hadn’t captured his high ruddy flush. Powder and lipstick had been artlessly applied.
            Lydia focused her camera and took a dozen pictures from all angles. When she looked up the pews were filled with an assortment of country folk who stared at her with uncomfortable expressions. She took her time getting to her seat next to her brother and stepmother, making sure to scrape the carpet with her cast. Reverend Fuller stepped up to the podium.
            She didn’t hear him, or any of the others who spoke. Lydia stared at her father’s drugstore Indian profile trying to connect this strange stillness with her real daddy. During her parents’ marriage he’d treated her like a princess and she’d adored him. She became an afterthought when they split, but he’d promised her she could come live with him anytime. In the ninth grade, she took him up on the offer, much to Shirley’s dismay.
            “He told me I’d never have to be bothered with his children,” Shirley said one day in the bathroom. She’d caught Lydia using her sacred bubble bath. While she scolded her, Shirley’s facial tics rearranged her freckled skin in a Jekyll-to-Hyde time lapse, sweet country girl to evil queen.
            The rest of that school year had been marked by her daddy’s absences. When he was home the tension in the house rose. He drank more, and had even taught Lydia how to make his bourbon and water. But mostly he stayed away. The worst event happened one night when she’d been up late.  His car pulled into the driveway. Lydia switched off the light, but he’d seen it and came into her room.
            “Just reading,” she said when he checked on her. He felt her sweaty forehead and then bent down to kiss her goodnight. All normal stuff until he stuck his pointed tongue in her mouth. It was just a split-second, but Lydia tasted the bourbon. He looked ashamed of himself when he rushed out the door. He never apologized for his behavior. For Lydia, his shame was a sign of love.
            The speeches celebrating her maybe father ended, and her stepmother stood up and announced that his boat and all his guns were for sale.
            Bill and Lydia accepted condolences and said goodbye to people they didn’t know and would never see again. At the end of it there was only the three of them. Shirley hustled over to her Cadillac without looking back.  Before she could get in, Bill asked her for a ride to the hotel.
            “Well, I’m kind of in a hurry. There’s potluck and pound cake waiting for me back at the lake house.”
            There was no hint in her voice that they were invited. Lydia’s foot throbbed. No one had asked about it. An official-looking man came up and expressed his sorrow over their loss again. He handed Lydia a card, which announced that he was Ned Byrnes, Funeral Director.          
            “This was the best funeral I’ve ever been to, Ned,” Lydia said, “I hope you’ll do the same for Shirley when her time comes.”
            Ned blushed. Bill’s lips parted. Shirley's Adam’s apple bobbed three times.
            “I’m sorry. It’s just that I’ve been on my feet, foot, and it really hurts. We’ll call a taxi.” Lydia dug through her purse for her cell, and was surprised to see a tear plop down on the back of her hand. She hadn’t planned on crying. “My toe is gone,” she said to no one in particular. “It was just no good, but I loved it, y’know?”
            “It didn’t do much for you, but you were attached to it,” Bill said. He didn’t smile.
            “Yeah, now there’s just an empty space. No more possibilities.”
            “Meg in the choir lost her whole foot,” Shirley said. “Her voice has never been the same.” The corner of her mouth twitched once, twice and then just kept going so fast that Lydia lost count.
            Ned offered to give them a lift, but all of a sudden it was as if Shirley was on fire for them to get in the car. “We’ll manage just fine,” she said, her facial calisthenics so pronounced that poor Ned averted his eyes and scurried off.
            Lydia took a deep breath and tried to open the front passenger door. It was locked. “Oh,” Shirley said, and clicked a button at the same moment Lydia tried to open the door again, thereby nullifying the unlock command. The two women continued a furious volley and return of electronic bad timing. Shirley’s mouth-twitches progressed to neck spasms. It was probably time for her medication.
            “No one move,” Bill said. He stepped over to the car door and reached through the open window to manually unlock it and then got in the backseat.
            A truck pulled up alongside the Caddy. Inside were three ladies from Shirley’s church. “We’ll see you two out at the lake house, I hope?”
            The corner of Shirley’s mouth tugged down and stayed there, strangely still. “They’re headed back to their hotel, Ida Mae.”
            “You come on out to Shirley’s and try my apple pie now. I’ll give you a lift back to the hotel later.”
            A ghastly, and yet satisfying, array of facial tics hop-scotched across her stepmother’s face. “Of course, they’ll come. See ya there!”
            She lit a cigarette as soon as the windows were up and the a/c on. No one spoke. Once they turned off the main highway, the road was mostly one-lane, winding and unpaved. The lake house was small, but the yard in front of it was huge and packed with cars. The sound of laughter and the smell of cigarette smoke and barbeque greeted them. An American flag flew at half-mast outside.
            The crowd greeted the three of them as if they were a family.
            Everything inside looked the same. Same olive-green appliances, same vinyl couch. Lydia eased her way down the hall toward the bathroom, but got sidetracked by a small group gathered in the guest bedroom.            
            “You must have been very proud of your father!” a man said. There was no trace of irony in his eyes.  “Have you seen the memorial Shirley set up?  She’s been working on it for years.”
            A table was pushed against the wall and in the middle of it was a triangular box with a glass front.  Inside, another flag was folded military fashion.  A photo of her daddy in full dress uniform smiled out at her, his turquoise eyes sparkling. He was handsome. He was happy. He was a heartbreaker.  A picture of a youthful Shirley sat next to his.  She posed like a movie queen with her head tilted to the side and her hair falling in waves. She’d been pretty.
            The man pointed to another case with lots of ribbons and medals. “Two purple hearts.”  He looked at the others.  “C’mon folks, let’s leave the child to her memories.”
            “My daddy was a cook in the Marines,” Lydia said as they left the room.  She’d seen his war album. There were pictures of dead men in the Philippine jungle and of naked girls bathing in mud holes. All the pictures of her daddy showed him peeling potatoes or stirring a huge pot. A cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth was a permanent fixture.
            Her daddy was no hero.
            “Oh, there you are,” Shirley said. She came in and stood officiously by the table, as if she were a tour guide. “Your daddy lost or misplaced most of these medals during his roving days.” Her neck muscles spasmed with disapproval.  Lydia knew that by roving her stepmother meant the early years of her parents’ marriage, when they’d traveled the South together and lived in a silver Airstream trailer.  Bill came into the room. 
            “Did you know Daddy was a war hero?”
            “Why no!” he said, pleasant as he could be. “This is a surprise.”
            “Well, he most certainly was!” Shirley’s eyes were dry and bitter. She looked away from them and at the pictures of her young self and her young future husband. Her expression softened. “It took me a long time to get all this together,” she said, the stridency gone from her voice, her twitches quiet.
            Lydia felt a rising panic. It was urgent that the lying stop. “He didn’t–”
            “Friends warned me about him . . . about the women.” Shirley looked in their direction, but it wasn’t them she was seeing. A quiver started at the corner of her mouth. “I loved him and that’s the end to it.” The tremble stopped and she walked out of the room.
            Lydia and Bill stared quietly at the memorial.  Over the noise of the wake, they heard Shirley get back to business.  “Maybe someone can tell me what these fishing rods are worth,” she shouted.  “Mel said they were like magic wands that drew the fish to the hook.”
            “You okay, Sis?”
            “Those rods were good.”
            “They had magic,” Bill said.
            “No. It was him. He was the magician. Look at the turnout he got.”
            Bill pointed with his chin at the medals. “They’re probably Chinese knockoffs.”
            “He lied to her.”
            “Maybe he did you a favor by staying out of your life?” Bill watched Lydia with soft eyes. “It’s okay to love him. He’s your dad.”
            “Is he? Really?”
            “He’s what you got.”
 “You think Shirley would let me have one of the medals?”  
 “That Purple Heart would look good on a jean jacket.”
Lydia punched Bill on the shoulder and then leaned against him. He wrapped an arm around he. She focused on the photo of her father and his young smiling face, all his sins in an unplanned future.
“My Hero,” she whispered. She loved her daddy and that was the end to it.



Appeared in the Bacopa Literary Review, 2015