Surprise  Wade Rubenstein


              My father is coming to see me this morning. Waiting, I imagine his face. His probing green eyes. Thin lips. Hair he once swept across his forehead, now scanty and helpless against his gleaming pate. His is the face of free-floating anger aged and mellowed into passive aggression.


              Peering through the window of my apartment door, I see Dad park his car, a low-slung Japanese make, in a space that belongs to my neighbor, Meadow. My father ignores Meadow's No Parking sign. A retired doctor with MD plates, Dad assumes exceptions will be made for him. He doesn't know Meadow, that she may be insane, and that she recently wagged a baseball bat at another neighbor after popping over for an argument about her barking dog.


              I go to my father to have him move his sports car before Meadow renders it a mite less sporty. As I make the request, I'm struck with deja vu.


              As before, or so I think, Dad's jack-o-lantern grin dissolves in disappointment. No exception for him after all, he thinks. Am I being too critical? Perhaps. Or not. Dad slumps. Returns to his car. I stand outside and wait. It's a cool, clear day, September in New England. The leaves of morning glories stir in the breeze through a wrought-iron fence in my yard. My girlfriend, Jessica, planted the flowers, annuals, early in May. Since July, we've been waking to count each day's blooms, an activity that strikes me as both wonderful and pathetic for a pair of childless 30-somethings. We enjoy it nonetheless.


              Dad meets me at the end of the flagstone path that leads into our apartment (mine and Jessica's). For two years, we've been living in a wing of a handsome brick building nearly a hundred years old. But as renters in an area ruled by deeds, we are little more visible than the migrant workers who collect in the orchards each September, then quietly slip away to the next town, and the next.


              Dad sets down the shopping bag he carries, hugs me and plants a kiss on my cheek, scraping me lightly with razor stubble. How do women make peace with this stubble? I wonder, thinking not only of my dad's, but of my own. Men are a prickly bunch, I think, glimpsing memories of Jessica's chin rubbed pink by our kissing. We don't kiss like that very often of late. Stubble isn't why. But at least we're "trying". And we keep each other sane.


              "I love ya, son," says my ever effusive dad. Narcissus in a funhouse mirror.


              "Mm," I tell him, words slipping out of reach.


              Staring down at my face, my father's eyelids narrow, the convoluted folds of skin tightening. Only a couple inches taller than me, Dad always stands too close when we're together. When he speaks, I can see the cracks in his teeth. I smell his bitter breath. I feel compressed. Sometimes I think he made me shorter on purpose, though of course I know he couldn't have. I should mention I've been told I can be paranoid at times – not in a DSM IV sort of way, just a healthy neurotic suspicion of other people's motives. Call it the by-product of an overactive imagination.


              A thought repairs Dad's smile. "Looks like you cut yourself," he tells me, and he points with a nail-bitten finger that nearly grazes my chin.


              I nicked my jaw shaving, I remember. "Yep. I sure did. How're you?"


              "I fine," he says – an ex-pediatrician affecting baby talk. He picks up his bag by its ropey handle and follows me into the house.


              I hang Dad's leather jacket over a chair and fetch the coffee pot. Like him, I drink black coffee each morning. Often, when I pour it, I conjure my father prepping himself for work some 30 years ago. He'd brew coffee in a brushed aluminum percolator and barely have time to slug the stuff down. To speed its cooling he'd pour it back and forth from one mug to another over the kitchen sink – whoosh, whoosh, whoosh. Then he'd bolt it, beeline for the garage and, SLAM-VROOM, leave for the day. When I was thirteen, he left for good. Not that I missed the coffee-juggling ritual. But it's the rituals that linger in your mind after other memories have crumbled.


              Waiting inside the door, Dad dangles the shopping bag from his fingers. He flexes the handle and twists it like a top, pumping his 60 year-old knees a bit as he reverses one spin and initiates another.


              "Coffee?" I say.


              "Had some."


              Oh. "Well, how about some bacon and eggs? Or toast? Or I could pick up some bagels if you want."


              "No thanks, son," he says and grins, then twists and pumps and twists and pumps, lost in a reverie that escapes me.


              "Son," I say to myself, repeating my father's favorite name for me. I am the eldest of three brothers. To Dad we're each "son" – three letters that sum up his interest in us. This will never change. It's as deep and as shallow as that.


              Having dismissed breakfast, Dad adds a bit of percussion to his movements, popping his lips – pa pa pum – pa pa pum. Also, he tips his head from side to side like a mooning Shirley Temple. I glance at him. The previous day Dad had called to suggest that we have breakfast together. He'd told me he'd be passing through the hamlet where I live. We don't get together too often these days, and so, out of guilt or duty or exhaustion, take your pick, I had agreed. Breakfast, I remember having thought to myself. Brief. Nourishing. As easy as eggs. And between my dad and me, when we do get together, food tends to be a many splendored thing – eating being one of few interests we share. The chewing aspect of eating is particularly nice as it limits conversation in a way that's more subtle than, say, vacuuming or splitting logs with a chain saw. Dad's already having eaten is thus a betrayal. I sigh at the unfettered conversation to come, the miasma of words that will leave me cleaning my boots long after my father is motoring back to his gaudy McMansion – a house with a name, though I can't remember it. I call it "the Ponderosa".


              "Aren't you going to ask me what I've got in the bag?" he says.


              "Sure," I tell him. I rub my eyelids, trying to push some blood to my face. As has become my habit, I've been up since 5am, and though it's now a mere four hours later, I'm tired. Exhausted. My hands smother flocks of yawns. For months I've felt drained, narcoleptic and heavy, as if someone's been cranking up Earth's gravity. I'm not quite forty and going on ancient. My mom's mom is 94 and effervescent. Grandma is amazing. What's my problem? I ask myself. Out the window I notice several of today's morning-glories are the large, blue ones that Jessica coos over. I hope she'll be back in time to enjoy them, though I don't want her back so soon she'll have to cope with my dad. Dad has a way of interviewing people, of fishing for weaknesses and divisions that, to my eye, he uses to distract himself from his own difficulties. Plus, ever since he hit fifty or so, he's developed chivalrous habits around my girlfriends, leaping well out of his way to flash his wrinkled gallantry.


              Hearing his breath whistle through his nose, I say, "Okay, what's in the bag?"


              "A sah-prise!" he tells me, grinning. Then he strides past me into my bedroom and sets the tall, stiff-edged paper bag on the bed I share with Jessica. "Mind if I use the facilities?" he says and wags a thumb in the direction he's headed – my bathroom – before speeding there lickety-split.


              I return to the kitchen to slug coffee while I wait. A surprise, I think. Like what? So few of them are pleasant. My hand rises to my face. Am I yawning again? I am. God, I'm beat. I yawn so hard my temples hurt. Not even the strongest coffee wakes me anymore. All the brew does is stave off caffeine withdrawal headaches. I wish I could be like Jessica and never drink the stuff. But then she's got a built in check – her body can't handle caffeine. Lucky her, I think, then swallow more java with all the pleasure of slurping dish water.


              Returning triumphant from the "facilities", Dad finds me standing in the kitchen. He probes me, visually, once again. Rubber gloves slither round my brain.


              Sensing a coming verbal assault, I set down my coffee and engage while thinking – circle, feint, jab, stay up on your toes. Don't let him land that sucker punch.


              "So how're you doing?" I say.


              "I'm okay, son. How are you?"


              Dad's tone – intense, conspiratorial – instills an urge to run. On his lips, 'How are you?' is a gambit for info, a play for confession, a quest for the discontent he enjoys too well.


              I smile and try to look serene. "Same old, same old. Finished writing one story, started a new one," I tell him, knowing my work will be of no interest whatsoever. I remember his one and only question for me, years ago, when I told him I had started writing a novel – "Is it about me?" he'd said, his voice glossy with hope. "You're joking, right?" I'd asked him. "Joking? Of course not. So it isn't? Why not?!" As well as I had known my dad prior to that moment, he'd still managed to surprise me. In response, I'd said nothing. Too flummoxed. Perplexed. Knocked flat by his sucker punch. So Dad, I'm sorry this isn't a novel. But it is about you (and me). When you read it, I hope you'll let me know if you still want that hardcover binding.


              "Good for you," he tells me, then glances around as if he'd lost something. "How's Jessica?"


              "She's great. She'd be here but she had a doctor's appointment."


              "Oh? Everything all right?"


              Ah, the intonation of Deep Concern. I picture Dad pressing kids' abdomens with his bony fingers (much like mine), the cuticles of his thumbs chewed raw (again, too much like my own). "Does this hurt? Does this hurt?" Pain is what he's after – that and the sadistic pleasure he derives from its discovery. In this way we are very different. I don't seek out anyone's pain, and that includes my own. To me, Dad sometimes seems a strange vampire – one who survives on box wine and Shadenfreude. Once Dad teases out a source of pain he then administers what I call the Moses Treatment – he transmogrifies into a Burning Bush and thunders advice at me, the unenlightened.


              "Yeah, Jess is fine, it's just a check up. Why?" Why did I mention her appointment at all? I wonder. Because I didn't want him to think he'd been purposely avoided, but the truth is she was happy to miss his visit. I should have said nothing. I'm an idiot.


              " Why?" Dad says, repeating my question, affecting he's hurt by my hint of suspicion, as if his questions weren't launching pads for lectures. As if he'd never shown an overweening interest in my girlfriend, and not merely in Jessica, but in others before her.


              "Why do you ask?" I say. I am onto him and his phony concern and he hates it and denies it and his defensiveness only makes everything worse. I love ya, son. Yeah right, I can tell. See you around the next time you're passing through.


              "Do I need a special reason to be concerned about the two of you? What's wrong with what I said? Jessica is a lovely girl."




              At 32 and kind and beautiful, Jessica is indeed "lovely", but a "girl"? Not at all. As a matter of public record, Jessica is several years older than three of Dad's ex-wives were back when I attended their lavish weddings, marriages that came in waves, one collapsing on the next. Old pictures come down, new pictures go up. Lather, rinse, repeat. Now, when I get together with my dad, his attention locks on Jessica (much as it gloms onto waitresses' asses when we go out to eat together). Partly this is his reaction to the fact that we have nothing left to say to each other. After years of airing our antipathies, most everything we once talked about is banned from conversation. Dad's complaints about my mom – the resented-when-not-forgotten wife #1 (he's now on #6) – banned. Dad's senseless political diatribes too. His long expositions on caulking bathrooms and remodeling the kitchen of his trophy house – banned. His racist rants – words that make me fume for weeks. His expositions on credit cards. His consumerist disease and all its bloated symptoms. His heinous, insistent opinions on art – all of these and more are subjects marked with crime-scene tape. Visit enders. Good-bye moments on the phone. My father will walk into galleries and announce, "Wow, is this awful!" Then, delighted to discover he's offended the artist (who happens to be on hand), he'll prod her to agree that her work is shit until she huffs and walks away while he cackles with "gotcha" pleasure. In restaurants, Dad's political speeches are sometimes so loud and offensive that passing strangers have felt impelled to shout him down. But not with me as witness anymore. Now we meet in private or not at all, one-on-one whenever possible, and I have to wonder why we continue even that. We irritate each other. It's clearly mutual. Why can't we just admit it and leave one another in peace?


              "So Dad, did you really eat already? I thought the plan was to have breakfast together." Struggling to keep my eyes open I find each eyelid has turned into a tiny lead blanket, like the pads radiologists lay over your body to protect it from errant X-rays.


              "I ate before I left," he says.


              "Oh." I see. Good old Dad was hungry. He ate. I'm being petty by mentioning our plan. We share a silence fused with the opposite of bliss. I hear him sigh – but this emotion seems as forced as his others. He's not sorry, he's just annoyed that I've questioned his behavior – me, his creation. To my father, I am the golem-turned-monster. Thankfully, my cat, Comet, waggles in from the next room.


              "Hey, there's Cosmo. C'mere Cosmo," Dad says, seeing black and white Comet slink by. The cat's food and water rest in glass bowls kept on the kitchen floor. Comet comes within petting range. Dad bends down to pat him as one would a large dog. "Good guy, Cosmo," he tells the cat. Then he smiles with impish delight as Comet pads away.


              "See how he came right to me? He likes me. Animals like me," he says.


              Hooray for you! I think, but say nothing. What a snot I am. I don't want to be nasty. I don't even want to think such petty things. It occurs to me that strangers might well see my dad as harmless. Unfortunately, it's often easier to get along with others' parents – maybe that's the problem, I tell myself, although I do get along with my mom just fine. It's only my dad who leaves me feeling scalded, skinned and oozing plasma.


              "How are your pets?" I ask, hoping to move on, trying to create the sense a visit has happened and, therefore, may be ended. Pets, I think. Pets have been good to us. A safe subject if there ever was one – and our favorite of late, having jumped notches above our old standby – weather, not to mention the equally timeless subjects of gas mileage and tire rotation. And a bonus with pets, unlike these other topics, is the way they can be milked for words that come in long, insipid gushes that wash away time.


              Having never adopted any pets of his own, Dad has borrowed the cats and dogs (and, in one case, little boy) of his serial wives with a certain detached glee. When I was growing up, our family had a parakeet. We kept it in my youngest brother's room with the cage door open so the little blue bird could fly around the house and return as it pleased. It was my job to feed it and to cover its cage at night with a blanket. It seems strange now, but I can't remember Dad ever noticing our pet after the night he brought it home and presented it – "sah-prise" (without consulting my mom). As kids, my brothers and I were thrilled to have any kind of pet, but our mom's tears at this surprise proved confusing. Given no choice in the matter, unless Mom wanted to play the bad guy, Dad had made the whole thing a fait accompli . His surprises are always for others to deal with – turn them down and you're rotten, accept them and you're the stooge.


              At my invitation to blather, Dad gives a ten minute discourse on the escapades of #6's dogs and cats – he details the animals' favorite foods, their sleeping habits, their cross-species traits (to my dad, his wives' cats are invariably dogs trapped in feline bodies, while the dogs are oh so shy and cat-like – yes, believe me, it's pure fascination).


              I'm not sure how much of this goo coats my brain before it induces a coma. In no time, I find I'm hearing rhythm more than meaning, and I toss out an "mm-hm" at any longish pause. As Dad babbles on for what feels like weeks, my mind cuts itself a nice length of rope. I take the rope and tie a noose and slip it around my neck. I open the solid oak door to my bedroom, lug over a chair and step up on the seat. I knot the free end of the rope around the doorknob on the far side of the door. Then I hike the slack over the door's top edge. Ready to step into the void, I topple the chair from beneath me and dangle. And it's at this point I realize that hanging oneself in one's own house means a long, slow stretch of writhing strangulation. No drop from a gallows to a bounceless bottom designed to snap the neck and kill in an instant. And strangulation is precisely what I'm feeling now. There must be a better way to leave this world, I think. But before I can survey the possibilities, Dad smirks and changes his posture. The flood of words has crested, it seems. I peek at a clock near the fridge to see how much time he's killed so far. Ten minutes. Please, God – give me rope. Whatever it takes. How about some food? Okay food, let's go with that.


              "So why did you eat, Dad? I'm hungry. I was waiting for you."


              "I sorry," he says (more baby talk), and grins. Couldn't help it. Just an impulsive, growing boy (well, at least his paunch is growing – shoot, I'm being nasty again).


              "Do you mind if I make myself some eggs?" I say.


              "Why would I mind?"


              "I don't know. It's an expression."


              Trying not to make a clatter, I take a pan from the cupboard and lay it on a burner. The pan was part of a set Dad gave me a couple years ago. It was a thoughtful gift, though unasked for and unnecessary (not to mention wasteful, since I had perfectly adequate pots and pans). The thing about it is, Dad's gifts have strings. They're manipulative. One can't reject them without rejecting him because he presents them as stand-ins for himself. But in accepting such things, I am expected to hold still for his paternalistic bunk, to listen to his jeremiads and to maintain a relationship with a person whom, but for common blood, wouldn't wave hello to me.


              Five years ago, after a particularly bad blow-up between us, I took most everything he'd ever given me and donated it to a needy, elderly neighbor (now dead, I understand). The neighbor had gladly accepted the various knickknacks. What I have from my dad today came after – the pans, some hand-me down furniture #6 refused to let in the door of the Ponderosa, a wasteful fancy pen that writes like any other and a laptop computer I also didn't ask for, was doing fine without and which, like the pots and pans, replaced a functional one I had bought for myself. Each of these gifts feels fuzzy with strings. I see them and I feel guilty. As I use them I admonish myself to call and try to make nice. I think, guiltily, I should see him now and then. We should continue some semblance of a father-son relationship, even though in childhood that never much existed (unless you count as whipper and whipping post – in anger, words would fail my dad, who would then let his belt do the talking; and providing for us, which Dad also did, required no familial interaction whatsoever, but rather, its antithesis).


              I turn on the electric burner and butter the pan, then crack in a couple of eggs. My dad turns over his options as he considers how best to break my calm.


              "You're cute, you know that?" he says, smirking.


              "Yeah, I'm cute, Dad. Thanks."


              "You are. Hey, looks like you make good use of those pans, guy."




              "I'm glad."


              "Mm," I say, thinking – remember remember remember who gave 'em. Yep. Tell me more about the rabbits, Dad – another good stretch of pet-talk, then adios amigo. I notice how dim it is in the kitchen despite the sunshine outside. After tugging on an overhead light, I fetch myself a plate from the cupboard. Dad remains silent for longer than usual – reloading. I want to race out the door. But my eggs are nearly done and this is my home and, besides, I don't have anywhere else to go. I flip my eggs in the pan, then slide them onto my plate and eat.


              "Looks good," he says.


              "I've got more eggs if you change your mind."


              "No thanks, son. You eat."


              I didn't ask for permission, did I? I zero in with my fork, dunking the egg whites in their runny yolks. I've never wanted to be left alone so much in my life. After a bite or two, I hear my father clear his throat.


              "Why don't you marry Jessica?" he says, just like that.


              Excuse me? I think. Did he really say that? He didn't. But he did. I admit I can't claim this subject was banned because, being so clearly out-of-bounds between us, he'd never brought it up before. Did I ever ask him why he did marry #6? No, I did not. Nor did I ask about #s 2-5. I try not to ask people questions that presume I know better than they do how they should live their lives. I try to assess Dad's tone of voice. Deep Concern? No. More like accusation. You are getting long in the tooth, son, he's telling me. Marry now while you can, son. Son, look at you, this may be your last chance.


              "I'd rather not get into it with you," I tell him. What a lame response, I say to myself.


              "Why not?"


              Does this hurt?




              "Because it's my life, Dad. Let's spread out your personal issues for a change – see how you like it."


              Dad sighs. I am trying his patience, or rather, I am failing to understand the nature of our relationship, i.e ., the doctor diagnoses while the patient lies still. The patient doesn't grasp the doctor's groin and say, "Turn your head and cough."


              "Son –"


              "That's me." I'm feeling too annoyed to eat. What's left of my eggs grows cold on my plate. I hear my Dad sigh yet again. He's glaring at me now, his mouth tight and small. My intransigence pains him. He's thinking, Can't I see how serious he is? Unfortunately, I can. The threat he mounts to my peace of mind is something I take all too seriously. But the substance of his advice about marriage is a joke – not only is it not well-intended but, coming from him and given his track record, it has zero credibility. Not that this is how I would like to think of my dad. But there's no erasing thoughts that go back beyond memory. For instance, in a closet at my mom's house, I recently found a Father's Day card I'd made for my dad when I was maybe seven. It said, "Happy Father's Day to the World's Greatest –" then listed everything I'd ever seen him do – "Doctor, Pistol Shooter, Model Builder," and so on, including several hobbies I'd forgotten long ago – things he would do alone in his "den", rather than spend time with us, his sons. Rereading the construction-paper card as an adult, I saw that nowhere in my child's-eye list of "Greatests" was "Father". Not a pointed omission at seven, I'm sure, but a poignant one (or at least it is to me). Dad bought us things and we pissed him off and he smacked us and that was that. I know it's more than many fathers manage. But it doesn't leave one feeling warm and fuzzy, either. We have no nostalgia. No personal trust. And I don't want to hear who he thinks I should marry or anything of the kind from his mouth.


              "Look son, I'm just making an observation. You seem so happy to me lately, since you've been with Jessica."


              I seem happy ? I think. Is Dad high? I want to say "mm" and nothing more again. But I can't. Words boil up from my gut. I picture blood pouring out of my mouth.


              "Dad, we don't have the kind of relationship where I want to talk about this with you."


              Another long sigh, then, "Son –"


              "Dad, I'm sorry but we don't. Jessica is none of your business. And when I am happy, I have to tell you, it's because of what I do for myself – what I accomplish on my own. I make my life and Jessica makes hers and we do the best we can to support each other. If we decide to get married, I'll let you know. But I'm not discussing it with you. My life isn't up for debate. Not with you."


              There – got that out, I tell myself. Too strong? I don't think so. If anything, too civil. How would he know what makes me happy? Oh, but he's a doctor. He can diagnose anyone and write a prescription for life in ten minutes or less.


              I realize his question derives from his fantasy that being with Jessica would make him quite happy. This is his problem. I remember his words are always about him and feel myself grow calmer at the thought. My father, on the other hand, is looking livid. The act of containing himself makes him tremble.


              "You know what, son?" he says. "I better go. It's getting late. I've got things to do." He gets up. I stand with him. I hand him his jacket.


              "You're welcome to stay if you want," I say, already feeling guilty, but not so much so that I offer more of an olive branch than that – because that's the one he'd stick in my eye.


              Dad shakes his head. His shoulders droop. He plods to the door and fumbles with the bolt, locking it, then unlocking and finally opening up. I follow him out. As usual, my refusal to endure the Moses Treatment means goodbye Burning Bush.


              As we walk, Dad avoids looking at me till we reach his car. Then he opens his door and turns his glare my way.


              "See you, Dad," I say, stepping closer, inviting a punch. I hug him goodbye. He feels limp in my arms. I let go and he zooms off without a word. Contemplate my absence is his silent message.


              Contemplate? I think. No. Savor is more like it.


              I sit on my stoop and watch the flowers in the breeze. After awhile a dull beige compact slows as it approaches. Jessica waves to me from behind the wheel. I wave back. She parks. She sits by me on the stoop.


              "Where's your dad?" she asks me.


              "He left." I shrug.


              "Everything okay?"


              "Not really. He decided to tell me that I better marry you. Because I seem so damn happy to him. Didn't you know I'm the picture of joy?"


              Jessica laughs. Her hair flows in the breeze and crosses over her nose. Her eyes are greener than our thirsty little lawn. She tucks her hair back over her ears and gives me a knowing smile.


              "Yeah, you and me – we're just giddy with happiness."


              "Mm. More fun than a case of Mr. Bubble."


              Jessica smiles again. Dressed in her usual jeans and hiking boots, I watch her as she ambles away to check the progress of our garden. She lingers over the blue morning-glories. From there, she makes a circuit around the side of the house, then heads for our front door.


              "Would you bring me a cup of coffee, please, Jess?" I say, hoping she's coming back out for more sun.


              Moments later, she returns, a mug in one hand. In the other is the shopping bag my dad left on the bed. Jessica's face is so smooth and placid. No one would ever know how anxious she is, or that against her many worries, her beauty affords no protection at all. If anything, it seems to make things worse.


              "What's this?" she asks and lifts the bag, then hands me my coffee mug.


              "A surprise from my dad," I tell her.


              "Maybe it's our wedding gift," she says and laughs.


              I nod and laugh too. Married or not, Jess and I are bonded by symbiotic neuroses, mutual respect and, most of all, the care we take to protect each other. She holds the bag's handles apart. We look inside. There's a gift-wrapped flattish box at the bottom. It's a little over a foot long, maybe five inches wide and about an inch deep. Seeing it reminds me of similar boxes I've encountered twice before.


              "I think I know what it is," I tell Jessica. I take the box, wrapped in golden foil and bound by a lacey white ribbon and shake it. It's light and silent, as I thought it would be. "It's a silk scarf," I tell her.


              "A what?"


              "You know, they're in the department stores, in glass cases next to perfumes and jewelry."


              Jessica wrinkles her nose. "Not the wedding gift I would have picked," she says.


              "It's a little tradition my dad seems to have. Whenever I'm with anyone for more than a year, he goes out and buys her a silk scarf. It's part of his little seduction, I guess. His little flag to fly around your neck."


              I hand Jessica the box. She snorts and drops it back in the bag.


              "Yuck," she says, and thrusts it at me. "Are you sure that's what it is?"


              "Unfortunately, yeah," I tell her. "This makes scarf number three. He must have a closet full of them at the Ponderosa. Can you imagine me giving his wife one of these? He would break out his gun collection and waste me."


              Jessica nods and says, "Wait, you could mail it. Send a little card from a 'Secret Admirer'."


              "Yeah right. Then he'd shoot her."


              "Hey, I know – you could give it to your mom."


              "Jess? Yikes. Remind me to stay on your good side."




              "So I don't know what to do. I can't give it back, I just made him feel rotten. And he makes me nuts."


              Jessica takes my hand and squeezes it. Don't obsess over this. Squeeze. Squeeze.


              "Hey, are you hungry or did you eat with your dad?"


              "No, I could eat," I say.


              We go inside.


              A few minutes later there's a knock at the door. Through the window I see a tall blonde with a cigarette clenched in her mouth. It's Meadow. Why Meadow? What did I do?


              I open the door. Meadow's choking up on the handle of an aluminum baseball bat.


              "What's the matter?" I say, somewhat startled. Stepping to one side, I kick the shopping bag out of the way from where I'd left it by the door.


              "I saw your little guest park in my spot. My area, pal. I don't make the bones on my mortgage to give your guests free parking. Got me?"


              "Yeah, sure, Meadow. Sorry about that. He's not quite right, you know what I mean? I think you do. But don't worry, I won't let it happen again."


              "Yeah, I don't think you will," she says, looking me up and down. Her nostrils flare. She turns to walk away.


              "Wait a second," I tell her, feeling inspired. "I have something for you." I pick up the bag. Fish out the shiny box. Hand it to her. Smile.


              "This is for me?" she says, exhaling a spear of smoke.


              "If you want it. Yeah. I think you'll like it."


              "Well thanks, I guess. What the hell is it?" Her voice is raspy, charred. She tucks her bat in her armpit and snatches the package from my hand.


              "It's a surprise. Don't mention it. Enjoy," I tell her.


              Looking puzzled, she nods and starts off.


              I wave and close the door.