By: Simi Lobell
Joe Summers wasn’t the kind of guy to be holding up a supermarket line, arguing with the cashier about the nineteen cents she forgot to deduct from his tuna fish cans. He wasn’t the kind of guy to splurge on a thousand dollar suit because the flap at the back flattered his behind. Joe Summers would more likely be the kind of guy quietly sipping a Yuengling in the back corner of a pub after a hard day’s work, just close enough to see and hear when Jeter hit a single, without feeling compelled to slap hands or butt heads. In fact, his attendance at Duke’s Bar and Grill was impeccable at this point. No one noticed he was there and that’s how he liked it. He preferred not to get in the way and he expected no less in return. But if they’d ask, they might discover that his name was Joe Summers, his daughter was the light of his life, and his wife took the light right out of it.
He’d come home each night and deftly maneuver his key so that the metal hardly grated the hole. He’d spend several seconds turning the knob so that the loose screw wouldn’t rattle or fall out of place. Then, as he landed one foot on the ground and poked his head in to scour the empty room, he’d flick on the lights and breathe a sigh of relief that he was alone.
It wasn’t that he didn’t like coming home, or that he had something better to do elsewhere. He would’ve loved nothing more than to bolt through the door like Ricky Ricardo, hang his hat on the hook, and take a whiff of a home-cooked meal. Preferably, he’d vouch for a little extra garlic, but beggars can’t be choosers. He’d pat his belly as he carried his daughter off to bed, tucked her in and planted a wet slop on her cheek. He envisioned her high-pitched giggle as she wiped her face and yelped, “Yuck! Daddy, that’s gross!” To be fair, Joe didn’t know if that worked for anyone in the real world, but it certainly appeared to work pretty darn well for Ricky. Then again, things looked a lot easier in the old days. And more importantly, Ricky always did love Lucy.
Joe often found himself wondering why he was stripped of that fortune. He wanted love too. He had love godamnit. He was the guy people looked at and thought, why the hell is he so lucky? And that’s exactly what it felt like most of the time. Like he was dealt a couple of aces before God decided to turn it all on its head. In a quick twist of fate, Joe was ready to fold the whole hand. It wasn’t as though he had forfeited though. He put up a fight, gave a run for his money. But after nine years of playing good and hard, Joe had simply lost interest in the game. Now he could only stand around with empty pockets, watching all the other guys enjoy their earnings, while he was left with a lump in his gut and the faint memory of his good fortune.
Yet, as he tiptoed into his daughter’s room, watched her soft breathing and whispered, “I love you, Abbey,” he couldn’t bring himself to really walk away. Sandra was strong-willed with a temperament as sharp and cutting as a knife blade, but it would take more than a few pokes and jabs to send him running.
“What do you mean you can’t?” Sandra asked, clutching a crumpled newspaper in her hand. Her blue fleece robe hung lazily over her oversized flannel pajamas, splattered with the remnants of yesterday’s deviled eggs. Goops of black mascara clung to the inside corners of her eyes, still hanging on since last week’s community brunch.
Joe looked up from his coffee. “Sandra, I just told you,” he reasoned, “I have work. I can’t just pick up and drive to Pennsylvania to bring your sister over here. If she’s really not feeling well, tell her to take some Tylenol and get on a train.”
She clasped her fingers to her discolored roots and massaged the sides of her scalp. “Funny. You wouldn’t think a three hour drive would be the biggest deal in the world,” she said, shaking her head repeatedly. She set the newspaper on the table. “You know, sometimes I just—I really can’t believe you, Joe. I cannot believe you.” She stretched out each syllable as though he might otherwise have difficulty understanding.
Joe rolled his eyes and threw his jacket over his shoulders. “Sandra, what do you want me to do?”
“I just told you what I want you to do and if you can’t follow up, I’ll have to take care of it myself.” Pause. He knew what was coming. “As usual.”
There it was. Another backhanded poke in the back that made him want to puncture a hole into his palm. It didn’t matter that he had just returned from a 6AM dry cleaning run after a four-hour night, or that he had visited three bakeries before he finally spotted a cinnamon bagel without the raisins. The moment she didn’t have her way, all good deeds went right out the window.
Joe rinsed his cup in the kitchen sink, pecked Abbey on the forehead and told her he’d pick her up from school today. Before reaching the door, he adjusted his stray hairs in the foyer mirror and then gently turned the knob behind him.
“I’ll remember that,” Sandra murmured to herself.
She returned to her newspaper, leaning her backside against the table as Abbey continued to shovel cocoa puffs into her mouth.
“Get dressed for school. Please.”
Joe pulled up before P.S. 187 in a beaten Sedan. The bumper was a little crooked and the brake occasionally sputtered, but as long as the engine was running he wasn’t ready to part just yet.
Abbey hopped forward from the front stairwell, her purple backpack swaying behind her. “Dad, how come the back door has brown stuff on it?” she asked as she slid into the synthetic suede bench. “Amanda said her Dad sells cars and her Dad said when there’s brown stuff it means the paint’s coming off. But Jeremy, um, Jeremy said his Dad has a car with brown stuff too and
Jeremy said only cool people have brown stuff on their cars.”
Joe cranked his neck toward the back of the car. “Well, you should always listen to Jeremy. That’s just the style. It’s uh—vintage.”
“Wintage? Oh. I think I like wintage, Daddy.”
Joe laughed. “Me too, kiddo. You buckled in?”
“Yep,” she chimed, her Velcro sneakers dangling just above the ground.
As he pulled out onto the street, he watched his daughter through the rearview mirror, resting her head on the back of the seat as she stared out the window. He couldn’t boast that she looked like him. His eyes certainly couldn’t hold that many lashes, nor could his scalp for that matter. But at least she had a couple of his quirks. Her left ear jutted out a little farther than the right and one dimple sunk deeper than the other. He patted one of his own ears and smiled.
“Hey Abs, you ready for some baseball?”
She met his gaze in the mirror. “Again? Daddy, I stink at that.”
“Are you kidding?” he asked, propping his mouth wide open. “If you’re not careful people are gonna mistake you for a major leaguer. I’m telling ya Abs, Tino’s got nothin’ on you.’’
“Come on, Daddy!” she chided in her know-it-all manner. “The man’s got 339 career home runs and 1,271 RBI’s. I am so not as good as Tino Martinez!”
Joe nodded in approval. “I’m glad you’ve been paying attention, kiddo. But let’s put it this way. Tino couldn’t retire now at 35 if he hadn’t started to practice when he was eight years old like you, right?”
Abbey leaned forward and rested her chin in her palms.
“I guess,” she sighed.
“You guess?” Joe reached his hand behind him and burrowed his fingers into her belly. She giggled and squirmed around her seat, flailing her legs in the air. “You guess?” he repeated, now tickling her underarms.
“Daddy, stop!” she chided. She freed herself from his grasp and slid over so he couldn’t reach her. “I told you, you can’t do that. I’m not a kid anymore okaaay?” she muttered, folding her arms.
“All right, all right. Give your old man a break.” He withdrew his hand, smiling through the mirror as he continued down the road.
With one hand resting at the head of the passenger’s seat, he backed into a vacant spot. “Hey look Abs,” he continued, “I’m not telling you to play baseball for a living. I’ve got bigger plans for you. I’m just telling you that you’ve gotta believe in yourself, sweets. If you don’t, who else will?”
He turned the key and the engine came to a halt.
“Okay, whatever,” she sighed, grabbing her mitt from under the seat. “Let’s play some baseball!” she shouted in her best Michael Kay mimic.
Joe smiled. “Atta girl.”
Both doors opened and they met at the open trunk as Joe fished around beneath piles of tools.
“Sardines with mustard sauce on pumpernickel?” he asked.
“Um, nah I think I’m in the mood for herring and cream sauce today,” she returned, maintaining composure.
“Oh, Okay.” He smiled as he lifted two baggies of peanut butter on rye, tossing one into her open arms.
“Think that one’s ever gonna get old, Daddy?” she asked.
“Nah, not as long as we don’t want it to.”
Though Abbey hadn’t inherited Joe’s brown eyes or dark hair, she certainly shared his sense of humor. Their jokes weren’t remotely funny, and they knew it. But what made them laugh was their shared recognition that nobody but them ever knew what they were talking about. This last one was relatively recent, and they had Katarina and Nicolaos Flanegburt to thank for it.
Despite Abbey’s protests, Joe decided it might be healthy to invite some outsiders on one of their “Dabby outings,” as he referred to it. For whatever reason, he liked to contract as many words as he could into one, and “Contractionese” soon became their exclusive language. Katarina went to school with Abbey, and Nic worked in the auto shop, so it seemed like a reasonable fit.
As it turned out, Greeks were not exactly baseball fanatics.
It would have been fine if they had figured out they were supposed to hit the ball rather than yelp, “You stop try keeeel me!” It seemed they were more interested in, well, fish. After thirteen minutes on the field, Nic chided Joe for his enjoyment of the life threatening sport before resigning to a park bench to whip out a batch of his grandmother’s world-famous Kalamarakia Yemista me Aginares, or artichoke-stuffed squids. If not for its taste, the dish most certainly deserved recognition for its smell. Even the pigeons didn’t peck at the leftovers.
The majority of the ride home was spent detailing the historical origins and anatomical make-up of Greek fish. Joe tried to convince Nic that trout and salmon were sold at the local Pathmark, but he was convinced one could only find these delicacies in the Aliakmonas River, “home to the finest feesh in the world.” Joe nodded skeptically and winked at Abbey. It was a Greek pride kind of thing, and it wasn’t worth the fight. Since then, they had never neglected to pay allegiance to the Flagenburts at each of their outings.
Abbey took a whiff of her peanut butter sandwich before announcing, “All clear!”
“Same here!” Joe laughed and slammed the trunk twice until the metal clicked, pulling Abbey’s shoulder to his waist as they strolled toward the park.
“Hey, Dad?” she asked, wrapping her free hand around his back, her face close enough to smell his soapy cologne. “Can I ask you a question?”
“Do you think Mom would ever want to come with us? She might like baseball if she tried it. Maybe—maybe Grandpa never told her to practice when she was little like you tell me.”
“I dunno squirt, I don’t think your mom’s the baseball type. Maybe for now we’ll keep it just the two of us.”
“How bout if we take her to Barry’s?” she asked. “Mom’s gotta like ice cream because everyone likes ice cream.”
Joe smiled as he stroked the top of her auburn hair. “All right, we’ll talk about it.”
“That means no.
He laughed. “No it doesn’t. It means we’ll talk about it, kiddo.
“OK,” she sighed.
“Hey, what’s this all about? Your old man’s not good enough for you anymore?”
“C’mon, Dad. You’re not old, okaaaay? It’s just that Mom’s always sad all the time and when we go out together it makes us happy, right? And Amanda says her Mom is always happy when she comes home from outside even when she gets very angry at Josiah—he’s Amanda’s little brother. So, so maybe Mom just really wants to go outside. With us.”
“You’ve given this some thought, huh?”
“Yeah, kinda,” she said.
“Okay, well like I said, we’ll talk about it.”
“But Dad, I—”
“Last one to home plate is an artichoke-stuffed squid!” he shouted as he ran toward the grassy field, tossing a small white ball into her hands.
“Daaaaaaad!” she yelped as she bolted forward, igniting flashes of neon light at the sides of her sneakers.
“Daddy, it’s not fair I can’t run so fast!” she panted.
“Well then you’ll just have to work harder to keep up,” he called back.
As they neared home base, he pivoted toward Abbey and lifted her off the ground. “You know no one’s ever gonna make life this easy for ya, right?” he asked, cradling her neck and legs against his chest.
She threw her head backward. “Oh man. That was easy?”
Joe kissed her upturned chin. “You have no idea.”
He dropped her to the ground and she touched the plate. “You’re an artichoke-stuffed squid, Daddy,” she jeered.
“What?” he gawked. “That’s cheap. You can’t just—”
“Like you said, I can’t make everything so easy for ya,” she smiled smugly.
He feigned a frown as he walked to the mound and tossed his first pitch. After a sequence of “too low”s and “too high”s, Joe’s palms began to match the color of the disappearing crimson sun.
“All right, I think we call it a day,” he called. She stood at home plate, still shaking the bat in her hunched hitting stance.
“One more. Just one more, Dad. I was just getting good.”
He laughed. “You said that the last thirteen times.” He pocketed the ball, crouched on his knees and motioned her forward.
“Fiiine,” she mumbled, advancing toward him.
He threw her over his shoulder and walked back toward the car, clasping her dangling legs with one arm.
“It’s like real baseball, kiddo,” he said as he dropped her into the back seat, brushed back her hair and clicked in her seatbelt. “You play hard, and give it all you got. But when the lights go out, the game’s over.”
“Glad you guys made it back,” Sandra said as Joe walked into the kitchen, holding Abbey’s hand beside him. Her flannel top had accumulated a few additional splotches since the morning. “Where have you two been?” The inflections in her tone betrayed greater contempt than curiosity.
Abbey released her fingers and ran toward her mother. “Mom, we went to the park and we played baseball for like three hours and Dad got me the ice pop with the red stuff on top and we decided you should come next time.”
Sandy smiled and gave Abbey a quick shoulder rub before returning to the open book on the table. “Good, Ab. That’s good.”
Abbey tugged the cuff of her mother’s robe. “Mom, I’m telling you,” she said, “you’d love it. Right, Dad? Right?”
Without lifting her eyes from her book, Sandra shrugged her sleeve free and told Abbey to wash up. “But Mom—” Abbey protested. One glare and an upturned finger sent Abbey out the door, dragging her feet behind her.
Joe opened the fridge and browsed the supply of ketchup, mustard and mayonnaise dispersed along the empty shelves. Why was it that there was always a six to one ratio of condiments to solid food? If he was really desperate, there was the option of the crusted end pieces of bread that no one wanted to eat yet never felt brave enough to throw away. Joe removed the plastic bread bag and tossed it in the trash. He wondered what condiment soup might taste like.
“So you guys had a nice time,” a voice sounded behind him. Joe turned to Sandy. It wasn’t worded as a question, but he figured he’d be safe with, “Yes. Yeah, Abbey’s a great sport. Getting better at her hitting too.”
Sandra nodded, her head still bent over her book. “Good. Glad to hear it.”
Simple enough. No harm done. He turned to grab a coke and leave the kitchen.
“So, were you planning on keeping her out all night?”
Joe paused in his tracks, his back toward Sandra. He didn’t like the sound of that one, but he still had a chance to play his cards right.
“Uh, nope.” He flicked his wrist to look at his watch. “6:30. Just enough time for homework and dinner.” He smiled, content with his terse reply.
“Oh, I mean I just figured you may want some extra time with her because you know, picking her up from school everyday may not be enough for you.”
He was about to ask what was really bothering her when he realized she was still harping on a miscommunication four weeks old. He had already apologized ten times over for driving Abbey to her spelling bee when Sandra agreed to take her instead. She had never shown an interest in Abbey’s science fairs or school plays so he figured he’d do her a favor and volunteer his own time. Evidently Sandra had a peculiar fascination with spelling competitions and won a few of her own in her heyday. She viewed it as some power play and blamed Joe for advertently stealing Abbey away to sneak in extra alone time. Evidently, it was the same motivation he had for bringing home an extra pack of M & M’s for Abbey when he stopped at the gas station on his way home from work. Joe figured Sandra was either insecure or unusually competitive, but he decided it was best to ignore her accusations or otherwise risk laughing.
Joe furrowed his brows, calculating his response. He wasn’t about to issue his eleventh apology. “Okay.” He paused. “Did you want to pick her up from school? I don’t mind, I can—”
“No, no. I don’t need to detract from your ‘Dabby outings.’ That what you’ve been calling them these days?”
“Sandra, I’m not exactly sure what you’re getting at. You want to pick her up, be my guest. You want to take her out, also great. I’m sure she’d love it.”
“What is that, sarcasm?” Joe returned a puzzled expression. “You think she wouldn’t have a good time with me?” she continued.
“Sandra, I didn’t remotely say that.”
“I get it, Joe. You’re the fun one and I’m the sucker that gets to stay at home, buy the groceries and take the homework shift. Let’s just not pretend you’re doing anyone any favors.”
“Sandra, this is just childish, alright? Abbey would be thrilled if you’d spend time with her, you heard her yourself—”
“Keep quiet.” She slammed her book shut and stood from the table. “I don’t need pity.” She wrapped the belt around her blue robe and left the room.
Joe held his fingers to the corners of his eyes for a few seconds before swiping the keys off the counter and heading toward the car.
Joe slumped into one of the stools aligned before the wooden bar. It wasn’t his usual spot, but he was too restless to move.
“Can I get a Becks?” He was in the mood to splurge.
The female bartender nodded. “Comin’ up.” That was another reason he came to Duke’s so often. He didn’t ask for much, but he liked to know that he still had clout in some areas of his life, even if he was paying for it.
He feigned a smile before burying his head in his hands.
“Tough night at work?” a deep voice grunted two seats to his left.
“Oh,” the man continued. “I just assumed ‘cause that’s how I look after a tough night at work. And this is how I look when I’m outta work.” He pointed to his overgrown beard and beer-stained Harley t-shirt. He looked like a walking advertisement for the brand.
Joe glanced him over and resumed his stupor.
The man slid one seat over and the bartender slipped a draw of beer. They sipped in silence for a while like dogs at a watering hole, occasionally commenting on player stats and ERA’s.
“So, uh, tell me,” the man finally asked, “If it ain’t work, why ya all down like that? Take this as a comp’ment, but you don’ really look like, well, one o’ the reg’lars.” He motioned to the group of unshaven men lounged around the room, several hunched over with their bellies distended over their legs.
Joe surveyed the room. “I’m a regular alright, but not because I wanna be. Wife trouble.”
“Oh, I see. She a hounda’ or a pounda’? O’ both?”
Joe laughed. Evidently the phenomenon was widespread enough to warrant a distinction. That was a relief. “I dunno. I think they’re kind of interchangeable at this point.”
“I hear that.” The man nodded. “Had a couple of ‘em myself. Last one ditched me when I lost the last job. Should’ve left her first. Kept pesterin’ bout taking out that damned ga’bage.”
Joe smiled as he swallowed a gulp of beer. “Better to take out the garbage than be treated like a whole truck-full. Trust me man, garbage is the least of it.” If only he had to worry about garbage. That might entail having leftovers, and dinner was a rare occurrence in his house.
“So why you stickin’ round? You got baggage?”
“Yep.” He smiled to himself. “Sweetest kid you’ve ever seen.”
The man nodded. “File for damn custody then,” he offered. “Seem like a good man. They’ll give it to ya.”
“I’m not so sure. I’ll tell you one thing, I didn’t marry my wife cause she was stupid. I don’t know how, but somehow I’ll land up with morning visitation rights and what not. And you wanna know what—?”
He wasn’t sure why he was divulging his marital troubles to this stranger. He certainly didn’t seem like the right candidate for advice. But it felt good to let loose nonetheless, and God knows he needed it. Besides, the guy smelled intoxicated enough to forget the whole encounter by tomorrow anyway.
“It’s my kid I’m worried about more than anything else,” Joe continued. “She’s got a crap situation regardless, but if I bail it’s a whole new ballgame.” He began to streak lines with his finger along the frosty surface of his glass. “She’s got too long a life ahead of her to start it out with one foot in the mud.”
The man clanged the bottom of his beer against the table. “Man, that may just be worse than no job.” He paused momentarily. “Hey listen,” he said. “I’m no Einstein, but in my opinion, if you gonna stick it out, don’t make yourself sick too. Just say to yourself, ‘I’m a good man. I put up with a lotta no good stuff, but I love my daughter, so I’m gonna grin and bear it.’ There ain’t no reason to beat yourself over the head if you already got someone else doin’ it for ya.”
Joe chuckled, removing the rubber band from his wallet and placing a bill on the table. “You know, you may want to try therapy or something. You’re not half bad.”
The man rose from his stool and stretched his calves, widening the tears at his kneecaps. “You shouldn’t. That’s one o’ the worst advices I ever heard. Besides, you gotta smile at all them damn patients. I don’t got enough teeth for that.”
The next morning was quieter than most. Joe removed a mug from the cabinet, noting only the rustling of Sandra’s newspaper and the sound of Abbey’s cocoa puffs hitting the bottom of her bowl. Joe never understood what triggered Sandra’s outbursts, or what silenced them. It was like dancing on eggshells. For all he knew, she had decided to move on and he was off the hook. In truth, a part of him pitied his wife because he knew she didn’t mean to make him miserable. Maybe it was the result of pride or jealousy or some repressed fear that if something went too well there was a chance it could be taken away. Maybe she even knew she was wrong, yet she had no ability to control herself or stem her aggression. He wasn’t qualified to diagnose her, but he knew that somewhere down there was the woman he married and swore to love unconditionally. He should have specified that he only demanded her love and respect in return. If she did love him, she certainly had an unconventional way of showing it.
“You were back awfully late last night,” Sandy muttered. Abbey looked up from her cocoa puffs.
“Yeah, I had some things to take care of,” Joe replied.
A few moments of silence ensued.
“What kind of things?” she asked.
“Just things, Sandra. That all right with you?” He already knew he wasn’t remotely off the hook, though he couldn’t even remember what crime he had committed to begin with.
“Should I be perfectly honest?” she asked, rising from her seat at the table. She didn’t wait for a response. “It’s not all right with me. You shouldn’t have me up worried that—that you got killed or something. It’s a sick thing to do.”
He wanted to say that he would have been in far greater danger if he stayed home—mentally anyway. That she didn’t give a flying hoot about his safety. And that what was really sick was the fact that he had to drive to a bar to escape his own house. But Abbey was sitting at the table, so he went with, “I’m a big boy. I can take care of myself.”
She laughed. “Sure you can. It’s caring about anyone else that’s the problem.”
Abbey dropped her metal spoon in her bowl and pushed her chair back to leave the room.
“You see? Do you see the kind of stuff we put up with, Joe?” Sandra continued. “Your own daughter can’t even stand to be around you.”
He inhaled a deep breath and pursed his lips. “I have to go to work,” he said. “We can continue this later, if you’d like.”
He meant it. He was prepared to fight back if he had to but not at Abbey’s expense.
He pecked Abbey on the forehead, rinsed his cup in the sink and told her he’d pick her up from school today. He knew he didn’t need to tell her that everyday, but it always seemed like a good way to end off a bad morning.
He stopped at the foyer mirror to adjust his stray hairs and straighten his cotton tee, before walking to the door and turning the knob gently behind him.
As he reached the car, the front door flung back open. With her blue robe trailing behind her, Sandra emerged from the doorway, coffee cup and newspaper in hand.
“Don’t you just walk away from me like that. If you want to continue this, let’s have it!” she shouted. “I am sick of you always—”
“SHUT UP!” he yelped, clasping his hand to his head. In his nine years of marriage, he had managed never to raise his voice. He hadn’t envisioned himself turning into the kind of guy who’d resort to shouting to solve his problems. Then again, he hadn’t envisioned himself in this wreck of a marriage either.
“I’ve had enough of this!” he yelled. “All of it!”
She gritted her teeth and flared her nose.
“I mean, will it ever end?!” he continued. “This—this abuse? What in hell did I do to deserve this, Sandra? I swear, if I have to put up with one more blasted criticism from you, I’m just gonna—”
“WHAT?” she interjected. “What exactly are you going to do, Joe? Go to work? That’s all you’ve ever been good at anyway. I’ll tell you what. This’ll end when you learn to pull your act together and start behaving responsibly.”
He laughed, nodding his head repeatedly. “Responsibly? And what would you call responsible, Sandra? Lying around in my pajamas all day, feeling sorry for myself that I have everything in the world but I’m too damn pathetic to take advantage of it? Huh?”
She strode toward him and yanked his arm. “Is that what you think?” she shrieked. “Is that what you think of me, Joe? Because I’ll have you know I am a hard-working, devoted mother and I—”
He wrenched his arm free and slapped her brusquely across the cheek. She held the reddened spot with her hand and heaved measured breaths. “How dare you?” she gasped. “How dare you!”
Joe reached for the car handle and lowered his head inside, pushing down the lock lever behind him.
Sandra pounded both fists against the glass pane. “You get out of there right now!” she yelled. “Get out of there, damnit!”
He inserted the key, placed his hand on the back of the passenger’s seat and backed out of the driveway. Before rotating the wheel and stomping on the pedal, he glanced once more at her wagging finger and blue robe, and hoped that’d be the last time he ever would.
He didn’t know where he was going, or if the quarter filled tank would hold up. But he knew he needed an escape—from her, from the house, yet more importantly, from himself. This wasn’t him. Or at least it wasn’t who he wanted to be. Yeah, he could have continued to fight cold and hard. But if this is what it took, he had already lost the battle.
Oh what the hell. He’d never have the guts to actually leave. He thought about the look on Abbey’s face when he dropped her at the doorstep, told her he was sleeping someplace else and left her to ponder how she might tell Amanda that her Mommy and Daddy just liked to spend a lot of time apart. She was eight years old, goddamnit. She should’ve be dealing with scrapes and cuts on the monkey bars. This was a sting even Neosporin and a Band-Aid couldn’t heal. Was it worth it?
Sitting alone on the stairwell of P.S. 187, Abbey spotted the familiar Sedan swerve behind one of the remaining yellow buses. Joe watched her lift her purple backpack, swing it over both arms and skip toward the car. Her auburn curls bounced and swayed, and her Velcro sneakers flashed streaks of neon light. Yet her wide eyes and beaming grin shone with even greater intensity.
She propped open the door with both hands. “Hey Dad,” she chimed.
Joe forced a smile. “Hey, kiddo. Sorry I’m late.” He pulled out into the street. “What do you say to some baseball?”
“But it’s not Tuesday, Daddy. You don’t hafta go back to work today?”
He shook his head. “Not today, sweets. We need to, uh, well we need to talk. Man to—girl.”
She furrowed her brows. “Talk about what, Daddy?” she asked.
“Just a couple things. But let’s save it for the field, all right?”
She nodded and rested her ear against the back seat, her eyes glued to the passing houses outside the window. They didn’t laugh or talk. They didn’t mention the Flanegburt’s or artichoke-stuffed squids. And after Joe backed into his usual spot, they didn’t even pull out peanut butter sandwiches from the trunk. This was a different kind of “Dabby outing,” and even Abbey knew it. But as they strolled toward the field, Joe pulled her closer and tighter than ever, because he had to keep reminding himself just how much he loved her before he told her that was why he had to leave.
Abbey stood in her usual arched stance with her freckled arms swaying the bat overhead. Joe reflexively threw pitch after pitch, his thoughts removed from anything remotely related to cutters or sliders.
“Okay, let’s see how far you can hit this one!” he called from the mound.
Abbey dropped her bat at her side. “Dad, I’m tired and it’s already dark out here.”
He squeezed the white ball into his pocket. “All right champ, get over here.”
She ran from her spot, dragging the bat behind her. Joe plopped down on the white diamond and she collapsed in his lap. For a few moments, they stared at the darkened sky above them, wrapped in each other’s arms.
“Hey Abs,” he finally said, tucking her hair behind her ear. “You know how I always tell you that sometimes, even when we don’t want it to, life gets a little tough.” She listened intently. “And sometimes, even when we don’t want it to, it gets a little unfair, too.”
“I guess,” she nodded.
He continued to stroke her hair. “And—and even when it’s really unfair and God throws you lots of, well, curveballs, you gotta play hard to try to make it through anyway. And no matter what, you never give up until—until—” His voice cracked.
Abbey rose from his lap and stood before his crossed legs. She lifted his downturned chin and held his coarse cheek with one hand. “Until what, Daddy?” she asked gently.
He covered her fingers with his palm and felt a droplet trickling down his hand. “Until the lights go out and you call it a game.”
She stared back, furrowing her brows.
He wrapped his hands around her waist and rested her beside him. “You see kiddo, Mommy was Daddy’s home-run pitch because, well, she gave me you. And I’d never, ever give that up for the whole world.”
He pressed his lips to her forehead and stared into her watery green eyes.
“But she’s also Daddy’s curveball. And as much as I pushed and gave it my best, my lights just went out. I wish it would be different, Abs, I really do. But now—now it’s time to call it a game.”
She silently leaned her head against his arm.
“Now it’s time for me to go away for a little while. Just a little while until we can sort all of this out.”
A tear meandered down her cheek and she brushed it aside with her finger. For a while she didn’t speak.
“You don’t love her anymore, Daddy?” she finally whimpered.
“It’s not so simple.”
“But—but maybe if you wait, you’ll love her again. Just wait because—” she choked on her words. “Because Amanda said.” She continued to wipe the tears falling down her nose and lip. “Amanda said—”
Joe wrapped his arms around her shoulders and pulled her toward him. “It’s okay, sweets,” he whispered. She buried her face into his warm chest until the collected moisture seeped through his shirt. “It’s all going to be okay.”
He lifted her from the ground, tucked his arms beneath her knees and neck, and sauntered back to the car. “We’re gonna be just fine.”
They pulled up before 22 Regis Drive. This time, Joe left the keys in the ignition.
“You’re not coming in, right Daddy?” she asked slowly.
He shook his head. “No, sweets. Not tonight.” This time, he didn’t dare look in the rearview mirror. He couldn’t bear to see the delicate glow in her face masked by puffed eyelids and dotted cheeks.
“When are you gonna come back?”
“Well, I’ve got some grown-up stuff to figure out. But for now, I’ve just gotta go stay someplace else for a little while. Don’t you worry, kiddo. It’ll be the same as always. You just get a little break from cleaning up after me.”
On any other day, she would’ve smiled and said, “C’mon, Daddy. Those aren’t your polly pockets.” But today was different.
“Bye, Daddy,” she said as she pushed the door open.
“I love you, Abs.”
Before she reached the end of the driveway, her oversized purple backpack bouncing against her legs, she turned once more to wave.
He rolled down the window and shouted, “I’ll pick you up from school tomorrow.” She nodded, hiding the last few drops trickling down her cheeks before disappearing behind the front door.
As he glanced at the closed doorway and rolled up the window, he felt the lump swarming around his stomach slowly begin to dissipate. The last few butterflies flapped against his insides, reminding Joe that overriding all his sadness and guilt was a liberating cry. And for the first time in his life, he opened himself to listen.