She was no cheater. She was a faithful person. That’s who she knew herself to be. At least since college, anyway. She had to stick close to her integrity so she could respect herself. She was firm about this, at least when she wasn’t half-naked in a hotel suite with Peter, her long-lost housemate from Paris. She knew the problems with her husband, Dan, would have to be faced head-on. Concretely. Like a grown-up. Not some teenager whose wild libido was running the show.
Why was her marriage so conflicted? She considered this while she drank her coffee. It went back, inevitably, to her father. Or, more precisely, her father issues. No woman growing up with Seymour would have emerged without some significant warping of body and soul. Or could she lay the problem at her late mother’s feet? A psychic once told her that the two lineages that created her should have never come together, so there was that.
At about eleven AM, she was ready to face her life. She decided new doors don’t open as long as you carry old baggage. So, the first order was to deal with Lili’s ashes, which had ridden around in the trunk of her car for months, waiting for the right spot in which to spend eternity. She went to her car, retrieved the urn, and carried it into the backyard. Deal with this, girlfriend, she whispered to herself, but before long, her motivation leaked away. No matter what form Lili was in, she had the effect of making Stormy feel deficient and at a loss. Lili was powerful dead or alive.
Actually, if Stormy was being honest, she wasn’t ready. In fact, she deserved a break. She set the urn down in a flower bed and, smack in the middle of the day, went inside. She poured herself a large glass of a Cabernet. Or a Merlot. Whichever. She didn’t really like wine and couldn’t tell them apart. She headed to her luxurious velvet couch. To the outside eye, it would look as if she was goofing off. Maybe she was. Writers could never be sure when they were working.
A Manhattanite in exodus, she thumbed through the most recent issue of The New Yorker. A Joyce Carol Oates piece captured her attention. She’d always felt better when she read essays penned by brilliant women who were unattractive in high school.
It was a long essay, and she became slightly drowsy. She stretched, preparing perhaps, for a short nap. Why not? But aggressive pounding on the front door brought her back. She was not inclined to be disturbed and ignored it. The Cab slid down her throat, so comforting. The pounding continued. It took an effort for her to kick back and be useless.
“Answer, goddamned it! It’s your father!” barked Seymour through a window. There was an unusual urgency in his voice. “He wants to talk to you!”
The massive front door swung wide open. Right. Seymour had her house key, a fact she was forced to reckon with as he stood in front of her proudly, perfumed and spiffy. He was wearing his golf cap, golf shorts, and matching Pima cotton shirt, perfectly tailored and meticulously ironed. This stout melody in lilac confronted her as determined as an agent from the IRS. Only he wasn’t wearing IRS-black; even his socks, which covered his knock knees, were lavender. He was also sporting gardener’s gloves which, in turn, were holding an unlikely accessory for him, a shovel. His green eyes seemed as bright as a traffic light, a traffic light that was now attempting to hypnotize her by standing directly over her and glowering.
“I haven’t been over here for a long time,” he said as if she used to invite him for high tea with some regularity. They hadn’t seen each other since that dreadful fight at his country club. She was not remotely in the mood.
“Hello,” she said flatly.
“How about a little more enthusiasm?”
“Okay. Top of the morning to you!” She sat up slightly, but she still stayed enmeshed in the big down pillows, one of which she held in front of her.
He pointed to the shovel and nodded with importance.
“The gardener was here yesterday, dad.”
“Sharon, your father is suffering. He came to help you.” Seymour pointed to the backyard as if she could follow his logic.
“I’m not up for help,” she said. “I’m trying to be lazy.”
“Well, be lazy another day,” he commanded and ambled into the kitchen, humming. He poured himself a glass of water. He could hum and suffer simultaneously. She grabbed her wine and gulped it.
He had such an assured air about him. As a kid, she hung on to his every word. Back then, she wanted to make him proud of her. Thus, she practiced millions of pirouettes, mastered a decent French accent, learned to argue politics and how to pitch a speedy softball, and shoot a decent basketball. For her father, all, everything, anything she could do, she did for him; he had been her one hope.
The same instinct still sat inside her; she could feel it trembling in her gut. That was why, she supposed, when she deciphered his mission to help her bury Lili’s urn, she reluctantly stood up.
“What happened? Did your golf game get canceled?”
“Don’t be a smart ass.” So, that was a ‘yes.’
“And you honestly came here to help me do this?”
“I feel terrible. I want to be closer to you,” he said, his eyes blazing like a verdant meadow after a rain. He glared with a ‘what are you waiting for?’ look, the one he used so effectively to intimidate his staff. She shrugged. This was an insane intrusion, yet she headed outside to the flower bed and picked up the urn. Seymour followed her. He leaned on his shovel, an unlikely eighty-five-year-old Jewish suburban still-life.
“Where do you want it?”
Good question. She looked around for where she thought Lili belonged. Boomer, her dear old Lab retriever, was buried almost at the property line on the east corner. Did she want her pet to have to deal with her mother? Boomer, who got love right. She walked over to his spot.
“I miss you, pooch,” she mumbled, and her chest tightened with sorrow.
Seymour stepped closer. “What?”
How could she explain doggie love?
Seymour turned his head, taking in the perimeter of the place, mumbling to himself. Then, without any instruction from her whatsoever, his shovel hit the grass just beyond the pool and smack in the middle of their half-acre.
“No, dad! That’s where we open our lounge chairs, exactly right there!”
“Lounge there!” he pointed west. “This, here, this is the spot.” Her father had been a CEO of a large company. After decades of commanding people and watching them hop to it, he’d forgotten how to speak to regular humans. He was used to them apologizing, even when it should have been the other way around. He pulled that on her, too, when she was a kid. Yet people liked him. Various secretaries insisted they did when Stormy occasionally went to lunch with them. “Your father…” they’d say, “he’s tough.” Then they’d grin with genuine affection. But who knew what their story really was? He was their boss, after all. And he was sleeping with half of them.
“Can’t! Because if we have to move our chairs, we’ll get too much sun,” she explained.
“Buy an umbrella, and you’ll have plenty of shade.”
“That’s not where I want it!” she said petulantly. She was six, and he’d taken away her ice cream.
“The trouble with you is there is never the perfect spot.” He started digging for real.
“What are you saying? Spit it out.”
“I don’t get why it’s so hard for you to let go of that woman.”
He knew why. But he was a coward. She wished she could take the shovel and clock him for being so dense. Anyway, he was too old for this. But he was at it. Dirt was flying all over. Nothing wrong with his testosterone. He was muttering Yiddish phrases under his breath.
Then, a clang. “Whaddya got here, a damn boulder?”
“It’s probably a rock, dad. Not every piece of land in the world is as smooth as your clubhouse lawn. Nor is life itself. Life has boulders!”
“Spare me the sociology lesson. If only you would have learned to play golf, maybe things would have been different between us. I offered. Private lessons! You could’ve started anytime.”
He was sweating under his arms, a swath of dampness across his back. The young Seymour was suddenly there, a guy going after what he wanted; defiant, strong, physical, not the club dandy with too much time on his hands and too much libido for an old guy.
“I would help, but I’m tipsy,” she explained. “I drank a fair amount of wine. I got tired of thinking about my life.”
“And those are your choices?!” He bent over, all rickety five foot nine inches of him, and picked up the urn. His legs wobbled, and his barrel chest suddenly seemed unsteady. The urn was not that heavy, but still, he staggered. She worried that he would lose his balance, but he shoved it over the spot he’d dug. She thought: you’re a pisser, you old fart.
He heaved a huge mound of earth to the side. “I think this is deep enough,” he panted. “Nope, too shallow.”
He picked up the urn and threw himself at the task again, but his cream-colored shoe got caught in the pile of dirt. He tried to shake it loose, and this time, he lost his balance completely. He went for his shovel, which fell, and then, as if it was happening in slow motion, down he went, the lavender melody crashing onto the moist dirt.
He was yelling, “Oy, oy vey. Oy vey ish mere.”
His arm reached under him, touching his lumbar region. This is where they, of rigid Austrian heritage, lock in their emotions.
“Dad, dad, dad! Are you okay? Dad, say something. You have your breath? Any pain? Dad!”
“Stop screaming! I’m fine. Fine. This is how it is to be an old man,” he protested, then looked at her as if this was an unfair fact and she should do something about it.
She circled him with her arms. He’d always been an athlete, but today she could feel only how light he was, like a child of ten or eleven. She was careful; even a hairline fracture in an octogenarian was serious. She decided to try to get him up into one of the garden chairs, which, though cushion-less, was right nearby.
‘Ouch!” he said resentfully. He was a staunch member of the club that believed fury was always helpful.
“Ouch, what? Where?”
“Dizzy would be a concussion. Did you fall on your head? No, you didn’t. You’re not dizzy.”
“Maybe a little disoriented.” He wrestled away from her.
“Nope, dad, we’re going inside.” He didn’t protest as she helped him step up into the house.
“I didn’t finish the job,” he objected. “And you, you’ll never do it without me!” Her father never entertained incompetence, which is why he wouldn’t allow himself to hear what she had to say to him. Failure wasn’t an option. Yet sometimes, she thought she saw a slice of worry cross his face as if there was an inner knowing, but then he’d change the subject or make a joke.
“You’re in shock. Don’t talk.” Stormy almost threw him on the couch. She felt his racing pulse. She brought him a glass of water, untied his shoes, and took them off.
“What are you doing?” he gripped his toes.
“Making you comfortable.” He acted as if he was giving in to some radical untested therapy; shoe removal.
“Thank God you won’t be able to cart me around in the trunk of your car when I go; I wouldn’t like that. I have a plot. You could be next to me if you weren’t so obstinate.”
“But I am.” Stormy put a pillow under his knees.
“You’re goddamned right, you are. If you’d done this when she died, I could be on the ninth hole; look what a gorgeous day it is.”
“I didn’t ask you to come here. In fact, I was having a nice afternoon alone with my New Yorker.”
“Wasting your life.”
She sighed. It was hopeless. “You know what? As soon as you feel a little better, I’d like you to leave.”
He laughed. “I should care what you think!”
Her father liked arguments. They served a purpose, to ensure him of his power. To reduce life to black and white. To make him believe he could beat death, or something like that.
He wiped his forehead with his lilac handkerchief.
She felt her heart about to pound with fury. “Let’s not fight. Just rest up.”
He laughed again. “You’re bossing me around? It’s funny, you know that?”
“Oh, right, you’re the only boss in the room.”
“I’m the only one who ran a five-million-dollar company with forty people under him and made fourth-quarter profits Wall Street couldn’t believe.”
“Your favorite subject—tra la tra la. Money!”
“I’m leaving you plenty of it one day.”
“Again, I didn’t ask you for it. And I don’t want it.”
He worked to sit back up; Machiavelli would never suggest fighting half-prone. “You don’t want it? Give me the phone. I’ll call my lawyer right now!”
“Marvin Kopelman, right? How is old Marvin? What’s his number? I’ll dial.”
Seymour half rose off the couch, stumbled, and grabbed the phone from her hands. “You..you…”
“Me, what? I’m such a big bother? I haven’t asked you for anything since my last year of college when you decided not to pay my tuition.”
His sallow complexion was turning into an agitated rosy glow now. “You disobeyed me.”
“Right. You disapproved of my boyfriend. So, you kept me from graduating?”
“I wanted a better life for you.” He collapsed back on the sofa.
“A better life? As in becoming a waitress and taking two more years to graduate. If I forgot to thank you, let me take the opportunity now!”
“You didn’t respect yourself,” he mumbled undaunted. “I didn’t want that for you.”
She had been desperate for love, but until this moment, she didn’t realize he’d ever noticed.
“Dad…” she said in a lower octave, “I was lost.”
“And that’s my fault?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“But it’s what you think.”
“Ouch!” he gripped his side fiercely.
“What? Why are you screaming?”
“A pain in my side!”
“I’ll call your doctor.” She ran to get the phone.
Peels of laughter. “You love me, see? You don’t want me to die.” He released his hand. “No pain. I’m fine.” He smiled benignly.
Her dad had wrestled in college. Now he was wrestling again with her.
“I’m sorry. I don’t know what gets into me sometimes, Sharon. Maybe I’m afraid of dying.”
That shut her up.
“Let’s have something to drink,” he said, suddenly convivial; the afternoon clearly wasn’t over for him. “A nice glass of wine for your dad?” He patted the couch.
“No. I’m not your friend. “
“I’ll tell you what I do feel a little badly about, Sharon.”
So, he was going to apologize after all! She tried to quiet herself down.
“I never took you on the Concord when it was flying.” His green eyes were glued to her brown ones. “I feel awful about that.”
Well, he had to begin somewhere. “Got it,” she said magnanimously. True, for years, she hoped he’d invite her along. “Hey, Stormy, let me show you Paris on the company’s dollar.”
“Forgiven. Anything else you want to say?”
“There’s nothing else. From where I came from, I did good.”
It was their personal half-time, and they stared at each other.
“Why didn’t I think to invite you on one of those jaunts?” He slipped into reverie: “The service was amazing. The food was Continental, and the seats were tipped back so that after you ate, you could snooze, and then, bingo, you were in New York City, ready for the day. I did bring you back some nice pearl earrings from one of my trips.”
She had those earrings somewhere. She wore them with mixed feelings. A present, yes, but she would have loved to have picked them out herself on The Champs Elysees.
“I’ve never flown first class.” She couldn’t help the tightness in her lips.
His face blanched in pain. “Never?”
“That’s my fault, too, I suppose?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“I’m glad you’re not a total nut case. But you still insist on believing Lili was Jack the Ripper. Why do you hang on to that story?”
He was galaxies away from her now, and no words came, none at all.
“So, you forgive me about the Concord?”
So, Seymour was not going to look back on his life. He was too insecure. This fact startled her; he was too weak, not too strong.
She closed her eyes and tried to remember a Buddhist sutra. It was that or tears. She muttered in Sanskrit under her breath.
“Your father feels better now. You don’t realize it, but he is an emotional man.” Now Seymour’s face relaxed. His eyes blinked. He’d stopped hiding.
She got up to get him a glass of water. When she returned, his eyes were closed again.
“I wasn’t that great a father,” he mumbled. “Too busy.” He opened his eyes again. “But I wasn’t that bad, either.”
He sipped slowly, thoughtfully. Then, he was up, shuffling towards the front door.
“Very emotional afternoon,” he announced, his forehead slightly shiny and his outfit creased. “But good!”
Stormy took stock of his disappearing corpus. He famously chased women but chose to run from the very one who was born adoring him. He kept walking. On his slightly bowlegs, he made it outside and headed to his car, mumbling, “good! Not bad!”
And then, the smooth rumble of his motor as he backed out of her driveway, a deafeningly loud instrumental blasting from his radio. It was as if a typhoon had come and gone, and the place was leveled, leaving the afternoon strangely empty.
Stormy returned to the couch to finish the New Yorker article, then brought the wine glass to the sink and wandered into her bedroom. She dug out the pearl earrings her father had bought her years ago. She put them on in front of the mirror. They framed her face perfectly.
She had to admit, they looked wonderful. They really did.
About the Author
Barbara Bottner has written three YA novels, including the free verse I Am Here Now, 2020, as well as 50 books for children of all ages. She’s published stories in Cosmopolitan, Playgirl, and various literary magazines. She’s written essays for the LA Weekly, the Miami Herald, and reviewed children’s books for the NY Sunday Times.