I watched Abigail’s back as she wove through the pedestrians on the sidewalk. I felt so far away from her, yet at the same time close enough to touch her, as if I were watching one of our home movies and my image, as usual, was the only one missing. But hers was there, dependable as always, her feet striking the ground with confidence, not stumbling at all with the weight of her determination, as if I were not needed in this scene.
Several men, including a buffed-up cop with a cheap tan and a distinguished silver-haired gentleman in a gray suit, paused to view her backside. Yeah, she was still a looker, stunning you might even say, her body, though more meaty than when we married, now alluring in its curves, filling up her clothes like an icy-cold beer filling a glass, knowing that the only important part the glass played was holding the contents. I felt a stirring in my chest thinking about how those tiny dimples had formed in her chin when she had said, “I’m leaving you.” I didn’t want to gape at her now like those two guys, after all she was leaving me, but my eyes clung to her, almost afraid to let go. I had the sudden urge to run after her, tell her that things would be different, promise her anything she wanted.
To hell with it. Let her make it on her own if that’s what she wanted. I’d give her a week.
I walked beside my shadow to the lot where my truck was parked. At Maple and Green, five o’clock traffic was backed up and blaring for blocks. I sat behind the wheel, itching to spin out and wheel around the stagnant cars, even if it meant driving on the sidewalk and taking on a few passengers. The sun sinking behind the TrustmarkBuilding created a blinding yellow crown and I grabbed my dark sunglasses from the dash, slipped them on. I’d had enough light shed on me for one day.
Fifteen years down the proverbial tube—I counted them in my mind—in two months, on October 22nd, three days before Christian’s eighth birthday.
I pressed a finger to each temple and massaged. How was I going to tell Christian that her mother had left?
I remembered nothing about the drive home, praying I hadn’t run a red light or broken any laws. That’s all I needed. I veered into the driveway, yanked the gearshift into park, and, with the flick of my wrist, switched off the engine, wishing I could so easily switch off my whining stomach and the throbbing in my head. My hands fell into my lap like they were exhausted from the drive. My mouth was too dry to swallow and I lay my head on the steering wheel wondering how was I going to do this, walk into our house, and take over like I knew what the hell I was doing.
The tap on the window drew my attention.
“Mr. Talbert, I’ve got to go,” yelled Mrs. Wilbourn. “You okay?”
“Yes.” I didn’t look up. “I’m fine.”
I got out of the car.
“Before you go in, I need to tell you what happened. It’s nothing terribly bad, but Christian, well, you know how she can be, sir. She discovered that small rip in the couch. You know the one she cut Monday with the kitchen knife?”
“Well, she dug her finger into the hole and before I knew it she had ripped it even more. Pulled most of the stuffing out.”
I closed my eyes, massaged my temples again.
“You sure you’re okay, sir?” Mrs. Wilbourn clutched her black patent leather purse like I might snatch it from her. Thread balls clung to the purple and yellow polyester material of her faded jogging suit.
“Just a headache.”
“I tried to get her cleaned up, but--.”
“That’s okay, Mrs. Wilbourn.”
She started for her car and stopped. “You understand why I can’t come everyday, don’t you? It’s just that Christian is more that an old woman like me can handle.”
Her Skylark skidded off, the worn out muffler wailing through the neighborhood.
My house looked majestic with its six round columns holding up the front porch where there were white rocking chairs and ceiling fans. I imagined Abigail and me sitting together in the late afternoon, and …
We’d never done that. Never. And I realized the cozy setting Abigail had set up so meticulously for the world to see had always been a lie.
As I checked the mailbox, two words sneered at me: The Talberts. Abigail had painted the letters in bright green and planted the vine of yellow flowers that now entwined both pole and box. Bees fluttered and buzzed around the trumpet shaped blooms, but I didn’t pull back. They could sting me no worse than I’d already been stung.
I glanced up at the house, sighed again. I was afraid to face my own child, fearing that she might beat her head against the tile floor or pull out her hair until she got her way. Abigail told me how Christian did that sometimes.
Or was it sometimes?
“How in the hell would you know anything about our daughter?” Abigail had said. “You’re never home.”
I had answered with, “Someone’s got to pay the bills. It takes money for tutoring, private school, and doctors for Christian.”
At that point, she said, “I’m leaving you.”
I had smirked. “And how will you make it, Abigail? How can you take care of Christian on your own?”
I felt a sudden chill in my bones, the kind that strikes the morning after an all-night drunk when you replay in your mind everything you said and did to someone you really cared about.
“I’m not taking Christian with me. She’s had enough of her mother. She needs her father now.”
She had to be bluffing. Abigail would never leave her daughter with me. Her daughter. That’s how I’d always thought of Christian and I found myself coming home later and later, hoping she’d be asleep, that I wouldn’t walk in on another crisis. I was tired, for God’s sake. I had worked all day. I needed some peace and quiet. Was that too much to ask?
I opened the front door. The television shouted in the den; radio shouting back from the kitchen. As I stepped into the foyer, my shoes stuck to something red on the floor. Blood? I smelled burned popcorn just before the smoke alarm pealed into action.
“What the… Christian! Christian!”
She didn’t answer.
I dashed into the kitchen, flipped the alarm off. The countertops looked like a beach of red sand. Two Strawberry Kool-Aid packages were crumpled on the floor.
At the doorway into the study, I stopped, my insides heated up like silvery charcoal on a grill. She sat motionless at the computer, the lighted screen illuminating her.
She spun around, her brow furrowed like her mother’s, face and arms and shirt Kool-Aid red.
“Who made this mess?”
“What mess?” She gazed around.
“Clean it up.”
“I didn’t do it.”
I stared at her, almost believing, then asked myself, “Who else would’ve done it, you idiot?”
“That’s a lie, Christian. Now, clean it up.”
She screamed, not an ordinary scream, but like someone was ripping her heart out.
“Stop it,” I said.
She screamed louder.
I grabbed her shoulders. “Stop it. Now.”
Her eyes widened as she peered up through tangled hair. “I want Mama. Mama! I want Mama.”
“Everything’s going to be…”
She cried louder.
Her arms flailed. Her legs kicked. I left the room and shut the door. In the kitchen, Kool Aid crunched beneath my feet. I filled a glass with water, drank to soothe a dry throat that was going to be as dry as Arizona before the night was over.
I slowly opened the door to the study. Christian lay sobbing on the floor, candy wrappers, Fruit Loops, Barbies and paper dolls strewn about her. Her chest heaved from crying.
“Leave me alone.”
“Hon, your mother won’t be coming home—“
“Why didn’t she take me? Why did she leave me here? With you?”
“She—she just needs some time, a vacation.”
“She’s never coming home. Never. She hates me. Like she hates you.”
Her words were aimed like a bowling ball and I was the last pin standing. She had perfect aim.
“Why do you say that?”
Strands stuck to her red, wet face; snot ran from her nose. I pulled a handkerchief from my pocket, but her dirty hand was already doing the job. A bad job. I stuck the handkerchief back into my pocket as she wiped her snotty hand off on the carpet.
“She was talking to the air.” Christian’s voice was deep from crying.
“I snuck out of bed to spy on her. She was walking back and forth like she’s in a race by herself. She was saying, ‘I’m so sick of him.’” Christian stared up at me. “She was talking about you, Daddy.”
I felt that stirring in my chest again.
“Then Mama said, ‘I hate that son-of-a-bitch.” Christian waited for me to chide her, but I didn’t. “We had gone for my checkup for my Tension Devisit problem.”
“Whatever,” she said. “After we came home, I flushed my toothbrush. Mama didn’t even try to get it out. She slammed her door and started yelling, ‘I can’t do this anymore’.” Christian hung her head. “She hates me, too.”
I considered a stiff scotch, but instead I reached out to Christian liked this was something I did all the time. She pulled away and I didn’t blame her. I would’ve done the same thing.
To sort things out in my mind, I began cleaning up the kitchen. “Have you finished your homework?” I called out to Christian, who was now in the den watching TV.
“Thank God,” I uttered and opened the refrigerator to find something for supper. I’d run the vacuum after we ate. Could you vacuum tile? The refrigerator bulb was still out, one of the many things Abigail had asked me to do. I noticed how clean and neat the refrigerator was, the lettuce washed and stored in a Zip-lock bag, orange snack drinks with smiley faces stacked nicely beside cups of chocolate pudding.
“Come eat, Christian.”
Her steps drummed onto the crunchy tile and stopped beside me. She scowled at her sandwich. “Yuck. I hate that.”
“That. It makes me throw-up.”
“It does not.”
“Does, too. I won’t eat it.”
“I won’t. I won’t.”
“I hate it.”
“Shut up, for god’s sake!”
Christian’s lips quivered and her mother's dimples appeared in her stubborn chin.
“I shouldn’t have said that.”
“I want Mama.”
“How about a peanut butter and jelly?”
“Mama. I want Mama.”
She snuffled. “No milk.”
Fruit Loops clattered into the bowl as I poured. I popped an orange one into my mouth. With a plate of turkey sandwich and chips, I sat at the table beside my daughter.
“So,” I began, not knowing how to converse with a hyperactive kid, or any kid for that matter? “What did you have for homework?”
“I don’t know.”
“Didn’t you finish it?”
“Christian, don’t lie to Daddy.”
“I don’t understand it.”
I held the turkey sandwich from my mouth as if it might bite back. “After we eat, I’ll help you.”
The crunch of Fruit Loops answered me.
At nine-thirty, we were still lying on the floor doing math, bare feet kicking the air behind us.
“You have to borrow from the tens before you can subtract from the ones.”
“That’s not how Mama does it.”
“How does she do it?”
“I don’t know, but that’s not how.” Christian picked a Fruit Loop off the carpet and ate it.
“That was dirty.”
“Yes… Never mind.”
“You still have four problems.”
“Can’t we finish in the morning?”
Her eyes were red and crumbs stuck to her hands. Her homework sheet was crumpled and stained.
“Alright. Let’s wash up. I’ll start the water.”
In the bathroom, I ran water into the sink until it was warm.
“Okay, Christian! Come on.” The warmth of the water made me long for a long, hot shower myself. “Christian?”
I found her asleep on her back, hands clasped behind her head, puddles of spit in each corner of her red-tinted mouth. My shadow buried her and the sight struck as truth often does—hard and too real.
I placed her on her unmade bed, pushed stuffed animals and hardcover books she had scribbled in onto the floor. Her breaths were quiet, the expression on her face soft and already somewhat rested. I stroked her hair and touched a hardened blob of gum by her ear. It’d have to keep until tomorrow. Pink fingernail polish spotted the silky yellow comforter I pulled up to her chin. I bent down, kissed my daughter's cheek, felt the tears rising in my throat.
The journey from her room to mine felt long and arduous, like her little girl fears were pulling on my two legs so I wouldn’t leave her, too. Blue and red crayon marks drawn at the height of my knees led me down the hall. Blue and red. My favorite colors.
I tossed my wrinkled shirt on the chair. The blinds were closed and I noticed five metal slats bent in the middle as if someone had pulled unmercifully on them. Was there anything in this house Christian had not yet defaced? But the bent slats were too high for Christian to reach. I walked over, pulled the cord, but it was broken and wouldn’t open the blinds. I touched the bent slats as if to comfort them, my fingers slipping down each one intimately.
How many times had Abigail peered out at passing cars, hoping one was me, and then cursing me because it wasn’t? I tried to imagine what she must have felt, but you can’t feel someone else’s despair. You can only feel your own.
I lay down and closed my eyes. Abigail appeared as I’d last seen her, determined, beautiful beyond description. I grabbed her pillow and pulled it to me, realizing how long it had been since I’d done that to her.
“Abigail,” I moaned.
The bed stirred and I smelled something sweet.
Two sticky hands grabbed my face and I looked up into my daughter’s eyes.
“Christian.” I whispered.
She lay down on her mother’s side, wrapped her arms around me, and said, “I’m here, Daddy.”