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At What Cost? a Short Story.
Can a regretful father's decision ever be forgiven by the ones he hurt?
Written By J. M. Holmes
Chapter One – A Game of Football
$180,000. That is how much money I saved; that is the amount that I denied her. I punished her with money. And fifteen years is the price I paid.
Over the years I have met quite a few men just like myself; we relied too heavily on our Defensive Tackle and our wives sacked our Quarterback on his blind-side. We didn’t see it coming. Now we are the failed football players of marriage and our contracts have been terminated for poor performance.
I have always wondered what happens to failed football players. Some of them maybe use their college degrees, get a job and find another way to support their families. But most, I think, creep under the bleachers, aching backs and hurt pride putting them on the defensive for the rest of their life. You just never see them again; I suppose neither do their families. But can you blame them? What is a man without his pride? And if he has the opportunity to take another shot at the Offensive Tackle, why wouldn’t he take it?
Lots of us do. We get our chance during the divorce proceedings. We stall, we hide money, we call our wives names. Bitch. We do everything in our power to deny them money. No child support for you bitch. This is your fault, not mine. I didn’t see it coming. So it shouldn’t cost me a cent, it’s all on you. But if the Courts side with her, some of us duck back under the bleachers, sneak off to our cars, drive down to the Florida Keys and don’t come back. And if we don’t see our kids again, well, that’s the bitch’s fault too.
I got to the Keys in January. My daughter Penny was seven when I kissed her forehead for the last time and she giggled when I tickled her tender tummy. I loved that giggle, because it was only when I tickled her that she made that bubbly sound. When my wife did it, Penny would laugh, a light tinkling sound - but no suds – they were all mine. Penny didn’t know that would be the last time I’d kiss her forehead; she didn’t know she wouldn’t see me again, that I wouldn’t see her grow up. I wouldn’t teach her how to ride a bike, or give her driving lessons. I had my own road to follow. I blamed my wife for that.
Chicago was cold that winter I left, the January snow blown into high drifts by the high winds. My heart had also gone cold. The divorce had made me frigid so I drove as far south as I possibly could to warm up. I left everything behind; I didn’t tell my now ex-wife I was reneging on the $1,000 a month I promised the courts I’d pay for child support. I just blew out of the city with the snow at my back. Let her figure it out, it wasn’t my problem anymore.
There was one thing I took with me. A picture of Penny on her seventh birthday, the one with her white-blond curls flying in wisps around her head from the September breeze that was blowing through our backyard that day. The balloons tied to the deck railing behind her bent in the same direction. Her hair was so soft, like the lint my wife would make me take out of the clothes dryer when the trap got plugged.
I still have the photograph; it’s in my hand right now, exactly 15 years from when it was taken. Its corners have frayed from my fingers having rubbed its edges so many times. It feels just like Penny’s hair, soft like lint. It is falling apart, just like the lint did between my fingers when I pulled it out of the clothes dryer trap. Penny fell through my fingers years ago.
The heat of living in the Keys for 15 years must have warmed my heart because I don’t blame my ex-wife for that anymore. At night, when the ocean breeze lifts my bedroom curtains into the air, I see Penny’s blond wisps and I know that it had been my decision to trade my daughter for $180,000. It was not a fair trade, but I didn’t know it at the time.
I’ve lost the need for a Defensive Tackle and I’ve also lost my pride. And what is a man without his pride? Stupid, that’s what. Lonely, in hiding, trapped in his own isolation working under the table so the IRS can’t find him. And frightened. This man is frightened because he wishes every day that he could go back, go back to Chicago, go back to join his daughter’s life again. Frightened because if she doesn’t want him around, then the wishing turns into wish denied. Game over. At least just wishing every day to be with my daughter again means the door is still open, her wanting me around is still possible. But if she didn’t want me around, then the door would be slammed shut.
I’ve been just a shell for 15 years. I see them on the beach every day. Bleached out by the sun, lying lonely and half buried in the sand. Every September 15, on Penny’s birthday, I go out to Bahia Honda Island, to Sandspur Beach to join the other shells; we have a pity party. Shame and regret have turned me into a shell of a man, lying in stasis on the sand, washed up. I’m sitting here in the sand right now, my fingers rubbing the photograph’s corners which feel like Penny’s hair and I’m thinking to myself, this photograph is almost gone. I’ve held it and worried at it with my fingers so many times over the years that most of the color has rubbed off; the protective glossy surface slid off years ago. All I can see now in the picture is some of Penny’s hair, her ear, and a red balloon. What happens when even this image wears off?
I look out over the water, towards the horizon. There is blue water in front of me, and above me the clouds have drifted in front of the sun, shading my view. Looking out at the Atlantic Ocean towards where the water and the sky meet, I can see nothing; it is fuzzy just like my future.
Chapter Two – Penny for your thoughts
Balloons make me angry. I resent them. They are sketchy things because they give you the promise of forever fun, their round shiny surfaces tricking a tickling giggle from your mouth. But you can’t trust them because what they promise is fickle – it is a lie. The truth of the matter is that if you get attached to them, holding on tight to their trailing tethers and trusting them to stay with you, floating behind you, eventually they will hit something rough and burst into nothing.
You’ll turn to look behind you at your beautiful balloon, the one that made you smile, but it will be gone. It will be only remnants of a balloon, small shriveled pieces on the floor, pieces that you must pick up. The flimsy scraps are slimy in your hand from the saliva that was breathed into them. They breathe promise when things are good, but as soon as they hit a rough spot they evaporate, leaving you with only strips of wet rubber and a worthless string that’s no longer attached to anything but broken promises.
As I sit on the bench at Promontory Point with my textbook open on my lap, I am distracted by some sort of children’s event taking place in the park around me. Children are running around everywhere, squawking like the seagulls which gather near the limestone revetment on the shore of Lake Michigan, at the edge of the Point. I watch a balloon seller pull his cart through the park, away from me – good riddance. I’m not buying what you’re selling, mister. I don’t trust you or your balloons. Even if I did trust you, I don’t have the money to buy what you’re selling. I’m broke. The University of Chicago has sucked me dry. I’ve got more student loans than I’ve got hair. But it’s worth it because it will free me. Free me of the crappy public housing my mother and I have had to live in, row houses of hopelessness. Most of the people living in them have given up; the big picture for them is a 34 inch TV.
We don’t belong there, but my mom’s empty bank account says we do. She told me once that my dad liked her being a stay-at-home mom. He liked people to know he could take care of his family. But other than bringing home a paycheck he wasn’t a good husband; he didn’t even try to be. I guess he thought money was enough. My mom’s tears at night were drowned out by the blare of the football games he watched on TV. He prided himself on what a good man he was, even though he wasn’t.
Because when they hit a rough spot, good men don’t take it out on their children, which is what he did when my mother divorced him. Ever since, she’s blamed herself for thinking that a dad who loves his kid would not take that love away when his wife takes hers away from him. She traded an unhappy marriage for a life as a single mother with no child support. It wasn’t a fair trade, but she didn’t know that when you take a man’s pride away, he leaves his responsibilities as a father behind. He punished my mother by starving me.
That is why I am paying my way through University, no matter what the cost. It is mid-September and my last year of school. I’ll need to study hard to make sure I graduate. Once I’ve earned my degree, it can’t be taken away from me; no strings attached. I am gazing out over the blue waters of Lake Michigan, the sound of children’s laughter ringing in my ears. I lower my head down, trying to focus on studying, but my thoughts are still trailing behind the balloon cart. I hope the children in the park don’t get balloons that burst like mine did.
Without a bread-winner, my mother had to get whatever work she could. She went from serving my father dinner to serving strangers in a restaurant. Not much difference except restaurant jobs don’t bring in anywhere near the amount a husband did. Life has been hard, the Salvation Army clothes I’ve had to wear were rough on my skin. But my shell is strong; the roughness of my second-hand clothes has made me resilient. My mother often found it hard to put enough food on the table, but starving sometimes makes you all the more hungry to make your own bread.
With the sound of children’s giggles in my ears, the clouds above me float away to let the sun shine down on my head. The words in my text book become clear, the picture of my future is vivid.
Chapter Three – The time has come
I drove north, away from the Florida Keys. The ocean view of my fuzzy future which matched Penny’s fuzzy photograph scared the crap out of me, so I had no choice but to go north to Chicago, the sun at my back. I left the view and the beach behind; the shells can stay stuck in the sand but I can’t. I’ve decided that wishful thinking is worse than the possibility of wish denied.
When I arrived in Chicago it occurred to me that Penny and my ex-wife might not even live here anymore; they could have moved on. My wife could have remarried, relocated to a better situation than where I had left her and Penny. I couldn’t find her name in the phone book, but I checked her maiden name - I guess she got rid of mine - and found her address.
We used to live in the suburb of Oak Park, west of the city center. Our house was a 1920’s bungalow on Highland Avenue, a tree lined street full of kids on bikes. A couple blocks away from Barrie Park, one of Penny’s favorite things to do was play in that park, or just sit on the bench and breathe in the fresh air. Sometimes I’d take her sledding down its little hill in winter, the sound of her laughter sliding down the hill after her.
But the phone book shows my ex-wife now lives in Washington Park, in a crappy public housing low rise townhouse. That neighborhood is one of the worst in Chicago, it’s always been a rough spot. At first I wondered why she would move there and then it dawned on me that I’m the reason. I had never let her work when we were married, so when I left I suppose she didn’t have many options. I hadn’t thought about that 15 years ago but I’m thinking about it now, too late to see that what I thought wasn’t my problem back then had made it her problem now. And Penny’s.
Like a stalker, I sat in my car outside their house, keeping my windows up and my doors locked, waiting to see if Penny would come out. I did that for three days, alternating days and evenings since I didn’t have any idea what her schedule was. On the third day, Saturday, I saw her. A young woman who used to be my little girl came out onto the crumbled cement step, slamming the door shut behind her, pausing to lock two deadbolts. She had a back-pack slung over her thin shoulder, her blonde hair grazed its strap. Her face had a pinched look, determined like someone far older than her 22 years.
I waited until she had made her way down the path a bit, weaving down the sidewalk to side-step dirty-looking kids on rusty bicycles and pissed off teenagers loitering under the trees, leering at her back as she walked passed them. I got out of my car to follow her, locking it up and hoping those delinquents wouldn’t strip it once I’d turned my back. Penny was headed to the bus stop, joining a small crowd of other people too poor to own a car. I stood on the edge of the group, out of her line of sight, standing behind a middle-aged 250 pound black man who looked like a football player that has spent more time under the bleachers than on the field. I followed her through two bus transfers, heading towards the lake shore, the air getting fresher the further away from Washington Park we got. I followed her off the bus and walked far behind her down South Shore Drive and through the tunnel which passes under Lake Shore Drive at the east end of 55th Street, into Promontory Park.
I could tell she’d been here many times since she walked with purpose, heading towards a bench nearest the shore where she planted herself, slinging her bag onto the bench beside her. I had hung back, watching her progress further down the path, not wanting to get too close but not wanting to lose her either. After staring out at the water for a few minutes, she shook her head slightly to get her hair out of her face which the wind coming off the water had blown there, just like in her photograph. She looked the same, but different. Her hair didn’t look soft anymore and no smile played at her mouth. Her face was resolute as she bent to her back-pack to remove a text book.
For a long time I watched her studying, watched as she occasionally lifted her head to the sun, gazing out at the view of the water. But she never did that for long. The words in the book seemed to be more engrossing to her than the scenery. There were a fair amount of people in the park; it was a warm sunny day. Some strolled past, others sat on benches for a few minutes to enjoy the day. An older lady came and sat on the bench beside Penny to take a rest from her slow shuffle down the path. Penny must have seen her coming through the periphery of her vision because without looking up she reached out an arm to pull the back-pack off the bench grudgingly, putting it underneath her legs to make room for the woman. The woman smiled at Penny, thanking her, and chatted with her for a few minutes as Penny smiled and answered the old lady’s questions politely. At least Washington Park hadn’t made her cold to people.
I thought to myself, that is what I’ll do. When the woman gets up to continue her shuffle around the park, I’ll go sit on that bench beside my daughter. Would she recognize me? My hair had gone white and soft over the last decade, that of it which hadn’t fallen out. I drank too much beer and spent too much time in front of the TV, so the man that stood here at Promontory Point now was fatter and weaker than the lean strong man who had left 15 years ago. If Penny did recognize me, would she be repelled, or indifferent? Waiting for that old lady to move on, I decided I wouldn’t introduce myself to Penny. I’d just sit and make small talk, to test the waters.
Finally the woman cleared off, and I started rushing over to the bench, slowing into a stroll once I got within her sight-line, so she wouldn’t be alarmed at an old man’s quick descent onto the seat next to her. I hovered at the edge of the bench, and asked her whether she minded if I sat there. She looked at me, narrowing her eyes against the sun – or by my appearance – I wasn’t sure which. But she made a brief attempt at a weak smile and nodded her head slightly, turning her attention back down to her book. She obviously didn’t recognize me – why would she?
I sat and looked out at the water silently for a few minutes, not sure what to do next. But it reminded me too much of being stuck in the sand in the Florida Keys so I decided that since she didn’t know the washed up man sitting beside her was her father, I’d just talk to her and see where it led.
“Beautiful day isn’t it?” I said, seeing in my mind’s eye a little girl leaning back on the grass in Barrie Park, face upturned to the sun and saying, ‘Daddy, isn’t it a beautiful day?’ but I had been watching some teenagers throwing a football around so wasn’t paying much attention to her. I had just said, ‘yeah, it’s great’.
Reluctantly looking up at me from her book, a frown making it clear she didn’t appreciate the interruption, she said, “Yeah, it’s great.” And then she immediately looked back down at her book.
“It looks like you’re studying pretty hard there. Are you in college or something?” I asked. Her mother used to help her with homework, but I think she did well in school. I couldn’t remember.
She heaved a big sigh, and said reluctantly, “I’m in my last year at the University of Chicago. It’s going to be a tough year, so I’ve got to study hard.” She pointed down at her book, making it clear that she didn’t want to talk.
“Well, your Dad must be really proud of you, right?” I asked, to see what she might say about me, about her dad. My heart was pounding, my breath became shallow.
Her eyes narrowed at me – not the sun – and she pressed her lips into a tight pucker, as if she had a bitter taste in her mouth. “I don’t have a dad. He ran off when I was seven and left my mom and me poor and alone. So, I don’t give a crap whether he’d be proud or not. Do you mind letting me study now?”
I apologized by nodding my head and looking away, so she wouldn’t see the tears at the corners of my eyes. I hesitated. I was searching my brain for any excuse I could use to keep talking with her despite her obvious contempt for me.
I opened my mouth, to ask her a stupid question, like, “What time is it, do you know?” But then I clamped it shut. Because I already knew what time it was. It was too late…and the cost had been too great.
Copyright 2012 J.M. Holmes
This story is a work of fiction. All characters, places and events were invented by the author or have been used fictitiously. They should not be construed as real. All rights are reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced without the prior written consent of the author.