A frizzy dyed red-head leaned on the counter examining the other customers, her heavy breasts nearly touching the sticky surface. The nipples under her thin white tee-shirt protruded like little buttons just begging to be pushed. Something in my look must have signaled disapproval and distaste. She stared hard and tightened the muscles on her face, projecting a "screw you" attitude.
This was not the kind of neighborhood I frequented. The donut shop seemed the safest place to sit while I waited for my father to arrive. This would be our first meeting since the accident that killed my mother. That was forty years ago. I was two and tightly strapped in my car seat. It was the only thing my parents had done right. Both had been drinking and doping.
Lionel, my father, had a concussion and a few broken bones. When he mended enough he went to jail. I don't know for how long, but when I was seven his parole officer came to my grandparents' house looking for him. He had not reported for three weeks. No one had heard from him, not that my grandparents would have told me. They had written off their daughter and son-in-law when my mother ran off with Lionel. His only family consisted of an older brother, as righteous as Lionel was feckless. George knew nothing and didn't care to know. Lionel and Mary Ann were not mentioned after that, and my rare inquiries while growing up were met with anger and a stock answer.
"They aren't worth thinking about. Forget your parents. They're not a part of your life."
That was a blank area, parental love. I got what I needed from my grandparents who did the best they could. Neither luxury nor penury, just a modest, God-fearing up-bringing with the usual childhood pleasures and traumas of growing up. I put myself through college, became a kindergarten teacher, married Hank, another teacher, had three children and became a suburban mom. Happy, loved and content.
After my grandparents died I found in their papers the name and a 20 year old address of Lionel's brother, George. I saved it. Perhaps it was an incipient desire to contact him someday. Eight years after finding the address I pulled it out of my scrap box of generally useless information. A feel-good news story of parents meeting the children they gave up for adoption was the catalyst.
"You'll probably be disappointed in your search," Hank said. "The trail is too cold. And, if you do find him? Then what?"
"I don't expect a hearts and flowers reunion. Just…"
"What? Some kind of closure on that part of your life?"
"I hate that word," I snapped. "That part of my life was closed when he had the accident and never once tried to contact my grandparents." I took a deep breath, again feeling the hollowness always evident as a child on Mother's Day and Father's Day, at school events when I was the only child with an old grandparent, not a young mom or dad. "I don't really know," I said, softening my tone. "Maybe that part was never fully closed. Maybe it's curiosity. Maybe it's to tell him what I really feel about him."
Hank didn't ask how I felt. I wasn't sure. Anger, yes. During my teenage years I was angry. As a young child, sad and confused. As an adult, numb to all feelings. At least, that's what I told myself. He was a non-presence.
It was 2:30, the time we agreed to meet. He said he lived and worked nearby, in a brewery, in the packing section of the plant. I could only guess what he would look like. A picture found amongst my grandparents' papers showed a tall, fair young man with long blonde hair tied in a ponytail. Tie-dyed shirt, frayed jeans and sandals completed the sixties look. My mother was wearing a long gingham granny dress and carrying a bunch of wild flowers or weeds. I couldn't make out which. Her honey colored hair was draped over her shoulders. They smiled broadly at the camera. Lionel had one hand above Mary Ann's head. His fingers formed the peace sign. Poster children for the hippie generation.
At 2:40 a thin, slightly stooped old man walked in. His eyes shifted from left to right and settled on me. He stood there at the entrance for so long I didn't think he was going to go any further. I was not going to go to him. I had already come this far. This meeting had been arranged through letters. I hadn't trusted myself to talk to him over the telephone. It would have been too easy for either of us to cut short the call and hang up.
"Hi," he said, his hands hanging at his sides. "Do we shake hands or what?"
When I didn't answer he looked at the empty chair opposite me. I nodded for him to sit. He brushed back his few remaining strands of hair, sat down, but suddenly got up. "Want more coffee? A donut?"
By my computation he must have been 67 or 68, but he walked as if he were 80.
"You look like your mother," he said, sitting down again, the coffee held firmly in both hands. They looked to be trembling. Or maybe it was just the heat of the cup. "Yeah, you sure look like her, but older than when she... when she..." He shook his head as if he disbelieved the resemblance. I had noticed it immediately when I had seen the old photo years before. Maybe that was the reason I wanted to visit the past, to connect with the man who had known and loved a woman who looked so much like I did we could have been mistaken for the same person had we lived at the same time.
"So George told you where I was. He'd be easy to find. My solid, respectable brother. I'm surprised he didn't toss out my address when I sent it to him."
"I was surprised myself that hehad your address. I didn't expect to find you after so many years."
Lionel sipped his coffee, both his hands still on the cup. His hands were thin, vein-ridged with enlarged knuckles. "I looked him up a few years ago. I got to thinking about dying and no one knowing or caring. Not that George or his family will care, but at least they will know."
"But you didn't want your daughter to know, did you?" I found I was holding my coffee the same way he was to steady my hands. A ripple, like a small electric current was going through me, as if my nerves were vibrating one against the other.
"I didn't know how to find you. And I didn't think you would care." His face had the folded-in look of a neglected dog. No expectations of anything except more suffering.
"I don't care," I said. "This contact is solely curiosity, not concern. To ask you why. Why were you and Mary Ann so irresponsible? You both had a solid, normal upbringing. Why didn't you inquire about me after the accident? "
The donut shop began to get busy. Mostly kids from the high school. The noise level rose several decibels. Lionel leaned across the table as if he were to answer, but drew back, waving a hand in a "never mind" gesture.
"So… you have no answers, and I have no more questions. What you did all these years, if your parole officer found you, whether or not you spent more time in jail. None of this is of any interest to me."
I stood up and began to move toward the door. Lionel followed. Once outside, away from the noise, he touched my arm. Instinctively I recoiled, as if he were contaminated.
"Sorry," he said. "I guess this is good-bye."
His eyes were a deep blue. I imagined my mother falling in love with those eyes. He blinked and squinted against the late afternoon sun. I stepped a few inches to the right to block the sun from his face. A small kindness I would automatically perform for anyone, but he gave an appreciative nod. His hand hung out there ready to shake mine. I shook it quickly, his fingers gripping mine, feeling like sandpaper.
"Would you want to know when I'm dead? I'll ask George to tell you."
His voice, so matter-of-fact. So casual about his death, no more emotion then if we were discussing a new phone number. There was a quickened beat in my chest. Why would his death, sudden or slow, now or later, cause me concern?
"Do you expect to die soon? Are you ill?"
"Not ill specifically. Just old before my time. Slowing down to where I'm almost standing still."
"But you work in a packing plant. Isn't that hard?"
"A janitor. Old man's work, and in my case, a favor from a friend"
So, Lionel had friends. I had wondered. His brother indicated that Lionel was a loner, not the good-time, sound-off iconoclast of his youth.
"Yes," I said, after a pause. "George can tell me."
We each took a step backward. There was an unseen pressure between us keeping us apart and another blocking our retreat. The neighborhood moved into its night-time mode. Bars lighted up, music blared, cars honked as harried workers drove home. Families showed up at McDonald's, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Wendy's. A professional girl, in a short red satin dress, strutted in four inch heels back and forth across the street. A bit early, I thought.
"Georgia","serif"">She waved. I swiveled around to see at whom, but realized the wave was for Lionel. He gave her an unenthusiastic wave in return, his face going red.
"She lives downstairs from me. She's a friend. I don't…I mean I don't know her…"
"You mean you don't know her professionally." It was difficult to keep my voice normal. I was amused at his embarrassment, then immediately felt contrite.
"Yeah…That's what I mean."
Suddenly, we both grinned. Something was released. The pressure between us loosened. "Do you drive?" I asked. "Can we meet someplace else?"
"No, I don't drive anymore, but I'll take the bus anywhere."
"How about next Saturday at the pavilion on the town green? At noon? Is that O.K.?"
"Thanks, Maggie. I wanted…all those years ago I wanted…" Again that "never-mind" sweep of his hand. "It'll keep."
"Sure," I said as we both
turned, he toward his apartment and I toward my car. "After all these years, it'll keep for a
few more days."
BIO: Adelaide B. Shaw lives in a small rural community in New York State. Her stories have been published in several literary journals, including The Toronto Star and The Writer's Journal, both contest winners, American Literary Review, Green's Magazine, Sunscripts, The Villager, Reader's Break, Dogwood Tales, Housewife Writers' Forum, New England Writers' Network, Emrys Journal, The MacGuffin, Griffin, The Country and Abroad and in Loch Raven Review In addition to writing fiction, Adelaide writes haiku and other Japanese poetic forms, such as tanka and haibun. Her collection of haiku, An Unknown Road is available at www.modernenglishtankapress.com