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July 04, 2022

The Duke of Broad Street 2

By Mitchell Waldman

So, how'd your date with Joffrey go?" Rona asked, sipping her cup of raspberry double mocha latte, and with a quick jerk of her head, flipping a long, dangling curl out of her face.

"Oh, all right," Natalie said, staring down at her apple tart, trying something different for a change. "He's no Vincent Van Gogh or anything."

"Huh? You mean like he wouldn't cut an ear off for you or something like that?"

"Something like that. But there was something funny. I didn't tell you about this. This guy. I saw him when I went to lunch with Douglas the other day."

"Oh, yeah?" Rona said with a smile.

"No, Rona," she said, shaking her head. "It wasn't like that. He was ... a bum.

And then there he was, last night in a doorway, smoking a cigarette, just staring at us."

"Creepy."

"Yeah, I know," she said, staring down at her cappucino, looking for her reflection in its caramel-colored surface, but it was nowhere to be found.

* * *

He showed up at her door one rainy Sunday morning. She was stepping outside in her robe to pick up the paper. She didn't expect to find him sitting there on the sidewalk, back against the bricked wall, his tattered blue-jeaned legs stretched out on the grass, smoking a butt like it was no one's business. Right next to her "Welcome" doormat with the rubber daisy in the corner. She hesitated for a moment upon seeing him. He looked over and jerked to his feet, then, on second thought, reached back down to pick up the paper, and offered it to her. She stood there looking at him, moving her hand back to her robe, making sure it was securely shut.

He stood there, smiling a crooked smile and narrowing his eyes at her in what she perceived to be a lewd manner.

"Whatssamatter? What are you afraid of? I got your paper for ya'. Don't ya' want it? It's a perfectly good paper."

"To be honest, you scared me. You look so ... dangerous." She was sorry the moment the words left her lips but there was no taking them back.

He laughed for an instant, then stopped, looking right at her seriously with his dark eyes.

"I am dangerous," he said, puffing the cigarette out the side of his crooked smile. "But I'm also your father."

She stood there stunned, as he pushed open the door and walked right by her into her apartment, and sat down on the couch.

"Got anything to drink? Preferably hot? It's a bitch being outdoors in the rain. You know. Cold rain, down on my head, I am all alone? Crosby Stills and Nash? Great song. Fucked up bunch of guys, but great song."

She just stared at him with her eyes wide open.

"You're my father."

"So-called. Not much of one I've been, I know. Sorry about that. Haven't been in much shape to be much of anything the last fifteen years or so. Do you got some beer or wine, or something?"

She stood in front of the coffee table with her arms crossed in front of her. "How do I know you're my father, and not just some ... some guy saying he is?"

"Oh, I'm him okay. Maggie told me about you. I called her up. On the telephone. She told me you was here. And if you need more proof, you have a tiny little oval-shaped birthmark on your left butt cheek. How would I know that if I weren't right there when you popped out?" He stretched his leg out, laid it across the coffee table, like it belonged to him. "And, have you looked in the mirror lately? That oughta tip you off right there."

She sighed, staring at the man, finding it hard to believe that he was her father. Not even remembering what her father looked like. This man could be anyone, some hustler looking for a free meal, a place to stay. She was trying to remain calm. Maybe if she closed her eyes, if she didn't say a word, he might just go away.

"Maggie told me about you, really. Your mother. Sorry about that twenty you gave me. I'll get it back to you. Amazing girl you must be, givin' twenties out to bums like me. You didn't even know, did you? You had no idea."

"You knew it was me?"

He pulled a torn, faded wallet out of his back pocket and pulled out a photo which he placed in Natalie's hand.

"I been carrying this around a few years. Your ma' sent it to me a while back. Looks just like you, don't it? Only you're much prettier now," he said with a crooked smile, before taking the photo back and placing it back in his tattered billfold.

"I meant to bring it back to ya', that twenty, or at least a piece of it, but it goes so fast when you got nothin'. You understand." He shoved the wallet into his back pocket. Although lookin' at you good, maybe you don't. You don't look like someone who's missed a meal lately."

"Well, thanks a lot!" she screamed. She'd meant to keep her composure, keep the mask on, but she couldn't help it now. He was like a needle clumsily looking for a vein to pierce.

"No, I don't mean it like that. Not that you're fat or anything. You see why I am the way I am. Got no sense anymore. If I had a shoe worth putting on first thing I'd do would be to stick it in my mouth. I'm just a dumb slug."

"Julius. You're name's Julius, is that right?"

"Yeah," the man said. "Sometimes they call me Julie, but I don't like it much, don't like being called by a girl's name."

"And my mother gave you my address?"

"Well, not exactly. She told me about you. I looked you up in the phone book."

"So, what do you want?" She was stepping back toward the kitchen, closer to the phone.

"What, you're not glad to see your old Papa? I thought I asked you if you had a beer? What kind of hospitality is this? It's like an old family reunion."

She stared at the man for a second, then exploded. "Reunion! Give me a break. You leave my mother when I'm two and I never even see you again until now. And now you just decide to drop in and say hi, how about a beer?"

"And, that's a problem? Wanting to get to know my daughter after all these years? Regretting all the shit I've done and been through? I thought they said it was never too late?"

"Who said that?"

"They. You know 'they,' meaning the ones that ain't me. Obviously. Haven't been one of they for a long time. Was one once. For a short time. Had a real life, real job, real kid. A few of them, in fact. Different lives, different jobs, different kids. It was like another lifetime ago."

"You have other kids?"

He laughed, looked up at her, past her. "You don't know the half of it sweetcakes, what a fuck-up your old man is. Left seed here and there, not quite sure where anymore."

"Oh," she said, crossing her arms in front of her. "So, is that what it is? You wanted to see what your seeds sprouted into. That's all I am to you?"

"No, no, Natalie, you got me all wrong. I wanted to see you, to see ... ah, what's the point. You can't go back to the place you fucked up so bad in the past. I should know that." He was sitting on the edge of the couch now, his head in his hand, rubbing his temples with his left hand.

She took a step closer to him, but stopped, watching him, wondering who he was, what he was doing here after so long, this stranger sitting on her couch.

"I just want you to know one thing, l'il girl," he said not lifting his head from his hand, but stretching right arm out, pointing at her without looking at her. "You were the first one I tried to find. My first born daughter. My first major screw up."

"Oh, so I'm a screw up? Is that what you're telling me?"

"No, no, Natalie, cut me some slack. I'm the screw up, everyone knows that. That's a given. My screw up was running away from you and your mom. Running scared, that's what it was. I wasn't ready for that, for a family, responsibilities like that, maybe never was, never would be. Tried it again elsewhere. In San Diego, Austin, Baton Rouge. But it never seemed to pan out. God made me broken. Missing something. The pieces it took to be a good man, a good husband, a good father." He looked up at her now, his eyes red and she could see how sad a man, how broken he really was. He'd given up on himself, just like everyone else had. She almost felt sympathy for him, for this man who had made her mother so miserable and, to a lesser extent, in the vacuum left in his wake, had made her miserable. What did she owe him after all, after all these years? Nothing, not a thing. He was the one who left when she was just a baby. He was the one who'd never sent her a letter, who was the one missing at her birthday parties, at Christmastime when fathers should have been around, he was the face in the frame in the hallway that eventually disappeared. She didn't know where it went. For years her mother thought he'd be coming back. But finally, when Natalie was about twelve years old, the picture had disappeared once and for all and his name was never mentioned again in their house.

And now, after all this time, after the wounds had healed as best they could, what right did he have to come back and tear them open again? Why was this something that was up to him, for him to control? She didn't have to let him come back, to be here talking to her. He'd been so thoughtless and heartless to let them take him for dead all those years, why should she give him an ear, or even the time of day? He couldn't make her feel anything now. She was a wall, she was a rock.

"So what was it that screwed you up so bad?" she said, walking back to the kitchen. She needed something, some coffee or something to wake her up from this nightmare. "Was it booze, drugs, a combination?"

"I dunno, both I guess. It became a habit. Sometimes you get in these loops and you can never get out of them. Not alive anyway."

"Loops."

"Yeah, loops. Why ya think I'm fruit loops?"

"Drugs, alcohol. You just gave up."

"Yeah. Gave up. When you lose something, when you lose everything, your family, your job, your dreams, what do you have to live for? Only I've never had the courage to put an end to it properly, y'know?" He was sitting on the couch now, his head in his hands. He was sniffling like he was crying, but she wasn't sure. She couldn't see his face.

"And what about me? You know how long I cried? But I gave up, finally, thought, I don't need that, I'm never going to have that. I had to go on. That old thing about someone being dead to someone, well, you were, you are. You think you can just waltz back into my life after all this time, just like that? When you were so heartless, so cruel? You know you've got a lot of nerve. You didn't lose anything! I was a baby, a goddamned infant and you just up and walk away like I was an old shoe or something! Never writing, never calling, never nothing! Like I was never on your mind at all, like something you conveniently, almost thankfully forgot. You couldn't handle the responsibility. Boo hoo. Make me cry. Just think of your little infant daughter crying, and growing up alone, wondering who her father was, where her father was, and why she didn't have a father to play with to sing her to sleep at night, to do ... to do ... all those things that fathers are supposed to do with their daughters. You didn't lose anything. You chose to lose Mom and me. That was your decision."

He looked up suddenly, staring at her with his dark eyes. His face shone with tears. "You're angry. And I don't blame you. You have a right to be."

"Goddamn, you're a psychologist and a lawyer, too! See what we missed all these years of you not being here? You're goddamned right I'm angry. You took away something, a lot. You took away my childhood. Because maybe you're right, maybe you are a loser. But not because of what people think about you, but because of how you are. You're so selfish and cruel! How could you leave your baby daughter! What kind of man are you? It's not that you're no good as a father, as person, whatever. It's that you made yourself that way by what you've done.

"I told you I'm no good!"

She walked into the room and couldn't contain herself. She stood right in front of him, feeling the fury building inside of her and getting ready to escape. "That's bullshit, my God, that's so much bullshit! That's a fucking excuse for what you did to other people. You cry about it all the time I bet, what you did to us, to your other wives and children, don't you. You're so weak and helpless. Bullshit. You are what you do in this world, you make yourself what you are by your actions. By running away and not facing your life, you're nothing but a coward. Why didn't you do something about it ever! Why?"

She couldn't help herself. She broke down then, put her hands up to her face to cover the tears.

She felt his hand on her and jerked away and looked through her wall of tears at him and shouted. "Get out of here! Get out of here now! Why did you follow me, why did you come here today! Get out! I never want to see you again!"

He stood there, looking at her, a foot away from her, his face a stone. A sad stone, to be sure, but a stone.

He turned then and walked slowly toward the door. She stood there, not saying a word, watching him walk, watching his back as he pulled open the door, went through the doorway, and closed the door gently behind him, not saying anything either, not looking back at her.

And then there was silence, like he hadn't just been there in her living room. Like he'd never been at all.

She called her mother, who told her, "I didn't give him your address. He called me, that's all."

"What did you tell him about me?"

"Nothing. I told him you lived here in town. I figured you were adult enough now to deal with him. Not that I wasn't worried about it, about how you would react to seeing him. I should have called you and warned you."

"Mom, he told me he was dangerous. And, to be honest, he scared me a little."

"I'm sorry, Honey. I'm sorry he came to see you. I'm sorry he upset you, but, believe me, he's no danger, not physically anyway, to anyone but himself. He likes to put on that hard ass, I'm tough, rebel crap. Dangerous, yeah, like a bad movie or yogurt that's curdled. It might make you a little queasy, sick to your stomach, but truth is he's just a little boy pretending. It makes him feel like something to be bad. To be a rebel. He never really grew up, that's his problem."

"Did he come see you?" Natalie asked.

"Yes. Last night. Even though I told him not to."

"What did he want?"

"Want? I have no idea what he wanted. He told me how sorry he was. Like I hadn't heard that before. A hundred times. A thousand times."

"What's he doing here?"

"What's he do anywhere? I don't know. This is the first time I've seen or heard from him since you were a baby. Something must be going on, though. I don't know what. It's got to be more than wanting money. He talked about wanting to change. What a laugh."

"Why?"

"Him change, after all these years? Being a bum is all he knows. It's what he is now."

"So, you don't think someone can change?"

"Someone, maybe. But not him. Once a drunk always a drunk. That's what your grandmother always said. She never did like Julie much."

"Julie."

"What?"

"Nothing. It's just ... you called him Julie. Even though he never liked that name."

"And ..."

"And nothing. I was just remembering that."

"O-kay. So what did you do? What did he say to you? What did you say to him?"

"I basically told him to go to hell. Oh, Mom, I blew it."

"Why? Because you were angry with him for never being there for you, for never even having the courtesy to let you know him, or if he was even alive? I don't think you blew anything, Hon. The man's a blight. A blight on everything he touches. You're the only good thing that ever came from that man. At least with me."

"But Mom, after twenty-two years my father shows up at my doorstep and what the hell do I do? I throw him out. You know how long I wondered about him, about who he is, where he is, if I'm like him."

"Don't worry, Baby. You're nothing like him."

"But Mom. What if he doesn't come back? What if I never see him again?"

"It'll be his loss, Darling, believe me. That man's nothing but trouble. Harmless, maybe, but still trouble. Everything he touches turns to shit."

The next afternoon she went to lunch alone, telling Douglas that she had some shopping to do and wouldn't have time for lunch. Shrugging off his requests to tag along, like waving off a fly.

She wasn't even hungry, anyway.

She walked down the sidewalk as she normally did, but slowed down when she got to the corner where he'd been the day before. All that was in the spot where he'd been was a brown paper bag with some sort of bottle in it. She crouched down and reached tentatively for the bag, opened it up around the neck of the bottle. She carefully peeled the brown paper away from the neck of the bottle to reveal the contents. It was a bottle of MD 20/20, something she remembered from college that her roommates and her had drunk once -- never again after that. It had stained the floor and destroyed her Sunday morning, she remembered that, one of the worst hangovers she'd ever had. And the nickname of the wine came back to her then: They called it "Mad Dog." A fitting drink for her father, not that she could be certain this had been his. She gently lay the bottle back down in the spot where it had been.

She stood up and peered around the corner, expecting to see his gap-toothed smile, expecting him to jump out and say "Surprise!" like she was a girl again, like he was her father, a father, again. Closing her eyes, imagining she was seven years old, the birthday that he'd had written to her about, that he had promised to come see her at. But he had never shown up. And when she opened her eyes there was nothing there, a sidewalk full of people she didn't know walking away from her and toward her, but not him, not the father she didn't know.

It went on for a week, then two. She searched for him on her walks to lunch, turned around suddenly when she was walking in the city, thinking she saw him in a doorway, behind a tree, just out of sight. Was it her mind playing tricks on her or had she lost him for good?

He finally showed up again at her doorstep one morning as she was leaving for work. She opened the door and there he was, standing there, looking totally defeated, like the all-time loser of the world, blood was caked on his chin, one eye was puffy and almost closed. His beard was at least a week old, with speckles of red and gray. She was so happy to see him, even if he was in this shape, that she wanted to hug him, but held herself back. She smiled in spite of herself. It was like she was getting a second chance.

"What happened to you?" she asked, crossing her arms in front of her, and trying to place a more serious look on her face, not wanting to give away her sudden buoyant feeling.

"Got rolled for half a bottle of wine and a five dollar bill. They smashed my guitar to pieces, too."

"Who. Who's they?"

"Punks. Young punks. One had green hair and twenty piercings all over his face and the other had pink hair, the eyes of an animal." She wasn't ready for what happened then. She wasn't ready for this poor, broken soul, who just happened to be her father, to fall to his muddied knees and wrap his arms around her legs, and start blubbering, his scratchy cheek hugging her legs.

"Please, please, you gotta help me. I can't do this anymore. I know you don't owe me anything, you probably hate me, and with good reason, but I can't do this anymore."

Any hardness, any resistance she had for him then broke away. She put her hand gently on his back then and tested, stroking his curved back through the fabric of his red and black checked flannel shirt. Then she bent down and put her hands under his armpits.

"Come on," she said, and started pulling him up to her. "Come on inside and rest."

She called in sick that day, and sat in a chair, watching this stranger, this man, her father, sleep on the couch for half the day. Then she fed him, let him borrow a razor, and led him soak in the tub for almost half an hour, listening outside the door quietly as his soft, mouse-like moans came like whispers of peace through the door.

Part Two of Three

Article © Mitchell Waldman. All rights reserved.
Published on 2011-01-24
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