Nathan Storm had been one of the fortunate few who owned a gold mine that actually produced gold. In fact, it produced enough to make him a moderately wealthy man, wealthy enough to pay his miners well and still make more than a modest profit. He didn't live much larger than life, though, and thus was able to retire at age fifty to spend the rest of his time on this world traveling and exploring the country with his wife, Beth. In 1980, he sold the mine for a fantastic sum -- the price of gold had gone through the roof -- and socked the money away, much to the delight of Emily's husband, Mark.
Mark just loved Emily's parents from the first time he met them. Beth was his ideal of womanhood: patient, pretty, modest, soft spoken, faithful, industrious, and a good cook besides. And frugal, too, but not stingy. The virtues that fueled Mark's affection for his father-in-law were threefold: Nathan loved his daughter, possessed a good bit of wealth, and had not produced any other heirs.
When they were first married, Emily was charmed by Mark's obvious regard for her father. Mark praised him highly as a man of vision, a man who set high standards and lived up to them, a man whose entrepreneurial skill was unsurpassed. He encouraged frequent visits, and always had Nathan's favorite drinks on hand. If Emily and her father disagreed on a subject, Mark always took her father's side. The transition from Emily Storm to Emily Fatzer was smoothed considerably by Mark's devotion to her mother as well. He sent her flowers and small gifts on her birthdays and holidays, leaped to open doors for her when they visited, stood behind her chair to seat her and help her rise from the table.
All that changed with the death of Emily's mother in 1994, after an illness which wore on for four painful years and weighed heavily on the spirits of her family. She was courageous and gracious to the very last breath, and Emily thought that her mother might very well be a candidate for sainthood. Mark agreed, and told Emily that her father was also a paragon for taking such gentle and loving care of his dying wife. No one could imagine that Nathan Storm would ever get over her death.
Except Nathan himself, who began seeing other women less than six months later, to Emily's horror and Mark's outrage. "Daddy, I can't believe you're doing this!" Emily said to her father one weekend when he had declined her invitation to spend the weekend with them in favor of flying to Las Vegas in the company of a dubiously nice lady named Martina Kraznaya whom he had met only a few days before at an Indian casino. Nathan's answer to Emily's comment was a succinct, "Angel, if you want, you're more than welcome to mind your own business." Emily cried, Mark cursed, and Nathan, by his own later account, had a marvelous time, winning at the tables and being greatly entertained by Ms. Kraznaya.
It was the end of Mark's good relationship with his father-in-law. In his opinion, Nathan had turned out to be a hypocrite, a drunkard, a faithless hound, a profligate. And a short time later, an idiot who had lost his mind completely when he began to date a flashy younger woman, a woman only two years older than his own daughter.
Middi was everything that his late wife was not: bosomy, loud, vulgar and a spendthrift. Middi loved jewelry, and Nathan lavished it on her, with gold from his own mine mixed with the exotic jewels of the African continent. Middi hated the mountains, and so Nathan bought her a house in Santa Cruz with a view of the ocean. Middi was not welcome in Emily and Mark's house, so Nathan simply stopped coming to visit them at all.
When Nathan had introduced Middi to Emily initially, Emily was cool but polite. However, upon learning that her father planned to wed the red-headed usurper, Emily stopped speaking to her father for three months, refusing to return his calls or reply to his letters.
Mark was the one who insisted that she return to communication with her father. "After all," he said, "what if your father comes to his senses? Who has he got to turn to but you? Maybe he just got strung out with grief when your mom died. You don't have to talk to that conniving bitch, but you ought to maintain some contact with him."
That Christmas, Emily replied to the Christmas card he sent to Mark and her with a letter addressed to him, telling him that she loved him and missed him, both of which conditions were true. He responded in turn (with a letter addressed to her) by saying, "You'll either get over it, or you won't. But here's the thing, Emily: she doesn't object to you at all and never runs you down. You're the one slinging mud, not Middi. Now which of you is the nicer person?"
Emily had never said anything unkind about Middi to her father again, choosing to pretend the woman simply didn't exist. Her father, straightforward as he had always been, talked about his life and adventures with Middi at his side as if the rancor simply didn't exist. They had bridged a deep and frightening gulf, the first one that had appeared since her conception in her mother's womb, and their bridge was tenuous, tentative; it was a rickety structure built of frayed rope and thin, splintered boards. Emily provided the shoddy materials; her father brought to the endeavor his skill at management and motivation learned working along side his miners in his youth.
A year passed, then two, and Middi had not murdered the old man in his sleep nor strayed from his bed. Emily had no reason to complain about her father's wife (there was no way she was going to call her a stepmother, for God's sake); Mark did enough speculating and bad-mouthing for them both, and Emily was beginning to tire of hearing how Middi was going to bleed her father's fortune away and leave him a penniless old man.
Early one afternoon the phone had rung, and checking the caller identification, Emily didn't recognize the number. She picked it up on the sixth ring.
"Emily? This is Middi, please don't hang up."
"Your father has appendicitis and we're at the hospital now. They're prepping him for surgery -- do you want to come down here?" Middi's voice was tense.
"Where is he? What hospital?" Emily cried.
"Dominican. Out on Highway 1, take the Soquel Avenue Exit -- it's before you get to Aptos. One five five five Soquel. The doctor says everything's going to be okay, but I'd feel better if you and your husband could be here when he wakes up." The woman's voice caught in a sob. "He's such a tough guy, he didn't even tell me he was in pain until he started getting sick!"
"I'm on my way, Middi, but it's going to take me at least 3 hours to get there, if not four. Tell him I'm on my way!"
Emily had driven as fast as she could without losing control of the car. Mark had a staff meeting after the close of classes, and would only be able to catch up with her later, if there was a crisis of impending death.
Nathan was out of surgery and in a private room by the time Emily arrived in Santa Cruz. When she found her father's room, she peeked around the doorway timidly, to catch sight of the red-haired hussy holding her father's limp hand to her lips, staring at Nathan's face as though she were worshipping the living God. Emily rapped softly on the door jamb.
"You're here!" whispered Middi. "Thank God!" Middi had not offered to hug her or shake her hand, which Emily would have hated at that moment, but only gestured for her to come closer to Nathan's bed. With the lightest of touches and a gentle gesture, she indicated that Emily should sit in the chair by her father. "He's kind of in and out, but the surgeon said his appendix didn't rupture, so he should be just fine. Good thing the old horse is in such good shape." She wiped at her eyes. "He just scared me so much -- you know, he's always on top of things and in control -- and there he was, lying on the bathroom floor with his face looking gray and could hardly talk -- my poor lamb!" She turned away from Emily and muffled sobs into a wad of tissues.
"Hey," whispered Nathan, opening his eyes, though all that could be seen were the whites, his blue irises rolled up in his head. "Stop telling people I was on the floor." He moved his head from side to side, and then blinked, and his eyeballs looked at her. "Angel?"
"Daddy, I'm here," tears spilled out of Emily's eyes as she thought about the time she had spent not speaking to him, and what if he had died and she could never speak to him again, never hear his strong Storm voice? She picked up the hand that Middi had released to her.
"Would you please tell Ms. Mildred to stop blubbering and get me a cool washcloth? I feel like a parboiled side of ribs. What the hell did they do to me?" He freed his hand from Emily's and rubbed it over his forehead. "I feel as hot and greasy as hamburger left in the sun all day Sunday."
Middi ran water in the hospital room's bath until a washcloth was soaked with hot water. "He doesn't need cold, he just thinks he does." She wiped his brow and face gently, and swabbed at Nathan's neck. Then she reheated the cloth in the water, wrung it nearly dry, and ran the cloth over his arms, especially the pit of his elbows. Finally she got a paper towel, wet it with cold water, and wiped Nathan's lips with it, moistening his inner mouth all the way to his gums.
Emily's father sighed and settled, muttering, "Barbecue sauce." His eyes were shut, and his breathing changed as he fell asleep.
Middi and Emily both chuckled weakly. Middi turned to put the washcloth back on the sink, and Emily stood up. When they faced each other again, both faces were wet with tears. When Emily saw Middi's lower lip tremble, her heart was opened like a creaking prison door, and she extended her arms. "I'm sorry," she said, and Middi walked into her embrace, quietly weeping, and hugged her hard.
"He loves you so much," said Middi.
"I love him so much," Emily had countered.
"He counts on that," said the hateful harridan, who was suddenly an ally. "Do you have a motel for the night? No? I can find you one just down the street, if you want. The West Coast Inn, used to be the Dream Inn? Or the Sea and Sand? What about the Ramada, that's right there between the boardwalk and our street?"
Emily was mentally weary, and didn't want to fiddle with reservations and phone calls. "Do you have space on the floor and an extra blanket that I can beg?" she had asked the Other Woman.
"Emily, we have three bedrooms standing empty. You can pick your comfort zone. One of them has a bed, one has a futon bed, the other one is just where we set out Parcheesi or a jigsaw puzzle on the hardwood floor."
"I think I'd like to try the futon, then. Thanks, Middi."