“Get away from the window. And close those curtains!” Melanie’s words came out harsher than she had intended, and hurriedly she tried to soften her tone. “It’s cold outside, and this house is so drafty. At least the drapes block some of that wind. And I don’t want you to get sick,” she added belatedly.
She felt rather than heard Carolee’s almost inaudible sigh, felt rather than heard her daughter’s rejection of not just the words but of the message behind them: He’s not just late. He’s not coming—just like last week, and the week before that and the week before that.
“Carolee?” she tried again, but when the nine-year-old didn’t respond, didn’t even turn around, she moved away from the doorway and headed down the stairs to the kitchen. She’d make her daughter’s favourite Sunday afternoon snack: hot cocoa and cinnamon toast. And then maybe they can play a board game or watch a movie or…
Or just sit and stare at each other, with Carolee blaming her mother for her father’s absence and Melanie wondering if her daughter would ever understand, would ever forgive her, or, for that matter, if she had done the right thing in the first place.
Carolee heard her mother’s footsteps and, for a moment, thought to follow her. But her bedroom window was the only place where she had a good view of the road. From there, she could watch for her father’s pickup truck and have enough time to slip on her winter coat and hat and be ready to run out the door as he pulled in the driveway. Everything was laid out on the bed: her jacket, stocking cap, gloves and scarf, her backpack with her homework… Sometimes when they were sitting at Bill’s Burger Barn, her father would help her with her math.
That’s why she hadn’t even opened her textbook. All her other assignments were completed, but she had saved math for last. In case they had time to do it. In case he came.
“And he will come,” she murmured, moving away from the window so she could rub her forehead. It was cold where she had leaned it against the glass.
But she was only half-convinced. The court order defining the terms of the separation—the one she had found months ago when she was looking for a paperclip on her mother’s desk—had been clear: a visit each Sunday from noon to five and one weekend a month from Saturday at nine in the morning until Sunday night at eight. Each week she marked off the dates that she saw her father. If some months had fewer crossed-off blocks than others, she blamed it on the weather or her father’s work schedule or, if her parents had fought the weekend before, her mother.
But it was already half-past three, and she had been waiting since twelve. Her stomach was rumbling, and she was getting hungry, but she wouldn’t go downstairs and eat, even though she could now smell the aroma of the hot chocolate wafting up the stairs. Her mother made it the old-fashioned way with cocoa and milk and sugar, and since last Friday was payday, there might even be a tiny mountain of whipped cream swirled on top. And cinnamon toast, as many slices as she wanted.
Carolee’s mouth watered, but she fought the urge to abandon her post. If she did, if she went downstairs and drank her cocoa and ate her toast, she would be admitting to a truth that she didn’t want to face: her father wasn’t coming. So she held firm, swallowed hard and kept watching the road, now coated with a thin sheen of ice.
It was the ice that was to blame, Rob said to himself. The ice and the truck’s more-than-slightly bald tires and the fact that he had to jump the battery just to get the vehicle started. Ever since the plant closed down and he lost his job, ever since the landlord finally kicked him out—not that he could blame him, since he was three month’s late with his rent—ever since he had moved into the shelter, he knew it was only a matter of time before the pickup would fail him.
Then he’d have to take a bus for the hour-long trip back to the town where he used to live, back to where the three of them once were a family. And when he got there, find some explanation for why he couldn’t take his daughter out for a three-dollar kid’s meal at the hamburger place, or why Carolee couldn’t come stay the weekend with him or why—this to Melanie—the check was late. Again.
The ice—that was the problem. As for the rest, he would have to tell Melanie the truth. He had run out of excuses, run out of reasons, run out of justifications for everything, even if not all of it was his fault.
But the closer he came to the highway exit, the more afraid he grew of what would happen next. What Melanie would say. What Carolee would think.
And so he had finally surrendered to the fear and pulled off onto the side of the road and sat there, shaking, wondering how everything had gone so wrong when all he had wanted was a job and a house and a wife and child. And love.
More from Goat’s Milk Magazine
(Story continued below)
It was quarter to four when Carolee heard, rather than saw, her father’s pickup: the sound of the exhaust escaping through the holes in the muffler, the grinding of the gears as he downshifted. She knew the sound of the truck as well as she knew her own heartbeat. Without waiting to see the vehicle, to hear the cab door creak open and then shut, Carolee pulled on her coat and hat, grabbed her belongings and headed downstairs.
But then she stopped on the last step, the anger emanating from the kitchen, an almost palpable force from her mother.
“You’re late! Again! Damn it, Rob! She’s been waiting for hours, and she wouldn’t even eat! Couldn’t you have called?”
Carolee heard a low rumble of words and knew her father was trying to calm down her mother. It wouldn’t work. It never did. It didn’t work when they all lived together, and it wouldn’t work now. Best she go in so they would stop, and the visit—what was left of it anyway—could start.
“You’re right, Melanie, but wait. I need to explain. I need to tell you something—” Rob stopped when he saw his daughter in the doorway. He didn’t want to finish the conversation in front of her, didn’t want her to hear that her father was jobless, homeless, a failure as a man, a husband and a parent.
So he pasted a smile on his face and opened his arms wide, and when she ran into them, he hugged her close and just kept saying, “How’s my girl? How’s my sweetheart? I’ve missed you so much!”
Melanie stood there, and then for a moment, she was suddenly back in her hospital room, watching her husband hold their newborn daughter—the child they had created out of love and hope—with a look on his face that was a mix of awe and fierce protectiveness. The same look he had now, except there was a slash of pain underscoring it, the same pain she felt each time he left, and she saw her daughter’s anguish at his departure.
She turned away, swallowing hard, and put on a pot of coffee. While they were gone for what little time remained, she’d go through the stack of bills, measuring the total due against her pitifully small paycheck, and wonder what she would do if the rumours were true and Wayside Market would shut down the first of the year. Unemployment wouldn’t be all that much, and her weekend work at Sam’s Bar & Grille would hardly make up the difference. As for the child support…
And with that, her anger returned, and she pushed the start button on the coffeemaker with more force than necessary.
“I’m ready to go, Daddy.”
Melanie turned at her daughter’s words just in time to see Rob shake his head.
“Not today, sweetie,” he said and led her to the table where her now cold cocoa and toast were waiting. “The roads are really slippery, and the wind is sharp,” knowing even as he spoke that the excuses he offered weren’t enough. But they’d have to be. All he had in his wallet was a ten-dollar bill, and he needed that for gas.
“Tell you what,” slipping her coat off her shoulders, “let’s sit here and work together on whatever homework you have to finish. Okay?”
Carolee nodded, although it wasn’t okay. It wasn’t what she wanted: the three of them in the kitchen. The room was too small to hold all the emotions: her mother’s anger, her father’s fear that she sensed even if she didn’t understand its cause, and her own disappointment.
But at least he was here, she told herself as she pulled out her math book and paper and pencil. He was here, and that was all that mattered.
And while the two of them struggled through the calculations—Rob patiently explaining how to understand the problem and arrive at a solution—Melanie made a fresh mug of cocoa and more toast for her daughter. And then, almost as an afterthought, poured a cup of coffee for Rob—black with two sugars—and set it next to his elbow.
His shirt was missing a button, and his hair was longer than he usually wore it, she noticed, and there was a slight whiff of sweat from him when he moved his arm to pull Carolee’s book closer. And his face—something about it the way his cheekbones caught the light, the shadow on his chin where he had missed shaving.
Unkempt. That was the word she was searching for. You would think he would at least make himself presentable, especially since he hadn’t seen his daughter for nearly a month.
She sat down across from them, trying with limited success to calm her anger.
“I’ll never get it!” Carolee said in frustration, as once again her father looked at her answer, shook his head and then slid the paper back to her side of the table. “I hate math!”
“That’s okay, sweetie,” Rob said, trying to console her. “Think how good you are at art! You draw wonderful pictures. Besides, no one is good at everything. I’m a terrible speller, and your mom wasn’t any good at math either.” Then he quickly glanced up at Melanie with a smile, hoping she wouldn’t take offence and, caught off guard, she smiled back.
It was true, Melanie thought. Each month, Rob would be the one to balance their chequebook because, try as she might, the figures never came out the way they should. But he never blamed her, just sat there with his hot cocoa and cinnamon toast—and was that where the Sunday afternoon ritual had started: cinnamon toast and hot cocoa?—and when the numbers finally worked themselves out, he’d close the chequebook with a satisfied sigh. Then two of them would go into the living room, and she’d settle herself on his lap, and they’d watch whatever was on television, content just to be together.
Until being together became a bad thing, a time fraught with tension and anger and disappointment. Until Melanie told him, she’d had enough, and she wanted him to leave. Although sometimes late at night, she wondered what was the final straw and whether that straw had really been enough, after all, to break it all apart.
Carolee pursed her lips, erased the last two sets of numbers, recalculated the rest of them and then handed the paper back to her father. She wanted it to be correct so they could put the book away, and the two of them could go into the other room and just be alone for the little time remaining. Just half an hour, but even that was better than nothing. And next weekend she could spend two whole days with him.
“See, you did it!” Rob smiled at his daughter. “It just takes a little time. Sometimes you have to go back a few steps and start over, and then it all works out.”
His words echoed in his mind. “Go back a few steps”—but it would take more than a few steps for him and Melanie. Miles, maybe, before they could get back to the place where it was all good, and they had plans for their future and then when she was pregnant, plans for the three of them.
Miles back and lots of detours that this time they would ignore: side roads they had mistakenly taken like the fight over the truck he had bought with what was left of their savings. Wrong turns like the time Melanie said—well, screamed, really, so loudly that she woke the baby—that she was sick of being poor and having to make do and couldn’t he get a better job. They would both be on verbal roundabouts during the worst of their fights, circling and circling with neither willing to give in or give up or do anything, just get off that endless loop of anger.
“Yay!” and Carolee quickly shoved the paper into her book and her book into her backpack before glancing up at the clock. It was a quarter to five. There were only fifteen minutes before her father left. But that would be enough time to plan what they would do next weekend.
Maybe Saturday we could go to a movie, she thought. A movie, then back to his apartment where they could eat toasted cheese sandwiches with tomato soup. Then, on Sunday…
But before she could speak, before she could take him by the hand and go into the other room and talk about what they would do the next time they were together, her father stood up.
“Sweetie, it’s getting late, and I need to talk to your mother before I leave. So give me a hug and kiss, and then why don’t you go watch television or something.”
Carolee knew what that meant. He wanted to be alone with her mother. He had something bad to say, something that would make her mother angry, and for just a minute, she was angry, too. Couldn’t he just once not make trouble? If he made her mother angry, it would spill over to Carolee. And then, late at night, she’d wake up and hear her mother crying and bury her head under the pillow because she didn’t know what to do and only wanted it all to stop.
But she couldn’t change anything, couldn’t stop the two of them from talking or fighting. So she gave him a hug and kiss and then went up to her room, pausing on the bottom step in the hope that he would change his mind and call her back. But it didn’t happen, so she continued on her way.
Rob heard her and knew by the way her footsteps sounded on the staircase that she was hurt and sad. But it had to be done, and squaring his shoulders, he turned to face Melanie.
“The plant closed down.” The words came out harsher than he had intended and struck Melanie’s face almost like a blow. “I didn’t want to tell you—that’s why I missed the last few visits. Plus I’ve been looking for another job. But you know how it is. No one is hiring at the end of the year.”
Melanie took a deep breath. Her first thought was the bills. How would she manage without what little money he sent her? And if he was out of work, then Carolee didn’t have health insurance. What if she got sick?
She sat down heavily in the chair and buried her head in her hands, too upset and frightened to cry.
“That’s why I haven’t been around and because,” here he swallowed hard but decided to go ahead and tell her everything, “well, my landlord kicked me out, and I had to move into a shelter. So I can’t take Carolee next weekend. As a matter of fact, I may have to miss the next couple of visits. I need to save gas to go look for work. But it’s not all bad news. One of the guys I work with—worked with,” he corrected himself, “said that a plant in Braden is hiring, but that’s two hours away. I’m going there on Monday. If I get it, I’ll let you know.”
He took a deep breath. “I’ll get something, Melanie. I promise,” and he reached over to put a hand on her shoulder. “And it will all be okay.”
She heard the note in his voice, the mix of hope and comfort, and for just a moment, let herself believe him. But just for a moment, and then it all came back: the disappointment, fear, anger, pain, regret—but regret for what? For ending their marriage or for marrying him in the first place? For encouraging him all the times when things didn’t work out or for telling him it was all his fault: the lost jobs, the economic downturn, the reality that their life together didn’t at all match the fantasy she had held onto?
She stood up, faced him and took a deep breath, not knowing what she should say. And, with no words to express all that she felt, she reached out, picked up his empty coffee cup and threw it against the kitchen door, where it shattered into pieces, a physical representation of what her marriage and life had become.
Only two words, but behind them, Rob heard all that she didn’t say and knew that the distance between them was now even greater.
“I’m sorry”—a futile response but all he could manage through a throat constricted by emotion. He pulled on his coat and then opened the kitchen door, letting in a rush of frigid air. “Melanie?” One last word, a question really, but when no answer came, he left, closing the door behind him.
Melanie stood there, heart pounding, tears forming, and swallowed hard. She knew it wasn’t all Rob’s fault. She knew that other families faced the same situation. But it was easier to be angry with him than to admit to the fear that overwhelmed her. She walked over to pick up the shards of china. When she reached the door, she could only lean her head against it, listening for the sound of the truck’s engine, hoping that he might come back and hold her and tell her it would all be okay and that she didn’t have to deal with it all by herself.
But all she heard was silence.
He stepped off the porch and then paused to light a cigarette, one of two he allowed himself each day. He wasn’t angry at Melanie, not really. He saw behind her reaction the fear and loneliness that clutched at her, the same emotions he faced each day, the same emotions that dogged his restless sleep.
He inhaled, held the smoke in his lungs, then released it, watching it drift upward through the falling snow.
Things will get better, and he wasn’t sure if he was telling himself that or sending the thought to Melanie.
The sound of the cup crashing against the wall was so loud that Carolee heard it from the top of the staircase where she had been sitting, hoping until the last minute that her father might call her down. They could have just a little more time. Ten minutes, five even—that would have been enough.
But then she heard the crash, followed by a silence that seemed to stretch forever, then finally the sound of the kitchen door shutting, she knew that he had left the house. She left her post and went into her room, pulling back the curtains to watch and hope. Maybe he had forgotten something in his truck and had just gone out to get it and then come back into the house.
Maybe… But no. She saw his figure, shrouded in the darkness, pause on the walkway and then the brief flare of the match as he lit his cigarette. He wouldn’t be coming back. Not tonight. Maybe not ever again, but she pushed that thought back into the dark corners of her mind.
Next week, she thought. He’ll be back next week. And the week after that, and maybe someday he won’t ever leave.
Standing there in the frigid air, Rob finished his cigarette and then headed over to his truck. Would the engine start, allowing him to return to the life he had now? Or would the battery finally be so dead that the motor wouldn’t turn over and he couldn’t leave but would have to stay—go back through the door and into the kitchen, go back in time and into the life they once shared?
But when it did start, he gave one final glance at the house, at the kitchen door still shut, then up to the window where he thought he saw his daughter’s outline.
Maybe someday things will change, he thought as he shifted the truck into gear and backed down the driveway. If I could get the job and make enough money, Melanie wouldn’t have to work so hard… If I can just make it all turn out right…
Melanie heard the truck engine catch, then the sound of the wheels crunching the ice and snow as Rob’s truck made its way down the blacktopped driveway. He was leaving, and she wasn’t sure if she was glad that the fight was over or sorry that it had turned out that way again.
I don’t understand, she thought wearily as she bent down to pick up the fragments of the cup. Where did we go wrong? Why did it have to turn out this way?
Carolee watched the truck slowly back down the driveway. Then the headlights flashed across the front of the house as he turned onto the street, the snowflakes glittering in their beam. She watched until he reached the corner and then turned again, watched until she couldn’t see the truck anymore.
Then she slid open the window, heedless of the cold, listening for the sound of the engine. But all that came in on the wind was silence and the faint smell of burning tobacco, wending its way up to where she waited.
She breathed it in deeply, holding her father in her lungs, in her heart, never wanting to exhale again.
Nancy Christie is the author of two award-winning short story collections: Traveling Left of Center and Other Stories (runner-up in the 2016 Best Indie Book by Shelf Unbound) and Peripheral Visions and Other Stories (Bronze award winner in the 2020 Foreword INDIES competition and finalist in the 2021 Eric Hoffer Award competition)—both published by Unsolicited Press, as well as three nonfiction books. Her short stories have appeared in numerous literary publications, with several earning contest placements. She’s also the host of the Living the Writing Life podcast and founder of the annual “Celebrate Short Fiction” Day.