Volume 2, Number 2 -- February, 1997
by Robert Harding
A blustery wind tore at Stuart's clothing as he watched the battered and beaten AMC Gremlin limp up to the airport curb. A bemused smile crept across his face as he shook his head slightly and marveled, as he always did, at his brother's ability to keep this miserable lump of wreckage on the road and off the scrap heap.
The engine whined unevenly as its driver popped open the door and swung one foot out, using the other to keep the brake pedal depressed. With his left hand he reached behind his seat and pulled out a large wooden block with the words "Parking Brake" scrawled on it and jammed it under the rear tire.
"Jesus, Ronnie," called out Stuart as he tossed his suitcase through the open window and into the back seat, "What have you done to my baby?"
Ronnie, parking brake finally in place, grinned broadly as he climbed out of the car and walked around to the passenger side to greet his brother.
"What do you mean, 'What have I done to it'?" he replied, "This lemon's in better shape now that when you sold it to me."
"Lemon!" retorted Stuart with mock indignance, "This car was in mint condition until you got YOUR hands on it. And I didn't SELL it to you, I GAVE it to YOU."
"We traded!" countered Ronnie, "I gave you my electric guitar."
"It was broken!" replied Stuart.
"And you STILL got the better of the deal!" shot back Ronnie.
Their customary greeting out of the way and their initial barbs exchanged, the two embraced quickly and Ronnie helped Stuart load the rest of his luggage into the car. They continued to banter as they climbed into the car and, parking brake secured, putted away from the airport.
As they drove Stuart could once again feel the sense of nervous apprehension that had been plaguing him for the past week returning. It had been there, gnawing at the pit of his stomach throughout the long flight from LA and bad gained in intensity as he watched the runway looming ever larger as the aircraft drifted in for its landing.
It had disappeared for a few blissful moments though, as he watched his prized... or rather, his brother's prized Gremlin sputter around the corner and lurch to a halt in front of the airport. Late as usual.
It was a small comfort, he often thought, that at least he still had family in the area. It would certainly make things easier for him during his visits. Not just because it afforded him a place to stay, but mainly because it provided him with the indispensable emotional support of family during the times that he was certain he would need it.
"I saw her the other day."
His brother's voice snapped his attention back to the present.
"You saw who?" he muttered.
"Julia." replied Ronnie, "Who do you think?"
"Mmm." was all Stuart could muster. The whole situation was still a bit too awkward and the wounds still far too fresh for him to discuss openly, even with Ronnie.
"She was at the mall with Roger." continued Ronnie, pausing just long enough to steal a glance at his brother to check for a reaction, "She said you knew."
"Yeah," muttered Stuart, his eyes staring out the window at some far off point on the horizon. "She told me."
Ronnie let out a long-held breath, but continued to ramble along on the same topic, perhaps out of nervousness or discomfort, or maybe just out of a need to fill the silence with words. Any words.
"I didn't know what to say," he went on, "the whole thing sort of took me by surprise. I mean, I know how you still feel about her and... well, to see her with that geek just sort of..."
"Look, it happens." interrupted Stuart, a trace of irritation creeping into his voice, "Just drop it, all right."
"Yeah, sorry." conceded Ronnie, feeling stupid and awkward. He searched around frantically inside his mind for the right words to help divert his brother's attention from his evident pain.
"Did I mention I saw Nicole the other day?" is what he finally came up with, then he cursed himself mentally for it.
"How'd that go?" answered Stuart, his voice almost dead and lifeless.
"Pretty well, I think." said Ronnie, "I took her ice skating down at the pond. She had a ball. She skates almost better'n I do. 'Course, that's not saying much. She's a great kid, you know. A great kid."'
"Yeah." muttered Stuart, wistfully, "I know."
Ronnie allowed the two to lapse into silence for a few moments before the quiet began to grow oppressive once again.
"I've been getting over to see her about once a week." he offered by way of stimulating the conversation again, "I bought some tickets for Sesame Street on Ice next month and..."
"You don't have to try to be her father, you know!" snapped Stuart suddenly, "I'm still capable of that!"
"I know, I know." stammered Ronnie awkwardly, taken aback by the sudden outburst, "I just thought ... I mean ... with you living so far away..."
"Look, I didn't ask for this, all right!" spat Stuart, "I didn't ask for any of this! I get up here every chance I get, and more often than I can afford!"
"I know. I know."
"I'm still a good father!"
"I never said you weren't."
"She's still my daughter! She still loves me! And I'm never gonna let anything change that!"
"Of course not." said Ronnie, placatingly.
"Fine, then!" spat Stuart, "I don't need anyone to step in and be a father figure in my absence. I'm all the father she'll ever need, I don't need to be... replaced."
Stuart lapsed into a pensive silence for the remainder of the drive. He hated this, hated all of this. He hated that his brother was able to be more of a father to his daughter than he himself was. He hated that he was ... well, that he was now nothing more than an over-indulgent uncle who came to town a few times a year with presents and candy and ... he just hated it all.
He looked up and saw that they were nearing the house where his ex-wife and daughter now lived. As they neared the house, he turned to. his brother and said, "Look ... about Nicole... I really appreciate... I mean..."
Robbie cut him off with a shrug and said, "Hey, whatever I can do ... you know that."
The two lapsed into a comfortable silence as they pulled into the driveway and came to a stop. Stuart felt his heart leap in his chest as he looked out his window and saw, standing all bundled up in front of the rosebush by the front door, his baby girl. All of a sudden his stomach churned and his skin crawled. His heart raced and his mouth went dry. It had been barely three months since be last saw his daughter. It had been eight months since... since his wife had coldly and callously torn his world apart. First by filing for divorce, then by taking their daughter and moving home to Minnesota.
As he popped open his door and slowly pulled himself out of the car, he was stunned at how much she bad grown. She would be turning four in only a few short weeks, yet it seemed like she had grown up overnight.
All of the senseless fears that had been dogging him for months conspired to overload his brain. His senses seemed to go into hyperdrive. He heard every snap of every twig under every step he took as he approached her. The sun seemed just a bit brighter. The air just a bit crisper. Everything seemed to be moving in slow motion.
As be neared her, he kept expecting her to burst into a dead run and hurl herself at his legs, as she had every day when he returned home from work. He looked into her bright, shimmering eyes on her smiling face and fought back the fears that continued to gnaw at him.
Would she hate him for not being there? How could her child's mind understand all the many complex reasons why Mommy and Daddy couldn't live together anymore, especially when he, himself could not? Did she blame him? Did she blame herself? Could be really be a father from thousands of miles away?
Even as these maddening thoughts kept pounding away at his psyche, be beard his own voice from far, far off saying to his little girl, "Hey, what're you doin'?"
His heart fluttered as he looked into her sparkling blue eyes, her tiny face stretched wide in an impossibly huge grin.
"My Daddy's comin' ta see me." she announced brightly.
The world ended. There was no sound. There was no wind. There was no hot or cold or light or dark. There was only this tiny little girl with her tiny little smile and her tiny little eyes. Stuart peered deeply, frantically into those little eyes, searching desperately for the faintest flicker of recognition.
"Your Daddy, huh?" be heard his voice say in a tone that was impossibly calm and cheerful. He thought for the briefest of moments that perhaps she was teasing him in some way. But when she replied, "Uh-huh." and turned her attention to the road, he realized that she was not.
He stood there for a few moments, not sure of what to do. The world had stopped spinning, lie was sure, and all that was left was the cold, bitter wind which bit deeply into his flesh and tore at his soul. His stomach no longer churned. His heart no longer raced. All that was left was a sick, sick feeling that permeated every cell of his being. His baby girl remembered him, that much was certain. But as sure as he was standing here before her, she did not recognize him.
"Well," his voice continued bravely, "You'll let me know if you see him, won't you?"
"Uh-huh!" she beamed as she nodded her little blonde head -cheerfully.
Stuart turned and plodded wearily into the house. He opened the door without knocking and took a few wobbly steps inside the house.
"It's about time!" said the woman who once was his wife, as she scurried into the living room carrying a small suitcase and some stuffed animals, "She's been standing outside half the day waiting for ... where is she?"
Stuart moved on rubbery legs over to the sofa and wearily lowered himself down onto its merciful cushions.
"She's outside." he said hollowly.
"Well, what's she doing out there?" asked Julia, confusion creeping into her voice as she stepped to the window and pulled back the curtain to peer out.
"She's waiting..." replied Stuart, his voice cracking ever so slightly, "...for me."
Julia looked at him quizzically, then turned her eyes away as he lowered his head into his hands and weeped gently. THE END
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