Sorry, Dad

Another old contest entry of mine, from a Reedsy Prompt many moons ago. Said prompt:

Your main character is approached by their long-estranged parent who wants to reconnect.  How do they react?

He came back because it had been too long.  Because he had spent so many years unable to watch his daughter grow up, gain friends and lose friends, go to prom, cry the night before graduation because her father wasn’t there to see when they handed her the diploma she had worked so hard for.  It had been so difficult for him, he told me.  To be deprived of everything a father deserved, for all that time with no way of knowing where his family was or what they were doing.  He wanted to fix that.  He wanted to meet me again, and see what I had become.   

It would have sounded better over the phone.  Then he could have recited his speech at just the right timbre, let those pathetic words be undercut with the faintest trace of a tremble to prove to me that his heart was aching but, ever so nobly, he was trying not to show that he felt the pain.  Scratched out in shaky black letters, however, so stark against a single sheet of cheap paper, there was a certain sterile insincerity to his words, the impersonal dryness of a form letter with my name filled in.  It could have been a script for a bad TV show; it might as well have been for all it meant to me.  What good would it do him to come back now? For that matter, what good would it do any of us? 

What struck me most was the carelessness with which he’d contacted me.  I wasn’t even worried he had gotten my address; there’s nothing private these days anyway.  But if he’d found that, he would have found my phone number.  He could have called.  Instead he’d thrown together his rehearsed sales pitch and dropped it into a mailbox, to let it reach me whenever the fates and the postal service allowed.  And when it had come, there hadn’t been much to it:  scads of sob story about how deprived and lonely and unfulfilling his life had been, an unhealthy dose of hyperbole to describe the agony of not knowing, all neatly sewn up with the simple admission that these long years away had hurt him.  

It had hurt me too.  Hadn’t he thought of that? There wasn’t a single word in the whole mess that could be considered an apology, or even a simple admission of his abandonment in the first place.  He’d never really explained, anyway—whether it was another woman, the unwanted burden of a family to support, the terrifying concept of raising children, we never knew.  All we did know was that the responsibility he’d brought upon himself hadn’t suited him in the slightest, and he’d fixed it in the same way he fixed all his problems.  He ran away.    

Maybe I was overthinking it.  Maybe he did care.  Maybe he was sorry it had been so long, and that he hadn’t done better.  I couldn’t judge; I hardly knew my father or what went on in his mind.  Closing my eyes in concentration I barely recalled a face and pair of hands, a lingering scent of cigarette smoke and the disappointment of a vivid blue gaze always looking past me, never at me.  There was too much more important to see for him to bother ever looking at me. 

I couldn’t solve this on my own, with so little to go on.  My instincts urged distrust and rejection, but the tiniest voice of doubt resonated faintly from some ill-used corner of my brain, telling me to wait.  To give him a chance.  Almost unconsciously my hands balled his letter up into a compact little wad that snugged itself perfectly into my palm.  I had to pick a direction to go, and I couldn’t move either way.  

Finally I called my mother.  I didn’t know what else to do. 

“Kess, honey,” she said at last.  The silence that came after I presented my problem had been far from encouraging and set my already-tensioned nerves on edge.  “This isn’t the end of the world.  You know how your father can be.”

“No, I don’t.”  Had she even been listening? “That’s why I called you.  I just wanted some advice.”

Another silence, this one even longer than the first.  I began to wonder if she’d forgotten I was on the phone.  Then, “He’s always been a little flighty, honey.  He’s got failings like all the rest of us; he’s only human, after all.”  There was a pause, the high, ear-pricking clink of ice cubes against cold glass.  “But he’s got a good heart.  I’ve always known it.”


“It’s up to you, honey.  I know you’ll make the right decision.  Look—I’ve got friends coming over, so I’ll have to let you go.  Call me tomorrow, all right?” She blew me a kiss over the phone.  I let it drift by.  “Love you, Kess.  Bye now.”

The moment I heard the dial tone, I didn’t know why I’d even called.  Her judgment had always been reliably poor.  She’d married him, hadn’t she? She had soft spots for too many things, things that didn’t deserve the time of day from her or anyone else. 

He has a good heart.  What kind of dime novels had she been reading with her hourly helpings of bourbon? I’d called for advice, not a soap opera.

He’s only human.  

I was human too.  Had she forgotten that? Had everyone?

No.  No, not everyone.  There was one person left who had never run me over, forgotten me, or disregarded me as vapid decoration.  My heartbeat was thudding somewhere in the base of my skull and I took a few deep breaths as I pulled up the phone keypad on my cell.  I should never have called my mother; I should have known she would only offer her tipsy platitudes and bid me ta-ta after barely two minutes in favor of her trendy friends, and now I was riled up for nothing.  Biting my lip, I dialed, sat back, and waited.  

Unlike my mother’s, this call picked up almost instantly as its owner answered.  “Kess.  What’s the matter? Don’t you get off around five?”

“I called in sick.”  I checked the clock.  4:17.  “I couldn’t. . .I couldn’t go in.  Not today.”

My brother’s voice took on that familiar mother hen tone, balanced delicately with a reserved edge of admonishment just in case I had done something foolish.  “You’re not actually sick.”  It wasn’t a question.

“No.”  I cleared my throat.  “Reagan, I got a letter.  From Dad.”

This silence was much shorter.  “Hope you burned it,” he said at last.  There was a hardness to his words now, a tensity reserved for the lowest, most repulsive of objects, subjects, and our father.  Hearing it helped remind me that this time I had called an ally, not a Magic 8-Ball.  It bolstered me enough that I could continue.

“I have it here.  It came yesterday, and after I read it I didn’t. . .” I trailed off.  I wasn’t sure how to explain.  “Didn’t want to go out today.  I wanted to spend some time and think about it.”

“What’s there to think about?” He was brisk now, hoping to shoo my mind off such an unfortunate topic.  I had forgotten that with him, I never needed to explain.  “It’s really quite simple.  Receive letter, toss letter.  Watch Netflix and let the world go by.”    

“Reagan, wait a minute.”  His thought processes were headed in the same direction as my gut feeling, but I didn’t want to brush this off like it was just some credit card scam that had come in the mail.  How many more opportunities to see my father was I going to get? With the other end of the line quiet, I explained the letter’s contents as I understood them.  After I had finished, the dreaded silence from my mother’s call returned in full force.  I was half-afraid the signal had dropped. 

There was a blurred hush over the line as he exhaled.  “Kess, it’s not your problem.  Forget about it.  Don’t even answer it.  It’s not your fault he’s always been such a jerk.”       

He might have been at that, but he was still our father.  Reluctantly I came to his defense.  “He just wants to talk.”

“Talk? About what?”

I tucked the phone between my shoulder and ear and smoothed out the letter.  The smeared ink made me wish I hadn’t crumpled it up so tightly in the first place.  “About what he missed out on,” I paraphrased, squinting at the first few lines.  “That’s all.”

My brother snorted.  His skepticism practically crawled out of the speaker to take up residence in the back of my brain.  “Sure.  Don’t be so dense, Kess, he doesn’t care.  He just wants a kid without all the trouble.”

I hadn’t thought of it like that.  I figured he might have wanted some money at the most, but the notion he might actually stick around now that all the work of raising children was finished hadn’t crossed my mind.  Parenting the easy way.  My father had always taken the easy way. 

But still, admonished that voice in the backroom of my mind, surely it didn’t make any sense to just assume that.  

Seeing is believing—let him tell you to your face. 

“You don’t think I should at least see if that’s it?” I asked rather tentatively.  “I mean, if he’s just here for a handout, then no harm done, but if—”  

“He’s a loser, Kess.”  My brother had a way with words.  We weren’t sure where he got it from, because the rest of the family had inherited some form of tact, even if most of us had lost it along the way what with all the bourbon, divorce, and disappointment.  “He’s a loser and a deadbeat, and he just wants from you.  A guy like that doesn’t have anything to give.  All that crap about him hurting is just a cheap move to get you to meet him.  If anyone ends up hurting, it’ll be you.”  He paused, cogitating.  I could almost hear the well-oiled gears thrumming in their rhythm over the phone.   “Now when did he say to meet him?”

I checked the letter I clutched so tightly.  My hands were shaking.  “Saturday—tomorrow.  Around noon.  His plane will have landed by then and he’ll be at the city center, at the ice cream place.  You know where he used to take us.”

There was a cough.  “I’m surprised he remembered.  He certainly didn’t give you much time, did he?” Reagan’s sardonic voice had a certain solidness to it that my mother’s had lacked.  It made me feel more grounded just by hearing it.  My hands stopped shaking, and I released my chokehold on the letter.  The inexplicable sweat from my palms had turned its edges to soft tatters and smeared the ink even further.  

“No.”  I couldn’t think of anything else to say.  My brother filled in the gaps like he always had. 

“Well, think of someplace else to be and be there.  Doesn’t matter, just pick a place.  Before you know it, noon’s come and gone and your problem’s behind you.”

That did sound appealing.  With a deep breath to cement the decision, I made up my mind.  “Okay.  Okay, I won’t go.  I’ll go bum around the theater and get in trouble for stealing loose change from the ticket booth, like I did when I was nine.”

He didn’t laugh, but I could hear it in his voice.  “Attagirl.  Hey, listen—we’re having a barbecue Sunday after services.  You oughta come.  Lynn would like it if you did.”   

With three years’ maturity on me, Reagan hadn’t let our dad mess him up.  He had a wife now, and a young daughter of his own.  If anything that abandonment had made him even more determined to have a family, to be a better father than his had been.  As if that could be very hard.  

“That sounds nice,” I told him.  “I’ll make it.”

“We’ll be looking for you,” Reagan said.  “And Kess—I’m sorry he sent it to you.  Shoulda been me.  But don’t let what you can’t help bother you.”

“I won’t,” I promised.  I couldn’t resist and added, “You know I never do.”

“Liar,” he said fondly.  “See you Sunday.”

The sick feeling in my stomach had gone by now, the frayed ends of my nerves smoothed out until I could hardly remember the wretched indecision that had compressed my ribcage when I first saw the too-familiar name scribbled out on that plain white envelope yesterday afternoon.  I wished that I had skipped my mother and called Reagan hours ago, but that kind of a mistake wasn’t one that went too deep or hurt too long.  There were worse opportunities to miss.  And I didn’t want to miss this one.

I looked at the name of the ice cream parlor so neatly written in my father’s hand.  Rita’s.  Reagan wasn’t the only one surprised he had remembered.  But it wasn’t so unlikely; Rita’s meant good times, happy times—lots of laughing and wiping ice cream drips off of shirts and a whispered “Don’t tell your mother!” when some got on the Buick’s leather upholstery.  Back in the old days, when I was too young to realize he didn’t care.  My father only remembered the nice memories.  Or maybe that was all that he wanted to.

This letter had been his olive branch, his self-invitation to relive the glory days of fatherhood before the real responsibility began.  It was to show that his coming back was on his terms, like always.  Dictating the way things would be, like always.  Assuming I would go along, like always.

Well, not this time.  Today it was my turn to stack the deck, and tomorrow it would be his to understand how the rest of us lived in our pathetic world of unanswered letters and forgotten phone numbers, getting by on stale memories and the flimsy, intangible hope that someday, somehow, everything would change in a cloud of fairy dust and it would turn out all right.  It wasn’t a terrible dream, wishing for that kind of a miracle.  But it was still a dream, and I had been replaying it for too long.  It was time to let somebody else see what it was like to be left alone.  I was taking the easy way out.      

Sorry, Dad. 

I threw the letter away. 


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