S H O R T S T O R Y
b y a.j. l e f l a h e c ~ c h a m b é r y, f r a n c e
S H O R T S T O R Y
ADJUSTING THE ill-fitting jacket so that the ends of his sleeves reached approximately the same place on both his wrists, George glanced at his wife one last time.
"I'm just going out for a pack of cigarettes, dear. I'll be back shortly."
His wife, Maureen, who was greedily sorting through the pile of advertisements for a belated if undeserved greeting card, didn't bother to look up. If it occurred to her that her husband didn't smoke, she gave no sign of it. Her mind was jammed with thoughts about the New Year's Eve party they had been invited to at last.
"Have fun. I'm going to take a little nap before the party. I'll get myself up so—please—don't make any noise when you come back."
Her husband nodded to himself. He knew there wasn't much chance of that happening.
His face as he turned betrayed nothing of his inner turmoil. His afternoon had been nothing but a series of upheavals. "No, don't sit there! Dad, can't you see my skirt is spread on your chair? I'm in the middle of sewing the hem. Sit over there, by the window if you have to." He felt as useless as an unwanted Christmas present that gets passed around until someone finds a place for it on an unused shelf. His daughters, Mary and Christine, were home for the holidays. Their only bathroom had been turned into a no-man's land from which George had been indefinitely barred . The girls disagreed about everything except how useless he was, screaming and railing at the drop of a hat. Only when they were in his presence did their voices lower to a whisper as they exchanged knowing looks. It was as plain as the cold cream on their faces that their father was but a fly in their ointment.
In the end, he was forced to leave his own apartment just to relieve his bladder. He hadn't had a precise destination in mind, and in truth, he didn't know why he'd said to his wife that he intended to purchase a pack of cigarettes. George had never smoked a cigarette in his life, never had the urge.
Two hours later, when their father still had not returned, Christine was the first to sound the alarm.
"Has anyone seen Dad lately? I need him to fetch the stepladder from the cellar so I can pull down the big box of summer clothes. My black shawl is in it."
Mary had no idea where her father had got to, and it took Maureen, his wife, a few moments to remember when she'd last seen him.
"He mentioned something about getting a pack of cigarettes."
"Dad went out to get a pack of cigarettes?" said Christine. "But he doesn't smoke!" Of the three, she was the only one who was certain of this. And since Christine was the one member of the family believed to have been close to her father, her mother was forced to agree with her. Besides, surely she would have noticed the smell of stale smoke, if only on her own clothes.
After the requisite period of mourning—two weeks, counting the day of George's departure—the three women picked up their lives right where they had left them. Christine returned to her job in an industrial hub in the mid-west, and Mary, to the university where she was pursuing an advanced degree in the humanities. Maureen spent all of an afternoon deliberating before she accepted a part-time job offer at the interior decor store down the block.
The girls came home as often as possible to check on their mother, and make the occasional inquiry about their father. It was the least they could do.
The following year, Mary became wistful on a cold and sunless late December afternoon.
"Oh, I miss Daddy so. I miss seeing him in his leather armchair, smoking his pipe like a skinny clueless Santa." Christine looked at her sister wearily. "Dad never smoked a pipe. I'd remember that. It was a pack of cigarettes he went out for." Back and forth they squabbled until their mother stepped in to set them straight. "Christine is right, I'm afraid. And though I too miss your poor father, I must say I'm quite happy to be rid of all the smoke, not to mention the foul smell of his nasty butt-filled ashtrays. That's one habit of his I never could get used to. Come now, girls, let's not dwell upon his faults. Let us rejoice in the memory of George's good qualities!"
They looked to one another expectantly for a few moments, but as none of them could recall very much of anything about him, the three women turned away in embarrassment. Within minutes they had found the sort of festive activities they were fond of.
Not before their second holiday season without George was Christine afflicted with the family's first pangs of guilt. Their father had been a quiet thoughtful man who deserved better than to be so quickly forgotten by his wife and daughters. Christine set about making a place for his memory to be observed. She found an old photograph, which she had enlarged and framed, and placed it on the mantel above the living-room's unused fireplace.
The picture showed George in his younger—and better—days. With sensual abandon, he had posed reclining in a chaise-longue, a dark and slim gold-tipped cigarette between his fingers. Off to the side, Maureen could be seen gazing at him rapturously. Christine had found the photo in one of the boxes in the cellar where her mother kept personal mementos and had been quite taken by it. Recalling how easily her father had been lost to them Christine cherished the unfamiliar picture all the more.
"You know, it's funny" her mother said when she first glimpsed it "but it shows him looking so…unlike himself somehow. As though the years we spent together, you know, marriage, his dreadful job at the insurance company, having children and such, had made a completely different man of your father. He looks so confident, so pleased with his place in the world in that picture!" A shadow of melancholy briefly darkened Maureen's face. Not wanting to upset her daughters before their favorite New Year's Eve party, she forced herself to smile to Christine and complimented her on her efforts. It was so exactly right for the spot in which she had placed it, the perfect touch for their living room which—come to think of it—had been a tad impersonal before.
Mary didn't comment on the picture itself until she had found something of her own to bring to the altar of their father's memory. It was a hat, sort of like a Stetson, only shorter, and so dashing. It only took the tiniest bit of needling on her part for Maureen to admit how good it might have looked on George, on their honeymoon, or perhaps during their trip to the Grand Canyon. It was even possible he had worn it as he stood on the eastern rim and explained to his young and adoring wife how the small trickle of water that snaked through the canyon had once been a river so powerful as to knock down everything in its way.
Christine was tempted to object. There had effectively been four of them on the trip: her mother, Mary and herself, along with their grandmother, when she was still alive. George had been unable to take time off from his job. Christine kept mum, afraid that any remark on her part might be considered bad sport, as though she were trying to claim ownership of their father's memory. Instead, she unearthed a faded picture of the Grand Canyon from their trove of treasured objects, and set it down behind the hat. Mary was delighted, and it warmed Maureen's heart to see her two grown daughters bonding at last over their fond memories of their winsome father.
In time the collection grew to such proportions that a custom-measured set of shelves was made to fit beneath the mantle. Hardly a visit of the girls went by without some new object or picture being added to the shrine. George's memory took on mythical proportions and the man they now spoke of in revered tones became a favored subject of many a late night cosy chat. If, during the time he spent with them, he had never been considered more than a necessary ingredient, like cornstarch only less substantial, now he had become the pivot around which every event of the family's life revolved. Without him they were like a sailboat on a still, flat ocean, waiting for the wind to return. Oh, but to have George home again!
George had by now found his way in the world. He'd gone overseas and built himself a financial empire from scratch. Some shady characters he met in the Caribbean had let him in on one of the most unlikely cigar exporting schemes. They planned to use him as a front in the dubious transaction, and then set him up as the visible culprit while they made their unimpeded getaway. But because of an overlooked detail, the two thugs were blown to bits by the local militia who were then exceptionally eager to build a solid working arrangement with an ordinary, reliable and unassuming business man. As a result, George was able to parlay the small sum unintentionally bequeathed to him into a nest egg large enough for him to go into business on his own. One thing led to another, and soon George found himself far wealthier than he would ever have considered useful. He did all the usual things a millionaire does. He built himself a mansion, bought expensive yachts and cars, journeyed to exotic places and surrounded himself with the most attractive and agreeable women money could buy. But soon he began to feel restless and dissatisfied. All the riches in the world had failed to fill the emptiness that had grown equal in size to his yearning to play a central role within the bosom of his own family.
And so, as the third holiday season approached, the time for his return finally came. Thinking he might be away for a long while—after all he didn't expect his family to welcome him with open arms—he put his affairs in order, that he might direct them from afar. He also made a point of buying the most exquisite presents for his wife and daughters. It would surely not hurt his standing to use a small portion of his wealth to ingratiate himself with them, and he gave no consideration to the possibility that his gestures might be misconstrued as bribes. From the core and fabric of his existence lacked the essence of what could make it worth living and he'd come to the conclusion that the meaning of his life rested in the hands of the three women he loved.
Before he rang the doorbell to his old apartment, George checked his appearance one last time in the landing mirror . No more ill fitting jackets for a man of his achievements! His suits were made in Italy, where he was oufitted head to toe twice yearly by a well-known designer. He wore the most flattering cuts, the most luxurious fabrics. Though he would have preferred not having to admit to it, George's appearance had also been enhanced in other, more permanent ways. Some of the surgeries' effects were discreet, visible only to the trained eye, but others, such as the thick cover of dark hair he sported on the crown of his head, would need explaining. He hoped his family would not make too much of it. Though he was quite pleased with the overall effect, he did feel a little embarrassed to have submitted to the procedure. Within the circles he now travelled, no one ever gave the freshly sprouted hair on his head a second glance. But how would his family react to the changes in his appearance?
After an unbearably long interval, the door to his apartment opened a crack. "Yes?" said his youngest daughter, looking him up and down like she was getting ready to block his sales pitch. "Mary, it's me, your Dad!" Holding the door firmly with both hands Mary just went on staring at him suspiciously.
"Christine? Come over here, would you? Something really weird is going on."
George listened to the brisk clicking of his oldest daughter's heels as she approached the door. His heart beat accelerated again. Christine would not fail to recognize him at first glance.
Mary opened the door just wide enough for her sister's face to fit next to her's.
"What's going on? Is there some kind of a problem?" She spoke directly to George, intimating that there had better not be any problem.
"He says he's our father." Mary told her sister flatly. She might just as well have said that the elevator had arrived. At least Christine was intrigued by the situation.
"Mom? You're not going to believe this. There's this strange man here who says he's our father—your husband, for Pete's sake!"
George was beginning to feel more than a little uncomfortable by then. The heat that had risen to his cheeks had spread to the rest of his body and the first glutinous beads of sweat had begun trickling down his forehead, beneath the hair he now considered to have been a terrible mistake. He only prayed his wife would not ridicule him in front of the girls.
Maureen's face wedged itself next to her daughters. Now all three inspected him like a coat on sale for too low a price. Maureen's eyes checked everything above his shoulders, his face, his eyes, his ears even. To George's immense relief, she made no show of having noticed anything odd about his hairstyle. But George's relief was short-lived. His wife did not recognize him at all!
How would he convince them that he was indeed who he claimed to be? George had no choice but to resurrect peculiar incidents—his run-in with their neighbor's overweight cat, his two left thumbs—and intimate details about his daughters' childhoods that only a father would remember.
Christine relented and opened the door, despite her sister's cries of protest. She led him to sit in his old leather armchair to the right of the unused fireplace. Before it now stood a small set of shelves covered with a variety of objects he did not recognize. George said nothing about it and made an effort to act as though there were nothing out of the ordinary.
The three women continued to watch his every movement wordlessly, enclosing him inside a silence as solid as a prison wall.
George racked his mind for something to break it down but stayed mute except for an embarrassing series of throat-clearings. Bit by bit George started to sink down into his old chair along with his deflated hopes.
Finally Christine's face lit up. She jumped to her feet and George heard the door to the apartment slam behind her.
"Where are you going Christine?" her mother cried out into the empty hallway.
In her wake the discomfort grew to unmanageable proportions as Mother and daughter kept their mistrusting eyes nailed on George, even as Mary rose grimly from her seat. Stiff as a frozen sheet, she stepped over to the shelves to retrieve an odd looking hat, which she placed on George's head. His daughter didn't bother to hide her disappointment when it did not sit right. George blushed and suggested that his hair was to blame. If only he'd never had the implants! Perhaps he would just shave it all off afterwards, and they would forget about it? Mary took the hat away from him and replaced it carefully on the mantle.
They all turned when the front door opened with a clang. George's older daughter's cheerfulness as she reentered the living-room made him sit up once again. In her hands was a small package wrapped in plain brown paper. A gift for her father, he hoped. Then she too went to the mantle where she chose an object she handed to him ceremoniously, along with the mysterious package.
His small gift unwrapped, George found himself to be in the possession of a packet of Russian cigarettes, rolled in dark paper with gold wrapped filters, and a souvenir ashtray bearing a stylized engraving of the Grand Canyon, which he dearly regretted never having visited.
His oldest daughter stood before him with her hand extended, clutching a lighter she was poised to use.
George could not for the life of him imagine why the offer was being made, unless it was some test they had devised. The gesture felt as solemn as a secret society ritual, and he was eager to belong.
The proper response was obvious. But not until his every doubt was dispelled did he chance to utter it.
"No. Thank you. I don't smoke." George said in an even and confident manner."It's a filthy habit in which I have never indulged."
All traces of good will vanished from his wife and daughters' faces.
As one, the three women rose and wordlessly showed him out.
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