It’s not every day that your Dad returns from the dead. Not your typical Wednesday night, if you know what I mean. We’re sitting around the dinner table eating the standard Wednesday night supper of spaghetti and Green Giant boil-in-the-bag broccoli with cheese sauce, when the telephone rings. My two idiot brothers race for the phone. And, just like always, Bart trips my little brother Kenny and grabs the phone off the wall first, while Kenny runs to Mom like he’s got a major complaint. “It’s for Mom,” Bart says. Mom’s face takes on the “one more interruption and I’m losing it” look, pushes her chair back, and takes the phone from Bart. Meanwhile, her new husband, and I guess I should say my new stepfather, Ned, works on his spaghetti, twisting his fork to catch every last noodle, totally ignoring anything standing in the way of his dinner. Ned has only been my stepfather for three months, but I can tell we kind of weird him out. Ned is an only child, never married, who lived with his dad until now. The more nervous he gets, the more he eats. He’s a strange duck, wanting to marry my mom so much he was willing to take us kids on as well. As soon as Mom picks up the phone, we can tell this isn’t your ordinary call. “Hello?” she says, and then when she hears the voice on the other end, stands straight up from her chair, looks at us for just a second, and then turns and talks facing the wall. Even Ned stops eating. “Where have you been?” she says, like she’s having trouble breathing. “Where are you?” Her hands grip the phone cord. She stares out the window into the apartment courtyard, and I can see her reflection looking back at me from the glass, like a thin, frightened ghost looking in from the pouring rain. I see myself too, sitting there in my plaid jumper with two matching silver barrettes in my dull brown hair. Mom makes me dress like this. She says that it’s the way a fourteen-year-old girl from a decent family would dress. I make a face at myself in the window. As Mom talks, she begins to cry, which for my mother, is not unusual. Believe me, we’ve seen a ton of tears from her. Mom catches herself, lowering her voice. Even though I can’t hear as much, it’s obvious it’s my Dad. I knew it was Dad because she never talked this way with anyone else. With Dad, she didn’t talk like a mom, more like a girl. She doesn’t talk like a girl when she’s talking to Ned. I was only eight when he left six years ago, on March 16, 1959. I don’t know why I remember the date, except that it pretty much changed everything for us after that. Since we can’t hear much, we pretend everything’s ok and go back to the spaghetti, but no one’s paying much attention to the food. We could have been eating worms and not noticed. Bart even stops picking on Kenny, which is his favorite pastime. Mom told us back when Dad left that he was in trouble with the law. He had taken money from the company where he worked as an accountant, and because he hadn’t been in any trouble before, and had been what Mom calls a “contributing member of society,” he only had to go to jail on weekends, so that the rest of the week he could look for another job. But Dad was too proud to go to jail at all, Mom said, so he left the state. I say that she pushed him out. They fought with each other ever since I can remember, but when the police came to search the house when Dad was out, finding the money he had stolen in the thermos at the bottom of the kitchen drawers, Mom was really mad at him. She said that he had embarrassed the family. Mom was always worried about what the neighbors would think, and she was nagging him all the time about not having enough money, and then not having a job. And every now and then, in the middle of the night, I could hear her crying that he didn’t love her anymore. It was hard to hear what they were talking about. Ned was slurping up his spaghetti, and Bart was elbowing Kenny, taking advantage of the fact that Mom was not at the table. I heard a few things but couldn’t really piece it together. Mom had stepped farther into the kitchen and was writing down some things on the pad she keeps on the counter. After what seemed like forever, she came back to the table. She sat down, slowly, not looking at us, and not saying anything. Ned stopped eating again and cleared his throat. Ned always was clearing his throat before saying things, as if he needed to announce himself. “Who was that, Helen?” he asked, as if he didn’t know. “That was Daniel,” my mom said, looking over at us rather than Ned. “Your father.” I was dying to know more, but also wanted to play it cool. Mom didn’t always like me asking questions about Dad, so I had to be careful not to have her shut up about it too soon. “Where is he?” I asked. “He was calling from Las Vegas. He is working just outside of town, on a ranch.” “Why is he calling now? Has he called before?” I asked, sounding a bit like Jack Webb on Dragnet. He was one tough detective. My mom looked at me directly. “Samantha. You know that I haven’t known where he is. That’s why,” she paused. “Why we had to go to court before Ned and I could get married.” What she didn’t say is that she went to court to declare our dad dead, which really burned me. And now look what happened. “Does that mean you can’t be married anymore?” I asked. “Does that mean that you and Dad are still married?” I glanced at Ned, who sure looked like he’d rather be anywhere but at our kitchen table right then. Bart chimed in, “Does that mean Dad is coming back?” Kenny, trying to make sense of things, asked the obvious awkward question. “What happens to Ned? Does he have to move out?” Mom took a deep breath, looking at all of us kids before answering. “Ned is not moving out. Your father and I are still divorced.” Then she turned to Ned. “But he’s in a fix and needs some money. I want to help him.” “How much?” Ned asked. “500 dollars, to pay a lawyer for some help,” she answered, and maybe to push her point, “and he can’t go to anyone else.” “Ok,” Ned said. “We can do that.” Of course, I thought. He’d do anything for my mom. She seemed to have some magical powers over him. “And I want to visit Daniel. So he can see the kids again,” she said. Ned cleared his throat again. “What does that mean?” he asked. Mom looked at the three of us, and for the first time since she had taken Dad’s call, she smiled. “That means I’ll be taking you kids on a car trip to Las Vegas.” We left Seattle a couple of weeks later, the day after we finished school for the year. It was another rainy day, and we had to get up earlier than we did for school to go pick up Grandma and get an early start. My mom had asked Grandma Julie to join us, probably for some adult company and to help babysit, which got me off the hook since I was usually the one who had to cover whenever Mom wasn’t around. Ned had asked Mom whether she wanted him to go with us. I remember when Mom was talking to us about maybe marrying Ned that he would never push her to do anything she didn’t want to do or tell her how to raise us kids. So, when he asked about going along, she just told him “This is something I need to do” which pretty much said she was going without him. Besides, Ned was useless in the babysitting category. I think we scared him. Bart constantly asking questions about everything, Kenny screaming at the top of his lungs whenever Bart came near him, and me refusing to offer any help unless I had to. So early on, Ned made himself scarce when he was alone with us, and Mom turned the job over to me. “You’re the oldest” she would say. “That comes with some responsibility.” Or, if I gave her grief about having to use my time to watch my brothers try to destroy each other, she would lay on the guilt. “Would it hurt you to help your mother?” she would ask. “I go to work every day to try and make our lives just a little bit better, and this is how you thank me?” It was a hard argument to win. So, there we were, the five of us squeezed into our ‘62 Chevy Impala, driving down I-5, the fastest route to Vegas. Mom and Grandma in front, smoking their Kent cigarettes non-stop and the three of us in the back, getting smoked out. I had to sit in the middle to separate Bart from Kenny, but Bart still would try to reach over to poke Kenny, resulting in ongoing slapping matches. Every now and then Mom would scream from the front seat, “Now you kids behave yourself” but for the most part, it was amazing how she and Grandma just kept talking, pretending we weren’t there. Still, I was excited. I was going to see my dad again, for the first time in six years. And I could tell Mom was excited too. Ever since he called, she had been brighter, like she got when she had her first drink after work, but before she had too many drinks and got into fights with Ned. She had bought new clothes for the trip, had her hair done. I daydreamed along the way, in between elbowing Bart and Kenny and grabbing their slapping hands, about Mom and Dad getting back together. Why else would he have called her? He needed money, but he could have probably found another way to get it. And why would she have gone to the trouble of making this trip, if it wasn’t to get back together? Sure, she told Ned that it was to give us kids a chance to see Dad again. But I knew Mom. She wouldn’t do this just for us. For her, it was enough to be working full-time and having to live with Ned to keep a roof over her heads. She already felt like she had sacrificed her entire life to keep us alive. I know because she told us this on a regular basis. Of course, being married again was a complication. But people got married and divorced a lot of times. Look at Elizabeth Taylor, Zsa Zsa Gabor. Mom could easily divorce Ned and remarry Dad. We could move to Las Vegas if he couldn’t come back to Washington. I’d never been to Las Vegas, but it looked exciting when I saw it on TV shows. Lots of lights at night and sun in the daytime. And everybody had a swimming pool. I was imagining our reunited family sitting around a pool, maybe having a barbecue, when we pulled up to our first stop off the interstate, near Eugene. There had not been much to look at driving I-5, since we left Portland. Just miles and miles of trees and green fields. Still more like Seattle than Vegas. That night we got burgers from Bob’s Big Boy and hung out in the motel room watching TV. We were all happy to be out of the car, and the Dick Van Dyke show was on, which was one of my favorites. What I wouldn’t give to be the child of Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore. That son of theirs, Richie, had it made. Such a cool house, lots of space, a fun dad, and a nice mom. No arguments that weren’t figured out by the end of the show, and the only crazy characters were Rose Marie and Morey Amsterdam, who would mainly crack jokes in Dick’s office. I kind of knew that what I saw on TV wasn’t real. I mean I was fourteen, so I wasn’t stupid. But it was nice to imagine something in-between my family and what was on TV. Like my reunited family grilling burgers around the pool. Bart and Kenny would continue to exist and be major pains to deal with. Maybe Mom and Dad would still argue and drink too much. We probably couldn’t afford such a cool house. But at least we would all be together. And when things got tough, I could just jump into the pool, or go to my own room. That’s how I ended my first day on the road, thinking of that kind of life. We stopped two more times on the way to Vegas. Once between Redding and Sacramento, and the final night in Pasadena, before taking I-15 on to Las Vegas. We didn’t stop off much along the way. Grandma didn’t drive, so Mom was pretty exhausted by the end of each day. The excitement of eating at the fast-food places along the road was starting to wear off, and sharing the motel room, after being cramped up in the car for the day, was definitely making me crazy. But we were all in a better place on that last leg of the trip. Mom made us wear the new clothes she had bought for us. Bart and Kenny thought they were cool-looking in matching striped shirts and shorts, and I actually liked the outfit Mom had picked out for me, which was a first. Mom looked great, despite the three days of driving. If I was Dad, I’d definitely be wanting us back. Dad was waiting for us at our motel. The plan was for him to have dinner with us, and the next day we would all go to the ranch he was working at for the day. He looked different than I remembered. He was a lot skinnier, and not as tall as I thought he was. Of course, I wasn’t eight years old either. His hair, which I remembered as the color of fresh chestnuts, glossy and dark brown, was mixed with grey and not as shiny. His face was tanned, with a lot more lines, like he had been out in the sun a lot. But when he saw us, he looked happy, with a big smile on his face. He hugged us all, except for Kenny, who hid behind Mom, not remembering who Dad was. Grandma Julie even allowed Dad to give her a hug, though she didn’t hug back. I don’t think she ever forgave him for leaving like he did. “Hey there Princess,” he said to me, using the nickname he used to use whenever he was in a good mood. I was tall enough so that he didn’t have to bend over to give me a hug, and I tried to make it last as long as I could before he pulled away. “Hi Dad,” I said, trying not to mess things up by crying. But I sure wanted to. “You have grown up to be almost as pretty as your mother,” he said, looking me in the eyes. “And you’ve grown so tall. What have you been feeding these kids?” he joked, looking over at Mom. “Just about everything under the sun, if you looked at the grocery bills,” she answered. “Then it must be time for refueling,” Dad said, looking serious. “Who’s up for dinner?” We were all starved, so we went right into dinner at a Denny’s next to the motel. Kenny loved Denny’s because he could have breakfast for dinner. I managed to beat out Kenny for the spot next to Dad, since Mom was on his right side. Every now and then Dad would put his arm around me and give me a squeeze. Except for Grandma Julie, we talked his ear off about the drive, school, what we liked and didn’t like. Dad asked a lot of questions and listened but didn’t say much about himself. He was a good listener, and when he looked straight at me with his blue eyes, which looked even more blue with his tanned skin, I just wanted to make him proud of me. It wasn’t just me that was trying to impress him. Mom was being her most charming, laughing, telling funny stories about us kids. And Bart was not teasing Kenny at all, despite that fact that they were right next to each other, and Bart could have easily done something like steal Kenny’s bacon, or give him an elbow poke. I think Kenny was surprised to be getting through an entire meal without having to defend himself. The check came way too fast, and before I knew it, we were saying goodbye in front of the motel. Dad and Mom confirmed the directions and time for meeting again tomorrow, and we all hugged again before Dad got into his pickup truck with the name of the ranch on the door, “Desert Breeze Dude Ranch”. We all waved until the truck became just a little speck down the road. The next day was so much fun. We had breakfast together at the ranch where Dad worked. I wasn’t sure what it was he did there, but he seemed to have the day off to spend time with us. Dad introduced us as “his Seattle family” as if he had another one there in Nevada. Some people looked surprised that he even had a family, but we kept so busy there wasn’t much time to talk. We went horseback riding, which we had never done before, played horseshoes, had a big buffet lunch that was served to all the ranch guests, and then went to the pool for the afternoon before heading for the “Dude Ranch BBQ” that was served every night. It wasn’t a fancy place. The Ranch looked like it had been around for quite a while, and the cabins needed some new paint. But I guess it was the desert that made everything and everybody look kind of dried out and dusty. Our cabin had two bedrooms, one for Mom and Grandma, and one for us kids, with a living room and kitchenette in between. After dinner we all headed to bed, and Bart and Kenny were out like a light, in no time. But I was curious. I knew we didn’t have much more time left, as Dad had to get back to work, and Mom had to get back to Seattle as well, as she only had a week off from her job. All day long, in between all our activities, I was watching Mom and Dad to see how they were doing. They didn’t seem to have a lot of time together, just by themselves, so I figured that maybe tonight they might be talking. After about a half hour when they had said good night to us, I heard the front screen door open, and it sounded like they were out on the sitting porch. I couldn’t really hear them from the bedroom, so I went into the bathroom, which luckily had the window open enough so that I could listen in. I sat on the toilet, with the window overhead, listening to their voices, hushed like they were trying to be as quiet as possible to not disturb the other guests. “This was such a nice day, Daniel,” Mom said, her voice sounding so calm, so relaxed. I could imagine them lined up, sitting side by side on the rocking chairs in front, facing the dusty parking lot. “The kids have never been happier.” “They are good kids, Helen. You did a good job raising them.” “Well, we’ve got a long way to go before they’re raised,” Mom chuckled. I liked that she said “we”. They were quiet for a while, before Mom said, “You are so good with them. Even Kenny has started to warm up to you.” Dad laughed. “Yeah, he’s a careful kid. Of course, he never really knew me. He was so young when I left.” “Do you regret leaving?” Mom asked. I couldn’t see them, but I bet that was a question she asked to the parking lot rather than to Dad directly. I counted to ten waiting for Dad’s answer. “Oh,” he sighed. “Sure I do. I regret a lot of things. I regret that I screwed things up to the point where I felt I had to leave. It seemed like one bad decision led to another, then another, until the choices available were suddenly very limited. At that point, it seemed to be the right thing for me to do.” “Did you miss us?” Mom asked. “Did you wonder what had happened to us once you were gone?” “I did. I thought of you all a lot. But of all people, Helen, you were not someone I worried about. You were always better at handling things than I could ever have been.” I could tell Mom was trying to not sound angry, speaking more slowly, more carefully. “I had no choice, Daniel. It was either I handle things or I fall apart, taking the kids with me. It wasn’t easy, by any means, and it still isn’t.” “I’m sure it wasn’t easy Helen, I didn’t mean to put it that way. It’s just….,” he paused. “It’s just what?” Mom asked, sounding like she was about to cry. “Tell me how you could have left us and then not let us know where you were, whether you were even still alive, until now.” “It was just best. For all of us. That I disappear and leave you to make a new life. If I had kept in touch, that would have given you hope for something I couldn’t deliver.” “But why can’t you ‘deliver’ now,” Mom pleaded. “I could get a job down here, to help with money. The kids would have a dad. And we could start over.” She paused, took a long breath, and then very quietly, barely loud enough for me to hear, said, “I still love you, Daniel. I always have, despite Ned.” Another pause, and then she asked, “Did you ever love me?” Dad let out a long sigh. It was a question she had asked before. Many times. “Yes Helen. I did love you.” “But that was a long time ago. Is that what you mean?” Her voice sounded hard. “If you mean loving you as if we can “start over”, I’d say that’s no longer possible,” Dad said. And then a bit softer, almost like he was trying to get her to understand, “I’ll always love you, Helen. But I can’t be who you want, or who you need. I figured that out long before I left.” In the silence, I imagined my mom in that rocking chair, crying, softly. “I’m sorry Helen. I am so, so sorry,” Dad said. I’d never seen my dad cry, but I think I heard the tears in his voice. I figured Mom would be coming in soon, so I waited until I got back to my bed before I let myself cry. I didn’t want to have her see me, to know that I knew. She needed time to make up a story about why we were heading home without Dad. And I needed time to be able to pretend, along with my mom, that we would be ok.
Brian Christopher Giddens is returning to a life-long love of creative writing after a career as a social worker, professor, and administrator in health care. Brian has studied writing with the creative writing programs at University of Washington and Stanford University. He has completed several short stories and poems and is currently working on a novel. Brian is a native of Seattle, Washington, where he lives with his husband and Jasper the dog.