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Father's Day MAG
by H. M.,
His hands pressed firmly against the mug,absorbing the radiating warmth into cold palms. Lost in thought, he staredcross-eyed at the amber surface of the tea and felt its warmth touch his tongue.A drop ran down his lower lip and he was just in time to catch it. It was bitterand sweet, a hot reminder of the cold room. Shivering, he bent over and thoughtof turning up the flame on the gas stove. Wish the landlord would fix the damnedfurnace.
"Hang in There!" the mug proclaimed in bright pink letters, aharried, two-dimensional cat holding onto its smooth surface for dear life. Hestared at it thoughtfully, curious and yet cross. Why did the cat hang on? Whydid the mug company stick him there? That wasn't fair. Poor kitty ... he stoppedhimself, baffled at his own stupid mind-wandering. Great, Todd, you're comingapart at the seams. Talking to your mug; people'll start thinking you've gotsomething stronger in there than good ol' Lipton ...
A knock on the doorstartled him and he stood to answer it, brown slippers shuffling across the blackand white checked linoleum tiles. Without the habitual glance through thepeephole, he slid back the deadbolt. "Yeah?" he called.
"Package for ToddR. Bartlett," the UPS delivery man replied, clipboard shoved forward by a slimblack hand. This was a graveyard shift to be proud of, Todd thought as he lookedbeyond into the hall with its one working light bulb. Todd signed and receivedthe package in tired arms, a frown crossing his face. Once the delivery guy hadretreated down the hall, he set the package on the table beside a ceramic ashtrayand ran a hand through his wavy brown locks. What have we here?
Toddtugged at the tape with bare hands until his fingers went numb, then retrieved apair of scissors from the bedroom. They were dull, one haircut too many, but notbad enough to waste two bucks on a new pair. The tape fell away in twin folds andTodd pulled at the cardboard flaps. A wad of tissue fell out, sprung from itsprison, and landed at his feet with a rustle. He kicked it aside under thekitchen counter and crumpled the remaining stuff in a paper bag before pullingout the contents of the box.
First was a note, hastily scrawled in afamiliar print he knew and hated so well. "Blah, blah, blah," it read, "Tamisha'ssecond grade photos ... your Father's Day present ... where's the alimony check?"Todd mumbled something about alimony where the sun didn't shine andsighed.
Under the note was a photo frame and an envelope of snapshots.Tamisha, wearing a red jumper with bunnies. Red. When was Laura going to figureout Tamisha looked detestable in red ... Todd held the picture up to the barelight bulb, counted the three missing teeth and saw the new velveteen bows on hisdaughter's pigtails. His daughter. Not the daughter of the rich executive Laurawas shacking up with, the one who bought Tamisha bows and chocolates and a homein the country. Tamisha was his, down to the pixie ears and the last cent ofalimony because he loved her more than anyone in the world and to hell with thejudge who said he didn't.
Rooted to the floor, aching to hold her, Toddfished around at the bottom of the package for the object Laura had so carelesslylabeled "Father's Day present." You'd better bet I'm her father. His fist closedon a lump in the far corner and he pulled out a blue ashtray, lopsided andcollapsing inward where the clay had been squashed. Blue paint chips were groundinto powder in the box. Another one; he had a million like them, all awkward andbent, all as precious as the girl who made them each spring to send to Daddy.Tears stung his eyes and he sat for a moment before reaching for the phone bookon its string. Numbly he lifted the phone from the wall hook and dialed theeleven unfamiliar digits. Laura had run as far as she could from him, knowing itwasn't far enough. He wiped at his nose as the line buzzed a hundred milesaway.
"Blackstein residence, Tammy speaking," piped up the voice on theother end, the letter S whistling through the gaps in her teeth. Tammy? When hadTamisha changed to Tammy?
"Hey babekins, it's Daddy. I just wanted tothank you for the beautiful present." Todd fondled the garish object as if itwere a Rodin, the ashtray a coveted work of art. "Mommy sent me a picture of you.How big you've grown." It was all useless talk, good to be said, but only wordsto replace the hug he felt inside. "How's my babekins doing?"
"Okay. Me'n' Charles went to the beach and we made a sandcastle. He showed me where tofind neat shells." Shells came out "phells." Todd ground his teeth. So now thefat slug was making sandcastles with Tamisha. Yeah, playing the role of perfectdaddy. Puts ol' Todd the welfare reject to shame. Tamisha babbled on about themoat, raising the long-distance price. Todd listened, hanging on every word withbittersweet sadness. At least someone was there for her, a father figure. Atleast she wasn't living off Food Stamps and fuel aid and Salvation Armystockings. But what Daddy wouldn't give for a kiss and a bedtimestory.
The phone scraped and a harsh voice assailed him over Tamisha's."You! I told you not to call here!" Laura screeched. "I want you out of my life.Permanently. You -"
"I don't want to be out of our daughter's life,Laurie! You have no right to run away with her. I don't care where you go, butyou can't take my baby - yes, she's mine too, not his - and I have a right totell her I love her -"
"Keep away from us, Theodore, or I swear I'll get acourt order."
"I haven't done a friggin' thing -"
"The hell youhaven't!" The line went dead with a resounding crash. Todd blinked, lowered thereceiver. A pack of Carltons was in his hands, el-cheapo matches lighting ashaking cigarette. He raised it to his lips, stared at it and stubbed it out inTamisha's ashtray. Leaping to his feet, he smashed his head against therefrigerator door, over and over, a string of swears escaping from between hisclenched teeth. Exhausted, he leaned back, watching a disturbed fly orbit theceiling.
As his mind wandered, he asked himself how Tamisha would rememberhim: the here today, gone tomorrow dad working three jobs seven days a week, thewelfare dad filling out finance forms with single digit salaries, thelong-distance dad of ten-minutes' talk, two minutes' fight and four months'silence. Or would she remember him at all? No more babekins, or ashtrays orbunnies - no sandcastles by an ocean he'd never seen.
Todd snatched theempty package off the table and hurled it at the trash bucket. A piece of paperfluttered and lodged under the stove. Slowly, hesitantly, he bent and worked itfree. A moment passed, an eternity, as he stared at the paper. A crayon picture -a girl and her father at a city playground and the four magic words:
"Ilove you Daddy."