by J.D. Tuccille
Even an angry man eventually mellows and spends some nice, restful quality time with his dear daughter. After all, children must be taught the ways of the world.
Tom saw his ex-wife on the first Saturday of every month. It was an event that he anticipated with malevolent glee. Considerable thought went into the few words that Tom had time to utter before the woman who had once shared his life turned over their daughter and retreated into the distance.
Tom arrived a few minutes early at the shopping mall he and Barbara currently used as a neutral meeting ground. The earliest visits had been, as the judge had specified, at the child's primary residence - which happened to be the mother's home. Tom had raised no objection when soon after the settlement, Barbara had insisted that the meetings be held anywhere but her home.
His eyes hidden behind a pair of silver-rimmed drugstore sunglasses, Tom lounged across a bench as if it was his own as he waited for his ex-wife and daughter. He watched the pedestrians inch past, picking their way around his feet, which projected just a bit too far into the crowded passageway.
"Daddy," a little voice called.
Tom waited a long moment, then turned his head slowly and spread a wide grin across his face. "Hey, knuckle head."
A small blur flew across a short distance and buried itself in Tom's nylon windbreaker. Tom put a headlock on it and gave it a casual noogy with his right hand. Then he looked up.
"Barbara," Tom said in apparent pleasure, with one burly arm folded possessively around his daughter. "It's good to see you."
Barbara returned Tom's look, then quickly broke eye contact. Again, she looked, and again she looked away. Though clearly not old, she was . . . weathered. Experience shown in the fine mesh of lines that crowded her eyes and mouth, like the dings and scratches on even the most carefully maintained taxi.
"Don't smile at me, Tom."
Tom's grin widened, just a bit.
"Oh, Barbara, Happy Birthday."
Barbara winced, ever so slightly. "Thanks."
"You know," Tom added, "with each year, I see just a bit more of your mother in you. It suits you."
The corners of Barbara's mouth fluttered. Her mother had only recently joined AA, again.
The crook of Tom's arm flexed a bit, and their daughter chimed in. "Yeah, Mom, you look like gramma!"
Barbara's mouth tightened. "Have Tammy home on-time, tomorrow."
"I always do," Tom said.
"You hungry?" Tom asked. He drove the truck one-handed, leaning against the bench seat at a casual angle to face his daughter. The speedometer needle hovered precisely at the legal limit and he spoke loudly to be heard over a chorus of car horns.
"Yeah. I wanna hamburger."
Tom thought for a moment. "All right. I know a place where you can get a hamburger, and throw peanut shells on the floor."
Tammy looked skeptical. "I can throw stuff on the floor?"
"Oh yeah. You'll see."
Under Tom's guidance, the truck lumbered down several streets, stopping at yellow lights and speeding up only to slingshot around corners before settling back to an obstructionist pace. Tom finally coasted the 4-wheel drive into a nose-in slot with his passenger side scant inches from a sedan of recent vintage, leaving a gap narrow enough to challenge even the most diet conscious driver.
Inside, Tom and Tammy were placed at a sturdy, polyurethaned table in a room full of such tables, each one populated by any number of adults, and at least one child. Tom draped his windbreaker across the back of his chair, then extracted a plastic bag full of peanuts from a pocket.
"Like this, knuckle head." He cracked a shell between thumb and forefinger and scooped the meat into his mouth. Before dropping the shell, he crushed it with a quick clench of his fist so that light powder and fine fibers settled slowly to the floor. Then, he grabbed another nut.
Tammy looked on wide-eyed, watching her father's technique. She grabbed a handful of nuts and succeeded in shooting two of them on a restaurant-spanning trajectory before breaching the shell of a third.
It took the manager almost five minutes to arrive.
"Sir, has it been a while since you've been to one of our restaurants?" The manager seemed apologetic to the point of embarrassment.
Tom beamed back a wide and toothy smile. "A couple of years, at least. I useta love these places - especially when you had the old Three Stooges movies. I guess you stopped havin' the movies, huh?"
"Well, yes. We also changed our policy about peanut shells on the floor."
Tom narrowed his smile just a little, turning down the corners of his mouth. Watching her dad, Tammy did the same.
"It wasn't our idea," the manager quickly added. "It was new fire laws."
"Aw, I'm sorry. That's why I brought my kid, I thought she'd get a kick out of it." Tom bent down and picked at a few of the shell fragments on the floor. "I can clean these up."
"No, no, no. That's OK." The manager looked back and forth between the wide, innocent faces of Tom and Tammy. "Tell you what, since you didn't know, just go ahead with the peanuts. We can sweep up later."
"Hey, that's real regular of you. Thanks."
When Tom and daughter left, several hamburgers later, they had to step carefully. The ring of peanut shells around their table was echoed, across the room, by mounds and splatters of food, paper and scraps of unknown origin. Like a pebble dropped into a pond, a few peanuts had set up an armada of sympathetic ripples among the establishment's younger clientele.
Looking on through an expression of mixed awe and dread, the manager wished Tom and Tammy a good day.
"No doubt," Tom said. "Thanks again."
Watching their retreating backs, the expression on the manager's face abruptly changed. "Wait, where did you get those peanuts?"
Tom looked back, over his shoulder, and smiled.
The truck lurched down the road from the restaurant and up an access ramp to the highway. Tammy knelt on the front passenger seat peering through the windshield at the traffic.
"Can we play Pac Man, Daddy?" Tammy asked. The girl still had ketchup stains at the corners of her mouth, so Tom pulled a rag from under the seat and reached across the cab of his truck to wipe away the residue.
Tom squinted at the road, then checked his rear view mirror and nodded slowly. "Yeah. I think we can play Pac Man." With his tongue and lips he began imitating the electronic beeps of a video game that had come and gone before his daughter's birth. Simultaneously, the four-wheel drive's engine rumbled with acceleration.
Tammy squealed with pleasure as they sped in pursuit of an aging Subaru. Tom beep-beeped continuously through his teeth as the distance between the two vehicles closed and the chrome slats of his truck's radiator grill filled the vista from the little car's rear window. The prey swerved desperately from side to side and Tom stood on the accelerator while Tammy bounced up and down in her seat. Inches from contact, Tom howled and yanked on the steering wheel. The truck shrieked by the tiny hatchback to leave it jerking helplessly towards the road's shoulder.
The truck surged forward on the scent of an open-topped convertible. As they whipped around the car at the last minute, Tammy waved cheerfully at the pinched, anxious faces of the frantic occupants.
Tom beeped and howled through three more encounters, each time veering the truck away from impending carnage with little room to spare. He drew the game to a close by cutting off a fire-red two door to race down an exit ramp amidst a squawl of protesting horns.
"I like Pac Man," Tammy said.
The blue and red lights appeared in the rear view mirror with the insistency of a neglected spouse. From the end of the quarter-mile distant off-ramp, and through the intervening blocks, the lights flashed and the siren sounded.
Finally, grudgingly, Tom pulled the truck to the side of the road.
"Sir, could I please see your license and registration."
Tom dug out his wallet and slapped the glove compartment open. "Sorry, officer. My daughter has to go to the bathroom real bad." He snapped his thumb towards the little girl in the passenger seat.
The officer peered into the cab of the truck.
"Daaaddy, I gotta go real baaad." Tammy crossed her legs tight and curled the corners of her mouth down towards her chin.
"Damn. Officer, I gotta take care of this. Could you watch my car for a minute?"
Without waiting for an answer, Tom opened the door of the truck and led Tammy out by the hand. He left the keys in the ignition.
"We'll be right back."
With apparent urgency, the two stepped away from the car, down an alley, and around a corner. Out of sight of the policeman, Tom stopped and, with his arms tucked behind his back, began to whistle softly. The tune carried oddly in the confines of the trash-strewn alley, echoing faintly from the water-stained brick walls.
Tammy looked on, curiously, then suddenly brought her hands together in delight.
"London Bridge," she mouthed silently.
Tom nodded in approval, then held up a finger as he tried another.
Once again, the girl listened attentively, keeping an ear cocked for familiar notes.
"This Old Man," she finally mouthed, with a small jump of victory.
Tom smiled and nodded. He checked his watch. Then, he took Tammy by the hand and led her back the way they'd come.
Back in Tom's neighborhood, Tom and Tammy entered the park that cut a green passage through several blocks of semi-detached homes, small grocers, and rowdy, brick-fronted taverns. Tom kept his eyes focused on the treetops as if he expected a quick view of a rare bird slumming among the pigeons. Tammy imitated her father, craning her head back to spot whatever curiosity held the man's interest. It was a pleasant day, and the park was thickly populated with pedestrians and mothers pushing baby carriages who were forced to detour out of the duo's path. Time and again, Tom politely apologized, then immediately returned to his view of the treetops, apparently oblivious to the surrounding traffic.
"Could I have an ice cream, Daddy?"
Tom stopped in the middle of the path, forcing yet more diversions in the flow of traffic. He slipped his wallet from his pocket, glanced at the contents, and grimaced.
"Maybe a little later, knuckle head."
A few minutes later, Tom stopped to wait for his daughter to catch up. She smiled at him as she strolled and they continued along. Tammy quickly fell behind again, finding odd distractions every few feet, and Tom rested against a water fountain until she closed the distance.
"C'mon, pick it up a little."
Once more, he had to stop to wait for Tammy. She paused to look at a squirrel, to jerk on a rusty chain, and to jump through the fading remnants of a hopscotch game. Slowly, step after step, she reached her father.
"Hey, what's going . . . ," he started, then paused at his daughter's look of pure innocence. As he turned away, he let a small smile of satisfaction play across his face.
Now, Tom stepped along just a bit more quickly. He didn't bother to look back, but continued along as if alone. Down the path he went, his eyes lowered to meet the approaching traffic, past pedestrians and bicyclists, smoothly increasing his speed. After several hundred feet, he turned off the path back towards the street.
"Daddy, wait." Tammy ran to the edge of the park, out of breath and on the verge of tears. "You walk too fast."
"Oh, I'm sorry," Tom said. "I thought you were right behind me."
Tammy clutched at his hand.
"Oh, look where we came out." Tom pointed at a bar across the street that was doing a heavy afternoon business. As they looked on, a scrawny figure with a tangled mop of hair scurried out, pursued by a heavyset man wearing an apron over his shirt and pants.
Tammy hid herself behind her father. "Yuck," she said.
"Oh, don't say that," Tom answered. "That used to be your mother's favorite place." He patted the girl comfortingly. "I never liked it much."
They crossed with the light and continued past the bar through Tom's neighborhood. Along the street, they passed clusters of people sitting, talking, and eating on the stoops of their apartment buildings. Here and there, people called out or waved to Tom, and he and Tammy returned the greetings.
They stopped at one cluster of young men, all dressed in undershirts or stripped down to bare torsos. "Hey, Tom," one man called. "That your kid?"
"I'm Tammy," the girl answered.
"Hey, bring her over here," another said, laughing. "She can watch us throw the dice."
"Yeah, I wanna see." She squirmed through the crowd.
"Here ya go, little girl. You might learn something."
A clatter sounded.
"Yeah." Then the slap of bills against the pavement.
"Ooh," Tammy's high squeak came. "You crapped out."
The men laughed except for the scowling one whose money was scooped from the concrete. "Little girl . . . ," he began in a low growl.
Tom's shadow fell over the scowling man, and there was quiet.
"Let's go, Tammy." Thick arms lifted Tammy as if she were a toy, and they continued down the street.
Sunday morning, Tom took his daughter out for a late breakfast.
"I wanna see a movie," Tammy announced afterwards as she and her father drove by the crowded black-and-white sign of a multiplex cinema.
"Uh huh," Tom said. "And so?"
Tammy looked blank for a moment. Then she sat up straighter, her eyes widened just a bit, and her lips pursed sweetly. "Could we please see a movie?"
Tom said nothing, but pulled the truck over to the side of the road to straddle two parking spots. "Sure. Why not?" He reached behind the seat and grabbed a newspaper from the foot well. The pages rustled one after the other until the movie section lay open. "Anything in particular you wanna see?"
"Your mother wouldn't think you're old enough to see this."
The angelic expression fled Tammy's face and she crossed her arms tightly. "I'm old enough."
"Are you sure? I don't want to upset your mom."
"I'm old enough. I promise."
"All right, knuckle head," Tom said with a shrug. "If you think you're old enough, we'll go see a zombie movie."
Father and daughter strolled the short distance to the cinema entrance.
"One adult, one child."
The woman behind the counter looked curiously at Tammy.
"I'm old enough," Tammy insisted, crossing her arms once again.
Above her, Tom rolled his eyes and shrugged. The woman smiled in sympathy and surrendered the tickets.
Inside, Tom parked his daughter by the video games while he went in search of the men's room. Returning, he spotted Tammy chatting amiably with a middle aged woman. The girl smiled, blushed, and displayed her dimples to best effect. Her eyes grew wide as a kitten's and she twirled in place like a ballerina. Tom stopped to watch as the woman fussed over the girl, patted her on the head, and finally led Tammy to the snack counter and bought her a soda.
"Hey, knuckle head," Tom called out once his daughter was alone.
"Wheredja get the soda?"
Tammy shrugged as if the question wasn't worth considering.
"You OK?" Tom asked two hours later. As they emerged from the movie theater into the evening dusk, Tammy clung to her father. Her face was the color of chalk. "I'd hate to think I did something wrong by taking you to a scary movie."
"Uh uh," Tammy answered, tearing herself away from Tom. "I'm fine. I liked the movie." She squeezed out a smile. "It was really gross."
Tom glanced at his watch. "Well, we just have time to get something to eat before I take you back to your mom."
The girl rubbed lightly at her belly. "That's OK, Daddy. I'm not really hungry."
It was dark when they pulled into nearly empty parking garage of the mall. Tammy looked around apprehensively at the dimly-lit cavern broken up by a gloomy forest of concrete columns and the lonely vehicles of late shoppers. Odd sounds echoed from the hard, angled edges of the structure.
"A lot like that scene from the movie, isn't it?" Tom asked.
"Uh huh," Tammy said, tightly gripping her father's hand. "I didn't like that part of the movie."
"It's OK, knuckle head. The mall is right over there."
With Tammy almost dragging her father, the two made their way towards, and then through, the glass doors to the well-lit shopping area.
Barbara sat at a bench along a main pedestrian area, sucking on an unlit cigarette. An empty paper coffee cup rested next to her. "Almost on time, Tom. Like always."
"Hi, Barbara. Didja enjoy your weekend?"
Barbara met Tom's gaze for a moment, then wearily looked away. "No, Tom. No, I didn't."
"Why not, Mommy?"
Barbara looked back at her ex-husband, then at her daughter. "No reason, Tammy. Mommy just wasn't feeling well."
"I'm sorry to hear that." Tom patted his daughter on the head, and she leaned against him. "Tammy and I had a good time."
"I'll bet," Barbara said.
"We did, Mommy. We had a lot of fun. We played Pac Man."
Tom quickly squeezed the girl's shoulder, and she quieted in response. "Well," he said. "Your mom's not feeling so good, and you were up kinda late last night, so why don't we say goodbye, and I'll see you next time."
"Oh, all right, Daddy."
"C'mon honey," Barbara said. "The car's in the garage."
Tammy quickly stiffened.
"In the dark? Can't we just stay here a while. I don't wanna go in the dark."
"What's wrong, Tammy? Since when are you afraid . . .?" Barbara stopped and looked up. "Tom?"
But Tom was gone, or at least out of view. Around a corner, within earshot, he folded his arms and leaned against the wall.
"So, you had a good time, and now you're afraid of the dark," he heard Barbara say. Well-worn resignation saturated her voice.
"Uh huh. I guess so," their daughter answered. Then, with more assurance, "Mommy, when I grow up, I wanna be like Daddy."
Oh, I wouldn't worry. I'm sure your ex is nothing like that!