Winter 1994, Volume 11.1
A Daughter is a Different Matter
Kevin Avery is president of Writers at Work. His fiction has appeared in Utah Holidz California Quarterly, Mississippi Review, Erotic Fiction Quarterly, and Gallery Magazine. He is a music critic for The Arts Magazine and The Event.
Ray walks up the driveway and into the garage, opens the car door, fits his briefcase into the space behind the driver's seat. He stops short of climbing in.
Stacked pyramidally against the right-hand wall of the garage are eight cardboard boxes. Ray has stacked them there, one or two at a time, over a period of several years. He has labeled each of them "LIVVY'S STUFF" in red, green, blue, and black felt-tip pen. These are the things that Livvy no longer wants in her room, but which she won't give Ray permission to throw away. Not yet.
It's not that she's outgrown them-her room still has the ability to startle first-time visitors. It's a menagerie for Snoopys and teddy bears of all sizes and a Bullwinkle and a stuffed lime-green rhinoceros the size of a pit bull and a Bart Simpson doll that, when you yank his string, says "Eat my shorts" or "Au contraire, mon frere " It's just that these toys, the ones in the boxes, come from a different -part of Livvy's childhood. Against her will, they have lost their meaning for her.
Ray carries the cardboard boxes down the driveway, one at a time. He lines them up along the curb, beside the bags of grass clippings and leaves, and the army-colored plastic garbage can with wheels on it like those on a child's red wagon.
He thinks he should've seen it coming, caught a glimpse of the betrayal beforehand, like a sliver of glass flashing in the carpet Just before being stepped on. But he didn't.
Ray didn't know daughters could be like that.
When he picks up the last box, it fools him and weighs next to nothing. He kneels in the driveway and pulls open the interlocked cardboard flaps. Inside are four Barbie dolls, their wildly undone blonde hair threatening to take over the otherwise empty box. All of them are naked and posture perfect.
Ray picks up one of the dolls and runs his thumb across the breasts, which are large and smooth and nippleless. The legs are close together, and the toes come to a dangerous point. He holds the doll as if it were a pink dagger and stabs at the air.
Ray was in bed last night when Livvy called and asked if she could sleep over at Sheila's. She'd gone over there for supper and to watch The Simpsons, the way she always does, and was supposed to have been home by ten. But the news was already over and Leno was coming on when the phone rang.
"It's a school night," Ray said.
"Don't be a dad," Livvy said. She reminded him that school would let out at noon tomorrow to launch the opening weekend of deer season. "Remember, Dad?"
"When I went to school," Ray said, "deer-hunting wasn't a recognized holiday."
"Daa-aad," Livvy whined, cleaving the word into two, almost three, syllables.
Ray asked to speak with Sheila's mother.
"Oh right," Livvy said, "totally embarrass me."
"Livvy, I just want to make sure you're not being a bother."
"When have I ever been a bother?" she wanted to know.
"Mrs. Reed, please," Ray said.
He didn't think anything of the heavy metal music playing in the background. Or the muffled whispering as Livvy's small hand smothered the mouthpiece. To Ray they seemed nothing more than the naturally loud and furtive ingredients of a teenage sleep-over.
While Ray waited, he closed his eyes and imagined Sheila scurrying up or down carpeted stairs in search of Mrs. Reed, whom he had met only twice. The first time had been when she carpooled Livvy and Sheila and three of their friends to the star show at the planetarium. That night, when she returned with the girls, Mrs. Reed and Ray had stood drinking his freshly-made lemonade in the backyard, the lawn still wet from the sprinklers, looking up into the night sky for Orion and Andromeda, pointing out the Pleiades.
A week or so later Ray had stopped off at Albertson's on his way home from work, and there she'd been, Mrs. Reed, looking too young to be anyone's mother, let alone a teenager's. Standing in the frozen-food section, Ray in his jacket and tie and Mrs. Reed in a tight red dress that he couldn't imagine being worn anywhere except to a cocktail party, he had said, for no other reason than not wanting the conversation to end before it had begun, how fortunate the two of them were to have two such wonderful daughters when there were so many un-wonderful daughters in the world today.
Ray has never forgotten Mrs. Reed's reply. Her words had been without spite or cynicism, but as she spoke them she'd reached over and touched Ray's hand on the handle of the shopping cart, gently, as if preparing him for something painful.
"Someone will take care of that in short order," she said.
Ray's eyes were still shut last night, and he was thinking how much he was looking forward to talking to Mrs. Reed again, thinking how sexy and sensible she seemed and how the two qualities complemented each other, when a voice other than Mrs. Reed's-a man's voice-came on the line.
"Hello," Ray said. "This is Ray, Livvy's father."
"I'm Lou, Sheila's dad," the man said. "Real nice to meet you."
As if Mr. Reed could suddenly see him, as if he'd been caught thinking about this other man's wife, Ray sat up in bed. His heart beat faster. He used his fingers to comb his hair.
"Listen," Ray said, "I just wanted to make sure Livvy's not being a bother, it being a school night and all."
"Not in the least," Mr. Reed said. "We love having her."
"You didn't spend last night at Sheila's?" It came out sounding like the second stupidest question Ray had ever asked.
The first had been when Livvy first came in this morning, through the back door into the kitchen. Ray was standing at the stove, slurping his second cup of coffee, debating whether or not to fry himself an egg.
"Didn't Mr. Reed drive you home?" he asked.
"No," she said snottily, "Mr. Reed didn't drive me home." Her red parka flashed in the corner of his eye, and when he readied his cheek to receive her customary good-morning kiss she hurried past him. He caught a glimpse of her face as she turned it away from him, as if captured in a blurry snapshot.
He followed her into the living room, then back into the kitchen. She stood at the sink, staring into it, and squirted too much detergent into last night's frying pan, then ran water into it.
"Take off your coat and tell me what's going on," Ray said. In the yellow kitchen light he saw how tired she looked. Her hair was windblown, and when he tried to brush it away from her cheeks, still red from the cold morning air, she swatted his hand away.
Livvy started to fix herself a cup of Taster's Choice, but Ray took the jar out of her hand. "Go hang up your coat," he said. "If you're cold, turn up the furnace."
She sat down at the kitchen table, leaving the parka on.
Ray added three teaspoons of sugar and two teaspoons of nondairy creamer to the coffee, the way Livvy likes it. He fixed it in her favorite mug, the one with the wraparound Gary Larson cartoon of two deer standing in the forest, one of them with a target painted on the white of its chest. He tried to hold the mug for her while she sipped, and at first she let him, but then took it from him and said, "I'm no baby."
Then Livvy told him-too matter-of-factly, he thought, too easily-that she'd spent last night with John Wesley Rogers, a thirty-one-year-old cement contractor from West Valley. She kept calling him "JWR" and said they met two weeks ago at the Salt Palace during the Vocation Expo. Livvy and Sheila had been manning East High's booth and had walked away with second-place ribbon for their presentation "Architecture: Art We Live and Work In."
"JWR said we deserved first place," Livvy told Ray.
"What does he know?" Ray didn't like the way this other man's name sounded in his daughter's mouth.
"You'd like him," she said. "He builds buildings."
"Jesus Christ, Livvy, he's more than twice your age!"
"It's not like he's old enough to be my father."
"Pretty damn close," Ray said. "Biologically, he could be."
"Well, he's not," she said. "That's what matters."
The sight of Livvy's fists on the white tabletop, small and pink like rosebuds unable to bloom, left Ray speechless. He wanted to tell her how much he trusted her, that it was the most intimate way he knew to show his love for her, but the words just wouldn't come.
"Anyway," Livvy said, shrugging, lost inside the too-big parka, "it just sorta happened."
The idea comes to Ray on the way to work, grows with each stoplight. It's at times like this he wishes he believed in God. He envies those who do, and thinks it must keep a lot of them in line. He can't imagine that too many of them actually drop to their knees to pray; but like the pistol Ray keeps in the glove compartment, just knowing that the option is there must comfort them.
It's a nickel-plated .38.
At the office, Ray spends the first hour at his desk opening mail. Most of it is junk mail, and he throws it away without opening it: advertisements for seminars and day-planners and books and tapes on how to become a better manager. The rest are new claims. He separates them into new and resubmitted stacks, which he then files away. Though he tries not to, he keeps thinking about Livvy and John Wesley Rogers and what they did last night. It occurs to him that maybe it wasn't their first time together, but he instantly puts that thought out of his mind.
He looks up "Rogers, John Wesley", in the White Pages. The name occupies two lines on the blotchy paper and stands out from all the others. Ray figures John Wesley Rogers is the kind of guy who's proud of the extra space he takes up. Even his initials, JWR, contain more syllables than Ray has in his entire name.
He lives at 4495 Riverchase Drive.
Ray dials John Wesley Rogers's number several times throughout the morning, but always hangs up as soon as the connection is made. He doesn't want to know what John Wesley Rogers sounds like, whether his voice is slick or gruff or hoarse, what sort of filler words he uses, whether he's an "uh" or an "um" person, if he's one of those people who hum while thinking of what to say next. Ray doesn't want to know if John Wesley Rogers is at home.
By midmorning he's letting the phone ring up to three times. Then he lets it ring four times and is about to hang up, has the handset halfway from his ear to the cradle, when he hears a click.
"Hi, you've reached my machine," the man's voice says. Ray recognizes it as the same one he last night thought was Mr. Reed's. "I'm not here right now, or if I am I'm in the shower, or still asleep, or just plain don't want to answer your call. But don't take it personally. Leave your name and number and I'll get back with you--"
Ray hangs up. For the rest of the morning he pushes the redial button several times, listens to the message again and again, memorizes the greeting, despising it more each time. He notices that John Wesley Rogers uses no filler words whatsoever, but speaks smoothly, insinuatingly, like a late-night FM disc jockey.
Finally, after the beep, Ray says, "I hope you have a daughter someday," and hangs up.
Ray wants, to talk to Livvy, wants a reason beyond hormones and carelessness for what she did. But he can't find it in himself to call her, and wouldn't know how to talk to her about it if he did.
He opens the White Pages again, this time turning to the R's. Running his finger up and down the columns, trying to remember Mrs. Reed's first name, which he either never knew or doesn't remember, he finds only one Reed listed on Ramona Avenue, where Sheila lives.
"Hi," Ray says, "this is Mr. Harris, Livvy's father."
"Well, hello there, Mr. Harris, Livvy's father," she says, sounding pleased to hear from him. "This is Mrs. Reed, Sheila's mother."
There's an uncomfortable pause as Ray thinks what to say next, how to begin. He wishes he had a window in his office so he could look outside and make small talk about the weather. But the only light in his office is fluorescent and strung with cobwebs, the only plants are plastic and in need of dusting.
"Would you like to go to lunch today?" he says abruptly. He looks at his watch and sees that it's almost straight-up noon.
"It took you long enough," she says. "I've been waiting for your call ever since that day at the supermarket."
"So is that a yes?"
"Yes, Mr. Harris," she says, "that's a yes."
Just before hanging up, after they make plans to meet in a half-hour at the nearby Sizzler, it occurs to Ray to ask, "Are you still married, or should I ask?"
"Would it matter?" she says.
"It would've happened sooner or later," Mrs. Reed tells Ray at lunch. She's not wearing her cocktail dress today, but Western-cut jeans and a cream-colored silk blouse.
"That's what Livvy said," he says. "'It just sorta happened."'
"It probably did." Mrs. Reed reaches over and forks a cantaloupe wedge off the fruit plate that Ray built at the salad bar. He expects her to say more, to fill this gap in his education, but all she does is reach over and steal a couple of white grapes. She pops both of them into her mouth and raises her eyebrows, as if to say, "Well, what do you think?"
"Things like this don't just happen," Ray says a little too loudly. "Black eyes just happen. Unwanted children just happen. Falling rocks and car crashes just happen."
Mrs. Reed reaches over, and at first Ray thinks it's to swipe more of his lunch, but instead she places two fingers on Ray's hand, the same as she did that day at the supermarket, then touches them to her lips. He looks around and sees that lunch-goers at the adjoining tables are watching them. Leaning closer to Mrs. Reed, across the fruit plate, he whispers, "But betrayal is different. It has to be thought out, plotted, planned. It doesn't just happen."
"Betrayal, huh?" Mrs. Reed's sleek eyebrows rise onto her forehead like sea gulls taking flight.
"Deception, then," Ray says. "Whatever."
"Oh," she says and pops another grape into her mouth. "It's like that, is it?"
Her hair is shorter and, Ray thinks, redder than last time he saw her. He notices what he's noticed before: that Sheila has inherited her mother's grand cheekbones.
"You know what Chekhov said," Mrs. Reed says.
Ray says, "Refresh my memory."
As if the words are printed on the inside of her eyelids, she closes her eyes and recites them: ... "A man can deceive his fiancée or his mistress as much as he likes, and in the eyes of a woman he loves an ass may pass for a philosopher; but a daughter is a different matter."
Seemingly proud of her recitation, she steals another grape off of Ray's plate, but he takes it away from her.
"What's that supposed to mean?" he says.
"Whatever you want it to mean." She shrugs.
"You're saying this is all about me. Aren't you? I should've had lunch with John Bradshaw."
Mrs. Reed shrugs again. "But you invited me," she says.
Ray moves the remaining pieces of fruit around on his plate with his fork. "Anyway," he says, "I think she wanted it to happen."
"You're afraid she did."
"Livvy isn't that way."
"Ray, have you looked at you daughter lately? At my Sheila? At the way they dress, the makeup they wear? Do you think it's just to look like Madonna?"
"Wrong guess, I guess?"
"Guess again," Mrs. Reed says. "Think about it, Ray: in a free country, why would anybody want to dress in black bustiers and cheap rayon blouses and Lycra pants? What they want is what Madonna gets for looking like that: the money, the fame, and, hold onto your hat, Ray, the men."
Ray doesn't admit to Mrs. Reed that he has indeed noticed how Livvy's friends dress, nor does he tell her how uncomfortable he sometimes feels when they come over to the house. Sheila, in particular, Mrs. Reed's daughter, a pretty blonde who's too tall for her age and wears too much eye shadow. She sports jeans that are too tight and chronically forgets to button the top two buttons of her blouse.
It's not just the way she dresses, but the way she looks at Ray, unflinchingly, as if daring him to think the things about her that he tries so hard not to. Whenever she comes into the backyard with Livvy, Ray excuses himself to make a phone call or wash his hands. Once inside the house, he watches Sheila's young body in slices through the slats of the Levolors.
"Why did it take you so long to call me?" Mrs. Reed folds her arms and rests them on the table. Smiling, she relishes the time it takes him to come up with an answer.
"Like I said," he says, "I thought you were still married." He balls up his napkin and tosses it onto the empty plate.
"I can't believe Livvy didn't say something. I can't count how many times I told her to invite you over for one of our Thursday night get-togethers. That's no excuse, I know, I should've called and invited you myself, but I wish you'd have come."
Ray smiles helplessly. He doesn't tell her that this is the first he's heard of any dinner invitations. He wonders why Livvy didn't say anything.
"I'm afraid to answer," Ray says.
"Sooner or later," she says, "whatever's supposed to happen, happens. You calling me, for instance. I don't know why it took you so long, but I'm glad you finally did. And I have faith in the cosmic calendar that there must've been some raison d'etre for it happening the way it did."
She reaches across the tabletop and squeezes his hand. His first instinct is to pull it away, but he likes the way it feels and squeezes back.
"As far as Livvy goes, Ray, so she jumped the gun a bit." Mrs. Reed shrugs. "What are you going to do? Hey, what can you do? Look at me: I only remained immaculate till I was fourteen, and I turned out okay." Her eyebrows rise and fall. "Didn't IT'
After lunch Ray doesn't return to work. He thinks about calling in a made-up excuse, but even that seems like too much effort. He goes through the motions of heading for home, but only makes it three blocks before changing direction and getting on the freeway.
Leaning across the front seat, he opens the glove compartment to make sure the pistol is still there. He checks to see if it's loaded, then places it on the seat beside him.
Only twice has Ray pulled a trigger. The first time was when he was sixteen and went deer-hunting with his father. He's never gone since. It was the year after Ray's older brother Alan had died in a motel room in Bremerton. Alan had hunted and fished big-time, just as his father had raised him to.
Raymond and his father came across an out-of-season moose grazing on some joint grass, and his father urged him to shoot it.
"Nobody'll ever know," he whispered in Ray's ear.
Ray can still recall the huge slow-motion sound of the dumb, beautiful animal's fall to the ground, the scrape of its antlers in the hard dirt. The musky smell of the carcass as they wrapped it in a plastic tarpaulin and covered it with branches and leaves and marked the spot with a small pyramid of rocks.
It was too enormous for them to pack out of the canyon by themselves, and Ray's father promised him that they'd get help and come back for it that afternoon. But they never did.
Then, one evening the following year, Ray's dog, a two-year-old springer spaniel bitch that had never so much as raised her whiskers in a snarl, snapped onto Ray's father's hand. No matter what he did, the dog refused to let go. Blood sprayed across the kitchen cabinets and the refrigerator door as he lifted the dog off the linoleum and spun her around. When Ray's father finally got free, the dog fled to the back porch and cowered in a corner there.
Ray's father wrapped his hand in paper towel and took a pistol from atop the refrigerator. "No dog of mine does this to me," he said as he handed the gun to Ray.
Ray took it -the same .38 now on the seat beside him- and coaxed the dog into the backyard. He felt the stickiness of his father's blood on the grip. The dog's fur was matted and thick with the same blood.
When Ray came back into the house, he set the pistol in the middle of a half-empty dinner plate on the kitchen table, and told his father, "She wasn't yours, she was mine."
He wonders if what happened to Livvy will change her life in any significant way; if women who lose their virginity young turn out different from those who keep it until adulthood. Do they spend their lives unhappily searching for that stolen first time? Do they hate all men for something they had nothing to do with?
Mrs. Reed said she turned out okay, but Ray guesses that that remains to be seen.
He spots the street sign and turns onto Riverchase Drive. He looks over and is surprised to find 4495 right in front of him, the corner house, a duplex sitting upon a hill of coal-black dirt hungry for sod. A white-doored double garage separates the left side of the house from the right, an here's there's a small off-center window in each door that, combined, render the duplex cross-eyed. A red Blazer with an NRA bumper sticker is parked in the right-hand side of the driveway.
Ray drives by slowly. Five more times he continues down the street and circles the block. If there were some sign of life, be it Livvy or other young girls leaving the duplex, or just a glimpse of JWR, Ray feels certain that at that moment he'd know exactly what to do.
He imagines what it would be like, walking up John Wesley Rogers's driveway, past the Blazer, using the barrel of the.38 to nonchalantly scratch the paint job as he passes by. What it would be like to knock on the front door, wait, and finally see John Wesley Rogers himself: shorter than Ray, runtier, with smooth features but kind of greasy, just what a man who sleeps with teenage girls would look like. To hear him start to say, in his well rehearsed, answering-machine voice, "Hi, can l help you?" as Ray brings the pistol up and points it at him. To feel pleasure at the look on John Wesley Rogers's face as he shrinks, gets smaller, tries to run.
Ray rounds the corner onto Riverchase one last time. He takes note of how empty the street is except for the clutter of parked cars. There are no children playing on the lawns. He stops in front of the duplex, looks around, thinks how much he'd like to hurt John Wesley Rogers, how easy it would be. He leans over and rolls down the window on the passenger's side and fires three shots through the Blazer's rear window.
Ray drives too fast for someone who has just broken the law. He spends the rest of the day mostly in the mountains, driving with the windows rolled down, the inside of the car swirling with cold air. Winter is getting close.
It's after nine o'clock when he returns home. He steps out of the garage cautiously and looks down the driveway. He watches for any activity on the dark street. If the police are waiting for him, he thinks, they'll nab him before he has a chance to get the key into the backdoor.
The house is dark. He turns on the fluorescent light above the stove and notices that Livvy has washed and put away last night's dishes as well as the coffee mugs from this morning. He goes through the living room turning on all the lamps to demonstrate that he has nothing to hide, so that his home looks nothing like a harbor for criminals, then turns on the hallway light on his way upstairs to Livvy's room.
The door is slightly open. "Love Me Two Times" by the Doors blares from Livvy's stereo. Ray stops short of entering and listens to the words, the music, while watching the light from Livvy's television playing across a triangular section of the hallway carpet.
He stands over Livvy's bed. She's asleep, her head turned sideways on the pillow, her long hair caressing her cheek as she breathes. Her covers are all mussed and halfway on the floor. Ray allows this untroubled view of Livvy to erase the image of her from this morning that has haunted him all day. She's wearing her oversized Yale sweatshirt and bulky white sweat socks that make her feet look too large for her legs, which have always been thin and birdlike.
But now Ray notices the slope of her ankle to her foot, the swell of her calf, the smoothness of her thigh. He looks away.
Gathering up the twisted sheet and bedspread while taking care not to waken her, he tucks Livvy back in. Gently he sits beside her on the bed. MTV is on with the sound off. Ray watches a ZZ Top video while listening to the Doors, watches the three men in long beards move to music that isn't their own. He finds the remote control and turns off the TV.
He sits motionless in the near dark for a long time, not touching Livvy. He watches the outline of her breathing, the rise and fall of the covers. He tries but cannot think of her as being any more of a woman, or any less of a young girl, than she was yesterday. He wonders what was lost, if anything was gained.
He listens to the Doors, who he liked as much when he was Livvy's age as she does now, for undoubtedly the same reasons. Though he'd never tell her so, to him their songs now sound childish.
When the CD ends, the sudden silence wakes up Livvy. She opens her eyes and places her hand on top of Ray's. He smiles at her, and though she can't see his face in the darkness, he'd like to think she can and that she's smiling back at him. Her hand on top of his feels strange. It makes him uncomfortable sitting on her bed, being in her room. He wonders if this is how it will be from now on, never again being able to sit close to her, touching her and having it not mean the same thing as before.
Livvy reaches up and wraps her arms around Ray. He pulls her closer and feels her face pressing into his shoulder. He thinks she might be crying, though he can't be sure. He holds her tighter than ever before, but feels her slipping away fast, almost already gone.