She had been sobbing now for 15 minutes or so, up on that landing, half-way up and half-way down. On that landing he could keep an eye on her, make sure she didn’t talk or read, mess around at all. He had moved the old glass fronted hutch now, so he was sure she couldn’t see the TV if only in a reflection. It was the perfect place to send these kids who couldn’t figure out how to act. She could just sit there until she was old enough to move out.
But tonight she wouldn’t shut up.
He took another long, peaceful draw of Seagram’s 7 and savored the thick, muted clunk of ice returning to thwack the bottom of the plastic tumbler as he set it back down on the wooden end table. Nancy’s ex, the girl’s father, he’d been told, had made that table in a woodworking class long ago. Just one more of the man’s abandoned possessions Mike was stuck to deal with now.
God damn it, would she ever shut up?
Gasping for breath, all snotty with sorrow, huddled on the landing she cried. He couldn’t even stand to look at her. So he kept his eyes five feet to the left and five feet below her on the television where Jack Nicklaus was teeing off on the 8th hole. Everything was hushed for Jack, even the announcer’s voice an awed whisper, “What a drive!”
Then a feeble voice floated down from the landing, “Mike, can I talk to you?”
And she hefted her bulk up to a defeated standing position, shoulders slumped, chin down, and clumped down the seven remaining stairs.
Thud. Thud. Thud. Thud. Thud. Thud. Thud.
Jesus Christ, she couldn’t even walk quietly.
She was before him and he couldn’t even bear to look at her, all red nose and swollen eyes. She was disgusting. He kept his eyes firmly fixed on Jack, now behind her.
Don’t marry women with kids. Lesson learned.
“I’m sorry Mike. I know I should have had all the dishes done before you got home. I was working on them during commercials and I thought I’d get them all done. I just forgot to finish. I swear next time I’ll remember.”
She swears next time. She’s always swearing next time. Bullshit. Damn kids never do what they’re told. Nancy’s too easy on them. They’ll never learn.
Mike squinted at the TV set still blaring behind her, avoiding her fat face pinched with hope and considered.
Anything to get her to shut up.
“Your chores need to be done every day before I get home. And none of this half-ass stuff. The kitchen should be spotless. Get it?”
She gulped and nodded silently.
“Fine, you’re done.”
Fresh light played over her tear struck face and she turned, climbing back up the stairs on the way to her room. Probably she was off to grab a book. She was always reading a damn book. Well, at least she was silent when she had her face in one. About the only time this kid ever shut up.
As she retreated, something in the curve of her shoulders tugged at him. Something unexpected, bitter and warm, caught in the back of his throat, overpowering the burning, buttery VO. It tasted like regret and something else, pity.
And she turned back, worried, caught once again on the landing. Almost free.
“Listen, you’re not a bad kid, you know. You forget stuff too much but you’re smart…”
And he trailed off. There really wasn’t anything else to say.
But that must have been enough because she got a little taller then and even smiled.
“Thanks,” she beamed back, climbing the remaining stairs and disappearing out of sight.