“A Father’s Love” by Don Jennings

In the privacy of his mind, Danny Lee called her The Beast. He felt bad about that. She was after all a human being, a child of God, a fellow pilgrim on life’s path. But she was also grotesque, misshapen, hideous, and he didn’t know her legal name. So the nickname stuck.

Her father owned the local laundromat. Not the nice establishment over by the health food store, but the rundown, not-really-filthy but never-quite-clean one located between the meatpacking plant and the pawnshop. Lee would have preferred to frequent the former, but they didn’t open until nine and were closed on Wednesday. That didn’t jibe with his cab driving schedule. So he went to the place that was always open.

Seven days a week, The Beast’s father unlocked doors before dawn, and he didn’t bar them again until ten PM. Unlike the other laundromat, an attendant was rarely on duty. But when money was removed from the machines, the father of The Beast toted a gun.

Lee raked sodden jeans and plaid shirts into his cracked plastic basket, then balanced the container against his hip and spun the washer’s drum. Satisfied the machine was empty, he crossed the room, dumped clothes into a dryer, and searched his pockets for change: one dime, two nickels, and a handful of pennies. He turned towards the change machine and opened his wallet: nothing smaller than a twenty. Who needed twenty bucks worth of quarters? He only wanted four, maybe five dollars worth. So he crossed the room to where The Beast and her father were counting silver and bills.

“Moan-eeee,” trilled the girl, the woman—it was hard to say how old she was. She came to her father’s shoulder, so she might have been a tall child or a short adult. Her features were no help, either, distorted as they were. Her head was oblong, like a watermelon, her face unnaturally pale, and her eyes had an Asian cast that was anything but sexy.

Lee hated getting close to her, but he had to have the change. Her presence so absorbed his attention that he was almost atop her father’s leather holster before he noticed it. The weapon inside was an automatic. Not a pocket pistol like a 380, but a larger one, a 9 mm or a 45 ACP. A man stopper.

The father, fiftyish, with craggy face and hair the color of cigarette ash, looked up and frowned. Lee realized he had stepped too close to the gun, so he circled to the opposite side of the table and stood with his weight on the foot away from the pistol.

“Ah, excuse me, sir, can you break a twenty?”

The man appeared to consider this. He scratched his bicep, the left one with BORN TO LOSE inscribed across it. MAMA TRIED, the other arm announced. “There’s a change machine over there,” he said, pointing with his chin. He glanced at his daughter, his weapon, and back to the bills in his hand.

“Yeah, but I only need a couple of dollars worth, and I just got a twenty. If you’d break it into smaller bills, I’ll get the quarters myself.”

Again the deliberate pause. “Yeah, sure, we can do that. Hang on a minute, Sweetie,” he said from the side of his mouth. “Let me make change for this fella, and we’ll go back to counting in a minute.”

“Moan-eeee,” she howled in response, lifting her shirt to bare her belly and hopping on one foot across the floor.

Lee laid his twenty on the table, then stuffed the small stack of bills into his wallet. He paused a moment and stared at the pistol, wondering if the father ever considered a mercy killing of the child. Immediately he regretted the thought. He glanced up, fearing his thoughts were obvious, but the older man was oblivious. He watched his daughter hop and sing with the expression of a young, proud parent tending a toddler.

“Forgive me, Lord, I didn’t mean that,” Lee whispered as he walked away. “You know I didn’t. Please forgive me.” He hurried across the room and and began smoothing out a dollar bill to insert into the money changer.

Tires scratched on gravel as the taxi left asphalt and entered the church parking lot. Lee eased his cab between a Dodge Ram pickup and a Hummer, and shut off the engine. He felt dwarfed, insignificant, nestled between the mammoth vehicles. He’d only been quit smoking weed for a month, and still had moments of weirdness. He lowered his chin to his chest and closed his eyes. “Give me strength, Father. I know it don’t matter what anyone thinks of me, or my job, or my car. I know it don’t. Make me believe that, God. Make me know it’s true.” He opened his eyes and raised his head, then dropped it once more. “And, if it be your will—if it be your will—I sure do wish Terri and the kids would come back home.” He took a worn KJV Bible from the seat beside him and exited the automobile.

The day was sunny. The Bethel Baptist Church was a country affair, with white wooden siding and clear windows in lieu of stained glass. Lee took a measure of pride in the fact that, despite the apparent wealth of certain members, the building was humble.

Inside, sunlight gleamed on tile floors and blinded him, forcing him to pause at the vestibule door as his eyes adjusted. He blinked a few times, and looked up. Reflections off the baptismal pool sent snakes of light slithering up the wall behind the pulpit. When he could see clearly again, he advanced a few feet and found a seat in the rear of the sanctuary. Meanwhile, at the front, tall-haired women in thick makeup and large jewelry followed balding men in glasses into the choir loft, intoning holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty as they passed. When the choir was seated, the minister of music sat, and the pastor entered the room.

Songs of praise were sung. Visitors were welcomed, and the sick and elderly remembered in prayer. The sermon began. The hour approached noon, the preacher droned, and motes of dust played games of tag in the sunlight that filtered through the windows. Lee’s mind drifted outside, into a nearby field where wildflowers grew and rabbits played and a pretty young lady in a skirt walked barefoot, until the day became too warm and she knew she must shed some garments…

“In as much as ye have done to the least of my brothers, ye have done unto me.” The preacher’s voice brought him hurtling back inside. Whatever he had done to the least of his brothers or sisters, he had done to Jesus Christ himself. Lee tried to be a good man. He tossed a dollar in the Salvation Army pot even when he couldn’t really spare it. If he saw someone broke down on the roadside, he stopped to help, and even gave away rides on occasion if the person looked poor. But were these “the least of his brothers”? Oh no. Not by a long shot. Even as he had treated The Beast at the laundromat, shunning her outwardly and scorning her inwardly, so could he expect his reception in Heaven to be.

The congregation rose for the altar call. “Just as I am without a plea/but that thy blood was shed for me…With every head bowed, and every eye closed…” As he prayed, Lee clutched the pew in front as if to strangle it. “Help me, God, save me. I don’t want to be a sinner no more. I don’t wanna scorn the Lord Jesus. I wanna be saved. I wanna go to Heaven. I want my wife back. I wanna be kind to the Beast…to that girl, that woman at the laundromat. Help me do the right thing. If it be your will.”

The dented, dirty taxi maneuvered around some broken glass and into a parking space. Lee had the afternoon off and no clean clothes, so he toted baskets inside and began the familiar process.

“Woo hooo! Woo hooo!” The owner was nowhere in sight, but his daughter was walking circles around the folding tables, howling and showing her belly. Lee suddenly felt queasy. He turned away and concentrated on garments and detergent.

He heard the door open behind him. A wave of fresh air entered the musty enclosure. Turning, he saw a familiar face, a man with shoulder-length hair that bore random tiny braids throughout, and an earring that was a pink feather all of three inches long. “Give Peace a Chance”, his tee shirt demanded above the likeness of John Lennon.

The two recognized each other, smiled, and waved.

“Howdy do, Mitchell,” Lee called out. “How are ya?”

“I’m feeling older than Satan’s jokes, Danny Lee, and Scratch been pulling pranks for ages. How about yourself? How’s life in the taxi business?”

“Oh, good enough, I reckon. I get a fare or two all along.”

“That’s great, man. That’s great to hear.”

Lee was about to expand on the topic, but Mitch continued, “The reason I stopped by is, I’m doing a show at The Scalded Dog in Conway tomorrow. The usual gang will be there, but there’s also this girl, see, name of Melody. I met her on the road, and she sings like a bird. You should come out and hear us. Ain’t but a three dollar cover charge.”

“Gosh, Mitch, I’d love to, but…I think I gotta work tomorrow. What’s tomorrow, Friday? Yeah, I gotta work. I get more fares on Friday and Saturday night than the whole rest of the week, combined.”

“Well, I shore understand about that. A man’s gotta make a living. But say, if you know anybody might enjoy it, give him the word. It’s a new gig, and a big turnout on the first night would help a lot. Okay, buddy?”

“Sure, man. I’ll tell everybody I see.”

“Great. I appreciate that.”

“Woo hooo! Woo hooo!” Hop, hop, hop.

Mitchell turned to The Beast and smiled. “Well, hello, Miss Ellie. How are you today?”

“Woo hooo!”

“Well, I’m right glad to hear that. You take care now, young lady, and tell ole Doug I said hello.” Mitch turned towards the door, raised a hand in Lee’s direction, and departed.

“Woo hooo!” When Lee turned again, the Beast, Ellie the misshapen girl child, had raised her shirt all the way atop her breasts. He stared in horror. Since separating from his wife, he had felt lonely and amorous. But this was just gross. Puckered breasts and pale, pink nipples beneath that horrid face. With eyes still open, he began to pray, fervently, quietly, but not silently.

“God, forgive my repulsion. Forgive my terror, and teach me to see the Lord Jesus Christ in this person.” Still the same morbid dread. He raised his voice a few decibels as he rebuked The Deceiver and invoked The Creator. “Get thee behind me, Satan. Grant me your Blessed Grace and Mercy, oh Lord. Teach me to love this person. Teach me to bask in the glory of her presence.” His voice continued to rise until he was almost shouting. “I want to love this person, deeply and fully. I want to love her completely, totally, without reservation, even as I would love myself…”

Lee felt a dull thud behind his right ear, and collapsed to the floor. He heard the blue steel click-clack of a round being chambered into an automatic weapon. Felt the barrel against his cheekbone. “I reckon she be the last handicapped kid you try to molest, you little pervert,” he heard the tattooed owner of the laundromat, Doug, mutter through his teeth. With his cheek pressed to the floor, Lee tasted the sharp chemical odor of fabric softener dryer sheets mixed with gun oil. He held his breath and waited for the shot, for the end of time.

He waited, and waited again, too frightened even to pray. But the shot didn’t come. The barrel withdrew unexpectedly. He was lying still, paralyzed, frozen by terror even as he dimly fathomed his amnesty, when the pointed toe of a cowboy boot split his upper lip. Blood poured from his nose and he felt two, no, three, teeth swimming free within his mouth. He tried to cry out, to beg for mercy, to explain, but the blood, teeth, pain, and horror made it impossible. Next the boot sunk into his abdomen. Bile rose in the back of his throat, and the heavens sang with stars. A final kick landed in his groin, and consciousness fled. Cognition of his surroundings, reality, the awareness of things concrete took flight on wings of pain. Danny Lee rested.

Don Jennings lives and writes in Richmond, Kentucky. He asks that ladies not throw undergarments onstage during his readings. His stories have been featured in Fried Chicken and Coffee, The Camel Saloon, and elsewhere, and he blogs at http://oaknpine.blogspot.com.