I did too tell him that, and what else I told him will cut him to the quick. It’s funny Darlene’s new husband—you remember, that dick Richard?—don’t pay attention to my advice when I come over to the new house he built them and see the foundation already cracking, and I say, “Hey, better let me patch that up before it rains and your basement’s flooding. Might be the wood’s rotting and you could fall through the floor.” No, they think I’m just looking for a way to finagle some money. Well, I am needing money, but I’m not just looking for that: It might make me giggle to think of Richard slipping through the floor and breaking his leg. But I sure don’t want to have to go in their house to pick up my sweet baby girl Janna and find out she’s living in a three-story house that smells like the bottom of a well. Richard might forget my advice on that foundation, what would keep everybody happy in the end, but what I told him today won’t make him happy, and he ain’t bound to forget it anytime soon.
I headed over there this morning, when you were napping after lunch, to pick up Janna for my half-day on Christmas, and it wasn’t easy let me tell you. You try and get someone drive you—the Chrysler’s ignition is still shot by the way—forty-five miles on Christmas day and it’s a white Christmas outside in Weir, Mississippi for the first time in my lifetime. But I got a ride. You know who, Dan drove me.
He never says no to nobody, I know, you know, everybody knows. But I’d used him one time too many and he knew it. I didn’t want to use him this time, just out of decency, being he’s the only one who’ll see me these days ‘sides you—and you’re laid up here in this hospital bed. But he drove me anyway, and it’s not like he knows how to drive in the snow and neither do I—except to have the common sense to weigh down the rear end with some concrete blocks. Still, he handed me the keys to his International Forester. He told me how much the car costed, and I don’t want to repeat how bad he’d got ripped off except to say it was a couple month’s salary. He said, “It’s Christmas time, Willy, and that’s the only reason I’m sitting in this seat ‘cross from you today.”
“That’s mighty Christian of you, Don,” I said, checked the antifreeze, threw some hot water on the windshield—one more crack wasn’t going to hurt that windshield—got in and was surprised the car cranked.
There was snow beginning to fill up the culverts of the gravel road I took, but lucky for us there’d been some log trucks running an early haul this morning ‘cause them lumber mills don’t ever want to stop making money, even if Jesus Christ was born again in Weir. I drove in the ruts.
‘Course Dan got his Bible in his lap reading, he says, so he doesn’t have to look at the white road. But he does, and he’s all the time telling me what roads are the safest, “We should drove down the Natchez Trace; the state and county don’t know how to keep up their roads.”
And I had to remind him, “ Ain’t none of them plowed so ain’t none of them good today. Best I just take whichever road’ll get us off the road quick as possible.”
Wouldn’t you know it: I get there, follow Darlene and that dick Richard’s orders to shake off my snowy boots outside, brush off my coat too and lay it on a bench outside, and I finally start getting warm on the sofa close to the fireplace in the living room, and my Darlene looks at her prick of a husband and says, “It’s too nasty to have our girl out on the road.”
Yeah, you heard that, Mama: she told Richard: “our girl.” Boy, that got me in a storm. I said, “I’m going to have my half day if it means I’ll have to stay here all day.”
Dan looked at me real mean when I said that; he might have to be here all day too. And you know Dan’s the near ‘bout most tender-hearted soul you ever seen except when it comes to me ‘cause I done pushed him to the end of his Christian charity. So I looked at him and said something I didn’t want to say, still, I knew I’d have to say to guilt him to get my half day. I said, “Ain’t family what God wants us to enjoy on Christmas day?”
He couldn’t argue with that word of the Lord, so he picked his Bible up off his lap and opened it. He was breathing hard and long every time he flipped a page, seeming like he couldn’t find the passage he wanted. I didn’t figure I’d hear a word from him for an hour. But now I had to deal with them two. I was feeling mean from trumping my only friend; then I remembered what they’d said.
“Where’s our girl,” I said, looking straight at my ex-wife.
“Upstairs napping after dinner like Richard and I taught her good girls do.”
She was ragging on me about how I’d come home from work some days and wake Janna up from naps, ‘cause I couldn’t wait to see her walk around or clap her hands over her head or whatever new trick it was she’d learned that day. “I bet you ten bucks she knew I was here ten minutes before you did.”
It was a good bet. I heard her rustling around upstairs. She was getting dressed up in something fun to come see me, I knew. And she came down in her “I heart Daddy” T-shirt from when she still lived with me. It was way too small for her now, basically didn’t have any sleeves anymore, but she never will stop crying until they let her leave with it on, so I guess they’ve finally give in. Darlene would say, “Put a coat over it.”
She hustled to the top of the creaking steps, jumping from one step to the next saying, “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy!”
“You didn’t take your nap did you?” Darlene said to her. “I told you not to have them cookies.”
I called sweet Janna over to my lap and she ran over. I growled and bit at her belly. “I bet you got some of that cookie left for Santa last night in your belly don’t you? I’m gonna eat it!” I took a nibble at her belly. Oh, she squealed good, and said, “You’re not cookie monster, Daddy!”
“I’ll be damned if I ain’t” I said, then crooked up my eyebrows and said in a deep voice, “C is for Cookie!”
“She’s already schooled in the alphabet. In any case, you’re trying to teach her too much vocabulary. We won’t have those curse words spoken in our house, Will,” said Mr. Richard Gill. He never sucked enough dicks at the college to get the Dr. title. You know he ain’t big enough to whip a rabbit, and that’s why I didn’t fight him when he chided me in front of my sweet baby girl. I’d have made him look like that Terry Easton I hit so hard his eye came out the socket. But sure enough if I did that, the judge’d say I couldn’t see Janna even on my half day. So I sucked it up and came up with the only excuse I could think of not to knock his jaw off: I said, “I reckon it’s your house to say what’s said and what ain’t,” and I started hoping he’d drop through a hole in the floor.
That seemed to be the type of response he expected ‘cause he never did raise off the couch or set his glass of wine down onto the nightstand beside his recliner. He just adjusted the light on his reading lamp and went back to reading the book with the fancy cover like a Christmas-gift Bible in his other hand.
Janna didn’t seem to mind my cussing. She stayed in my lap and watched the program on the TV; I hadn’t even noticed till now what it was (I’m so used to you leaving the TV on the soaps or whatever that I don’t pay attention to that shit box) they was watching the parade in New York City. Ole Snoopy came floating between them buildings that touch the sky and that little Tweety Bird was with him too. I asked Janna, “Where’s that ole Snoopy dog I got you. You didn’t used to put that down even when you went to church.”
She looked up at me and just blinked. It was her mama that finally said something: “I threw it away. She was gnawing on its head, and I thought she’d swallow the glass eyes.”
Well, that hurt. It wasn’t that I could blame her for throwing it away. She’s right in doing that to keep our daughter from choking, and I guess looking back on it, Mr. Richard wasn’t that wrong in trying to keep our daughter from cussing. But that ole Snoopy doll was the only thing I’d ever bought Janna since the divorce. She didn’t expect nothing from me, even on Christmas. I know you didn’t know that, and you probably think bad of me ‘cause of it. But it ain’t that I’m cheap. I did get her something that one year with the Snoopy, but that year I saw the gifts they had piled up for her under the tree six boxes deep, and they all had something that lit up and made some kind of God-awful racket. I couldn’t top that, the machine works factory closed down and me barely working twenty hours a week at the hotel in Ackerman. After seeing that Christmas tree topped with a flashing star, I just told Janna that Christmas with me wasn’t about presents. I asked her what she did at her parents’ house after opening presents, and she said they sat around and watched TV, ate, napped, sat around and watched TV, then Papa and Mama put her to bed and read her a boring A-sop story.
I said, “Christmas with me was about staying up and talking to each other till the dawn comes up. That’s what we give to each other in my house is each other.” She was a little bit leery at first with my plan, you’d remember but you were napping. But damn it, that girl loves to talk more than I do and neither of them ‘parents’ would ever listen to her when she talked about all the names of the Powerpuff Girls or what all her little powdered pony horses liked to eat that was basically everything that she hated to eat. I got some juicy gossip too that I forgot to tell you. She told me she’d had a couple of boyfriends already, but she said she couldn’t tell Mama ‘cause she’d call her a whore. Don’t get to judging her Mama; that’s the problem with them other two parents. She’d heard Darlene call all them other women whores that worked as secretaries up at the college with her husband. Janna guessed it was ‘cause they’d been kissing boys behind trees on the playground like she did. “Or maybe not kissing them,” she said then cut her eyes. “Maybe just telling them I love them, handing them a note, then running off.”
Damnit, that night if I didn’t love to listen to her talk so much while she was deciding which card to play in rummy. Damnit if I didn’t just get a little bit drunk on your ole egg nog. Hell, you make it with the last of my whiskey every time. And I think, damnit, if I could just wait till pay day I could have me a whiskey coke instead, but this time I couldn’t hold it off. She put you to sleep before Murder She Wrote with her rambling, but not me.
Now, though, after Darlene had tossed that ole Snoopy dog in the trash, I bet with every ounce of hatred and relief she could muster, I knew Janna didn’t have any gift I’d ever give her, and those memories of talking till dawn would last a lot longer with me than it would with her, still growing and changing. I wasn’t blaming her. That’s just how kids’ minds work. They’ll be somebody different when they turn that age of accountability, as Don calls it. She’d say, “That bastard Will never did give me nothing for Christmas.”
I didn’t have too much time to mope about it, though. I saw Don flash a glance at his watch, and he stood up and asked, “Could I use your phone a minute?” Darlene led him into the kitchen where it was.
I knew he was calling up his wife and she’d say, “Dump Will’s sorry ass in the river, or I’ll do it to you.” Her bitching would be just enough excuse for him to come home.
I turned around on the couch to look out the living room’s double windows. I saw that snow hadn’t stopped falling. Big ole flakes like you said would fall when you lived up in Chicago. You’d taught me better than to drive through what might be dangerous weather, whether it was a tornado out or a thunderstorm, and normally I wouldn’t listen to you, but this time it wasn’t just me I had to think about. It was her too. I had to be a dad at least for this half day, even if it meant that I had to sacrifice our day of cards and talk and egg nog with you, me and Janna. Still, I couldn’t flick that little devil off my shoulder who was telling me I knew the judge ordered it, and there wasn’t nothing they could do if I wanted to take her back to the house and get sloshed on your egg nog again, like I’m trying to stomach right now.
It was about that time that prick Richard said something I won’t never forget: “If you’re thinking about driving our daughter out in that snow; if you’re thinking about testing it, stop using that miniature mind of yours.”
It was Christmas day, and I was supposed to be merry, but I was just about as hurt and rundown as I was going to let myself be. I told him what I knew you’ll say I shouldn’t have. I told him the truth. I said, “You seem like you care a bit about my daughter. But it don’t seem like you care too much about yourself, fella.”
“If I’m not mistaken, you’re threatening me, Mr. Willard. A threat could compromise your custody.” He held out his glass of red wine toward me and pointed with his pinky finger.
“I tell you what else could compromise my custody,” I said and scooted up on the couch with my fists clenched. “When I was down in ‘Nam I saw a fella had a necklace you wouldn’t never want to see.” I covered Janna’s ears then and I whispered, “It was made out of balls, you teensy dick.” He leaned away from me and his chair reclined a bit. “I thought then that was more hell than any man could ever deserve. But right about now, if I hear one more prying word out of you, trying to take my daughter away from me so you don’t have to see my high-school-dropout ass every other week and half-a-fucking day on Christmas, I’ll be wearing your dangling pearls around my neck.”
I uncovered Janna’s ears. She clapped her hands, turned around and asked, “What did you say? What did you say, Daddy?”
I could see Richard had spilled some of his wine on his white button-up shirt. I could see his chest hair and his drooping breasts against the wet shirt.
“Now that’s not what I want you to remember me by,” I said to Richard as Dan and Darlene walked back in the room. “No, that’s not it.” I looked down to Janna and said, “This is what I wanted to tell Richard.” I gritted my teeth. “I want him to remember that I appreciate him caring about my daughter so much, and I hope he keeps treating you as good as if you’re his own.” I looked up at Richard real serious. “Only don’t call her your own.”
Janna started tickling my ribs. I laughed, looked down again at her and smiled. “Who’s your Daddy?” I growled and bit her belly.
She giggled and said, “You, Cookie Monster!”
I looked over at Richard and said, “Don’t you think she’ll remember that no matter how many full days you spend with her?” He seemed to believe me because he didn’t say nothing else to me the whole rest of the half-day.
I hope what I said holds true, at least till next Christmas.
A winner of the Mari Sandoz/Prairie Schooner Award and nominee for inclusion in Best New American Voices, James Madison Redd heads the Crooked Letter Interview Series, a monthly online series featuring contemporary Mississippi writers. His fiction, poetry, and scholarship have recently appeared in Fifth Wednesday, Thumbnail Magazine, Subliminal Interiors, Briefly Noted, and other literary journals. Currently, he is an Editorial Assistant for Prairie Schooner and is writing his dissertation, a novel called Revival!