Long Distance: A Short Story (Critiques welcomed)

Filed in Gather Writing Essential by on April 17, 2008 0 Comments

Lou buried his head in the pillow. The mosquito wasn't so easily fooled. The buzz sliced back and accelerated into his right ear this time. He slapped at it, hammering his ear. He tried to shake out the reverberating pain and then remembered. It was last night's bourbon. You would have thought as much as he'd consumed, it would have pulled his sleeping self past sunrise. It seemed like every day he was more tired than he'd been the day before and this was supposed to be a vacation.

Last year he and his daughter Krissie had stayed on the boat in Florida together. They'd just buried Vera and Krissie was worried about him, a new widower. She'd taken family leave from her fancy corporate job and spent a week with him. It hadn't been a perfect week. She made a stink about his drinking.

"You're barely married," he'd yelled at her. "You have no idea how much I miss her."

"You're not the only one."

"It's different. You have Skip. I have no one."

That had silenced her. Although he sensed she had more to say, she hadn't raised the issue again, and they'd been tentative at the airport with their good-byes. This year there was an office project and Skip, her high-powered husband, hadn't been so willing to do without her. And too, Lou had not ingratiated himself this last year.

Two car accidents, one driving under the influence where the minister had bonded him out because Skip refused to let Krissie drive the hundred plus miles in the middle of the night from Boston into the Maine wilds. City folk forgot how resilient country people were. Lou bet Skip had no idea how much wood Krissie could split in an hour.

The mosquito, a wizard at escape, worried into the space between Lou's head and the starboard cubby. Greedy little sucker. Lou swatted and his hand hit the fiberglass. Damn it. He was awake now. Through the porthole he could see the grainy overlay of screen against the flamingo sunrise. Silly really to screen the windows and leave the hatches open to the breeze. At least the storm had headed off. Too bad that last mosquito hadn't gone with it.

He tucked into the donuts, finished off two before the coffee was ready. The familiar light gurgle steadied him.

He drank the third cup of coffee after he'd scrounged the newspaper from the marina's restrooms. By then the sun blazed across the blue water and he was feeling better, still moving slowly. The bowl of happy healthy tangerines smiled back at him. He grimaced. Florida was like that. Happiness in the air, it cut into him like a pirate's thrust, a painful reminder that true life was never a fairytale.

He turned on the cell phone and waited the obligatory few minutes for the invisible magic to locate undelivered messages. When the familiar string of musical blips sounded, he smiled. His dear daughter had called. She wasn't holding the bourbon against him, understood from her growing up years that he wasn't a drunk, just working through something that required distancing. And bourbon did that for him.

The message though was garbled. Krissie's voice started, "Dad, when are you coming home? Dad, are you there? Pick up, please." And then there was a sound that reminded him of wood splitting, hard and uncompromising. And then silence. A second message, Skip's voice, poured out of the little silver phone. "I don't know what she's been telling you, but …" and there was nothing else. No third message, no clarification, no cheery ending–hope the sun is out down there or hope you caught a big one–to remind him that someone in the universe cared. Vera had been right: they should have had more than one child. They could have checked on each other.

Lou fumbled with the tiny buttons and Krissie's home phone number appeared on the screen. It rang five times and there was her optimistic greeting. "We're out, but we'll call you back the minute we get home." He left a gruff message, but the unsettled feeling lingered.

Krissie had sounded upset, Skip angry. Maybe he was giving her a hard time about her needy father. Lou had sensed something in her good-bye at the airport, but he'd been distracted, trying hard to be positive about the boat and the weather because it was her idea. Vera would have figured it out. If there was anything he'd learned in his time without Vera, it was how good she'd been at being a partner. Forty some years, and they'd never called each other names or refused to listen. Not that they hadn't argued. Vera had more to say about any issue than he did. She had a rule, though, you had to argue with your clothes off, and it made it hard to stay mad long.

She'd never said a thing about Skip until the very end. All through the man's insistence on Krissie using her law degree, and having her tubes tied, and living in the fanciest suburb, all those things that Krissie had never mentioned before as important, Vera had been silent. But in the hospital room, the day she died, Lou had been rubbing lotion on her feet, so dry, so bloated, and she'd started whispering.

"What's that?" he'd asked, thinking she wanted more water or her pillow adjusted.

"Don't go too far."

He'd been confused, asked her what she meant, to repeat what she'd said in case he'd misunderstood. Too exhausted, too close to the end, she'd lifted her hand and put it on his chest where his heart was and he'd thought she meant something about the two of them. Then Skip and Krissie had bustled into the hospital room. Vera grabbed Lou's hand. Her eyes flashed in Skip's direction and she said in a louder voice, "Remember what I said." It had been a clear warning and he'd replayed it a thousand times in the last year. But she hadn't been there to explain. He felt so stupid, so slow. He missed his wife.

When the cell phone buzzed in his hand, he wondered how long he'd been standing there, gazing at the open expanse of water and remembering. But no one spoke when he put the phone to his ear.

What was the name of the couple next door to Krissie who had the twins? He scrolled through the cell phone contacts to see if there was anyone in Boston he could call. The boat rocked under his feet. Ripples from across the marina tripped across the sparkling surface. A picture perfect morning. He chucked the Styrofoam cup in the trashcan.

Pastor Moore said he had a colleague in Wellesley at the Lutheran church. He'd ask him to ride over under the auspices of a condolence call.

Lou felt foolish. "I may be a silly old man, but something didn't sound right. And Vera said-"

"Vera?"

Lou could hear the sudden condescension in the man's voice. Maybe they were all humoring him. An old drunk, who couldn't get past his wife dying of cancer, who couldn't get on with his life.

While he waited for the follow-up call from Pastor Moore, Lou charged the cell phone, flipping the battery charger switch in the galley and wading through the book Krissie had sent with him, a Key West fishing mystery that emphasized how far from his Maine home he really was. Turquoise didn't exist in northern forests. No one wore white in the woods. The only thing he recognized was that niggling little mosquito who wouldn't give up.

By mid-afternoon he was frantic. He'd left two more messages at Krissie's home, two on her cell phone which reported she was out of the calling area, whatever that meant. He called her office even though it was a Saturday and her assistant reported that she hadn't come in after all.

"You expected her?" he asked. "She's here almost every Saturday."

"That's not what I meant. Did she make plans to meet you there today?"

"Well . . . not exactly."

"Tell me what she said, word for word."

"I'm not sure . . . maybe . . . I think she said, 'see you tomorrow.'"

"And she hasn't called?"

"No, but-"

"But, what?"

"Mr. Velasquez, she wouldn't necessarily call me if her plans changed for a Saturday. It's not like it's a regular work day or anything."

"But she told me the project was urgent, the deadline was next week."

"I know, and it does seem odd that she wouldn't be here." The assistant promised to have Krissie call when she arrived, if she arrived.

At seven Lou called Pastor Moore. The cell phone battery message came on while they were talking. Low Battery, it flashed. He wondered what he'd done wrong, but he talked faster.

"Have you eaten dinner?" Pastor Moore asked.

"I'm not hungry. And I haven't had anything to drink either, so don't ask me that."

"Father Joseph said he'd call as soon as he saw your daughter. I'm sorry I don't have more news."

While the phone was charging again, Lou packed the duffle and began the process of shutting down the boat. He'd never make it through the night with his imagination racing and that kamikaze mosquito poised to attack. Vera was gone. He'd have to take charge.

"Where the hell's the padlock?" He rifled the drawers under the bunks. "It's gotta be here somewhere." He took a long serious look at the half-empty bottle of bourbon. "Going away present," he said and slid the cupboard door shut. At renewed buzzing in his ear, he swatted madly. "Last chance," he yelled, dancing from foot to foot to keep the enemy from hitting its mark. All in one movement he lunged up the ladder and snapped the hatch into place. "Gotcha."

Without a second glance, he dropped the duffle onto the dock and swung his leg over the gunwale.

"Dad?" Krissie stood on the dock. "Who're you talking to?"

Even in the dusk he could see the black circle around her left eye and the splint on her wrist. "I was coming home," he said.

"So was I."

About the Author ()

High energy, vivid imagination, enthusiastic . The power of words to create images and my children are two highs I wouldn't trade for anything.

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