Leaves and Street Lamps
Silverware clinks on Rachel’s fine china.
The scents of a day’s worth of cooking hang in the air above the table. Wine. Lots of wine. Not the thirteen dollar a bottle nonsense that was so prevalent in her house growing up. Never that. Not with Rachel’s mother in law here. Alice always ensures they drink the very best, even if it means bringing her own supply of what she considers best.
Her husband’s Aunt Julia, Alice’s sister, sits across the table happily sloshing the contents of her glass around before taking another mouthful. “Such a beautiful home Rachel. Really. You’ve outdone yourself with this meal.”
“Rachel always outdoes herself,” Kelly replies. Rachel ignores the veiled remark from her sister. Kelly sits in the chair next to her own, bouncing a toddler on one knee. The men are clustered around the other end of the table, discussing what sounds like another disappointing performance from the Detroit Lions. The older kids run amok through the house, occasionally darting into the dining room and conversation.
“I’m glad you’re enjoying yourself,” Rachel says as best as she is able to.
Julia chews on a mouthful of green bean casserole before taking another hefty gulp. “I am, and I have to tell you. Both of you. Your mother would be so proud of how you’ve kept her tradition going.”
The mention of their mother lifts Kelly’s attention from her baby. Her eyes water and she bites her lip before looking back down. Rachel forces out a smile. “Thank you. It means a lot to hear that.” She takes a healthy sip of her own glass.
Oblivious, Julia presses on. “You know, I never did hear about what happened to your father. Did he pass too?”
Alice clicks her tongue and shoots her sister a reprimanding glare. The wine makes Julia impervious. Kelly stands up, cradling the little one while turning her back to the table. “He hasn’t passed as far as we know,” Rachel says. “We haven’t been in contact with him for some time is all.”
“Oh but girls, that’s what the holidays are all about. Reconnecting with our—”
“Julia please,” Alice interjects. “They don’t need to go through this right now.”
The woman looks at all three of them in turn before finally turning back to Alice. “What? I’m sorry. I didn’t know it was… I was just curious.”
“You’re always curious Julia,” her sister replies.
Rachel suppresses a grimace. “It’s okay Alice.” Her mother in law insisted on being called by her first name. “He left us when we were girls Julia. Before we met our husbands it was just Mom and the two of us.”
“Oh my. I’m so sorry. That’s just reprehensible. What a callous person to do such a thing.”
Kelly spins around to face the table, her eyes locked on Julia. “Our father was a combat medic. He was awarded the Bronze Star for valor. The man never got over his demons, but he is not callous, and certainly not reprehensible.”
As Julia’s mouth falls open and Alice looks on with indignation, Rachel rushes to smooth over the conversation. “Perhaps not those things, but certainly selfish enough to abandon his family. It’s alright Julia,” she says refilling their glasses despite the lack of need to do so. “Alice what is this vintage? It’s marvelous.”
The conversation turns to grapes and regions. Rachel sits back and sips from her glass, pointedly ignoring the stare coming from her younger sister. Kelly eventually gives up and retreats to the couch in the adjoining living room.
They clink and feast, laugh and drink. When the meal winds down the men retire to the next game. Rachel clears the dishes, Julia and Alice too engrossed in a conversation about their favorite cruise lines to lend a hand. Not that they would even if they were stone silent. Kelly helps her get dessert out and call everyone back to the table, but their exchanges are limited solely to the tasks at hand. The kids greedily reclaim their seats and proceed to indulge in pies and cookies.
Coming back from the kitchen with a pot of coffee, Rachel stops short as the doorbell rings. She hands the pot off to Kelly and makes her way to the front of the house. Too distracted with the day, she doesn’t look through the window first before opening the door.
Older. Weathered lines in his angular face. Salt and pepper hair, but the eyes. The eyes are the same. Cutting at their center. Softened at the edges. Their father. He’s on her front porch, dressed in a flannel shirt and jeans, his open jacket revealing a necktie. A bottle of the thirteen dollar wine sits clutched in his left hand.
Rachel steps out of the house and pulls the door shut behind her. “What are you doing here?”
Her eyes flash with anger. Not unlike his on so many occasions. “Hello Rachel? What the hell is this? You just show up unannounced? After all these years?”
The man swallows. “I know this must come as a shock. Believe me, I wrestled with whether or not I should even—”
“I’ll tell you right now. You shouldn’t have. How dare you! How dare you come to my home! Do you have any idea what we’ve been through this year? What we’ve been through all these years?”
His face sinks as he works his mouth open and closed several times. Her father lowers his head, gathers himself, and looks up. “I’m sorry about your mother. I’m sorry that I wasn’t there. That I haven’t been there for you and Kelly. Is she here?” he says looking past her through the front window.
Rachel steps in front of it, pointing a finger in his face. “No. I won’t let you do this, you understand me? She’s still a mess from losing Mom and she never got over losing you. I won’t let you tear her apart again. You get the hell out of here.”
“Rachel… please. I’m… trying.”
She blinks a few times, her eyebrows skyrocketing. “Trying? It’s too late for trying, you son of a bitch. We’re done with you.”
The man stands there. It’s mild out but he’s trembling. He swallows again and then sets his jaw. “Alright Rachel. I won’t bother you again.”
As he turns the door opens. “Daddy?” Kelly steps out onto the porch and her face is six years old again. She raises her hands to cover her mouth.
“Hey Kel Kel.”
Kelly rushes forward and leaps into his arms. Rachel quickly crosses behind them and closes the door. She folds her arms under her breasts, waiting impatiently while they cry together.
“What…” her sister says when they separate, “what are you doing here?”
The man wipes his eyes with the back of his hand. “I wanted to see you. Both of you. To try and mend things.”
Kelly sniffs and wipes her own eyes. “Well come on. Let’s not stand out here on the porch. There’s some people you need to meet.”
“He can’t,” Rachel responds. “He was just leaving.”
Her sister looks back and forth between them. “What? What are you talking about?”
“He can’t stay.”
Kelly grits her teeth. “He can’t? Or you won’t let him?”
“Sure Kelly!” she says, throwing her hands up. “Let’s have the man who left us thirty years ago like it was nothing saunter right in! Hey Dad! How you been? Mom’s dead by the way.”
“Stop it! We lost both our parents. I won’t let you ruin our chance to get one back.”
“This fucking guy?” Rachel says pointing at him. “He’s not a parent. Where the hell was he for our birthdays? Graduations? Who walked you down the aisle Kelly? He’s never even met our husbands. He doesn’t know our kids’ names! This isn’t our father, it’s a fucking stranger!”
They stare at each other, raging. Tears stream down Kelly’s face but she doesn’t look away.
“It wasn’t nothing,” he says softly. They turn to look at him. “It wasn’t nothing. Leaving you girls. God, it was the hardest thing I ever did. It broke my heart to do it, but I had to Rachel.” He looks at Kelly. “I had to Kelly. I just couldn’t risk you. Either of you.” The man’s eyes well up. He grabs onto the bannister to steady himself. A moment later he turns and sits on the steps.
Kelly shoots her sister a glance and walks to his side. “Dad? What do you mean?”
He sniffles and looks up. “God, this isn’t how I wanted to do this. I didn’t want to cause anymore pain. I didn’t want to pit you two against each other. I just thought that if…that if I could just…explain. Even if you didn’t let me into your lives. I could understand that. Hell, I deserve that. I know I do Rachel. But if you could at least know why. If I could take that part from you both. Then maybe…”
“I don’t need you to take anything. All I need from you is for you to—”
A scream comes from inside, followed by crashing dishes and wild shouts. Rachel is in the door in a flash, her eyes flying across the living room to the table. Deanna. Her Deanna. Her little girl claws at her neck while her eyes bulge with panic.
The adults, plied with drink and food, frantically shove their way to get to her. Alice rips the little girl’s arms above her head and slaps against her back while her husband tries to force water down her throat. All the while Deanna thrashes. The other children scream and cry. Rachel gets there but she can’t be heard over the chaos. She can’t get past her mother in law. She can’t pry her husband out of the way.
And then she is tossed aside. Her mother in law forced into a chair. Rachel’s father scoops Deanna into his arms. He carries the little girl into the living room, sets her down, and steps behind her. The man tries the Heimlich but the obstruction is lodged too far. Deanna’s face grows deeper shades of purple with each excruciating moment. The little girl passes out.
Moving with a controlled presence of mind he lays the girl down. His hands move deftly. Methodically. He opens her mouth and scoops his pinky deep into her throat. A Munchkin’ pops out but she isn’t breathing. He lowers his mouth to hers, forcing air into her lungs, Deanna’s chest rising and falling. Her father counts out his compressions and returns to breathe. The family sits in stunned silence, watching him work through successive iterations of CPR. Rachel, on her hands and knees next to him, cries as she begs.
“Please. Oh please God. Don’t take her too. Save her. Please Dad. Please save her.”
He breathes again and the little girl coughs into his mouth. Her father bounds back as Deanna pulls in air, coughing and crying. Rachel shouts and rushes in, pulling her daughter into her arms and rocking her back and forth. The family crowds in to make sure the little girl is okay. One by one, their eyes turn to him.
It isn’t until after the paramedics have left and she’s put Deanna to bed that Rachel is able to find him. He’s outside on the porch sitting in the chair at the end. Her husband and Kelly’s stand nearby, but no one is speaking. Her sister comes up next to her and together they cross over to the men. Asking their spouses to leave, they sit in the matching two seater adjacent to him.
His hands are shaking. His whole body for that matter. He doesn’t speak at first, but when he does he can’t meet their eyes. “After I got home your mother became the best thing in my life. And then you two came along, and I’d never been so happy. Things were good. For a bunch of years. They were good.”
He sniffles, wrinkling his nose in the air. “I started smelling things at first. Gunpowder. Sewage. Decomposition. Not long after that the nightmares came. Kelly you were probably too young to remember but I used to wake you both up. I would be screaming. Screaming and running through the house. You were terrified. It would take your mother hours to calm you both down. Hours to calm me down.”
Tears run down their faces. Kelly looks to Rachel. She keeps her eyes locked on her father.
“It only got worse. Flashbacks. Hallucinations. I would see the faces of the men I couldn’t save. See their intestines in my hands. I couldn’t hold a job. Not like that. And I was too stubborn to get help. The worse off I got, the worse off we got.
“I was angry. Angry at the world. At myself. But it was you three that had to take the brunt of it. The rage. The loss of control. The wild mood swings. Years on end of my own children, my own wife, being terrified of me. Of never knowing which version of me they had from day to day. I felt my mind… splintering. I was on the verge of losing it all. I knew it. And I was so scared of what I might do if that happened. If I ever harmed any of you…”
He starts to cry. Kelly moves to the armrest of his chair and puts her hands across his shoulders. “So I had to leave. You see? I had to make sure that I didn’t harm you. That I didn’t hurt you anymore than I already had. I know now that all I did was hurt you in another way, but at least you were safe. At least… you were safe… from me.”
They sit. They sit for a long time while he cries. He starts to breathe, deep rhythmic breaths that brings his trembling under control. He lifts his head and looks her in her eyes. “There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t regret it Rachel. Not a day. But at least now you know. I’ll leave. I won’t ask you for forgiveness. Or for you to make me part of your lives. I’ve done what I came here to do, and I’m thankful for that.”
The man stands and starts across the porch. Kelly jumps up and follows him. “No Daddy. Please. Please don’t go again.”
He turns and hugs her. “It’s okay Kel Kel,” he says stroking her hair. “This is your sister’s home and I’ll respect her wishes, but I’d like to see you again if that’s alright.”
“Okay Daddy,” she says stepping back from their embrace. Kelly nods as she brings a tissue to her eyes. “Okay.”
He smiles at her sister. He looks at her and smiles again, and then he is walking across her lawn. Kelly wheels around, her eyes silently berating her. Rachel sits, lost, her mind racing. Her legs are carrying her before she realizes it. Her mouth speaking before she recognizes the words.
“Dad wait!” Rachel says as she runs across the lawn. When she comes to a stop it takes her a moment to collect herself. He stands there patiently, hands in his jacket pockets.
“I… I don’t know what to make of all this. I have so many feelings right now. I am so incredibly angry with you—”
“I know Rachel. You don’t have to—”
“No stop. Please. I wasn’t finished.” She takes a deep breath. “I don’t know where we’ll go from here. Honestly. I can’t say one way or another. It’s too much. Too much all at once. But I do know that without you showing up tonight my daughter would have died.”
He purses his lips, holding himself back, and lowers his head. “She would have died Dad. Whatever you went through. Whatever you put us through. It led to this. To you being here. To you saving her life. And for that, I’m thankful.” He looks up at her. “Thank you.”
The man exhales. “You’re welcome.” A smirk ticks at the corner of his mouth. “Happy Thanksgiving Rachel.”
He turns and walks away. Rachel stands there watching him go. A breeze blows some leaves across his path as he moves through the light of the street lamps. She shivers and heads inside.