In the summer of 1969 a prematurely balding man found love at an Arthur Murray dance studio in Texas. The woman was an attractive, plump, single mother of five and she snagged the man right up because he had a good job and he would have her.
The woman and her kids moved in with the man and she spent his money on trips with her friends and a sports car and things like that. The children were discontented. The oldest boy counted the days to his sixteenth birthday when he would ask the woman to sign a form allowing him to join the Navy. The oldest girl started running away at thirteen. The other kids have sporadic memories of her in that house. The middle boy sported a scar in the shape of a rose by his left eye. The woman wore a rose ring on her right hand. The youngest boy was scared. The youngest girl was a baby.
It wasn’t long before the woman decided to love a new fellow. She and the man fought loudly and the youngest girl, now four years old, got scared too. They all stayed with the man for several more months while the new fellow came around the house for holidays and such.
With the two oldest gone and the middle boy too angry at the woman to live with her anymore, that left only the two youngest to move in with the woman and the new fellow. They lived in a few different apartment complexes over a summer and fall. The new fellow worked in Greenland, which would be a long commute so he really just paid the rent and would come around occasionally to yell with the woman. One of those arguments ended in tears at Grandma’s house where the youngest boy would stay to live. The girl would go back to the house with the man and the middle boy. The woman was free to move to Greenland with the new fellow.
The man was now the single parent of a six year old girl and a teenage boy – though the girl has very little memory of the middle boy in the house with them. He went off to college and it was just the girl and the man. Often, just the girl. The man’s good job was an hour away so he left in the dark and, starting in first grade, the girl got herself up, fed, and dressed everyday. She’d slam the front door with the force it took to engage the lock and let herself back in after school. Two hours later the tired man would come home and make them dinner.
The girl thought and dreamed of the woman always. She wrote letters and waited for phone calls and visits. She resented any caring grown-up relation who wasn’t the woman. The man loved the girl as his own and, as far as she knew, she was. No one had bothered to tell her otherwise.
A few years later, when the girl was twelve, she went to visit the woman in another part of Texas where she was working as a house-parent in a facility for troubled youth. During the visit the girl found a strategically placed photograph of herself at her parents’ wedding. She was only a toddler but she easily recognized herself amongst her siblings. The woman told the girl that her real father was a race car driver who had been killed in a work-related incident. She made the girl promise never to tell anyone that she knew this truth. The girl agreed. It was a hard secret to keep.
The first few years were difficult for the man and the girl. He didn’t know how to have a girl and she didn’t know how to not have a mother. The girl spent a lot of time with the youngest boy at Grandma’s house. She strived to make him laugh because he was so sad. She was always happy to learn that the oldest girl was still alive, even if she was alive in a correctional facility and not allowed in Texas anymore. She exchanged letters with the oldest boy who had settled in California and never looked back.
By the time she was in high school the girl and the man had found their way together. He worked hard to protect her from the youngest boy’s darkness but there was little he could do. The girl was unable to hold all of the boy’s pain and would sometimes hurt herself. She hid the wounds from the man.
The girl appreciated the man’s support of her relationship with the boy, whose troubles now included the law. It wasn’t easy for the man to drive her to the jailhouse on those early Sunday mornings so the boy would have visitors or to be the boy’s guardian years later when he needed twenty-four hour supervision by court order. The man had come to love the boy but he did these things for the girl.
When it came time for the girl to graduate from high school, the woman came around and told her that her real father was not a dead car DRIVER but a living car SALESMAN. In fact, he was the most famous living car salesman in town. He had a series of gimmicky commercials that everyone knew. The woman reminded the girl that she’d met the salesman during an event at one of his dealerships a few years before. The woman introduced them and the salesman showed the girl a talking car. Again, she was sworn to secrecy.
The following weeks were surreal for the girl as she would have to sit through the salesman’s commercials while having dinner in the living room with the man.
Since the woman said she’d be informing the salesman that he had a daughter, the girl sent him a graduation announcement with a photo and a letter. She told him not to feel any obligation to her and that she had a loving father. It was unclear whether the letter ever reached him but she did not hear back.
Two years later the girl moved out of the state. She and the man were terribly sad and spoke on the phone often. As she learned to live on her own over the next few years, he always let her know how proud he was and how much he admired the woman she’d become. They’d visit each other and made efforts through letters and cards to express their gratitude and love, but the words they knew always fell short.
The man struggled helplessly to comfort the girl when the youngest boy took his life. The girl’s heart seized and she only felt relief when she thought of joining the boy. She received the boy’s ashes and took them to the same place she’d taken Grandma’s a few years before. She often went to this place by a river with a wooden bridge to be with them. It was better than a graveyard and she could sort of feel them there. The boy and Grandma had never seen a setting like that in their lifetimes and the girl knew they would like it.
Around that time the girl told the oldest boy about the race car driver and the car salesman. He felt certain that her real father was a military man who’d let the oldest boy play with his gun. It mattered very little to the girl. The man was the only version of dad she cared to concern herself with anymore.
Ten years after she left the man’s house the girl found a beau. The man had never before heard her say that she was in love and he was delighted for her. Two months later the man died. The girl’s Love held her up while she moaned and cried for weeks and months. They lived in a space thick with grief and new love, with guilt and confusion around joy in the face of such sorrow. She couldn’t believe her Love would never know the man.
Prior commitments eased or forced the girl back into life where she would have to learn to be in the world without the man. He had always been there, as long as she could remember. Who would care when she boasted an accomplishment? Who would she call when she was afraid her Love would stop loving her? Who would call her because it had been more than a week? Who would send flowers on opening night? Who would tell her the same stories over and over as if for the first time?
Who would send a barbershop quartet to serenade her on Valentine’s Day while she waited tables?
Well, at least that one was a relief.
Now, the girl has a girl and a boy of her own. She will tell them about the man. The same stories over and over, as if for the first time. She hopes they'll want to know.