the Good Daughter

K.J. Roby just sent her only son off to start his senior year of high school and is thrilled to have found something to focus on other than an upcoming empty-nest. She is a native Floridian and tries to spend as much time as possible reading and writing. Her poetry as been published in Newsletter for Writers produced by Clarity Works. This is her first published short-story.

 

The Good Daughter
Frances draws her father’s curtains closed. A cloud of dust from the damask coverings assaults her nostrils. She coughs—the sound does not bother him. The old man lies in his bed as he does every night. His gray hands clench the double-wedding ring quilt his wife made. An array of books, balled-up tissues, and his collection of New Yorker crossword puzzle magazines cover the space beside him, the space his wife filled for decades. He lies outside the circle of light cast from his reading lamp—shadows darken his face.
“There you go, Daddy,” Frances says as she repositions the pillow under his head. He does not answer. She turns out the lamp.
~
The blackout cloth of night still covers the window when Frances stretches from a restless sleep in the twin bed of her youth. She breathes in the familiar smells of morning: the lemony scent of furniture polish from yesterday’s cleaning and the musty air from the heating vent. She bends to touch her toes, holding in her stomach. She follows the instructions for the waist-whittling exercises torn from a magazine at the doctor’s office.
This is the last morning to bend and lean, I leave for Florida tonight!
Her sister’s bed sits empty across the room with its matching gingham green bed cover – the one Mama made when Mimi moved out of the crib and into her big-girl bed. Mama chose the bedspread to pick up the gingham green in the wallpaper border. If Frances closes her eyes, she can picture Mama standing on the stool from the kitchen, applying water to the freshly painted walls, pushing the sponge across the dampened wallpaper roll. Frances can smell the paste.
She sees the clock beside her bed. Her thumb adds an hour to the time—SEVEN—and then—EIGHT, NINE, TEN—her fingers follow.
If Mimi leaves at eight, she will be here by lunch time.
When Frances first proposed the idea to Mimi of coming home, her sister resisted. “My job is so hectic,” Mimi said. “I’m on the road every week.”
“But Mimi,” Frances said, “You have not been home since Mama’s funeral.” Nor since Daddy had his stroke.
But Mimi eventually resolved the struggle. “I guess I’ll have to use some of my vacation days,” she conceded. Mimi always was a good daughter.

Frances cocks her head, holds her breath and listens for sounds from below. When Daddy wakes up, he always calls for her—first a cough, then a snort. He might work himself into a tizzy if he does not get immediate attention with a loud: “Daughter!” His doctor says this is considered normal behavior for a man in Daddy’s condition but Frances remains skeptical. Daddy could always work himself into a good rage when he did not get his way: eyes bulging, face turning a shade redder than northerners returning from a week at the beach. Today, she hears the rush of air forced through his gaping mouth, like a repeated exasperated sigh.
From her window Frances sees the gray swag of cloud building over the top of the mountain.
Another gloomy day, but tomorrow …
Frances has never seen Florida, never traveled farther south than the North Carolina state line. The anticipation makes her hands shake as the adrenaline rushes through her bloodstream. She eases her breath again, this time to restrain her nerves but knows she will feel better if she repacks the suitcases lying open beside her bed.
Frances fondles the collection of loud, floral prints in sensible fabrics gleaned from consignment shops, yard sales and the youth rummage sale at the Methodist church. Her hand lingers on the pièce de résistance: a teal blue skirted tunic which promises to control her figure and camouflage her thighs. She picks the bathing suit up and holds it against herself. Not satisfied, she disrobes and jerks the suit up her body. Frances shakes her legs to watch them jiggle. She slaps her thighs and scrutinizes their movement. She moans, replaces the suit in her suitcase, thankful the sales lady talked her into splurging on the “matching crinkle-cotton cover up with the roomiest, carefree fit!”
Loathe to trigger Daddy, Frances starts down the stairs placing each foot in the center of the step to avoid the squeaky boards. Her eyes find the linen sampler on the wall, the one she stitched over the long winter when she guarded Mama’s deathbed: “THERE IS NO GREATER LOVE THAN TO LAY DOWN YOUR LIFE.”  A breeze from the kitchen window blows across her face. She inhales the smell of dank leaves decaying under the deck and exhales the strain of caring for her father.
I only need to live through today.
She selects a pencil from the drawer by the phone and adds: “BE VERY QUIET IN THE MORNINGS” to the blow-by-blow list she has for Mimi.
Frances steps outside, six birdfeeders suspended from fingers and arms, and deposits them on the picnic table. She opens the canister of safflower seed, gasps at the dusty scent and scoops the seeds with the old tin measuring cup. She knocks over the largest feeder. The fracas from the metal scares away the hungry birds and passes through the open window. Seconds later she hears coughing and hacking in the bedroom—Daddy is alive. She fills and hangs the feeders, each in their proper spot along the wooden deck, and scrambles to Daddy’s room.
Daddy leans against the pillow in the middle of his bed—its four posts raised to defend him like wooden soldiers. Frances detects the customary glare on his pruned face. For a moment she flirts with the idea of putting the pillow over his nose and holding it there a while. She puts on a cheerful face, instead.
“Good Morning, Daddy. Did you sleep well? You slept late today.” Her father glares. She helps him up out of his pungent, plaid pajamas, swabs him with the sea foam green washcloth, the one with the taupe trim Mama tacked on.
“Today’s Friday, Daddy. It’s Friday.” She sticks the toothbrush in his hand so he can clean his own teeth.
“Mimi comes today,” she prepares him. She tilts him forward so he can spit out the paste into the cup she carries.
“She’ll be here,” Frances adds keeping her voice blithe and buoyant. “Isn’t she a good daughter?”

Frances brushes what remains of his hair and then adorns him with a clean shirt. She maneuvers him into a pair of loose fitting pants, bends to slip on his well-worn house shoes and negotiates his body into the mechanical lift next to the wheelchair.
As she lowers him into his chair her back muscles stiffen. The over-the-counter pain medicine from Ingles has no effect today. She grits her teeth and concentrates on replacing the twinge in her back with an illusion of herself poolside—a coconut-scented drink in one hand and a book from the library shelf in the other. She can feel the book’s spine crack as she spreads it on her lap. She can see the umbrella twirl in her drink.
Frances wheels Daddy into the living area and returns to make his bed, fluffing his pillow the way he approves.
In the kitchen she ignites the gas stove and switches on the burner. Mama’s cast iron skillet heats quickly. Frances smells the egg whites frying before she can scramble them. She seizes a pot holder and scrapes the eggs into the sink. She guards her actions so Daddy cannot see the charred evidence.
Frances wipes down the skillet and begins again. Wrestling a plate from the cupboard, she shoves the second batch of eggs onto the plate, smears a layer of butter on the toast, pours the milk, and while the eggs cool, she dismembers Daddy’s orange. She carries the plate to the table and deposits it in front of him.
“There you go, Daddy.”
Daddy mashes his fingers against the remote control. The TV weather man’s booming voice invades their silence: “Clouds will build throughout the day today. Tonight will be stormy, but tomorrow will bring sunny skies.”
She adjusts the volume and drags a chair beside him. She knots a towel around his neck and directs his spoon.
“Don’t forget to blow on your food, Daddy. Blow on it.”
After breakfast, Frances pushes Daddy’s chair to the den and coerces his body into the recliner.
“You must keep him moving to arrest bed sores,” the doctor said at their last visit.
She reels Daddy’s portable desk over so he can inspect the bills then retreats to the kitchen to clean his dishes from breakfast. She chokes down the leftover toast and glances at the phone, anxious for Mimi to call.
If I know Mimi, she got an upper-hand on the traffic and is halfway home already.
Frances detects the rustle of papers and hustles to her father. He flashes her his customary glare.
“Now Daddy, don’t you go destroying your pile again.” Frances cautions as she shoves the table out of his reach. “You don’t like messy files,” she tells him.
Once as a child, she toddled into this den and collided with one of his paper piles. He was so overcome with anger she was lucky Mama came around the corner to take the full force of his verbal blows. Daddy could get mad quick back then.
She moves Daddy from his recliner to his chair and wheels him outside to police the birds and wait for Mimi’s car.
“There you go, Daddy,” she says jamming the red plaid blanket over his knees.
Lunch comes and goes—the afternoon drags on. What little sun there is inundates the living room suffocating the house with its heat. Frances repositions Daddy’s chair and guides a glass of cold lemonade to his mouth so he will not dribble. He hates having stains on his clothes.
Frances hears what must be Mimi’s car crunching on the gravel and barrels to the door. “It’s just the neighbor,” she reports when she sees the red pickup truck pass on the road above the house.
At four o’clock she moves Daddy back to his recliner and sits beside him to scan the newspaper. “A baby got bit by a pit bull over in Hendersonville,” she reads. “That monster chewed off three toes on the baby’s right foot. Where was that child’s mama?”
Daddy glares in her direction. She reads to him about the serial bank robber and the man from Arden who smothered his girlfriend to death, but she does not read to him about anything to do with politics. Daddy does not agree with the politics of the local paper.
As suppertime advances, she moves Daddy back to his wheelchair and rolls him by the window to watch the sun disappear below the line of serviceberry trees confining their property.
“You must keep a routine for your father’s well-being,” the doctor had also said at the last visit so Daddy watches the sun depart every evening, even on overcast days. Tonight the wind and the sinking sun entangle the trees’ white blossoms. They shimmer the way lights on a police car radiate a warning.
Frances carries the birdfeeders in from the porch and places them on carpet squares that protect the wood floor. She cracks the window so Daddy can listen for Mimi’s car as it groans its way up the steep mountain road.
Frances boils a pot of water and heats the skillet to brown meat for spaghetti. She breaks the noodles in half, just like Mama taught her, and adds them to the pot. She pours the last big bag of Mama’s thawed sauce over the sizzling meat and lowers the burner. She pours Daddy a glass of milk, still straining to hear a car.
“Mimi never drives over the speed limit, Daddy,” she says. “She’s just late because she’s a careful driver. She’ll be here.”
After the twilight has died, she steers Daddy into the dining room, parks beside him, and twists him a small portion of the noodles on his fork so he does not choke.
“There you go, Daddy,” she says as he samples the long forgotten red sauce. She aims another fork in his direction, but her hands tremble and the noodles slip back to the plate, splattering Daddy. He glares at her. She wipes his face.
When he is done, Frances delivers the remote control so Daddy may stare at the evening news while she scours the dishes. She searches Mama’s address book for the latest number for Mimi’s phone. She punches it in, waits for the connection.
“This is Marion Crane-Loomis. Please leave a message.”
“Mimi, hi. It’s me. It’s Frances. Call me back, okay?” She hangs up.
Frances fills the basin with hot soapy water and sinks the spaghetti-stained plates.
Where is she?
Frances rubs then rinses the plates and hangs them over the strainer.
Mimi knows how important this is to me.
She rubs and rinses the forks and then the knives.
No. I will not let my imagination get away from me.
She drains the sink, wipes and rinses the cast-iron skillet placing it back on the burner to dry.
Of course Mimi is coming to stay with Daddy. Mimi is a good daughter.

As darkness descends, she anticipates the sound of a car rising up the mountain road. Instead, she picks up Daddy’s snores. She extinguishes the television and pushes him to the bedroom. She clenches her teeth and finagles his body into the lift and then into the bed. The phone rings.
“Mimi!” Frances answers. She glances at the clock on the nightstand.
“You’re not coming?” Her body collapses into the chair beside the phone.
“Oh, Mimi, Daddy will be so disappointed,” And she frowns as Mimi drones on. Her fingers grip the phone cord. “I guess it is easy to make that mistake.”
And then she says, “Goodbye.”
As she cuts the connection, Frances envisions the suitcases packed. She envisions the pool and the sunshine and the umbrella in her drink. And then she envisions herself in the teal blue skirted tunic with its matching crinkle-cotton cover up.
Frances moves to the bed and yanks off Daddy’s loose fitting pants and spaghetti stained shirt. She kicks his house-shoes into the corner and wrenches his body into the pungent plaid pajamas. She scours his face with the sea foam green washcloth. She brushes his teeth, shoves him forward to spit out the paste, and scrapes the comb through what remains of his hair. Daddy is awake now. The moon draws a shadow across his brow, but Daddy’s eyes are aglow. Frances glares back. She pulls a pillow from behind his head, fluffs it, and then holds it in front of his face.
“I know you do not like to be disappointed, Daddy, but it turns out Mimi is not a good daughter, after all.”

Frances draws her father’s curtains closed. A cloud of dust from the damask coverings assaults her nostrils. She coughs—the sound does not bother him. The old man lies in his bed as he does every night. His gray hands clench the double-wedding ring quilt his wife made. An array of books, balled-up tissues, and his collection of New Yorker crossword puzzle magazines cover the space beside him, the space his wife filled for decades. He lies outside the circle of light cast from his reading lamp—shadows darken his face.
“There you go, Daddy,” Frances says as she repositions the pillow under his head. He does not answer. She turns out the lamp.

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