Creative Writing Ink January Winner

LADIES’ MAN

by

Joanne Weck

We’re standing in a cold autumn rain at my daddy’s gravesite—-just me, Nana, and Olive, the three women who loved him and stuck by him. Well, there’s also the minister from Nana’s church–another woman, short, squat, with a butch haircut and Roman collar, who’s saying a few prayers before they start tossing the dirt onto his coffin.

There weren’t many people at the service in the little chapel, either. A few of the guys who’d played in Daddy’s band—-I noticed Sal, the drummer, and some other friends from The Last Resort huddled together in the back pews, already drunk or high at 10 a.m.

Uncle Bertram, Daddy’s older brother, rushed in at the last second to stand just inside the doorway, sneaking glances at his Rolex.

Aunt Tatum didn’t show up at all, even though she’s Daddy’s baby sister. They had some disagreement about a friend she’d hooked him up with who somehow ended up in the emergency ward after their big date.

Some measly flower arrangements–lilies, roses, carnations–were bunched together around the coffin, trying to look plentiful. The sickly smell they gave off made my allergies act up. Along with the sobs I couldn’t quite choke back, my eyes were streaming and I was sniffling from the pollen.

They’d done a pretty good job on Daddy’s face. He looked tan and rested, like he’d just spent a week in Miami. The dark suit pretty much hid the weight he’d put on over the last three years and his thick dark hair curled around his handsome face.

The funeral director, a tall man with a face speckled like a half-rotten melon, peered around the chapel, hoping for more of a crowd, I guess, before he finally gave Reverend Tisdale the nod.

Where were all the ladies who’d spent time at our little backwoods cabin? For that matter, where was my mother? I’d hung onto a tiny, secret hope that the news of his death would have somehow reached her, and she would put in a way-overdue appearance.

I caught myself sneaking glances around the chapel, half-expecting a mysterious figure, all in black with one of those spider web veils hiding her beautiful face to turn up, just like a scene from an old movie.

But there was no mysterious lady, and his buddies drifted off, probably to the nearest bar, even before we got to the part where they lowered the coffin. My heart was breaking for him, thinking how embarrassed he’d be at such a miserable turnout.

So we’re the only ones left to see Daddy put down into the grave–his mother, Nana Carlson, his wife Olive Mae Carlson (now his widow, after a three-year marriage), and me, his daughter, Madeline Bently Carlson, an orphan at fifteen.

I’m his only child, or at least the only one he ever admitted to. There were some nasty rumors, one of his exes claimed he was the father of her Down syndrome son, but Daddy got some tests to prove that it was all a con.

Naturally it’s raining. At least the black umbrella lent out by the Spalding Funeral Home hides the tears spilling down my cheeks. I wipe my face and whisper for about the gazillionth time, “I’m sorry, Daddy.”
By this time I’m feeling too sad and guilty to even try to hold back my tears, and I let the sobs rip, too. I steal a glance at Olive and Nana to see if they are feeling as bad as I am.

No one was more shocked than me when death struck Daddy down at forty-three. He deserved a longer life and a better end. Not to mention a better daughter. I’m thinking about the tantrums I threw when he wouldn’t buy me the motorbike I wanted, and how I could have broke down and told him I loved him now and then. I knew he loved me even if he never came right out and said so.

Sure, he was a bit clueless in the father department, but he did his best, and we were a team. He was real patient when he taught me to play guitar, and he never once hit me.

He had lots of pet names for me: Muffin, Dumpling, Pork Pie. It was great when we were home on a Tuesday night, cooking the one meal we’d gotten down perfect–baked beans on rye toast with a big pitcher of Bloody Marys. (Straight tomato juice for me. He said I couldn’t drink till I was sixteen, but I could always snarf enough to work up a real nice buzz from the glasses he and his posse left around.)

Credit where credit is due: He’d managed to raise me (with some help from Nana Carlson and later from Olive), working at his miserable day jobs–handyman and carpenter for a couple of the big resort hotels.

He made a little money from his music, too, when he was playing regular, but that went into his partying–payback to the guys who scored the coke and booze. His music was never about money, anyway.

Everyone agreed on that–he was a damn fine musician, a local legend in fact, known for his mean guitar, his wild partying, and his lovely ladies. Maybe I should say he was all about the music, the nightlife, and the ladies.

Before Olive, that is. Nobody else thought she was his type, but from the first I was sure she was perfect for him. Obviously, I was right. But sometimes being right can be worse than being wrong. I feel guilty even thinking that, especially when I look over at Olive, but that thought keeps sneaking its way into the back of my mind.

Women could never resist his deep dark eyes, his rich voice and those sweet and tender lyrics, not even mentioning his dark, brooding image. I’d have to say his technique worked best during the early stage (what Nana refers to as “courting”), but it was pretty potent even after things started to go bad.

When he was coaxing a lady to come back after one of their fights–let’s say he drank a little too much and she just didn’t know when to shut up and pushed him a little too far.

It worked like this—-he’d send a dozen red roses, a romantic card, and a CD with a song written “just for her”. Actually it was one of his standard numbers–“Lorrie, I’m So Sorry” with the name of the current lady stuck in. Too bad stage three eventually followed it. That was when the lady packed up and (as Nana described it) “took a powder.”

The whole cycle from first sight to final breakup usually ran about six months. My mother must have been one tough chick, hanging in there for over a year. She sneaked out one night when I was just a couple of weeks old, dumping me on Nana (“just for the night” is what she told Nana) and not even leaving a photo of herself behind.

I have to admit, before Olive I was actually happiest when Daddy was between lady friends because that was the only time we spent whole weekends together–me, Daddy, and Nana Carlson.

During his dry spells we would practically move in with Nana. She would serve up her rich German cooking, help me with my homework, lay out fresh underwear and clean clothes for school–and the best part, Daddy was home every night.

Sure, he usually passed out in front of the TV after a hard day’s work and one of Nana’s dinners, but at least it seemed more like a normal family life until the next lady came along.

Fawne Delight was the first of his ladies that I remember clearly. I was nine and a half when she came into my life and only ten when she took off.

One Sunday afternoon when Daddy brought me back from Nana’s, there she was–a beautiful life-size Barbie doll, with long blonde hair, wide green eyes, and the kind of curves they call voluptuous.

“She’s adorable!” she said to Daddy. (I was definitely not the kind of kid people called “adorable.” More likely it was “Fatso,” “Four-eyes,” or “Miss Piggy.”) “What’s your name, honey?” she asked in a sugary-sweet voice.

“Madeline.”

“That’s so cute!” Her laugh rang out like the chiming of bells. “Do you know the story of Madeline at the Plaza? That was my favorite book when I was a little girl.”

I nodded, feeling kind of dumb but happy. For Christ’s sake, I was almost ten. On the other hand, most of Daddy’s ladies treated me like I was just some problem they got stuck with, like a wad of chewing gum on their shoe. Only Fawne genuinely liked me.

She worked as a dancer at Pocono Paradise, a ratty looking “gentlemen’s club” (ALL NUDE DANCERS BYOB, the big billboard screamed), so mostly she slept days, but when she was up and about she was always sweet to me.

When I asked Daddy if she was going to be my mommy, he sort of snickered and kept right on strumming his guitar.

During their early days together, Daddy and Fawne spent a lot of time at the cabin, bringing home pizza or Chinese take-out, laughing, talking, and drinking. On Sundays the band came over and hung out all day, playing hard and doing coke off the coffee table.

But then the trouble started. He suspected her of sneaking around with other guys and ordered her to give up her dancing. I hid in my room with the bedcovers pulled up over my head to shut out the screaming and smashing furniture. After the first 911 call I was back at Nana’s.

Anybody else could have guessed how it would end, but I was heartbroken the day he brought me back home and I found her gone. The only evidence that she’d been there at all was a few pieces of clothing and a small makeup bag she left behind.

I eased my grief by trying to paint her beauty onto my own chubby face. Daddy caught me smearing candy pink lipstick over my mouth, my face all decorated with powder, eye shadow, and blush trying to copy her glamour. I was wearing, over my tee shirt, one of her blue-spangled bras.

Instead of noticing how beautiful I looked, he turned as vicious as if he’d just come in from a night of carousing.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing? You look like a little slut!” His eyes were narrow slits and his looks turned ugly. “Go wash your face and take off that revolting thing!” he snarled. “I want you to take a good look at your Nana. That’s the kind of woman I want you to grow up to be.”

After Fawne’s exit, he fell into his typical end-of-the-romance funk. He tumbled down into a deep depression, canceled all of his gigs, and did his drinking in front of Nana’s TV.

After his day job, we’d head right over to her house for dinner. She’d hover over him, serving up his favorite meals–fried chicken with mashed potatoes, or pot roast. Wonderful desserts showed up at every meal–apple pie, chocolate cake, or one of her famous strudels. If anything sparked up his temper, she knew exactly how to calm him, patting his back and murmuring, “There, there, now, Scotty, it’s alright. I have some of those brownies left. Maybe a cup of coffee?”

After dinner he’d wallow on the worn lounge chair that had been Pop-Pop’s, nursing his beer. Over the months of his recovery, Daddy got soft and lazy, even growing a little paunch.

I knew the recovery stage had begun when the gleam came back into Daddy’s eyes, followed pretty quickly by the his sense of humor.

“Hi, Pork Pie!” he greeted me when he got home from work. “Looks like you’re getting a little chubby around the middle.”

“Time for us to start working out,” he announced.

And it was back to stage one of the Cycle of Romance.

He put in monster sessions at the gym and stuck to a diet of fruits, veggies, and whole grains until his rock-hard six-pack was back. He dug his guitar out of the closet and practiced late into the night. He updated his wardrobe, adding some cool new boots and sexy jeans.

Before long the band was hanging out and he was setting up gigs, right back in action–playing at The Last Resort and other spots, partying all night. When he delivered me to Nana’s on Friday afternoon, I never knew if he’d pick me up on Sunday evening or two weeks later.

Nana turned grim “You ought to come home at a decent hour,” she whined. “You’re too old to keep up all this womanizing! When are you going to find a nice young lady and settle down?”

“I’m still looking for a lady just like you, Mom.”

Nana pretended like she hadn’t heard, but I could tell she was tickled as we loaded my backpack and laptop into his trunk.

“Your daddy’s womanizing is gonna kill him and me, too,” she told me for the millionth time.

And just like that it hit me that I knew the perfect lady for Daddy. My plotting revved into high gear at that very second.

Olive Cranford was someone I already liked. Her house, where Nana took me once a week for piano lessons, was full of overstuffed furniture covered in floral patterns, and fragrant with the scent of chocolate and cinnamon.

Nana and Olive hit it right off, too. Although Olive was about thirty years younger, there was something sweetly similar about them.

The day of my first lesson Olive invited Nana in for a cup of tea and she hung around to share recipes and gossip. One afternoon, after I overheard Olive confiding about how much she missed her husband, Barry, who’d gotten crushed a few winters before by his own runaway snowplow, I suggested to Nana that Daddy could drive me to my next piano lesson.

Nana knew what I was up to. I caught a crafty little gleam in her eye when she agreed, so I was pretty sure we were on the same wavelength. Not that it was ever an outright conspiracy, you couldn’t say that.

One afternoon, he showed up after a lesson and Olive invited him in for a cup of tea. She served him her cinnamon coffee cake, and they sat drinking tea together and chatting.

Little by little, as I’d hoped, one thing led to another. Even if Nana dropped me off, he made it a point to be there when I was through.

The whole thing sort of sneaked up on him, I think. They started going places together, out to dinner or a movie, and then, as Nana said it, “he was wrapped up and sold.”

Soon he was spending an hour after every lesson telling Olive the story of his life while I watched TV in the den. She always served him homemade pecan pie or apple strudel and clucked with sympathy as he told her about his tough job. When he brought her around to meet the band, they couldn’t believe he was serious, she was just so far off his type.

He stopped hanging out, and the two of us spent the evenings at Olive’s place, where she served up dinners as good as any of Nana’s.

If something got under his skin and he raised his voice, Olive was there with her soft, soothing ways, asking, “What is it, darling?” sounding just like Nana.

She worked at home, teaching mostly kids and an occasional housewife, so he didn’t have to worry about her cheating like all those other women.

I broke down in tears the day she asked me to be maid of honor at their wedding, and Nana sobbed from the day he proposed until three days after the wedding.

Daddy and I moved into her cozy little house, and for the first time in my life I had a real girly-girl’s bedroom. Daddy finally gave up his music altogether and came home to dinner every night like a regular dad.
I’d never seen him so content. Sundays we had dinner at Nana’s, and she outdid herself cooking up all of the meals he favored. They competed to see who could please him most. If he mentioned that Olive had made his favorite lemon meringue pie, Nana would retaliate with her German chocolate cake.

It seemed that I had shaped the perfect life for all of us, with a little help from Nana. We were the perfect happy family I always dreamed about.

Until last Tuesday–when Daddy, in the middle of putting up shelves at the Manor Inn Coffee Shop, dropped stone dead of a heart attack. The doctors said, in the post mortem, that his cholesterol had gone right through the roof and the layers of fat around his heart had choked it. All those dinners of steak and potatoes, fried chicken and chocolate cake had done him in. So much for a happy home life and good cooking.

Nana Carlson, Olive, and I were alone in the long black limo that took us from the funeral parlor to the graveyard. I was still sniffling, Nana had tears running into the crevices of her wrinkled cheeks, and Olive broke the quiet with sudden outbursts of sobs.

Now, standing graveside, Olive has finally managed to get herself under control. Olive’s arm is tucked in Nana’s, and they look like two crows, both in dark hats and coats, sharing the black umbrella. They comfort one another while I toss the first shovel of dirt onto Daddy’s coffin.