I wasn’t sure what to make of it when my daughter sat at the breakfast table with a cigarette butt in one hand and a Skittle in the other. Karen had attempted to hide them from me, clenching her tiny fists when I tried to pry open her fingers. Her stubbornness already surpassed both Francine’s and mine: nap time was a war of wills, latched doors a minor inconvenience, and she threw a fit if there were even the remotest chance she might land candy out of the deal.
Sweets were poison in my book. The cough syrup I guzzled as a teenager to get through the monotony of high school ruined candy for me as an adult. I never knew what would trigger my violent reactions, but I made sure to avoid the follow- ing: Jujubes, candied apples, Jordan almonds, yams, cotton candy, apple cider and toothpaste.
The only thing that seemed to help me from throwing up when I smelled sweets were the cigarettes I started chain smoking soon after I married Francine. I don’t blame her for my habit or for my inability to feel comfortable with a woman and, later, a child in my home. The fault was mine—I’d fallen into some sub-basement of fatherhood, where my dad had spent his entire marriage drinking homemade wine in a combination rumpus room and workshop of his own creation. My own escape involved a deck off the kitchen that my wife and exuberant daughter quickly learned to avoid.
This wasn’t to say I didn’t love Karen. She meant the world to me—bright, ener- getic and wise beyond her four years and two months should have made her. She had an openness that made me question everything about my own existence. In fact, she downright scared me at times.
Many of the memorable events in my life were foreshadowed by things my daughter either said or did. Just before my boss, Mr. Yancy at the insurance com- pany, was fired for embezzlement, Karen said “Bossman Yancy take my candy,” even though she’d never met him. And the morning before my fender bender with, of all people, a litigation attorney, Karen said, “Car go boom, daddy.” And so did my wallet. Francine and I stopped trying to spell out words around her. For example, my wife’s recent suggestion: M-A-R-R-I-A-G-E C-O-U-N-S-E-L-O-R, led to Karen bawling for six straight hours.
My daughter looked on the verge of tears now as I massaged her knuckles and gently eased open her fingers. I snatched the Skittle and cigarette butt from her and walked away as the first sniffles started, tossing her “treasures” in the trash, but not before Fran noticed.
“Dan, you’re ruining her childhood,” she said before leaving the kitchen and joining Karen back at the table. Francine’s own parents had been stern and unforgiv- ing, something she made sure never to be with her daughter.
We were supposed to be Fran and dan, the perfect Midwest couple with an open door and inviting smiles to welcome our child’s future friends into our home. A couple with the singsong names that would roll off neighbors’ tongues at barbe- cues. A couple that was not supposed to argue in whispers, first about finances and domestic roles, then about everything else.
I remember when my wife started sniping at me in earnest—the trouble rolled into our home the morning after last Thanksgiving. I’d argued with her parents all day and had ducked out from the festivities early to hang out on the deck. My lack of commitment to her “friction-free” holiday plans had made her angry beyond toss- ing the salad tongs into the stuffing. She glared at me and edged her chair closer to Karen, farther from me.
The next evening at dinner I noticed that Fran had decided to switch from beer to wine, not a dry cabernet, but a sickly sweet sherry she knew would nauseate me. She said nothing as she downed first one glass, then another. Even Karen noticed, saying, “Mommy mad.” I took my dinner to the deck, the first of many to follow.
Perhaps this was her way of keeping me at arm’s length. I wanted a big family that would invade every room and force me bubbling and effusive into the middle of it, but she was content with just a daughter—being an only child herself. Fran was also a career woman with no patience for losing ground to those around her who were less talented. An opinion I suspect that she was forming about me. She continually shifted from job to job, pitting her employers against one another for titles and salary. I was blatantly loyal and lacking in ambi- tion. She called me her “starter husband” with mock affection.
There was no middle ground in our home divided between sugar and smoke. I couldn’t stand to kiss her anymore, even after inhaling most of a pack before bedtime. While I attempted to stoically accept the tension, Francine threw herself into a revolving door of hobbies: yoga, macramé, kick- boxing, wine collecting and, most recently, feng shui, which involved redecorating the house to maximize our “love” zones and tacking crystals above the mirrors in our bedroom.
She was creating a different “energy” in our home, and part of this involved setting up separate twin beds in our room to give ourselves “space.” distance in close proximity, a foreign concept to me, even under the auspices of an ancient Chinese belief. But I agreed to the change, dope that I was, and Karen gradually distanced herself from me and her mother.
One evening Fran visited me out on the deck after we put our daughter to sleep. She had an intense look in her eyes—one I’d seen often during the early years of our marriage when she nuzzled next to me on the couch.
“What are we going to do?” she asked, pulling up a lawn chair next to mine.
“About what?” I looked at the planks of the unfinished pine deck, littered with leaves from the late October Indianapolis night.
“Karen deserves better,” she slurred, taking my hand in hers. The wine on her 172
breath was heavy, but not as sweet as usual. “Remember how we used to sit out here together?”
“Yes.” I should have told her that I thought about it practically every time I was out here—muggy summer nights, freezing winter afternoons, rain-soaked spring mornings. Back when we were still Francine and Daniel.
“Do you smell that?” she asked.
“It’s old man Hanson. Burning leaves.”
“This time of night?”
“He doesn’t have anyone,” I said. “He can do whatever he wants.”
“I can feel the heat from his backyard even from here.”
“We’re becoming our parents,” I said, twisting the brittle body of a leaf, the dry husk separating in my fingers.
“Let’s go to bed,” she said and dragged me up from my seat, the end of my cigarette still curling smoke into the cool autumn night.
It’s surprising how some memories stay with you like a mole you hate or a scar you grow to love. When I woke that morning next to Francine in my bed, I knew that something was wrong. I immediately thought of the legendary starling that had flown into my parents’ house when I was a child and got stuck in my sister’s hair. I opened my eyes and stared directly into Francine’s thoughtful look.
“You want another child, don’t you?” I said, smiling. “Why else would you come to bed with me?”
“You’re an asshole.”
She tried to roll over and yelped. I felt a sharp tug on the roots of my hair. We were somehow attached.
“Jesus Christ,” I said, running my hand up to where our hair was joined and feeling her own fingers patting an impossibly large wad of bubble gum.
“You’re a pig,” she said. “This doesn’t surprise me.”
“You can blame the liquor at least. I went to bed with you sober.”
We tilted our heads and saw Karen leaning against the foot of the bed with gum wrappers strewn at her feet. We tried standing, but it was too painful. We couldn’t manage to work together well enough to reach our feet. Finally, we collapsed back on the pillow, attached from forehead to neck, her shoulder-length strands enmeshed in mine.
“Karen, honey, can you get daddy’s beard scissors from the bathroom and bring them out here?”
“Dan, she’s only four.”
“Do you want to get out of this or not?”
We tried not to look at each other as we waited for Karen to return.
“I’m growing bald. It won’t grow back,” I said.
“I just got a hundred dollar haircut.”
“I’ve got a meeting on Monday.”
“I’m a woman. Besides, yours stinks like smoke.”
Karen crawled in bed with the tiny scissors and wiggled up to the headboard between us.
“Go ahead, Karen,” I said. “Cut away.”
“Karen, honey, why don’t you decide whose hair you’d rather cut. Mommy’s,” she said sternly, shaking her head, “or daddy’s,” she said sweetly.
The longer Karen paused the more it forced me to notice the nearly forgotten fragrance of my wife underneath the smoke, wine and lingering musk of last night’s lovemaking. She smelled like home.
Fran smiled. “Cut daddy’s hair, honey. Won’t he look funny with weird hair?”
Karen reached up and snipped away at the smoke and wine in equal measure until she was the only thing left between us.
Martin Ott is a former U.S. army interrogator. His fiction and poetry have appeared in over sixty publications and have been twice nominated for a Pushcart.
“Sugar, Wine, Smoke and Glue” was published in Therapy! (TLR, Fall 2009)