Sitting across the rotting planks of a water-worn picnic table at a lake dive in Rome City, Indiana, Chris glowered at Bob and strained not to hear him. She studied his ruddy face with his pale, hooded, sky-blue eyes. His face was unmistakably and disappointingly redolent of her own. In anger, her mom would shake her head slowly and deliberately while growling in revulsion, “You look just like him.” She usually managed to render “just” a two-syllable word to make her point. Chris hated this actuality and longed to resemble her mother who always lingered just beyond her reach. But his widow’s peak, unruly hair and godawful teeth were all lamentably hers too. Maintaining her own teeth was a Sisyphean task. They’d crack or break. Dr. Hill would patch them up. They’d break again and Dr. Hill, again, would do the needful. Bob simply let his rot. In fact he seemed proud of these gaping holes as they were yet another signifier of his indifference to the consequences of his decisions.
She wished she could be tender or something like that. But, “This putrid son of a bitch” rolled around in her head like her moist sneakers in the dryer after an early run in the dew-kissed grass of spring. She tried to appear indifferent as he plowed along in his flat, nasal Midwestern voice which also—irritatingly—sounded like a more masculine version of her own hilljack voice. Episodically her ears grabbed onto his words and she could feel that familiar anger rearing up on its hind legs, begging for permission to lunge at him, sink its teeth into his crepe-skinned neck and suck out whatever life lingered in that wankstain’s body. She forced herself to intermittently grunt or nod, feigning interested disinterest. The task helped to keep his venomous words at bay.
She instinctively recoiled when he said “his kids,” referring to Dawn and Rick, without a modicum of consideration for her feelings. These conjoined words raked across her nerves each time he uttered them. Not only was she his kid, she was his first accurst kid. She contemplated standing up, pointing at him and then to herself, and howling “I am the abandoned daughter of this fucktangle of assholery” for the enjoyment of the other outdoor diners seated nearby.
To dodge the responsibility of being her father, Bob did two voluntary tours in Viet Nam. He tried to re-up a third time, but the army declined. The army knew only nutcases wanted three servings of that war and it had no interest in redeploying a self-identified lunatic. Admittedly, he signed up for the first tour before he knew she was growing in her mom’s belly, but that didn’t excuse the second and the attempted third. It was crazy-making that this ratfucker preferred to shoot and be shot at in Viet Nam than stay in Indiana and be her father and her mother’s husband.
Chris deliciously remembered travelling to Viet Nam with her physicist then-boyfriend, Dr. Devil, some twenty years ago. She was in her late 20s, a mere four years after her mom died of Melanoma. While Dr. Devil rubbed shoulders with his colleagues at a local university, Chris visited the War Remnants Museum in which the intimately personal effects of captured soldiers and downed airman were curated and displayed: their dog tags; photos of wives, lovers, kids or dogs; watches; random pocket litter from their last trip to Bangkok. She wondered what would have happened had this raasclaat been captured. What artifacts of his existence would be on display? Did he have her baby picture in his wallet on his second tour? Her mom’s picture? Looking at the assortment, she wondered how she would have felt had she seen his POW picture and an assortment of his pocket trash behind that glass? “Mollified. Probably,” she muttered out loud.
In fact, she often wished that he had died in Viet Nam for the selfish reason that her life and that of her mom would have been vastly easier. Her mother would have had economic assistance and health benefits from the Veterans’ Administration. Re-marriage would have been a choice rather than compulsion. Chris would have had veterans’ educational benefits. Perhaps her mother wouldn’t have told her the repulsive truth about Bob and the bet he made that resulted in Chris’ conception. Chris would have been a slain heroes’ daughter rather than the genetic refuse of a coward who preferred waging war to loving her and protecting her from the war that life would wage against her.
Her parents divorced after Bob returned the second time from Nam. Chris was three. Soon thereafter, Bob married his high-school sweetheart, tossing her mother into economic and moral ruination, resigned to go from one fuckup’s bed to another just for them to survive. While Rome City Indiana in 1967 was unforgiving of women in these circumstances, it made various excuses for the men who invariably absconded.
As waves of rage washed over her, she stormed out of the museum. She strode up to the first sidewalk hawker she could find to buy a postcard depicting Ho Chi Minh, who oddly resembled an ornery Colonel Sanders. She scribbled on the card hastily, “Dear Bob. In Viet Nam. Wish you were still here. Chris.”
She had every intention of mailing it even though she didn’t have his address. But she was tenacious in her spite. From a nearby internet café, she opened Alta Vista and searched “Bristol Indiana White Pages.” Finding the shitbird’s whereabouts was surprisingly effortless. She scrawled out the address, headed to the nearest post office, and dispatched it before her better self could advise against it.
Motivated by those memories of 1998 Saigon and that museum, she focused upon Bob, who sat there in front of her in this northern Indiana gastronomical hellhole. She interrupted the story about his brother who tried—but failed—to kill himself with a shotgun.
“So, Bob, did you ever get that postcard I sent from Viet Nam?”
For a moment, a look of satisfying hurt drifted across Bob’s face. “Yes. Yes!” he said in a rising voice. “I did. And it was an asshole thing to do.”
She was relieved—even denervated—that he got it and that it stung. She nodded. “Well, I got the asshole gene from you. Along with your shitty teeth and your goddamned cancer genes. Oh. I also have a pile of shrink bills too. So, we’re not quite even—are we, Bob?”
Here she was, at some olid Indiana lake dive because Bob called her to proclaim, yet again, that he was dying from an aggressive cancer of his esophagus. He moaned that he was in a lot of pain. He said he wanted to see her. With the cupidity she read into his words, she and her patient husband, Jeff, drove all night from Washington D.C. She cried most of the way. Tears of sadness, guilt, and a life-time of yearning.
When they reached the hospital in Elkhart, he was hardly dead. And, he was still an unapologetic prick who revelled in the hurtful antics of his spent youth. She felt she had been made a fool. Played like a kazoo. As he bloviated about the tedious lives led by his unaccomplished, slothful children, she pondered the lifetime that separated them and would always separate them.
She came here, dropping everything, because he was ill, in pain and possibly dying. How many times was she hospitalized, alone and afraid? There was the kidney infection when she was eight. Meningitis when she was fourteen. She nearly died from a sea-food allergy while driving from the Cape to New York City in college with a terrified man who loved her unrequitedly. In shock, they rushed her past gun-shot victims before she drifted out of consciousness. In her travels to Afghanistan, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh she had contracted cholera, typhoid, countless bouts of near-lethal dysentery. Each time she wondered whether Bob would care that his firstborn was critically ill and whether he’d learn of her death if she died? Would he mourn her? Memories fell upon her like a stampede of furious animals released from a corral. The deadening sorrow she and Jeff endured when they lost their babies. She remembered Uncle Art’s calloused fingers penetrating her after her infant brother, Johnnie, died. When her stepfathers kicked and beat her. When her mom could not protect her. When an Afghan taxi driver abducted her outside of Ghom in 2001. Where. The. Fuck. Was. He?
She felt sick and dizzy. Had she ever called him during any of those troubles, would he have driven all night or bought a ticket and boarded a plane to see her? Not likely. He couldn’t be bothered to attend her college graduation from the University of Chicago—a mere ninety minutes from his home. Yet she was here for him. For a second time. And he was still not dying.
The wretch was immortal. It was possible that this boor would deny her the simple pleasure of pissing on his grave. Yet, despite her unending furor, here they were, sitting at a rickety picnic table, on an August evening in execrable Indiana, when the oppression of the humidity was exceeded only by persistence of the tiger mosquitos biting through her clothes.
As verbal rubbish spewed from his toothless, twisted mouth, saliva caked on its downward-tilting corner. His face was noticeably asymmetrical. His nose was warped like someone had smashed it right and proper. But in all the photos she had studied of him, that was his nose.
For a moment, she looked away from him in shame for being there, for being conned into seeing this jackass so incapable of the slightest remorse. If only this prick had died in Viet Nam, she thought. That was a story she could understand and, equally important, could explain to others. He always came up in background investigations and polygraph interrogations for her security clearances. CIA shrinks, who still thought Freud mattered, would impugn her morality and integrity because he abandoned her. How could she explain who this man was to these government bureaucrats? It was too much emotional labor. Yet she had to. Repeatedly.
She looked down at her plate that arrived during one of one of his cloying reveries. She pushed her food around with her fork as if it was that tiny sand pit and miniature rake their couples’ counsellor had on her coffee table. Eating was impossible. If she started, she would eat it all. Then she’d excuse herself to purge. The desire to devour those fries and barbecue pork ribs perdured. She knew what they would feel like coming up, the comfort of wrapping her arms around her stomach in this practiced exorcism of rancor at others and herself. The self-flagellation accompanied by the self-induced heaves were a soothing ritual she learned early in childhood. Later, she could drink some water with baking soda stirred in to neutralize the acid and mitigate any damage she had inflicted upon her genetically compromised esophagus and doomed teeth. She had been diagnosed a few months earlier with Barret’s esophagus which tended to become Bob’s cancer. Meditating upon this most salient inheritance from Bob, she reminded herself that she could not binge and purge. Drawing her nose and lips into a snarl, she poured water over her meal to make it less appealing. She sighed, relaxed her shoulders and looked right into his face, resigned to let her resentment sit with her.
Bob would not shut up.
She glanced towards Jeff, who had tuned out. Mouth watering, she glanced at her plate. Why was she here? What did she think would come from this? An apology for a lifetime of neglect? A feeble recognition of that neglect? The questions stung. Where was he when her stepfathers beat her, or her uncle thrust his trigger finger into her girlish flesh to pluck her innocence like a blackberry from a pie? He had given her nothing worth having. She felt trapped, smothered, unable to breathe. Needing to bolt, she looked around furtively at her husband, the waitress, the table behind Bob, where a large woman, with voluminous arms draped about her pot belly, sprawled out and wide like the desert she traversed in that Afghan’s taxi speeding away from Ghom.
The woman’s purple veins bulged out and over her thick legs which strained her polyester shorts. Her friend, sporting a colorful maxi dress, held a yappy chihuahua on her own capacious lap, making the tiny dog appear even more diminutive. She concentrated on the chihuahua, those veiny legs and flaccid arms, the swirls of hues on the endless muumuu. She saw a milkshake at the chihuahua’s table. Was it vanilla, she wondered? She glanced once more, furtively, at the water-logged food.
Then Bob said the thing she could not unhear. He called his granddaughter a pig. She hadn’t paid attention to how he ended up there in his interminable account. She thought maybe she’d misunderstood. Her voice piqued as she asked him to repeat himself. “What did you just say?” elongating the vowels as they fell out of her mouth.
He gathered himself defensively, sat upright and looked at her defiantly, square in her eyes and said “She’s a goddamn pig. Ashley is a pig. Her mom is a pig. She’s a fucking pig, like her whore mom.”
Sublimating her wrath, she retorted in her NPR voice, “Bob, just how old is this ostensible pig?” wondering if he knew what “ostensible” meant. “She’s fourteen,” Bob snorted, almost gleefully. “But she’s always been a pig.”
“And just why is she a ‘goddamned pig’?” she asked with contempt-dredged curiosity. She slapped hard at a mosquito biting through her clothes. She glanced down with cathartic satisfaction at the blood spatter on her dress and palm. Again, with increased adamancy, Bob told her, “Her mother is a pig. She’s a pig, too.”
Inhaling and crossing her arms over her empty stomach, she leaned back and slowly repeated her question in a lowered voice while glowering, “Why, Bob, do you call your teenaged granddaughter a pig, a goddamned pig?”
He opined that “she’s a little slut, who got kicked out of school for asking boys to show her their dicks.”
Horrified, she recognized the child’s actions intimately as the behavior of an abused child, overwhelmed by her precocious inclinations and desires. Chris’s wife-murdering uncle had abused her since she was a toddler. Her first memories were of him turning her over the back of the couch in her stepfather’s basement, sliding aside her underwear and thrusting his rough, oil-stained fingers inside her tiny body. And, having been touched like that, her body had desires that were beyond the control of her five-year-old self. Uncle Art told her that he loved her more than anyone else. In a house bereft of affection or attention, her young self welcomed his affection. Later, upon understanding how fucked up it was, the feelings of guilt, filth, shame and self-loathing settled into her bones like a Chicago fog in winter. It was then that she discovered the calm that came after eating an entire box of Raisin Bran with whole milk, then thrusting her face over the toilet, calling herself names as she summoned the contents of her stomach into the commode. With each hurl, she felt the self-hatred leave her along with the contents of her gut. It wasn’t the eating that soothed her: it was the purging. With each expulsion, she felt better, until she collapsed on the cold bathroom floor and felt her sweat evaporate.
She sat back and looked at him from the side of her eyes. Then at the food. She wanted so badly to do what had comforted her for so long. She meditated upon Bob’s cancer and the extensive surgery that required a reorganization of his upper thorax after they removed most of his cancerous esophagus. The surgeon moved his stomach where his esophagus had been. She cut him from the front and back to rearrange his lungs, upon which his truncated stomach now rested. He could not breathe as easily as before with that stomach upon his lungs. Eating was a chore. For months, a tube sent nutrients directly to his upper bowl. Considering this, she again resolved that he, this useless sonofabastard, would not bring her to her knees, face plunged into a toilet, puking up her loathing for him, herself or anyone else while courting his cancer.
She turned, and returning his defiance in measure, stared right into his face and sneered whether it had occurred to him that perhaps “that the little girl is a pig because someone abused her?”
Bob replied guilelessly, “Of course she was abused! Her mother is shacking up with a goddamned pedophile!”
The churn of indignation felt like a typhoon. It was too much. Ashley, the “pig” was his granddaughter. His son’s daughter.
She had to get out of there. She explained that it had been a long drive from DC to Indiana and that she had to go. She asked for the bill and paid it. She didn’t want him paying for their dinner. After he left, she sat there with her husband, grappling with what just happened. She felt wrong inside like someone had pithed her.
That night, sleep was elusive. In their motel bed, she kept replaying his words and seeing his twisted, saliva-crusted mouth. She sat up beside her snoring husband, and cradled her unease, trying to pin it down.
In the darkness, cut by a streetlamp, she stroked the velvety ear of her dog, Budreaux. They had brought all three dogs with them, and at this moment, it was Boudreaux who sought comfort, while Vega and Saffy slept at the foot of the bed. Rubbing Budreaux’s soft ear pacified them both. He nestled his Janus-faced head into her lap, turned over, and stretched his hind legs out and up, revealing his snow-white chest and belly to indicate that he wanted a tummy rub. She leaned over to stroke his strong undercarriage and thought how much she loved him.
As Budreaux rolled over and fell asleep, the puzzle floated back. At first, it was hazy but slowly came into focus with glaring obviousness. When she was a kid fending off her uncle, step-monsters, and an indifferent mother; she rehearsed the consoling canard that if her father only knew about this shitstorm, he would save her. Maybe he would’ve beaten her uncle or even killed him in a fit to restore his hillbilly honor? When her step-fathers consecutively rained hell upon her, she imagined her father as a kind man who, moved by her pain and his remorse for not rescuing her earlier, would drape himself around her like a warm coat and lead her away from a life that was killing her.
She had come to know Bob somewhat over the intervening decades. The first time she met Bob, she was thirteen. They met at the Walgreen’s restaurant in the Glenbrook Mall, in Ft. Wayne, Indiana. Her mother promised her that she could meet him when she turned thirteen, if she could locate him. Her mother worked all day. From their home in Huntertown, the Allen County Library in downtown Ft. Wayne was no more than 12 miles. The bulk of the distance was a the peri-rural highway, Lima Rd. So, one summer day, after her mom left for work, she hopped on her bike and made the journey. It was easy: a friendless loner, she spent most of the Huntertown summers on her bike traveling through farmlands. The library had phone books for the entire state. It took her no time to find Bob. She Xeroxed the page with his name, address, and phone number. When October came, she presented her mother with the finding she had kept secret since July. Her mom was peeved but kept up her end of the bargain. Chris remembered dialing his number, waiting for him to answer and explaining who she was. He didn’t seem terribly enthusiastic. He was about thirty years old then and he seemed mostly uncertain. Nonetheless, he agreed to meet her.
At the mall, her closest friend, Holly waited as they met. Holly was more reliable than either Heather or Carmel, with whom she had once planned to escape her unbearable life. She’d waited for them both underneath the streetlamp on Apollo Road for an hour before she concluded they had chickened out. But Holly was made of tougher stuff. How many times had she and Holly plotted to hop a boxcar and go wherever it took them? She and Holly had spent hours under the railroad bridge in Huntertown noting train schedules for their getaway. That was why Holly was there that day.
Holly watched from a distance in the magazine aisle in the adjacent drug store, while she and Bob sat at a table visible to mall shoppers. Bob brought his wife, who sported expensive Jordache jeans. She longed for Bob to ask whether she was okay, was she loved, did her stepfather treat her well? He asked her little other than unimaginative queries about school and questions, riddled with aversion, about why she kept pet rats, a snake and a ferret as pets. She didn’t bother explaining the intelligence of rats or that her ferret had a more noticeable sense of curiosity than he had or that the snake was more affectionate than he seemed.
The next time they met, she was 23. She had just buried her mother, who died at 45. He callously told her, while she still stood on the concrete steps outside his house, “You weren’t born out of love. You were born out of a bet.”
Her stomach twisted and roiled, not because of the cruelty of it, but because of the confirmation of a truth. Her mother had told her, from the time she was six, that Bob and two other men made a bet to get her into bed. She hadn’t known what it meant until she grew older. But as she came to understand the words and implications of the posited scenario, the more unbelievable it was. By the time her mother was dying, she was in full revolt. She had outright called her mother a liar and, in a fit of anger over her mother’s failure to protect her from the men in their lives, yelled at her to never repeat that nonsense again. When her mother died, she had come to fully reject this foundational truth, which more than anything, explained her mother’s own pain and animus towards Chris who had committed the crime of being born alive. Now, Bob stated this truism with cavalier flair as if he were explaining some unfortunate turn of events at the Kendallville racetrack.
She returned to her rented car and drove back to Chicago, in silence, with her stupefied boyfriend, without speaking during the drive back to safety. She never felt less worthy of living than she did then.
By now, she was a grown woman approaching middle-age. She had met him about a dozen times over the past decade and had made infrequent efforts at small talk on the phone. She had come to terms with the fact that he was about seventeen when he knocked up her mom. And watching her own brothers grow up and become men gave her some degree of insight about the time it takes for a man’s brain to mature. Even though he was only thirty when she first came back to his life, he was now an old man. It was clear who and what he was: a selfish, unrepentant churl who reveled in his own youthful fuckery. Still, she could not find it within herself to write him off, delete his information from her phone, and block his number as her brother, whose own father was another participant in that ignominious bet, and her husband repeatedly advised.
On this trip, she realized that she still hoped—just as she always had—that there would be some point at which he would understand just how callous he had been to her and her mother and do something to make it right. While she didn’t know what that would take, she still harbored some sliver of hope that he wasn’t just an unreconstructed cunt of no redemptive potential.
But back at the hotel, it was clear that she had seen the bottom of his soul and there was no reason to look further. Hearing him call his first granddaughter a pig, she understood for the first time that he never would have saved her. Had he observed her antipathy and truculence, he would have bellowed that her suffering was her own fault or that of her mother. Maybe he would’ve seen her precocious sexual interests and described her as a pig; inherited from her mother, whom he would have denounced as a pig as well, without an iota of irony. He would have embraced no obligation to intervene in the smallest of ways to protect her. He would accept no responsibility for any of it.
She and Ashley, in Bob’s universe, were pigs by birth rather than by survival. He could give no fewer fucks about either of them if he had to at gunpoint.
In the morning, she and Jeff left for home. Boudreaux wailed while Vega slunk off to the back of the minivan and fell asleep, snuggled up against Saffy. Jeff, sensing her silence, knew she was marinating something. As they reached West Virginia, she said, “Jeff, I’m going to report this to child protective services. No one called them when I needed them. I’m not going to let this girl hang out to dry. What do you think?” Having said the words aloud, a strange calm settled about her.
Jeff told her that he thought she should, but she should understand that any chances of a rapprochement with Bob would be impossible. “But,” Jeff said wryly “that would be a positive externality of doing the right thing.”
She smiled at him and said, “Two nerd flares for that one.”
For much of the drive back home, her cellphone had no reception. It irked her that Afghanistan has a better cellular network than the United States. She kept looking at her phone and counting bars. Finally, having reached Maryland, she phoned Bob.
“Bob, I’m sorry for scramming last night. I was in Bangladesh last month visiting refugees from Myanmar and I have to give a talk on the situation at the Atlantic Council tomorrow. I didn’t want to get home too late.” There was silence. She almost wondered if the call dropped.
Trying to sound nonchalant, she continued “Anyway I was thinking about your granddaughter. What’s her name again? Ashley, right? But what’s her mom’s name?” Writing down their names, she furthered, “And um…where do they live? Near you and Rick, right?”
In exasperation, he blurted out, “Rome City.” Then he paused. “Hey! Why you asking this stuff?” Bob asked suspiciously, omitting the stative verb, which annoyed her.
She remained silent. She didn’t want to lie, but she didn’t want to tell him either. He was nervous. He knew her because he knew himself. Though he didn’t raise her, she was like him in some ways: stubborn, resolved and once she took a decision, she acted.
“Chris, what the hell are you doing?” he hollered.
The silence bugged him, which pleased her. The power to hurt was now in her hands. As he grew anxious, she told him flatly, “I’m calling CPS to report the situation with Ashley. No one called CPS when I was abused. That girl deserves a chance. And frankly, you or your son should’ve done this. Ages ago. What the actual fuck is wrong with you people?”
Desperately, he warned her “Don’t you dare. If you do…”
She hung up before he could complete the threat. She Googled Child Protective Services for Rome City, Indiana. She told the operator all that she knew and hung up. She had no idea what, if anything, would come of this. But at least she tried to give that little girl the chance which no one tried to give her. Bob kept calling. She declined to answer. For another day he called her mobile and then their home phone. And then he stopped calling.
She understood that she had been chasing a chimera all along. Bob would never have saved her. It wasn’t, to his mind, his responsibility. And with that cruel epiphany, she neither needed nor wanted to see him again. She deleted and then blocked his number on her phone.
A year passed, then two. She wondered if Bob had died. But she was at peace. Even if he was dead, she didn’t care. For all intents and purposes, he died that day when he called that little, broken girl a pig.
She never learned what came of Ashley and she was too timorous to speculate. Indiana was death row for women and girls like them. It’s why Chris bolted as soon as possible. College, graduate school, and then all of Asia were destinations on her escape route. Would Ashley get away? What life would she make for herself and would she one day seethe at her father’s and grandfather’s indifference to her suffering as Chris did for so long?
Sitting on the porch enjoying the still warm sun of early October, she sipped an Old Fashioned. Budreaux, now older and calmer, foisted his snout into her armpit as she scratched his ears. With an easy smile. she gazed down at Saffy and Vega who slept with an angelic, senescent calm beneath her feet.
Bob’s cruelty and callousness, which once felt like quicksand around her legs, had finally set her free. She hoped that Ashley too would seek such freedom and somehow, against the odds, find it.
C. Christine Fair is a provost’s distinguished associate professor within the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. She studies political and military events of South Asia and travels extensively throughout Asia and the Middle East. Her books include In Their Own Words: Understanding the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (OUP 2019); Fighting to the End: The Pakistan Army’s Way of War (OUP, 2014); and Cuisines of the Axis of Evil and Other Irritating States (Globe Pequot, 2008). She has published creative pieces in The Bark, The Dime Show Review, Clementine Unbound, Awakenings, Fifty Word Stories, The Drabble, Sandy River Review, Sonder Midwest, Black Horse Magazine, and Bluntly Magazine among others. Her scholarly website is www.ChristineFair.net. She blogs at https://shortbustoparadise.