Serena gripped the steering wheel. The wheels of the car squealed on the yellow paint as she turned. She willed herself to slow down. She tried to draw a breath, but her chest seemed to repel it.
I have to calm down, she thought. If I upset him, I will fail. And I can’t fail.
She turned at the church onto Sycamore-lined streets. Tawny leaves filled the gutters and rustled in masses in the trees. She used to kick through those leaves while walking to school thirty years before. She remembered the acrid scent of the decaying leaves as they matted in the gutters, the dusty warm scent before the rains came.
She pulled into her father’s driveway. Or, not her father’s driveway, she reminded herself. She looked up at Margaret’s window and stealed herself for the stench that she knew would assail her when she entered the house. The last time they’d been there for dinner, Serena’s seven year old daughter had cried in alarm, Mama! What’s that horrible smell!?
What was the smell? It was a cross between cat pee and old, developed, and entrenched mold. It made them both cough. Serena made China sit by the open sliding glass door even though she was cold.
Serena pushed the car door open and swung her legs out. She heaved herself up, reminded herself she was in good shape, that there was no reason to feel this heavy. She forced herself to smile.
Serena climbed the walk to the front door. Ascending the stairs, she remembered the last time her father had attempted to walk her and China to the car and then thought better of it. Serena noted the mossy pavers, the sharp edges, the loose and flimsy handrail.
Her father opened the door and greeted her in the Pendleton cardigan Serena had given him the previous Christmas. She knew he wore it for her visit. She hugged him and smelled the familiar scent of her father, a piquant mix of cigar smoke, lacquered wood, and salt. Once, she’d had a boyfriend who smelled like her father. To her it signified maturity, safety, and tenderness. It had been hard to let that one go.
“Thanks for coming,” her father said. He looked at his shoes.
“Of course, Dad,” Serena hesitated. “Have you had breakfast?”
“I had some cereal.”
“Do you want me to make you a coffee, Dad?”
“That’d be nice.”
Her father dropped heavily onto the sofa, settling into the big hollow there. She heard the springs creak and noticed her father listing to the right.
“Why don’t you sit on this end, Dad, where it’s not broken?”
“No, this is fine.”
Serena made the coffee. She had given up trying to teach her father to make coffee years ago. After Serena’s mom had died and before he sold the family home for a pittance, Serena’s father had roamed around the house with a baguette in his pocket for nearly a year, just tearing bites out of it when he got hungry.
Serena had tried for months to teach him how to cook simple meals. Finally, she’d given up. She still fielded sharp pangs of guilt about this. She noted his heaviness, his grey pallor, the wheeze in his chest.
“You’re not still eating raw hot dogs with mayonnaise are you, Dad?” she asked wearily.
“Not too many,” he said.
Serena knew this to be false. Margaret had told her he plowed through a package a day of cold hot dogs with mayonnaise, which is what he used to feed her and her siblings when they were little. She remembered how they’d scrape off the white layer of fat that formed on the roofs of their mouths with their thumbnails and show one another with delight.
She brought a mug of coffee over and set it on the table in front of her father. She opened the sliding glass door and sat in the chair across from her father.
“It’s cold,” her father said.
“I can’t breathe, Dad.”
“I don’t smell a thing!”
Serena ignored the bait.
“Anyway, Dad, so what happened yesterday? What did Laura say when she called?”
“She wants me to buy them an RV.” Serena’s dad tucked his chin into his chest. His shoulders rolled in, hands between his legs.
“Right. And what did you say?”
“I said, okay.”
Serena felt a yell struggling to escape her body. She felt the words forming in her mind, her mouth, fast.
She knew she should say, “Why, Dad?” in gentle voice. At least attempt to engage in a conversation about this. At least attempt to validate that there might be a position here, try not to humiliate him. But fury, hot and bitter, overwhelmed her.
“What? Why?” She spat. “You know you can’t do that. What are you talking about? Why would you do this?”
She jumped up. She wanted to shake him.
“They need a place to live. I have to think about my grand baby.”
“Dad, I know it’s hard, but this is impossible. Last week, you told me you’re having trouble paying for your medications. Is that true?”
“Yes.” He avoided her gaze.
“Well, then, you can’t do this! How can you?” Serena’s voice rose.
“I have a grand baby…” his voice trailed off.
“Dad! They’ve been mooching off people for years. They’ve ruined you! You’ve already lost hundreds of thousands of dollars to Laura, her company, the house she lost to Doug, her flights to Europe, her hotel rooms! Her concerts!”
She’s fleecing you! And at my expense! Serena thought but didn’t say.
“I don’t have a choice,” her father said.
“How much money do you have now, Dad?” Serena looked around. “You’re living in the basement of a friend from church! The last time you gave Laura money, do you know what they did with it? They took all their friends to a Grateful Dead concert! And bought everyone $30 tee shirts!”
“I don’t believe that.”
“Well, it’s true. I was there. Remember? The first time they were living with me. For four months. In my dining room.”
“Dad, I know you want to do the right thing, but your money is running out. What will you do when it’s gone?”
“Jay asked me about that the other day.” He cleared his throat. “He said I would run out of money in three or four years, and I should invite the child I would live with then to come in and have a talk with him.”
Serena stared at him.
“Yes?” she said cautiously. “And?”
“So, the meeting is next Wednesday at 9 a.m.”
“You mean, I’m the chosen one?”
“Sure,” he said steadily.
Serena felt her brain go white hot. Blood pounded behind her eyes.
“And did you tell Jay I was laid off last month? That I already have three dependents? That I’m alone, a single mom?”
Suddenly, she remembered the words of her sister Karen, “We never ask how you are because you always seem so strong, Serena. You’re the only one of us that has it together.”
Serena gathered herself. She spoke firmly, in a low voice.
“Dad, I can’t. It’s not fair. It’s not fair for you to spend all your money on Laura and then live off me the rest of your life. I can’t guarantee I’ll be able to care for you. I don’t even know if I’ll be able to care for China, Nathan, and Robby. I’m unemployed right now. I could be dead of breast cancer in three years. You don’t know. It’s not wise to count on me! You can’t!”
“But you have a job! Friends! Laura has nothing!” his voice rose. “She just needs someone to have a little faith in her! She’s a celebrity!”
“Oh, she told you that too?”
She remembered when Laura had earnestly told her as Serena prepared dinner that both she and her deadbeat husband, Will, were celebrities. That Will was just shy, that Jimi Hendrix had been shy too.
“Dad,” she said softly, “Laura isn’t a celebrity, and neither is Will. They’re homeless. They have a baby. They have no health insurance. No money. No jobs. No connections. And they haven’t had to have any of this because you’ve been sending them money whenever they need it for years. You can’t continue, Dad. It’s ruining you, it’s ruining them, and now it’s threatening to ruin me. Please don’t buy them the RV.”
Serena’s father looked at his watch.
“What? Are they coming today?” Serena asked.
“They said they had to sign papers today.”
“Yeah, I bet they did. You’re not going to do this. Right, Dad?”
“I already agreed to.”
Serena cast about desperately in her head.
“What about the hookup fees? Aren’t there fees in those trailer parks that they have to pay? They can’t park just anywhere you know. And gas. How will they pay for gas? You’ll be hit up for that too. Repairs! What about repairs? Are you willing to pay for that too? Can you afford this, Dad?”
“I am a little nervous,” he admitted. “How do I say no?”
They’d turned a corner.
“Tell them you don’t have the money. You don’t feel comfortable. You can’t do it. Tell them your advisor said you couldn’t. Tell them to call Jay if they have any questions.”
“They’ll hate me,” he said softly.
“No! They won’t hate you, Dad! They’ll respect you! You can only do what you can do! You’ve supported a very expensive lifestyle for them for years! Let them grow up! You can feel good about this!”
He looked at his watch again.
“You should probably go,” he said.
“Are they coming here?” Serena asked.
“Okay. Are you sure you don’t want me to stay, Dad? Do you want help?”
Suddenly, Serena felt afraid.
“No,” her father said in small voice. He would not look at her.
Later that day, Serena’s father called her.
“Well, I did it,” he said dully.
“I cut them off, that’s what.”
“Dad, you sound awful. Are you okay?”
“I feel awful,” he said.
“What do you mean? Physically?”
Serena wanted to smack her sister with great force.
“Dad? Are you okay?”
“Yes,” he said. “I guess so.”
“You did a good thing, Dad!”
“I’m not so sure,” his voice was muffled, dark.
“You did! You did a good thing, Dad!”
“I have to go now,” her father said.
“Okay, Dad. Goodnight. I love you.”