Martin closes his apartment door and drops his keys and wallet on the counter. He checks his phone. No new messages, so the phone joins the keys and wallet. He pulls off his work boots and drops them in the garage. The other pieces come off as he makes his way to the bathroom.
He showers quickly. He doesn't stand under the water and let it slowly burn through the dirt and sweat of the day. He grabs a wash cloth and the bar of soap and gets to work, scrubbing and rinsing before the water is fully warmed. By the time steam begins to build up in the little bathroom, Martin has already scrubbed a few beads of shampoo through his hair and washed it down the drain in swirling light brown surges. He scrubs his face and shuts the water off. He is toweled off and in his closet looking through the few remaining clean shirts he has kept since the move in less than five minutes.
He finds a shirt, a green and white button down he can wear with his one clean pair of jeans. He grabs socks, his second to last pair of clean underwear, and a pair of black boots. Between shower time and dressing time, he is at seven minutes. He walks back out into the living room. He passes the unfinished bookshelf. He used to feel an urgency whenever passing it, a sense of guilt that he needed to finish the shelf and load the books and be done with it. Tomorrow, he kept thinking. The guilt about putting the task off again and again peaked one night after coming home from a site. He walked by the book shelf, its plastic bag of screws and posts shining like garbage on the side of a road, the books stacked in uneven, toppling heaps, and the black particle board shelves accordioned together like the collapsed floors of a building. He walked by for the hundredth time and felt nothing. The guilt left him. The need for impending construction and organization died and a sheet of glad acceptance slid across the thoughts as if over the body of a dead man.
Now, walking into the kitchen, he doesn't even see it.
The boxes lined up and stacked on the wall opposite followed. A brief and sudden drive pushed him to set up the entertainment center enough to hold his giant cubic mass of a TV, along with the small DVD player which went on the shelf below. He got the organizing bug long enough to set the player on its shelf but not enough to hook it up. It sits beneath the bowing boards that support the TV, the red power light destined to stay dim.
In the kitchen, Martin surveys a different scene: random items run the length of the counter and the full width and length of his dining table and its chairs. There is a bowling ball, blue and red swirled, beside a toaster and another stack of books. There are CDs and an old laptop. At the edge of the counter top, partly hanging out over the living room, is a dark leather belt with two sheathed knives.
Martin grabs the space heater and wraps the cord around it, looping it back through itself at the top. He wants it to look small and compact and neat, like it would be easily stored and easily retrieved when needed. He wants it to look ready to use. There is a sticky note on the counter in front of it. $40. Martin needs the heater to look like it's worth $40. He really needs that amount.
Martin grabs his keys and wallet and stuffs them into his back pocket. He reaches for the door but stops. He tucks the heater under his left arm so he can pick up the knife belt with his right. The leather is soft and engraved with crosshatches and zig zags and flowery swirls every few inches. The belt was handmade by someone with real skill. Two handles extend from the sheaths. They are curved, smooth deer antler, the safer end of decorative and custom made hunting knives. The handles were once nearly white but have been yellowed by weather and use. Martin pulls the leather to his face and breathes. He takes in the old smell, takes in the memories that come with it. He pulls one of the knives from its sheath and tilts it in the low light from the apartment's front windows. He pulls the blade up his forearm, severing a small forest of hairs with ease. Seeing the blade in the light of evening reminds him of the hides the blade has been through, the organs it separated, the flesh it removed.
At the base of the blade there is an inscription:
“It's about the chase -love, dad.”
He sheaths the knife and places the belt back on the counter. He sighs at the sticky note underneath it. $100.
He really needs this money.
He locks the door after he leaves.
Martin's truck pulls into a driveway. As he gets out of the truck, the front door to the house bursts open and a smiling ten-year-old girl comes running out.
“Daddy, daddy!! Happy birthday, daddy!!”
She runs and leaps, knowing he will catch her and pull her into a long, strong hug.
“Thank you, Hilly Bee!” Martin says, growling into the hug. He holds her, shakes her back and forth, and they laugh when he puts her down and a few strands of hair get caught in the stubble on his chin.
Once free from his spiky chin hair, Hillary grins.
“I made you something, daddy. It's something special for your birthday!”
“For me? For my birthday?” Martin asks, looking around as if confused. He puts a hand on his chin and squints, “Is it my birthday?”
“Daddy, of course it is your birthday. How could you forget your own birthday?”
“That's what happens when you get old, Hill,” Juliette says, still texting as she approaches. She shuffles up to Martin without looking away from the phone. She is being forced to celebrate Martin's birthday. She is leaving the home she prefers and the parent she prefers and the phone time with friends she prefers to eat pizza with her little sister and her father and pretend to care about his surviving another year on earth.
“And a good evening to you, too, m'lady,” Martin says, bowing. He swings his arms out in a wide arc and turns his face toward the ground. Hillary loves it, giggling and bowing in return. Juliette looks up from her phone enough to close her eyes and shake her head.
“Hey, no eye rolls on my birthday,” Martin says.
“Yeah,” Hillary echoes, “no eye rolls on daddy's birthday. Dad, dad, she still has her phone!”
Juliette doesn't roll her eyes. She turns her head toward Hillary and bunches her lips together. Martin holds out his hand and exasperation rolls through Juliette's entire body all the way down to her feet, which look for a second as if they might start stomping the ground in protest. Martin stops smiling at the sight of a near tantrum from his sixteen-year-old daughter.
Juliette contains her tantrum. But she grips her phone, knowing she screwed up letting it be visible. She has broken a long-held rule from a rule book of which she is not a fan.
“She's right, you know the drill,” Martin says, extending his hand.
“Jesus Christ! How about her phone?” Juliette asks.
Despite her blasphemy, she gives up the phone without another word. She does, in fact, know the drill, and she knows arguing the point will only infuriate her and make the evening that much more difficult to bear.
Martin's brow furrows. He is confused by Juliette's question, “What about her phone?” He looks back to Hillary.
“What about her phone?” he asks.
“You mean,” Hillary begins, reaching deep into one of the pockets in her overalls. It takes her a few seconds to push past the random scraps of paper and Kleenex and the troll doll she forgot she put in there, but she finds what she is looking for and her hand appears, triumphant, holding a shiny new smart phone.
She giggles with delight.
“Where did you...” Martin starts, before he is interrupted by her singing.
“I have my own cell phone, I have my own cell phone, mwuhahahaaaa!”
“I know, right?” Juliette says, handing Martin her phone. “Finally, you and I are in agreement, what the hell?”
“Hey, easy with that,” Martin says, to another eye roll.
“My very own phone with my very own case. Look dad, look at the case. I picked it out, pink and purple with diamonds. Isn't it so awesome?”
Martin takes it from her carefully. He turns it over and over in his hands. He holds it up in the last minutes of sunlight, seeming to inspect every part of it with supreme interest. He lets his jaw drop open and his eyes go wide.
“Holy... moly... it IS so awesome! It is so awesome it is going in my pocket with your sister's phone. You don't think they'll fight in there, do you?”
Hillary doesn't even care, she is just excited to have her own phone and to have it taken away, just like her big sister. She feels very proud of her own maturity.
“Maybe on one of our nights out together we can have a super fun cell phone night. No talking aloud, no real interaction, only texts and emails... we can spend the evening looking up Justin Bieber facts and sending selfies to each other.”
“Can't wait,” Juliette says.
Victoria, late thirties, makes her way down the walkway from the house. She steps beside Martin but keeps a noticeable distance.
“Have fun, girls, be nice to the birthday boy,” she says.
“I love you, mommy,” Hillary says, rushing in for a final hug.
“I'll see you tonight,” Victoria replies, returning the hug and adding a kiss to the top of Hillary's head.
“You sure you don't want to come with us?” Juliette grins.
Victoria grins back and forces a hug from Juliette. She waves goodbye to her daughters as they climb into Martin's truck. Once the girls are inside, she takes one more step toward him.
“Hey, I hate to keep bringing it up, but the deadline for Juliette's Portland trip is coming up.”
“Do you? Do you hate bringing it up? It seems to me that you love bringing it up.”
“I do hate bringing it up.”
“How many times have you told me about the deadline in the last two weeks?”
“Don't be an ass.”
Martin smiles and turns toward Victoria. She is waving at the girls, and she tries to keep a smile on her face as Martin speaks:
“Me? How about I'm a grown man who understands how calendars and money work. How about this is me telling you, for the last time, that I'll have the money for her trip on time, even before the deadline, and the next time you ask me about it I'm going to ignore you? How's that?”
“Wow,” Victoria says, losing the smile for a split second, 'okay, okay, I'm sorry. You're right, you've proven over and over again that you are totally reliable and never need to be reminded about anything. How could I be so rude?”
“I don't know how you can be so rude.”
“Just get in the truck, Martin.”
“Oh, am I the reason we're still out here arguing? All you had to say was 'happy birthday, Martin, have fun with the girls.' But you just can't help yourself.”
“Fine, have a great night.”
“And maybe you should consider telling me when you're thinking about giving our daughter her own cell phone. Didn't you think maybe that would be something I would want to know, that maybe I would have some input on the matter?”
“Everyone her age has their own phone, Martin.”
“She's ten!” Martin says, eyes wide, leaning in.
“It's how things are now.”
“Oh yeah, ten-year-olds with their own phones and unlimited internet access?”
“Everyone has a phone, it is where the world is headed, Martin. She is safer with a phone, she'll have fun with her phone, I don't see what the problem is.”
Martin drops his arms to his sides. He hadn't realized they were rising, that he was balling up his fists, until they suddenly relax. He glances back at the girls as they watch him from the truck. Hillary waves at him to get a move on.
“Okay, well, I'm going to go now. Thanks for the continued respect, as always.”
Victoria is done. She has done this too many times before and remembers she divorced him so she wouldn't have to have these conversations. Her face softens and she starts to walk back toward the house. Just before stepping up on the front porch, she turns.
“Happy birthday, Martin.”
There is nothing more to say. She turns and disappears into the house. Martin opens his mouth to shout after her, but he, too, remembers that they aren't married anymore. He has no power here, like every other area of his life. His mouth closes into clenched fury. He is having trouble holding all of the fury in. The seals are cracking. He isn't sure how much longer he wants to hold it all in.
His head is down as he walks to the truck. He straightens up before he gets to his door, but not soon enough. Juliette locks eyes with him as he opens the door. She watched the scene unfold and she lets him know. It is a scene she witnessed many times as their daughter. It goes into the large file of “fights between mom and dad.”
As Martin starts the truck and clicks in his seat belt, she lets him know she saw everything.
“That looked like fun,” she says.
“Happy birthday to me,” Martin replies, throwing the truck into gear. “Now who's ready for some pizza?”
The truck backs out of the driveway to the sound of Hillary screaming about her love and readiness for pizza. The tires screech as Martin punches the gas peddle, and they rumble down the street. Martin looks at the clock. 5:22. Perfect timing. He looks to the passenger side floor board. The little space heater is sitting there, ready to make him some money. With only those two dollars sitting in his wallet, he knows he needs to get the full amount in cash right now.
“Do you girls mind if we make a quick stop on the way to pizza?” Martin yells into the windshield.
“Do we have a choice?” Juliette mumbles.
“Not if you want to eat,” Martin says, smiling at Juliette in the rear view mirror.
Martin looks down at his phone again. He sees that, according to the directions, the next right turn should be Frankfurt and he memorizes the house number.
“Daddy, you're not supposed to use your phone while you drive,” Hillary says.
“I thought we weren't supposed to use phones at all on our magical wonderful super special days out with dad,” Juliette says.
The truck pulls up to a large, newer house next to other large, newer houses. There aren't many cars parked on the street. Martin imagines the two and three-car garages are probably full of BMWs and the latest Lexus and Cadillac SUVs. The ones that are parked on the street were made by Audi and BMW.
Martin parks behind a shining black Audi.
“Stay in the truck, girls, I'll be right back.”
“Whose house is this, dad?” Hillary asks, looking at the wide ground-level front window and the towering roof line more than two stories up.
“Hopefully a woman who wants to buy a small space heater,” Martin says.
Martin approaches the door with the heater tucked under his arm like a football. The doorbell is a delicate, melodious chime that sings through the whole house. A small dog barks, and after a few moments a figure appears in the treated glass. The figure scoops up the dog and opens the door.
“Hi, I'm Martin, did you call about a space heater on craigslist?”
When the first two words leave the woman's mouth, Martin knows it is the same woman from the phone earlier. She is even still battling the little dog who challenged their phone conversation. Martin looks down at the dog's growling, floppy jowls and sees a personalized dog collar. “Brutus.”
“Yes, yes, yes, hi, thank you for coming by, thank you. Please excuse Brutus, he is a very tough and vicious killer.”
She continues talking to the dog as Martin speaks. It is obvious who is more important here.
“Yes he is. Well here is the heater if you want to take a look at it. You can plug it in and make sure it works, if you like.”
“Yes, yes, yes, that looks great. Let me just take Brutus back to his room. I'll be right back.”
Martin is not excited about waiting for this woman to tend to her stupid dog. She is wasting his time. He is wondering why she, knowing he was coming over to show her the heater, didn't plan ahead to put the dog away in the first place. He looks back to the truck and waves to the girls. Hillary waves back excitedly. Juliette does not. Martin gives a thumbs up and turns back to the door. He can hear the woman talking to the dog. It is crazy dog-person talk, lots of questions about how cute the dog is, how smart and silly the dog is, infuriating things to someone who doesn't have a dog and whose precious family time is being wasted.
“Yes, yes, yes, so sorry about that. Brutus can be very demanding. Now, looking at the heater it is smaller than I thought it would be, and the picture made it look, I don't know... darker? I'm not sure it is the right tone for my room.”
The woman takes the heater and turns it over and over in her hands.
“Well it could definitely be painted, and it is small but it pumps out a lot of heat, a surprising amount of heat.”
She looks briefly at Martin, at his pants and then his shirt.
“Maybe for you, but I have some very tall ceilings in my guesthouse. It would have its work cut out for it.”
The tall ceilings of your guesthouse? Martin thinks to himself. He also thinks about his hands around the woman's throat. Instead, he considers her house, and her view of him. She sees some lower class male, some guy, some construction worker or some other form of dirty day laborer and enjoys exerting power. Martin imagines her buying items from Best Buy just so she can enjoy the pleasure of asking for a manager and complaining the manager into humble submission. Martin sees her husband off running some successful business while she terrorizes the daytime staffs of every retail store in a ten mile radius.
He changes his tactics.
“Well, yeah, I understand. If it's not for you then it's not for you, that's okay.”
He reaches out for it, silently demanding that she give it back.
“Well let me look at it for a second,” she says. She turns so the light from the front door's stained glass peering windows dances across the wrapped cord and the dark blue metal.
“Hey, if it's not what you want it's not what you want,” Martin says.
The woman pulls the heater against her chest.
“It's not the ideal color or size, but you came all this way. I can give you $30 for it.”
Martin tries to hold strong.
“Well, I have someone else interested in it, you were just first in line. She offered me $40 so I kind of need $40.”
“Yes, yes, yes, I see. Well that's too bad, it is a cute little heater.”
Her shifts between unpleasable aristocrat and considerate customer makes Martin want to grab the heater and throw it through her seventy-inch flatscreen TV. She has more than enough money to pay the asking price for the heater. Forty dollars is nothing to her, but she enjoys watching Martin bargain. She is watching him battle his own thoughts, one foot in the door and one foot out and ready to run. Martin knows she doesn't really need the heater, not this particular heater, not from him, but she does like playing with people. He can see her eyes, see that the control is fun for her. These are probably her hobbies: her stupid dog, Brutus, and manipulating people in whatever ways she can. She enjoys the power shift, especially against a big, strong man. She doesn't have to budge on price, so either she gets it for the price she wants, or the man in front of her begs and pleads for more money that she isn't going to give and then leaves, a failure. Whatever happens, she wins.
She is still holding the heater when their eyes meet. She smiles. Martin flinches.
“You know what? You seem like a nice lady, and selling it to you gets the heater off my hands. How about we meet in the middle, $35?”
She shakes her head and smiles.
“You know, holding it and seeing it up close, I really think $30 is my final price.”
Martin can feel the Italian marble stone beneath his feet. He can smell the incense burning from her small yoga studio where she probably hosts friends and a private yoga instructor. He can hear Brutus growling in a back room, a solid gold heart-shaped name plate tinkling on the chain attaching it to his premium leather collar. She is clutching the heater with her bony, ringed fingers, the diamonds sparkling in the light, taunting him. At any other time on any other night, he tells himself he would tell this woman to go fuck herself.
But the girls are in the truck just outside.
“Alright,” he says, clapping his hands together once and loud, “$30 it is.”
The woman smiles.
“Oh really? Wonderful, thank you so much. Brutus will be thrilled.”
Martin watches her switch the heater to her left arm so she can dig into a pocket with her right. She pulls out a ten dollar bill and a twenty. It is obvious those two bills were the only bills in her pocket. She knew that would be the price.
“Have a lovely day,” she says.
Before Martin can answer her, the door is closing. Once closed, he can hear her conversation with Brutus strike up again. He sighs, placing the money in his wallet. Thirty-two dollars should get him through dinner and dessert.
When he gets back in the truck, Juliette is ready. She watched the interaction play out and she has a pretty good idea of how it went down.
“Well did she buy it, daddy?” Hillary asks.
“She sure did,” Martin says.
“Did you get your asking price?” Juliette asks. She knows the answer.
“I got enough for pizza!” Martin announces to Hillary's delight.
“Figures,” Juliette says. Hillary cheers again for the idea of pizza. She chants it in a long crescendo, pizza, pizza, and Juliette settles back into her seat. She folds her arms and frowns out the window. She is afraid her dad doesn't have enough self awareness or respect to be hurt by her statements. She wants him to feel the sting of his failures. She feels he deserves it, and she wants to make him feel the way splitting up their family made her feel.
Martin does a decent job hiding the pain her words cause him, but he is deeply affected by her barbs. Her barbs are different from the barbs of an ex-wife. Hers are much more painful, as he wants her respect and admiration far more than he wants Victoria's.
Martin and the girls sit at a table in a nearly empty pizza place. It is a Wednesday evening, apparently not the wildest time for Pepe's Pizza Parlor. The red tiled floor screams for action, for children to run excitedly across it from the pizza counter to the video games to the indoor play place. But without throngs of screaming children, the bright tiles seem absurd, the flashing lights and blinking buzzers from the arcade seem out of place, offensive. The parlor is telling him to have fun, screaming at him to have a good time, without providing any real entertainment.
But Hillary is smiling and so Martin smiles.
Martin sits at the table Hillary picks out and watches her run to get the napkins and drinks. It is his birthday, he isn't supposed to do any of the work. That's what Hillary told him in the parking lot. There is young couple in one corner, and one other family with small children a few tables away. The parents reflect a state of being Martin can understand. They don't look at each other. They don't speak except to tell one of their children to stop doing whatever dangerous or destructive thing they are doing. Martin is having a hard time ignoring the oldest boy, maybe six years old, who is rhythmically banging his empty plastic cup on the table. He has managed to spill the last of the bright orange substance he is supposed to be drinking all over his lap and seat. Now, each time he bangs the cup into the table, the last tiny bubbles of sugary soda spray out onto the table and the boy's arm and hand, while his mother tries to manage the two other younger siblings.
Hillary's voice slowly re-enters Martin's consciousness.
“And if I have the best animal mask I win a lunch with my teacher in the teacher's lounge!”
Clunk... clunk... clunk.
“I think I should make a giraffe mask because I don't think that anyone else would think to make a giraffe mask and giraffes are awesome and weird and cool.”
Clunk... clunk... clunk.
“But I don't think I can make a giraffe mask by myself. Do you think you could help me, daddy?”
Clunk... clunk... clunk.
“Daddy? Dad, are you listening?”
“Martin!!” Juliette snaps.
The mother finally clicks back into reality and grabs the cup from her son. She whispers for him to stop it, something about not getting ice cream if he doesn't stop. She refills his cup with soda.
“What's that, sweetie? Giraffes?” Martin says.
“Wow, dad, you really need to work on your listening skills.”
She passes him his drink. The Pepsi is still crackling and the carbonation sends a spray of Pepsi particles down onto the back of his hand. He takes three gulps through the straw.
“Sorry, Hill, I was just thinking about... all that delicious ice cream we're going to be eating after this.”
“Why aren't you eating any pizza?” she asks.
“You know, I'm just... I'm just not that hungry.”
Martins stomach twists and gurgles beneath the table. He hasn't eaten anything since his one burrito and bag of carrots at eleven thirty. He is starting to feel the headache slither behind his eyes and sharpen its claws.
“Saving room for ice cream?”
“That's it, Hilly, I'm saving room for ice cream.”
Hillary smiles. She decides to ask him about the giraffe mask later and instead starts fishing in one of her other overall pockets. She finds what she is looking for.
“I have a surprise for you, daddy. It's a super secret and special birthday surprise, just for you. You have to close your eyes.”
“A birthday surprise, huh?”
Martin closes his eyes.
“Now hold out your hand,” she says, her hands behind her back, her feet rocking back and forth from heels to toes. Martin holds out his hand and shows that he is trying to peak and see what his surprise will be.
“No peaking!” Hillary scolds.
He shuts them again and fights back a smile. Hillary pulls out a bracelet made of lanyards and beads. The beads are spaced evenly across the back of the bracelet, D – A – D – D – Y, with a heart bead at both ends end. She places the bracelet gently into his hand.
“Surprise! Happy birthday!”
Martin opens his eyes. The lanyard bracelet sparkles up at him. It's a silly thing, all florescent lanyard and shiny beads with big bubble letters and sparkles on the hearts. It's a monstrous and loud and ridiculous and bright and happy and dancing with the boisterous love he has only ever seen from little Hillary. He can see her smile in the beads, hear her laughter in the click of the plastic pieces.
“Wow, that's amazing,” his whispers. Juliette looks up from her pizza when she hears the subtle wavering in his voice. “Where did you buy this?”
“I made it,” Hillary says. She opens her arms wide, an unofficial abracadabra.
“What? You made this yourself? No way, I can't even believe that.”
Martin is playing it up, but he can't actually believe that she made it. Not like this, not this fitting, not this perfectly... her.
“I made it all by myself at school. The lanyards are red and black, your favorite colors, and I added pink because that's my favorite color, and it says 'daddy' because, duh, you're my daddy.”
Juliette is seeing the bracelet for the first time, too. She agrees with Martin, it looks like someone made it after getting perfect instructions from Martin's psyche. She heard his voice waver before, and now, after Hillary's all-too-adorable explanation, Juliette looks to Martin's eyes to see his reaction.
She wants to see tears.
“It's,” he starts. He has to take another breath and slow his mind down. “It's really, really beautiful, Hilly Bean.”
Juliette grabs her slice of pizza and takes a bite to hide her smile.
Hillary jumps forward and takes the bracelet. She wraps it around Martin's right wrist. Martin can't stop the surge in his heart now. He is going to lose his job. He is going to lose the only source of income he has known since he was fifteen. He had to sell a space heater and made barely enough money to buy his little girls pizza and ice cream. One of those little girls, only ten years old, took time at school to put real thought and care into a gift for him on his birthday. She picked out the parts. She put them together herself, to be kind, to make him happy.
For a moment, Martin feels like he will be able to hold back the tears. He will have to sneak a wipe or two on his sleeve, or slip away to the bathroom for a few minutes. But when Hillary wraps the lanyards around his massive wrists and the bracelet isn't big enough to tie off, the first tear streaks down his cheek and falls on the tacky checkered table.
“I love it, Hill,” he says.
“Oh no, it doesn't reach, daddy. It doesn't fit.”
“It's not perfect. It's too small. How are you going to wear it if it's too small?”
Martin pulls her head into his chest and kisses it. Two more tears slide down his cheeks and disappear into the sandy blonde hair.
“It is perfect, Hillary. It is beautiful and perfect just like you.”
Juliette notices his tears.
“Don't worry, I didn't get you anything. No tears necessary.”
Martin doesn't let the barb sting.
“Well that's okay, I guess I will just have to love Hillary more from now on.” He sniffs hard and wipes his sleeve across his eyes one by one. He pulls Hillary in for one more hug and kiss. “Hey Hill, do you want to be my favorite daughter?”
“Daddy! That is terrible.”
“Fine by me,” Juliette says.
“Are you sure, Jules? I don't think fathers give their second favorite daughters hundreds of dollars for trips to the beach and theaters and Portland medical schools.”
Juliette takes the pizza away from her mouth. She opens it to speak but nothing comes out. That's it, Martin thinks. He is happy for a little leverage on the moody teenager. Juliette's face softens for the first time all night. He actually caught her off guard.
“What? I thought mom was paying for that.”
“Nope, yours truly. First off, you're welcome. Second, you might want to be a little nicer to me. At least for a little while. When is the trip, two weeks?”
Juliette nods, then shakes her head.
“It is like four hundred bucks, are you sure you can...” her voice trails off.
“I do have a job, you know,” Martin says, “where I, like... make money and stuff. It's not a lot of money, but...”
“Not as much as mommy!” Hillary says.
“Right you are, Hillary, thank you, not as much as mommy.”
“And not as much as Saxon!” she says, laughing.
“Hillary!” Juliette shouts. Her rebuke is sudden and loud and harsh. The couple in the corner look up from their pizza. The little boy stops banging his once again empty cup and his mother looks over, stunned. Martin sees what has happened. Hillary has spilled some secret that has been discussed, a secret he is not welcome into. By the way Juliette is looking at Hillary, and the way Hillary's head is hanging down over her discarded pizza crusts, the secret was important.
“Well... I don't know who that is, but I think it's a safe bet that you're probably right, I probably don't make as much money as... who was it, Saxon? Saxon? But don't worry, I make enough. Yes, I am going to pay for it, and I should have it for you on Saturday.”
Juliette finally pulls her flogging eyes from Hillary's shamed face. Her look softens again, knowing her broke father is paying for her trip to Portland and he now knows there is some other man, Saxon, in his daughters' lives who makes a lot of money.
“Four hundred dollars is a lot of tiny heaters,” she says.
“It is, I know. It's been hard, having to dig into my tiny heater reserves. I've had to part with some really nice heaters, thanks to you, heaters I had for a very long time. Heaters that I respected. Heaters that I loved.”
Hillary giggles. Juliette cracks a smirk. She knows her dad doesn't have a lot of money, and for a moment she is truly grateful and thanks him.
“But I know the trip is important to you, and I have no idea why you would want to watch an actual surgery, watch someone get cut open, tinkered with, and then sewn back up...”
“They cut people open and sew them back up?” Hillary gasps.
“Sorry Hillary, but it's okay, they do it to help people. Sometimes things break and a doctor goes in to fix it.”
“It is kind of gross,” he says, nodding to Hillary. He looks at Juliette. “You want to cut people open?”
“It's actually really great, Hillary. Your sister wants to help people and that's... really cool.”
“Daddy, can we stop talking about this?”
“I guess. What do you want to talk about? How cool Saxon is?”
“I can't believe she said that. I'm sorry, dad.”
Martin doesn't miss the end of the sentence: dad.
“Hey, it's fine, who your mom hangs out with is up to her. It's good to know that you think he is cool. I'm glad, I'm happy for her.”
“He is really nice, and he is smart.”
“And he is really funny. He is even funnier than you, dad.”
“Easy, okay, it's my birthday. Is your other present just to make me feel bad all night?”
Hillary giggles again.
“I'm about to start talking about cutting people open again.”
“Noooo!” Hillary whines.
“Saxon, huh? What kind of stupid name is...”
Juliette sighs. She is too tired of this. He relents.
“Well, if you like him and your mom likes him then he must be a pretty cool guy.”
Hillary shoves the last of her pizza into her mouth and mumbles through the cheese and crust.
“Maybe you can meet him sometime.”
Martin grabs Juliette's last piece of pizza from her hand and chomps it greedily down.
Hillary, Juliette, and Martin are rumbling along in his truck. They each have their own ice cream cone. Martin turns on the radio. It is country music.
“How is your ice cream, daddy?” Hillary chirps, her hands covered in the melting dribbles of vanilla ice cream.
“Oh, so good, the best I've ever eaten as a 39-year-old.”
“This is the first ice cream you've had as a 39-year-old.”
“Ugh, no country music, please,” Juliette interjects. “Change the channel before I kill myself.”
Martin starts switching stations. On one channel, a news update is being played. The news anchor tells a story about local authorities pulling over two men in a vehicle and finding over a half a million dollars in drugs, guns, and cash in the trunk.
“You just turned thirty-nine, dad, so this is...”
Martin shushes her and turns up the volume. The men were pulled over for the cracks in their windshield. Once stopped, the officers found bullet holes in the glass and in the passenger door. The anchor finishes the story by relaying the authorities' guess about the men's activity: drug runners from California.
When the story is over, AC/DC begins to play. Martin turns the volume back down.
“What happened, dad?” Hillary asks. “What was the story about?”
Half a million dollars? Martin wonders.
“Nothing,” he says, “nothing important. Just some bad people getting caught doing bad things.”
Hillary keeps her questions to herself for the rest of the drive home. As Martin pulls the truck into Victoria's driveway, the front porch lights up and the front door opens. Martin kills the headlights and Victoria waves from the front door.
“Bye, daddy! Happy birthday!” Hillary says. She waits for him to slide out of the driver's seat so she can grab him around the waist and growl hug him again. The two twist back and forth for a few seconds as Victoria makes her way off of the front porch onto the driveway.
“Happy birthday, dad,” Juliette says. She doesn't ask for a hug, but her tone has changed. For Martin, it is better than a hug. “Come on, Hill, let's go inside.”
“Thank you, girls, I'll see you on Saturday.”
The girls make their way toward the front door, but Hillary pulls herself from Juliette's grasp and turns, running back to Martin. She throws herself face first into his stomach and hugs him tight. Martin picks her up and returns the squeeze.
“Don't be sad, daddy,” Hillary whispers. “You can't be sad on your birthday.”
“Is that the birthday rule?” Martin asks.
Hillary nods. She pulls away but then goes in for another hug, one more. Martin's eyes pick up the shine they had in the pizza parlor and he kisses her head and puts her down hoping she won't notice. She returns to her sister and they greet Victoria at the door. The girls disappear into the house and Victoria looks, for a moment, as if she will wave to Martin. The moment passes and she, too, disappears into the house.
As Martin gets back into the truck and backs out into the street, he sees the bracelet Hillary made him sitting in one of the cup holders. A cup holder is no place for this precious work of art and love. He hangs it from the rear view mirror, the letters facing out. He stares at it, stares at every detail of every bead and twist of lanyard and sparkle on the hearts. He doesn't have to fight the tears now, but he does. His lips quiver. He holds it all in. He closes his eyes against the rising sound in his throat and his fists turn to stone on the steering wheel. He loses the fight for a moment and a sob blasts suddenly out of his mouth. He bites down. He tries to take a deep breath in through his nose and hold it but his body is locked. He knows when he breathes out he will probably break down. He will cry and sob and rip the truck apart in his rage. As his lungs burn and his mind begins to scream for air, he prepares.
A car honk breaks his trance and brings him back. A pair of headlights shine at him from his rear view mirror. He stopped in the middle of the street, and now, seeing someone behind him, he speeds off toward home.