6.12 / October 2011

The Empty Place

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Houston was forty-two and going to seed. He had gray in his hair and mustache, and his mother, when complimenting him, had stopped calling him handsome and had switched to “distinguished.” For the first time in his life, he felt old, and by consequence, a little bit frightened.

After Christmas dinner, he sat awkwardly in a straight-backed chair as his younger sisters unceremoniously plopped their broods in his lap and snapped the annual photographs. Houston held the children gingerly and jiggled them on his knee. “Imagine riding a pony,” he said to them, but the children just cried and held up their arms to their mothers. Houston saw his own mother peeping at him from the kitchen, ready to come at him with a barrage of questions like “When are you going to get married and have children of your own?” but he glowered at her until she went back to the pies.

His mother was slowing down. He was not close to his sisters. Late that night, in his own bed, in his basement apartment, he tossed and turned. He really didn’t have any friends. When his mother died, he would be alone. He got out of bed and put on his clothes. He made the bed, fluffing the macramé throw pillows. He put on cologne. He went to the bar on the corner. Inside, the bartender looked at his watch and sighed. He gave Houston a beer on a coaster. “Merry Christmas,” the bartender told him. Houston drank his beer and looked around the bar. There were a few women, but mainly they were old or had big asses. They were low-class women, but Houston selected the best one and approached her. She looked him up and down. “I’m sorry,” she said. “Did I appear to be single?”

The cologne had been a waste. Back in his bed, Houston couldn’t get the stink of it out of his mouth.

The next morning he got into his car and drove the nine hours to Michigan. He had been to Michigan once before, fifteen years ago, for a job. He remembered it as a good place, cool and green in the summer. Now, his car slid on the icy highway and he was forced to proceed at a crawl. He had the address from the annual Christmas card Dolly sent him. In his wallet, he had the snapshots of his daughter that he had kept secret, like a toothache.

He did not rehearse what he would say, but he did pause to take a deep breath when he pulled up to the curb outside the house. He was sitting behind the wheel, staring at the wreath on the door, when the door opened and a chubby teenager came out. She was waving eagerly, but when she saw that she didn’t recognize him, she stopped waving and went back into the house. Houston got out of the car and went up the walk. He was not dressed sufficiently for winter in Michigan. He had to pee and he wished he had thought to bring something in the way of a gift.

He was about to knock when the door opened again. He knew it was Dolly, even though he hadn’t seen her since he left fifteen years ago, when she had cried and begged him not to leave her and the unborn baby. She had aged, and there was something weird about her nose, and he could not read her face. He could not tell if she recognized him. “I got your cards,” he said to her. “I wanted to meet our daughter.”

“Now is not a good time,” Dolly told him, her face still void of emotion. “She is not here right now.”

“Don’t lie to me. I saw her not three minutes ago. She came out of the house and went back inside.”

“Why are you here?”

“It’s Christmas,” he said. “I wanted to see my daughter. I wanted to see you, if you’ll have me.”

“Now is not the time for this,” Dolly said. “I can’t deal with this now. Please go away.”

“I’m not going away. Let me in. It’s Christmas. I drove nine hours to get here.”

“Is that them?” a man’s voice asked. “Are they here? I’ll be glad to get this over with.” A fat man came around the bend in the hall and advanced toward the door. The floorboards groaned under his weight. “Is that them?”

“Who are you?” Houston said. He had never supposed that Dolly had waited for him for so many years, but the sight of the other man was surprising nonetheless. “Who are you?”

“Please go away,” Dolly whispered to him. To the other man, she said, “It’s not them. It’s a mistake. He was just leaving.”

“What is going on here?” said Houston, his voice rising and causing a look of surprise on the fat man’s face. “Somebody needs to tell me what is going on here. Where is my daughter? Where is Vanessa?”

“Now you’ve done it,” said Dolly, falling back from the door.

Houston opened the door. The hallway smelled like potpourri.

The fat man looked at Dolly. He looked confused. “I’m Vanessa’s father,” he said. “Vanessa is my daughter. What do you want?”

Three more people were suddenly crowding the stoop behind Houston. It was a middle-aged couple and a pale teen boy. They pushed into the house, pushing Houston before them like driftwood in a wave. The man stuck his hand past Houston and into the hall. “Walter Miles,” he said. “Let’s get this over with.”

Dolly was shaking. She whispered to Houston, “You go into the kitchen. You wait in there for now. We’ll take care of this later.” She grabbed his arm and shoved him through a doorway. Houston stood in the small kitchen and rubbed his arm where Dolly’s fingernails had dug into his muscle. He listened to the rest of them go into another room. There were ginger cookies on a tray on the table and he was very hungry. He sat down and began to eat. He listened to the conversation in the other room.

What had happened was that the pale teenaged boy had gotten Vanessa pregnant. They were both fourteen. The two sets of parents were trying to figure out what should be done. Vanessa wanted to keep the baby and marry the father. She was the only one who thought that. Houston thought that the best course of action would be to kick the pale boy’s ass and break his pretty teeth. He waited to be invited into the other room so that he could make the suggestion.

“An abortion,” said the mother of the boy. “That is the only possible way, the only sensible way to handle a situation like this one.”

“We do not believe in abortion,” said Dolly. “We would like Vanessa to carry the baby to term and then put it up for adoption. Just think of all the wonderful people who wouldn’t be here on Earth if more people resorted to abortion.”

“Don’t you realize that will ruin their lives?” asked Walter Miles. “Everyone in the high school will know. It will destroy their reputations. What about my son? Doesn’t anyone care how he feels?”

“He should have worried about that before he stuck his thing in my daughter. Abortion is murder,” said the fat man. “My wife, my daughter…there will be no abortion in my home. I don’t want my daughter going to hell.”

There were difficult decisions being made. Houston ate another cookie. The conversation in the other room went around and around. Nobody could agree on anything and every so often, someone would raise a voice. Houston wondered if the fat man and Walter Miles would have a fight. “My son is going to have nothing to do with it,” said Walter Miles. “She had better keep his name out of it around that school.”

“Isn’t there somewhere you could send her?” asked the boy’s mother. “Maybe, if you insist on having this baby, maybe you could send her away until after it is born. So that nobody will know.”

Houston imagined showing Vanessa the spare room in his apartment, tucking an extra blanket around where her feet would be in her bed. He wondered what you were supposed to do, as a parent, to comfort your daughter as she prepares to give up a baby. He wasn’t naïve enough to think that giving up a baby wouldn’t screw a person up, screw him up for a long time, maybe his whole life. Giving up a baby could leave a person with an empty place inside that might never be filled, no matter how many years went by. He imagined telling Vanessa that she didn’t need to worry about anything, that he and she would raise the baby together, that it would be their own little daughter and he would give it everything in his power to give. Then he imagined introducing Vanessa, swollen with unwanted pregnancy, to his own mother. He thought about the explanations that would require, the stuttering and the strange looks, the defenses he would need to mount. He considered all this as he ate Dolly’s ginger cookies and listened.

After a while, he had heard enough. He got to his feet and worked his way carefully down the hall. He walked on his toes so they wouldn’t hear him. At the doorway, he paused in the shadows, brushing cookie crumbs out of his mustache. Someone in the room was weeping. He was still thinking that perhaps he would go in there and make something change, but there was only enough of him to turn the handle on the main door and limp across the lawn to his car.

Erin Gnidziejko-Smith’s work has appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review, TriQuarterly Online, and The Lifted Brow (forthcoming). She holds an MFA from Pennsylvania State University, and a BA in English from Washington and Lee University. Currently working on a novel, she lives and teaches in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley with her husband, new baby, and three cats.
6.12 / October 2011