First Place | Fiction Writing Contest
52nd New Millennium Award for Fiction
Teresa Burns Gunther of Oakland, California for “War Paint”
Gunther will receive $1,000 and publication both online and in print.
Teresa Burns Gunther
Bennett sucks in a deep breath and knocks. He’s not ready for his sister. He eyes the spiny cactus and shudders as the massive oak door swings wide. Cassie’s dressed for Thanksgiving in a long brown skirt and buckled shoes. She looks happy to see him, gives him a quick hug but the first thing out of her mouth is, “Where’s Margo?”
“She couldn’t come.” He knows what she’s thinking: Little brother fucked up. Again.
Lily steps out from behind Cassie. She’s six, in red cowboy boots and an orange ruffled dress. “Hi Uncle Bennett,” she says and wraps her chubby arms around his legs. He’s ridiculously pleased. He gives her the airplane wings the flirty flight attendant gave him.
“Who’s Margot?” Lily asks, considering the gift.
“Bennett’s girlfriend,” Cassie says.
Lily giggles. Cassie asks what happened with Margot. Her hair, once a dark curly mop like Lily’s, is now straight and the color of the cashews their mother kept in a bowl in the living room, though he can’t remember ever having company. Lines fan from the corners of her eyes, another way she’s changed. Bennett extends the box of chocolates, shakes it.
“What that?” Lily asks.
“Lilac chocolates, your mom’s favorite.”
Cassie thanks him. Hugs the box to her chest with a pitying smile. “No, our mom’s favorite.”
“No. They were your favorite.” An argument brews in his head as he follows her inside. She always confuses the facts. Smells of turkey and sage fill Cassie’s kitchen; pots steam on the eight-burner stove. She leads him into the dining room where orange candles flank a cornucopia stuffed with fruits and nuts at the center of a long table. Turkeys on pipe-cleaner legs hold place cards in their beaks. He feels the ache of losing her; Cassie used to be amazing. After college she moved to Brooklyn, worked as a bartender, and painted. Bennett’s garage band played a few of her parties full of poets, painters, and pot. He’d wanted to be just like her.
Cassie removes a plate. Margot’s, and her ultimatum rings in his ears.
“You said only family,” Bennett says, indicating the nine remaining places.
“It’s just a few friends.”
“But we’re supposed to finalize plans for Dad’s trip.”
“I said we’d talk about it,” she says but her face is a no.
“Cassie. Don’t fight me on this. I need some time. With him. At home…New York. ” He has more to say, but Lily pulls him into the cavernous living room, all timber and stone. Kenny G’s on the stereo. Pumpkins line the mantel over a fire snapping a temper tantrum; outside it’s over sixty degrees. On the L-shaped sofa, a blond wearing a short dress and large turquoise cross sips a pink martini. Beside her a big brunette with lacquered lashes nurses a baby. They smile, look him over like they know his secrets.
Cassie’s husband calls hello from the bar at the end of the room and pours him a scotch. “Happy Thanksgiving,” he says.
“You too, Jason.” Bennett sips. “Bless you, my son,” he says, making the sign of the cross. “What are we drinking?” Not that he cares. He’s not a big drinker, usually sticks to beer or wine, but on this day he welcomes alcohol’s bite.
“Ah, the perks of the cyber guru.” Bennett figures it cost two-hundred bucks. Jason developed an elaborate security algorithm he sold to General Dynamics; a self-made man. He’s skinny in a sporty way—he rides bikes. His turkey sweater is identical to one Cassie sent Bennett, more evidence that the heat and homogeneity of Scottsdale have warped her. “You,” Bennett says, indicating the sweater, “are a good man.”
“Where’s yours?” Jason asks.
Bennett feigns regret. He likes his brother-in-law, the steady ship in their troubled waters. “I left it in New York.” As far as he knows the homeless man at Park and 65th is still wearing it.
Two men amble over and take stools at the bar. Introductions are made.
“You’re the musician,” booms Peewee, a monster with a buzz-cut block of a head. A former linebacker for the Cardinals, now in sales; he grips Bennett’s shoulder as they shake hands.
“My brother-in-law’s a musician by night,” Jason says, “songwriter in advertising by day.” It sounds like an apology. He asks about Bennett’s new album, covers of jazz standards, as Cassie slips under his arm.
“I can’t wait to hear it,” she says, her voice high.
“Thanks.” Bennett shrugs. “People like to live in the past.”
The other guy’s short and bald with tortoiseshell glasses, a sports-entertainment lawyer. He spouts stats about the Cardinals and crushes Bennett’s hand. He indicates Bennett’s clothes. “Is it a law New Yorkers have to wear black?”
“It’s in the manual,” Bennett says. Everyone laughs. Cassie exhales.
“Where’s Cassie’s drink?” the lawyer asks. She shakes her head. She’s born again, not as smart this time.
“Did you meet my bride, Ashley?” Peewee gestures to the sofa.
“Hey there!” Ashley lifts her pink martini. She has a Southern accent. Her nose crinkles when she smiles. Bennett had paired them by size, but the big brunette, whose lashes make her look startled, belongs to the short lawyer. Something tugs on Bennett’s pant leg, a kid wiping his bubbling nose. Peewee scoops him up and plops him beside Ashley. Bennett rubs his trousers with a napkin, smearing the slime.
“Sorry about that,” Ashley says. Her hair is fifty shades of blond.
“No problem.” Bennett drinks deeply, drowning the panic that always threatens to undo him on fourth Thursdays in November. “Where’s Dad?”
“Upstairs,” Cassie says. Something beeps in the kitchen and she hurries off.
“How’s my dad doing?” Bennett asks.
“Fine. You know him.” Jason adds softly, “He doesn’t talk about it but he’s been reminiscing about New York.”
“He’s excited about visiting me.”
Jason frowns, runs his fingers through his hair laced with silver. “Well . . . he and Cassandra miss your mother today.” He hesitates. “I’m sure you do too.”
“Nope.” Bennett doesn’t miss her. Not her chaos and swings, not the cruel way she left them. “It’s Dad I miss.” He can’t miss what he never had. Cassie misses her because when she was a kid their mother was only crazy-lite. She insists Mom was fine when Bennett was little, that she doted on him, but Cassie conflates facts with wishes, her memories with his. The doctors said something switched in his mother’s brain after he was born. Cradle-to-grave blame. He gives himself a mental slap. Self-pitying asshole: twenty-nine, alone, snot on your slacks in the goddamn desert. Blub-blub.
He begged Margot to come with, but she lifted her chin and said, “What’s the point? It’s family only.” Two days ago, she gave him an ultimatum: husband or bachelor—choose. The fear of losing her spins him up. He can’t imagine his life without her. He needs a smoke, but Cassie disapproves now, not in her home and never in front of her child.
He was ten, Cassie seventeen, the first time their mother was arrested. They waited on a bench beside a man handcuffed to its leg, reeking of urine, and begging Bennett to “go get us some hooch” while a woman in a rhinestone sweatsuit paced and yelled at her tattooed daughter slumped on the floor. But it was the fear in his dad’s eyes that frightened him most that day, the way he rushed in, hunched, and apologizing, talking low to the cops, paying cash. When a blond in a mink was escorted into the waiting area, she gave the cops the finger. Bennett didn’t recognize his mother—a redhead that morning—until she threw her arms wide and cried, “My babies!” Later, in the park, Cassie said, “Mom got caught stealing.” Bennett told her, “Moms don’t steal.” She let him have a cigarette atop Umpire Rock and taught him to inhale. When he coughed, she patted his back and said, “Hurts good.” He thought she knew everything. She left for college two months later.
Bennett silences Kenny G, sits at the Steinway no one plays, runs his fingers over the keys, and escapes into the certainty of octaves. Lily climbs up beside him. He tries to teach her “Happy Birthday.” She plays loudly, her own “arrangement,” belting out, “Happy turkey to you . . . ” like a blues singer, making him laugh until Cassie blows in from the kitchen to shush her, an apron completing her pilgrim look.
“It’s fine,” Bennett says. “She’s improvising.” But Cassie sends Lily to watch a video with Peewee’s snot-nosed kid. Lily gives him a mournful look and trudges down the hall. “What’s with you?” he asks. “The Cassie I knew would have loved that.”
She closes her eyes, sways, plops down beside him.
“Are you okay?” he asks and plays a soft riff that always calms him.
“I hate this day.”
“Me too. So why do we celebrate it?”
She looks surprised. “Well…” For a moment she drifts off, then says so softly he has to stop playing to hear, “We can’t let it be about mom’s death forever. I’m trying to make the Thanksgiving we never had. For Lily. Dad too.”
“But you’re so uptight.”
“It’s a lot of work. And I can’t think with all that noise.”
“Okay then.” He closes the piano, stands. She pulls him back down.
“Don’t be like that.”
“Where’s Dad?” He’s the reason Bennett’s even here.
“I told you. Upstairs. He’s napping. Let him rest.”
“Don’t move,” he says and walks to the bar, tops up his drink, and pours a glass of wine for Cassie. He sits. They click glasses.
“Happy Thanksgiving?” she says.
“To Mom, who fucked it all up.” They drink in silence and watch Cassie’s friends talk.
“Play it for me,” she says. He plays the song he wrote for her years ago. Cassie leans against him, and for a moment he’s glad he came. “Did you and Margot break up?”
He keeps playing. Everyone loves Margot. The opposite of his mother. He closes his eyes sees her dancer’s body pirouette in their apartment, her big green eyes glittering, as if she is made for joy. What would he be without her? Cassie pats his knee and sits on the sofa with Jason. Bennett plays all Cassie’s favorites. Ashley claps after each song. He plays Stardust, then closes the piano, grabs the wine bottle, and refills Cassie’s glass. She tries to stop him.
“Come on, Cassandra,” Ashley drawls. “You deserve it.”
Cassie shares an eye roll with the big brunette who’s burping her bald baby and keeping a wary eye on Bennett. She’s drinking Diet Coke and hasn’t said a word. Her bald husband wraps an arm around her, marking his territory. Bennett sits on the hearth among cancerous-looking gourds.
“I’m sorry Margot couldn’t come,” Jason says, voicing Bennett’s longing.
“She’s getting a PhD in psychology,” Cassie says. “She’s smart, beautiful and wants children.”
Margot does want kids, with him. That’s the problem. But he couldn’t do that to her. Not on his DNA. She isn’t worried, but he’s done the research. He could pass the crazy on; he has a thirty-percent chance of going nuts himself.
“He’ll lose her if he drags his feet,” Cassie says.
“Here’s an idea,” Bennett says. “Mind your own business?”
“Whoa.” Peewee tucks his chin, doubling it. Bennett flushes, checks his watch; hours to go.
Jason says, “Peewee and Ashley just celebrated 10 years!” Peewee tells how he met Ashley in college while volunteering on Bush’s campaign. Cassie’s look is a dart that says not a word!
On his way to the bathroom Bennett finds the thermostat and cranks up the AC. He splashes cold water on his face, then calls Margot. Just the way she says is name is a comfort. He tells her, “I’m in Twilight Zone Hell with Jesus and Kenny G.” He loves her laugh. He tells her how uptight Cassie is. “She’s going to fight me on this.”
“Bennett,” Margot says. “You need time with your father, alone, to talk things out. You need to make this happen if you’re ever going to move on.” Margot thinks that if they could really talk about that time, about what happened, how he blames himself, he might be able to move on.
“I know,” he says. “You’re right.”
“How is your dad?” Margot asks.
“I don’t know. Cassie has him locked in his room.”
Margot sighs, says she has to go.
The upstairs hallway is wide and silent, the carpet plush. He taps on the last door, open a crack. Dad’s lying on his bed, head in hands, staring at the ceiling. Nine months before, when Bennett flew out to watch the Super Bowl, he was fine. They talk almost every week. Cassie thinks she needs to protect Dad. She talks about dementia, but she’ll say anything to keep Dad under her control. Still, Bennett steels himself for a shock.
“Bennett!” Dad sits up and puts on his glasses. His white hair is slicked back, his shirt crisp. Bennett strides to meet him, hand outstretched. Dad stands, opens his arms. Bennett steps into his Old Spice embrace but they are men who shake. “I’m so glad you’re here!” Dad says. A smudge makes a rainbow across one of his lenses. “You’re getting taller.” He makes a face. “I’m shrinking.”
“No. You look good, Dad.”
By seventeen, Bennett was two inches taller than his father; now he towers over him. Dad pulls on a turkey cardigan. Bennett groans. Founding partner of his firm, he practiced corporate law for forty years, always well dressed, an elegant man. He’s missed a spot shaving, and the triangle of white whiskers by his left ear brings a lump to Bennett’s throat.
“How’s New York?”
“It’s great!” Bennett says too loudly. “The colors were amazing this year.” He sounds like a goddamn real estate agent.
“I miss it,” Dad says. Bennett wonders if “it” includes Mom.
“We’ll have a great New York Christmas.” Bennett elbows his arm. “I got Risk!”
“Oh!” Dad points at the clock beside his bed. “We’re missing kickoff.”
Lily pokes her head in. “Grampa?”
She runs to him. “I had to watch a movie ‘cuz I’m loud.”
“We got in trouble for playing piano,” Bennett says. “But this girl has talent!”
Dad hugs Lily close. He wasn’t an affectionate father. They went to ballgames, played Risk, poker for pretzel sticks, but they never talked about feelings. Never talked about Mom. Dad got her specialists, treatment, but she always went off her meds. He loved her brand of crazy until he didn’t. When Bennett was twelve his dad left the marriage for his office and Bennett to man the loony bin. Three years later, on Thanksgiving, she got creative with rope; hung herself from the staircase banister. Margot tells Bennett it’s not his fault, but Bennett never heard that from his dad. Or Cassie.
Lily looks between them, her brow wrinkled. “Are you going with Uncle Bennett?”
“Of course,” Dad says.
“The game’s starting,” Dad says.
Confused, Lily puts her hands on her hips.
“Uh-oh.” Bennett lays his palm on Lily’s forehead and feigns concern. “She’s got it, Dad.”
“Yep,” he says.
“What?” she ask, head swinging between them.
“Football fever,” they say in unison. Lily beams.
Jason’s man cave is loud with pregame hype. The décor is half Wild West, half medieval: a suit of armor guards the bar. Margot would think it’s funny too, but she’d flash a sly smile with those dimples that knocked him out the moment they met. She’d tell Bennett to behave. He texts a selfie with the metal suit, arm flexed: Men of Steel.
Dad sits in a large leather chair looking like a cactus in a too big pot. Lily climbs into his lap. He pats Bennett’s hand and asks for a scotch.
“Two-fisted drinker?” Jason asks as Bennett pours the drinks at the bar.
“One’s for Dad.”
Jason raises his eyebrows. “He’s not supposed to drink.”
Worry wobbles through Bennett. “Since when?”
Dad shouts, “Kickoff!” and accepts a faux beer from Peewee without complaint. Bennett pours the second scotch into his own and sits on the arm of Dad’s chair. Lily pats his knee.
“Touchdown!” Dad says, and high-fives everyone.
“We’re Jets fans,” Bennett reminds him, then stands and retraces his steps to the AC control and cranks it back up.
“What are you doing?” Cassie rushes down the hall, turkey baster in hand.
“It’s sweltering!” he says.
“Take off your jacket.”
He grabs her elbow. “Cassie, Dad’s coming to New York.”
She sighs wearily. “It’s not a good idea. “
“Nothing bad’s gonna happen,” he says. She just gives him a weary smile, shakes her head, and turns up the heat.
Watching the game reminds Bennett of a division playoff, years ago, fourth quarter, he and Dad on the edge of their seats, Mom out shopping. The phone rang. Dad motioned for Bennett to answer. A cop with a Jersey accent asked for his father. Dad yelled, “They’re going for it on fourth!” The cop said, Hello? Are ya there? “Wrong number,” Bennett said, and hung up.
Halfway through the second quarter, Dad’s asleep. Bennett finds the women busy in the kitchen and offers help. They stop talking. Ashley blushes. Cassie averts her eyes. Okay then. He wanders into the dining room, rearranges the placeholder turkeys to put Dad and Lily beside him.
Outside, the sunlight’s a shock. It’s raining in New York. He lies across a hammock, his glass on his chest, staring into the white sky. “I’m on the fucking moon,” he tells the Seuss-like cactus beside him, then remembers hearing about a cactus exploding with tarantulas in someone’s apartment. Urban legend or not, he sits by the pool. Margot’s words, if you’re ever going to move on, buzz inside him. She texted a response to his metal man photo: Tough guys! He calls. No answer. Lily clomps across the patio and stands before him, hands on hips.
“I don’t want Grampa to go.”
“It’s only a visit.”
“He’ll forget me.”
“No way. You’re unforgettable.”
Lily gives him a doubtful look then walks over to the pool edged in stone. Cassie moved their father across the country to this desert world. But next month Bennett’s bringing him home for Christmas. Lily bounces over the deep end, an accident about to happen. Beyond her, thousands of birds burst into the air in a black cloud, reassemble into a dark line, sunlight flashing wing to wing as they soar, swooping, a wave, pulsing in and out. He wonders how they know when to turn. His breath surges in his chest, his fingers tap out their rhythm. He wants to show Margot but remembers he’s alone. Delight turns to ache. He takes out his phone, films the swallows in flight, texts: Wish u were here.
“Push me!” Lily says and climbs into the swing on the AstroTurf lawn. Bennett pushes her, with one hand, careful of his drink, tormenting himself with thoughts of Margot moving on with someone else.
“Not like that!” Lily says.
“Geez, does your mom give you bossy lessons?”
“Geez is making fun of Jesus.”
“So, report me to the Jesus police,” he says. “I’m sure there’s some inside.”
As everyone heads to the dining room Bennett exchanges Kenny G for Scofield, a CD he gave them last Christmas, still sealed in cellophane. He pulls out Dad’s chair, helps Lily into hers.
“Dad?” Cassie pats the chair beside her. She frowns as everyone sits in the wrong places.
Jason bows his head. “Thank you, Lord, . . . ” Cassie’s eyes are closed, hands braided tight, fingertips red. She used to be agnostic. Bennett drains his scotch during the Amen chorus. Dad winks, there’s nothing wrong with him. Whenever his mother was away “for a rest,” Bennett pretended it was just the two of them, father and son against the world.
Plates become mountains of turkey and stuffing, cranberries, yams, and the eating begins. The bald lawyer tells a story about one of his clients, a defensive tackle caught being stupid in public. Bennett cuts Lily’s turkey and tells Dad about his new apartment, near Central Park, full of light.
“Sounds expensive,” Dad says, drowning his stuffing in gravy.
Bennett explains it’s rent-controlled, he’s subletting from a friend working in Vienna for two years. “Margot helped fix up your room.”
“I like her!” Dad sets his fork down, interrupts the talk. “Bennett has a wonderful girl.”
“We’ve covered that,” Bennett says, avoiding Cassie’s knowing look.
Dad sips his wine, clicks Bennett’s glass. Lily clicks too, spilling juice, turning Bennett’s turkey red. He pretends to switch plates, making her laugh.
“No wine for Dad!” Cassie says.
“Just a celebratory inch.”
“Well, that’s it!”
Bennett salutes her. She purses her lips. He used to make her laugh. Peewee compliments Jason on the wine and Lily delights Bennett with a convoluted story about her classmate “Stinky Max.” Talk turns to education.
“Dad?” Cassie says, pointing to the bald guy. “Marty asked you about schools.”
“Jesus, Cassie,” Bennett says. “You don’t have to translate.”
“I don’t think your father heard,” Marty’s big wife says. She speaks! Her voice is tight and high. Marty asks again what’s wrong with education, though it’s clear he has the answer.
“In my day,” Dad says, “kids did as they were told. Or else.” He makes a fist. Bennett laughs. He never laid a hand on Bennett, who cut school plenty. “Mothers stayed home and took care of the kids.”
Cassie’s look says, See? Bennett never brought anyone home because his mother was there, until that one Sunday. He was with friends, including a girl—his heart-hammering crush. He needed money. His mother had been “better,” so he took a chance. They found her in the kitchen on a stool in a negligee and red heels, drinking gin, writing notes she taped to cabinets. He raced to his room for his wallet and came back to find her dancing, showing her breasts. He pushed his friends outside, went back, and yelled at her, “Take the damn pills!” He stayed with friends, didn’t go home until the following Thursday. Thanksgiving. Cassie and Dad were at the kitchen table. Dad looked flattened, eyes unfocused, a face that haunts Bennett still. “Where were you?” Cassie cried. “You left Mom alone?” She’d hanged herself that morning. Dad never said a word, not then, not since. Afterwards, Cassie quit painting, got an MBA, met Jason, found religion in Arizona, and turned into someone else.
“Cassandra,” Ashley drawls, “this turkey’s so moist.” Peewee, mouth full, mumbles agreement. “Is this your music, Bennett?” Ashley twists a strand of her streaked hair. “Peewee says you’re a jaaazz musician.” She giggles.
“Bennett plays piano, guitar, and trumpet,” Dad says, ticking off on his fingers. Bennett puffs with his pride, then feels like an ass. “He’s in a band.” Dad looks uncertain.
“Yep. You’ll see us play next month.”
“Every night?” Cassie asks, then disappears into the living room.
Ashley laughs nervously, her cheeks pink with wine.
“Will you play again, later?” Peewee asks. The Scofield stops, Kenny G returns, then Cassie.
“I guess not,” Bennett says.
Jason circles the table refilling glasses. He whispers to Cassie, who nods and gulps her wine.
“I’ve never been to Manhattan,” Ashley says.
“The city’s beautiful in the snow!” Dad leans in, eyes bright. “There’s skating in Central Park.”
“Dad’s spending Christmas with me,” Bennett explains. “In my new place, by the park.”
“A bachelor pad, eh?” Peewee says with a wink.
Dad’s chuckles. “That’s right.”
“I got Jets tickets,” Bennett says, remembering their thrill of anticipation as the subway doors opened at the stadium stop before a game.
Lily pokes Bennett’s arm. “Can I go?”
“What do you say, Dad? Shall we bring a princess?”
“Enough!” Cassie says. “Everyone’s happy the way things are.”
“You are. My sister used to love New York,” Bennett tells the table. “A real bohemian. Threw wild parties.”
Marty looks at Cassie like he’s uncertain about her now.
“That was a lifetime ago,” Cassie says.
“Now she’s a born-again Pilgrim.”
“Hey. Be nice to big sis,” Peewee says looking warily from Bennett to Cassie.
“New York,” Cassie says, pointing with her fork, “is not a healthy place.”
“Is it New York’s fault?” Bennett asks. “Or just mine?” Silence. Lily pats his arm with concern.
Cassie tells her friends, “It’s sweet he wants Dad to visit, but he can’t take care of him.”
“Cassie,” Jason cautions, raking his fingers through his hair.
“He’s not a child,” Bennett counters. “Last time you said, ‘It’s too hot, you’re out every night’, like I’m some asshole.”
Everyone freezes. Dad stares at his plate.
“You sweared,” Lily whispers.
“Okay.” Jason pushes his chair back, pats his flat belly. “That was delicious, Cassandra. Let’s take a break before dessert.” He gives Bennett a warning look. Peewee says the game’s back on. Everyone scatters, the women ferry dishes to the kitchen. Bennett helps his father up.
“Take a walk, Dad?”
Dad turns, brow creased, as if it’s a confusing question. He grips Bennett’s shoulder. Bennett tenses. “The game’s on,” Dad says and follows the men to the cave.
Bennett drops back into his chair. When he was young, he tried talking to his dad about what happened, but he always put Bennett off with, “We’ll talk tomorrow.” Cassie urged him to leave it alone. But Margot’s right, they need to talk it all out. While they still can. He’s desperate for a smoke. He pours himself another scotch, adds ice; it’s a desert out there.
The driveway is steeper as it descends, harder to negotiate. He feels the alcohol heavy in his legs and tries to count his drinks but his brain’s busy battling Cassie and what she’ll say next to keep Dad to herself. He smacks his head getting into the rental car and curses.
Lily bangs on the window. Bennett’s heart flips.
“Jesus, you scared the shit out of me.”
“You swear,” Lily says. Her dress is MIA. She’s made a turban of her undershirt.
“Yeah? Well, you walk around half-naked.”
She screws up her face. “You’re talking funny.”
“And you’re supposed to keep your dress on.”
She blows a raspberry. “I’m a indigenous peoples.”
“Good. Hold my glass.” He gets out of his car, throws his jacket over the seat, and lights up, hands shaking. Lily sniffs his drink, takes a sip. “Hey!”
She coughs, sputters, her eyes tear.
“That’s what you get for stealing booze.”
She sheepishly hands him the glass, then her eyes widen. “You. Are. Smoking!”
“It’s my peace pipe.”
“Can I do it?”
“No. Your mother would scalp me.”
“‘Cuz she’s your big sister?” Lily asks, delighted.
She considers this, then asks quietly, “Is that why you fight her?”
He wants to ask what she’s heard. “It’s complicated.” He sets off walking past tile-roofed McMansions each with cactus, a rock garden, and a pole sporting a limp flag. Lily follows.
“Is that why you’re taking Grampa away?”
“It’s just a visit.”
“I know. I’m coming too!” She takes his hand and skips beside him, then squats, scoops soil in her hands, tries to spit but dribbles on her chin. He shows her how it’s done, depositing a glob in the dirt. “Nice! Do it again.”
“No, that’s gross.” He flicks ice cubes from his glass, some scotch. “There. A sacrifice to art.”
“It’s war paint,” Lily says, mixing a muddy paste. She draws lines on her face and chest, then spins in circles, wobbly in red boots, mirroring his insides, chanting, “I’m going to New Yo-ork.” Her tights sag at the crotch, her turban slips over her eyes. Her laughter is the best music all day. God, he’d love to have kids. With Margot. She’d be the best mother but it’s just too risky. He once asked Cassie if she worried about Lily, but she refused to discuss it.
“Chase me!” Lily says, running, giggling, looking back at him until she trips. He kneels and brushes dirt from her hands and knees. “It didn’t bleed,” she says, so brave.
A car pulls up with a blast of air that knocks Bennett over. A cop gets out and looks down from behind dark glasses. Bennett struggles to his feet, tries to help Lily up, but she shakes her head, frightened. The cop raises her sunglasses revealing bright blue eye shadow.
“War paint’s big in Arizona,” he tells Lily. The unsmiling cop straightens her hat, pats her gun. Her name tag reads: Officer Mace. Bennett throws his head back, laughs and staggers. “Nice aptronym.”
She squints, eyes his ponytail, his black clothes.
“A name that matches an occupation?”
Her partner, a black man with a short Afro, climbs out too. Officer Dickson. Mace takes Bennett’s glass, sniffs.
“Alcohol.” She holds it out to Dickson.
“Eighteen-year-old scotch,” Bennett says. “Have a nip. We won’t tell.”
“Let’s see some ID,” Mace says.
Bennett pats his pockets. “Damn,” he says. “My birth certificate’s home with my turkey sweater.” This makes him laugh harder. The smart man in his brain is telling him to shut the fuck up, but he has a long head start on pissed off. He holds up his right hand. “I’m a citizen. I swear.”
Bennett considers this. “Maybe. Why? Has Arizona outlawed that too?”
Dickson’s the good cop. “Eighteen-year-old scotch, eh? Someone’s enjoying himself.”
“Well, the scotch is good.” Bennett wrinkles his nose. “Family.”
Dickson nods like he understands.
“Is this your little girl?” Mace asks.
“Where’s your sister?”
“At home, overdoing Thanksgiving.”
“What’s her name?”
“Public intoxication is illegal. I could arrest you,” Mace says.
“Why? No Mexicans to torment?”
Dickson lowers his brow. Mace leans over Lily, whose lower lip trembles.
“You’re scaring her,” Bennett says. “It’s okay, Lily.”
“You said her name’s Cassie.”
“No. Cassie’s my sister.”
“What’s your name?” Mace asks Lily, who glares, lips pinched tight, reminding Bennett of his mother flipping off cops.
“Atta girl,” he says and wonders if this is something he’s inherited: ramping things up when they’re coming apart.
Mace sniffs. “Did he give you alcohol?”
Lily nods. “He gived it to me for war paint. I couldn’t make spit.”
“Gave,” Mace corrects.
“Don’t edit her. She’s an improvisationalist.” Bennett slips on the esses. It takes him three tries to say it right. “And a indigenous peoples.”
Mace asks again for his ID.
“I told you. I’m legal. Third-generation New Yorker.”
Mace smirks. Dickson motions her over, says something about Thanksgiving. They argue and it’s clear Mace is out for blood. Bennett reaches into his pocket for a cigarette and she lunges, pins him to the car. That’s when Lily starts to cry.
Jason’s jaw drops to see his little girl between two cops at the door. He picks Lily up and confirms that Bennett is his brother-in-law, a fact he doesn’t look happy about. Tears streak Lily’s war paint, proof that Bennett has a knack for hurting women. Cassie watches at the window, stricken. Peewee steps outside, the cops recognize the football star and forget about Bennett, thrilled to reminisce about past games and get autographs. Lily gives Jason a blow-by-blow, clearing Bennett, explaining her war paint. Jason’s mouth twitches with what Bennett hopes is amusement.
“Oh, shit,” Bennett says. “Go ahead, laugh.”
“You sweared again!” Lily says and reaches for him. He takes the war-painted bundle of her in his arms, undone by her easy forgiveness.
Ten minutes later, Cassie stomps into the dining room with a bowl of whipped cream, announces dessert like it’s punishment, then slices a pumpkin pie to pieces. Everyone sits. Bennett thanks Peewee, who winks, unsmiling. Jason sets coffee before Bennett. There’s no music now.
“They wanted my birth certificate. I don’t even look Mexican,” Bennett says. No one laughs.
“Elaine made this pie.” Cassie indicates the big brunette and slaps whipped cream on a slice. “Perhaps you could shut up so we can enjoy it?”
“Mommy,” Lily whispers. “Shut up’s bad.”
“That’s right,” Bennett says. Cassie extends a plate held high on her palm. Bennett declines.
“Cassandra,” Jason warns. She sets it down and eats with determination.
The big brunette strokes her baby’s cheek, smiling with naked love. Free of the tense work of glaring at Bennett, her face is tender, reminding him of another face—his mother’s?— when he’d come home crying after a scrape with a boy who hurt him with “sticks, stones, and words,” he’d said as she kissed his cheeks. He closes his eyes, wondering if he’s imagining it, Chopin on the turntable, a surging sonata like a joyful physical presence in the room that played as she held him, whispering a tale of a boy and his mother searching for a magical music box. Margot says he should focus on good memories of his mother instead of beating himself up for what happened, but he’s always insisted he has none.
“Wake up, Uncle Bennett,” Lily whispers, patting his arm. Bennett opens his eyes.
They’re all gone now. Dad’s on the sofa reading the paper. Bennett, head pounding, sits beside him, his longing physical, pathetic.
Dad lowers his paper. “I’m glad you’re here!”
“Yeah, but you almost had to bail me out of jail this time.”
Dad’s tilts his head, looks confused.
“Don’t you miss New York? I do, and I’ve only been gone a day.” It’s Margot he misses. Bennett wants to ask: Can we talk about it? Just blurt it out: Do you blame me? but Cassie sits down on Dad’s other side.
“I’m tired,” Dad says, folding his paper.
“He’s tired,” Cassie echoes. She looks exhausted.
“We’re all tired,” Bennett says, “but I’m leaving tomorrow.”
Dad stands. “I think I’ll say goodnight.”
“But we need to figure this out!” Bennett says.
“Let’s talk tomorrow.”
Tomorrow! The word explodes in Bennett’s head. He follows his father into the foyer. “Tomorrow, Dad?” He grabs his arm. “When is that? I need to know.”
Dad shrinks back, rummages in the closet, and pulls out his coat. “Hope it’s not snowing.”
“Thank your wife for dinner.” He hugs Bennett and opens the front door.
“Dad.” Cassie swoops in. “You’re home.”
“Oh, look!” Dad says, pointing out at the night.
Bennett stands between them, gaping up at a sky making a spectacle of itself. A riotous swirl of reds and golds. His father clutches his hand. It’s terrifying.
Cassie gives Bennett a look so freighted with sorrow he’s unable to do anything but watch when she leads Dad back inside and up the stairs, just as she did so many times with Mom when she’d had too much or was too much. And he understands; it wasn’t just Dad she worked so hard to keep to herself.
He checks his phone. No calls. He takes a picture of the crazy sunset and searches for words to text. Words to make things right.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Teresa Burns Gunther’s writing has been recognized in numerous contests and published widely in literary journals and anthologies, including Mid-American Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Next Tribe, Madison Review, Everyday Fiction, The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, 2014—A Year in Stories, Best New Writing 2012, and many others. “War Paint” is included in her story collection, “Hold Off The Night”, a Finalist for the Orison Book Prize 2019 and forthcoming from Truth Serum Press, an imprint of Bequem Publishing. Teresa is the founder of Lakeshore Writers’ Workshop, where she offers workshops, classes, and developmental editing services.
War Paint © 2022 Teresa Burns Gunther