The dogs outside announced his arrival. Charlotte stared at him as he hobbled toward the front door. She wished her mother were here to tell her what to do. She wished there were another way. He rang the doorbell; she reached for the rifle, knowing that today was to be one of those days when the gun was the only thing old Nate Whiting might listen to.
Though she’d known it was coming, the chime of the doorbell still startled her. Clutching the butt of the gun – a twenty-year-old .22 he’d given her for her sixteenth birthday – she gathered up the emotions that kept her waking up to answer his call every day, and swung the heavy oak door wide open.
“Morning, Dad,” she said through the screen door.
He squinted at her, placing her face. “Which one’re you?”
“I’m Charlotte,” she repeated loudly. She cracked open the screen door, letting in a brace of biting winter air, and hollered at the dogs. “Hush up!”
The dogs’ yapping trailed off. Her father grunted in satisfaction.
“How are you feeling today?” Charlotte asked, knowing the answer but hoping all the same.
“How do you think I’m feeling? I’m pissed as all get-out.” He slapped his meaty palm on the door frame not six inches from her head. The white in his hair and the clouds in his eyes had stolen nothing from the strength in his muscles. Not yet, anyway.
Charlotte squeezed the rifle stock and asked, “What’s the problem today, Dad?”
“I’ve told you girls, and told you again, not to move my boat, motor and trailer. Now where the hell is my goddamn boat?”
“Your boat?” Charlotte sighed. “Dad, Mom sold your boat back in ’85, when you moved to Colorado Springs.”
“Don’t you get smart with me.” He pushed his nose into hers. Though it was only 7:15 in the morning, the sweet stench of expensive Scotch wafted from his mouth. Which meant her father had been up most of the night, and when five a.m. rolled around he’d figured it was five p.m. and launched his daily happy hour. Normally she didn’t have to deal with his drunkenness until evening, but when the clock confused him he could damn near poison himself with whiskey before the day was done.
Silently, she cursed her mother for dying so suddenly, cursed her sister for being too selfish to help her, and cursed herself for not being selfish enough.
“Dad, why don’t you go on back to your house, and I’ll come around in a little while to help you look for your boat.”
“I already looked for it. Somebody stole it, goddammit.”
“Well, if someone stole it, we’ll call the police, okay? But before we do that, we should just retrace your steps, make sure you didn’t leave it someplace and then forget where you left it.” As though it were a set of keys or a misplaced pair of glasses.
Her father took this in, grunted in what she’d come to view as agreement, and retreated to the end of the porch. Sighing in relief, Charlotte propped the gun against the wall inside the doorway, grateful that today she wouldn’t have to fire a blank past his belligerent head, wouldn’t have to calm the dogs and the horses and explain to the neighbors yet again that no one was in any danger from either her gun or her father.
Fred, her cowardly mastiff, sniffed at her father’s mismatched shoes – one snow boot, one muck boot – and prodded his hand for a pet. Nate took a swinging kick at the dog’s belly and Fred slunk away to hunker under the porch, emitting a high, fearful whine. “Goddamn dogs,” she heard Nate mutter. “Always in the way.”
Charlotte watched her father shuffle back to the golf cart he used to get around their rural neighborhood. The steely sky and sputtering snow must have been getting to his knee – the one that hadn’t been replaced – because he was pulling it behind like a stiff old log. She urged Fred to stop whimpering and come inside.
She rubbed the dog’s massive head while she waited to make sure the old man actually puttered to his own house, a tiny guest cottage squatting midway between her house and the next, rather than trying to make a getaway down the rutted dirt lane or forgetting where he lived completely. Once again she thanked whatever stars had been in alignment when she bought the property ten years ago, when she’d decided against knocking down the little-used guest house. That little one-room nest now allowed her to keep an eye on Nate while keeping a buffer zone between his softening brain and her own sanity.
She retreated to her kitchen table with its view of her horses nosing around their paddocks, snug in heavy winter blankets. This deep into winter, the sun was barely topping the mountain peak that slumbered over Albuquerque, thirty miles to the east. The cottonwoods that shaded her hacienda-style home in the summer shivered in the chill air, their naked branches scrabbling against the house’s soft adobe shell. It never failed to calm her, the history and calm resting in the distant foothills, the rich and gentle landscape of her neighborhood on the banks of the Rio Grande.
She rested her head on the books piled up on the kitchen table, tired before the day even began. All these newly-bought tomes had seemed so helpful last night when she pored through them. They seemed to want to guide her, even inspire her in her efforts to care for her father. But this morning they only served to mock her, to remind her of all the mistakes she’d already made in his care. It was like discovering that drinking and smoking while pregnant are no-nos after the umbilical cord has been severed and has long since withered away.
The phone rang, the caller ID identifying Nate’s line from the guest house. Charlotte contemplated not answering it. What would happen, she wondered, if she didn’t pick up the phone, didn’t diffuse whatever situation he had brewing in his spotty mind? Would he stay on the line long enough to leave a message on her voicemail? She doubted he would remember the purpose of his call by the time the line beeped. Maybe he would hang up and call her sister Barb instead.
It was a lovely thought, until Charlotte figured Barb would just hang up the phone with Nate, then call Charlotte to find out why she wasn’t taking proper care of him. Charlotte would again bite her tongue instead of screaming, “I’m not the only fruit from his loins! You live twenty minutes away, and the last time you saw him was at Mom’s funeral six months ago, you selfish cow!” That would not go over well.
Sighing, she picked up the cordless phone before it switched over to voicemail and said, “Hello?” Even though she knew it was him every time, she’d quickly learned that the modern practice of answering the phone with his name only got her hang-up and a call back.
“Charlie? It’s your Dad.”
“Hey, Dad. What can I do you for?” Twenty-to-one odds he was out of Scotch. Ten-to-one he had newly discovered he couldn’t find his boat. Even money he’d managed to sit on his remote control and lose the Western channel.
“I keep trying to call your mother, and the operator says the line’s disconnected.” He sounded agitated, more worried than angry. “What kind of a goddamn phone company disconnects a lady’s phone when her husband’s out of town?”
The house won that bet. Charlotte should have known better; her first mistake had been to move him here, away from Colorado Springs after her mother died, and it was the first that usually cropped up on bad days. Every single one of the books resting on her kitchen table urged caretakers not to move a dementia patient from their known environment. It left them unable to get their bearings. She took comfort in knowing she’d had no choice – she couldn’t very well have afforded to give up her job and her home to move into her parents’ old house for God knew how long. But the move left him with even more confusion, as most days he believed he was still here on a visit he’d made five years ago, and that his wife Sybil – her mother – was just a phone call and a bus ride away.
Mentally, Charlotte flipped through the possible scripts at her disposal. She settled on the required the least explanation. “Probably just the snow, Dad. I think I saw on the news that there are some lines down between us and Colorado. We can try her again tomorrow.”
“Yeah, I saw that too.” He’d seen it, the nonexistent weather report she’d just made up. “Hey, I’m out of Scotch. It’s almost five o’clock.”
At least I made my money back on that one, Charlotte thought. “I’ll pick some up at the store,” she said before he hung up on her.
Charlotte got up from the table to replace the quickly dying cordless phone in its charger, and opened a corner cabinet. She reached behind the lazy susan full of spices and oils that she never used and pulled out a fifth of Cutty Sark whiskey, an action that never failed to make her feel like a child rebelling against her mother’s petty rules. Only her mother couldn’t care anymore, and it was Barb who looked down her nose at the alcohol consumption that went on around there.
On her one visit to the house in the past six months, Barb had chastised Charlotte for allowing Nate to drink himself silly every night.
“It’s not exactly responsible to let him ruin his liver on top of everything else, is it?” Barb had commented, cocking a perfectly plucked – and surgically raised – eyebrow at the number of liquor bottles in the recycling bin.
“He and Mom had cocktails at five o’clock every day of his life,” Charlotte had replied wearily.
“Mother never had more than two glasses of sherry.”
“And Dad never drank more than two snifters of whiskey, but now he forgets how many he’s had, okay? It’s easier to let him drink what he wants than to argue with him every single goddamn night. Anyway, it helps him sleep.”
She managed to shut her mouth before suggesting that Barb might come over and help some nights, just to ease the load a little bit. But Barb had client meetings. Barb had sessions with her personal trainer. Barb had to spend quality time with her purebred Afghan.
Feeling impish and self-righteous, Charlotte set the fresh bottle on the counter to take over to his house that afternoon and made a mental note to retrieve a few more from the case in the barn. It was going to be a long week. Hell, it was going to be a long day. Saturdays were her toughest, with no chance for escape. For one, she no longer had to work on Saturdays. The new vet, a still-wet-behind-the-ears recent graduate, had drawn weekends in the monthly on-call lottery, so she had no lame horses to doctor, no beef cattle to vaccinate, no 4-H sheep to examine. And her last relationship had petered away amidst a shelling of cancelled dates, Nate-interrupted attempts at sex, and her growing general malaise toward men who could someday turn into her father, requiring her to play nun and nurse until she gratefully crumbled into dust.
Suddenly the day stretched out before her like an endless highway with no curve in sight. Even a sheer drop off a cliff would be welcome at this point. Tears of frustration and exhaustion crowded her eyes until she could barely make out the blurred shapes of her horses in the pasture, the snow falling heavily now, washing out the Southwestern landscape.
She made a decision. The horses were fed, the dogs had water, Nate was stuffed in his own house for the time being, and the snow would delay any outdoor chores. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d been able to sleep more than two hours end to end. She took her imaginary winnings from her ten-to-one gamble on the state of her dad’s whiskey supply and slapped it down on the bar. Slipping one more time into her liquor stash behind the lazy susan, she grabbed the half-empty bottle of Bailey’s Irish Cream she’d been nursing for the last month, and retreated to her bedroom.
She stripped out of her clothes and crawled under the thick covers, shivering with the coolness of the sheets until the blankets could begin to reflect her body heat back at her. As she was still holding on to a scrap of dignity, she resisted the urge to take a swig straight from the bottle and instead poured a sedative dose of Bailey’s into a tumbler. It hit her stomach and heated her up faster than the bedclothes could hope to.
Sleep radiated out of her midsection, and when the phone began to ring yet again, she couldn’t muster the energy to gamble on what would come next, so she simply didn’t answer it at all.
She sits on a gate, something her father would tan her hide for, but she doesn’t care. The gate swings gently back and forth in a spring breeze that flutters the leaves in the overhead cottonwood trees and sprinkles their soft blooms over her hair. The ride is soothing, calming; she never wants to climb down off the gate, not even if it sags on its hinges and falls to the ground, not even if it swings wide open and lets every horse in the paddock out to run wild and free through the countryside. The gate has no phone. The gate doesn’t require doctor’s appointments. The gate doesn’t partake.
What the gate does is squeak. Charlotte slowly becomes aware of a metallic screech that rises every time the gate swings closed. It breaks her calm, and though she wants to continue swaying, her brain cannot let go of the squeal that gets louder and louder. WD-40 would be good. Shoot, the noise is nasty enough that she’d squirt some $20 lotion on the hinges if that was all she had.
She hops off the gate – oh, sadness, to abandon that perch on the waves of warm April breath – and bends over the hinges to find the source of the squeak. The gate has stopped moving, but still the noise peels around her skull.
Charlotte cracked one eye open. She was not swinging on a gate, nor was it springtime, nor was the noise that woke her a protesting hinge. It was the phone, yet again. The symmetry of its ringing both as she fell asleep and as she came back to consciousness made her feel as if her nap had only lasted a split second between one shrill and the next. The light coming through her bedroom windows told her different, however, as it was waning and struggling through a film of fresh snow. Her alarm clock confirmed it: it was four p.m. She’d been asleep for eight hours.
Fuzzy, she picked up the bedroom extension and mumbled a hello.
“It’s Dr. Whiting. I’m a DVM…doctor.” Not a very bright one, from the way she felt and the way this conversation was going. “I’m sorry, what can I do for you?”
“This is Josephina Ramsey, from down the street. Remember, in the green house?” Charlotte remembered. Mrs. Ramsey was a sweet, middle-aged Hispanic woman with a very dour husband and three children who came out to the house with their families every Sunday. The rest of the week, she twiddled her thumbs and served as a one-woman neighborhood watch.
“Sure, I remember,” Charlotte replied. “How are you, Mrs. Ramsey? I hope the snow doesn’t keep your kids from visiting tomorrow.”
“It’s okay, you can call me Charlotte.”
“Dr. Whiting, you said to call you if your father ever gave me any trouble.” Her tone was frank, though Charlotte could detect a faint note of disapproval, thanks to her many years of experience with her own mother.
Charlotte sunk into the sheets. “What’s he done?”
“It isn’t that he did anything to me,” the woman began.
“Your dogs, then?” He’d always been an animal lover, but lately he’d been savagely short-tempered with any creature on four legs.
“No, no, we’re all fine over here at Casa Ramsey. But, honey, I really don’t think you should be letting your father drive, especially in this weather.”
“Pardon?” Charlotte bolted upright. “Are you sure, Mrs. Ramsey? I disabled the garage door a month ago – he can’t even get the car out.”
“It’s a ruby-colored Cadillac DeVille, isn’t it?”
“Oh, shit, yes. Did you see where he went?” Charlotte scrambled out of bed, phone still to her ear, and inefficiently attempted to dress herself with one hand.
“He drove off toward the main road, of course.” The older woman sounded less disapproving now, and much more worried. “Dr. Whiting…Charlotte, I really should have called you sooner. I mean, I didn’t know he wasn’t supposed to be driving. If you only told me. I thought maybe he didn’t want to use his cart thing in the snow, and he was going down for the mail. I didn’t give it a second thought, but you see, well, he hasn’t come back yet and…”
“Mrs. Ramsey, it’s all right. He might just be going for the mail after all.”
“I’m afraid you don’t understand. He left over three hours ago.”
Charlotte stopped dressing. She stared out her bedroom window to the thick layer of snow blanking out the landscape, at the obese flakes that were still swirling lazily to the ground through a sky swiftly darkening to a gray dusk.
“I have to go. Thank you, Mrs. Ramsey.” She hung up the phone in the middle of another apology and grabbed the rest of the winter layers she’d not yet donned, throwing them on as she scrambled out the door.
Her 4X4 truck slipped a bit once she hit the snow-encrusted main road, and she mentally crossed her fingers that she wouldn’t find her father’s car trunk-up in a ditch or a snowy embankment. Once the image popped in her mind, it casually took hold, infecting her vision with scenes of catastrophe, like her father parking the car and wandering away from it, dazed, unable to find his way back, freezing to death in the near-blizzard. Maybe he’d spun in front of a semi-truck hauling steers to the auction barn, leaving him scattered along the roadside with a hundred head of cattle.
Barb would blame her, rail at her, use that older sister voice that so resembled their mother’s. Charlotte had neglected him, their own father, their flesh and blood, a feeble old man who couldn’t tell the difference anymore between his own daughters. Barb couldn’t believe she’d left him in Charlotte’s care, when Charlotte obviously didn’t take the job seriously enough, when Charlotte spent her weekends in bed, probably drinking as much as Nate did. They should have just put him in a home like Barb had wanted to do to begin with, shut him up in some soulless box with white-shoed nurses and checkerboards and pea soup for every meal. At least then he wouldn’t be dead in a snowstorm.
Charlotte wouldn’t even be able to avoid the guilt trip, since she pretty much agreed with every word she imagined Barb would say.
Feeling bile backing up in her throat, feeling her heart thump with the beginning of panic, she set a course for every location her father had become familiar with in the past half-year: the post office, the feed store, the little independent grocery store, the hardware store, even the salon where they cut his hair and clipped his toenails every Wednesday. At every place that was still open, everyone remembered who he was, but no one had seen him that day. Charlotte even tried the shops she knew her father had never visited, like the florist and the tiny video rental/electronics store, the gas station and the bank. No one had seen hide nor hair of her father or his rumbling old Cadillac.
Charlotte’s truck idled at the junction of the main road and the lane that dead-ended at her house. The sunlight she’d had only an hour ago was nearly completely gone. The only outside illumination that remained came from the reflection of Albuquerque’s city lights off the snow clouds and the vapor safety lamps burning at the elementary school on the corner. She thunked her head on the steering wheel and racked her brain for anywhere her father might be. She’d have welcomed a ditch at this point.
It was a strange reversal to have her father run away from home, when she’d entertained the fantasy of running away so many times herself. In certain moments, she could understand her sister’s reluctance to share her responsibility for their father. Barb didn’t know this man. This was not the grand figure they looked up to as children. Their father was gone, buried in the mush that was left from the debilitating disease. All that was left was a shell that only resembled the man they’d loved so much.
Though Charlotte had been daddy’s little girl, they’d both worshipped the ground he walked on. Only rarely had he ever raised his voice to them – Mother was the one for discipline. She would slap a reaching hand away from the candied yams or sternly correct their grammar, but their father was always the one to offer a hug after a spanking, sneak a wink after a tongue-lashing, tell a joke if he saw tears coming on. He was even the one who convinced the grandkids to call Sybil “Grandma Billie,” a name Charlotte’s mother hated to the extent that she never ceased signing birthday and Christmas cards as “Grandma and Grandpa Whiting.”
It was a stark contrast to the man who often had to be called off her harmless dogs with a rifle blast.
Reluctantly, Charlotte put the truck in gear and turned the wheels toward home, crunching through the snow. The first phone call would have to go to the local sheriff, so he could get some deputies out looking for a demented, drunk old man in a giant Cadillac. The second would go to Barb. Charlotte figured it was a good thing she hadn’t slugged all the Bailey’s, because she was going to need some to get through that conversation. “Hi, Barb, how was your day? Mine was good, I got some rest. By the way, I lost Dad. What’s our plan for Easter dinner?” At which point she hoped she could either vomit or faint dead away.
She parked in front of the house and waded through the tail-wagging bodies of her eager dogs to the front door. She’d bolted out in such a hurry that she’d left the door unlocked, and apparently at some point during the day she’d turned on the television, because it was casting eerie flickering shadows throughout the otherwise dark great room.
It’s was also blasting a cacophony of yee-hawing, shooting guns, and pounding horse hooves.
Charlotte sprinted from the kitchen to the living room, her adjusting eyes finally finding her father relaxing in an easy chair, his favorite channel pounding his eardrums. His snow boots – both of them – were dripping snow onto her coffee table where he’d propped his feet, and his heavy parka was dark with moisture.
Charlotte took a deep, shaky breath, struggling not to scream at him like he was six years old, or a dog who didn’t come when he was called.
“Hi there, Dad.”
Startled, he jumped, his feet thumping to the floor. He looked up at her. “Charlie.”
“Where’ve you been?” Where in the name of Jesus and all that is holy have you mother-effing been? She choked on the scream and smiled pleasantly at him, thinking she probably looked more like she was passing a stone.
“Been? I’m watching the Duke.” He nodded at the screen, where John Wayne was swaggering into a saloon, his hat cocked, his spurs jingling, his gun at the ready.
“Did you go for a drive?” She was glad her voice sounded pleasant, conversational.
“Yeah. Had to pick up a shovel for the yard.” He had five shovels in his garage. She could only imagine his ongoing need for an adequate stock was a cloudy memory of a day decades ago when he’d been in dire need of a spade and none could be found.
“You were gone an awful long time for just a shovel.” Not to mention Deke down at the hardware store hadn’t seen him in three weeks.
“They didn’t have any, so Sybil and I drove on into town.”
Charlotte collapsed onto the sofa. “Mom was there? Oh, Dad…”
“I wanted to go on home with her, but she told me the snow was too heavy and I ought to get on back.”
Charlotte’s throat closed on itself. “I miss her too, Daddy.”
He grunted and shifted in his chair. “We’ll give her a call tomorrow for her birthday,” he said, plucking at the leg of his trousers. “Hey, guess what time it is?”
Charlotte didn’t even have to look at her watch, which was a good thing, for if she’d tilted her face down, gravity would have pulled the tears from her eyes. “I’ll bet dollars to dimes it’s five o’clock.”
Nate grinned. “Let’s have a drink.”
She laughed, considering that was exactly what they’d both been doing all day. “Okay, Daddy, let’s have a drink.”
“To your mother.”
“Oh, let’s drink to Barb.” Charlotte headed for the stash. “Mom may have driven you to drink, but my big sister is the demon I need to chase.”
Her father actually chuckled. “Women, huh?” he joked. “Hey, what’d you girls do with my boat, motor and trailer?”