issue eighteen

art gallery
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(4900 words)
Andrea Lehner
Playing House
[Updated monthly on the full moon]
       Danny checked the clock on the microwave: 2:40 p.m. Oakdale Elementary would let out in five minutes. The students would radiate out across the lawn and sidewalks, laughing, dragging backpacks, playing impromptu games of tag, filling the air with a chorus of childhood for fifteen minutes before the wave of school dismissal subsided. Only five more minutes until he could see his blond-haired, fair-skinned, ten-year-old Christina.

Danny's pulse quickened. He made his way to the only bathroom in his rundown apartment; ignoring the aesthetic flaws of cracked walls, peeling linoleum, and stained carpet was easy for Danny. A palace, he thought, compared to the concrete cell he had spent the last seven years in. No, this place, even with its permanent moldy stench was ideal because when Danny looked through the one-by-three window grouted into the chocolate-brown tiles of the shower, he could see the main crosswalk in front of Oakdale Elementary. This limited view was more than just the reason he rented in this dilapidated building, it was his reason for waking up each morning.

Danny reached up to slide open the window, unconsciously tapping the left breast pocket of his flannel shirt while he listened for the distinctive high-pitched sounds of children's voices to float toward him. Sometimes he thought he could pick Christina's voice out of the crowd. On those days his mind would race with visions of walking alongside her, listening to her tell him about her day. Annie and I played house today, and this time I got to be the mommy. Michael wanted to play too, but Annie wouldn't let him. She said we didn't need a daddy, but I said we did. Danny imagined smiling at her and telling her what a nice girl she was, and then he'd hold her hand while they'd run to catch the ice cream truck. He wondered what flavor ice cream she would choose.

The orange-vested crossing guard stepped into the street, waving her handheld stop sign at an oncoming car, mother-henning the first batch safely to the opposite corner. Christina's class would be along soon. Danny smiled, content to watch and wait. He placed his palm over his pounding heart, pressing the contents of his pocket against it. Another group of kids was ushered across the street. They looked to be the same age as Christina, but Danny didn't see her. Without taking his eyes from the crosswalk, he slipped two fingers into his breast pocket and withdrew a folded photograph. He didn't open it, but feeling it between his fingertips calmed him.

The tinny ring of his phone broke his concentration. Danny leaned toward the door, trying not to take his eyes off the crosswalk but straining to hear the caller's identity as the answering machine clicked on. "Dan, this is Sergeant Lindeman. I haven't heard from you this week. I need you to call and let me know what's been going on. If I don't hear from you, I'll have to come out there. Now, you know I don't want to do that, so it's important you call me back."

Danny hated having to report in with Lindeman. Twenty fucking questions. Just what I need, he thought, returning his focus to the crosswalk and the group passing through. No Christina. Danny felt a tightening pressure wrap around his chest. Come on. Where is she? Several more kids crowded at the corner waiting their turn to cross. Danny thought he saw her in the middle, but he couldn't be sure because of a group of boys roughhousing and blocking his view. Get out of the way you fucking brats! By the time they dispersed down the block, Danny hadn't been able to determine if the blond ponytail belonged to Christina. When the crossing guard dropped her sign and abandoned her post for the day, Danny realized his weekend just got longer - Saturdays and Sundays were bad enough, but without seeing her on Friday, too, well that was more than he could handle. He went to the living room and sank hard into the threadbare cushions of the couch, closed his eyes, and seethed over his misfortune.

Danny took several deep breaths. He unfolded the photograph he had been pinching tight between his thumb and forefinger, and traced his fingertip lightly over the surface just as he had done every day during his incarceration. In the picture he saw himself nearly a decade younger, straddling his prized hardtail chopper. The chrome, the pearl-black paint, even the buckles on his leathers winked in the sun that bright spring day. He couldn't help but remember the picture was taken just after he shaved off his beard; the sensation of air hitting his neck for the first time in years had been so refreshing that he sometimes thought he could still feel that coolness, although he'd long since re-grown the beard.

It was also the only picture taken of Danny since fifth grade with him smiling. That had been a great day, one of those rare days when he felt like nothing could go wrong. He had just gotten his first legit job hauling produce from the fields to the packing plant, and he, Danny - voted most likely to never give a damn - was ready to settle down and put life-on-the-road behind him. Life, he believed, was the little girl sitting in front of him, dangling her legs over the sides of his Harley's gas tank, stretching her arms trying to reach both grips of his wide-set ape-hanger handlebars. The chubby-cheeked toddler with her barely-there blond hair was more important to Danny than life on the road.

Carrie was in the picture too, but she wasn't smiling. In hindsight, Danny could read volumes into Carrie's indifferent posture, the sneering disdain in her eyes, and the way she seated herself on the bike as far from him as possible instead of wrapping her legs tight around his hips. If he knew then everything he knew now, Danny would've recognized how pissed Carrie was that he'd made his decision to clean himself up and settle down. Christina deserved a better childhood than they were providing, Danny had argued, one with school, friends, regular meals, and a steady home. He didn't want his little girl growing up with the constant party of their lifestyle. That was the problem - Carrie liked the party.

Danny refolded the photo and slipped it back into his pocket. The red message light blinked on and off, reminding him of Lindeman's call. Maybe if he had seen Christina he would have been able to endure that conversation, but now he wasn't in the mood to do anything except drink. He reached for the phone and dialed. "Hey Rick," he said to the grunting "What?" that answered. "It's Dan. Meet me at The Rose in an hour."

       The Plucked Rose was aptly named after its matron, Rosalie Harding, a gritty woman who'd spent most of her life on the back of a hog before being involved in a near-fatal accident. Afterward, she swore off bikes but not bikers and used the insurance settlement to open The Rose. It was never a place for the Cosmo-sipping crowd: beer, whiskey, pool, and classic rock were served any time of day alongside baskets of unapologetically greasy food.

Danny took a spot at the far end of the bar and ordered a double-shot of Wild Turkey. Seven years of sobriety in the joint didn't last once he got out. To Danny it seemed that the warm burn of bourbon was the only thing that could satiate the ache of being forbidden to contact his daughter. During his years in jail, Danny had tricked himself into believing that once he was released, life would return to normal. Even after reading Carrie's letter telling him she was going to have a restraining order issued against him when he got out, Danny never thought she'd follow through. But, sure enough, when he came up for parole, Sgt. Lindeman made it perfectly clear that if Danny contacted Carrie in any way, he'd be sent back to serve out the rest of his sentence. Christina was off limits, too, Lindeman had said. "A fast pass back to jail," were his words. Danny would have to hold down a job, hire a lawyer, then prove himself to a judge in order to get just a few days of visitation each month, and even those days, Lindeman forewarned, would be supervised at first. That was when Danny realized Carrie's vindictiveness cost him far more than seven lost years.

On most days, Danny was able to block the sadness and do whatever needed to be done to win Christina back. But on days like today, when he didn't even get a glimpse of her, his life became unbearable. Booze, and lots of it, was the only way to numb the pain. He was already three rounds in when Rick showed up and slapped a C-note on the bar. "Bring us a bottle, Rosie," Rick called across the bar. "My cousin here and I have some catching up to do." Rosalie brought a fresh bottle and a second glass, pouring shots for both men before returning to monitor a boisterous group at the other end of the bar; diffusing fights before they happened was her strong suit.

Rick slid Danny's shot toward him, lifted his own and said, "Dan the man, it's been a long time. Glad to have you home."

Danny, already seeping with self-pity, grunted a barely audible "Thanks." He raised the glass to his lips and let the amber liquid empty down his throat, sucking in deep through clenched teeth to fight off the sting. He looked over at Rick who was refilling their glasses and decided to try and shake off his surly mood. "Yeah, it's good to be out again," he said. "Thanks for meeting me tonight. You wouldn't believe the shit I've been through."

"I heard a few things, but you know I was doing time myself when it all went down." Rick downed his drink then added, "Would've done something to help you if I could've. Always try and do right by my family."

"I know, man. Nothing you could've done anyway. It was what it was." Danny had always looked up to Rick. Even back when they were kids, Rick always seemed to know how to handle things, how to keep his cool and make problems go away. Danny never saw Rick lose his temper; it was a trait Danny wished he possessed.

"So, what are you doing now?" Rick asked. "The boys are asking if you're gonna ride with us again."

"Can't. Got to keep my nose clean, report in every week, and all that crap. No judge'll ever give me visitation if I fuck up my parole."

"Is that what you're trying for? Visitation?"

"I want her back. So, yeah, I am. I've got to prove that I can stay out of trouble, be a model fucking citizen before they'll let me see her again. Even then it'll be with some goddamn state babysitter watching to make sure I'm not a danger to my kid. Can you believe that shit? Me? A fucking danger to Christina?" Danny felt his nostrils flaring with each breath. He looked at Rick who sat pursing his lips together in a way that made the short grey hairs around them point upward. Danny's ears were drumming from the mixture of bourbon and anger. He reached for the bottle, over-poured both glasses so that the liquor pooled around the bases, then slammed the bottle back down on the bar with a thud that caught Rosalie's attention. She came over and tossed a menu at them. Food, she suggested, might be a good idea if they were planning on finishing the bottle. She looked at Rick but nodded toward Danny while she spoke. Danny started to tell her that she didn't need to worry about his or anyone else's sobriety, but Rick cut him off and told Rosalie to bring them a couple burgers and beer.

"So what really went down?" Rick asked. "Like I said, I've heard some rumors, but I never heard it from you."

"That lying, cheating whore stole my daughter. That's what happened." Danny's voice shook with rage. He grabbed for the beer Rosalie set down. His own words lingered in his mind as he took a long swig, savoring the cold, crispness of the beer against the bitter aftertaste of the bourbon.

Danny's temper subsided when he started speaking again. "Okay, what happened was this. It was right after I started driving for Ag Trans. You remember when I got that gig?" Rick nodded. "Well, I was working ten-, twelve-hour days trying to get us set up in that place over on Center Street. One day I come home early, all beat to hell from the heat, and as I get to the door I hear Christina crying. I mean crying hard, like she was hurt or something. I go running in, thinking something was wrong with her or Carrie. You know what I find? Carrie fucking stoned out of her mind, passed out cold with that piece-of-shit, Lloyd. You remember that scrawny little punk always hanging around wanting to ride with us? Anyway, there they were, the two of them, naked and dead to the world with my little girl locked up in the fucking bathroom screaming her head off."

Danny watched Rick's eyes narrow in simmering contemplation. This bolstered Danny's courage to continue. "My first thought was to plug 'em both right there in the bed. But, that was the old me, remember? I was trying to change, keep control of my temper, do the fucking right thing for once. So, what I did was grab Christina and start to split. I mean, I had to get her out of there, right? Shit! I had to get myself out of there so I could cool off.

"The thing was, though, Carrie woke up and started screaming all kinds of crazy shit about how I ruined her life and how she was gonna make me pay. I was madder than hell but still trying to keep my cool. I told her she was lucky she was still alive and that she'd better shut the fuck up before I went O.J. on her. Christina's still screaming 'cause we're screaming. I keep trying to tell her it'll be okay, but fucking Carrie just wouldn't stop.

"Meantime, I see Lloyd scurrying to get his pants back on, and I just know we're gonna have a problem. I had to get the hell out of there, so I start for the door. But Carrie follows, yelling and slapping at me. I shoved her off and told her she was nothing but a filthy whore and no whore was gonna raise my kid. Told her I was taking Christina and she was never gonna see her again. Then I took off.

"I shouldn't have said that last part, though. Turns out she told the cops I had kidnapped Christina. Told them she had witnesses who heard me threaten to take her for good." Danny stopped talking as Rosalie came back with their food.

Rick picked up his burger, but instead of taking a bite, he only stared at it before setting it back in the basket. He wiped his fingertips together and appeared to be trapped in thought. Rick wasn't the type of guy who asked for someone's side of a story and then didn't listen. Danny chewed on his burger, trying to figure out what was going through Rick's mind. Rick was never known for talking much, but his silence had a way of becoming intense. Danny's voice ratcheted up a level when he started talking again to fill the silence. "Just goes to show you how that fucking cunt conned them - the whole fucking jury believed that psycho bitch. None of the shit she did mattered. She's the mother and I'm just the asshole felon. Didn't matter that I'd kept clean since that last thing." Rick nodded acknowledgement that he remembered the night Danny was referring to, the night they all got arrested after a run-of-the-mill bar brawl turned bloody. Danny was the one caught holding a gun and took a felony hit for assault with a deadly weapon.

"You know," Danny continued, "they even used that bullshit statutory rape charge from when I was eighteen to make me sound like some sick fucking pervert that would molest my kid. That's what did it. Boom!" Danny smacked his fist against the bar. "Guilty. Kidnapping and child endangerment. Strike two for you, Danny-boy! Don't get a third or you're gone for good."

Danny let his words trail off as he started on his food. He was hungrier than he thought. By now, the liquor seeped through every cell in his body. He knew he was drunk, but he didn't care. Telling Rick the story felt good. It had been a long time since anyone had listened. The last person he told was Lindeman during his parole hearing. Ol' Linney's an okay guy, Danny thought. He shoots straight with me - even seems to care about helping me. Danny felt a twinge of guilt for having blown off calling him earlier. He knew better, but it was too late now. He'd have to call Lindeman first thing Monday to set it right.

"Lloyd?" Rick's words shook Danny back into the moment. "That wiry little punk with a hard-on for proving himself?"

"Yeah. That's the guy."

"Motherfucker came around last week trying to move some product. Thinks he's a big shot dealer now. Making the stuff in his basement or something. Mouthing off about how great it is."

"No shit? You see him?"

"No," Rick said. "I haven't seen him in years. Tell you the truth, I forgot all about him until the boys tell me about him showing up out of the blue, acting like everybody's best friend. But skittish, checking his watch and stuff. So, of course, they think something's up. A couple of 'em take him out back to have a little chat. That's when they see Carrie hiding in the car. That's the only reason I heard about it."

Rick took a long swallow off his beer. "It all makes fucking sense now, though, doesn't it? I mean, I know why Carrie wouldn't want us seeing her, but... well, let's just say, they're both lucky no one knew that prick was involved with your deal."

"You telling me she's still with that cocksucker?" Danny felt nauseas. The room started to sway, and although he knew he had enough alcohol in him to run a dragster, booze wasn't the problem.

"Couldn't say for sure, but I'm damn well gonna find out." Rick turned his intense stare to Danny, who was now bracing himself against the bar as if he was about to topple off the stool. A film of sweat glistened on his forehead. "Come on, man," Rick said, patting Danny's shoulder. "Forget about it for now. How's your pool game these days? I got twenty that says it sucks."

Danny shook his head and grinned. "Now that's more like it. I could use a few extra bucks."

       When the phone rang jarring Danny out of his drunken slumber the following morning, he was barely cognizant of the day, let alone the time. He got up trying not to disturb any undigested stomach matter that might revolt over a sudden shift in position. He stumbled toward the phone on shaky legs, his ears ringing, and what felt like a hatchet cracking his skull open. He was relatively sure he was still drunk by the time he picked up the receiver.

"Hey," Rick's gruff voice came through. "I did some checking. It's true. He's been living there in your place ever since, playing house or some shit."

"You fucking kidding me?"

"Sorry, man. If you want I can make some calls. Help you out."

Danny gripped his forehead as if it would stop the rage from exploding through his temples. "No. Thanks for the offer, but I'll handle it."

"Okay. You know where to find me if you change your mind."

"Yeah. Thanks." Danny hung up the phone and collapsed into the couch. His mind raced with memories of the day he found them together and how he fought the urge to kill them both on the spot. Knowing how Carrie ended up screwing him over, he wished he'd risked the murder charges when he had the chance. But it was too late now. He had to play by the book. One more strike and he'd be sent away for life, never to see Christina again.

Danny felt his fingernails cutting into his palms. He was exhausted from trying so hard to fix things the right way. And now - now that he knew Lloyd was still there, even after Carrie swore it was a one-time fling, now that he knew Lloyd was there with his Christina, hearing her laugh, pretending to be her father - Danny just couldn't accept it. He couldn't try anymore.

Throughout the weekend Danny tortured himself with visions of Christina growing up with Lloyd and Carrie. He kept hearing Rick's comment about Lloyd selling meth. Making the stuff, Rick had said. Danny fumed about his little girl being exposed to that. Christina was supposed to have a life away from drugs and deals. She was supposed to have the chance he never had to grow up and be somebody. Instead, she was trapped in that house with those two dirt bags while he, her father, was helpless to rescue her.

Rescue her. That's what he needed to do. It was no longer about the law or doing things the right way. It was about his daughter and his obligation to save her from them.

By Sunday night, Danny felt dizzy with excitement about the plan he was formulating to save Christina. They'd go somewhere far away, just the two of them, father and daughter. They would start fresh with new identities, and every day when Christina went to school, Danny would be there to pick her up. She would come running to him, squealing Daddy! Daddy! and jump into his arms. He'd hug her tight, and they'd go to their quiet home where he'd help her with her homework and make her dinner. The vision was so perfect, so complete, so simple.

       Danny parked in the ideal spot a few blocks south of the school, just past the corner where the other kids turned off and Christina walked another three blocks alone. He hadn't felt this kind of exhilaration in years - everything was going to be okay again. He and Christina were going to be together, she would be safe, and they would be happy. The plan felt so right that he wondered why he hadn't thought of it sooner.

The dashboard clock read 2:45. School was over. Danny got out and paced circles on the sidewalk. His scalp tingled with anticipation. He couldn't wait to see the smile on her face when she realized it was him. He wondered if she still liked puppies. He would get her one when they got settled.

At last Danny saw a group of kids coming toward him. He couldn't tell which was Christina yet. He paced and watched clusters of kids turn off two or three at a time until only one girl was left. Christina! He could almost make out her features: her straight blond hair, her pink lunchbox, her knobby knees. She was taller than he expected. As she came closer, she eyed him cautiously but smiled. Danny's heart melted.

"Christina?" Danny said, surprised to hear his voice quiver. She stopped and looked at him, tilting her head to the side like Carrie always did. "Christina, sweetie, it's me, Daddy." He took a step closer and reached out to touch her arm.

Christina's expression changed from curiosity to alarm. She stepped backwards, shaking her head, saying, "You're not my daddy!"

"Yes, sweetheart, I am." Danny tried to keep his voice soft, but her reaction was scaring him. "Maybe you don't remember me right now, but you will. I promise. I just need you to come with me, baby." Without realizing it, Danny had grabbed her arm, and as the wide-eyed Christina tried to pull loose, he tightened his grip.

"Let me go!" she repeated.

Danny was confused. Her reaction didn't make sense to him. With his free hand he pulled the photo out of his breast pocket. "Here," he said. "Look at this. It's you and me."

Christina jerked her arm to free herself, pulling hard and clawing at his fingers trying to pry herself loose. "Let me go!" she screamed. Danny felt her arm start to slip from his grip, and in a panic he dropped the picture and grabbed her other arm, shaking her, saying, "That's enough now! You need to stop!" Then, realizing she wasn't going to quit, he started dragging her struggling sixty-five-pound body toward his car. She bit at his arms and kicked at his shins, but he didn't feel it. He just needed to get her in the car. He just needed her to settle down and listen.

As he opened the door, an oncoming car slowed then stopped. The driver strained to see Christina's face. She let out a piercing shriek. Danny shoved her hard into the car and slammed the door. Running around to the driver's side, he saw the strange man get out of his car. The man yelled something and was dialing his phone. In the second that it took for Danny to register what the man was doing, Christina managed to open her door and run screaming from the car. Danny yanked his door shut and peeled away down the street. The last thing he saw in the rearview mirror was the man gesturing frantically while talking into his phone with Christina hiding behind him.

Danny's mind reeled. Everything was foggy. His peripheral vision decreased until it seemed he could only see through the narrow end of a cone aimed straight ahead. He shook his head, trying to take command of his thoughts, to make sense of what went wrong, but it all happened too fast. Why did she scream? Why did she fight? Why, Christina, why?! Danny pounded his fist against the steering wheel.

       Navigating with sheer adrenaline, Danny managed to swerve through two dueling lanes of traffic. Still trying to get his bearings, he tore his focus from the road to read the nearest street sign. As he looked up, squinting against the glare of the afternoon sun, he caught the flash of red lights in his mirror. His heart shot through his throat and panic jolted every nerve-ending in his body. In an instant, reality took hold. If they caught him, he'd be locked away for good. He looked again at the mirror: two, maybe three, sets of sirens were closing in behind him.

Frantic, Danny pressed down on the accelerator and searched for a turn. The blare of a horn snapped his attention back on the road in time to see he was on the wrong side. He yanked the wheel clockwise, jettisoning his car sideways, across both lanes, and onto a side street. Danny knew this neighborhood. He felt hopeful. He glanced in the mirror - no lights. Just a few more turns and he would be on the bridge, crossing the wide river that coursed along the state line. "Just get across the bridge, Danny-boy," he mumbled under his breath while sawing the wheel violently into a left turn. "Get across the bridge to freedom. Then you can figure out what to do."

The on-ramp was just ahead. Danny pressed hard on the accelerator. Come on, he thought, you're almost there. As he crested the bridge, Danny saw the trap. A police barricade formed just in front of the state line. He spun the wheel to backtrack off the bridge. The ramp - his only escape - was blocked by the cops that had been following him. He slammed the brakes, sending his car into a lurching stop.

Danny staggered from his car. His head was swimming; he tried to make sense of it all. His only clear thought was he would never see Christina again. The police began advancing on him from both directions.

Panicked, Danny ran to the side of the bridge, desperate to find an escape. He climbed the railing and looked down at the fast-moving river. His brain felt as murky as the river below. There was so much noise. He couldn't think beyond the sirens. He just needed a moment without the chaos.

Danny held the support cable and closed his eyes. He pictured his sweet Christina walking home from school. The noise faded away.

He smiled and imagined the way it was supposed to be, with Christina holding his hand, telling him about her day.

... Michael wanted to play too, but Annie wouldn't let him. She said we didn't need a daddy, but I said we did. So Michael left to play tag, and you know what? Annie was right, we didn't need a daddy... we didn't need a daddy... we didn't need a Danny.


M  C  R

This work is copyrighted by the author, Andrea Lehner. All rights reserved.