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by Z.Z. Boone
I recognized her from the restaurant. Skinny, mid-20s, long red hair partially braided. Winter coat unbuttoned over her uniform. I was in my truck, taking off the pointed ears and trying to get warm, when she tapped on my window. The frozen night air, along with the stench of New Jersey, rolled across my exposed green skin the second I lowered the glass.
“You were really good,” she said.
I smiled, nodded, reached to roll up the window.
“You got a card or something?”
My cards were in the glove compartment which would require some digging.
“Hop in,” I told her. “It’s freezing out there.”
I’d just got done entertaining the troops. The entire waitstaff plus management at Fryer Tux Steakhouse in Great Kills. They’d hired me to perform at their holiday party as Elf S. Presley, a slimmed-down version of The King, complete with spangled jumpsuit, lacquered wig, and a belt with a hubcap-sized buckle. I sang “Blue Christmas” and “In the Ghetto,” handed out gag gifts, posed for selfies. A pretty typical outing.
I found a handful of cards scattered among the registration, insurance information, and other forgotten paperwork. I handed her one and she read it aloud under the dashboard lights as if I had no idea what it said.
“The Wizard of Osborn. Weddings and Soirees. Toasts and Roasts. Any Occasion.”
“You had something in mind?” I asked.
“It’s kinda weird.”
“Look at me,” I said. “I’m used to weird.”
“I need somebody to pretend to be my daughter’s father.”
I was tempted to tell her I wasn’t interested, but figured I’d let my fees do the talking.
“I get $100-an-hour with a two hour minimum. Includes incidentals.”
“That’s a lot,” she said.
“Times aren’t easy.”
“Maybe I’ll give you a call,” she said as she opened the truck door. She paused, smiled. Her teeth could have used some whitening. “I’m Erin,” she said.
I was about to tell her I’d already seen her name tag, but reconsidered and kept my mouth shut.
I got to my apartment around eleven. Hadn’t even removed my coat when my phone went off. It was Brett. I’d convinced myself I’d finally stopped missing him after three months, but now, hearing his voice, I realized how full of it I was.
He asked me how it was going. If I was staying warm. Told me that in northern Florida the nights could get chilly. Wondered if he’d left his leather bomber jacket behind.
“I haven’t seen it,” I told him.
“Could you check around?”
“Next time you’re in town, stop in. We’ll both check around.”
“That’s not going to happen, Oz,” he said.
“If you do find it, do me a favor. Put it in a box and send it to me. You have the address?”
I told him I did. He thanked me. We said goodbye. I took off my coat and hung it in the hall closet right next to Brett’s bomber jacket.
Erin phoned me the next morning. Not great timing. It was Saturday and I was scheduled for a 10 a.m. callback in Manhattan.
“I’ve decided to spring for it,” she said.
“You have a date set?”
“I was thinking next Saturday from two to four.”
“Let me call you back,” I said. “There’s a chance I might not be available.”
The callback was for a character named Swift. A guy approaching thirty in a dystopian Chicago after a nuclear attack. The script was crap, but the theater itself got a lot of notice. New York Times material.
The director stopped me while I was reading the side. Gave me an adjustment. “Not so angry,” he said. “More like optimistically disappointed.” I knew I didn’t have the role when he said, “Thanks for coming in, Osborn. Great to see your work.”
“Saturday is free,” I told Erin as I rode back on the ferry. “Tell me about the venue.”
“It’s a birthday party.”
“I’ll need a little more.”
She huffed. “Where to start,” she said.
She started at the beginning. Her daughter—Josie—was turning seven. The father, who Erin admitted she was never married to, was in prison serving time for second degree assault. Josie was two-and-a-half when Daddy was locked up and the kid hasn’t laid eyes on him since. The three of them had been living on the street at the time, but right after the arrest mother and daughter were taken in by Erin’s father, which is where they live now.
Josie’s been growing up under the impression that her dad is in the Navy. Except now the kids in her class are starting to ride her after her grandpa took her to some father/daughter thing.
“How old’s your papa?” some first-grade bitch-in-training asked her. “Like 100?”
“It’s messing everything up,” Erin told me. “She’s bullying the weaker kids and talking back and stealing stuff from the school’s art supply closet.”
“And you think having an actor come in and pose as her dad is going to help?”
“At this point,” Erin says, “I think anything might help.”
I’ve done kids’ parties before. Usually as a clown or a space alien or some superhero. A sailor, I imagined, wouldn’t be that much of a stretch. Harold’s Beyond Halloween had the costume: blue trousers and jumper, neckerchief, white hat. I grabbed an olive green sea bag to go along, and I left looking like a regular Popeye.
I got to Erin’s father’s place maybe fifteen minutes into the party. It was one of those typical Staten Island neighborhoods, every house similar, a 1960s version of Levittown. Erin, already looking frustrated, led me inside. An older guy she identified as her father was filling bowls with candy like a farmer slopping hogs. Whatever age he was, he looked beyond his years. Around him, a bunch of unenthusiastic kids dumped by parents who’d fled like carjackers.
I dropped my sea bag next to the sofa and spread my arms wide.
“Where’s my Josie-girl?!” I said.
She worked her way through the other kids as I went to one knee, and just like that she was in my arms. Small and red-haired like her mom, light as a puff. I cradled her with my one arm, got to my feet and studied the staring, open-mouthed crowd.
“I’ve only got a two-hour pass,” I announced, “SO WHO’S READY TO PARTYYYY?!”
Truth be told, I’ve worked a lot harder for a lot less money. I organized a sing-along, set-up musical chairs, kicked off a hot game of charades. Unzipped the sea bag and pulled out cheap, Chinese swag for every kid there. Josie didn’t care about any of it. Attached herself to me and stayed as close as metal filings to a magnet.
Two hours in, I put on my white hat and picked up my bag. “Well,” I said, “I better get back before I’m AWOL.”
“Already?” Josie said.
“I gotta protect the country so beautiful girls like you can grow up to be beautiful women like your mom.”
“You coming home again soon?”
I squatted down and told her I was always close by. I touched her lightly on the temple. “Just think of me and I’ll be right in here.”
“Let me grab my coat,” Erin said. “I’ll walk you out.”
I drove a black Chevy Silverado that I’d parked at the curb, and when we got there I turned and faced her.
“Nice kid,” I said.
Erin told me she was pleased. Said I was very convincing. Admitted that it had been a long time since she’d seen Josie enjoying herself.
“You really think I’m beautiful?” she asked.
I dug out a standard. I said, “I think all women are beautiful.”
“We should probably smooch,” she said.
She turned and pointed toward the picture window where several small heads studied us, her father’s floating like a balloon above them. She put a hand on my upper arm, and leaned in, and when her lips brushed against mine I felt like a teenaged boy forced to kiss his dowager aunt.
“I’ll send you a check,” she said.
The check was slow in coming, which hurt. I was two weeks late on my apartment rental, eleven months left on a two-year lease. The irony? I hated the place. When Brett and I split expenses, it was doable. Now I rattled around in there like a single bean in a coffee can.
Finally Erin’s check arrived along with a hand-written letter on a piece of three-holed loose-leaf.
Dear Osborn Hill,
Sorry for being late with this, but I would also like to tell you what a difference your visit made. In the days that followed, Josie’s performance at school picked up and she started making friends. Her teacher, who had once referred to her as “withdrawn,” now says Josie is “living up to her potential.”
I also wanted to ask a favor. I know you have a two hour minimum, but I was wondering if those two hours could be split up. Say an hour in the morning and an hour that same night?
Let me know.
Bye for now,
February is called “the cruelest month” for a reason. I think it’s February; maybe it’s April. Whatever the case, I’d had mounting bills and very little work. I’d dressed—undressed might be the better word—as cupid for a Valentine’s Day dance, and as James Earl Ray for Black History Month at a high school in the Bronx. The future? Bleak. I was up for second male lead in some bus-and-truck tour of a play called Polk!, a five-month, non-equity dirge that paid galley slave wages.
I called Erin the following afternoon for the particulars. The morning gig was “Career Day” at Josie’s school, the evening was a family dinner —the three of us—at some greaser.
The cable company was threatening to discontinue my service. I was eating Lucky Charms and frozen pizza and couldn’t even afford a decent bottle of wine—a luxury introduced by Brett—to make life easier. Luckily, my credit was still good at Harold’s Beyond Halloween .
I told her I’d take it as long as she paid cash.
Our designated slot was 10:15 to 10:45, sandwiched between a guy who owned a dry cleaning franchise and a woman who sold aromatherapy oils. My first visit to a first grade classroom in some time. Gone was the alphabet scrolled above the chalkboard, the pull-down map of the world, the industrial wall clock. The students sat behind desks on inflated “stability balls,” not a wooden chair to be found. Hanging where the American flag used to be was a banner listing the months of the year in Spanish. There was a computer on the teacher’s desk, and an overhead projector aimed at a screen in the front of the room. It showed a picture of someone named Dizzee Rascal, and a quotation that read, Got the Game in My Hand, Be Cool!
Josie, as if she was afraid I might make a run for it, continuously turned and located me. We’d been steered to a bench in back—Erin and I side-by-side—by a teacher who identified herself as Ms. Gillespie.
“Hey, D!” Josie called out to me.
Gillespie hushed her.
“D?” I said to Erin.
She shrugged. “Kids,” she said. “Who knows where they come up with this stuff.”
The dry cleaner began his pitch by revealing the contents of two zippered garment bags. Each contained a gray suit, one stained and in need of a pressing, the second as clean and crisp as a newly minted dollar bill.
“Now which of these do we think speaks more highly about the wearer?” he asked the class.
“I think you should mention me in you speech,” Erin whispered.
“Why would I do that?” I asked.
“We’re supposed to be married. We’re supposed to be in love.”
Ms. Gillespie, standing at the side of the room, looked back and tapped her lips with her index finger.
Dry Cleaning Guy finished by passing out “15% Off” coupons, and Ms. Gillespie summoned me up.
“Next we have Josie’s dad,” she said, “who will tell us a little about military life.”
I’d done my research the night before. An hour on Google, some film footage on a flash drive. I thought about calling the class to attention, get them off those purple balls they were currently popping up and down on, but instead I just went into my spiel.
“Is there anybody here,” I asked, “who can tell me what a munitions specialist does?”
No response. I looked over at Gillespie and pointed to the computer on her desk.
“Do you mind?” I said.
Gillespie shook her head so I plugged in the flash drive. While I typed on the keyboard and upped the volume, I told the class, “Munitions specialists are the men and women…”
A picture of a battleship appeared on the screen.
“…who make things…do this.”
The battleship exploded with a blast that rocked the room. There were flames, fragments flying, smoke, and a violently boiling sea. The kids reacted with gasps and laughter, wide eyes and hands over ears. I had them. The students, the teacher, the dry cleaner. Even the woman with the aroma oils sat back. Only Erin seemed unmoved, sitting there and defying me to “wow” her. I moved around, sat on the desk, went from face to face.
“But before I talk about defending our country,” I said. “I want to talk about why I do it. There’s another woman in my life besides Josie and she’s sitting right back there.”
The class turned in the direction I pointed, all eyes on Erin.
“That little lady saved my life,” I said. “Picked me up when I was nothing. Believed in me when nobody else did.” I threw in a dramatic sigh. “Her hair may be red, but her heart is true blue.”
Mrs. Gillespie started to applaud and the dry cleaning guy—along with a smattering of kids—joined her. I thought I heard the aromatherapy woman sob as I pushed myself off the desk.
“Now let’s look at some things getting blown up,” I said.
Dinner was scheduled for eight at the Jolly Trolley. One of those places that aimed at 1960s fun dining, a double-wide tin can that featured glaring light, the smell of grease, bad service, and out-of-control kids. There was a game room in back where you could play Skeeball and Hoop Fever and Whac-a-Mole, win tickets and redeem them for some piece of junk that usually broke in the car on the way home.
The place was crammed. I found Erin and Josie in one of the sticky vinyl booths that faced out on the parking lot. Evidentially, they’d followed my progress in from outside. They’d already shed their overcoats, puffy down-filled numbers, and heaped them together on the seat beside. I’d decided to lose the sailor suit—Harold closed the place promptly at 5:30—and substituted a pair of brown corduroys, a gray turtleneck, and Brett’s bomber jacket.
“D!” Josie squealed.
“Well look at you,” Erin said. “An honest-to-God off-duty civilian.”
I slid into the booth across from them.
“Is that your truck?” Josie asked.
“No,” I lied. “I borrowed it from a buddy.”
I reached for one of the slimy menus in the middle of the table and heard Erin whisper, “Go ahead. Show him.”
I looked over at this kid, this seven-year-old I didn’t know how to talk to, and watched her pull something from her coat pocket. It was a sheet of copy paper folded in quarters which she handed to me.
“She wrote that all by herself,” Erin said.
When I unfolded it, I noticed the word FATHER spelled in six different colors, and underneath each letter a quality she thought—maybe hoped—I possessed: FUNNY, ALWAYS ON MY SIDE, TENDER, and so on. She told me it was mine to keep if I wanted it.
“Of course he wants it,” Erin said. “Why wouldn’t he?”
I thanked Josie, refolded the paper and put it in my empty bill section of my wallet.
By that time a waiter was on us. Some middle-aged, bald-headed guy obviously embarrassed to have to be doing this. “I’m Wayne,” he said. “Have we decided?”
Erin picked up her menu and said she needed another minute. Josie looked over at me and told the waiter, “I’ll have what he’s having.”
It got to me, that line, one she’d probably picked up from some movie or TV.
When we finally ordered—hot dogs and waffle fries and root beer all around—Erin took out a five dollar bill and handed it to her daughter. “Go play some games,” she said. “Let me talk to your father for a minute.”
“What if the food comes?” Josie said.
“You’ll be the first to know,” Erin said. “Scat.”
“Are you sure she’s okay by herself?” I asked once the kid was out of sight.
“She’s got street-smarts, that girl. Plus a set of lungs that could break windows in Brooklyn.”
Not your responsibility, I reminded myself.
Still, I wasn’t thrilled about being left alone with Erin. The woman provided a creepy vibe I couldn’t yet identify.
“I like the way this is working out,” she said, “and I was wondering if we couldn’t set up some kind of regular schedule.”
I told her I was glad she was pleased with my work, but under it all I was a legitimate actor and flexibility was everything.
“We’ll keep it loose,” she said.
“You already know. I don’t work cheap.”
“Not to worry. My father’s finally on board with this. He’s got some coin.”
“Which brings up a somewhat touchy subject,” I said.
“Have it right here,” she told me, and then produced a large black bag as flat as a flounder. She unzipped the thing, reached a hand inside, rooted around. Took out a datebook, a wallet, a ring of keys that would make a jailer proud, and set them all on the table in front of her.
“I don’t believe this,” she said. “I must have left the envelope on the coffee table and walked right past it.”
“This is a problem,” I said.
“I’m like five blocks from here,” she reminded me. “Just follow me back when we’re done.”
I wasn’t happy, but hey. People make mistakes. Another few minutes, no big deal.
Stuck for conversation, I asked about her husband.
I had no idea what his name was but I nodded anyway.
“Not my husband,” she told me. “But he just got out. Says he found Jesus. Wants to see me.”
“So Josie can finally meet her real dad.”
“Allow me to tell you why that’s not happening.”
And thus began the tale of Erin Lynch and her previous life on the streets of New Haven. Teenage runaway, pregnant at nineteen, substance abuse and sofa surfing, battered—as she called it—“from pillow to post.”
“I don’t think you can deceive your daughter forever,” I said.
“I’m not thinking about forever. I’m thinking about now.”
Josie was back within fifteen minutes with some huge novelty comb the size of a rake head.
“Look what I won!” she said.
I located Wayne across the room, his sweaty bald head casting a light of its own. He’d obviously forgotten about us and was taking another table’s order. I pointed him out to Josie.
“Maybe we should leave it as a tip,” I said, and for the first time ever I heard the kid actually laugh.
Finally, our food showed up. It was cold and as salty as the Dead Sea, buy Josie didn’t seem to mind. While her mother checked her phone and left her meal untouched, Josie told me a Korean folktale she’d learned in school, then I challenged her to a thumb war, then we built a house with sugar packets. It might have been the perfect meal if it had just been the two of us, me and my faux daughter, in someplace just a bit less trashy.
Josie insisted on riding in the truck with me. She said that way, if I got lost, she could direct me. She started playing with the radio the second we pulled out, and found some oldies stations from the last century.
“I know this one, D!” she said when The Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” came on. “Sing it with me!”
We got to the house around 8:50, so technically Erin had me for another ten minutes. We entered through the side door, right into the kitchen, where Erin draped her coat across one of the dinette chairs and opened the refrigerator.
“Want something?” she asked.
When I told her I was good, she pulled herself a Diet Coke. Josie, this whole time, was tugging on my arm and begging me to come see her room.
“Your room’s a pigsty,” Erin finally said. “He can see it after the bulldozer passes through. Now get in your pajamas.”
“Only if D tells me a story.”
Erin made up my mind for me. “Whatever,” she said.
There was a rack of books in Josie’s bedroom, and I called out titles while she brushed her teeth in the bathroom.
“How about The Giving Tree”?
“I know that one.”
“James and the Giant Peach.”
“Something new,” she said as she came in ready for bed.
I made her slide under the sheets, pulled over a miniature desk chair, sat at her bedside.
“I bet you don’t know ‘The Zoo Story.’”
She shook her head.
“Okay,” I said, hoping Edward Albee would forgive me. “One day there was this guy named Peter sitting on a park bench…”
I could see she was starting to drift, and before I even got to the part where Jerry poisons his landlady’s dog, she was practically out.
“Thanks, D,” she said, eyes totally closed.
I watched her a minute, then got up and killed the light. I found her mother sitting in the living room watching FOX.
“She’s out?” Erin asked.
“Got something for you,” she said as she stood up, walked over to the coffee table, and picked up a business envelope. She turned to face me, and that’s when I put one hand behind her neck and drew her in. I wasn’t overly aggressive—I knew better than that—but I kissed her directly on the lips and held it until I felt her hand on my chest.
“What are you doing?” she said.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I just thought maybe it was time to advance our relationship.”
She laughed. “What relationship?”
I had no answer.
“You’re not even into women, Oswald. I knew that like ten minutes in.” She extended the envelope. “Here,” she said. “I’ll call you.”
Halfway home, my phone chirped. I figured it was Brett, drunk and probably wondering if I’d found his goddamn jacket, so I pulled off on the side of the road and picked up.
“Sorry to call so late,” the voice on the other end said, “but we just this second decided we want you as Martin Van Buren in Polk!”
“Are you serious?”
“As serious as a pimple on prom night,” the person—the director, I guess—said.
“More detail to follow. Just know that we start rehearsal the day after tomorrow, then hit the road on the fourteenth.”
I went silent.
“Any problems with that?”
“No,” I said.
“Okay, then. Get your ducks in a row, put your stuff in storage, sublet if you have to, and find yourself some comfortable shoes.”
I thanked him, hung up, looked out and saw a liquor store with its lights on. Parked outside, went in, and found a decent bottle of Malbec. The envelope Erin had given me contained four fifty-dollar bills. I slid one out, then returned the envelope to my pants pocket. The guy behind the counter was young, dark skinned, suspicious. When he handed me my change, I opened my wallet and saw Josie’s folded art work.
“Everything okay?” he asked as he bagged the bottle.
“Yeah,” I said. “You happen to have a spare box?”
He reached underneath, came up with a Cutty Sark carton, placed it on the counter.
I took off the bomber jacket, folded it, dropped it inside.
“Perfect,” I said.