by Dennis Vannatta
Dennis Vannatta has published stories in many magazines and anthologies, including Chariton Review, Boulevard, Antioch Review, and Pushcart XV, and three collections: This Time, This Place and Prayers for the Dead, both by White Pine Press, and Lives of the Artists by Livingston Press.
Cunningham had always assumed that the second of his three children, Rachel, would be the one to bury him—not dig the grave, of course, but make the funeral arrangements and see to the practical issues of contacting relatives, dealing with life insurance, and putting an obituary in the local newspaper. Maybe pick out his clothes for the long sleep. For no reason other than a hunch, he suspected that his wife, who'd always run the show for him and anyone else within reach of her tentacles, would choose the moment of his passing to feign grief-stricken paralysis. His son, Kevin, still yearning for the father he might have had but resenting the one he was unfortunately stuck with, would be too conflicted for action, while Beth Ann—his baby, his pet until the Big Falling Out—would be vindictive, triumphant. But Rachel had never been able to work up much emotion over Cunningham—or anyone else, as far as he could see. Skeptical amusement and wry detachment were about the most she could manage. She'd do his funeral like she'd do the dishes. Then she'd be out the door again, and they—whoever survived Cunningham—would get a call from her in another six months or a year: "Has it been that long? My my, time do fly when you're having fun."
When this most recent call came, though, here was no distant, ironical Rachel. She was crying, almost hysterical. She was in a Dallas motel, and she needed money. "These are hard times for me. I need a thousand dollars, bad."
Rachel turning up in Dallas, or anywhere else, was no great surprise; nor was her needing money. But Rachel crying? Cunningham was so unsettled that he couldn't connect the dots. Did she need the thousand dollars because of the motel bill? He didn't know how to respond, so he didn't try. He handed the phone to his wife.
She had no more luck getting an explanation than Cunningham had. Rachel needed money, and she needed it now. That's all she'd tell her mother.
"Me, me. She won't even tell me, her mother. My baby's in trouble and she won't even tell her mother what it is!"
Very well, his wife concluded, Cunningham would have to deal with it. Go to Dallas, see what was what. He would take the money. Use his best judgment on whether to give it to her. If it was drugs, no money. Did Cunningham get that? If drugs, no money! Unless Rachel was in danger. Then he'd have to do what was necessary. But he had to come back with answers.
During this harangue Cunningham was sprawled on the loveseat listening to Conan O'Brien's monologue on TV at the same time he pretended to attend to his wife. The part about him having to go to Dallas finally soaked in.
"Yes. Be a man. Be a father, Cunningham."
Cunningham had his doubts about that, but if there was one thing he had learned after a few hundred years of married life, it was how to follow orders. Accordingly, the next morning he packed a bag, withdrew $1,100 from their savings account—the extra hundred generously allotted for Cunningham's expenses—and by mid-morning found himself on the interstate, pointed in the general direction of Dallas, Texas.
The day was fine, the sky blue, the air April-soft. Cunningham felt good, damn good. The last time he'd been beyond the city limits on his own was, well, as best as he could recall, never. Not since marriage, that was for damn sure. If you wanted to take a gander at the ball and chain they made the mold from, knock on Cunningham's front door and ask for the lady of the house.
He made Texarkana at around one, pulled into a Western Sizzlin', and headed for the all-you-can-eat lunch bar, which he intended to assault until Katy bar the door. In fact he'd dearly love to find a buffet every single meal—breakfast, lunch, and dinner—but he was on a bit of a tight leash, money-wise. One hundred dollars. Suppose he had to stay more than one night to take care of this business with Rachel?
His wife had given him some discretion with the money, though. Indeed, she very clearly stated that he wasn't to give Rachel a penny if drugs were involved. Surely his wife meant drugs to be just one example of considerations affecting the amount he'd fork over, varying from the whole thousand, to none, to something in between. And, come on, a thousand dollars. What did that bitch need with a thousand dollars?
Cunningham froze, the fried chicken leg he was about to destroy suspended two inches from his lips. Had he just called his daughter a bitch? Where had that come from?
Give Cunningham credit for honesty: he'd never claimed to be the best of fathers. But he hadn't had a lot to work with, either. Beth Ann blamed him for her marriage breaking up, but she would never have met the guy in the first place if Cunningham hadn't damn near bribed him to come to the house for dinner. Did Cunningham get any points for that? Ha. As for Kevin, Cunningham never was sure what went wrong there, but it had gone wrong early and often. Cunningham had played his part in it, no doubt, but that little prickly-pear Kevin had to share the blame. Cunningham was just one in a long line of people Kevin couldn't get along with.
Rachel was the real mystery, though, one with precious few clues. Whereas he could call upon any number of memories involving him and his other children—and a few of them even good ones—Rachel was notable for her absence from his recollected life. She was no more than a cipher, and yet he'd called this cipher a bitch. What had she done to elicit such hostility? And why was the hostility so tinged with—oh, yes, here it was coming now, he should have expected this—guilt?
At least with guilt he understood. Guilt was the sea he swam in.
Cunningham set the chicken leg down. Goddamn it, he'd planned to make Western Sizzlin' pay dearly for their foolhardiness in offering an all-you-can-eat lunch buffet for only $6.95. But he'd eaten barely a single plateful of food, and now he'd lost his appetite.
His unease grew as he barreled on across the Texas prairie. Rachel was staying in a La Quinta on the east edge of Dallas. You could see it from the interstate, supposedly. She had given her mother precise directions, despite which Cunningham took a wrong turn, almost visited the Texas state capitol before he realized it, then hit rush-hour traffic as he was coming back north through Dallas. It was 6:30 before he hauled into the La Quinta, beat. He checked in and asked Poncho Villa behind the desk for the room number of Rachel Cunningham. Poncho checked the computer.
"I can't give out room numbers, sir, but I couldn't help you with a Rachel Cunningham even if I could. We have no one by that name registered with us."
"Are you sure? Rachel Cunningham," Cunningham enunciated, then spelled out the name.
"Oh, Cunningham with a C. I thought it was Cunningham with a K," the clerk said. "I do know how to spell, sir."
Cunningham held his hands up in surrender. "Sorry, I didn't mean anything by it, amigo."
He took his room key. As he was going out the door, the clerk called after him, "Enjoy your stay in our fair city, muchacho."
Sheesh. A fellow had to really watch his step with the whole world carrying a chip on its shoulder these days.
Cunningham found his room and threw his bag on the bed. He decided he'd better call his wife with the news, despite the risk that she'd order him to come home immediately to save a few bucks in meal money.
"She's there, Cunningham. She must be using an assumed name. Oh, James, Rachel must really be in trouble if she's using an assumed name!"
"Now, don't get excited," he said. "Probably she meant to give you the room number and forgot. If she doesn't hear from me before long, she'll call you back, I betcha."
"I don't know. I'm so worried."
"Now stop that. The whole thing's probably just another one of her scams, anyway."
Cunningham managed to get off the phone before his wife could dream up something else to make his life miserable. He got in his car and drove to the first restaurant he came to, Peking Palace, a Chinese buffet. He ate until his belly ached and bile rose in his throat. It brought him no pleasure.
On his way back to his car, he saw a man on the edge of the parking lot carrying a sign: HUNGRY! WILL WORK FOR FOOD!
Cunningham had seen this sort of thing often enough and had never given a nickel to one of them, but this fellow—gaunt and sad-eyed and dirty enough his race was in question—looked like he could use a few more calories in his diet. Cunningham walked over and handed him a dollar bill, and the man said, "God bless you, sir."
Cunningham walked back to his car. As he was climbing in, a man Cunningham recognized as a waiter in the restaurant charged out of Peking Palace and chased the man with the sign a short distance down the street before throwing something—Cunningham couldn't tell what—and hitting the man in the middle of the back. The man dropped the sign, threw his hands up, and gasped as if giving up the ghost, "Ah-h-h!" Then he dropped his hands, picked up the sign, and without looking back trudged on off out of sight. The waiter, expressionless, turned and walked back into the restaurant as if a rather uninteresting ritual had once more been enacted.
"What kind of world is it when—" Cunningham mumbled, but he didn't know how to finish the sentence.
He drove back to the La Quinta. As he passed the motel office on the way to his parking slot, he peered in and saw Poncho Villa still there behind the desk. Cunningham was hoping a new clerk would have come on duty so he could inquire about Rachel again, maybe describe her in case she really was using an assumed name. But he had the feeling he'd be wasting his time asking for help from chip-on-his-shoulder Poncho.
In his motel room he discovered he had no towels. He called housekeeping and was told they'd bring up a set right away. It was a good half hour later before there was a knock on the door. A young woman handed him an arm-load of towels and then with a hint of a Mexican accent said, "Sorry it took so long, sir. I'm the only one working tonight. I'm doing everything."
"No no, that's quite all right," Cunningham said apologetically. (Cunningham had always suffered from abject white-collar WASP guilt in his dealings with plumbers, mechanics, delivery men, and the like. It was all he could do in their presence to keep from falling on his knees and requesting flagellation.) "You have way too much to do. They need to get you some help."
"You got that right, sir. Is there anything else I can do for you?"
"No, the towels are fine. Sorry to have bothered you. You need to go sit down now and put your feet up."
"Thank you, sir. Maybe I'll do that."
She had started to walk away when Cunningham called her back.
"Wait a minute, miss. Maybe there is something you could help me with. I'm looking for a young woman. Just about your age, in fact."
The woman lowered her eyes, pursed her lips, and shook her head almost imperceptibly. Then she shrugged and said in a voice so soft Cunningham wasn't certain he heard her correctly, "All right. Two hundred dollars."
She shrugged again, still without looking at him. "OK. One hundred, then."
This time he heard her clearly, but it was a moment before he understood. He held his hands up as if someone had pulled a gun on him. "Oh, no, no, you misunderstand me."
She looked at him, frowning quizzically, and he looked at her—for the first time really looked. She had smooth olive-dark skin, but other than that was not attractive, short with stocky legs and plump hands, face too wide and black eyes too small, coal-black hair cut too short and razor-straight, almost unnaturally thick. It looked like a helmet on her head. The one thing Cunningham's wife could never accuse him of was infidelity—blame inertia and a lack of courage—but if he were going to stray, this wouldn't be the occasion.
"What I meant was," he went on, "I really am looking for a woman, one certain woman, I mean. My daughter, actually. I think she may be staying here at this motel."
The young woman stared at him a moment, then clenched her eyes shut, put a hand out tentatively until it encountered the doorjamb, then sagged against it.
"I'm so sorry, so sorry," she said, and then from the back of the throat, as if it were squeezed out from between her vertebrae, came a tiny whine. She was crying.
"Please don't," Cunningham began, but he didn't know how to continue.
"You must think I'm a very bad woman," she said between hiccups and tears.
"No, really, I—"
"Yes, yes you do. But I'm not bad. It's just that these days are very hard days for me. Very hard. I have three daughters at home. No man. I work all the time, all the time, but there's so little money."
"I know life can be very hard. I don't think badly of you at all, please believe me. I'm very sorry for all this."
"You've done nothing, sir. It was all me."
The woman took a deep breath and wiped her eyes. "There, all over," she said, even managing a smile. She reminded Cunningham of a little girl who'd fallen off her tricycle and had a good cry but now was ready to climb back on that tricycle. "Sir, you said you were looking for someone. Your daughter?"
"Yes. I was supposed to meet her here. Her name is Rachel Cunningham, but the desk clerk said there was no one registered by that name."
"Maybe she's staying with someone else? Perhaps her room is under another person's name?"
Cunningham hadn't thought of that. He shook his head. "I don't know. Maybe."
"What does your daughter look like? Maybe I've seen her."
Cunningham thought a minute. "She's thirty, thirty-one, around there. About yea-tall. She's fair."
"Fair? Does that mean blond hair, sir? Or red hair?"
Cunningham tried to think. What was the color of her hair? Rachel had never looked like the rest of the family. Beth Ann and Kevin were typical Cunninghams, pasty-complexioned with thin, jet-black hair, and round heads like cabbages perched above narrow sloping shoulders. His wife could pass for a Cunningham, too, except for the spindly legs substitute two fireplugs. Make a hell of a fullback. Rachel, though, was slender and green- or blue-eyed, one or the other, and, against all probability, cute. The boys ran after her, didn't have to run fast, either. But had she been a blond or redhead? When she hit the teenage years, she started to dye her hair, used Kool-Aid. Different color each week. Cherry. Orange. Purple. A sort of metallic blue. Once she did it in stripes and looked like a rainbow snow cone. Cunningham had called her Rainbow, hoping to irritate her into a change, but she'd liked the name. Or was just indifferent. Yes, indifference was always the default option with Rachel.
He'd stood there long enough trying to remember Rachel's natural hair color that the young woman finally said, "Are you—I don't know the word—strangers with your daughter, sir?"
"Estranged, you mean?"'
"Yes, that's it. Estranged. Are you estranged with your daughter, sir?"
Cunningham looked off into the motel room for a moment as if searching for something. Then he shrugged and said, "Yes. I guess we've always been a little estranged."
"That's very sad," said the woman. Cunningham agreed that it was sad. Then the woman said there was a young, fair woman in room 218. She'd been there for two days and seemed to be by herself.
Cunningham took a ten-dollar bill out of his wallet and handed it to the woman—"For your help." The woman said that she didn't want any money, but Cunningham insisted, and she took it.
Cunningham closed the door. It was still early, but he was very tired. He didn't even bother to undress but flopped down onto the bed, put the TV on, and fell asleep clutching the remote.
Sunshine slashing through a gap in the curtains woke him early the next morning. He showered and went down to the office for the free breakfast buffet. He was glad to see that Poncho had been replaced by a fellow who didn't look quite so crabby.
A couple on line in front of Cunningham were complaining about the breakfast selection, but the honey buns, glazed donuts, and a hill of little muffins about the size of golf balls looked like a feast to Cunningham, who didn't get many sweets at home. He folded a complimentary copy of USA Today in half and used it as a tray, setting two small paper plates piled high with a little of everything on it, plus a Styrofoam cup of orange juice and another of coffee. Then, like a tightrope walker performing without a net, he stepped carefully toward the door, which he opened by turning around and pushing against it with his back.
The desk clerk watched him, smiling appreciatively at his dexterity—or maybe at the pile of food he was making off with. Cunningham nodded down at the several-thousand calorie breakfast. "I'm eating for two," he said, then to himself: Now what the hell did that mean?
He took the food to his car and placed it on the passenger-side floor, then climbed under the wheel. He drove slowly around the motel until he located room 218, then backed into a slot on the far side of the lot across from it. He ate honey buns, donuts, and poppy-seed muffins as he kept an eye on the door. The muffins were dry; he was afraid he hadn't gotten enough orange juice.
He finished off the pastries, juice, and coffee while seeing no sign of life from 218. He began to read the USA Today, glancing up at the motel room door every minute or two. He started with the sports pages, then went on to the front section, and was thumbing without much interest through the business section when the door to 218 opened and a young blond woman came out. It wasn't Rachel.
Cunningham flung down the paper. This was just great. But he wasn't surprised at all. Nothing that girl did or didn't do surprised him. He started up the car and drove back to the side of the motel his room was on.
He climbed the stairs to the second floor and was walking down the narrow walkway toward his room when a cart appeared from around a corner and rolled toward him. It was piled so high with dirty laundry and cleaning supplies that it wasn't until Cunningham pressed up against the metal railing to let the cart pass that he saw who was pushing it: the young woman from last night.
"Oh, hi, sir," she said.
Cunningham glanced at his watch before replying. It was after nine. It had been sometime after eight when he spoke to her last night.
"Hello. Back to work already?"
The woman swept a hand across her forehead as if her hair were hanging down in her eyes, but it must have been a gesture of weariness because her bangs were short and stiff as a cleaning brush.
"I haven't been home, sir. I'm working a double shift today."
"You mean sixteen straight hours?"
"You'll kill yourself at this rate."
She waved the idea away. "I'm young. If I get a chance to work an extra shift, I take it. My daughters are always going to have enough to eat, even if I have to work three shifts. That's why, sometimes, like last night . . ."
She released the cart with her left hand and covered her eyes, still holding on to the cart handle with her right. A shudder shook her, once, twice.
"Oh, oh, don't cry," Cunningham said. He reached forward tentatively, then pulled his hand back.
"Last night . . . I am so ashamed . . ."
"No, please, don't be. You're a brave young woman, a good mother to your children."
On an impulse Cunningham reached into his pocket and pulled out his wallet, opened it, and pulled out all the bills. He pushed them into the woman's hands. She looked at the money with something like horror, then tried to hand it back.
Cunningham backed away as if the money filled him with revulsion. "Please, keep it. No, I don't want anything for it. I want nothing. Keep it for your children. Do nice things for your children with it. Buy them some nice things."
The woman looked at the money, at Cunningham. Then she took a step toward him and laid a hand on his forearm. "You're a generous man, a good man."
Cunningham shook his head. "I don't know about that."
Then, as if she suddenly remembered something, the woman's expression changed from wonder to concern. "Your daughter. Did you find her?"
Cunningham shook his head. "No, the woman in number 218, that wasn't my daughter."
"I'm so sorry. . . . But I just remember. There's a young fair woman with a young man, I think it is room 147. Could she be with a young man, your daughter?"
"No. She'd be alone."
"How do you know that?"
"I know. She never loved me."
The non sequitur caught them both by surprise. They stared at each other. They stared. Finally the woman said, "Oh, sir, you don't know that."
"I know," he said.
"No, you don't. You don't know what's in her heart. Just like maybe she doesn't know what's in yours."
Cunningham looked away.
He had checked out of the motel and had Texarkana in his rearview mirror before it occurred to him that he didn't even know the young woman's name. And he had given her a thousand dollars.
He didn't regret giving her the money. It had been an act of generosity, and he couldn't help feeling there was something fine about it. As the afternoon wore on, though, and he drew closer and closer to home, he began to worry about the practical consequences of his generosity. Specifically, what would he tell his wife?
She met him at the door. He thought of his wife as a formidable physical presence, an ox with a pit bull's disposition, but now she seemed shrunken, her face pale and drawn, pudgy hand trembling on the doorjamb.
Cunningham got in the first word: "Hell of a trip. Wouldn't want to go through that every day. Did Rachel call again?"
His fate—or at least the variety of lie he'd be obliged to tell now—hung on her answer. But there'd been no word from Rachel since that one call two nights ago. Oh. Well, he'd seen her, gave her the thousand dollars. All of it. Even though she'd given him no answers. He'd come back knowing no more than he left with, he admitted. He probably was a sucker for giving up the cash, but she was his daughter, after all. Thinking back on it, he didn't know if giving her the money had been an act of generosity or weakness, he said.
His wife didn't offer an opinion but instead reached out and patted him on the elbow. "You look tired," she said. "And you must be hungry."
He followed her into the kitchen. He'd had a Yahoo and one of those pre-packaged pimento cheese sandwiches at a truck stop outside Texarkana, put it on his credit card. Not a bite since then. But he wasn't hungry.
"I really don't have much of an appetite right now," he said.
His wife nodded as if that's just what she expected. They went out to what they called the breakfast area and sat at the little table where they ate most of their meals. She stared at the table. She seemed lost, pathetic, helpless. Cunningham felt a momentary urge to reach out and take her hand, but it had been years and years since such gestures of tenderness had passed between them.
Finally, more as if talking to herself than to Cunningham, she said, "Well, at least she has the money. She won't be in need of money for a little while, at least."
Cunningham pushed back from the table and stood up.
"Oh, I don't know, I don't know about that," he said, staring down at his wife. "I've got to tell you that I don't trust her. No telling what she'll do next. She could call up in the next five minutes, tell all sorts of outlandish lies."
"Well, I wish she would. I wish she would call up right this minute even if it was only to lie to me."
She had tears in her eyes and her lower lip was working out and in, out and in. One of his children had done the same thing when on the verge of crying. Which one?
Cunningham reached down and patted her hand. "There, there," he said. It had been an awkward gesture, embarrassing both of them. He turned and walked off down the hall and into the living room.
He sat down on the couch. He was breathing heavily as if he'd climbed a long flight of stairs. Whew! What a day, what a day. An act of generosity for a total stranger, then compassion for his wife. But it looked like he was in the clear on the thousand bucks. Even if Rachel called up in the next five minutes, it'd just be a lying contest between them. And Cunningham could hold his own there. Besides, he'd laid the groundwork already.
He was calming down, his breathing was getting back to normal. Tired, though, very tired. He could doze off with no trouble. Idly, he let his mind drift back over events of the last two days. Generosity. Compassion. Rachel. Where was she, anyway? Had she ever been at the motel? Surely, or why the telephone call in the first place? But if so, why no follow-up call? Strange kid, strange kid. They might never see her again. Now, it presented itself to him as a fact: he would never see Rachel again.
And then another thought, stunning, caused him to jerk upright on the couch as if he'd been stabbed in the back. My God, he said to himself, who'll bury me now?
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