Gunny Sergeant Jack Jeffreys shifted in the metal folding chair, holding in a fart. Checked his watch. It’d only been twenty minutes. Two short performances and already he itched for a smoke. He sat with his arms folded, trying not to brush the lady next to him, but it wasn’t easy. She took way more than her share of real estate, and so did her perfume. Smelled like that spray Anne kept in the bathroom to cover a crap.
He reread the program. The Swain Conservatory of Music. Director, Mrs. Alma Swain. Just a skinny old maid with a nose like a chicken beak. Taught in her living room huddled over the keyboard with one monkey-handed kid after another. He picked Jenny up after her lessons on weekends he had visitation. Chicken Beak always batted her lashes at him, giggled. “Oh, Sergeant Jeffreys, Jenny has such musical talent,” she whined. Like he didn’t already know his kid was special.
Jenny looked nervous. She folded and unfolded her arms, her eyes flitting around. He’d shown up last minute, still in his fatigues. He wasn’t even sure she knew he was there. God, she looked grown up in her yellow evening gown, but that makeup was straight out of a horror movie. Obviously her mother’s brilliant idea. Hooker-red lips, eyes that looked like the poor kid’d taken a beating.
He could see the back of Anne’s head. She and Loverboy in the front row. A Toyota salesman, for God’s sake. And look at him jump up, snapping pictures like Jenny was his own. White-shoed son of a bitch. Anne had brought him to the recital just for spite. Well, she and Mr. Used Corolla could drive straight to hell. He was Jenny’s dad and nobody was going to take his place. No Damn Body.
An orange-haired girl stood by the piano, adjusting the top of her strapless pink gown. Poor kid must’ve glued it on. Sure weren’t any knockers holding it up. The girl grinned, flashing a mouthful of braces. Then her face turned constipated. She clasped her hands at her waist while Chicken Beak played an intro. Ah, sweet mystery of life, at last I’ve found you, she wailed. Ah, I know at last the secret of it all. The high notes squeaked like a dog with his tail in a crack.
He popped a mint in his mouth. Like hell she knew the secret of it all. Like hell anybody did.
Jenny was up next. He’d heard her practicing. He’d stand outside Anne’s condo door and listen until the song ended before he knocked. Jenny wouldn’t play if she knew he was there. Once he’d insisted she play for him, and she screwed up so many times, she put her head down on the keyboard and bawled.
Funny how he and Anne had fought about Jenny the most — more than money, which had been scarce, or sex, which had been even more scarce, at least toward the end.
Birth control pills. Their last and worst argument banged around his head. Not my little girl, he’d said. Are you out of your goddamn mind? Why don’t you just throw Jenny in the backseat of a car with the horniest bastard in the barracks? Fifteen years in the Corps had taught him plenty about teenaged shitheads. By God, there’re worse things in the world than a few pimples.
But it was already too late. Anne had taken her to the doctor and filled the prescription. Telling him was just an afterthought. “It’s for her complexion,” she’d said. “Looks are important to a girl her age.”
“Miss Jenny Jeffreys,” Chicken Beak announced. Jenny walked to the piano with her head down, settled on the bench, fluffing her skirt. She’d just turned fourteen but with her hair twisted up like that, from the back she could pass for twenty. Another bad Anne idea. Jenny began to play. He recognized the tune right away, same song he’d heard many times at the doorstep. Chopinsky’s umpty-ump. Sweet, but sad too.
Jenny bumbled, stopped, started over. Flubbed again at the same spot. He stiffened, held his breath. Come on, Jenny, please remember. She hesitated, glanced around, locked her eyes on his, her face desperate, pleading. He felt like he could gag on his own heart. He wished he could run up and grab her, take her away from this pathetic church fellowship hall to somewhere new, somewhere they could start over. Where there wouldn’t be any hooker makeup, birth control pills, piano recitals.
Instead, he stood, walked down the aisle toward the exit, quiet as his combat boots would allow. Opened the door, let it close on his hand. Then bolted outside and lit a cigarette. He could hear Jenny playing again.
He’d been deployed three times since she was born. Each time he came home, they had to start over. I’m your old man, remember me? When did it go so wrong? Did he yell at her one time too many? Criticize too much? He wasn’t a patient man, but dammit, he loved her. He would not lose her.
He tried to remember his last time in a church. His wedding day? No, Christ, how could he forget? Private MacLeod’s funeral. The young Marine who’d gotten a Dear John letter and blown his brains out. He’d tried to talk to the kid, tried hard to buck him up, but it hadn’t worked. He’d never been good with words. And words only got you so far.
He tossed his cigarette and went back in the hall, opened the recital room door just a crack. Jenny was taking her bow, the audience applauding. He let himself inside and stood at the back of the fellowship hall, clapping like hell.
Carol Folsom is a practicing attorney in Jacksonville, Florida who writes fiction and poetry. Last year she received a grant to attend a poetry workshop at the Collegeville Institute. She has been published in online poetry magazines and two anthologies. She served three years active duty as a Lieutenant in the U.S. Navy JAG Corps. She is a proud member of the Chat Noir Writers Circle.