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By AJ Gentile
CHAPTER FOUR

John heard them meowing even before he had the key in the door.

“Hey, the cats!” he called out, opening the door.

He was nudging his foot inside the apartment, blocking their way out, when he heard Jennifer yell, “Daddy’s home!” She was suddenly there, sweeping up two of the cats in her arms, pushing the other three away with her foot.

“You feed them yet?” he asked his daughter, edging inside.

“After Gilligan’s Island.”

She let go of the cats she was holding and dashed down the hall, the cats chasing after her, weaving in and out between her long skinny legs, crying impatiently to be fed.

“I can’t stand those animals crying like that!”

Anne. She was yelling from the kitchen. She was cooking, he knew, because the apartment looked smoky, and it always did when she used the oven and it hadn’t been cleaned.

“Someone open a window before we die of smoke inhalation!” He took off his coat, threw it on a table in the foyer, and took the shopping bag with the Charles Jourdan shoes he had bought at Bloomingdale’s through the living room to avoid Anne. Jenny, stretched out in front of the television, caught him.

“Whatcha got?”

He put a finger to his lips and whispered, “Present for ma. Shoes.”

She was so unlike Anne that one would never guess the two were mother and daughter. Anne with her dark looks and severe face, and Jenny, her hair long and sandy, her skin like milk. She was a natural, and if she had a flaw it was her teeth. She had an over. bite. She wore a retainer at night, and when she smiled, she was always pulling her lips down in a selfconscious way.

In the bedroom John slid the shopping bag under the bed, realizing it was only a temporary hiding place until he had the chance to find a better one.

He went into the bathroom, washed, changed into a clean shirt before he went back into the living room. The smoke was worse than before.

“Is everyone deaf? Didn’t I say open a window? You can’t breathe in here.”

“I didn’t hear you.”

He opened one in the living room himself, curtains billowing. A bitter gust of cold air rushed in.

Jenny protested, sitting up. “Hey, it’s cold!”

“Move away from the window. You’re too close to the television, anyway. Go over there.”

She gave an exaggerated moan and slid back maybe a foot.

“You call that moving back!” He went into a crouch and grabbed her, swinging her up over his shoulder and carrying her a few feet back, tickling her sides. Jenny squealed.

“I hope you two are having fun.”

Anne startled them. She was standing in the archway in her jeans and faded smock, wiping her hands with a dish towel. Her hair was curled, frizzed, and frazzled up, her face red from the heat in the kitchen. “This room was spotless this afternoon.”

Jenny immediately became contrite, putting the blame on her father. “He started it!”

“I don’t want to hear those animals anymore.” Anne’s tone was inexplicably sharp. She sounded as if she was trying not to lose her patience.

“On the commercial,” Jenny said in a small voice.

“Not on the commercialnow!” A command.

Jenny didn’t move right off, and Anne must have thought she was defying her. Snapping the towel, she went over to the TV and shut it off.

Jenny shot her a look of such contempt that John thought she was going to spit in her mother’s face. Anne stood ground, crossed her arms, wedging a hand under each armpit. She seemed to be just barely holding herself together from exploding. The two of them looked like pieces of sculpture cemented to the floor. John stood there absolutely still, caught between. both their currents.

Then Jenny stood up and quietly went into the hall. Anne watched her go, calling to her, “And set the table.” She kept her eyes fixed on the open kitchen doorway at the end of the hall, scrutinizing Jenny’s every move.

“I’ll set the table,” John offered.

“She’ll do it.” No argument.

John recognized the signs. Lately, Anne would get worked up over the least frustrating, petty, stupid annoyances.

If he were to ask her what was wrong, he knew that would be enough to set her off, so he just kept quiet. When she wanted to tell him, she would. He remembered the message from her agent. “Sam called.”

“I know. I spoke with him.”

He waited for more. Nothing came. “How’d it go today?”

“How it always goes. How do you want it to go?”

She softened so suddenly just then, it took John by surprise, that hard look disappearing from her face, a softening depth in her eyes now. “I’m sorry, John. I don’t want you to come home to this. I know I must sound like a bitch. The whole day just depressed the hell out of me.”

He reached for her then. “You shouldn’t be on your feet cooking.”

“No, I enjoy it. It relaxes me. Takes my mind off . . .” The words dwindled to nothing before she finished the sentence.

When he touched her neck she flinched, the tension hunching her. John began to massage her while she stood, kneading the knotted muscles hard, working the tenseness out. Anne let her head go loose, closed her eyes, let her jaw drop, mouth open wide.

“Feels so good.”

“How are you?” he asked her, suddenly serious, concerned.

“Fine.”

“Are you really fine?”

She turned, looked at him, sighed. “I missed you.” They kissed. Lovingly but without passion. Her mind was elsewhere, her attention harbored. “Come into the kitchen with me.” And he did.

After dinner, Anne changed into her big terrycloth bathrobe and went into the living room to lie down. Jenny had a project to get ready for school, so John told her to go finish it, he’d clean up himself. He cleared the table off, not bothering to stack the dishwasher, cleaning the dishes by hand, rinsing, drying them, putting them away. When he came into the living room Anne was stretched out on the sofa writing out some early Christmas cards. Jenny was sprawled out on the floor in a slew of Anne’s old magazines, Redbooks and Vogues, clipping out pictures for the montage she was doing.

Munchkin, Jenny’s favorite cat, lay asleep, encircled by her legs. Three of the others—Samson, Charlie Brown, and Corny (Jenny had christened them) stared balefully at the artificial tree that blinked and twinkled colorfully in the corner of the room. The fifth cat, Sybil, was nowhere to be seen. Ever since a playmate of Jenny’s had shot rubber bands at her, the cat had become wary of people and would be out of sight most of the day until feeding time.

Jenny loved the cats inordinately. She and John had found them abandoned in a box outside the A&P a couple of years ago. When they foisted them on Anne, she toll them she wouldn’t mind as long as they didn’t get in the way. They did. They got into everything; nothing was spared. Jenny justified the whole thing by saying they had gotten them for free. John should have known better. There was no such thing as a free cat. Food, vets, shots. The list was unending.

It was too quiet with all three of them in the room so John flicked on the television and came in on the last hour of Rebecca. A cat food commercial came on during the first break. Immediately Jenny grabbed Munchkin from between her legs and thrust the animal in front of the screen. The cat stared dumbly at the movement of the image, eyes peering in confusion, claws scraping air, squirming to get free.

“Stop that,” he heard Anne tall her. “Put that animal down.”

A spot for Timex followed the cat commercial. In it Santa Claus strapped a watch to the rail of his sleigh to put it to the test.

“HoHo! Look, HoHo!” It was Jenny’s nickname for Santa Claus. She picked it up a while ago when she heard his laugh for the first time, immortalized by some cartoon, and adopted it permanently, never calling him anything else. John used to kid her when she was smaller, when she had been bad, had done something they’d told her ‘not to do, that HoHo would only bring her coal for Christmas. HoHo knew if she was being bad because, like God, he was everywhere, omnipresent.

He knew.

A child’s imagination was something to treasure. Both he and Anne thought it was important to keep the fantasy going. But after a while they had realized they were just being foolish: Jenny had stopped believing. Her childhood wasn’t theirs. It couldn’t be. Kids grew up faster today, especially in the city. By the time Jenny was four, it was too late. She was trapped by the real world. HoHo, the Easter Bunny, the Good Tooth Fairy, were all dead.

“You’re not going to see HoHo this year, that’s fox sure,” John told his daughter.

“Not after all the aggravation you’ve caused me,” Anne had to add spitefully.

“What’s the difference,” Jenny said. “I never saw him anyway. He never comes.”

“Yeah? I remember you made out pretty good last year,” he reminded her. “Who do you think bought you all that?”

“You and mom bought me that stuff.” She edged her tongue along her lips, carefully clipping the photograph of a bottle of champagne. She smiled smugly. “I know, you know.”

“You know what?”

She didn’t answer.

John nudged. “What do you know?”

“Yeah, dad—”

“C’mon, tell me.”

“That there’s no HoHo.”

John sucked in a sharp breath, screwed his face into a look of mock horror. “No HoHo!” He clenched his chest, faking a heart attack. “No HoHo!” Jenny giggled.

“You act more like a child than she does sometimes.” That was from Anne. John couldn’t tell if she meant it to be funny or derisive, but Jenny took it as a personal insult. Hurt, she turned sharply on Anne.

“What’d I do?”

“Sweetheart—”

“I didn’t do anything!”

“Don’t you raise your voice to me!”

John started to say something, stopped himself. He didn’t like the idea of making a speech to them, so he just sat there, feeling strangely embarrassed. There was a strength in Jenny’s femininity that at times fired her into noholdsbarred womanhood. He was sure Anne felt it, too, and was threatened by it. Ever since Anne had become pregnant, she and Jenny had been growing farther and farther apart. John could not get over it. At first he’d thought it was simply jealousy on Jenny’s part: she saw the expected baby as a potential rival for their affections.

But that wasn’t it. Because John saw it in Anne, too: a veiled cautiousness, a trepidation, every time Jenny entered the room. The fights he had had with Anne had never reached the fierce intensity he saw in those battles between his wife and his daughter. Days on end they would go without speaking to one another, avoiding each other’s eyes, the war whoop ready to sound, their combativeness poised and ready. And the thing of it was, their private wars were the ones that took the most out of him. On sleepless nights he would lie in bed beside Anne and think how simple it would be if they had never had Jenny. He never mentioned how he felt to anyone, especially Anne. It was just anxiety, after all, a false sense of things closing in.

He hated himself in the morning for thinking it was Jenny who was responsible for their fate. He felt guilty and horrible. To blame her for all the compromises he’s made in his life was wrong. Wrong. There was no lessening in his love for his daughter. Jenny was his. Theirs. The abrasions and frustrations went hand in hand with the gratification and joy. Jenny was a link in his life chain now, so was Anne, and the baby would be another. If one of those links were missing, his life, his career, everything would fall apart.

Jenny slid over to the television set. “Can I change it?”

“No, you can’t change it,” Anne told her. “If you want to watch something else, go into the bedroom.”

“But you’re not watching,” Jenny observed, sulking. “You’re writing.”

“I’m watching the movie.”

“It’s an old movie! You saw it before.”

“And I’ll see it again.”

“But we don’t get ‘channel seven on the other TV.”

“I said no! Don’t you understand no? Anyway it’s late. You should be in bed.”

Jenny knew enough not to say anything more. Her face drooped, and it looked to John as if she was going to start crying. She got up quickly, collected her magazines and clippings and left the scraps there on the floor to annoy Anne, and brushed past the two of them. Her anger trailed after her like a shadow, cut clean by the firm slam of the bedroom door.

They sat there a moment in silence, Anne watching the television, John watching her. Then Jenny made the first assault by turning up the volume full blast on their bedroom TV, enough to overpower their set.

Anne turned to John. “Do you see? Do you see? Lower that!” she yelled above the noise, her back arching abruptly, face wincing.

Without thinking John put his arms around her. “Are you all right?”

“My back—”

“What is it?”

The pain or whatever it was must have subsided because she exhaled, muttering, “I don’t know what more I can do with that daughter of yours. She defies me constantly. She absolutely does not listen to a word I say anymore.”

“She’s a woman. What do you expect?”

“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” She looked hurt and furious at the same time.

“I’m kidding. C’mon, babe”—He picked his words carefully—“she has a mind of her own. She gets that from you, you know that.” Still the deadeyed stare from Anne. “Aw, hon,” he coaxed, “I’m just playing with you.”

She went back to her cards.

“Don’t freeze me out, Anne. Talk to me. What’s on the agenda for tomorrow?”

“Things,” she said wearily.

“Like?”

“Like I have to be at the obstetrician tomorrow morning at ninethirty. Fay called this afternoon. I’m meeting her for lunch afterward, and then we’re both going over to Lady Madonna.” An East Side boutique for the pregnant New York woman. “I need clothes desperately. Nothing fits me anymore. I look like a pig when I have to go out.”

“You look beautiful.”

“Better put your glasses on.”

“Hold on.” John feigned going, for a pocket, pulling out a pair of invisible specs, miming pulling the frames around his ears. “It’s incredible!” Awe in his voice and eyes now. “You’re even more beautiful than I thought. Look what I’ve been missing out on.”

That made Anne relax slightly. She tried a smile for the first time that night. “Maybe if we have some free time I’ll start some Christmas shopping. What do you want for Christmas this year?”

He dropped his voice to touch hers. “Nothing. I have you. I don’t want anything else.”

“C’mon. Don’t make me run all over town trying to find something for you.”

“You shouldn’t be running around in your condition. Take a cab.”

“I should have known better than to ask.”

“Surprise me.”

Anne raised a hand, cupped it over her nose and mouth, and sneezed.

“Bless you. You catching a cold?”

“Caught it.”

He pressed into her, sinking his chest against the side of her breast, brushing aside her hair, kissing the back of her neck, then her lips.

Anne shifted a little away from him. “Aren’t you afraid you’re going to catch my cold?” The voice was vaguely repentant now. A little teasing. Anne leaned close to him, her body sinking, falling into his.

Rebecca had just finished. The ten o’clock nightly news was about to come on.


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