Baltimore writer Holly Morse-Ellington believes her newly divorced father has a super serious girlfriend–unfortunately, thanks to her dad’s close-lipped nature, her best information source is a tiny barking dog.
My parents’ divorce has been a long road for me. Maybe it’s not my road to travel. But that’s the thing about family. No matter how carsick their problems make you, you’re stuck in the backseat. Hands tugging at the child safety locks activated on the doors. Head hanging out the window and panting, “Are we there yet?”
The last time I was in Paducah, Kentucky, I didn’t see my dad. Or rather, he didn’t see me. I’d more or less broken into his office, snooped through his files, and spied on his new house to find out if he had a girlfriend. When I put it like that it sounds bad, but at the time I was trying to help my mom resolve some post-divorce emotions. She and Dad had been married 34 years before they called it quits. I suppose it’s inevitable that people move on, but neither mom nor I were prepared for dad to skid through the intersection of heartached to open-hearted so fast.
Other families may have more direct–and legal–methods of prying for information, such as: asking a question and getting an answer. Well I tried that with my dad, I did. Even though I knew I wouldn’t, and didn’t, get a straight answer. Like the time I had to hail a cab in my wedding gown to make it to the church on time. To this day it’s unclear why Dad didn’t pick me up on time as carefully planned.
When it comes to Dad’s romantic life, the question of “the other woman” proves more intricate than tatting Belgian lace. Not long after his divorce he took a vacation to Europe. He showed me the pictures from his trip one weekend while he was staying with my husband and me in Baltimore. I felt like the tourist, sightseeing upon the hidden wonders of Dad’s world: Dad at the Parthenon–with Other Woman, Dad at the Coliseum–with Other Woman, Dad at the Tower of London–with Other Woman. As we flipped through the photos, he told me about his trip as if the other woman wasn’t in the picture. Each image felt like one in a series of obvious betrayal. Like they belonged in a gallery alongside that Magritte painting of a pipe with the caption, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe,” or “This is not a pipe.” Her smile and arm around my dad were pixelated to perfection. But dad’s stories failed to capture her existence. He seemed to be saying, “This is not a girlfriend.”
The surrealist-like charade continued when he returned to Paducah. I called him at home once and heard a yappy dog in the background.
“Did you get a dog, dad?”
“No, that’s just the TV,” he said. “Let me turn it down.” And sure enough, the noise stopped.
The next time I called I heard the same yappy dog drowning out Dad’s voice.
“Watching the Dog Channel again, Dad?”
“Let me turn that down,” he said.
And once again, the sound that I believed to be a dog barking disappeared. I made a mental note, “This is not a dog.”
By the third call I’d advanced to suggesting, “That dog sounds pretty real.” And Dad to conceding, “It belongs to a friend of mine.” But that’s as far as we opened ourselves up to reality.
Our contentment was almost spoiled during the season for suspending reality in anticipation of a fat man in a red suit sliding down millions of chimneys. That Christmas dad and I got together in Chicago at my aunt and uncle’s house. My uncle, who has dementia, barely remembers who we are. Yet he remembered to ask Dad, “How’s that girlfriend of yours doing?” Dad and I looked at each other with shrugged shoulders and expressions that asked, “Girlfriend? What girlfriend?” We dismissed my uncle as crazy and returned to pretending nothing’s happening.
After more than a year of meeting dad in Chicago and other neutral cities for family visits, I decide I’m ready to come home to Paducah and spend a weekend at his house. When he asks how I like the color of his siding and shutters I fail to mention that I’ve already seen it–from his neighbor’s bushes, my old vantage point for spying.
His house is now for sale and, like every question, where he plans on moving remains a mystery. Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, or one block over. He’s considering it all. It’s the one block over that I’m most interested in. I get a feeling that dad already spends most of his time there and not in his house.
Opening his front door is more like unearthing a time capsule. The place is dusty and smells as if it’s been closed up for decades. Everywhere there are signs that he’s not living in this house. The fridge is empty. The box of brownie mix I bought two years ago when he first moved in sits on the counter. The water from the kitchen and bathroom faucets runs brown at first. A clue that the pipes have been inactive for quite some time. An illustration that suggests, “This is not a home.”
Yet there are feminine touches that stage a lived-in appearance. A vase arranged with flowers and peacock feathers garnishes the dining room table. Potted ferns and ficus plants sprawl across the den and living room. All are artificial and without needs like sunlight and water, but inspired by the other sex nonetheless.
At first I have aspirations of warming the place up by buying groceries and cooking us dinner, but Dad has only one pot to cook with.
“All you need’s one pot,” he says.
We opt to order pizza and rent a movie instead. I offer to run out to a Redbox.
“What’s a Redbox?” he asks.
He doesn’t think he’s seen one of those, but offers to get a movie anyway. I ask the straightforward question I imagine gets straight answers in other households: “If you don’t know about Redbox, where are you going to get a movie?”
“I’ll go to some peoples’ houses,” he says.
I laugh. I can’t shake this image of dad toting a wicker basket door to door as if on an Easter egg hunt. But sure enough, he returns half an hour later with a stack of DVDs. The titles and cases are familiar. He’s brought back his own movies. Our movies. The ones we’ve watched together hundreds of times. I maintain the charade by my silence and pop in Dennis the Menace.
The next morning I go for a jog. It’s the middle of August, one of those humid late-summer days that Kentuckians grumble about. No one’s leaving the comforts of AC but me. Still, I run away from the neighborhood. Away from the one block over. Away from the some peoples’ houses that supply dad with movies, food, and a life. Sweat beads on my face as I pass each doorway that could be the other doorway. I’d recognize her if I saw her. I’ve seen her face in the pictures. But “This is not a picture,” I think.
When I get back to Dad’s, a white Chihuahua attacks me in the hall. He growls and bares his miniature fangs at my ankles.
“Stop that barking,” Dad yells from his recliner.
I wobble on one leg, trying to get my shoe off without being bit.
“A little help in here, Dad!” I call from the hallway. Dad scoops the dog into his arms.
“This is Little Rico,” he says, introducing us.
Little Rico trembles and snarls even though Dad shields him from me. I move in slow motion to the couch. The dog yelps at every step as though I’m stepping on his toes. I’m convinced this is not a dog. This is more than a dog. This is the next step. Possibly the last step before the other woman from the photos comes to life. Before I hear dad say, “This is my girlfriend.”
Holly Morse-Ellington’s work appears in Three Quarter Review, Outside In Magazine, and elsewhere. She is a fiction editor for the Baltimore Review. Holly also plays the ukulele with the cigar box band, The Humidors.