“An Awakening,” a story by Brian Greene, was a short-listed entry in our recently concluded 58th Short Fiction Contest, and is published with the consent of the author.
photo via Picryl/Public Domain
by Brian Greene
“I need you to do me a favor.”
…..This was my friend Wally speaking to me, over the phone. It was a Wednesday, early evening, in September. I was in my apartment, at my writing desk, eating a bowl of linguine swimming in Rao’s marinara sauce.
…..“I need you to babysit Judee Saturday night. Three, maybe four hours or so.”
…..Judee is Wally’s daughter. She was nine at the time. She was named after Judee Sill, a long-since-dead singer/songwriter both Wally and his ex-wife Margaret like a lot. I like Judee Sill, too. I’m the one who first turned Wally on to her music.
…..I swallowed the large amount of pasta that had been in my mouth when my cell rang, wiped sauce off my cheek with a cloth napkin. I said, “I’m afraid to ask, but what’ll you be doing while I’m with Judee?”
…..Wally and Margaret had been divorced for close to a year by then. Wally and I had been friends for about 14 years by that time, starting when we worked together waiting tables at an oceanfront restaurant when I was 20 and he was 24. Wally and Margaret were just starting to date when I met Wally.
…..Wally hesitated to answer my reluctant question. I looked at the bottle of Maker’s Mark that sat on my kitchen counter in the next room. It was 6:15 and of late I’d made the habit of not pouring my first alcoholic drink until 8:00. But something was telling me this conversation was going to make me want one earlier tonight.
…..“I have a date.”
…..Wally’s tall, about 6’3. He has sympathetic-looking brown eyes, dark brown hair that’s straight and that he generally wears short and not cut in any fancy way. He has a build that’s usually bordering on being overweight, but he just barely stays on the better side of looking fat. He has a boyish face and is almost always smiling, even when he’s angry. Women are often attracted to Wally. Lots of them.
…..“Before you tell me who with, I have to ask why Judee can’t just be with Margaret that night.”
…..“It’s my weekend with Judee. I have her every other weekend.”
…..“I know your schedule with her. So why can’t you and Margaret just trade weekends?”
…..“Because she’d wanna know what I have to do that’s so important that I need to do it more than I need to be with my daughter.”
…..Margaret is a sharp person. And funny. I could describe her different physical features, but it’s easier to just say that she looks like Sally Field, because she’s practically Sally Field’s doppelganger. I’ve always liked her. The three of us had so many fun times together when they were a couple, sometimes as a foursome with girlfriends of mine.
…..I ate another big mouthful of pasta, washed it down with a long sip of Whole Foods brand Black Cherry seltzer, then said to Wally, “I think that’s a good question for Margaret to ask. So I’ll ask it. Why can’t this date wait until one of Margaret’s weekends with Judee?”
…..“If I explain it to you, it’s gonna sound a little . . . sordid.”
…..Wally has a way of wandering into complicated personal situations. While he and Margaret were still married, he came dangerously close to having an affair with a woman he worked with at a furniture store, where they were both floor salespeople. The lady’s husband was the manager of the store. I was Wally’s confidante through that episode. Wally is really good at making you see his side of things, even when he’s in the wrong. And he has a way of making it look like any trouble he gets in is not his fault, but just something that happens as he innocently goes about his business. He can come off as helpless. This feels like a cliché, but I think that’s part of what attracts certain women to him. Some women get drawn to a guy who seems like he needs somebody to look out for him.
…..When Wally almost had his affair (and I suspected that it was more than almost, that he didn’t tell me everything back then), my advice to him was simple: either stay with Margaret and drop things with the other woman or get with his co-worker and tell Margaret about it, maybe separate. I told him, “These things happen. It doesn’t make you a criminal. Although I wish for all of you that there wasn’t also the factor of her husband being somebody you work with. Work for. But this isn’t fair to Margaret, or to your marriage. Focus on your marriage first. Ask yourself if it should be saved. Think about your girlfriend second.”
…..In the end, the woman’s husband brought things to a head. He got suspicious and looked into his wife’s phone records. They shared a plan, so that was easy enough for him do to. When he saw all the calls and texts between his spouse and Wally, he confronted them. His wife apologized and said nothing really happened between them and they would stop now. Wally found another job.
…..“Sordid’s your middle name, Wally,” I said, letting out a little laugh to let him know I was ready to read this situation in a light-hearted way, even when my gut told me it was probably something that would make me uncomfortable.
…..“Remember the time you came to Judee’s soccer game? What was it, about two years ago?”
…..“Yeah. She made a great save in goal.”
…..“Right. Well, do you remember a blond woman with curly hair coming up and talking to me for a while?”
…..I did. She wore leopard-print sweatpants. She was built, and pretty in a way, although not my type. I remembered how strained Margaret seemed while the woman stood there, all her attention on Wally as she hung near the three of us throughout the second half of the game. Wally and Margaret’s marriage was in its final stages then.
…..“Well, her daughter April’s on the same team with Judee again this season. And she – her name is Sheila – we’ve been talking to each other a lot lately. We’re good friends now. More than friends.”
…..“So what’s the big deal? You’re divorced. You have a right to date now.”
…..“But she doesn’t.”
I told Wally I needed to hang up, then call him back in 10 or 15 minutes. I finished my dinner via two huge mouthfuls of pasta and sauce. I used a slice of Nature’s Own wheat bread to sop up the remaining sauce in the bowl, wolfed that down in two bites. Went to the bathroom where I peed and brushed my teeth. Then I went ahead and poured myself a strong glassful of Maker’s Mark and Schweppes ginger ale, on the rocks. It was still well before 7:00. Wally’s a guy who has a way of causing people to break their habits.
…..Even before hearing details about Sheila and why she wasn’t free to date, I was already feeling like an accomplice in something that was, yes, sordid. The same way I felt while hearing Wally out over countless conversations during his almost affair. I wanted to say no this time. No, Wally. I can’t babysit Judee Saturday night while you go on a date with a woman who, morally, shouldn’t be going on a date with you. I won’t be a party to this mess.
…..But I had some guilt then about Wally. Wally has dreams, and he was trying to have me help him achieve one of them at the time. Wally attended a four-year college there in Virginia but didn’t finish that. After leaving the job at the furniture shop, he took some community college classes that gave him the training to be qualified for low-level computer tech positions. He eventually got a job as an IT troubleshooter at a local middle school. Margaret, who works as a guidance counselor at a different local middle school, helped him land that gig, back when they were still married. Wally still held that job at this time.
…..But Wally wanted to do more with his life than be an IT guy. He wanted to get involved in the music industry in some way (he still wants that). Like me, he’s been a dedicated crate digger since his early youth. And, while not a musician himself, he has a thirst to do something big in the business. For a while he tried to make a documentary film about Gene Vincent, who was from that part of Virginia (Wally and I lived in Norfolk at the time I’m talking about). That never happened, and now Wally was the manager of a local band. Somehow, he’d become friends with this male/female couple in their young 20s, who were the leaders of a band from the area. And somehow Wally had become their manager despite the fact that he had no experience managing bands (he also had no experience making films, which partly explains why his Sweet Gene biopic never got made).
…..So, this is where I came in as it related to the band and Wally: I’m a writer. I freelance for various publications with pieces on different types of arts. Back at the time of Wally’s illicit Saturday night date, I was just starting to get somewhere with my writings on music. I did this on the side, apart from my regular job of managing a movie and TV memorabilia store. I started by writing reviews and features for a couple local publications, and had recently graduated to being published in three different national music magazines, as well as one from the U.K. I was beginning to make a name for myself in some small niches. So, Wally wanted me to write a feature piece on the band he managed. They didn’t have a label deal yet, had only self-released an EP that nobody knew about. And they played live, but only in the Tidewater area. Wally wanted me to write a piece on the band that would present them as a “next best thing that you’ll be hearing more about soon” kind of profile. He saw them making a name for themselves and growing in popularity, with him at the helm as their manager. He thought an article by me would be a good first step in that direction.
…..Problem was, I didn’t like the band enough to want to write a feature that presented them as a worthy act in the making. They were good with covers, did great renditions of The Cars’ “Let’s Go” and David Bowie’s “Holy Holy,” and they worked up a decent version of Judee Sill’s “The Desperado” as a favor to Wally. But their originals were weak. The best that could be said about them was that they interpreted other people’s material in an interesting way. They didn’t have anything that was theirs that was worth seeking out. But I didn’t have the heart to say that to Wally. To him, I made the excuse that they needed to have an album out, on a label, before I could write about them. He said me writing about them would help them get a label deal, that I could get them out from under the vicious circle of a lack of opportunity. I said I couldn’t take on the responsibility of saving them from the injustices of the industry. Wally always looked at me like I had wounded him at the close of the many discussions we had on that topic.
…..So it was hard to say no to him about something else that got him excited.
Back on the phone with Wally, I said to him, “So I take it Sheila’s married. Ok. So let me ask you. You’re a good-looking, likable guy who’s never had any trouble attracting women. You’re single now, and totally free to date. So why can’t you make a new girlfriend out of somebody who isn’t married?”
…..“Sheila and I didn’t plan to fall for each other. It just happened.”
…..Again, irresistible forces of nature created the circumstances of Wally’s life. It was never Wally’s own actions.
…..“So why does your next date with her have to be this Saturday, when you’re supposed to be with your daughter? Why can’t it wait until next Saturday, when Judee’ll be with Margaret?”
…..“ . . . Sheila’s husband is taking April on a dad-daughter weekend in Williamsburg. He and a buddy of his, who has a daughter the same age, are taking them right after Saturday morning’s game. Sheila has to work till six. She cuts hair. We wanna be together that evening. It’ll be the first time when we can be together without having to worry about getting caught by her husband.”
…..I took a long swig of my drink. I was bummed that the ginger ale was flat and didn’t create the fizz that makes bourbon and ginger worthwhile. I said, “So then tell me again why you can’t just tell Margaret you have a date this weekend and would like to switch weekends with Judee with her? You can just leave out the detail of your date being married.”
…..“Because Margaret thinks I’m a fuckup as a dad already. She always says how disappointed in me she is, that being a father didn’t make me less selfish. Telling her I wanna go out on a date on one of my nights with Judee will just make her think that more.”
…..“What are you planning to tell Judee about why you’re going out and leaving her with your friend? And you don’t think she’ll mention it to Margaret later?”
…..“I haven’t worked all that out yet. I’m working on it.”
…..I finished my unsatisfying drink, stood up to go make another. I was trying to hold myself to one drink a night before bed. So much for that.
…..“Ok, now I need to ask the biggest question. You know you and Sheila’ll get caught eventually. So what’ll your daughter think when she learns that you’ve been secretly dating the married mother of a kid she knows?”
…..“Fuck! Are you just out to make me feel terrible?! I thought you were my friend. You should be trying to help me, the way I always help you.”
…..Wally had a point. Despite some of his self-serving ways, he’d always been a loyal friend to me. A handy guy (I’m helpless in that way), many times through the years he’d taken time out to fix small things that went wrong with my cars, or in my apartments, to spare me the expense and hassle of garage repairs, and so I didn’t have to wait around for landlords to take care of my clogged kitchen sink or broken clothes dryer. He also helped me with bigger, emotional things. He dedicated his time and ear to me when my mother got sick, and for weeks after she died. He was practically my personal shrink through two different, painful breakups with old girlfriends.
…..“So are you bringing Judee to me, or am I to hang with her at your place?”
…..“Thanks, my man! You’re a true friend. It’ll be better if you come here. She’ll be more comfortable in her own home.”
I opened the memorabilia shop at 10:00 on Saturday. I had an assistant manager come in and relieve me at 2:00, because I wanted to go home and knock out a music article before my babysitting gig began.
…..I felt a lot of anxiety as my evening with Judee approached. What if Margaret, who I liked and respected so much, found out that I was complicit in working out the logistics for Wally’s shameful date with a married woman? And what exactly was I going to do with Judee for those hours? I’d been around her plenty through the years and liked her fine, but I didn’t know anything about taking care of a kid. An ex- girlfriend and I almost decided to get married and start a family when she and I were 19. Mercifully, that didn’t happen then, when we both would have been so unfit to be parents. 15 years later, I’d come full circle the other way and was resolved to never be a father. I liked my lifestyle too much to surrender it to having to give all my free time to dad duties. Judee and I had never been in each other’s company without at least one of her parents there. I couldn’t imagine how she and I would pass the evening hours together. I envisioned a lot of tense silence between us.
…..The lie Wally came up with to tell Judee was that a good friend of his who lived in a different state now was in town for just the one night, and the two of them wanted to get together for dinner and to catch up with each other while they had the rare opportunity. I knew Margaret would find that story fishy when she eventually heard it from Judee, but that wasn’t my problem. At least I hoped it wouldn’t be.
…..Judee was, at that age, a seemingly “normal” kid. She looked like Wally but had more of Margaret’s mannerisms and ways of speech. Neither tall nor short, not fat nor especially thin. She had long, straight brown hair and Wally’s brown, thoughtful-looking eyes. She wore a long-sleeved wool dress that night, which I thought was odd, the temperature having been in the 80s most of the day.
…..Wally hung with us for a few minutes after I got in their small house. He showed me different things I could make us for dinner – spaghetti with Prego meat sauce, frozen chicken tenders and frozen fries – and where to find all the cooking needs. But after he left, I said to Judee, “Why don’t we drive to the beach and have dinner out? I’m too lazy to cook.”
…..I was on a tight budget and didn’t like having to shell out for a restaurant dinner. But I was thinking, 20 minutes’ drive there and 20 back, probably a good hour in the restaurant, maybe ice cream and a walk by the ocean later. That would take up most of the night and keep us busy so we wouldn’t have to just sit there in the house and dumbly stare at each other without having anything to talk about.
…..We went to a seafood place I liked, a little off the strip. I had grilled salmon, rosemary potatoes, and a salad. Judee order fried shrimp and ate them in a weird way, peeling off the breading and slowly eating that by itself, then working on the exposed shrimps separately. She did the same thing with the hush puppies that came with her meal – ate the fried breading first, then the dough. She ignored her broccoli. Over the meal, I asked her all the expected questions about school, her soccer team, and the like, and got mostly one-word answers. I was thinking we should just drive back to their house after dinner, maybe put a movie on so we didn’t have to talk to each other. But after I paid the bill, Judee said, “There’s a guy who lives on the North end at 57th Street who usually brings his pig out at night for people to look at. Can we go look?”
…..Sure enough, a shirtless man, whose belly was about as big as his pet pig’s, stood out on the edge of his lawn, his pig on a leash and available to anyone who wanted to admire and/or pet it. The pig’s name was Grayson Scott and Judee was well acquainted with him. Margaret lived at the beach at the time. Judee patiently waited for some other kids to finish visiting with Grayson Scott, then she went up and petted him and talked to him. She had a wide smile on her face when she walked away from the animal. My heart felt good when I saw her smile.
…..After, we drove to DQ and got chocolate-dipped soft-serv cones. When I went to pay, Judee nudged me, then pulled a crumpled $10 bill out of a dress pocket. She said, “My dad gave this to me, in case we went out. You paid for dinner. I should get this.” I told her it was ok.
…..We ate our ice cream while walking on the beach. Judee had livened up a little by then. She complained to me about how one of the girls from the other team kept fouling during the game earlier that day, and how the ref never called her for it. She said, “And, surprise, surprise, her dad was the most annoying parent at the game. He kept yelling at her teammates, like they’re not good enough to be on a team with his perfect daughter.”
…..On the drive back to Norfolk, I played a CD I’d brought, a Smithsonian/Folkways collection of old kids’ songs from around the world. You don’t need to be a child to enjoy that disc, but I thought Judee might like some of the songs and that the CD could be an icebreaker for us. The atmosphere in the car had been too tense for me to play the disc on the drive to the beach, but I popped it in now. Judee didn’t initially react to the songs in any way, but when we pulled up at their house, she said, “Bring that in so we can listen to it inside. I like it.”
…..We played the 26-song disc twice all the way through. As we listened, we played a game of Sorry, then rummy, then dots, then several rounds of hangman. On the second spin of the disc inside the house, we both laughed while trying to mimic Woody Guthrie’s funny mouth sounds on “Riding in My Car,” and Judee sang the kids’ singalong parts to Ella Jenkins’s “Pole Pole.” She carefully read the lengthy liner notes in the CD booklet.
…..When the disc finished its second run-through, I went to start it over again. But then I noticed the time readout on the face of Wally’s Bose CD player. 11:37. Shit. Wally had told me that he usually put Judee to bed by 9:30 on weekend nights, 10:00 at the latest. As if on cue, Judee let out a big yawn then. Then she said, “I need to brush my teeth and get my PJs on. Will you sit on the floor in my room until I fall asleep? My dad does that.”
…..It only took about 10 minutes for her to pass off into sleep once she got settled in bed. Right as her eyes closed, I got a text from Wally that read, “On way, be there in ten.” I stayed in Judee’s room until I heard Wally’s car pull up outside. Watching her sleep made me peaceful inside, in a way that was new to me.
…..I was beyond sleepy by the time I got home to my apartment. But I made myself a drink of Maker’s and Schweppes, put on the Smithsonian CD and listened through headphones. The drink was good, the ginger ale fresh and fizzy at the top of the glass. But the songs didn’t sound the same without Judee there.
…..The next morning, on awakening, I remembered parts of several dreams I’d had through the night. All the dreams had one thing in common: in all of them, I was a dad.
Brian Greene writes short stories, as well as journalism pieces on books, music, film, and visual art. His work has appeared in over 30 publications since 2008. His writing blog can be found at http://briangreenewriter.blogspot.com/ and he’s on Twitter @greenes_circles
Listen to Woody Guthrie perform “Riding in My Car,” a children’s song that was part of The Asch Recordings in the mid 1940s. [Smithsonian Folkways]
Click here to read “Mouth Organ” by Emily Jon Tobias, the winning story in the 58th Jerry Jazz Musician Short Fiction Contest
Click here for information about the upcoming Jerry Jazz Musician Short Fiction Contest