Kevin Stewart

Katherine with a K

He was some withered, shrunken version of himself, grottoed in his recliner. A plastic two-liter Smirnoff—a third-full, an empty LSU beer mug, and the TV remote sat on the table to his left, his good side. The window unit rattled from across the room, and silverware clanked in the kitchen. His eyes grew when he finally noticed Katherine standing there. She’d been there several moments. Her tongue sucked against the roof of her mouth, and her lungs expanded and hardened in place. Opening his mouth, strings of spittle stretching between his lips, he slurred what must’ve been her name. She said, “Holy shit, Daddy,” and started to cry, wishing she hadn’t said that. He reached for the power controller on the chair arm and uprighted the recliner, Katherine helping him to his feet. They held each other, and she felt only bones inside a jumpsuit of skin now several sizes too large. “Jesus, Daddy,” she said.

Her mother walked in, drying her hands with a dishtowel, which she tossed on the couch. “You should’ve seen him a month ago,” she said. “I have to admit, he’s improved.” Unable to imagine him any worse, Katherine helped him back into the recliner and then hugged her mother. The window unit clicked off. “Welcome back,” her mother said. “It’s been a long time coming.” Ignoring her mother’s insinuation, Katherine released her and dragged a dining-room chair to her father’s side. “You have to listen closely,” her mother said, “and be patient when he talks.” She took her purse from the coffee table, fished her keys out. “If that fat bastard and his cranky buddy come for him, don’t let them take him to Chimes. He’s drinking too much as it is.”

Custus and Wylie, Katherine knew, two regulars at Chimes, her father’s bar and her old one. She sat in the chair and took her father’s good hand; the right one palsied into a pasta ladle.

“And watch him,” her mother said. “Whenever he wants attention or gets in trouble, he pees.”

“Pees?” Katherine said. “He can control it?”

“Doctor says no, but his timing is impeccable.” Katherine laughed, but stopped when her mother said, “Luke called.”

Katherine raccoon-pawed that fact around in her mind for a few moments and then shrugged.

“That boy loved you.”

“Still does,” she said louder than she meant to. When she moved to Atlanta, Luke kept calling, never stopping until her father’d had the stroke. Only then did he stop. She glanced at her mother, at the floor.

“And I can’t do anything about that.”

“You could’ve left alone that rugby-playing busboy―”

“Bar-back.” Her mother said nothing. Katherine stared at the marlin in the wood grain on the floor, an image she’d first discerned when she was maybe three or four while being scolded for being a tomboy or not practicing her pirouettes enough. She could feel her mother train her gaze on her for several moments longer and then shift it onto Finney.

“Be good to her, Finney,” his ex-wife said. “She’s about all you have left.”

That remark stamping an instant hieroglyph on her mind, Katherine listened to her mother close the car door and drive away before she raised her eyes, meeting Finney’s—cracked, raw eggs with blue yolks and fixed on her. “You need anything?” He shook his head and seemed to be smiling, though his mouth could do little more than gape. She understood him asking how Atlanta was and told him fine. Her dance classes were going well; her students were talented and hard working. She patiently listened to him talk about a Braves game he’d been to. Something about Hank Aaron. With his good hand, which shook like DTs, he sloshed more vodka into his mug and shakily drank. Katherine wondered why he even would, why a stroke wouldn’t be sufficiently mind-altering. Before he finished the drink, he dozed off, so she had to wake him, lead him to his room, and help him to bed before returning to finish his drink for him, the vodka going down as bitterly as a lie.Upstairs, she dropped her bags on a new bed with pipe-rail head and foot rails. Her old room was stuffier than downstairs, as usual, but now it was strange and antique, for some reason out of harmony with the framed photographs of her at every age, in ballerina tights or in costumes from various productions: Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, Grease, West Side Story. The largest and most gaudily-framed photograph was of her in her white shawl, dancing as Raymonda in a production that was actually “quite reverent” to Mariinsky Ballet, her father had been glad to see and point out. One of his proudest moments of her, but she couldn’t recall such praise about anything else she’d done. When she reached high school, she detested dancing until, in college, she found a way to dance and get back at him, though he never found out. She almost wished he had, tainting her dancing for him the way he’d tainted Doctor Zhivago for her. From childhood through middle school, she’d watched it with him many times, listening to him explain the historical significance of its scenes or railing against factual errors, as he perceived them. He’d always claimed that one particular scene—the one in which Dr. Zhivago drapes Lara’s head with her hood—is the most erotic in film. Even when she was too young to grasp the significance of his insights, she loved the passion in his voice as he talked, the intensity in his eyes as he watched. She wondered whether he could even think of such things now, or whether he even remembered the movie poster in his study as she now did.

Her sophomore year at University High, she’d needed a book for a paper on a Chekhov play. She opened the door to her father’s study and found him and a grad student both standing naked, the student wearing a scarf on her head, her father cinching it under her chin. The girl saw Katherine first and covered herself with her hands and arms. Before her father could turn around, Katherine tore out of the house and into a sopping wall of humidity.

Later, after she screamed at him until it was briefly out of her system, he begged Katherine not to tell her mother. He was shooting for chair of the Russian Department. A divorce wouldn’t look good to the committee, especially if it were a result of his affairs with his students. To this day, Katherine couldn’t name the reason she didn’t tell, but she felt as if she’d been the victim of a fraud, as if all relationships were frauds.

Now she sat on the edge of the new bed in her old room, her blood simmering and her teeth grinding until she was disarmed by the sight of an antique gramophone on a corner table. Katherine smiled and thought about her MP3 player on the passenger’s seat of her car. She’d pulled the plugs from her ears somewhere in Alabama and driven in silence. She couldn’t remember ever going so long without music. Music was constant around her, as if she existed in some odd soundtrack for some life she could barely keep up with. As a little girl here in Baton Rouge, she was taught Chopin on the piano. In middle and high schools, she danced from ballet to Baroque, modern dance to electronica, ballroom to big-band jazz, two-stepping to Cajun. In Pennsylvania, she stripped to 80s glam bands and punk rock. Most everywhere else and most times, she fucked to Nine Inch Nails. Now she sat in silence, having popped a Valium just after Slidell but still not feeling it. A joint and that half mug of vodka hadn’t helped either.

Downstairs, the grandfather clock chimed the bottom of the hour, and Katherine checked her watch, wondering whether she’d reset it to Central Time. She was back in Central Time, alright—syrupy, lush Louisiana Central Time. She looked at the membrane of sweat on her arms and, with the very tip of her tongue, licked a line of saltiness from the inside of her right wrist.The next evening at Chimes, Katherine took a stool next to Miles Myres, while her mother reassumed Finney-duty back at the house. Miles Myres said hey to her as if she’d just been there yesterday and returned his attention to his Times Picayune and Advocate obits, which he explicated religiously, reading aloud funny nicknames or bizarre deaths.

Fuzzy, the boy her mother so disapproved of, placed a Singapore Sling on the bar for her and returned to shucking oysters and washing glasses, chatting with her from across the bar. “Mother’s Little Helper” murmured on the house sound, and people drank and ordered drinks and boudin balls, blackened gator and burgers. Some at the bar ate and gazed at the TVs above the shelves of booze, the beer cooler, the daiquiri machines. She scanned the restaurant side for Luke, didn’t see him, and felt the fist of tension release the muscles between her shoulder blades.

Wylie, Big Custus, Daddy-O, The Playwright, and the other regulars came down from their end of the bar, all happy to see Katherine, all sorry about her father. She told them her mom accused them of being a bad influence, and they all laughed. After they returned to their end of the bar, Fuzzy said, “Got some blow,” and then winked. He always winked.

In her periphery, she finally noticed Luke watching from the dining area, talking to a busboy. She didn’t look at him, but the fist clenched her muscles again.

“Ian, how do you keep fooling the Army?” she asked. She could never bring herself to call him by the nickname his rugby friends had given him and everyone at Chimes perpetuated.

“Guard.”

“Whatever.”

“I got it down,” he said. “Just have to make sure my body has time to work it out of my system.”

“How long before it works me out?”

He grinned, cut his eyes at her, winking again. “Don’t know yet.”

And she could relate. She’d thought moving to Atlanta might do it, and vice versa, but it didn’t. His eyes were crow-footed just right when he winked or cut them at her. His goatee, the stocky breadth of him, his chest hair. A rugby player, sometimes prone to violence, but he was never rougher with her than she wanted. Thinking about returning to Atlanta now depressed her a little. She loved her job, but still knew few people there.

Miles Myres cut in: “Kermit ‘Dog House’ Hebert, of Baker, died Tuesday after a long illness. Preceded in death by two ex-wives and one daughter, survived by wife, Mamie, three ex-wives, eight sons and three daughters, 17 grandchildren, and one great-grandson.”

“Jesus,” Katherine said. “How’d he keep up with which kid was with which wife?”

“We know how he got his nickname,” Ian said, and they laughed, but Katherine looked down the bar and saw Luke signing a beer delivery invoice, and she empathized with ol’ Dog House. She wondered if he’d felt lonely, even when he was with all those wives, or if all those children were symbols to him of all his failures in matrimony.

Like maybe she was to her parents. Her mother called with news about the split-up during Katherine’s second semester at Penn State, more angry that it didn’t happen soon enough to derail his chairmanship. A legacy admission due to her father, she went there willingly; she’d had enough of her father’s goddamn study and that goddamned movie poster mocking the state of her family. When she got to State College, compared to living in Baton Rouge, her anonymity was profound to her, and she went wild. After a 1.25 GPA the first semester, her mother stopped the money flow, but her father didn’t, though what he sent wasn’t enough for non-school-related expenses. She had to work, but rather than waitressing, she knew she had the skills, and body, for something more lucrative.

During her sophomore year, she managed to get off academic probation, but by spring semester the dancing was taking its toll. The late hours, the cocaine, the sex—all those yearning men, all those beautiful dancers she worked with. She gave to them as much of herself as she could in each 24-hour day, intent on twisting the grace and dignity of ballet around a brass pole and grinding it into a lacquered parquet stage floor.

Finally, worn out and nearly broke again, living on coffee, coke, and Dristan Nasal Spray, she transferred back to LSU, lived with her mother, and danced only in her department’s productions and for the Baton Rouge Dance Connection. She worked part-time in administration at the university and graduated, still prone to coke benders at the end of each semester, but justifying them as medicinal in purpose. She’d spend time with her mother at home; her father, Chimes. She broke a few hearts along the way, she knew, but she also knew she remained in those boys’ blood and coursed their veins like cells, but she tried not to think about it, lest she indulge.

Asleep later that night, she was awakened by her phone. Luke, wanting to know how Finney was, if Katherine needed any help, if she wanted to hang out: to which she answered okay, no, and it wouldn’t be a good idea. He paused for several moments, and she could hear him breathing, clearing his throat as if to say something difficult, so she blurted out she had to go and hung up. She tossed and turned for several hours until taking her last Valium.

When she saw in a caregiver representative’s file a dark, oval face, straightened hair in a bob, and a long elegant neck, Katherine said, “She’ll do.” The woman was lean and athletic, like a track star. D’Lorice Bishop, her name read.

The representative said many others were more experienced, but Katherine didn’t care. She was sleep-deprived. Her eyes felt like tennis balls and were tired of looking at files. She needed a nap and had earlier called Ian for more Valium. Behind her, the kitchen window unit battled the uncompromising clammy soup that was the air. The refrigerator hummed, and the coffeemaker sighed. On the wall ticked Katherine’s father’s clock, a relic that advertised Dietz’s Fine Jewelry, 261 Pringle Street, Wilkes-Barre, PA, her father’s hometown. As it had since she recognized the coincidence as a schoolgirl, the kitchen faucet still dripped in time with every third tick of the clock. She wished the ratio was actually one-to-one, that the seconds would slow so that each tick was in sync with each drip, the drips dictating. An odd wish, she believed, for a 25-year-old. Already wanting time to slow. She looked at the representative, a pale woman in her fifties, amply sturdy and tidily dressed in a beige pantsuit. Katherine grinned at her, leaned forward, and said, “Daddy’s still a dirty old man.”

The woman leaned back quickly, as if to avoid a bad odor. “Well, we try not to encourage fraternizing.”

Katherine had already forgotten the woman’s name shortly after introducing herself as Katherine with a K, as she did to anyone new. “She’ll be good for him. It’ll give him something to look forward to every day.”

The woman sighed. “She does have a record. Drug-related mostly.” She paused, as if there were more, and she’d rather not have to mention it.

“Well, what about D’Lorice? What’s worse than getting busted for drugs?”

“She used to, well, dance,” the woman said, staring at the file. “The club owner did give her a good recommendation, though.”

“Sweet!” Katherine said. “All the better.” She couldn’t wait to meet D’Lorice and talk about dancing. A bond like that would be a good thing, would make her more comfortable in Finney’s house.

“The only thing is,” the woman said, “if your father needs assistance bathing and getting around, he might need a man.”

“He might,” Katherine said and knew that goddamned feeling. She pictured Ian’s crow’s feet, a wink. “But we’d both prefer D’Lorice.”

As she led the woman out, Katherine’d noticed her father was gone from his recliner, the window unit vibrating the wooden floor. CSPAN spoke of Iraqi insurgents. Strolling through the formal room, trying to find him, she glanced around as if in a stranger’s house, the antique furniture stately with its paisleyed pine-green cloth inserts. The baby grand, the General Time grandfather clock, the shelves of hardback books in Russian and English.

She found him standing in his study, his head slightly wobbly, his good hand resting atop his tri-footed aluminum cane. The window unit here was quiet, but the room was cool. It always was, a sprawling live oak outside shading that north corner of the house. Next to the window, his framed PhD from Penn State needed a dusting, as did his MA and BA from Bucknell. On his desk sat a computer, which looked out of place to her among the dusty shelves of paperbacks, translation dictionaries, filing cabinets full of his scholarship, a framed picture of Tolstoy. He was staring at the movie poster, and she wondered if he remembered. Heat spread across her shoulders and rose.

As if sensing her anger and wanting it gone from her mind, her father moaned something, and she saw the crotch of his pajama bottoms darken with piss. “Daddy,” she said. “Jesus.” She led him to the bathroom with his cane, and he undid the bottoms and let them drop to the floor around his sock feet. As did his boxers. Eyes welling, she handed him a wet wipe and turned away from his blue-veined ass, biting down on a sob she knew she couldn’t release just then. She didn’t want to cry for him, but a sickness like her father’s makes you more forgiving than you ever thought you could be.

A couple hours later, Ian showed up with the pills and made a pass. She knew he would, wanted him to, but hoped he wouldn’t. She’d promised herself she’d left these Baton Rouge boys in Baton Rouge with her old life, no matter how lonely life was in Atlanta. She wouldn’t let that old life creep into her new one.

In the kitchen, Ian grabbed her by the beltline and kissed her, his breath only slightly warmer than the air. She did kiss him back for a moment, but then she pulled away. “Daddy’s right in there, bad boy,” she said. “I can’t.”

He grinned, and his eyes sparked. “You will,” he said and handed her the pills in their waxy blister sheets.

“You wish.” She took the pills. “A hundred dollars?”

“Don’t worry about it.”

“You can’t afford to just give a hundred dollars in pills away.”

He winked again. “Come on by tonight. I’m working again.”

She nodded and made sure his car was gone before she hurried to the upstairs bathroom, the one her father couldn’t get to, undid her jeans, and her hand slid in.

D’Lorice arrived that evening, and Katherine introduced herself as Katherine with a K and carried one of the large heavy suitcases past her dad, asleep in his recliner, a President’s man yammering on the TV about killing them there before they kill us here. In the other upstairs bedroom, Katherine placed the case on the bed, turned, and asked, “Still have any of your costumes?” with more of a lilt in her voice than she’d intended. D’Lorice glanced at her and then at the case she’d carried. “I’m sorry,” Katherine said. “But I used to dance, too.”

D’Lorice looked her up and down and then opened the case. “You got the body for it.”

Katherine laughed. “Thank you. That’s sweet.”

“I didn’t necessarily mean it as a compliment.”

Katherine laughed again, but wondered what she did mean.

“Let me guess. You danced for school money.”

“Nooooo.” Katherine grinned. “I just like being naked!” Finally, D’Lorice smiled a little as she hung two bathrobes in the closet, and Katherine wanted to hug her. “You have such a pretty smile,” she said.

“Thank you,” D’Lorice said and then hesitated before lifting her black undergarments from the case.

“Ooh, you like black,” Katherine said. “I used to, too, until an English prof once told me white is the sexiest color.”

“Oh, really?”

“He said when a man sees white panties, he thinks he’s seeing something he’s not supposed to see.”

“Must’ve been some interesting homework you did for him.”

“Nah,” she said. “I knew him from the bar.”

Smiling again, D’Lorice said, “Well, in my case, white can be seen through my nurse’s uniforms.”

“Damn,” Katherine said. “I’d have thought it was because you might like flamboyance.”

D’Lorice sighed and closed the case. “I left flamboyance in St. Gabriel,” she said and opened the case Katherine had carried, the one that contained mostly nursing clothes.

“Any boyfriends?”

D’Lorice eyed her, shook her head no and said, “Or girlfriends. And I ain’t looking for either.” She carried a bag of toiletries and cosmetics to the bathroom. Katherine felt her neck flush, out of embarrassment, attraction, or anger, she wasn’t sure.

At Chimes, when Katherine told Finney’s buddies about the nurse, about how hot she was and how she used to strip, they all laughed and claimed they’d never get the old bastard out of the house now. As they returned to their end of the bar, Miles Myres read, “Lamont ‘Horse’ Henry, 28, died of complications resulting from a gunshot wound.” He looked at her and said, “That’s obit-speak for drive-by shooting.”

“I’m more curious about how he got his nickname!” she giggled and thought about how easy it was to drink here, how it was Friday night every night around North Gates, how easy it was to step right back into the rhythm of this life, no matter how long you’d been away. Even after Katrina and Rita, the bar life marched on, though sometimes the beer ran low, distribution disrupted. She felt at home, though it was odd in Chim