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.
“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.”
“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.
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 Chimes without her father, a feeling that now seemed strange. It wasn’t always easy to frequent the same bar he did, regaling his students and colleagues, Katherine wondering which ones he might be banging. Back then, he joked that he manned happy hour; she, the rest of the night. Woman-ned it, she’d always correct him.
“I’m over it,” Luke’s voice said, startling her at the bar. He’d sneaked up on her, waiting until Miles Myres had gone to the men’s room.
“I mean if you don’t wanna hang out because you think I might get the wrong message.” He forced a smile, dimples denting his reddening face. She loved those dimples, and how easily he blushed.
“Luke. We can’t,” she said, feeling conspicuous having this talk at the bar. “I’m sorry.”
He set his jaw, nodded, and walked away. When he disappeared through the wait station, Ian said, “Want me to say something to him?”
“No, Ian,” she said. “Stay out of it.”
“Already in it.” For once, she noticed with some unease, he didn’t wink or grin.
Even when she was dating Luke, Katherine couldn’t resist Ian, especially when Luke started getting too possessive. Too bad. He was probably the nicest boy she’d ever been with, so she stuck it out longer than she normally would have. He was earnest and sentimental, though, ordering flowers for her, sending her lovey-dovey text messages. At first she found it cute, but she couldn’t handle such earnestness for very long, and she damn sure didn’t expect Luke to fall in love so hard and so fast. She thought she could always see that line approaching, the one that signals there has been an investment, but she tripped right over it with Luke and fell face first into a pile of someone else’s unrequited love.
One night at his house, Luke had made her a candlelight dinner, blackened redfish topped with crawfish Creole sauce. She unrolled the red cloth napkin for the silverware, and an engagement ring dropped to the table and rocked slightly, the diamond staring right at her. It took her a few moments to stare it down, and then she looked up at Luke, two yellow flames dancing between them. He always had that sweet smile and those dimples, and there they were, but they weren’t enough. “Luke,” she said, her stomach braiding into rope, and she shook her head. “You’ve ruined everything.” She was to a relationship, she thought, what a broken ankle was to a dancing career.
“Got Finney a stripper, huh?” Ian’s eyes caught the neon beer signs, the recessed lights in the bulkhead above. This time, though, those flirtatious eyes seemed accusatory.
“She’s a nurse now, fucker.” He winked at her. Those crow’s feet again. “You just think once a stripper, always a stripper.”
“Until this morning,” he said and smirked at her before snatching an oyster order from the ticket printer. “You know what I think?”
“That I’m going to jump your bones after work?” And she was thinking she just might. They get too analytical if you keep sex from them for too long.
Wiping gray oyster slime off his knife, he grinned. “I think you’re getting Finney a stripper nurse because you feel like shit about staying in Atlanta.” He stroked his goatee, eyes gleaming like the ice in the trough beside him.
She could barely hold his gaze, but she did. “You think you know me.”
Ian gouged an oyster with his shucking knife and split open the shells, detaching the silvery mucus and leaving it lying on the bottom shell, all while staring at her. “I know I know you.”
She forced a grin and said, “Maybe she’s for me!” As Ian grabbed another oyster, she turned to Miles Myres again, her mind still on Ian. “God damn that fucker,” she said, and Miles Myres merely chuckled, reading his obits.
Katherine awoke alone in Ian’s bed the next morning, her sinuses raw from coke, her pussy from the night with Ian. She couldn’t bring herself to try anything like this in her father’s house, even though he would’ve deserved it. Then she worried about him, alone all night with the nurse, but he’d have to be alone with her all the time now. Katherine wondered if his valuables needed to be locked up. She couldn’t imagine a job like that—one that required you to live with sick people. Did the nurses get depressed? How did they keep from getting too attached? What was it was like spending most of your time in other peoples’ houses, all the time working under a suspicious eye while making their lives easier?
Last night, after sex, she and Ian talked about these things and also about what she would do if the nurse didn’t work out. She guessed he’d be put in a home. Ian asked, “Why not move him to Atlanta with you?”
“That might cramp my style,” she said.
Ian shrugged. “Your style’s more important than him?”
“He hasn’t always been Mr. Father-Knows-Best, you know.”
“He’s still your dad.”
She nodded, lay silent a moment. Even though he wasn’t a loyal husband, Finney was her father. Without him, there’d have been no checks in the mail to Pennsylvania, there’d have been no ballet pictures, there’d have been no dancing, for better or worse. Without him, she wouldn’t be here. You can’t turn your back on things just because they get complicated or fly in the face of your well-earned prejudices. “I know.”
“Move him with you, sell his house. You’ll make a killing fast as houses’re going since the hurricane.”
“Yep.” He rolled to his side, propped up on one arm, and with his right pinky traced her left nipple, which immediately got hard. “The left one’s more sensitive,” he said. “It’s over the heart.”
She liked that he said that, but was wary of it, of the fact he said it. As far as sentimentality goes, Ian was usually bathroom-stall graffiti to Luke’s Hallmark cards.
Now, though, Ian was gone, already at Chimes. It was nearly noon. His room was cool, but quiet. Wind chimes glockenspieled on his front porch, and she thought it odd that this oyster-shucking, rugby-playing guardsman would have wind chimes. His house was neat, nothing on the bedroom walls, rugby posters in the living room, rectangular barroom towels stenciled with the names of British beers tacked to the kitchen walls. The bathroom was clean, the seat down, no mildew in the shower, even in this humid Louisiana air. She imagined that, had he awoken alone, he would’ve made his bed, so she made it for him and drove home.
On her father’s front porch, he came out of nowhere.
“Fuck, Luke!” she said. “You trying to scare the shit out of me?” He’d been crying she could tell, apparently lurking in the shadows on her father’s screened-in porch. Luke stood there, holding two birds-of-paradise in a slender Grey Goose vodka bottle as a vase. “Katherine, I still love you.”
She shook her head. “Luke, I can’t deal with this right now.”
“Go the fuck home, Luke.” She pointed at the street, heat waves rising like ghosts under the live oak branches.
Luke looked at the porch decking. His shoulders slumped, and the bottle of flowers dropped to his side. As he clomped down the three front steps, she opened the door, hurried inside and closed the door behind her, leaning against it, her shoulder blades and ass against the glass panes, waiting to hear Luke’s truck start up and drive away. She cringed when she heard the bottle shatter.
Her father wasn’t in his recliner, and D’Lorice wasn’t anywhere to be seen either. The TV was on, a senator orating about Katrina relief on CSPAN. A vehicle finally did start and drive slowly away. She peeked through the door’s sidelight. Luke was gone, but her heart was a fly bouncing against a window screen. She couldn’t see a broken bottle.
She figured her father was either in bed or in his study. His bed was empty. The door to his study was closed, but a thin rectangle of light framed it. Hearing mumbling on the other side, she pressed her ear to the door. “I ain’t getting naked, and I ain’t putting no hood over my head,” D’Lorice said, trying, it seemed, to hush her voice, but also be loud enough to discourage him. Gone was the properness of her voice the night before. When she said, “pull your pants up,” Katherine opened the door. They both looked at her.
“Goddamnit, Daddy,” Katherine said. Her phone rang in her purse. She grabbed it―Ian on the display window―and cut the ringing off.
Pointing at the Dr. Zhivago poster, D’Lorice said, “He wants me to play that woman in that goddamn Commie movie.”
Finney stared at the floor. Just as Katherine was about to scold him, piss arced from his shriveled penis and sprayed D’Lorice’s shoes. Her eyes widened, and she stepped back. “Jesus,” she said, tiptoeing around puddles of piss on the hardwood floor. “Fuck this.”
“D’Lorice,” Katherine said. “He can’t help it.”
“Bullshit. He does it all day long, so I’ll wipe him.” She walked past Katherine and stomped upstairs.
“No, D’Lorice―” Katherine’s cell phone rang again. Ian, again. This time she answered, trying to pull Finney’s pajama bottoms back up with one hand. “Jesus, Ian,” she said, “Daddy pissed all over the nurse.”
“She’s used to it. She’s a nurse. Meet me at my place at four.”
“I can’t.” She led her father to his bedroom, took a breath and said, “Luke was waiting on me.”
Ian paused. “I know. Someone here told me that he was. I sent Miles Myres over.”
Katherine paused. “Why’d you do that?”
“Worried Luke might get out of line.”
Her father laughed, and she understood him slur, “Black Lara,” and laugh some more.
“He’s fucking harmless, Ian,” she said. “And I can take care of myself.”
“Never know what a jealous, broken-hearted man might do.”
“You mean you or him?” she said and hung up. Sliding the phone into her jeans pocket, she looked at her father, who was still sniggering, spittle stretching between his lips. She left him standing there when she heard heavy footsteps descending the stairs overhead. She hurried to the living room, her father slurring, “Sawwrerr Kaff…”
D’Lorice stopped at the bottom of the stairs, set her suitcases down, and looked at Katherine. “You’ll have to get them to send somebody else.”
Katherine shook her head, and there was a knock on the door. Hoping Luke wasn’t standing there, she opened the door and recognized Miles Myres, in one hand holding the two birds-of-paradise, one bent over at its broken stem. “Found these in the street,” he said. In his other hand were chunks of broken bottle. “Got all the big pieces.”
“Thanks, Miles,” Katherine said and pointed at the wastebasket beside her father’s recliner. Miles dropped the flowers and glass inside, saying, “Fuzzy sent me over.”
She exhaled loudly. “I know.”
“I didn’t want to come.”
“Oh, Miles,” she said before collapsing against his chest and sobbing. He awkwardly put his arms around her and patted her back with both hands, the way an old bachelor might handle a newborn.
“Who’s giving me a ride to the office?” D’Lorice asked, now sitting on the bottom step.
“She’s leaving,” Katherine said. “He’s too much for us.”
“I can drive her,” Miles said.
Finney shuffled in with his cane. “Milth?” Finney said.
“Hey, Finney,” Miles said. “You’re wearing these girls out.” Finney stood there, everyone watching him. “What’re you gonna do?” he whispered to Katherine.
“A home, I guess,” she whispered back.
“He’ll die in a home.”
“It’s all I can do.”
Miles shook his head, hugged her to him as confidently and asexually as he could, she could feel. “Well,” he said and cleared his throat, “I don’t want to read in the paper some day, ‘Katherine with a K Staton, formerly of Baton Rouge, died of guilt, alone in her apartment in Atlanta, Georgia.’”
She took a breath and held it. She wiped her eyes and exhaled. Nodding, she withdrew from Miles and glanced at her father, and then at D’Lorice, whose countenance and posture maintained her resolve to leave. Sweating all over, Katherine scanned the room, the furniture, the TV, the grandfather clock―to her, it had all always been there.
Her phone went off again, and she slipped it from her pocket and saw Ian. After a few more rings, she pressed the power button. Ian’s name shrank to a dot and then disappeared. Everything in her periphery blurring, Katherine focused on her father.
“Katherine with a K” is one of several linked stories and shorts set in the North Gates area of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, just off LSU’s campus. Others (of these stories) have appeared in The Southeast Review, Juked, and The Hamilton Stone Review.
A native West Virginian, Kevin Stewart now lives in Montana, is Associate Professor of English at Carroll College, and holds an MFA from The University of Arkansas. His collection of stories and a novella, The Way Things Always Happen Here, was published in 2007 by WVU Press’s literary imprint, Vandalia, and was a finalist that year for the Weatherford Award for the best Southern Appalachian book of fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry. Stories from it appeared in, among others, Shenandoah, The Antietam Review, The Connecticut Review, Now and Then, and The Texas Review, which awarded “Margot” its 1999 novella prize. Stewart has also recently placed poetry in The Common and The Red River Review.