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Ambush, by Dennis Must

by Dennis Must
  

One a.m. the phone rings. I know who it is and don't wish to answer.

"Which one of the girls is hurt or sick?"

"It's Grace."

"Uh-huh, in the hospital or worse?"

"Worse."

"Can't be worse."

"Believe me."

Grace is the youngest of my three daughters.

"What is it, Beth? Get to the goddamned point."

"I can't handle her."

"Are you saying you want me to step in?" We have had this conversation before. I volunteer to have Grace live with me, but insist if she does, it's until her eighteenth birthday. Beth always objects.

"She's stopped going to school and is out every night running around with twenty-year-olds, and they're no choir boys."

"Where is she now?"

"No idea."

"You understand-I take her, she's under my control and no interference from you? No 'Oh-Grace-you-come-home-to-Mamma' bullshit."

"Agreed."

There was a note of futility in Beth's voice. I lived downtown. She and my daughters lived in the Bronx, the Riverdale section. A half-hour ride this hour of the morning.

Beth sat at the kitchen table when I arrived. "Every night, Lee." She shrugged. "I never know when she's going to show. And something else-she drinks."

Not a surprise. "Drugs?"

"I don't know."

"I'll pick up her clothes and essentials in a day or two. You go to bed."

"We'll both wait."

Divorced six years, Beth and I have run out of things to say to each other. I pulled a chair up alongside the door. She sat over in a dark corner of the living room, smoking. Three-thirty a.m. Grace flounces into the apartment, sees me sitting in the hallway, and lets out a laugh. "Dad, what are you doing here?"

"Leave your coat on."

She takes it off and begins looking about the room for her mother. A fifteen-year-old in a woman's skin dressed like her mother when I first met her in a dance hall back in Ashtabula. Grace, who'd been drinking, is attempting to humor me while insinuating her mother's betrayal.

"What did you call Dad for, Ma?"

Beth slouched farther down into the sofa. I hand Grace her coat.

"Take yours off," she responds. "Nice of you to visit. Little early in the morning though, don't you agree, Ma?" she sneered.

"Put your goddamn coat on, Grace." It's now lying on the floor between us.

"I'm not putting my coat on for you or anybody else." A summer earlier she'd played league softball, and before her attitude had begun to shift, shot-putted at high school.

I grabbed her arm.

"Oh no!" she said.

"Uh-huh . . ." We were on the floor, she struggling to break free of my grip. "You're coming with me, girl. This no-accountability life of yours is all over. Changing of the fucking guard!"

I'd never seriously wrestled with a woman before-let alone my daughter. Grace and I rose and fell several times before she finally succumbed. I'd pinned her arms above her head and straddled her chest. She turned sullenly to Beth . . . who glided nervously back and forth before the picture window.

"Don't touch one goddamn thing of mine! I'll be back tomorrow."

My International Harvester Scout sat under the streetlight. Grace lit up a cigarette as we drove off. So far so good, I thought. Over the six years of separation we'd seen each other at least twice a week. The three girls initially. Then when they grew older, it made more sense to see them individually. So we'd rotate weeks. (Neither Beth nor I had remarried.) My visits with the girls were always phrenetic-a forced "happy hour" that they learned to endure and I couldn't have done without. Until a year ago when they abruptly stopped. Each girl asked separately, "Dad, can't we just visit you on a more casual basis?" They were growing up.

I crossed the Spyten Dyvil bridge and drove onto Westside Drive. Grace hadn't spoken a word until the Dyckman Street exit in the Bronx. "Turn off here!" she ordered.

"But that's not the way downtown."

"Do it!" she cried. And grabbed the steering wheel, forcing us off the road.

"Grace!"

"Trust me."

I exited and pulled the car over to the curb. "What's this all about?"

"I'll tell you later."

She wasn't attempting to jump out of the car, so I dropped it and took Broadway south. Periodically she'd look to either side of the car as vehicles passed, or out the back window to see if we were being followed. In the Fifties she visibly relaxed.

"What's going on, Grace?"

"Nothing now."

"Then?"

"You were about to be ambushed." She lit another cigarette.

"I don't get it."

"We saw your car."

"Who?"

"Me and my friends. 'He's here to take me away,' I told them. 'Get ready.'"

  "Is this some kind of story, Grace?"

"They were going to force you off the road down along 125th Street, one of those turn-offs near the river. Then pull me loose. It was all planned."

"And me?"

She didn't respond.

Neither of us spoke to each other until we got to my apartment. At the door, I asked: "These boys you're talking about ambushing me?"

"Yeah?"

"Tell me."

"Ralph's an ex-con out of Wallkill. He ain't been a boy for some time."

She ascended the stairs first. Built just like her mother. I couldn't tell them apart from the rear. The high heels with rhinestone shooting-star clasps, the shimmering pantyhose in the hallway amber light, roan hair that fell to her shoulders-and a scent that any man penned in a cage could never forget.

Alex, my current companion, met us at the door. She took Grace's coat. "Can I fix you some tea?" Grace refused, excused herself for the bathroom. Moments later she crashed on my couch, her coat still on, and fell fast asleep. Over breakfast the next morning I realized she hadn't been in school for months.

"What were you doing?" I asked.

"Hanging out with friends."

"Ralph?"

"Yes."

"Where?"

She lit a cigarette.

"Well, that's all going to change, Grace."

"Yeah, sure," she snorted. "I get it. OK. I don't mind school. I'll go back home and promise I'll attend regularly."

"There is no going back, Grace."

"What do you mean?"

Alex glanced hard at me.

"I'm not living with you."

"Uh-huh."

Grace looked at Alex. "The three of us?"

Alex nodded her head.

"You mean I am going to school around here?"

"No," I answered. "We're leaving for Maine."

"Maine!"

"Tomorrow."

"To do fucking what?"

"Live," Alex said softly.

"In Maine?" Grace jumped up from the table and grabbed her coat. "You think you're taking me away from my friends to live in Maine?"

"What are they going to do, Grace? Ambush folks in Maine-up there they'll blow your head off."

Grace started to laugh maniacally and pace. "This is all a joke." She glared at Alex, who entered our bedroom to return with the suitcases.

"It's beautiful up there this time of year, Grace. It'll do you good, do us all good to get the city out of our systems. It's poisoned us. We'll stop at your house on the way north to pick up warm clothes."

Grace had it in her mind this would all pass. Over the period of separation when any crisis among the siblings would erupt, Beth and I'd get together to formulate some grandiose, well-intentioned plan to smooth things out. We'd set the girls down, explaining how we'd spent hours of soul-searching. How good it was going to be from there on out. The children would dutifully listen-and we all felt better. Like having been released from a prolix church service. Outside the vestibule, the sun illumining the pastor who wishes every parishioner a bountiful week, while inside the organ lobs hosannas against the empty chapel's walls. Cleansed. 

But in a very short period these plans invariably withered. The animus between Beth and me remained unchanged. Grace and her sisters still had to navigate our selfish needs, which by this time they were all adept at.

In her mind, surely it was, "Fuck Maine. So we go up there for a few days. He'll have a change of heart. Mother will call, insisting I return home. Get to a phone and call Ralph. It's cool."

When we stopped to pick up Grace's clothes, her luggage sat packed on the porch. Beth didn't even appear in the window.

Alex and I had rented a house in rural Maine several months earlier. Once a summer residence for a Boston Brahmin, after years of being unoccupied it had fallen into a state of disrepair. In exchange for my carpentry services, his out-of-state relatives cut our rent substantially. Located a mile in on a camp road along the mountainous back side of a lake with one shuttered summer cottage along the way-it couldn't have felt more remote this early November.

We arrived at two in the morning. The moon silvered the lake's icy surface whose far side abutted a one-general-store town. Grace had slept most of the way, resigned to wait Alex and me out by responding indifferently to anything we uttered.

"It's serene here in the summer, Grace." We walked past the boathouse toward the main residence, or "Mountain Lodge" as the local people knew it. "There's a vintage Chris-Craft motorboat lying in a slip inside there, all mahogany and appointed with chromium spotlights. A real beauty you can run the lake at night with."

She climbed the steps ahead of me. At the entryway I inserted the key. "You're going to love this place. It has a winter and summer quarters. Twelve rooms. Your choice. The bedrooms facing the water are the loveliest."

The house had been shut tight for three months-the air inside stale and bone chilling. Fusty air always penetrates the body deeper than cold, outside air, no matter what the temperature. I immediately set to throwing sticks into the kitchen's wood stove, then lit the console Atlantic wood burner in the winter living quarters. Upstairs the Lodge was heated by warm air rising through filigreed cast-iron registers inset in the downstairs' ceiling. I activated the pump which began drawing water up from the lake. Soon Alex brewed coffee.

We listened to Grace's spike heels drumming the hardwood floors, wandering in and out of the upstairs' chambers. They stopped over the kitchen, the darkest room in the Lodge. It looked out upon a ledge less than six feet from the back of the house that rose vertically for another 150 feet. The "cottage" had been built on a shelf blasted out of the granite rise in the thirties by the merchant who'd amassed his wealth acquiring wool from Northeast sheep farmers, then selling it to the government for World War I uniforms.

Grace's bedroom furniture had all been painted cottage-white: a spool bed, a dresser with an oversized rococo mirror and an arrow-back kitchen chair that sat in the corner. The walls had been freshly painted robin's-egg blue.

Tuesday morning, once we'd taken the chill off the downstairs, I hollered up for Grace to join us at breakfast. She refused. When I knocked on her door, and she didn't respond, I opened it to find her lying under several blankets in the bed, motionless.

"I'm not hungry," she said. It became her refrain for lunch and dinner.

Wednesday, a repeat of Tuesday.

By Thursday morning, Alex had begun to express concern. "She's going to starve herself, Lee. It's how she's going to beat you."

"I don't give up easily," I said.

"You don't understand the will of young women."

"I'm every bit as strong and determined as she is."

"Suppose she continues to refuse food?"

"When she gets hungry enough-she'll give in."

"After a couple of days . . . the pangs of hunger lessen."

"She's got to come downstairs to drink."

"Already beat you on that."

"What do you mean?"

"She's cupping snow off the window sills."

Tuesday it had begun to snow nonstop. I'd spoken to a town selectman about plowing our camp road. "We don't plow out driveways," he said. I told him I had a teenage daughter down by the lake, and he and the town fathers damn well better keep the lane clear or I'd call the State's Department of Education. "What if something happened and we need an ambulance? Am I supposed to swim across the damn lake for help?"

The five-acre body of water looked like a meadow blanketed by snow.

Friday and Saturday Grace still didn't show. Alex found a desktop radio, an ivory Philco model, in one of the summer rooms and set it inside her door. We could hear she'd tuned into a station of top hits coming out of Lewiston. She played it nonstop. Saturday evening when I knocked, there was no answer. I pushed open her door and was surprised to see her standing at the mirror, dressed in the very same clothes she wore the night I picked her up. A black jersey dress that draped provocatively over her breasts and hugged her buttocks. She had hose on and black silk spikes with rhinestone shooting-stars clips on each toebox. While brushing her chestnut hair, she'd obsessively reach down to change the station after the song's first minute or so of play.

I sat on her bed. "Will you join us for dinner? Alex's prepared a tuna casserole, the kind you always enjoyed when your mother made it. She's baked cornbread, too. I guess you already smelled that, huh, Grace?" 

She sprayed cologne about her neck and shoulders.

"We're missing your company, you know? It's easy to get lonely up here. People have to stick together to get through the long winters. If you'd come downstairs to look out across the lake, or down the path toward our car, you might see how easy it'd be for us to get snowed in. A little forbidding, Grace."

She spun the radio dial back and forth as she wiped indigo polish off her nails. The solvent's fumes quickly penetrated the closed room.

"One morning we might wake up and can't get outside. The town hasn't agreed to plow us out. And the Chris-Craft cradled in ice down there in the boathouse . . . well, all I am trying to tell you, Daughter, is that it sure would be nice to have you honor our table. Will you come?"

Grace didn't answer. I stood up and caught her reflection in the bureau's mirror. Even there our eyes didn't meet. I closed her door and walked back downstairs.

"I'm not hungry," I told Alex, who waited with dinner in the kitchen. The windows had all frosted up. Outside in the dusk, once again I cleared a path to our car.

Sunday morning we awoke to a howling blizzard. The winds came out of the northeast and blew snow off the lake's surface. By noon the drifts were literally five to eight feet deep about the base of our house. We couldn't see the car, and the road still had not been plowed. Alex and I'd spent most of our time over the past week huddled about the kitchen stove or the console Atlantic in the adjacent living room. One entire block of the house, the summer section, we didn't broach and slept upstairs across from Grace's room. Scarce heat rose up through the floors' registers.

Alex, who'd attempted to keep a bright face through the father-daughter standoff, had begun to noticeably weaken-as I had. Grace hadn't eaten in over nine days. Snow she "drank." We could see the clean windowsills. Periodically I'd linger outside her room, listening to the top forty, debating if I should go in and reason with her. But after watching her getting ready to go out Saturday evening, I'd turn away.

We'd even sung "Good morning," through her door each day. Grace never answered. And Sunday, as I pulled my boots on and began layering myself once again with sweaters and a mackinaw to begin to tunnel out of the drifts, I turned to Alex. She gazed out the fixed French doors that served as the kitchen's exterior wall. The lake's surface was blurred by flurries.

"I can't stand this hostile environment we're encountering outside, plus a spiteful daughter waiting us out in that summer's conceit upstairs. One of them I might endure... but I'm losing," I admitted.Barely a half-dozen years older than Grace, Alex didn't respond. It wasn't how she planned it either. Our arriving at the Lodge in late July, its foundation azaleas blooming in an explosion of colors, the watercraft floating like winged insects out on the lake, the cool interior of the Lodge's summer living room that opened up to floor-to-ceiling screens on three sides shaded by massive hemlocks. Wicker on the veranda. The dream that back on Houston Street we burned like mantle candles. Unable to imagine winter in that half-light, we signed the lease. Yet now it was abundantly clear: summer in Maine was, at best, a beguiling kiss of winter's ten-month frigid embrace. The growing drifts threatening to isolate Alex, Grace and me from the now less-than-quaint general store and town.

My daughter playing "dress up," waiting to go out in her mother's "silk" shoes and stockings. Her hair now brushed to a honey sheen and lying stiff under a mound of pastel wool blankets, listening to the top forty, again, again.

"It's getting to me, Alex."

"She's starving herself, Lee."

No longer convinced she wasn't, I went outside to shovel. The snow was so impacted by the heavy winds that I was able to tunnel, literally tunnel, several feet into it. I could gopher down the 100 plus feet to the car. But the thought unsettled me further; I didn't like what it portended. Enough child's play. And began knifing the snow tunnel open with the shovel's blade. Three hours into the project-I had to keep doubling back because of the incessant winds causing more snow to be lifted off the lake's surface and cast against the Lodge and me-I made a decision.

And tramped straight up to Grace's room. Didn't even knock. She sat upright in her bed holding a hand mirror, rubbing the frost away, and painting her cheeks magenta.

"OK," I stammered. "You've won. Tomorrow morning I'll drive you back to New York. I did my damn best. Thought you and I'd get to know each other better up here in the woods. But I can't fight the winds and blizzards, keep the fires going to get us through the winter without perishing-and fight you starving yourself a fairy queen's death. It's gotten to me."

Out beyond the swept windowsills, the ledge loomed black and fortress like. Snow had been scraped there, too. 

"You can wear those damn shooting-star stilettos home tomorrow. That please-fuck-me dress, too. And the perfume you bathe yourself in for Ralph-Christ, he sure must be pining for you. Well, goddamnit, so was I-not for my old wife-but for you, Grace. My kid daughter. Whom I've never had the pleasure of knowing. But she's gone, too, huh? Ralph's girl now.

"Just like your Mama. I was never the man of her dreams either."

I cut into the drifts more determined now. Another hour I'd reach the Scout. Then pray the town plow would make its yellow-caution light presence known, flickering down the backside of Lake Christopher. When I heard the kitchen door slam-I suspected Alex had come out to assist.

But it was Grace.

Standing knee-high in fishing boots, a man's winter coat and stiff seersucker trousers she'd found hooked in one of the many Brahmin's closets. Staring at me, shivering, her chestnut hair blowing and catching the lake snow like a gossamer net-her green eyes catching mine like they hadn't in the ice room's bureau's mirror.

"What do you want me to do?" she asked.

"Stay," I cried.

The next morning I walked her out the long camp road. We'd all gotten up early and had hot cereal for breakfast. We could hear the school bus pick up another youth just up the main road. Neither of us had much to say. Grace was dressed in the black rayon dress for her first day of school in Maine, all disguised by my wool mackinaw. In one hand she carried a lunch-in another, a paper bag holding something mysterious. At peace now. But her head was uncovered. We'd even laughed among ourselves over dinner the night before about the capricious pictures of Maine, the house and the pond, we stored in our minds back in the city. And when she looked down through the stand of yellow beech and oak trees to the lake that glistened like a frosted mirror, she said it was unwelcoming-but lovely. I thought it was, too.

At the camp road's end, she motioned that I follow her off to its side where she braced herself against an ancient maple. The school bus would appear any moment. 

"Help me, Dad," she said, reaching out her arm to brace it on my shoulder-then stooped to unfasten her galoshes-green uglies she called them. Alex'd bought her a pair at the General Store. She handed me first one, then the other. Black hose, the shade her mother always wore, tottering over the snow.

"Hand me the paper bag, please." Out came the stiletto heels with the shooting-star clasps.

I placed her green uglies in the paper sack.

"Set it alongside the tree, Dad. I'll wear them in tonight."

I watched the bus pull up and its occupants peer out as she climbed aboard, some much younger than she, some who looked older-maybe even as old as Ralph. Grace opened my mackinaw and sauntered down the aisle exactly like I'd expect a New York City woman in wintertime would.

  

Dennis Must's collection of short stories, Banjo Grease, was recently published by Creative Arts Book Company, Berkeley, CA. His plays have been performed Off Off Broadway and his fiction has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies including Blue Cathedral: Short Fiction for the New Millennium (Red Hen Press), Rosebud, Cortland Review, RiverSedge, Writer's Forum, Salt Hill Journal, Sun Dog-The Southeast Review, RE:AL, Red Cedar Review, Sou'wester, Blue Moon Review, CrossConnect, Exquisite Corpse, Alsop Review, Southern Ocean Review, Big Bridge, Linnaean Street, and elimae. He resides in Massachusetts with his wife and two daughters.

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