My father came to visit baby Grant and me one day, and he brought a houseplant with him. An African violet. I had busted him before—he’d been chatting up a spider plant in his bathroom. He misted the spider plant with a spray bottle and whispered to it softly. He’d been lonely in the year since my mother ran off with her podiatrist, so I hadn’t made a big deal of it. I’d been pleased he was making friends and hoped he’d move up to people next.
“Da, can I make you some coffee?” I asked. Grant had newly acquired the skill of making sounds that resembled words. We decided Da meant my father, so now the baby, my husband Kipling, and I all called him that.
“That would be swell, Cheryl darlin’. Could you bring some water, too?” Da rubbed his fingers over the violet’s fuzzy leaves.
Grant toddled to Da and chanted his name until finally my father left the violet alone and pulled the baby into his lap.
In the kitchen, I ground coffee beans and put the pot on. Da bringing a houseplant over seemed so surreal I feared I couldn’t ask him about it without laughing. He’d always been quite level-headed, the more practical and less romantic of my parents, and that common sense was one of the few characteristics he and I shared. From my wide, knobby feet to my flirtatious personality, I was virtually my mother’s clone.
When I returned to the living room with Da’s coffee and the plant’s water, Grant rocked back and forth in his motorized swing, and Da held the violet again. Asking him about it without cracking up seemed impossible, so I decided to discuss the situation with Kipling first.
Grant and I were in the kitchen when Kipling got home from work. I peeled and quartered the last of the potatoes while Grant whizzed around the kitchen in his old walker. He got a running start, and then picked up his feet and yelled, “Eeeeeeee!” until he crashed into the cabinets.
“He’s outgrown this. Why do you insist on putting him in it still?” Kipling dropped his briefcase on the kitchen table, plucked Grant out of the walker, and set the baby on the floor next to his feet. Grant immediately chewed on the toe of Kipling’s oxford. The shoes shined everywhere but at the toe, where they’d been worn dull from previous gnawings.
“It helps build his immunity.”
I chucked a damp potato at Kipling before setting the pot on the stove. I told Kipling Da had visited. Grant sat at Kipling’s feet and said, “Ad-dy, ad-dy.”
“Da brought a plant with him today.”
“For you? You’ll kill it in a week.”
Grant tugged on Kipling’s pant leg. “Ad-dy? Ad-dy!” His volume rose.
“He just brought it with him. For company, I think.”
“Are you joking?”
The ad-dy chant continued from the floor, and Grant pulled himself up by Kipling’s pants and thumped him on the thigh with little fists.
“Pick him up, please.”
“You coddle him too much.”
Kipling often tried to pass off his laziness as parental responsibility. At a canter, Grant headed toward the cabinets. Sometimes he forgot he no longer had the buffer of his walker and ran into things. He smacked his head into the table’s leg, and his face contorted into a grimace for a moment as he considered crying. Instead, he said, “Da. Da. Da-da.”
“Maybe,” Kipling said, “he’s not our baby at all. Perhaps he’s a Russian operative switched with our child at birth. How would we know? He came out covered in muck, so it’d be impossible to tell for sure if the nurses made a switch.” Kipling opened the refrigerator and stared.
“I’d recognize Grant’s head anywhere.”
I stirred the potatoes, urging them to boil. Grant rubbed a snotty nose on the back of my pants, and Kipling stared into the fridge for another minute before closing it and heading to the den to watch the news. Grant followed Kipling, and the kitchen grew quiet. I felt for the first time that day I had a chance to really think Da’s visit through. He and I hadn’t spent much time together since Mom left, but we never had in the past. Grant was only two months old when Mom and Dr. Beltser left town, and I’d been too angry with her myself to comfort anybody else about it. She’d called on Grant’s first birthday, but I told her she had the wrong number. She tried twice more, hoping I’d change my mind, but I assured her no daughter of hers lived at this number.
What Da needed was more human companionship. Sure he said he had plans sometimes when I invited him to dinner or asked if we could come over, but this traveling African violet conjured visions of him having romantic dinners with his spider plants or taking the violet for long walks in the park. So I resolved that Grant and I would have to visit more, maybe even coax Da to take outings with us.
The next day, we showed up at Da’s unannounced. Normally, I’d call before we went over, but I’d hoped to surprise him into agreeing to come to the mall. I also wanted a chance to catch him whispering sweet nothings to his plants again.
In Da’s kitchen, several sprouts trimmed from the spider plant hovered in little jars of water on his windowsill. From somewhere deep in the house, Da hummed. A fear mounted in me then that if a grown man could start bringing a houseplant on visits, he could develop odder, more disturbing habits without warning, so I called out his name to let him know we were there.
“Here,” Da called from his bedroom.
I carried Grant down the hall because Da’s house still hadn’t been childproofed and letting my son loose could result in breakage or poisoning.
“Everything okay?” Da met us in the doorway and kissed me on the cheek, Grant on the head.
“We were in the neighborhood and wanted to kidnap you.”
Grant squirmed, so I let him down and he bolted into Da’s room. We followed.
Da said, “I’m cleaning up. Have a friend coming over tonight for supper.”
A bright pink feather duster lay on Da’s crisply made bed, which looked like it had been done by a military man. The knickknacks Mom left on her dresser had been cleared, and in their place stood bottles of cologne, a fancy shaving kit, and a wooden cigar box in which Da had collected his cuff links and watches. Next to the cigar box stood a prescription bottle.
Grant ran head first into the dresser, creating a tremor that knocked over Da’s neatly arranged cologne bottles and the prescription, which fell onto the floor. Before I got to him, Grant already had the prescription bottle in his mouth. I grabbed it, smoothing my thumb over the ridges he’d already bit into the plastic.
“Sorry, Da.” The prescription was Viagra. I quickly dropped it back on the dresser and scooped up Grant. I wanted to wash his mouth out.
Da sighed. He came to the dresser and organized his things again. “I’ve met someone.”
“Oh?” I said.
“Nice lady. Her name’s Noreen. You’ll like her, darlin’.” He stuck the pill bottle in the cigar box and closed the lid.
“She gave me that plant I brought over your house yesterday. Said it’s real temperamental, so I didn’t want to leave it alone.”
I laughed. And Grant laughed because I did, and his giggles echoed off the walls in Da’s room and felt out of place.
“I didn’t say anything about the plant being your new best friend because I thought it was a sign of dementia.”
“I’m not that old.”
Da and I stared at each other. I wanted to hear more about this woman, but I didn’t want to ask. Da looked from my face to Grant’s.
After a long, silent pause, I told Da we’d let him get back to his cleaning and that he should come by for dinner later in the week. He said he’d have to double-check his plans. He meant he’d have to ask Noreen.
We left, but headed toward home instead of the mall. Spring had eased in without me noticing, and tulip shoots emerged in short green tufts. The brown world leftover from winter greened at its edges. Many people thought spring a hopeful season of rebirth. But the trees and fields blanketed with a clean, new coat of snow smoothed rough angles and reduced things of the world to their most basic, simplest shapes. With spring, the unexpected bloomed.
“Undy!” Grant said from his car-seat in the back. Next to the road a rabbit hopped from under low spruce branches and chewed a tuft of grass.
“Bunny,” I said. Grant put Ds in every word-like sound he made. “Bun-ny. Rab-bit.” Whenever I repeated words at Grant, I broke the pronunciation in syllables. Sometimes I feared he would learn to speak that way, since Kipling did the same thing to him. What if some arbitrary choice we made hurt him his whole life? I was grown, and my parents’ choices still affected me.
We arrived home, and in the foyer Grant and I struggled to free him of the heavy coat he’d already outgrown. The phone rang, and I left Grant, one arm in, one out, writhing on the floor.
“Yes.” I expected the caller to be Kipling.
“Cheryl?” Mom said.
“You have the—”
“Am I never going to see my grandbaby again?”
Mom’s expertise at guilt was legend in our family and the town alike, but running off with Beltser had diminished her leverage some.
“Grandson. Goes by Grant. Ringing any bells?”
“Don’t hang up. Please.” At the ends of her words, Mom’s tone became nasal, half-whined. She didn’t sound herself.
“What do you want?”
“I’m not perfect, Cheryl Anne. I know I’ve made mistakes, but I—”
“I’m not having this discussion. Our address hasn’t changed.” I hung up.
In the foyer, Grant had managed to get his arm halfway out of the sleeve before falling asleep. He lay on his coat amidst a pile of shoes next to the door. I knew I should move him to his crib, away from the drafty threshold, but I couldn’t muster the energy. Instead, I went to the den and assumed my spot in the recliner to watch my soaps. The day’s events merited some TV indulgence.
I awoke, apparently having dozed off during One Life to Live, to loud, insistent knocking at the door. Before I could get out of the recliner, from the foyer came a loud thud followed by Grant wailing.
When I got to the door, Mom had let herself in and was holding Grant, who kicked and screamed. To him, she was a stranger. I took him from her. A golf ball sized lump formed on Grant’s head where I assumed the door had thumped him.
“Why the hell was the baby sleeping right in front of the door?”
“You disappear for a year and just come traipsing in?”
I rubbed the knot on Grant’s head and rhythmically bounced him up and down. He settled from sobbing to occasional sniffs, and wove fingers into my hair.
“How are you?” Mom’s hair blazed the pink-purple of rhubarb. Foundation had been spread heavy on her cheeks and settled into her wrinkles; her cheeks bore bright check marks of blush that made her look flushed and flustered.
“He’s so big. Looks just like Kipling.” Mom grabbed the toe of Grant’s boot, and he retreated by burying his face in the crook of my neck. “How’s Kipling?” She paused. “How’s your father?”
Up until Mom asked that question, I wasn’t sure what I thought of Da meeting a woman. Now I felt happy to have ammunition. That decided the matter. I was pleased Da had found companionship.
“Da’s great. He’s got a date tonight.”
Mom smiled, all teeth. She nodded. Perhaps she waited for a punch line.
I turned and brought Grant into the kitchen. Kipling would be home soon, so I had to start dinner.
“You mean your father’s actually seeing someone? A woman?”
Grant crashed his walker into Mom’s foot, but she didn’t seem to notice.
“So he says.”
“Ha.” Mom tossed her head back. “So you haven’t met this alleged woman.”
“I’m sure she’s a woman.”
Mom laughed like the canned laughs for TV shows.
“Staying for dinner?” I had a hard time being as assertive about my anger in person. I knew she’d stay and that eventually through the course of a meal I’d start to forgive her, but I’d treat her badly for a good long while to come. I held on to grudges, another quality I inherited from Mom.
She nodded. “Love to. I need to get to know this big boy.” She smiled at Grant, who ran, picked up his feet, yelled “Eeeeeee,” and rammed her again.
Kipling arrived home at the usual time and found a strange car blocking his entrance to our driveway. Following his normal M.O. he opted not to say much about the situation. Once he found out the car was Mom’s, he treated her as if he knew all along she’d be visiting that day. We all chit-chatted over a mediocre meal of leftovers I threw together, and it was after dark by the time Mom helped me bathe and put Grant down for the night.
At the door, I helped Mom into her coat. By then, I had grown eager to be rid of her. I still wanted to be mad, but the rhubarb hair, her nasal tone, the affection she showered on Grant all urged me to forgive her.
“He left me, you know.” Mom’s mascara strayed beneath her lashes from Grant’s bath time splashing.
“The podiatrist?” I said. Mom’s collar caught in the neckline of the coat, distracting me.
“No, the milkman. Of course the podiatrist.”
I reached over and righted her collar.
“I’m staying at the motel in town.”
“Does it have cable?”
Even if I’d had the desire to let Mom stay, we didn’t have the space. She said goodnight and left, and I stood in the doorway and watched the red taillights of her car grow small and distant. The air smelled damp, like dew or rain instead of snow.
In the morning after we’d had breakfast and Kipling had gone off to work, I called Da to tell him Grant and I were coming over. I didn’t tell Kipling I planned to tell Da about Mom because I knew he’d try to talk me out of interfering, and I knew he’d be right. Da said to give him an hour or so and then to come on over, which led me to assume he still had company. The thought of my father courting and bedding someone other than my mother made me slightly nauseated and fuzzy in the head.
When we arrived, a strange sedan still sat in Da’s garage, and we found the door locked. Da never locked his door. I let Grant knock. Inside, Da and Noreen laughed. I pounded on the door. Moments later it opened, and Da stood there with a tall blond woman with a sharp nose and too perky a ponytail for her age, which disturbingly seemed to be her forties. Her breasts also seemed unnaturally high and firm. She extended her hand.
“I’m Noreen. I’ve heard so much about you. And this must be Grant, bless his little heart.” Noreen poked Grant in the tummy, and he recoiled.
She was thin and attractive and looked at least fifteen years Da’s junior. I wondered if he had money squirreled away we didn’t know about.
“Noreen’s just leaving. I’m gonna walk her out. You and Grant make yourselves comfortable.”
They moved past us out into the garage, and Grant and I crept in. No lights were on in Da’s house, and the day was overcast, so the little sunlight coming through the windows left the interior shadowy. We sat at the dining room table. The African violet held a place of honor as the table’s centerpiece. Dishes from the couple’s dinner last night cluttered the sink. I set Grant down and hoped he wouldn’t stray near the bedroom. I feared the sight of Da’s unmade bed.
“What’s the morning edition, darlin’?” Da came up behind me and scratched the span of back between my shoulder blades. The gesture made me feel twelve years old again, uncomfortable with the affection but comforted by his touch. Grant crawled under the table and played peek-a-boo from under the tablecloth’s edge.
“Mom’s in town.”
Da sat next to me. He rubbed a thumb over the callused mounts of his palm, the rough skin making a shushing sound from the friction. “She called late last night. I would have rather told her about Noreen myself.”
“I just said you had a date.”
“It’s more than that. Your mother thought she could come back here.”
Grant pulled the tablecloth and the African violet slid with it closer to the end of the table. Da placed his hands on the table to stop the cloth’s progress.
“I told your mother I want a divorce.”
I put my hands on the tablecloth too, to steady myself. Grant brushed past my leg under the table and pulled himself up by Da’s pants. He crashed the top of his head into the underside of the table as he stood. Da tugged him out from underneath the table and into his arms. Da looked at me, and for a brief moment our eyes met. I shifted my gaze to his chin.
“Da. Da!” Grant said and clapped.
“Let’s me and you go fill up Da’s birdfeeder, big guy.” Da squeezed the base of my neck and went outside with Grant.
Alone inside, the nearly absolute silence of Da’s house felt heavy, like the gravity had increased and pressed me down hard into the chair. It seemed a miracle the lonely hush hadn’t driven him mad before he’d found a companion. Noreen’s African violet sat on the table. I reached out and grasped the stem to break the blooms off—to behead the plant. My hand brushed the leaves’ fuzz, like Grant’s hair when it was new. I let go of the stem, leaving the blooms intact. I broke off a small leaf and tucked it into my pocket.
I went outside. Da and Grant crouched a few feet away from the newly refilled birdfeeder. A bird landed on the perch and began picking at the seeds. At a signal from Da, Grant charged toward the feeder, startling the poor bird off, which made Grant fall to the ground to wriggle and laugh.
“Get up. You’ll be covered in mud,” I said to Grant.
“Let him be. He’s washable.” Da put his arm around my shoulder.
Grant got up and ran deeper into Da’s backyard, startling birds that had settled in the dried remnants of last year’s long grass. We looked after him, and I noted the buds on the trees.