Walter Giersbach bounces between writing genres, from mystery to humor, speculative fiction to romance with a little historical non-fiction thrown in for good measure. His work has appeared in print and online in over two dozen publications. Two volumes of short stories, Cruising the Green of Second Avenue, are available at Barnes & Noble, Amazon and other online booksellers. He’s also bounced from Fortune 500 firms to university posts, and from homes in eight states and to a couple of Asian countries. He now lives in New Jersey and moderates a writing group.
A Short Story
By Walter Giersbach
I didn’t immediately recognize the girl when she knocked on the door of my rented house. Although tall enough to be an adult, she appeared be at that in-between age where little mouth twists, self-conscious gestures and uncontrolled body movements contrast with burgeoning breasts and hips. In fact, the girl-woman looked like she might be pitching a product, like magazine subscriptions.
“It’s me, Gramps,” she said. “Morgan.” A spark of rebellion showed as her hands kneaded a backpack held in front of her, as though she was daring someone to try taking away her protective armor.
It became clear when she spoke that this was Alison’s daughter. It had been three years — Thanksgiving of 2011 — since I had sat across from her at the table at Alison and Ross’s house in Montclair. Morgan would be about fourteen now.
“Well, c’mon in, Alison.” I corrected my slip immediately, saying “Morgan.” But she did look like Alison. I opened the door wider and rattled off awkward banalities; How’s your Mom and What are you doing in Iowa City? I sat her down in my small living room and examined her, fighting to hold down a mixture of joy and curiosity at seeing family. It had been four years since I’d lost my wife, followed by those years of estrangement from our daughter.
“I’m running away, kind of, and want to stay with you — if it’s okay.”
I shrugged as if to ask, Who am I to judge? “How’s your Mom feel about you being here? She expect you home for dinner — or the fall semester, or whatever?”
“I’m in first-year high school. We have marking periods. I thought I might go to school here.”
The pressing question was why Morgan had run eleven hundred miles from home in New Jersey. And why she had run to me. There should be a good, entertaining story behind her journey. I would have recalled loads of road stories, decades earlier, when I lived out of a suitcase or rucksack or duffel bag.
“Well, all things are possible,” I said. “It just means getting to the right decision, thinking through the choices.”
I had encouraged my daughter to run away and see the world after graduating college, using the tether of her cell phone to make sure she was safe, of course. Risk-taking is healthy, but Alison never took me up on my suggestion.
I scratched my face, conscious that I’d ignored shaving for two days. I’d have to clean up and get focused for a class at the University the next day. An idle thought also crossed my mind: Would Morgan think me a bum, wearing worn jeans and a T-shirt? And why she had run away to a skip-generation adult instead of to a more contemporary person? Alternatively, I might look more approachable than her friends’ parents; I had never seen her father wearing anything but a white shirt and necktie. Ross was a stiff.
“Can I have something to drink?” She sat defiantly, knees spread. Serious brown eyes stared out of a clear face. “I’ve been on a bus for two days.”
“Sure, I was going to refill my own.” I pointed to my glass sitting next to a book on the coffee table. “What d’you drink?” She looked to be in good shape for a person who’d slept sitting up on a Greyhound. Running away took brass balls and strong kidneys.
“Gator Ade. Whatever. I drink a lot of power drinks to replenish my system. I need electrolytes.”
I’d never given a thought to electrolytes and didn’t really know what they were. She looked skeptically at the Pepsi I brought in. I handed her the soda can and refilled my own glass with wine. Her hands were smooth, and her fingernails were the same spatulate shape as those of Alison and Laurie, my late wife. She was obviously a part of me in biological terms.
“I guess you have a story to tell,” I prompted. “Eleven hundred miles is a long way — particularly for people who don’t often cross the Delaware. Guess you’re almost a pioneer.” My joshing banter fell flat.
Her face crinkled up. “Pioneer? What the hell? We’re not a different race. I just did it. I got on a bus. What do you have against New Jersey?”
“Most Easterners are pretty satisfied with their backyards.” I pulled a cigarette out of the pack of Camels in my shirt and lit up, giving me a moment for reflection. “What I mean is, people from the Eastern seaboard don’t get West very much. I was a kid in Washington and California, went to college and grad school in New England, and on to New York City after an Army hitch in Asia. Grandma Laurie and I did a bunch of things there, then I came here for personal reasons.”
“I know why you came back. So you could be a college professor. Cause Grandma Laurie died. And Mom said you had a mistress.”
“I was hired as an adjunct professor after arriving here — and there was no girl involved.”
She squinted in disbelief but chose not to debate the family fable of a wayward widower. “Listen, Gramps, you aren’t going to call Mom and rat me out, are you?”
“I think I should — and don’t call me Gramps. She’ll probably call me in a matter of hours. Figure out you’re here by some process of elimination. Then what do I say? I can’t lie.”
I thought of my daughter and wished I could be more sympathetic to her feelings. As a polling consultant, she traveled constantly. Her husband was a lawyer for a Manhattan firm whose name I could never remember. They called themselves professionals, a class that required them to put in 60-hour weeks doing arcane tasks. My points of contact were their mobile phones. There would be the occasional, hurried e-mail and then the dutiful Christmas card at year’s end.
Morgan pursed her lips and furrowed her forehead, the puerile wrinkles making her look even younger. “You could say I called, that I’m on my way. That way you’re not exactly telling a lie, but you aren’t spilling your guts and killing me at the same time. And why can’t I call you Gramps?”
I sipped the wine. The French Bordeaux were good, but still overpriced. “You’d make a helluva diplomat, Morgan. And ‘Gramps’ makes me feel over the hill.”
“Mom would be pissed that you smoke in front of children.”
“I take that back about being diplomatic.”
She raised her chin. “That’s what she’d say. Personally, I don’t give a rat’s ass.”
I gave Morgan a deeply felt hug that night and closed the door to my study where I had inflated a mattress for her. Then, after pouring myself a whiskey, I called Alison. “She’s safe. Healthy and good humored. You have a wonderful daughter who’s trying to figure out her life. Happens to all kids about that age.”
“Don’t bullshit me, Dad. She started a fight about staying out at all hours, and Ross and I are not thrilled that she took a major risk busing or hitching out to Iowa, for God’s sake.”
“Think back, Alison. You had a few tiffs with Mom and me. It’s part of measuring your own space and place in the world. I remember….”
“Dad, you are harboring a runaway minor. Ross has called the police and the matter is just shy of being a national amber alert. And don’t refer to our arguments as tiffs. Half the time you were an absentee father and the rest of the time you turned everything into a joke, like telling my friends all the little family secrets you….”
“Alison, what really caused Morgan to run away?” I could hear a conversation in the background. Was Ross standing just out of earshot, posing with his arm on a chair back or the fireplace mantle? Was there a huddle of friends nervously waiting for word of the child?
There was a deep intake of breath on the other end of the line. Alison was crying? Her speech had become increasingly brittle and parental over the years. She had always been such a hard case as a child that I wondered if anyone had ever broken through to the inner person.
“The details aren’t important,” she said. “Now, are you going to put her on an airplane home or do I have to come and get her?”
I told her there was an alternative. Morgan was asleep, and after she awoke and had breakfast we’d discuss the matter and I’d let her arrive at a solution — with my guidance — to resolve the situation.
“Goddammit, you never listen to me!” Alison slammed down the telephone.
Alison called again at exactly nine o’clock in the morning — ten a.m. in Montclair. She was observing the proprieties of never calling before nine. “Well, have you talked?” she demanded.
“Good Lord, I’m making my first cup of coffee. Your daughter isn’t even awake yet.” I grabbed a cigarette, lit it and snapped the Zippo shut.
“Dad, please do not tell me you are smoking in the house, polluting my daughter with second-hand smoke. Do you have any sense of what you’re doing to people’s lives with your drinking and smoking?”
“And my progressive politics? Alison, you are a maternalistic altruist. You’ve been one all your life. Just get off your high horse.” I’d been waiting three years to tell her this.
“Materna…? What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
“It means,” I said, exhaling loudly, “you care only about some aspect of another person’s behavior — some characteristic that irritates you. Then you frame it as a danger to the world. That everyone should stop smoking, and wear helmets and seat belts, and get annual colonoscopies, and….”
“You are putting my daughter’s health at risk!”
“She’s running away from you, Alison — not me.” I always felt tense and defensive talking with Alison. Fathers shouldn’t be made to feel like ignoramuses by their children. “You’re like the authorities that make laws to help you cross a street safely. Then they won’t let go of your hand when you get to the other side. You don’t allow for a certain amount of risk taking. Well, I’m a risk taker. Get used to it.”
“Living off the grid with the hicks in Iowa! Now, I demand an answer about returning my daughter.”
“Maybe I should talk to Ross. Lawyers are sometimes rational.” I carefully hung up the phone, and turned to see Morgan eyeing me from the doorway.
“I lied,” I told her. “I called your Mom last night so she wouldn’t worry. Told her you were staying here for awhile to work things out. She called back to discuss the terms of your ransom.”
Morgan nodded, sat down and pointed at the gurgling coffee maker. “Milk and Truvia, please.” Her long tangle of brown hair fell loosely over the tee shirt.
“Sugar we got. Honey. Molasses. I don’t know what Truvia is.” She didn’t seem concerned about my conversation with Alison.
“No big deal. So what do you teach?”
“Anthropology. An intro course. Today, I’m going to give my students rubber bands and tell them to go shoot squirrels on the campus.”
“Are you out of your fucking mind?”
“Watch your trash talk.” This young lady could be contentious, a rattlesnake that’s been kicked, and winning her trust wouldn’t be easy. “And, no, I’m not out of my mind. I want them to learn how early man had to find tools, take risks and adapt if he was to survive.”
“By killing squirrels?”
“With rubber bands?” I laughed. “They’ll have to learn to sneak up on the little fellas, and they’ll get all muddy and frustrated, and they’ll discover success comes only to the skillful. Occasionally, students figure out they can work as a team — cooperatively. The squirrels may have a learning curve, too, because I gave this exercise last year.” I poured her coffee and put out the milk bottle and sugar bowl, wondering what I had learned in the past four years. As a practicing anthropologist, I should have had some answers, but more concerns just rose to the surface. Alison’s badgering still irritated me, as did my over reaction to her attack. She had become the parent and I the undomesticated child. My daughter should have been imprinted to love me, the way goslings hatched by Konrad Lorenz followed him around believing he was their Mother Goose.
“Is Mom mad?”
“Apoplectic. What happened between you two? Care to talk about it?”
“If I have to.” She colored the coffee a light beige and blew on it, ducking her head in apology when the coffee splashed on the table.
“Eggs and toast okay? I have to teach a class later.”
“I can just hang out here, if that’s okay.”
“I have a spare key somewhere, so if you want to walk down to the stores….”
“If you must know, it was over a guy at my school. Mother didn’t approve.”
I stopped pushing things around the countertop and sat down across from Morgan. I knew she attended a private school whose pedigree reached back a century and a half.
“Guess I’ve heard that situation before.” I tried to sound noncommittal.
“It really doesn’t matter because we broke up. She doesn’t like basketball.”
“Wait a minute, I’m confused. Mom didn’t like your boyfriend. You and he broke up. Where’s the basketball…?”
“Don’t you get it? Tyrone is black and there are, like, three black kids in my class, and Mom says basketball gives you an enlarged heart, but it’s really cause Tyrone’s black and on scholarship from Camden.”
“Yeah,” I said slowly, “I can see something’s at work, why she made you stop seeing.…”
“No, Gramps, I did the breaking up. Being tied down to one guy was so boring and predictable, so it’s the principle of the thing.”
“Don’t call me ‘Gramps,’” I muttered.
Morgan and I drove east out of Iowa City early the next day. She had agreed, reluctantly, to let me chauffeur her home. I’d arranged for time off, with my classes being taken by a colleague. We would drive straight through, catching cat naps and making pit stops on I-80 as needed. It would be a fifteen-hour trip to Montclair. One day to rest and then a fifteen-hour return drive. I knew the road well, and the adrenaline rush that came with a full tank of gas and an empty road. I just hoped my 1973 Alfa-Romeo Spider Veloce would hold together.
“Can’t I stay with you a little longer?” Morgan asked again. “I won’t be a burden. And can we put the top down on your car?”
“Nothing I’d love more, Morgan, but I’m not your guardian,” I said, pulling over and getting out to yank the canvas top back. “I’ll try to see if you can spend some of your summer vacation here.”
“You’re not my guardian — you’re my grandfather. We’re family.”
“Grandparents have no legal rights. I’m sorry. Take it up with the authorities.” I stopped at the last traffic light and then gunned through the gears onto the Interstate. It was fulfilling to be on the road again, assuaging my fever for the highway. How many times had I ridden the blacktop ribbons, just to say I’d seen the Tetons and the bayous and the Anasazi cliff dwellings? I might as well have been running away myself.
“Grandparents are supposed to spoil their grandchildren.” She sank into the seat, sulking. Her long hair was a flag waving goodbye to Iowa.
“Okay, here’s the lesson for the day, Morgan. It’s physics. What’s happening here is action and reaction. You, me, your Mom. We’re all reacting to each other.”
“I don’t understand half of what you’re saying, Daniel. It’s no wonder Mom said you’re crazy.” I looked over sharply at the sound of my name coming from this teenager. “Well, you told me not to call you Gramps.”
“Okay, for every cause there’s an effect. Right? One of Newton’s laws of motion. For every action there’s an opposite and equal reaction.”
Morgan squinted, daring me to continue and threatening arrows of scorn if I didn’t make sense. “Whatever.”
“Let me take it from a different angle. Who do you despise most in school? The jocks? The dirt bags? The geeks?”
“Preppies,” she conceded. “They are so unable to understand spiritual values and stuff.”
“What I’m getting at is that you’ve already formed your basic attitudes. As you get older you’ll see the world in terms of those wretched enemies that you’re morally superior to. You’ll find all sorts of reasons to hate them.”
“You think I’m prejudiced!” I knew from my students that unreasoned judgment was the equivalent of a racial slur. Discrimination without logic was the unforgivable taboo.
“We all prejudge. I discriminate against stupid people, and I don’t like the Japanese who kill whales and I hate everyone involved in the goddamn Middle Eastern mess. You’ll grow up biased against your adolescent opposite — preppies that you pity.”
Was she buying my argument? “Take your Mom,” I said, trying to elaborate on my argument and at the same time dig myself out of the hole of being a loquacious geezer. “She’s always distrusted people who aren’t passionate zealots — who weren’t like her adolescent self. Your Mom is firmly convinced everything is rational and subject to self-evident truth. There aren’t any conspiracies. There aren’t any deeper motives or hidden agendas. Just objective truth.” I added, “Maybe no redemption from mistakes either.”
She was silent, and I waited for her to deride my theory as bullshit. Instead, she said, “I like your car. It’s cool.”
“Thank you. It’s a classic. If you know any spiritual words, you should pray it gets us to Montclair.”
“By the way, Daniel, I don’t care what Mom says, you’re kind of cool for an old guy. I don’t know any grandparents who are bald and have a ponytail. You’re a Grand Dude.”
I smiled. “You’re cool too. We’ve been on the road half an hour and you haven’t asked, ‘Are we there yet?’”
“So, you don’t really love Mom?”
“I love her very much. I’m sometimes concerned for her well-being.”
“You heard the latest?” Morgan asked. Her head was facing away from me, out the window. “My Dad and Mom are getting divorced.”
My body tensed and my foot eased off the accelerator. I felt another tectonic plate in our family life shift under the surface of civility. There had been Laurie’s death, my departure, and now Morgan’s last sanctuary was splitting in half. Her safety nets were disappearing.
I didn’t answer until we’d gone a mile into Indiana and I could head into a service plaza. “I didn’t know,” I said softly as we sat in the parking lot without moving. “I’m sorry. I guess I’m the last to know.”
“They’re arguing over me now,” Morgan said. “How much visiting rights Dad has and where I get to vacation and all the blah blah blah.” Her chin tipped up with an air of sophistication. “I think maybe half my friends’ parents are divorced. No big deal.”
“Do you think I can get a bid in? Maybe you could stay with me. I’m going to Belize this summer to count dolphins and climb around Mayan ruins.”
My cell phone rang. Morgan pointed to the phone between us. I looked at it and recognized Alison’s number. “Whatever,” I said.
The phone rang several more times in successive minutes, and then Morgan’s phone, muffled by a pocket, rang a jangly tune. Neither of us moved to answer.
“I don’t know where Belize is,” she said, “but I love dolphins.”
There was a twinge of guilt over the missed calls from Alison, but I couldn’t take her accusations just now. We’d sit down and chat soon, eye to eye, in her living room in Montclair. Then, to be brutally honest, I examined my self-reproach about being a bad parent to see if there was a way of alleviating it or transferring it to another object of blame. It was too easy to call Alison neurotic; she was deeply perturbed about things I had no wish to investigate. Live and let live wasn’t part of her vocabulary; remorse was not in my lexicon of virtues.
Pennsylvania had always been an endless state, and I-80 was an asphalt carpet that unrolled through night-time dark forests. I put up the convertible top, turning the little car into a tent and enclosing grandfather and granddaughter in our own world. It would be wonderful if all families could cohere so easily by simply pitching a tent. This was our teepee of togetherness.
I stopped at a picnic area around midnight so I could stretch my legs and smoke the last of the five cigarettes I allowed myself each day. I called myself a special-event smoker who stopped during uneventful periods and began again when critical situations developed. While Morgan slept, I pondered having more than five smokes if the next day I would have only four. I occasionally thought about these trade-offs. There was talk about industrialized countries buying pollution rights from poor ones, and rich people paying to have trees planted when they cut down a forest to build a mansion. What had I traded off? Laurie’s death had been my lost wager that I could have one woman for family and another for sex.
For six months, I had artfully juggled a middle-aged wife and a grad student who jiggled and laughed. Laurie finally smelled the scent of another woman, sensed that someone else was sharing my affection. The final argument had begun in the car as Laurie and I were driving down from Pittsburgh into the blinding sun — the same road I was on now. She announced she was leaving me and opened the door on a mountain turn — irrationally, considering the car was doing sixty-five miles an hour. I wrenched the wheel and with a screech of screaming tires the car shot off the road.
I was in intensive care for a week and missed Laurie’s funeral.
I admit to the foolish affair now, and I had owned up to it with Alison before my departure. She wasn’t buying confessions at that time. Now I had neither wife, mistress or daughter. The devil doesn’t let you off the hook.
I field-stripped the cigarette and put the filter in my pocket till I could get to a trash bin.
Morgan woke up and called over, “So, tell me another story, Daniel.” She was sitting in the car’s open doorway, and for a moment I thought I was looking at Alison.
“Okay, here’s one,” I said, but my mind was a blank. Talking always leads to thinking with me, so I began. “Once upon a time there was a little girl named Morgan. Her doll with China blue eyes was named Morgan. Her bowl and spoon were named Morgan. Her enamel potty was named Morgan. Even her mother and father were named Morgan….”
“Daniel! Is this story going anywhere?” She was fully alert and demanding now.
I wondered if the road through Pennsylvania went anywhere. Perhaps I was in hell, reliving some horror story, with my granddaughter in the passenger seat instead of my wife. Morgan seemed more anxious now as we neared her home. The surreptitious nail-biting increased.
“Well, the story is the ending. Anthropologists have learned that everyone’s the same. The Trobriand Islanders that did their rituals for Margaret Mead and the Dinka in Africa that drink their cows’ blood and the bar hoppers in New York’s East Village are basically all the same. All searching for the same things, whatever their names are.”
Morgan cocked her head to one side, eyeing me critically. “Goddammit, you are such a bullshitter, Daniel! Do we all have to pay for you being so dramatic?”
I couldn’t interpret the contortions that shook her shoulders before her hands went up to cover her face. “Dad and Mom are splitting up,” she shouted. “My world’s falling apart and you give me smartass philosophy shit. Can’t you just try to understand Mom? Can’t you help me?”
It was hard to see her face in the backlight from the car’s interior. The figure was rocking back and forth in the passenger seat. “I don’t even have my grandma anymore,” she said.
I said, looking not at Morgan but east, where the dawn would lighten the sky, “I didn’t kill your grandmother. It was a tragic circumstance.”
“But you did, and Mom hates you and so I hate her.”
The day might come, I thought, when the rich could pay the poor to atone for their sins — but not yet. “Alison,” I beseeched, grabbing the girl’s shoulders, “I tried, for Christ’s sake. I really did.” My voice was rising to match the volume of her shouting. “I tried to reach out and I’ve been thwarted. My overtures have been ignored. I’m a father, and for all my paternal charity I’ve been treated like shit!” Even my mates had left, one through suicide and the other to find novelty elsewhere.
The girl, the daughter of my daughter, flesh of my flesh, stared back at me and a beatific calm washed over her face. “Grandpa, I’m not Alison. I’m Morgan, but sometimes I don’t even know who I’m really, truly supposed to be.”
I exhaled deeply and muttered “Sorry” about calling her by her mother’s name. Things were getting out of hand, driving through the night with a teenager who was on a missing persons’ list. At worst, we’d encounter a nervous State Trooper monitoring amber alerts.
We all stumble through life, but my sins couldn’t have been as bad as Alison — and Morgan — had made them out to be. Was there no redemption through confession and the passage of time?
Each of us is a salmon swimming against the current, searching for a place where we can get up the waterfall and praying that there’ll be a solution waiting at the headwaters, hoping there’ll be a pool upstream where we can catch our second wind. Was I any different because I’d had two mates for awhile, swam by myself, floated when others beat themselves against the rocks?
There’d be hell to pay putting things right when I got back to Alison. The devil doesn’t let you bargain, so I’d pay the full price.