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I’ve been procrastinating making dinner. It’s June, and the Australian across the street is putting up Christmas decorations. His house is unfortunately the view from my kitchen window, and right now he’s untangling hundreds of string lights, plugging them together, and lining them down the sidewalk.
       “Whatcha window gazing, honey?” my dad says, shuffling into the kitchen.
       “Nothing,” I say.
       Joining me at the window, he reaches into his cargo pocket for a tin of chewing tobacco and buries a pinch in his lower lip. It’s nearly noon and his day has just started.
       “Want some?” he asks.
       “No,” I say, while holding my breath. The smell from his mouth permeates the air like the innards of a gingko seed.
       “Suit yourself,” he says and slides the tin back into his pocket. Then he squints across the street with that scowling look he got from his beloved spaghetti westerns. “Why, that’s odd,” he says, spotting the neighbor in his front yard. “What’s his name, again?” my dad says.
       I sigh. “Tom.”
       Tom bends down for another decoration and glances toward my house. He pants heavily, the sun glinting off his big forehead, his gray shirt darkened by sweat.
       My dad says, “Doesn’t he know it’s summer? He’s not even wearing shorts.”
       The wind picks up, and we watch as he wrestles a billowing nylon yeti to the ground. His fall reminds me of a bag of garbage hitting the bottom of an empty dumpster, and I wonder how I ever allowed myself to sleep with him.
       We met about a month ago while I was on a run in the neighborhood and he was out walking. No dog, just on a walk. I guess I thought that was introspective. He was brief and awkward, bringing predictable ideas to the bedroom. Once he left, I decided to restore our previous relationship of being neighbors who wave from a distance.
       “I’m gonna go shake his hand,” my dad says. But before I have time to say no, he’s out the door scuttling up the slight hill to Tom’s front yard.
       I remind myself it’s not worth the energy to stop him. In about two months, I’m moving to Santa Monica to be the head chef for a colleague’s new restaurant. A big step up from teaching seniors at the San Diego Culinary Institute in east county. I’ve already accepted the offer and the best part is nobody knows. I like the idea of having my ex-husband and my dad wonder about the For-Sale sign out front, the quietness of a careful exit. I imagine my dad knocking on the door when the lights are out, my ex finally two steps behind me, making calls and sending emails to pinpoint my whereabouts. I like to picture their bewildered faces. The only issue is finding the right time and right way to tell my daughters, and I’m thinking I’ll tell them tonight over a bowl of chili.
       I watch my dad shake Tom’s hand in the patchy shade of the eucalyptus trees. My dad lights a cigarette and points this way and that way, yakking about god-knows-what and then he vigorously nods when Tom starts gabbing and pointing. Tom shrugs and the two men double pump handshake. My dad shuffles back, puffing smoke clouds that linger in the sunny air, and flicks the cigarette in the bushes like he thinks he’ll get away with it.
       “You better make sure that butt’s put out!” I say through the window screen.
       He gives the bush a good soak with the hose and comes in talking as if we were in the middle of a conversation. “Tom says summer feels Christmassy and the toilet thing is a myth. Oh, and he said he’s coming by the house later.”
       “He did?” I say.
       “And you said he could?”
       “Yeah. He’s at the top of the hill, I figure he can do whatever he wants.”
       At the sink, he begins rinsing his mouth out while keeping the tobacco in place. Once, when I was little, I asked for a pinch and my dad burst into a belly laugh. This isn’t for girls, he said. Is it for big girls? I asked. He thought about that for a second, then said, I’ve never known a big girl to chew tobacco, but they could.
       He spits something dark and viscous into the sink, and I remind him it’s my night with my daughters.
       He sulks, looking out the window as though it’s cruel of me to kick him out once a week. “You know I want to be a part of their lives,” he says. “I want to be grandpa. I don’t see why I can’t stay.”
       I almost laugh. As if he’s forgotten that the bedroom he sleeps in is actually Willow’s bedroom. Plus, there are the years of popping into my life with a renewed vigor of involvement only to slip back into anonymity a few days or a week later. Not to mention the opioids. A while back, I woke up in the middle of the night to a horn blaring outside my house. He had nodded out with the car running, a/c full blast, windows down, talk radio cranked, his forehead pressed against the steering wheel. After that, I took his keys and hid his car in a park-and-ride off the freeway. That’s when he started hanging around all day, and that’s when he started fussing over the nights I had with my girls.
       He starts massaging his jaw. His breath reaches me from ten feet away.
       “Haven’t you brushed your teeth yet?” I ask.
       “I can’t,” he says.
       “You can’t?”
       “I need to see a dentist.”
       “Then go see a dentist. Western Dental is down the street.”
       His face twists. “They’re a bunch of thieves!” he says. “I don’t think so. I’ll go to Tijuana.”
       “You’re out of your mind,” I say.
       “Twenty bucks and they pull it—all I need is a ride.”
       “Forget it. I’ve got Sophia and Willow tonight.”
       He thinks on this. “Will you pull it?”
       I ignore him. It’s like his entire life he’s encouraged terrible things to happen to him. Last twelve years have looked like: spinal stenosis, botched surgery, got addicted to oxy, divorce, filed a malpractice suit, lost the lawsuit, lost his business, lost his home, and now he sleeps at my house when the girls are with their dad.
       I set out a jar of frozen stock in a bowl of warm water. “I have to make dinner,” I say, gesturing for him to leave.
       He taps three Percocet from a prescription bottle into his palm and tosses them back. “Can I get some coffee first?” he asks.
       I glare at him, and he shuffles off. Do I start making coffee? No. For the next hour I prep the chili for tonight. I cut an onion then dice tomatoes. I chop carrots and celery. Once the stock defrosts, I dump it, along with the vegetables, herbs, and beans, into the pot and stir with the big wooden spoon my grandpa gave me before he died. He called it his muckle spoon, used for hearty soups and chili’s. The spoon is about the size of an infant’s face, smooth and seasoned from years of use. When I was five, he told me it once belonged to a giant, and the giant would crush people with it and then scoop them up into his mouth. He’d hand it to me for my breakfast, and I’d laugh and say, I’m no giant, grandpa. When Sophia was born, I had looked forward to telling her about the muckle spoon, though I never found the right moment.
       I cap the soup and think Willow might still be young enough. I could tell her about the muckle spoon tomorrow morning over oatmeal. Watch her face light up with mystery as she takes the spoon in her hand, the story settling in her mind in a forever kind of way.
       The phone starts ringing, and the caller ID shows it’s my ex.
       “Emily,” Everett says. “How are you?”
       “I’m fine. How are you?”
       “Doing great,” he says. “Listen, I need a favor.”
       I roll my eyes across the ceiling. “What is it?”
       “Sophia wants to stay with me tonight.”
       “That so?” I say. With one hand I compost the unwanted bits of vegetables, then place the cutting board in the sink.
       “She says Brit and her have a thing. You know Brit, down the street?”
       “I don’t know a Brit. And no. It’s my night and I’m making chili.”
       “Chili, in the summer?”
       “She has a thing, is that what she said?”
       “You know that’s code for boyfriend, right?”
       “She doesn’t have a boyfriend.”
       “Everett,” I say. “She has a boyfriend.”
       He huffs, and the phone crackles in my ear. I pinch the phone between my cheek and shoulder and start wiping down the counters.
       “I’m willing to give you a weekend in exchange,” he says, “and you can still have Willow tonight. I’ll even drop her off.”
       I briefly consider it, but I can’t put off telling them any longer. “It’s my night. It’s important,” I say.
       “Emily, we both know what’s going on tonight, and we both know it can wait.”
       I bite. “Why’s that?”        “The question I have is how long were you going to keep us in the dark?”
       “What do you mean?”
       “Our real estate agent told me the house is going up.”
       “Do they know?” I ask.
       “Sophia does.”
       “What’d she say?”
       “What do you think?”
       “Then I need them tonight. They need to hear it from me.”
       “Look, something like this is all about timing. I’d wait. They need to be prepped.”
       “That’s what the chili is for,” I say.
       “Emily, wait until the weekend when you control the situation. Make the duck confit. They love the duck confit. And for God’s sake make sure your dad isn’t there.”
       They do love good food. I could tell them over the citrus risotto and roast chicken, or the homemade gnocchi from the new restaurant’s menu, and crème brûlée for dessert, Sophia’s favorite. I love the way she closes her eyes for each bite, the way she spins the spoon slowly with her fingers as the custard and caramel melt in her mouth.
       For a second, I don’t say anything, which he loathes.
       “Hello?” he says. “Hello!”
       “I’m here. It’s fine,” I say.
       Again, he huffs. “I appreciate it,” he says.
       The line drops.
       Everett has always kicked my ass with the kids. He sells wire and cable assemblies to the military, meaning he has flexible hours, free weeknights and weekends. He was always available to drive them to school, pick them up, take them to their soccer practices, piano lessons, while I had split days off and worked evenings at the restaurant before it went bankrupt. I hardly saw them even when we lived together. When we split, I didn’t object to Everett taking the brunt of the days, and I still don’t. It’s a routine we’ve grown into. One that works for everyone.
       The conversation leaves me wanting for a nap even though I never nap. I load up the percolator with more coffee than it can handle and place it on the stove.
       Pretty soon, Tom announces himself. “Emily, are you in there?” he calls through the screen door. “I know you’re in there.”
       I stay quiet, hoping he’ll go away, but my dad shouts from upstairs, “Come on in!”
       The screen stretches then thwacks against the frame. Tom thuds into the kitchen. No hello, or, is this a good time? “I smell coffee,” he says and takes a seat, elbows on my kitchen table, leaning so the wood creaks.
       I clinch my jaw and busy myself with washing my knives.
       “The decorations are for my daughter in case you were wondering,” he says. “You know my daughter.”
       “You know I don’t know your daughter,” I say.
       “Well, the little nipper misses the holidays and Christmas in Australia is a summer thing.”  
       “I’m not really in the mood for chatting. Whatever you have to say, let’s get on with it.”
       “Coffee first,” he says.
       “No,” I say.
       “Did I hear you’re selling the house?”
       “How do you know that?” I say.
       “A little bird.” He smiles.
       “What do you want?” I say.
       He takes a breath, postures himself, clears his throat. “I came over because I’ve been thinking we should, you know,” and he hints, hints, byraising his eyebrows. “Especially if you’re moving.”
       “Really? No,” I say, amazed by his subtlety.
       I give the soup a stir. He moves toward me, gliding his fingertips across the counter. His eyes get lazy, and he can’t seem to close his mouth all the way. He crosses his arms and leans his butt against the counter. His shirt lifts exposing his pale belly.
       “I think you should go,” I say.
       “Ah, come on,” he says.
       The sweat on his shirt and the stench of beer and hotdogs soils the air in my kitchen. He looks at me with his one look of tenderness and reaches out with both hands to caress my face. I remind myself I’m moving to LA. He’s not worth the energy.
       I listen for my dad, maybe eavesdropping on the other side of the wall, but no one is there. I take a step back, pressing my thumb into the grain of the muckle spoon. Tom’s arms are outstretched, his delicate hands still upturned, and that irritating look on his face like he’s straining to appear caring. The wavy lines in his forehead, his tiny mouth. He takes another step forward, about to touch me.
       “I’ll smack you,” I say.
       “I like the sound of that,” he says.
       His voice snags in my ear, and before he has time to react, I raise the muckle spoon and smack his left hand, hard. The bones clack under his skin.
       “Fuck!” he yelps. “Why’d you do that?” He holds his hand between his knees.
       “I told you.”
       “You could’ve broken my hand!”      
       “It’s only your left hand,” I say.
       “I’m left-handed! Fucking Christ, Emily.”
       “I told you I would,” I say.
       He straightens up holding his wrist. “We’ll talk later when you’re right in the head,” he says.
       “Don’t bother,” I say.
       On his way out, the screen door double thwacks against the frame. Quiet settles like tired ripples over water. I loosen my grip on the spoon so it doesn’t feel like a weapon. That felt good. At least, we’ll be strangers now.
       I uncap the soup, smell then taste.
       Not five minutes later, my dad shuffles into the kitchen.
       “Coffee ready?” he asks, seemingly oblivious to what just happened.
       I gesture toward the percolator simmering on the stove and move over to the sink to wash my hands.
       “Is everything okay?” he asks.
       “Don’t worry. Everything is perfect.”
       I realize I’m annoyed with him for not being there. Despite the joy of smashing Tom’s little fingers, I wanted him to intervene, step up, at the very least appear in the doorway. I toss the towel on the counter, and my dad’s eyes and mouth tighten. He picks it up and refolds it.
       “Your grandpa used to say that sometimes, everything is perfect.”
       He fills the biggest mug he can find, adds five heaping scoops of sugar, then gets half-and-half from the fridge and saturates his coffee. In the process, he gets both all over my counter, and somehow, he finishes the half-and-half even though I bought an extra quart this week just for him.
       “Is there any more cream?” he asks.
       I look down at his blanched cup. “No.”
       He takes a loud sip and settles against the counter. “Well, come on. Only lonely people drink their first cup of coffee alone.”
       I pour the rest from the percolator into a mug. We take sips at the same time, and he picks up the muckle spoon like he recognizes it. He smiles as though it’s a part of his past. I wait for him to say something profound. Something about my grandpa, or how he wasn’t a good dad, or how grateful he is for our renewed relationship.
       He says, “This is a big fucking spoon.”
       I snatch it from his hands and set it down.
       He clears his throat. “Listen, I was thinking that maybe when you move, I can look after the house. Rent it, I mean.”
       “God,” I say. “Do you ever think about anything other than yourself?”
       He deflates, letting out a lot of air, and I smell, again, his fetid breath.
       It dawns on me that the only way he knew to ask about the house was if he was listening in on me and Tom. He looks down at his feet, rubs his jaw. I want to toss my coffee into his face. I want to club him with the percolator. I want to drown him in his precious half-and-half, but he used it all.
       “You know what?” I say. “I will pull your tooth.”
       Right there in my kitchen, he takes a handful of pills. “I’m not an alcoholic,” he says refusing the vodka I offer him.
       I get a pair of needle nose pliers from under the sink and stand over him. I hold his slack jaw with one hand as I pinch the rotten tooth with the other. My dad stays still. He watches me. I take a deep breath. I feel my bones settle. I twist clockwise. The tooth pops from its place along his inflamed gums. The rest is easy like extracting a seed from a Medjool date. I hold it up in the light. A brindled nub, the root glazed and sticky. Tiny ridges of rot glint—the tooth seems to glow. My dad passes out. Then his blood pumps, surging with his heartbeat; the puddle in his mouth grows the way lakes grow from springs. It gushes up and spills out his mouth and drips down his chin. He coughs and comes to. I place the tooth in a ramekin where it won’t get lost. “Let me help you to the sink,” I say.  
       He gropes for the hole in his mouth. Blood that has circumnavigated my father’s whole body, cells that came from his heart now dry on my kitchen floor and counter. He folds a bunch of paper towels and stuffs them into his mouth.
       “Aren’t you in pain?” I ask.
       He moans with his finger in his mouth.
       “What?” I say.
       He takes out his finger, then says, “Feels much better, thank you.”
       He plucks the tooth from the ramekin. “Look at this thing,” he says. He rolls it in his palm like a pill bug, pushing it around with his finger.
       “What are you going to do with it?” I ask.
       “Same thing I did with the others.” He turns his hand, and the tooth clicks in the sink before falling into the drain. “I’m so happy it’s gone.” He stands over the counter, his arms shaking a little.
       “I need a cigarette,” he says. “You want one?”  
       “I quit.”
       He heads outside, and through the window, he opens his mouth to show me. “With the paper towels it’s like I’m getting double the filter—much healthier,” he says. He laughs his goofy laugh, and I almost laugh with him.
       It’s not long before Everett pulls his compact SUV into the driveway. I can see he’s horrified by my bloodied, smoking father. Willow is in the backseat taking in the scene. Everett tells her something, probably to stay in the car or not to talk to that man smoking. He’s always been against my father, thinking he’s a bad influence and breeds negativity. I think about meeting them out there, taking Willow by the hand, asking her about her day, offering an after-school snack. But I’m too late. Everett marches in making that same thudding noise Tom made earlier, and something like regret expands between my ears.
       “What the hell happened to your dad?” he asks. He looks around at my kitchen. “What the hell happened here?”
       I look where he’s looking: the pliers on the counter, the soiled paper towels in the sink, the droplets of blood on the floor, the mess of sugar and cream. “Dad asked me to pull his tooth,” I say.
       “There are dentists for that,” he says. My dad waves when he sees us looking at him.
       “You’re early,” I say.
       “God, Emily.”
       “I was going to clean this up.”
       “I’m taking Willow home with me. Our daughter shouldn’t see this. Your dad has blood all over his face.”
       “You’re overreacting. Just give me five minutes to clean this up.”
       “No,” he says. “I’m keeping the girls tonight, period.” 
       “I need to tell her before she finds out,” I say.
       “Doesn’t matter. She already knows.”
       “How did she find out?” I ask.
       I sit down. The guilt feels as though a hand grips my ribcage and pulls up. I should have told them sooner. I should have gone out there when they pulled up in the driveway. “Fuck,” I say.
       He gives me a stern look, but then the ridge along his brow flattens. He places a hand on my shoulder. He says, “I was thinking it’d be a good idea if we talk about it together. The four of us clear the air.”
       At first, this seems good to me. I place my bloody hand over his. I nod because I’ve always nodded to what he has to say. This is Everett. He loves to assist, to make suggestions, to get his way.
       “No, I’ll pick them both up from school tomorrow. I’ll tell them then.”
       He crosses his arms. His facial features scrunch. All of this I’m familiar with. He says, “Tomorrow, I’m taking them to the fair to start their summer break.”
       “I’ll take them to the fair.”
       “That’s not in the cards.”
       “Why not?”
       “Because that’s not how it works. You don’t just do stuff off the cuff without discussing it with me first. We’re not those kinds of parents.”
       “I’m gonna go do it right now,” I say. I go before he has time to say no.
       Outside, the early evening air is warm but not smothering. There’s cloud cover, and Willow sees me through the car window. I open the door. For a second, I let myself look at her, at her amazing collection of freckles, my lips, Everett’s wide-set eyes.
       I hear Everett ask my dad if he’s still falling asleep at the wheel.
       “I wasn’t even driving,” my dad says.
       I refocus on my daughter and tell her I’ve got some news.
       “I know,” she says.
       “Of course you do,” I say. “Who told you?”
       “Sophia told me.”
       I make sure Everett isn’t hovering behind me. “So, what do you think?”
       She makes a face like she has no preference, then says, “Sounds good to me.”
       I expected sadness, resignation, a litany of questions. I tend to forget how adaptable my kids are. How usual change is for them. I remember that people divorce all the time. They move for jobs. They make it work.
       “Tomorrow, I’m taking you and your sister to the fair,” I say.
       “I thought dad was taking us,” she says.
       “It’ll be me,” I say. “Your dad and I switched nights.”
       She yawns.
       I say, “I love you.” She says it back, and I check if she’s buckled in. My dad wiggles his fingers at his granddaughter. I wave and Willow waves back as Everett zooms off. Next thing I know, my dad gets into my car and zooms off, too.
       Inside, I see the blood on the floor and in the sink. Some has even nestled in the knuckle of my thumb. I clean it up and scrub my hands. I lose my appetite. I turn off the stove and place the entire pot of chili in the refrigerator. It’s a better leftover anyway. I wash and dry all the dishes. I put the muckle spoon in the drawer. I think of the giant, and I think of my not-so-sentimental daughters. They’re like Everett in that way, which is probably for the better. The spoon would make a better housewarming gift, or maybe I’d just leave it in Willow’s kitchen down the line for her to stumble upon it and try to recall where it came from.
       I think about LA, what it’ll be like to make my own menus again, the command I’ll need to run the kitchen. When my daughters visit, we can check out the Getty, hike up to the Hollywood sign, drive up Mulholland at night. Maybe it’ll be hard for a while but easier when they get older. Sophia might go to UCLA and need a foothold in the city.
       When I finish cleaning up, I sit at the table. There’s a long drag into the evening, and the sky turns orange then purple then black.
       Tom’s Christmas lights flick on, and they’re blinding. I hear the buzz of burning electricity. Slowly my eyes adjust to the reindeer dashing away from the inflatable yeti, thousands of lights spiraling up the eucalyptus, bunches shoved into shrubbery, random strands strewn across his yard. His roof and the front facade are completely covered, rendering his house shapeless and devoid of any holiday magic.
       My dad comes home holding a bag from 7-Eleven. He lingers outside, taking his time with the last drags of his cigarette, staring at the mess of lights with that squinting look again. He comes in quietly; he holds the screen door so it doesn’t thwack against the frame.
       He shuffles into the kitchen. “You see those bright lights out there? I mean, it’s summertime for Christ’s sake.” He examines the place. “Nice and clean, practically a whole new kitchen.” I can’t tell if he’s trying to get on my good side. As he sits across from me, I decide it doesn’t matter. He pulls out two cream-filled doughnuts from the bag and uses a napkin in lieu of a plate. “I got your favorite in here, too. You used to eat these all the time when you were little.”
       He slides the bag across the table. Inside, there’s a chocolate twist doughnut.
       “You’re not getting the house,” I say.
       “I know.” He grins, then says, “But maybe.”
       For now, I let him have his maybe. He takes a bite out of the doughnut. Cream curls out the sides and my stomach growls. I take the chocolate twist and sink my teeth in.

© Adam McDonald 2022  

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