Call Me Daddy
by Dell R. Lipscomb
"Y'all are moving like crippled snails," Ronald Poindexter growled.
Pete Stover turned to Ronald. Ronald waved dismissively at the TV screen, disgusted by the performance of the college football team he and Pete were rooting for. "What was that?" Pete inquired.
"What you said. What was it?"
Ronald pointed at the TV screen. "These sorry bastards are moving like crippled—" Ronald meshed his fingers together and kept his eyes focused on the screen, unwilling to finish his remark.
Y'all are moving like crippled snails…Pete's father used to say that when his favorite team wasn't playing well. He also used to say that to Pete's mother. That phrase was often directed at Pete and his siblings. Sometimes a slap or punch or the lash of a belt would follow if the child didn't move quickly and effectively.
"That was one of my father's expressions. You knew him?"
Ronald scowled. "Your father abandoned your family when you were twelve. He hasn't been seen in this town since. That's what you told me. I didn't come here until I graduated from college a few years later. Maybe I heard you say it and it was in my subconscious until now."
"No. That's one of many things about the man I don't want to remember, much less repeat."
"Then it's a coincidence that I came up with the same expression off the top of my head," Ronald testily replied. He turned and focused his dark eyes on the screen, obviously wanting the game to again be the primary concern.
Thuds and shouts on the other side of the near wall heralded the beginning of a regular Saturday occurrence at the duplex: prolonged arguing between the man and woman living next door. They were starting early this time around. The shouting, accompanied by things being shoved and thrown, usually commenced in the evening.
Ronald rose from the couch. "I don't know how many times I'm going to have to speak to them about causing a disturbance."
"I guess strong words from the landlord don't mean much to them," Pete wearily said.
"Maybe the threat of eviction will." The adjoining residence became quiet a couple of moments later. When Ronald returned he sat on the couch, grabbed his longneck beer bottle off the end table and gulped down nearly a quarter of its contents. He held the bottle by its tapered neck and jiggled it. "I'll need another one of these soon."
Pete stared at Ronald without replying. Ronald took another gulp of beer and cleared his throat. "I'm the one you heard say those words when you were a kid. I'm Frank Stover."
Pete's eyes scanned Ronald Poindexter, examining the man more closely than he'd ever bothered to before. People can change a lot in thirty-five years, but Frank Stover couldn't have morphed into the bald, broad-shouldered person on the couch. Ronald's eyes were darker than Dad's, his lips thicker and skin complexion browner. "You can't be him," Pete responded, "unless you had a bunch of surgical procedures, got contact lenses and gained about seventy pounds."
"That's not the way it happened." The man claiming to be Pete's father cleared his throat again. "Your daddy—his original body—stopped living a couple of years ago. A bad heart and old age are what did it. I was in California at the time—that's where I went when I left. But the person in that body didn't leave this earth like people normally do when they pass away. I wanted to see you, your brother and sisters. Get to know you as adults, help you all if I could. So I came back to Virginia."
This guy's obviously a kook, Pete told himself. "So you just left your broken down old self and floated here?"
"It's hard to explain and doesn't matter," Ronald stated in response to Pete's skeptical question.
"If you can get out of your dead flesh and make a cross country trip you ought to be able to explain how you did it."
"You don't believe me yet, and that's understandable. I'll explain what I can. You know Monty Roseborough, the guy I used to hang out with?"
"Yeah. He stayed in touch with Mama until she passed away, then with me. He's in a nursing home now."
"I know. He was keeping tabs on the family for me. Told me about you moving into this place four years ago. I found out that Ronald Poindexter is your landlord. I blended my soul with his soul and mind. That's why your landlord struck up a friendship with you. I wanted to be close to you, get to know you and eventually my other children."
"So the two of you are sharing a person and his mind like the couple next door is sharing a place?"
"Many would call it ‘possession' but I don't like that word. I'm not completely taking over."
"That's true. You're pulling a prank. Or is something else going on?"
"No. I just want to be the father I wasn't when you were a kid."
"And you're going all the way with playing the role. Giving me advice I don't ask for, helping start that adoption agency—"
"Roland got involved with the agency before I came back. He wants to be a part of something that helps the community. He's been successful here. Being on the agency's board is his way of reciprocating."
Pete cast his eyes downward, shaking his head. He looked at Ronald, thinking he'd catch Ronald smiling devilishly at the mind game being perpetrated. Grimness showed on Ronald's face.
"I probably shouldn't have let you know the truth," Ronald said. "But I've been wanting you to know me as your father. It hasn't been easy, keeping my thoughts and feelings to myself, expressing them only in a journal I keep."
Ronald walked to the door. "You need time to absorb all of it."
"Go ahead and think that."
The grim expression on Ronald's face didn't change as he left the duplex. Pete didn't see him to the door. Pete remained seated as boos and jeers blared from the TV. He was like a party host whose festivities had been spoiled by a nasty incident that killed the mood, causing the early departure of the guests, leaving him with uneaten pizza on the coffee table and longneck bottles that weren't quite empty. His dazed mind reached a conclusion…his father, Frank Stover, was not dead. Frank Stover—Dad—had gotten Ronald to be a part of whatever crap he was trying to pull. Why Ronald was going along with it was what Pete tried to figure out as the football telecast ended and the evening news came on. The news consisted of the usual stuff: reports on crime, terrorism, computer hacking and natural disasters. There was also mention of a survey revealing that a lack of educational and employment opportunities are causing major problems in African-American and Hispanic communities. Pete envisioned thousands or millions of remotes changing channels because the survey didn't place the entire blame on degenerate attitudes in those communities.
The phone rang. The name Leslie Berger appeared on the caller ID. "Hey, Sis," Pete answered.
"What's got you down?" Leslie asked. She'd always been perceptive about the tone of her brother's voice.
"Just…things on my mind." Leslie had met Ronald a few times when Leslie came to visit. Pete wondered how she'd react to Ronald's claims.
"Anything serious you want to talk about?"
"I don't think it's gonna be too serious." Pete didn't want Leslie to be concerned about Ronald unless he became a big problem.
"All right. Well anyway, I called to invite you to come to Greensboro and stay at my house until you find a place of your own. Or you can just stay here. The kids would love to have their uncle around."
Another invitation from Leslie, one of several since she divorced her husband six years ago. "I know."
"There's nothing keeping you in Virginia. You said Hanneker Trucking can transfer you here. They need drivers to haul loads from here, right?"
"They do." He didn't want to tell her about Sharmayne. He wasn't sure how things were going to work out with Sharmayne.
"I'll be honest with you. Darnell might be coming to live with us. He called yesterday, crying up a storm."
"What did Lamar do this time?" Pete groaned.
"Lit into him for being thirty seconds late for breakfast. Thirty lousy seconds. He was so upset he got sick to his stomach at school and couldn't focus while he was taking a test. Darnell is fourteen, he shouldn't have to cope with his daddy acting like that."
"Dad scared and beat the man out of Lamar when he was a boy, before he started growing into manhood, and this is his way of trying to get it back—pushing his kids around."
"Darnell talked about getting a bus ticket with money he'd earned doing odd jobs and running away from home. I told him I'd rather have him come here than end up in a strange town where he doesn't know anybody. If you and Darnell both come here you can be like a father figure to him. He sure can't go to Brenda's."
"True. He can't be there with Brenda's latest man. The guy is bad news—the type Brenda's attracted to. But Lamar isn't going to let you keep his son without a fight."
"We'll deal with that if it happens. Will you give some thought to coming here? Mama's been gone a long time so there's nothing to keep you there."
Nothing except Sharmayne…maybe.
"Think about it, OK?"
"When are you going out on your next haul?"
"Monday. Day after tomorrow."
"Call me when you get back. Goodnight, Pete. Love you."
Anger bubbled and churned within Pete, dissolving the bewilderment Ronald left in his wake. Anger at his brother and the choices his sisters made with men and the root cause of it all…Frank Stover, a. k. a. Dad. Now Dad was trying a scam or scheme with Ronald. For all he knew Dad might be back in town.
It was going to be good to get away for a few days.
Ronald didn't come over to watch NFL football like he usually did on Sunday afternoons. Pete was glad he didn't but wondered if he was scheming with Dad instead. Pete hardly slept that night, wondering what the two of them were up to. Dad hadn't been much for complex scheming—he was usually straightforward with his meanness towards his wife, kids and some other people. But he might have changed his ways of doing things in thirty-five years. Pete was grateful that Sharmayne would be taking the wheel the next day. He wasn't going to be in any shape to drive.
Sharmayne was in the main parking area, standing next to Pete's rig, when Pete showed up just before eight the next morning. The petite young woman in boots and a bill cap exuded a tomboyish appeal. Her navy blue jacket was protection against the chilly air of the October morning. "One last time," Sharmayne said to Pete.
"Yeah," Pete said drowsily. He handed Sharmayne the keys. This would be their last run together. After this Sharmayne would be on the road on her own. She would no longer be his apprentice. But he hoped they would still see a lot of each other.
"Are you all right?"
"Didn't get much sleep last night. But I'll be able to spell you in a few hours. Let's take things a little bit slower—"
"Because the roads are wet from last night's rain. I know, I can see the water same as you." Sharmayne grinned and unlocked the doors. Pete's smartphone rang. He glimpsed at the phone and let the call go to voicemail—he wasn't going to have another ridiculous conversation with Ronald right before a long haul. He climbed into the rig's passenger side as the engine began to rumble.
"That is beautiful," Sharmayne commented.
"Yes it is," Pete agreed. Sunset arrived as they neared the city limits. The sky, streaked with gold and orange, presented an awe-inducing display. "And we're getting paid to be on the road where we can see sights like this. It's one of the reasons I've been a trucker for as long as I have. I started a few months after my mother passed away. It was good for me to get out of town, away from where she died."
"You used to drive a vending machine truck, right?"
"Yeah. My first job out of high school. My family needed the second income. My brother and sisters were still in high school, middle school. College got placed on the back burner and stayed there. I delivered snacks to vending machines all over this region. After my mother died my brother and sisters scattered to different parts of the country. Driving an eighteen wheeler pays more and with everybody else gone I didn't need to stay close to home to help out, so I got my Class A license."
"But your friend—your landlord—says you would've been better off going to college."
"I couldn't be on the road all the time and go to college. My father used to be that way, lecturing his kids without thinking about the ‘how' of what he was suggesting." Pete gave a moment's thought to his remark…Ronald sometimes said things his father used to say. "Besides, I got to the point where I didn't want to give up driving a rig."
Sharmayne nodded. "I'm glad you've been around to help me along."
"And I'm glad you're able to admire the view and still concentrate on the road. I must've done at least one thing right."
Sharmayne chuckled. "Almost home," she stated as the city limits sign came into view.
"Almost there," Pete replied. He'd decided to casually mention wanting to see Sharmayne again once they got back to the lot. Being casual wouldn't put her on the spot and it was easier for him to say things that way. He and Sharmayne were silent until Sharmayne maneuvered the rig into a space in the trucking company's lot.
"Well, Pete, this is it. Thanks again."
"Happy to help out. We'll run into each other from time to time, talk about how things are going for you over lunch or something."
Sharmayne turned away from Pete as her smile transformed into an expression of harsh scornfulness. The driver side door swung open and in an instant she was halfway to the office entrance.
Pete's exit from the truck was slower. He was in a daze as he stepped onto the pavement, dismayed by Sharmayne's fast, unequivocal rebuff.
Ray, a potbellied, blue-eyed mechanic, stood nearby. "You okay?"
Jerome, a young, brown-skinned driver, was next to Ray, holding a soda can. "Sharmayne ran over his raggedy old heart, that's what it looks like." Jerome laughed uproariously.
The laughter snapped Pete out of his daze. He glared at Jerome.
"Oh, you're gonna correct me, right?" Jerome said to Pete.
Ray stepped between the two. "Come on now, Jerome."
Jerome didn't make another move. Pete trudged towards the office, hoping he wouldn't encounter Sharmayne, wishing he were back out on the road.
Pete's duplex apartment remained dark after he got home. He made a beeline for the bedroom and flopped onto the bed. After awhile he took out his smartphone, tapped into the photo gallery and enlarged the picture of Sharmayne and him. The picture had been taken in a diner parking lot during one of their runs together. Sharmayne was smiling as she stood next to him, her left thigh pressing against his right leg. As Pete looked at the picture he vacillated between fondness, melancholy and anger until the oft-changing rushes of emotions drained him and he slid into a dreamless slumber.
A creaking sound broke Pete's slumber. Pete's sleep-fogged mind recognized the sound—a footstep on a floorboard. Someone stood near the foot of the bed, looking down at him. Pete sprang off the bed, now fully awake, and backpedaled away from the person. Pete's fingers clawed at the darkness until they found the nightstand lamp's switch.
Ronald Poindexter was near the foot of the bed, holding a slip of paper in his right hand.
Pete started to ask Ronald how he got in, remembered he was the landlord and therefore had a key. "Why the hell did you come in here?" Pete exclaimed.
"I wanted to speak with you," Ronald answered. "And show you something. I figured you wouldn't answer if I knocked on the door."
"You figured right. What do you want, Ronald?"
"Call me Dad. Or Daddy, like you did when you were real little."
"Ronald, I don't want to deal with whatever it is you're trying to pull. Definitely not this evening."
Ronald lifted the smartphone off the mattress and examined the picture. "She's the reason, isn't she?" Ronald inquired. "I told you to forget about that young thing."
"You need to act like a man your age. Stop chasing a woman young enough to be your daughter, spending time with the kid across the street—"
"Maybe it all comes from not really having a childhood," Pete snapped. "I had to grow up fast to cope with you and when you left I had to be the man of the house. You put so much hurt and anger in Lamar that he lashes out at his kids to get it off his chest. Brenda has no self-esteem. She and Leslie keep hooking up with bad men, probably because they don't think they can do any better. Maybe it's good that things didn't go like I'd hoped with Sharmayne or any woman. I might have some of you in me, and that would be bad for a wife and kids."
Ronald's lips pursed and he bowed his bald head. His fingers relaxed their grip on the slip of paper as he turned and slowly walked away, shoulders hunched and head still bowed.
The front door clicked shut as Pete realized he'd spoken to Ronald as if Ronald were actually his father. He retrieved the slip of paper from the floor. On the paper, in Ronald's handwriting, was a web address. A word in the address stuck out: obituaries. A minute later he typed the address into a web browser on his laptop and pressed Enter. The obituary section of a California newspaper popped onto the screen. He searched the alphabetically arranged columns until he came upon the name he almost dreaded seeing: Stover, Frank. The obituary was brief, stating that Frank Stover had passed away and giving details of the funeral arrangements. No mention of surviving relatives. The date of death was nearly two years ago.
Pete tossed the laptop aside and grabbed his smartphone. "Call Leslie," he said to himself. Tell her I'm coming to stay. Getting away from Sharmayne, the work situation, the whole mess.
Getting away from Dad.
Emmitt turned and looked at everything in the den before leaving the room. The den, with its thickly cushioned couches and chairs, high definition TV, DVD player and video games, was like a room in a palace to Emmitt. Every part of Mr. Poindexter's house seemed that way. The foster home was bigger but felt smaller because it was crowded—a foster mom and dad and six kids. Seven-year-old Emmitt felt princely as he walked the carpeted floor to the open door of Mr. Poindexter's study. "Mr. Poindexter, can I have a cup of pudding?"
Ronald Poindexter stopped writing in the journal on his desk. "It's too close to dinner," he replied, tempering his refusal with a smile. "You can have it for dessert." He locked the journal in a desk drawer and stood up. On the neatly organized desk was a picture in a frame. It was a picture of Mr. Poindexter and a friend of his who'd left town. The friend's name was Pete. "And I need to take the roast out of the oven."
The dimple-cheeked boy looked up at the broad-shouldered man with affection. "Thank you, Mr. Poindexter."
"For dinner? Regular meals come with being my son."
"How did I get to be your kid?"
"I pulled a few strings at the adoption agency I work with. Made it happen faster than it usually does."
"I like being your son."
Ronald Poindexter chuckled and patted Emmitt on the shoulder.
Emmitt wondered what Mr. Poindexter was writing in the journal and why he kept it locked in the drawer. The big kid at the foster home, the teenage boy, knew how to pick locks. Emmitt had seen him do it. I can get in the drawer when no one's around to see, Emmitt figured.
"Get the table set for me, okay?"
"Okay, Mr. Poindexter."
Ronald Poindexter crouched and drew Emmitt close to him. "Call me Daddy."