Stories

Paternity, by Henry Simpson

#fatherhood #literary

I had no appointments after lunch. I locked my office and went for a walk that started as a meander that turned into a journey to Mission Park. It was a weekday with school in session and the park was peaceful, quiet, and mostly free of people. A maintenance man was picking up trash with a pointed stick and a man on a riding mower was noisily cutting tracks in the grass. A few listless young men were sitting around home plate on the baseball diamond waiting for the grass to be cut so they could start their game. Some were smoking cigarettes and none resembled Pony Leaguers or Explorer Scouts. In the center of the park, the gazebo stood lonely and empty, ringed by yellow police tape but without a uniformed guard to protect it from interlopers. A young woman was sitting on the gazebo steps, within the police perimeter, strumming a guitar. She appeared to be singing, but I could not hear her because her voice would not carry to where I stood at the park’s edge.

As I set foot on the path to the gazebo, ominous deafening bass sounds from subwoofers assaulted the air from the opposite end of the park, growing louder as their source, a lowered black Honda sedan, drew closer. I started down the path and, as I looked back, caught a brief glimpse of faces behind its smoked glass windows. I stopped and watched as it continued its journey, completely circling the park before heading back along the street from which it had come.

The young woman looked up as I approached her, and smiled. Flora Hunter, the daughter of a bandmate of mine in another life. “Hey,” she said.

I nodded. “Hey.”

She was wearing a tie-dyed halter dress that reminded me of her mother in another time and place.

“Do you remember me?” I said.

“I guess, Mr. Costa. You came by the house Sunday morning.”

“Shouldn’t you be in school?”

“I didn’t go today. But that’s okay.” She lowered her eyes, watched her fingers as she formed a chord, and strummed the guitar, a Martin D-18 lousy with chips and scratches, its finish worn to bare wood on the fingerboard and body, a long crack above the pick guard. I remembered the day it was new in a Kansas City luthier’s shop.

“That’s Max’s guitar,” I said.

She looked up at me. “He gave me a lesson one day, and said I could borrow it for a while.” She handed it to me.

I sat down beside her and grasped the neck with my left hand, exploring the frets with my fingers. I had not held a guitar in a long time, but my fingers instinctively formed an open C chord, then a G, then an A7, moving effortlessly as they explored familiar territory. I imagined I was sitting on that hard steel chair in that dusty guitar shop with this instrument in my hands, as I had once before. “When did you meet Max?” I said.

Her eyes wandered. “A couple of weeks ago.”

“Did he drop by your house for a visit?”

“No. It happened right here. He came up to me as I was walking through the park. Almost freaked me out. He looked real ratty. He claimed he was some old-time rock star. Then he said he was my father. He seemed like psycho or maybe drunk or on drugs. He had this idea we were related. It made me wonder how many others he’d tried that line on. He scared me. Know what I mean?”

“I believe I do.”

“But then he offered to lend me this guitar.”

“And you took it.”

“Sure I did. It’s nice, even if he was a nut case.”

“Did he give you anything else?”

“Stop asking me about him. He’s gone and I guess I should be sorry but, to tell the truth, it’s probably not that big a deal. If he was my father, it would not do me or Donna any good. And if he stuck around here, telling everyone he was related to us, it would be a real downer. He was off his rocker.”

“It’s not good for you to hang around this place, Flora. A man died here. And the people in the park on days like this, well, it’s not good. You should go to school.”

She glared at me. “You’re not my father. What I do is none of your particular business. I turned fourteen last month.”

“All grown up, I guess.”

I returned the guitar and stood. “Take care, Flora.” I walked away.

“Wait a minute,” she said.

I stopped and faced her.

“That old bum—I mean Max—do you think it’s . . . possible?”

“He thought so,” I felt like adding I did not know for sure, but let my statement stand.

“Because… because I’d really like to know.”

“Ask your mother.”

“No, I can’t do that. She’d have a fit if she found out I talked to Max.”

“Everyone has a birth certificate. It lists the names of their father and mother.”

Her face brightened. “Thanks, Mr. Costa. I’ll look around for one.”

“Don’t tell your mother I gave you the idea. This is a secret, you know, lawyer confidentiality.”

“Okay, Mr. Costa. I know what that is. I swear I won’t say a word to her, even if Max’s name is on it, or someone else’s.”

I left her and continued my walk. There were other ways to know, but it was not in my province to offer the details to someone’s kid.

I heard her strumming again as I made my way back across the park. The sound gradually diminished, overtaken by the shouts of youths at baseball.

I walked back to my office, thinking about Flora. I had caught her ditching school and pondered whether I should bust her by reporting the infraction to Donna. What was she doing, strumming and singing a vigil at Max’s onetime hangout, the scene of his final act? Her harsh assessment of Max contradicted her presence at the gazebo, so I did not quite know what to think, except that she had not been completely frank with me; perhaps she was hiding something. On the other hand, it was not fair to expect her to reveal her inner thoughts with me, a stranger. As I approached the Paseo, the only thing I decided was to keep the kid’s secret.

#

A week later, in late afternoon, Flora appeared in my office doorway, wearing a schoolgirl’s plaid skirt and white blouse with a laden backpack hanging on her shoulders. She waved and smiled shyly, then advanced slowly toward my desk and stopped a few feet away.

“Hello, Miss Hunter,” I said.

She took one cautious step forward, another, then dropped into a chair.

“Hey, Mr. Costa. As you very well know, everyone calls me Flora.”

She leaned forward, slid out of her pack, and it fell to the floor with a loud thud. She smiled, blushing.

“Hauling bricks in that?”

“Sometimes feels that way.”

“What do you need, kid?”

“I need your legal advice or help or . . . maybe I’m speaking to the wrong person. Do you work with a psychic? I saw a sign outside, it says someone in your office reads the Tarot.”

“That would be Selena Koval. She rents the office next door. We don’t actually work together. Maybe we should. I could use her advice from time to time. Do you want your fortune told? She’ll do it for fifty bucks. Considering your tender age, she might charge less.”

“Wow, I can’t even afford a fiver. I sure would like to have my fortune told. But actually, I’m more interested in something that already happened than I am the future. You know, that day I talked to you in the park and you . . . well, I, uh, I found my birth certificate. My name is on it and Donna is listed as mother, but the line for father’s name is blank. What’s that mean?”

“It’s hard to say, Flora. There are many possibilities.” Why answer the question directly? It was safer to duck it, coward that I am.

“Do you think, maybe, she didn’t know who my father was? Jeez, is that even possible? I know it was pretty wild in rock bands, especially back in those days, but I can’t believe Donna slept with a thousand different guys.” She tilted her head like a dog as she looked at me, waiting for a thoughtful answer.

Not likely from this source. “Hold on now, Flora. Give her more credit. It could be, she didn’t want to involve the father.”

“Because he was on drugs, you mean, and insane?”

I shook my head. “I don’t know.”

She glared at me. “You’re not much help, Mr. Costa. You’re a lawyer, and supposed to be smart, but so far you haven’t said diddly.”

“That’s unfair, Flora. I gave you good advice and you ignored it.”

“You mean, ask Donna who my father is? I can’t do that, not ever.”

“Well, there you are, Flora.” That told her.

She frowned in thought. Suddenly her eyes opened wide. “Say, Mr. Costa. I have a really cool idea. How about, you ask her? You know, invite her out for lunch somewhere nice, have a glass of wine, or maybe two or three, and then just sort of casually sneak it into the conversation. You’re both adults so you can talk about these things. I mean, without getting embarrassed or offending each other.”

I stared at her for a long time, wondering who was in charge of the conversation, and who was the stooge.

“Are you thirsty?” I said.

“Not particularly.”

“What do you like? Coke, Fresca, water?”

“Water’s okay, I guess.”

I went to the reefer and filled two paper cups with bottled water. I handed her one and sat back at my desk. I raised the cup and swallowed. “That’s very refreshing. Try it.”

She lifted her cup and sipped.

“More, Flora. It’s hot outside. You must be thirsty after the long walk over here from school.”

I waited for an answer; none came.

“You went to school today, didn’t you?”

She set her cup on my desk, stood, and donned her backpack. “I have to leave now.”

“Where are you going? Mission Park?”

“No, home. Someone told Donna I was hanging out there and we had a fight like the end of the world. That place is off limits now.”

“Do you think I ratted on you?”

“Did you?”

“I wouldn’t do that. Lawyer confidentiality.”

She laughed. “You’re so full of it, Mr. Costa. But anyway, I’ll take your word for it. What I want to know is, how are you going to help me?”

“I’ll work on it, Flora.”

She gave me a funny look, and left.

I opened a file drawer, took out a DNA lab test package, and placed Flora’s paper cup in a plastic baggie. I placed mine in another, and an empty beer bottle that Max had used in a third. I labeled them and filled out the paperwork for the paternity test. It was time to find out who was Flora’s father.

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