Published on August 30, 2006

This piece of fiction originally appeared in the Santa Clara Review, 1993.

Kevin McCaughey

At ten on Saturday mornings we go to the Melrose Coffee Roasting Company, which is the glamorous name of our local cafe. The clientele is very healthy. Around us are spandex tights, tennis shoes, biking helmets, bright-colored jogging shorts, which Glenda associates (I don’t know why) with Pepsi-Cola. There are always several pretty woman. Glenda likes watching people as much as I do, and I am not sure if this is unusual for a girl her age. The noise is somehow calming–the hiss of steaming milk, the whir of the grinder, and the blurred consonance of voices that have not in a long time experienced sadness or strangeness.

We sit at a tiny round table in the middle of this movement and fuss. Glenda sips at her hot chocolate, served in a saucered coffee cup and topped with a cloud of steamed milk. She’s pleased that it looks just like my cappuccino, and doesn’t care that it costs as much. We’re sharing a blueberry muffin.

“Blueberry’s are purple,” she says, in that tone of slight frustration she uses when she’s discovered something in the world that does not make as much sense as it ought to.

“That’s true, honey. I can’t argue with that observation.”

Saturdays are our time together. When I come by the apartment to pick her up, her mother always has her dressed in a sharp but out-dated way. Today Glenda’s hair is banded back at the forehead; her dress is plaid and pinkish, and beneath the table she swings feet in black round-toed shoes. It’s a Sunday outfit on a Saturday. I suspect that her mother does this, since I am out of work, to make me feel like an inadequate provider, less adequate, anyway, than her new husband.

I’m glad. To the crowd here I must look pleasant, secure, and decent. Healthy people like to see a young father with his fancy daughter, and it is unlikely that they would suspect the father of any unusual thoughts.

Glenda is eyeing the action at the espresso bar in the corner. The walls behind the bar are lined with mirrors, so that the small crowd which forms a semblance of a line can observe, from several angles, the pony-tailed man who works the espresso machine. He moves with quick hands, controlled movements, reaching (without looking) now for a saucer, now for a jigger of hot espresso, now for a shaker of chocolate sprinkles, with the deftness of a blind chef in his own kitchen. It is important, I can tell, that he does this without effort: all the better for making conversation with a very tall woman, whose face I can’t see because of two cyclists blocking my view.

“Daddy,” Glenda says, “why are they wearing helmets?”

These two sweating men in line for drinks have oval yellow helmets on their heads.

“To protect their heads when they’re riding their bikes.”

“I know that,” she says, with patience. “But they’re not riding their bikes.”

“Good point,” I admit. “I don’t know why they’re wearing helmets.”

The line shifts, and I see the tall young woman with auburn hair waiting for her drink to come up. She wears a leather jacket, blue jeans, and is just shy of six feet tall. She has grace, and carries her height casually. She’s intent upon the pony-tail espresso man steaming up milk in a pitcher, and it affords me the opportunity of looking through the mirror into the coolness of her eyes. They are grey and blue and black, the color of a whale. I don’t know why the comparison occurs to me.

It always surprises me when I discover a pretty woman. I’m surprised by a new combination of features, surprised that I haven’t predicted such a face, that such looks were even possible. And because I’m surprised I’m defenseless. In such moments, if things are quiet–and right now Glenda is quiet–I launch myself into imaginary conversations with these pretty woman, the subjects of which I do not seem to be able to control. She will say something surprising and useless that attracts me irrevocably to her, something that doesn’t quite click, such as, “I’ve been out looking at the wind all morning,” or “I hunt deer.” But then I remind myself this is just my imagination working little tricks to please and then disappoint me.
I know I’m not supposed to think this way. But sometimes my heart wants to poke its head outside my chest and shake loose its blood so that it kills me, for no more reason than the existence of a girl with whales in her eyes.

“Daddy,” Glenda says, poking with a straw at her the cinnamon-sprinkled foamed milk, “why are you staring at that lady?”

It’s not likely that the woman has heard Glenda. She doesn’t flinch or turn, but in the mirror I see her whales sounding–down they drop, under her eyelids.

“She looks interesting,” I say, and wonder why I couch the truth from my own daughter.

Glenda looks at the woman to see what she’s missed. Then she goes back to her hot chocolate, and tells me about Rachel, her friend at school who went on a trip with her parents to Mount Rushmore, which is where they have faces painted onto mountains. Glenda says, “Rachel got the flu there.”
I listen, but my eyes are still on the woman whose whales have gone down.

“It took them years to paint the faces on the mountains because the faces are so big.”

“Aren’t the faces carved into the mountains?” I ask, but Glenda doesn’t see fit to answer. She’s finishing up her chocolate. Beneath the table she knocks her shoes together. She picks at the debris of our muffin with thumb and forefinger; she opens and closes them mechanically, like a crab.

“I’m a crab,” she says.
“I know, honey.”

Then she seems to be thinking about something. She is looking away, at the wall, or at the poster there depicting the coffee-tree slopes of Sumatra. I steer my gaze there too, to avoid the woman with the whales as she skims by our table, coffee in hand, heading for the door.

The two of us are silent for a few moments, taking in the sounds and the movements around us.

“Daddy,” Glenda says thoughtfully, “do you have evaporation?”

There can be so much science inside my daughter, and there is so little inside me. I’m about to ask her what she means. But then, without thinking, the answer comes to me. I know it is right, and I’m saddened by it.

It is a good thing to be exact, but not an easy thing.

“Yes,” I say, knowing that someday she will belong to other men.

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