Orlando feels like an extension of Apopka. Or maybe it’s the other way around. A mall looms in the distance, and before that a multiplex cradled by a handful of shops. But mostly the streets are wide and residential. If a difference exists between the neighboring cities at all it’s in the way faux-Spanish architecture dresses up the vernacular of simple mid-century bungalows in Orlando to a greater degree than it does in Apopka. Thaddeus is having a hard time navigating it. It’s been years since he’s been in the suburbs beyond downtown.
“Lot of new construction,” he says.
“Uh-huh,” Cheryl says. “You’re going to want to make a left at the light. It’s the one with the waterfall.”
He maneuvers into a turning lane, dutifully engages his directional signal and waits. Traffic roils from the horizon like salmon on run. In Apopka traffic’s not so bad, or maybe it is and he’s simply accustomed to it. (The streets by their house, at least, are familiar.) An oasis pools in the middle distance. A final car swims through a long yellow light then Thaddeus proceeds, on Cheryl’s direction, passing smoothly through a portal of blue tile and lacquered calligraphy spelling out the name Palm Falls West. At the end of a long drive flanked by hedges and iron lattices, stands a security kiosk. Unassuming white concrete that could just as easily be calcified runoff from the eponymous waterfall.
“Gated community,” he whistles. “You didn’t tell me they lived in a gated community.”
“Yes I did.” She removes her sunglasses and places them in her purse. “All the new ones are gated.”
“I would’ve remembered something like that.”
“What do you want from me? I told you.”
The white gate opens before they reach the kiosk, but he stops the car and lowers his window anyway. “Good morning!”
A guard leans out of the kiosk. “You can go right on through, sir,” he says. His uniform appears freshly bleached, the epaulets newly stitched. Even bent over, the polyester holds its crease. He waves at Cheryl. “Nice to see you again, Mrs. Bloom.”
Cheryl returns the gesture. “Hello, Byron.” Her smile is bright, boarding on flirtatious, and Thaddeus wonders if he should be worried. He’ll have to look into that later, but right now there’s work to be done.
“We’re visiting my son Stevie and his partner for the week,” Thaddeus says. “Do you need me to sign anything?”
“No need, sir.” Byron smiles. “Mrs. Bloom is on the list. You can go right in.”
“I’ll sign whatever you need.”
“He said it’s fine,” Cheryl snipes, maintaining a pained smile.
“Just so everything’s on the up and up. I know how gated communities can be.”
“Thaddeus, let’s go.”
He relents, raising his hands in surrender. “Hey, man, okay. She’s the boss. I just do what she tells me to.”
“Keep up the good work, huh?”
“Yes, sir. Have a nice visit.”
Thaddeus reaches for his wallet but Cheryl stays his hand, and gives the guard a quick wave. “Thank you, Byron. Thaddeus, drive.”
The immediate interior of the complex houses a cabana and a modest pool. From there the layout quickly segues into a series of winding lanes and sidewalks. Some end in culs-de-sac; others skirt roundabouts and branch off into labyrinthine blocks with plenty of meandering green space. The homes are all two-story, off-white units with trim in peach, sea foam, or light gray. A few look freshly painted, others recently pressure-washed. A traffic sign reminds motorists to be vigilant of children at play. The overall impression is of something clean and new. “Some place,” he says.
Just being here seems to have elevated Cheryl’s mood. As soon as they turn the corner—or rather slalom along a lazy curve—she spots the house and taps him on the arm, pointing it out. He’s happy for the contact even if it’s fleeting. “Here we are! Just pull into the driveway.”
Uniform rows of violet and white perennials adorn the bottom of the house. Pagoda lights trim the front walkway, and stacked river rocks create a neutral border between the saturated green of the grass and the robust brown of the wood chips piled high throughout the flowerbeds. A juvenile oak sprouts from the center of the lawn.
“Some yard. Must be making the gardener rich.”
“Oh, the homeowner’s association probably takes care of it.” She utters out of the car.
He shifts the car into park and steps out with a wince. These days driving always puts a crick in his knee and sleeping outside last night didn’t do him any favors. He bends the knee until the pain recedes then hobbles around the driveway.
She extracts a handful of letters from the mailbox. “Peter’s still at work, but Steven said to just let ourselves in.” She hands him the mail to hold while she goes around the side of the house. Lazily, he flips through the stack. A few bills and a catalogue from a furniture store he doesn’t recognize, that’s pretty much it.
“Stevie’s not here?”
“He’s at the real estate office all day then doing his volunteering. I told you all this already.”
“He’ll be home later—” then speaking to herself— “There’s a key hidden over here somewhere.”
After getting the bags from the trunk, he wanders over the lawn. It’s softer than what they have in Apopka, which is stubby, coarse and often yellow in the winter. This grass, by contrast, is almost blue.
“Some lawn,” he mumbles.
Cheryl returns, holding up a key and smiling. “Found it!” She kisses him on the cheek. “Come on. Quit staring at the lawn and grab the suitcases. I have to disarm the alarm and I never remember the code. Oh, I’m so excited!”
“Oh—” the kiss still warm on his cheek—“I’ll come alright!”
Palm trees line the deck of Stevie’s house, barks painted white against insects. Cheryl is upstairs while he paces aimlessly, dusk can be the loneliest time of day. She’d grabbed him as soon as he dropped their bags in the guest room, needing him for the first time in months. “Do you want anything special?” he’d asked, unsure how to proceed after such a long absence. She deigned to answer, leaving little for him to go on but a cryptic shrug. He didn’t press her further; instead, he improvised, and they had a magnificent time.
And now he finds himself drunk on it still, stumbling around Stevie’s backyard, letting the décor wash over him and already missing the warmth of her skin, the scent of heat in her hair. Her smooth back has maintained it’s perfect line through the years—a sculpture that never tires of posing. She even kissed him before dropping her head dreamily onto a fresh white pillowcase that still retained a vague latticework of creases from the linen closet. “They’ll be home soon,” she said. “And I still need to get dressed.” She suggested he get some air, her voice tinged by that familiar indifference. But she must have noticed it sneaking back in, because she kissed him again and softly added that she was feeling tired and might take a nap.
“Whatever you want,” he’d said, afraid of ruining the moment, and he repeats it now to himself as he circles the pool, which is better than theirs in every way: the still surface reflects the window to the guest room where Cheryl keeps her own counsel, the adjoining hot tub mocks him with its effortless warmth. There’s a gas barbeque, too. He twists the knobs and tests the starter before shutting off the valve and opening the hood. Drops of charred fat speckle the burners, but the grill sparkles silver, clean—of course. “Whatever you want.”
The labored whine of the garage door opening calls him inside.
It can only mean one thing. In a moment, his idle curiosity about how his son’s family lives evaporates. There’s no need to wonder, he thinks as he scrambles across the deck and into the house, because he’s about to find out.
Inside, he pauses at the landing long enough to call up to Cheryl. “They’re home,” he shouts, but he doesn’t stop to wait for her. Rushing on he stumbles over a leather ottoman. Catching himself, he calls again: “Cheryl, Gertie and Stevie are here!” As he says it, he can’t believe it. His voice shakes with anticipation, and, maybe, even fear. Stevie is about to walk through the door. After three years, he’s about to walk through that door, and all will be forgiven.
He zips past the dining room and through the laundry room. One and a half inches of beveled, stained oak is all that separates him from absolution. Tonight will go well. Tomorrow will be a breeze. Smiling, arms outstretched, he prepares to embrace his son, the past forgotten, and to greet his granddaughter. He’s seconds away now; he can hear a key scratching at the deadbolt from the other side, a muffled curse accompanying it. Impatiently, he turns the lock himself before throwing open the door.
But instead of Stevie with Gertie in his arms, he finds Peter weighed down with groceries. Disappointment at not finding his son momentarily blinds him to Gertie’s presence, but there she is, too. Little Gertie. Hurdy-Gertie. The girl he only recognizes from photographs. Her legs splay across Peter’s midsection. Her straight black hair hangs down like streamers from his arm. She bears little resemblance to the girl in the photos, however. She’s so much bigger for one thing, and asleep it’s hard to find the same animated features. The fact of her race remains absolutely clear, however. There’s no mistaking that she’s adopted, yet the closer Thaddeus looks the more he senses something vaguely familiar in her face, maybe somewhere around the hairline, and for a moment he entertains the notion that Stevie, Peter and Cheryl have colluded in a lie about her adoption in hopes of keeping him away for these past three years, but it seems too outlandish even for Stevie so he dismisses the thought and just like that it’s gone entirely, as if he’d never even thought it.
They must’ve exchanged greetings because Thaddeus feels words form in his mouth. From the end of a long velvet tunnel all Thaddeus hears is a deafening din until Peter asks a question that pulls him back into synch with the world around him. “Can you hold her?” Bogged down with grocery sacks and with Gertie, he can hardly move. Thaddeus manages a nod and holds out his hands. To think that last night he was just some old man beside a pool and now, less than twenty-four hours later, he’s not only meeting his granddaughter but being given the opportunity to hold her. His eyes mist.
Peter slips her into his outstretched arms. “Say hi to your grandpa, Baby.” And that’s as much ceremony as he puts into the exchange. Gertie continues to sleep uninterrupted.
“It’s okay. Don’t wake her,” Thaddeus whispers. “She’s probably had a big day.”
“Careful. She’s heavier than she looks.”
“She’s not heavy. She’s my brother.”
Peter shoots him an odd look, which Thaddeus hardly notices.
“Just an old Hollies tune.”
How many nights beside the pool have been spent imaging this first meeting, rehearsing scores of scenarios? He had so many reservations, so many fears. What if he wasn’t cut out to be a grandpa? What if he dropped her? Would he even be able to love an adopted granddaughter? And now she slumbers in his arms, bigger than he could even imagine, a real person, but still tiny and vulnerable in every way. He could’ve saved himself the worry, he thinks. He’s a natural.
“It’s good to see you, Thaddeus.” Peter leads the way to the kitchen. “It’s been too long.”
He stacks canned goods on the granite counter and slips a slab of something wrapped in pink butcher paper into the open refrigerator. For a while they don’t say anything else.
“Anyway, water under the bridge,” Thaddeus says, at last. “You look different.”
Peter folds the empty grocery sacks into a drawer. He looks down at himself and grins. “I can’t tell if that’s a compliment.”
In three years Peter’s look has changed completely. The wild dark dreads he wore in the past have been replaced by his natural shade of russet blond, trimmed close to the scalp and revealing a rather severe widow’s peak. In place of the grimy yellow glasses, which were always far too big for his small face, he’s substituted a stylish pair of wire frames. The clothes mark the biggest change. Peter used to wear lots of things with safety pins and ironed on badges, a style far too youthful for him even five years ago when he and Stevie first started seeing each other. Now his patterned, understated button-up neatly tucks into a pair of pressed tan slacks. No more black boots, either. Those he replaced with soft leather boat shoes.
“A compliment,” Thaddeus says. “You look good.”
Peter smiles. “I guess I grew up, huh? Who would’ve thought?” Gertie squirms. Whimpering, she pushes against Thaddeus’ shoulder. “Uh-oh, what’s the matter, Beautiful, don’t you like your grandpa?”
“No, she loves her grandpa.” But Peter scoops her out of his arms all the same. Cooing, he kisses her on the head and she calms down. “She’s probably just having a bad dream. She gets them sometimes. Steven thinks she’s reliving something from the orphanage, but I think it’s just something she ate. It’s okay, Gertie, Daddy’s here. Shh.”
“Will you look at that….”
A new serenity washes over him seeing Peter with Gertie. He’s here now, in this house, with his family. A moment ago he held his granddaughter and later he’ll get to hold her again, and then maybe in a week Peter, Stevie and Gertie will be at his house and they’ll all enjoy the pool together. Maybe they’ll even visit Disney World together, as a family. Cheryl will be kinder to him now. They can finally put the past behind them. For the first time in three years Thaddeus can envision a happy future.
Then Gertie screams so loudly she startles him.
She transforms into a dynamo of sleeping rage. Her fists pound into Peter’s shoulder and her feet slam into his hip. She wails. Thaddeus scrambles toward her. “What’s wrong!”
“It’s just a dream.” Calmly, Peter rocks her. “It’ll pass. We just have to stay calm.”
The staircase rattles in the adjacent room as Cheryl comes rushing down. “Wait!” she shouts. “It’s okay. I’m here. I’m coming!”
Her cries further agitate Gertie, who redoubles her tantrum, but Peter is able to wake her and as soon as he does she stops screaming. Hey eyes immediately rest on Thaddeus and at first she seems startled by this stranger and her mood threatens to spill over into anger again, but Peter kisses her cheek and tells her it’s okay. “Say hi to your grandpa, Sweetie.” Thaddeus playfully sticks out his tongue and makes a trumpet of his thumb pressed to the tip of his nose. Though she remains suspicious, she lets slip a hesitant grin that soon blossoms into a gregarious smile.
“Ha!” His granddaughter just smiled at him for the first time!
Cheryl charges into the kitchen, a stricken look on her face, but she stops short when she sees them all huddled by the breakfast bar. “Peter?” She grabs her chest and exhales. “What a relief. When I heard screaming I thought it was Steven—” she crosses Thaddeus with a withering gaze. “I thought something happened.”
“We’re fine,” Thaddeus says.
“Just a bad dream is all,” Peter adds. Gertie sucks her thumb, her gaze shifting back and forth between Thaddeus and Cheryl, a stranger and a friend. She’s done crying, for the moment at least, and Thaddeus decides it’s a good sign.
“What a relief,” Cheryl says. Turning to Gertie, she pouts and slips into baby talk. “Your grandma just got worked up over nothing.”
Gertie squirms, wanting out of her father’s arms. He sets her on the floor then takes a seat at the breakfast bar. “It’s okay. We’re used to drama around here.”
“Nothing to worry about,” Thaddeus reiterates. “We’re all fine.” Then to Cheryl, he says, “Stevie isn’t here yet.”
“Wait,” Peter says. “What do you mean Steven isn’t here?”
From THE SHOW HOUSE. Used with permission of Unnamed Press. Copyright © 2017 by Dan Lopez.