In a Word

 

In a Word

  

            Harold blinked several times, surprised to find he was in the kitchen. He had no recollection of leaving his desk and ending up here, staring out the window over the sink at the thick green oleander bushes growing just feet away.

            She can’t mean that, he thought.

            Harold returned to his desk where the email was still open on his computer. He sat down and read the first line: “Dad, I do not want you to visit us again.”

            He stared at the words and could not grasp that they were addressing him.

            He closed his eyes and heard blood surging through the arteries in his neck with such force he thought he might suffer a vessel blow-out in his brain and have a stroke.

            When he no longer heard blood throbbing through his carotids, Harold opened his eyes.

            The words were still there. “Dad, I do not want you to visit us again.”

            Not visit anymore?

            Was Natalie playing a joke on him? Why else would she write such words? It must be a joke. What else could it be? Harold shook his head and tried to laugh. Sometimes that girl was a corker. Maybe this was one of those times.

            He read the rest of the email: “You are argumentative and narrow-minded. You’ve always been that way and you will never be any different. We have enough turmoil in our lives without you adding to it. I love you, Dad, but I don’t want to be around you anymore. I don’t want you around my kids. You are unpleasant and unkind. Your visits upset and distress the kids, Nigel, and me. You are not welcome in our house anymore."

            Argumentative? The word stung. He resented her use of it.

            He wasn’t argumentative; he was speaking his mind. He believed he had that right. A lifetime of hard work, getting up every morning of every week and going to that stinking refinery for forty-three years gave him that right. Providing for his family without asking for or taking a handout from anybody, including the government, gave him the right to state his views without worrying about offending others. If others didn’t like what he said, too bad. And if Natalie thought saying what was on his mind was argumentative, then she was right, he was argumentative, and that was fine by him.

            Natalie’s accusation annoyed Harold. By her definition anybody who voiced an opposite opinion, disagreed with a statement, or had a counter response to a comment would be argumentative. In Harold’s world people were free to say what they wanted without fear of being told they were unpleasant or argumentative.

            Argumentative?

            If you couldn’t say what was on your mind, what could you say?

            He thought Natalie might be confused about the meaning of the word, or perhaps she had grown too thin-skinned.

            And narrow-minded? Where did Natalie get off calling him that? Sure, like everybody, he had opinions. So what if he gave his opinions when nobody asked for them? He couldn’t be faulted for saying what he believed needed to be said. If people disliked or didn’t agree with his views they were free to offer their own in rebuttal or convince him to change his. Not that he would ever change his views, but people could give it a try.

            Harold dismissed Natalie’s accusations.

            Something must be bothering her, something she doesn’t want to talk about. Maybe the marriage is going bad. Perhaps she’s finally figured out marrying a Brit, moving to England and having kids was a mistake. Maybe that’s what’s bothering her and setting her off like this.

            His first impulse was to email Natalie and ask her what she thought she was doing, telling him he could not visit anymore. He was her father. She could not say these things to him. And he had a right to visit his grandkids if he wanted to.

            Harold’s twice-yearly visits to England followed a rigid schedule. He arrived in England on the first day of March and September, stayed three weeks each time, then returned to the US on the spring and fall equinoxes. It was his routine. It worked for him and that was good enough.

            But what about his last visit? Did he do something that caused Natalie to write such an outrageous email? Harold tried to remember. He and Natalie had a furious argument over the way her kids, his grandkids, were speaking English. “For Christ’s sake, it’s butter,” he shouted the last morning at breakfast when Edward, the six-year-old, asked for the buh-er. Harold turned to Natalie. “What kind of English are you teaching my grandkids? American kids don’t talk like that, at least in Montana they don’t.”

            “Dad, he’s not an American child and we are not in Montana. You’ve no right to criticize the way my children speak. I won’t stand for it.” Natalie pointed her finger at him. “Don’t you ever do that again.”

            Edward peered at Harold. “Don’t you like me, Grandpapa?” Edward held a piece of dry toast in one hand, a table knife in the other.

            “Sure, I like you, Eddie. You’re a fine boy.” Then, unable to restrain himself, Harold said, “I don’t like the way you talk. You talk funny. It isn’t normal.”

            After breakfast Harold went to his room and packed. He was scheduled to catch the ten o’clock train to Paddington then the Shuttle to Heathrow and a flight to the U.S. later in the evening. The goodbyes that morning were strained and nobody cried when the taxi came to take him to the train station.

            That was in March. Now it was mid-July, and he was getting ready for his September visit. Surely, after all this time Natalie had put that misunderstanding behind her. He hadn’t thought any more about it until her email came in this morning. Why should Natalie harbor such anger over something so insignificant? Every family had disagreements. Why should his family be any different? He had already forgotten about it. After all, he was just expressing his opinion about how his grandkids talked. It wasn’t like he was laying down the law or anything, telling the kids to stop talking like foreigners.

            Well, Harold told himself, his grandkids did talk funny. Their accents were strange, and the way they spoke rankled him. He remembered when he was in elementary school he and his friends tormented the new kids that came to town with their refugee families. After the war, there were lots of refugees fleeing countries in eastern Europe, trying to escape the devastation and the Soviet occupation.

            It was great fun mocking the way the newcomers stumbled over words in a language new to them. Harold and his friends eagerly waited for recess when they could corner and make fun of the newcomers. Often, the relentless bullying made the new kids cry from frustration and anger. Sometimes the frustration and anger boiled over, resulting in fist fights, and that was even better. Harold and his pals doubled their torment of the kids who would strike back with their fists. Harold and his friends ganged up on those kids so it was never a one-on-one in any of the fights. That’s what made the fights so much fun.

            But that was long ago. What harm could that teasing have caused? Kids doing kid stuff never hurt anyone. Everybody got over it after a while. Didn’t they? Of course they did.

             His eyes went back to Natalie’s email: “Not welcome in our house anymore.” Harold focused on those six words until a frightful truth lodged in his brain and he knew with certainty what those words meant: I’ll never see my daughter or my grandkids again.

            Not seeing Natalie or the grandkids. They were his only family. Susan, his wife of forty-eight years, had died of cardiac arrest three years ago as she slept. Neither he nor Susan nor her doctor suspected anything was wrong with her heart.

            After the funeral Susan’s doctor had said, “Harold, Susan was seventy-three years old. I’m sorry she died, but you can’t deny Mother Nature. She always collects.” For Harold, this was a bitter explanation and he resented the doctor’s cavalier brush-off of Susan’s death. And he resented death for taking from him what he loved most.

            For forty-eight years he had never been alone. Susan’s death plunged him into a prolonged depression punctuated by momentary fits of rage triggered by the most innocuous events: a group of teenagers laughing and joking, taking too much time to cross an intersection as he waited for the light to change; a young man and woman in the grocery store, holding hands and exchanging kisses as they awaited their turn in the check-out line; an older couple who should have known better bringing their dog into the hardware store like it was some kind of doggie playland. Who did those people think they were, acting like that? Didn’t they have any manners?

            And now Natalie had turned him away, telling him he was no longer welcome in her home.

            Where does she get off telling me I’m not welcome anymore?

            Harold got up, went into the kitchen and stared out the window at the oleander hedge. He remembered Susan standing at the kitchen sink, tidying up after dinner, commenting on the oleanders when they were in bloom. “Harold, aren’t those flowers so beautiful? I just love them.”             Susan. He missed her so much. And now Natalie was rejecting him, her own father.

            What does she think she’s doing?

            A sudden fear swept over Harold. Again, the sound of blood gushing through the arteries in his neck pulsed in his ears. He put his hand on the kitchen counter to keep from falling to the floor when the realization hit him; I’m going to die alone.

            This knowledge terrified Harold. It could not happen to him. He would not let it happen to him. Somehow, he had to make it right with Natalie. She couldn’t cut him out of her life and the lives of his grandkids. She just couldn’t do that to him. In a panic, he returned to his desk and sat down. He would make Natalie understand that she could not shut him out. He would make her understand that he needed her and her kids and they needed him.

            Harold read the opening line of her email and felt the panic that had terrified him moments ago begin to subside, giving way to a rising anger.

            He put his fingers on the keyboard then paused as the fear of dying alone and the anger of being shut out bubbled together in him.

            Then he clicked on reply and began to type his response.

 

  

Robert P. Bishop

  

Robert P. Bishop, a former soldier and teacher, is the author of three novels and three short-story collections, the most recent being Syndrome and Other Stories, all available on Amazon. His work has appeared in Active Muse, Ariel Chart, Better Than Starbucks, Clover and White, CommuterLit, Corner Bar Magazine, Fleas on the Dog, Ink Pantry, Literally Stories, The Literary Hatchet, Lunate Fiction, The Scarlet Leaf Review and elsewhere. He lives in Tucson, Arizona.    

2 Comments

  1. sad but moving fiction. strong take on loneliness of a person trapped in their own creation of poor communication.

    ReplyDelete
  2. you captured the character perfectly. quite sad but a very good piece of fiction.

    ReplyDelete
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