Grace arrived home and lingered in the darkened hallway, unnoticed. Her nineteen-year-old daughter, Lucy, home from college for the weekend, sat cross-legged on the floor, too close to the TV, hands in her lap, rapt as a toddler watching Saturday morning cartoons. Images of her as a baby flickered on the flat screen. Lucy in the backyard pool, what Red called the cement pond, her chubby arms flailing in puffy orange floaties. Grace sucked in her breath, pressed her purse to her belly as if it might absorb the gut punch of what she knew came next in the home movie. With a jerky, dizzying swoop, the camera panned to the sloped roof of the ramshackle ranch-style house where they’d lived until Lucy was two. The crushed velveteen sofa and loveseat from Sears perched on the roof, silhouetted against that flat sky. Red’s scratchy laughter trailed off as the shot ended.
The home tour continued in the family room with a barrage of off-kilter images. The gun cabinet, a collection of bongs on the mantle. On the dark paneled walls, the velvet paintings Red brought home that time he slipped down to Mexico with his two best buddies. They’d called themselves, “tres hombres malos,” three bad men, repeating the words in husky gringo accents.
“Where’d you get the home movie?” she asked.
“Jesus, Mom.” Lucy whipped her head around. “You scared the crap out of me.”
Grace dropped her handbag to the floor and sat beside Lucy. She put an arm around her daughter’s bony shoulder. Lucy stiffened. “Dad sent it.” She jutted her chin at the TV. “He copied some old reels onto VHS for me.”
“You’ve been talking to him?”
“Something wrong with that?”
“No, it’s just, I wasn’t aware.” Grace slumped against the sofa. She rummaged in her purse for a cigarette and lifted an ashtray from the end table. On the screen, the camera wobbled into the kitchen. There was Lucy in a high chair, pounding a mash of orange and green cake on the tray. Her pale face, hands and wispy hair were gooey with it.
“What the hell were you feeding me, Mom?”
“It’s jello cake. Your Dad’s favorite. His mother’s special family recipe, off the Dream-Whip box.” Grace blew smoke at the ceiling.
“Grandma Myrna’s sick. Dad says I should come see her while I can.”
“I don’t suppose he mentioned anything about sending airfare?”
“Everything isn’t about money.”
Red’s mother had been all chicken legs and big, boggle eyes, hair stiff from the beauty salon once a week. Grace hadn’t seen her in over seventeen years but she hadn’t forgotten their last conversation. “Does he beat you?” Myrna had asked. “Does he bring fancy women home? Get himself thrown in the drunk tank?” When Grace had said that no, Red hadn’t done any of those things, his mother sputtered, flapping those gummy tarantula lashes, “Well then, I don’t understand you. Throwing away a good man, a good life, and with a child, a blessed gift from the Lord to consider.”
That blessed gift had been the reason Grace left. She’d wanted something different for Lucy, but there’d been no point trying to explain that to Myrna. She blinked at her old self on the TV, barefoot in Red’s blue and white-checkered flannel robe, gripping the baby, a coming-loose-at-the-seams braid trailing over one breast. Two big dogs sniffed at Lucy’s diapered behind.
“You look so young, Mom.”
“Yeah, well,” Grace said. She squeezed her eyes shut. When she looked again, there he was. Red, reflected in the long mirror at the end of the narrow hallway, shirtless, bunchy biceps, Hulk Hogan scarf wrapped around his shaved head. The camera teetered on his shoulder, the lens pressed to one eye. For a time, that camera had been like an appendage. Then, who knows, maybe it wound up on the roof too, along with the fancy espresso machine and stationary bicycle Red had given her their last Christmas together.
“You remember any of this, honey?” she asked. “The house. The dogs. Your daddy loved those dogs.” Grace sighed, a deep inhale, exhale.
Lucy twisted the hem of her muslin blouse. “What was up with the furniture on the roof? I could see a broken-down couch on the porch or maybe an engine block in the front yard. But furniture on the roof.” Her voice was filled with unease. “Was that some kind of Midwest thing?”
Red had said he did it to see the look on her face, to get a rise out of her. And maybe that’s all it ever was. Grace had always refused to get into it with him, wouldn’t fight back, and that drove him crazy. It wasn’t in her nature to carry on the way the other women in his life had. What’s done is done, she believed. You moved on. You tried.
“Those two dogs were named Shanghai and Boomer,” she said. On the screen her younger self held Lucy close, while the dogs’ ropey tails whipped the wallpaper. “Shanghai is the tall, black one. He was a Great Dane, Labrador mix. Size of a horse. He never liked me. Used to growl when I walked down the hall to our bedroom.”
“Dad breeds dogs now,” Lucy said. “Bulldogs or something. It’s hard to hear him on the phone. Some woman in the background is always yelling at the dogs to shut the fuck up. It’s kind of funny.”
“You should go if you want to, honey,” Grace said. “He is your daddy and she’s your grandmother. I’ll buy you a ticket.”
Lucy rested one cheek on her knees. Grace traced circles round the raised lumps of her daughter’s spine. “I can’t really afford to miss any school right now. I don’t want to mess up my GPA. Maybe this summer.”
“Whatever you want, baby.” Grace stubbed out the cigarette. She tucked her hair—brown streaked with silver—behind her ears and stretched her legs out in front of her.
Lucy laid her head in her lap. Her hands bunched in fists over her eyes.
The screen sputtered—flashes of dark and bright, sunspots, wriggling eye exam squiggles and flecks—then froze. The home movies answered Lucy’s questions about why they hadn’t lived with Red better than she’d ever managed to.
Grace smoothed her daughter’s hair. “There’s my beautiful girl,” she murmured.
Dorothy Rice’s fiction and essays have appeared in The Rumpus, Still Point Arts Quarterly, Proximity, The Saturday Evening Post, Brain, Child magazine and the Brevity blog, among others. She is the author of The Reluctant Artist, a memoir and art book about her father, Joe Rice (1918 – 2011), an obscure, reclusive artist of many talents. At 60, following a career in environmental protection, she earned an MFA in creative writing from the University of California, Riverside. dorothyriceauthor.com