by Paula Gail Benson
This is a revised version of a story that appeared in Writers Who Kill, in December 2013.
I have a habit of viewing life as a screenplay. It happens when you spend twelve years teaching film studies to university undergrads. You start to view most things as fodder for a movie script. Take tonight, for example, a week before Christmas. I’m here at the Study Break Cafe, a local hole-in-the-wall on the edge of campus. A place I’ve spent many significant moments. First job. Study dates. Surprise proposal. Uh, let’s not explore that proposal back-story.
My full name and title is Associate Professor of English Hambly Harrison Richards, III. I’ve been called Ham all my life because Dad took Harry and Grandpa was Double H. Since I have only a daughter, the moniker rests with me.
Tonight I’m here to meet her, my Jessica, the light of my life. I wait for the kid behind the counter ten minutes, wondering when he’ll take my order. There’s only one other person in the cafe, a derelict slumped in the back booth who is mumbling to himself. Finally, the kid approaches, pushing his black rimmed glasses up while juggling pad and pencil.
“Black coffee, please,” I tell him.
“Oh, man,” he sighs. “I just broke down the machine. Didn’t think we’d get any more coffee drinkers tonight.”
The back office door slams and Mr. Kressley, the proprietor, rushes forward to my booth. I can tell from the frown he gives the kid that trouble, if not coffee, has been brewing.
“Then, it’s good I’m still here to keep the Professor entertained while you set it back up and make a fresh pot.”
“Yes, Mr. Kressley.”
Mr. Kressley shakes his head as he watches the kid amble back behind the counter.
“Oh, Ham. The ones who work here now are nothing like your generation. You were always early and ready to stay late.”
I shrug. “We didn’t have iPads and the Internet beckoning us.”
“Even those your Jessie’s age had more gumption to them.”
I cringe when I hear him call her “Jessie.” To me, she will always and only be “Jessica,” namesake for Shylock’s daughter in the Merchant of Venice. But, nobody crosses Mr. Kressley. I take a look at my watch. “She should be here by now.”
Mr. Kressley smiles. “Such a lovely girl and professional worker. Spitting image of her mother.”
I consider “spitting” an appropriate tribute to Jessica’s mother. Mr. Kressley continues. “Jessie and her young man relived a little of your history here a few nights ago, you know.”
History should have taught Gordo what a mistake that was. Of course, since Gordo had been my student, I knew learning was not his long suit.
A mechanical sputter sends Mr. Kressley to check out what the kid is doing to his equipment. I sit back and can’t help thinking of past visits with Jessica. When my baby was a little girl, we had daddy-daughter date nights here so her mother could grade papers without distractions. Jessica wore the pink Cinderella dress that had been her Halloween outfit until she outgrew it or stopped trick-or-treating. Actually, the last time I remember her wearing the costume was at our daddy-daughter date night when I told her about the divorce.
Tonight I was repeating our date night ritual out of desperation. Surely, the bad memory can’t outweigh all the good times we’ve shared here, and I have to confront her someplace about the decision I’m sure will ruin her life.
After her mother left me for that gigolo adjunct professor, Jessica can’t just go live with Gordo. Maybe Gordo gave her a ring, but I’ve seen it. It’s no diamond. And, I’ve heard no talk of marriage. She’s always been my princess and I’ve told her not to settle for a man who would treat her as less. So how did that bozo Gordo breach the perimeter? Good grief. I don’t even like myself for thinking that. What time is it now? She’s definitely late. No doubt Gordo’s influence. He never turned in an assignment on time.
Mr. Kressley returns with my coffee. “You and Jessie were all I could have asked for in employees. Nothing like this kid. But, it’s Christmas, and he has expenses like everyone else. So I give him a chance, despite my misgivings. I’m even going to leave for a few hours to spend time with my family. I told him I’d be back to help him close.” Mr. Kressley looks back toward the kid. “You think I’m making a mistake?”
“No, no. He’ll be fine. Everyone’s a little rough around the edges in the beginning. He’ll get the hang of it.” I sipped at the coffee, which is surprisingly good.
“Do you mind to keep an eye on him for me, while I’m gone, Ham?”
It’s the last thing I want to do, but this is Mr. Kressley asking. “Sure, sure.”
“He’ll be no trouble.” Mr. Kressley doesn’t sound as certain as his words. “Besides, for anything serious, we’ve installed a buzzer under the counter that sends a silent alarm to the police sub-station. You’ll have to ask Jessica about the night she hit it by mistake and all hell broke loose.”
I nod, figuring she might talk with me about that if not Gordo.
Mr. Kressley turns, and I see him smile and open his arms wide. Jessica has just walked in the door. He embraces her and she gives him a kiss before coming to join me in the booth.
“I can’t stay long, Dad. I’m meeting Gordo at a party.” She raises her hand as I open my mouth. “Don`t try to talk me out of it because we accepted weeks ago and people are expecting us. And while we’re at it, don’t waste time trying to talk me out of living with Gordo. My decision’s final. I’ve already given notice at my apartment. I’ve got no place else to go.”
“Stay with me. I’ll give you your space.”
Jessica sighs. “Dad, you barely have your own space in that apartment. You don’t need another occupant.”
“I want one. I want you.”
She shakes her head. “I love you, Dad. But I’m living with Gordo. Get used to it.”
I sip the coffee, now gone cold. I blame myself. The divorce left her rootless. But how could she think that Gordo could give her security? He doesn’t even like to discuss film. Who won’t talk about the movies? What about him attracts my only beloved daughter?
She interrupts my anguish. “Dad, don’t move.”
“That guy in the back booth? Well, now he’s talking to the kid at the register. I think he has a gun in his pocket.”
“How can you tell?”
“The bulge in his pocket is bigger than a fist and he’s pointing it straight at the kid. I don’t think he’s just happy to see him.”
“Oh, my God.” I’ve got to get Jessica to safety.
“Just stay calm, Dad. There’s a silent alarm under the counter. If only this kid remembers to use it.”
I watch her face like it’s a rear view mirror. “What’s happening?”
Jessica shakes her head slightly. “The kid just keeps whispering to the guy. I can’t tell if he’s pressed the alarm. But, I can see the guy’s getting nervous. Maybe I can call the police on my cell. Move in front of me so the gunman won’t turn and see.”
If only I could be a larger shield.
“What’s that noise?”
I can’t sit still any longer. I pull out of the booth and face the gunman, head on. I glance at the hand in his pocket. I see his fingers curl around what looks like a gun handle. The kid at the counter shakes his head fiercely at me, but there’s no stopping me now. I’m a dad, making sure Jessica’s not harmed.
“Can you believe it? I ask my daughter out for a night of quiet conversation and what’s the first thing she does but whip out her cell?”
The guy tells Jessica, “Put it up.”
I block his view of her. “Maybe she’ll listen to you. Not me. I’m just her father who’s worried sick about her throwing away her future on a worthless bum.”
The guy starts to shake and pulls the gun further out of his pocket. I concentrate on the guy’s face, being sure to maintain eye contact.
“She’s just like her mother,” I tell him. “Her head’s turned by the first male bee to BUZZ HER.” I glance at the kid as I emphasize the words. “BUZZ ‘ER. BUZZ ‘ER. BUZZ ‘ER.”
“You mean, ‘Buzz around her?’”
The gunman must have been an English major.
“Exactly. BUZZ ‘ER.”
The kid’s still shaking his head. I approach the gunman and put my arm loosely around his shoulders, trying to steer him a few steps toward the door, but he’s firmly planted and not moving. I continue babbling. “She’s my only child. I’ve always told her not to settle, but who does she wind up with?”
“Somebody like me?”
At least, the guy is listening to what I’m saying. That’s more than my students do. “Not half your caliber. A wing nut. Like the low life who ran off with her mother.” Then, a thought strikes me. “Can you believe it, that scum who stole my wife went on a game show, knew all the answers, and got so excited he called them out before he hit the buzzer.” I look at the kid, who’s staring at me like I’ve gone crazy. “Pitiful,” I say, not even sure who my comment is describing.
Suddenly, Jessica jumps up from her seat and approaches me and my gun-toting buddy.“How dare you insult my mother and step-father,” she says.
All I want to do is keep the gunman’s trigger hand immobilized while Jessica’s in range. “How dare I? How dare you involve this good man in our family trauma? You should be ashamed to act this way so close to Christmas.”
“Why?” She’s taunting me now. Pushing her face so close up into mine that I’m ready to scream. “Are you threatening that I’ll get on Santa’s naughty list and receive no toys? I’m not a child anymore, Dad.”
I can barely speak, my heart’s beating so strongly against my chest. “More’s the pity. The way you’re acting now, I should paddle you across my knee.”
Jessica laughs. At me, her father. “I dare you to try. Shame on you, Dad, for not being able to realize how deeply Gordo loves me. I don’t care what you say I’ll shout it from the mountain top.”
She passes us and heads straight behind the counter where she tells the kid, “Boost me up.”
I see her grip beneath the counter where the buzzer must be located. Please God, let her have hit the alarm. I’ve never been so terrified and proud in all my life.
Then, in the next minute, she’s standing on the counter arms spread like Kate Winslet in Titanic. “Gordo loves me and I love him. So just get used to it.”
I am screaming now. “Stop making a spectacle of yourself!”
“You started it.”
Somehow, I’ve got to diffuse this situation. Think Bruce Willis in one of the Die Hards. I turn to the gunman. “I apologize for my daughter’s behavior.”
He’s looking at me as if I’ve lost my marbles. “Let me go, mister.”
“She isn’t usually so dramatic.”
“I just want outta here.”
“Certainly. I’ll be glad to take care of your bill for the trouble we’ve caused you.”
As soon as his arm is free, he pulls his gun and starts swinging it wildly, pointing at Jessica, the kid, and me. Got to get back in control. I throw up my hands and step in front of the gunman, making sure I’m the only target.
“Keep away from me, mister,” he yells. “You are one crazy bastard.”
From somewhere, I maintain that Bruce Willis inner reserve of calm. “I’ll do anything you want, just don’t hurt my little girl.”
Suddenly, someone rushes past me. It’s the crazy kid. He grabs the guy’s arm.
Point that gun away from Jessica! I run forward. The minute I collide with them, the gun goes off.
I’m falling. I try to talk, but words won’t come.
Jessica, I love you, baby. I always will.
“Daddy, can you hear me?”
I open my eyes. I’m lying on the floor and hear noises in the background. Mr. Kressley is yelling. I can’t focus on what he’s saying. All I can think about is Jessica’s beautiful brown eyes staring at me with tears.
“Don’t cry, baby. What happened?”
“It’s all over now. The police are taking the guy away. You hit the floor hard after the gun went off. We couldn’t get you to wake up. The paramedics should be here soon.”
“Help me sit at our booth.”
She does under protest. The kid brings me a wet towel. I hear Jessica thank him as I sit down, lean my elbows on the table, and hold the towel to my aching forehead.
She must hear my groan. She asks, “You really hate Gordo that much?”
I take the towel from my head and look earnestly into her eyes. “I guess not. It just irks me that he doesn’t want to commit to marriage. Marriage is about promise and trust. Living together is just about convenience. Your mother and I had problems, but she found real happiness with your step-father, and they married. I want you planning a future with someone, not just hoping it works out.”
Jessica reaches for my hands and gives them a squeeze. “I get it. Now, I have something to give to you.” She reaches into her purse and then places an envelope in my hands. “You were supposed to get this Christmas morning.”
I break the seal and pull the card from inside. My eyes are still blurry, but I can make out enough of the printing on the card: Jessica Richards and Gordon Humphreys . . . honor of your presence . . . marriage . . . thirty-first of December . . . nine o’clock . . . University Chapel . . . Reception following . . . Faculty Club.
When I look up at her, she looks like the happiest girl in the world. “Think you could give me away?”
I can’t let it go that easily. “How do you know I’ll be in town?”
“Because we spend every New Year’s Eve together. Now, we’ll just have Gordo along.”
Oh, joy. A grand new tradition.
“But, I swear to you that Gordo will never put our child through what you just did to me.”
I brace myself, wondering if another unexpected gift is about to come my way.
Check out more Christmas short stories in our Terrific Tales section.