map Lousy Presents

by Marcy Dermansky

Published in Issue No. 28 ~ September, 1999

Trudy wants gifts. Her father buys her two souvenirs at the Traveland off Highway 10 in Jackson, Mississippi. A cute miniature ink well and a wall plaque with the protruding head of a Mississippi mule.

Trudy starts to bawl when she sees these gifts. Trudy is a twelve-year old girl and she does not recognize her father who has only been gone for a year but has not shaved or cut his hair once in that time. His clothes never used to be purple. He used to wear suits and ties and on a crazy day, a pastel shirt. Trudy bawls because she doesn’t recognize the man until her baby-sitter, Clara, a twenty-two year old college student all the way from New York City, tells her, “that’s him, Trudy, I’d recognize that dumb smile anywhere.”

Trudy takes her gifts and throws them through the living room window. “I have a problem with anger,” she says.

Clara shrugs her shoulders. “This is the third window this year,” she says. “It’s all right. The window guy is a sweetie.”

Trudy’s father’s name is Bruno. This was not a home he wanted to come back to. Bruno had quite a thing for Clara. It never went anywhere. They once had a finger sucking session and the erotic tension was too much to bear. Bruno was going to leave anyway. He told his wife and daughter that he was going to climb Mount Everest, but at the foot of the mountain, he decided that he couldn’t. He was afraid. Bruno got back on the plane to Mississippi, but before boarding his connecting flight from Atlanta decided that he could not go home. Could not. He took a bus to San Francisco, but the bus broke down in New Mexico and he fell in with a group of friendly people who offered him black bean chili. There were numerous presents he could have bought for Trudy in New Mexico, but Bruno had forgotten all about Trudy. He eventually remembered and came home.

It gives Bruno a thrill to watch Trudy break the window of the house that had once imprisoned him. He takes off his Birkenstock sandal and throws it against the other living room window but the shoe merely bounces off it, landing on the couch.

“I’m home,” Bruno says. “Do you want to give me a hug?” he asks Trudy.

“No way,” she says. “Not a possibility.”

Clara gives him a hug. Bruno remembers her lips around his thumb. “Why did I come home?” he says. Those friendly healthy people in New Mexico never threw things. There was no drama. No excitement. Just clear heads all around.

“You look stupid,” Trudy says. “Like a stupid fool.”

Before Bruno left, Trudy never used to talk much at all. She had no problems with anger. None. She was a meek girl.

“You look terrific,” Bruno says. This makes his daughter smile.

Clara says that there is lasagna in the oven. She goes into the kitchen.

“Where is my wife?” Bruno says. “Her book club? A city council meeting? At the mall with Betty Sue? I left a wife and a daughter.”

Trudy shrugs her shoulders. She picks up an illustrated Bible from the coffee table and throws it through the other window. The glass crashes; splinters big and small spray across the room.

Bruno looks at his daughter in wonder.

“You’ve got to really use your arm,” Trudy says. “Take a big back swing.”

“Dinner’s ready,” Clara calls.

Bruno stares at the glass on the couch. Trudy goes into the kitchen to help Clara set the table. Bruno joins them.

“A girl abandoned by two parents in the same year is sure to be a little disturbed,” Clara says. She opens a bottle of wine. “My studies are going great, by the way,” she says. “It’s been terrific to live here. Free rent. No roommates. Except for Miss Trudy. Miss Trudy is a delight. I’ve got a 4.0.”

Trudy starts eating. “Clara is sleeping with the window man,” she says.

Clara pours Bruno a glass of wine. “Your wife left me plenty of money to take care of the house.”

Trudy frowns. “There’s no salad,” she says. “Clara is also sleeping with the pool man.”

Clara shakes her head. “Now honey, that’s not true,” she says. “The pool man wants to sleep with Clara, but I have standards. Why not ask your Daddy who he is sleeping with?”

Bruno drinks his wine in one long gulp.

“Oh, no,” he says. “Daddy’s been sleeping with no one. Daddy’s been meditating. I’ve learned yoga. I believe in a higher power. Daddy’s gone through all sorts of spiritual changes.”

“Those were terrible gifts,” Clara says.

“Lousy,” Trudy says.

“You two are too much,” Bruno says.

“I’m relieved that you’re back,” Clara says. “Because I graduate in the spring.”

“You’re going back to New York?” Bruno says.

Clara shrugs her shoulders. “I’m not sure,” she says. “I can move back home or go on to grad school. Or I can stay here and live for free and write a fantastic screenplay about the window man’s psychic twin sisters. Miss Trudy hasn’t offered her opinion yet. I’m waiting for Trudy to say what she wants. A good baby-sitter does not leave her girl unattended.”

Bruno pours himself another glass of wine. “I didn’t know her mother would leave,” he says, looking at his delicious lasagna. He resumes eating.

“Ah ha,” Clara says.

“I want to go to the movies,” Trudy says. “I want to go to the Palace and sit in the top row of the biggest stadium theater and throw popcorn and Milk Duds on people’s heads.”

Clara nods. “It’s fun,” she says to Bruno. “You should come.”

Bruno finishes his lasagna. He picks up the plate and licks it clean. “You throw popcorn?”

Trudy picks up the salt shaker and shakes it into Bruno’s face. Bruno thought he liked living in New Mexico with his strange group of healthy friends. The food, however, was lacking. Nothing they cooked ever had salt. Bruno considers eating popcorn without salt. Why bother? Clara goes to the oven and removes the tray of still warm lasagna. She places the pan on a red ceramic tile in the center of the kitchen table. Trudy digs right in with her fork. Clara, with those long fingers, digs between a layer of noodles for a creamy hunk of ricotta and mozzarella cheese oozing with tomato sauce. Then she sucks the cheese off her long fingers. Bruno remembers that this was how Clara always ate her food. She was a tactile person.

Bruno grins and drinks more wine. “I’d like to come to the movies,” he says.

“Lousy presents,” Trudy says. “Lousy.”

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Marcy Dermansky's recent publications include The New Orleans Review, The Mississippi Review, and Gulf Coast. She received her MFA from the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi and was named a finalist in STORY's 1999 Carson McCullers short fiction award.