Mr. Ritter, I mean Warren, ah . . . Dad, I need your help.”
One, she’d never called me “Dad” before. Two, she looked like hell. Three, she’d never asked for help. I knew I was in big trouble.
“Fran, hi! Wow, you don’t look so good. What’s wrong?”
Tears welled up in her eyes. She gulped, but couldn’t talk.
“Hey, I’m guessing this isn’t a conversation for the middle of Telegraph Avenue, is it?”
“Well no, not really.”
“Let me close up, and we’ll go get some coffee.”
To close up my shop all I had to do was stuff my tarot cards into a bag and fold up my table. As I gathered my deck up, one card fell on the sidewalk. A little nervously I bent over to pick it up. Please, no bad omens. Whew. It was the image of a nude woman pouring water into a pool, with large radiant stars shining overhead: the Star card. I had no idea what it meant to me. At least it wasn’t the Death card.
I took down my Day-Glo sign that read, Love? Success? Money? Your Answer Is in the Cards! Discover the Truth. Tarot Cards Readings Here. I bungee-corded it to the card table and tucked them both under one arm. Then I grabbed the two extra-heavy-duty folding chairs. I trooped into Cody’s Books, with Fran right behind me. It was almost as though she wanted to make sure I didn’t slip away from her. I tucked my portable office into my reserved corner of the staff room. Within two minutes I was back on the avenue, strolling with my daughter toward the Mediterraneum Caffé.
Christmas was just a week off. I was walking away from one of the most lucrative days of the year. Berkeley was jammed. Cal freshman looked for gross and bizarre gifts they could bring home to shock their parents. An ex-hippie therapist pawed through the racks, on the quest for some tie-dye bunting for her grandchildren. A guy who looked like an Old Testament prophet, and smelled like he had spent way too long in the desert, sat behind a sign that read: Give me money, I’m crazy! And a stream of translucent bubbles floated across our path, streaming behind the Bubble Lady as she wandered through the crowds and hawked her latest self-published book of poetry. Holiday season on the open ward, and I was missing it.
But I had to deal with Fran. After all, she’d called me “Dad.” Fatherhood was a very new gig for me. I’d spent most of my adult life on the run, underground from law enforcement and out of sight of my one-time radical compatriots. Folks thought I’d blown myself up in 1970, and I’d done everything I could do since then to foster that belief.
I didn’t even know I had a daughter until this year. And a grandkid, too. Not that I’d ever met him. Fran kept me distant from her personal life. She trusted me about as much as I trusted the president. This was only the third time we’d ever met face to face. She was just as new to daughterhood, and was in no hurry to embrace her good old dad. Until today.
The balcony in the café was empty except for one white kid with Rastafarian dreadlocks, lost in his iPod, as he nursed his tiny cup of espresso. The pierced punks and their junkyard dogs lounged on the sidewalk in front of the café. They provided local color and successfully frightened off everyone but the regulars. Fran and I carried our double lattes to an unsteady and undersized table near the railing. We sat there in silence for a couple of sips.
“Orrin—you remember—he’s my husband? He just took Justin away from me.”
I’d never met Orrin either. But I was already predisposed to disapprove of him. He was a cop. “That’s bull. Nobody can do that, even if he is a cop. Your boy’s—what—six months old, right? Where’s Justin now?”
Fran took a gulp of hot coffee big enough to scald her mouth. It seemed to have no effect.
“He’s five months and six days old. He’s with Orrin’s folks in Watsonville. Orrin is living there too, I think.” Then she was silent. She stared out vacantly at the café below. Silence for a while. I didn’t know what to say.
When she spoke next she seemed like she was talking in a dream. “The house was so quiet after they left. I couldn’t stand it. I took a walk out to Steamers Point. I sat and watched two crows work over a robin’s nest. The first crow harassed the mom so bad that she flew up to chase it off. As soon as she was away from the nest, crow number two zoomed in. He chipped a hole in an egg and savored the baby inside like an appetizer. Then he took another egg in his black claws and dropped it on the hard earth below. His buddy soared down and feasted on that baby. The mother bird came back to the nest, cleaned out the broken eggshells, and settled back down to brood on whatever was left.”
This conversation was not going in a positive, cocreative direction. I had to pull her attention out of her private dismal swamp. “Fran, over here. Enough with the crows, already. Look at me! There you go! Now how can that happen? A father can’t take a baby away from his mother. You can fight this!”
She looked at me with holocaust eyes. “I’ve been pretty angry and confused lately. He’s got some pictures of bruises on Justin. I left a few bruises on Orrin, too. He’s got a witness who saw me kind of lose track of Justin one day at Macy’s. I just didn’t pay very good attention that day. You know how that goes.”
I did know how that goes. I’d passed down my genetic curse to her: bipolar disorder. I had first-hand experience with how it could make life very disorderly. I nodded. Those pesky delusions.
“Orrin could have turned me in to Child Protective Services and they’d take Justin away. But he made a deal with me. If I let him take Justin, and didn’t make a fuss, then he’d keep Social Services out of it. What could I do? Hell, he’s a cop. He could arrest me himself for abuse and neglect.”
This was a mess, no question about it. But why was it dumped in my lap?
“Fran, I want to help. I will help. But I’ve got a couple of questions. Where is your mother?”
“Grams fell and broke her hip. Mom’s doing a twenty-four/seven with her. She suggested that I come to you.”
Thanks a lot! I thought to myself. But I smiled at Fran. “OK, how about Aunt Tara?” For decades my sister thought I’d been killed in that explosion. This year she accidentally unearthed me and discovered that I had been rambling around incognito all that time. She was still angry at me. But she was very close to Fran.
“Don’t talk to me about your sister. She’s a judgmental bitch, and I’m not about to talk to her!”
OK, then. That explained it. I was all that was left. Not an atypical situation for us manic-depressives. We have a tendency to periodically dynamite our support system. But this situation was too big for little old fugitive me! I wanted some support here.
“I’m right here for you, Fran. But I think we might need some help. Is there someone in Santa Cruz who might help us straighten all this out?”
“My pastor, Larry Dalton, maybe. He’s a sweetie. But he’s my husband’s pastor, too. Or at least he was. Orrin stopped going to church lately. Anyway Larry’s known Orrin since they were kids. So I don’t know whose side he is on. His wife is great, too. Maybe they can help. I don’t know.”
“Look, Fran, I’ll do what I can. I can come down to Santa Cruz right now, if that’s what you need. But I also know that you need to get on some meds. What you’re going through won’t shift until you get your moods stabilized. Believe me, I’ve been there!”
She stood up and slammed her empty latte glass on the table. The fog in her eyes turned to glistening metal. I put up my hands in case she decided to pick the glass back up and chuck it at me. Instead she yelled, “I’m not crazy! You’re just like all the rest of them! There’s nothing wrong with me. You probably want to lock me up just like everybody else. Well, fuck you! I don’t need your fucking help anyway. I know how to handle this myself! Fucking bastard!” She stalked off, ignoring my pleas to come back and sit down and talk things out.
A couple of people in the café looked up briefly. Then they went back to their newspapers. After Reagan shut down the state mental hospital system, screaming tantrums became daily occurrences on Telegraph. That’s why everyone who doesn’t live here thinks it’s cute to call this place Bezerkley.
I watched Fran slam the front door, kick aside a scrounger on the sidewalk, and stride off. There goes my baby. Boy, I sure handled that interaction masterfully. Dad of the Year Award Ceremony, here I come.
Copyright © 2007 by David Skibbins. All rights reserved.