There’s this little guy on my porch I’ve never seen before. He’s a caricature of an Irish thug and he’s looking for Mikayla, my daughter, who he accuses of wronging his boss.
“Blackie Donovan doesn’t forget,” the guy says. He points across the street at the neighbor’s shrub-guarded lawn. “He was out there an hour ago. He’ll be out there tomorrow. He’ll be out there until this is made right.” With each statement, the guy flings his arm out at the shrubs anew, as if punctuating a threat. I’m trying to process the logic. Mikayla’s eleven. How could she have run so afoul of someone? She’s a good kid, works hard in school, supports herself with two jobs – she’s always been independent. I’m staring down at the henchman. He’s got black hair and acne and a reddish tint to his pasty white skin. A black leather jacket that reeks of nicotine. He’s actor short and self-conscious. Probably nineteen. I’m about to tell him that I don’t know what to tell him – she’s on her own now, if he’s got a beef he should take it up with her – when he shoots me a look, eyes hooded, lips pinched: “I’ll be seeing you.” And walks away.
“Does the name Blackie Donovan mean anything to you?”
My ex- is over for dinner. We hang out a lot – so much so that I can’t remember why we split. She can.
“No,” she says. “Should it?” She’s addicted to my cooking. What I do with green chilies should be against the law. It makes her somewhat willing to discount my less endearing qualities. I tell her what happened the day before. As I do, I’m mulling possibilities for who this Blackie guy could be. Is he the kid in homeroom she busted for texting? Her sixth grade shop teacher, who she taunts because he never finished high school?
“What’s that Mona’s last name?” the ex- interjects.
I shrug. “You’re thinking Mona’s big brother?” Mona’s the kid’s colleague from the diner, who Mikayla thinks doesn’t pull her weight on the job.
I’m looking at the kid’s class picture, framed on my buffet. While she has her mother’s cinnamon hair and soft green eyes, mostly she favors me: sharp-jawed, stubborn-faced. I eat. I ponder. “What about Scott Martin?”
“The one stuck gum in her hair in second grade?” She sounds dubious. But how do we know? There are so many possibilities. Kids are kids, and our girl can be a little dramatic. I’m pondering whether this is a problem when the doorbell rings. I gesture, like you get it, see for yourself. She’s reluctant, but it rings again and she, unlike me, can’t leave a bell unanswered.
So it’s the same henchman and he says the same stuff in his would-be tough guy voice. This time he adds, “Someone’s gonna pay.”
Back at the table, the ex- plays with her fork in the chili sauce. She’s distracted. Disturbed. Peppers, polenta and melty cheese shift on her plate like unstable continents. I eyeball her see, I told you. “Did you set this up?” she says. “Is this your weird idea of a joke?” She’s still semi-mad at me from the clown-school- dropout incident.
I shake my head. “It’s like I told you.”
“You think she really did something? Serious?”
“I’m wondering.” I’m thinking about accountability, whether to go to bat for the kid, and if so how far. “I’ll call the homeroom teacher. What’s his name?”
“It’s a her,” the ex- says. “And no, you won’t. Mikayla would be mortified.”
I know. Mostly she makes good choices, our Mikayla. And when she doesn’t we try to remember she is only eleven. But what about personal responsibility? Besides, we’re her parents. We should model appropriate behavior. I eat a bite of chili. “She’s too smart to get caught up. Isn’t she?”
The ex: “Are we being fair? Maybe she’s got a problem. Maybe it’s a mistake.” The lingering musk of nicotine-haunted leather infects our meal. “Did you call her?” Our daughter lives alone. We each do. It’s easier. “Ask her if she knows any Blackie Doherty?”
“Donovan,” I say. “And no. You ask her. She won’t take me seriously.” Could Blackie be her bookie? Maybe she’s behind on the vig. Pulled a Pete Rose with her softball team. No. She’s no gambler. Besides, she’s great with finances. She’s negotiating to buy the building she lives in.
The ex- calls her. The kid insists she’s never heard of Blackie Donovan.
Two nights later we’re at my parents’ place, birthday dinner for my dad. I’ve had another visit from Blackie’s man. Explained how it’s a mistake, my daughter doesn’t know the guy. He was having none of it. Next thing I knew, he was on tiptoes and my shirt was bunched in his fist. He was more powerful than I figured. Smoke breath in my face as he stage whispered what was supposed to be a threat: “Nice windows you got, but rock smashes scissors every time.”
Anyway, my parents’. Mikayla is there – a rare night off – with the current boyfriend, a sixth grader whose name I don’t remember. Brown curls and a hockey face – the wide frame, the thickness of purpose, the missing teeth. He’s the tallest kid in school, but you can tell he’s done growing and will be a stumpy adult in a way that’s somehow, inexplicably, his fault. He could be someone’s henchman himself.
Lamb meatballs over pasta with mom’s gravy, same as every year.
I get there late. Everyone’s seated, including the management team from my former company, some of whom I failed to fully compensate when I sold the business out from under them. I’m not happy to see them – the beards, the gingham shirts, helping themselves to my mother’s cooking – and I’m about to say Ma, why do you bring my enemies to your table when the doorbell rings. Mom answers. It’s the thug. I shoot the ex- a knowing look. The kid shrunk down in her seat like she doesn’t want to be here. The boyfriend a hockey-faced blank page. The ex- kicks me under the table like do something, but I’m leaning left to make sure I can’t be seen from the doorway. Who is this character and what’s he really after? Is he acquainted with my former business associates? Will Mikayla betray some hidden knowledge?
I watch her, but she’s cutting meatballs with her fork and pushing the pieces around on her plate, same as every year. In approximately eleven minutes my father will catch her eye and she, smiling, will push her plate over for him to finish.
The business associates load their greedy plates with seconds. They attack the serving bowl. A gingham sleeved-arm reaches to poach from my plate. I reach for the wine bottle. Empty.
At the door, the thug says to my mom, “Blackie’s tired of you people holding out on us.” I shoot the former associates what I hope is a withering glance that will drive them from the family home. I hear Mom ask the thug, “Want some dinner?”
No. This table is already overcrowded with the unwelcome. I go to the door.
“Ma,” I say. “Are you kidding?”
The thug puts his nicotine hands up like hey, back off. “She asked.”
My mother gives me her disapproving look. “You’ve always been ungrateful.”
I glare. Her looking back at me like, what. In my best tough-guy voice I say to the thug, “You come to my mother’s door?” I shape my mouth into offended-plus-angry. “Violate the family table?”
He flushes. Looks at his feet.
“Set up a meet,” I say. I like the B-movie- feel and I’m curious what he’ll do.
He raises his head, energized, like finally someone gets it. “I’ll talk to the boss.”
Good. Back at the table, Mikayla, arms folded. “Kid,” I inquire, “How do you account for this?”
“How should I know?” Whiny undertones. “That guy smells bad.” Her meatballs now in front of my father, the rat. “Why won’t you believe me?”
It’s a fair question. It occurs to me, but I don’t say, because you’re my kid. Unfair. She’s a person of reasonable integrity for her developmental stage. But there are issues of judgment. Last year she made a killing in water futures – how she’s able to buy her building now. I asked what about the downtrodden, the thirsty? What about the various ethics involved? (Good thing the ex- wasn’t there – ethics is a word I’m no longer allowed to say in front of her.) “I’m in fifth grade,” the kid said. “We haven’t learned ethics yet.”
So I have my doubts. “We’re family,” I say. “What are you hiding?”
The ex- gives me the death glare. “Really?”
I make the face like, I don’t know what I’m doing wrong.
Mom, who doesn’t like feeling inhospitable, bangs plates together to clear the table. The kid, tight-lipped. Revealing nothing. The boyfriend, eyes blinky like he’s guilty, but that’s maybe me projecting how much I don’t like him. The former associates I shoot a glance like, you who are dead to me, stay out of this. Dad sulks, his birthday lost to intrigue and the threat of small-time violence.
The next afternoon I’m watching out the window, and I don’t see anyone lurking who could be the mysterious Blackie Donovan.
It’s early shades of dusk when my phone rings. A nicotine smell wafts through the tiny speaker. “When your doorbell rings, answer it.”
When I do, the first thing I see is a large fist moving fast until it breaks my nose. Attached to that fist is a linebacker-shaped black man with kind eyes. I wince and brace for more. “You’re not Mikayla’s father,” he says. He smells of lilacs.
I take a fighting stance and say, through blood and busted cartilage, “Am so.”
His fist shocks my face a second time. “Mikayla’s black,” he says.
Long-buried questions of paternity pop to the surface. “Wait. She is?” Something doesn’t add up here but I’m raw and bleeding on my porch. “What do you mean?”
Again, the fist to the face. “Mikayla is also 25.”
I see his point. I would have been eight when she was born. It’s possible I’ve never felt such pain. My face, my whole head a house on fire. I indulge my curiosity. “Blackie, huh?”
His fist launches a fourth time, but stops short of my snout. Mercy and grace. “I was a nine-year-old in an Irish gang.” Maybe he senses my empathy. He lowers his guard. “You don’t choose your nicknames.”
“Don’t I know it.” We stand there awkwardly, neither of us sure what’s next. I watch his face soften. I drip blood on my porch.
He hands me his handkerchief. “We’re all defined by others’ perceptions.”
I’m thinking amen, and I’d bet he’s suffered that more than I have, but I’m steering this conversation toward safer ground.
“What did she do, your Mikayla?” I ask through wet cloth.
“That’s between me and her.” Then, softer. “How old’s yours?”
“Great age.” We’re building a parental solidarity.
I show him a picture. His face clouds. Big, puffy cumulus.
“What?” I ask.
I watch Blackie Donovan choose his words like rare fruit. “She ever go by Mikey?”
I don’t like this. “Sometimes,” I say. Hockey-face calls her that.
Blackie’s face clouds darken. His eyes grow big. “Nothing. Never mind.” Something timid has crept into his voice. “She’s lovely. You tell her I said so. Tell her my man won’t be bothering her anymore.”
The next night, as we dine on chili rellenos, I’m telling the ex- how the kid’s off the hook, and that I’ve apologized for doubting her. I don’t tell her how I may be slow on the uptake but I can still add two and two, or how I spent the morning in my favorite diner talking with Blackie about a possible alliance, and I’m feeling good, keeping a poker face, letting the ex- enjoy my swollen nose and sure as hell not letting her know this particular lemon is already oozing lemonade when the doorbell rings.
I answer, all irritated like I thought we were done with this. But when I open the door, what I see is my former associates, eyes hooded, lips pinched, huddled on my porch in black leather jackets that reek of nicotine.
No problem. I pull out my phone, thumb to favorites, and dial the kid.
“Daughter,” I say, “I need a favor.”
Image: “The Man-Machine”, licensed under CC 2.0