“Her name is MaryAnn,” I say over my shoulder as I wipe crumbs off the kitchen counter.
“What happened to Lucille?” my daughter asks.
She stabs her fork through the waffles on her plate, creating valleys of maple syrup on her breakfast landscape. Danielle is six years old now and she is becoming aware of her grandfather’s rotating girlfriends. I don’t know what happened to Lucille. Lucille was just a name to me. A large swirly “L” that signed our Christmas and birthday cards with “XOXO Dad & Lucille.”
I turn to face Danielle, all pale limbs and wild hair. At six years old, she is old enough to start asking questions. “Let’s make MaryAnn feel welcome,” I chirp in that awful, sugary Mommy tone.
Dad and MaryAnn arrive late. I expected that. It has been a year since I last saw Dad, and I am always surprised to see him as an aging man. Heavier. Balder. My mind is timeless and envisions him through the memory of that 12-year-old girl who hid behind a tree and watched her father put a suitcase in the car’s trunk and drive away. He moved to Atlantic City. As a child, I imagined him in a magical carnival of beauty pageants, beaches and glittering casinos that erupted with gold coins of fortune. Now as an adult, when I take my own child to the carnival, all she sees is the Ferris wheel, sparkling and spinning. All I see are the shirtless men crouched on upside down crates in front of trailers. They are half hidden by the Tilt-a-whirl, but I smell the smoke of cigarettes dangling from their fingers that are caked black in grease and sweat and sadness.
There are obligatory hugs and Dad quickly moves into the house to start inspecting woodwork or ceramic tile or something that he can talk about fixing, if he only had his tools with him. Danielle stands behind me as MaryAnn introduces herself. MaryAnn glows. Her hair is tall and bleached blonde and her skin is the color of maple syrup, artificially brown and shiny from a tanning bed. She reaches her hand out to Danielle, revealing long fuchsia nails like candy. Her gold bracelets dance against each other and sound like the clanging of slot machines. Her feet give away her age. They are swollen and pulsing with blue knotty veins that bulge against her high heel shoes. MaryAnn holds a small gift bag in her other hand and Danielle eyes the present eagerly.
“Here ya go, hon,” she hands Danielle the bag. In seconds Danielle has reached her prize, a set of Polly Pockets. Jackpot. She squeals a thank you and scampers away to sculpt a perfect world with her new miniature dolls.
MaryAnn and I move into the living room and I bring her coffee. I can hear my father’s muffled voice upstairs, talking to my husband about drywall repair. MaryAnn sits up straight and smiles even while sipping her coffee.
“Your father, he is quite a lady’s man, isn’t he? I saw him at the blackjack table and I knew he couldn’t take his eyes off me. I just looked right through him, like I didn’t even see him. Besides, I can’t talk to no one when I’m working the floor.” She speaks quickly with out pausing for a breath. I assume that she is a floor supervisor at a casino that my father frequents. “Now I don’t date customers. Oh, no, I been burnt too many times, honey. But your father, he’s different. He really cares, ya know?” I smile and nod, but I don’t know. I don’t know what my father cares about. I don’t even know his favorite color.
MaryAnn pulls a small box from her silk quilted purse. There is a lopsided red bow on top of the box. She hands the gift to me. I immediately shake my head and hold up my hand to stop this before it starts.
“Now honey, take this, I got it special for you. Please. Take it.” She stops smiling, stops asking and starts ordering. Defeated, I take the present and open the box. Inside, a set of shining gold hoop earrings are inlaid with glistening diamond chips.
“Oh, I can’t MaryAnn. Really. No. They are beautiful, but this is much too . . . much.” I snap the black velvet lid of the jewelry box and hand it back towards MaryAnn. She leans towards me, her knock-off perfume smacking my nose. She grasps my hand with her tanned fingers and her fuchsia nails cut into my palm. Her eyes are brimming with tears that cause her black mascara to spill into the deep wrinkles that line her face. “Please,” she whispers, “Take the earrings, hon. Put them on and show them to your father. Let ’em see how much ya like what I got ya. Please, hon. He’s different than the others.” My hand aches. I pull back from her, open the box and carefully pierce the gold through holes in my ears that have never healed. We both smile and don’t dare to stop, even as we sip our coffee.
My Dad moves in with Mary Ann and promptly finds himself injured and unable to work. A year passes. My daughter and I receive birthday cards signed in the soft loops of MaryAnn’s writing, “Love, MaryAnn and Dad.” Every few months, I make an obligatory call to my Dad at MaryAnn’s house. I tell him about Danielle’s soccer games and he tells me about the lawyers working on his disability lawsuit. He says he spends a lot of time exercising, walking on the boardwalk. I know this means that his days and nights are seamless in the smoky lights of the casino floor. Before we hang up, we share a half-hearted promise to see each other again as soon as we can. He promises that Danielle would love Atlantic City. I hear MaryAnn in the background. “Is that your daughter? Ask her if she still wears the earrings!” I lie and say that I am wearing them right now.
The day after Christmas, nearly a year after first meeting MaryAnn, I see her phone number appear on our caller ID screen. I assume this is my father, a day late, wishing us a happy holiday and cursing the postal service for gifts he claims to have sent a week ago. I answer the phone and MaryAnn’s voice bursts through the line. “Hi ya, hon. This weather! Rain on Christmas, its terrible. You wouldn’t believe how crowded the casino was last night. I hate working Christmas day, but you can’t beat the pay, ya know? But these people, sitting at tables with cards and dice on Jesus’ birthday. Christ, can you believe it? Anyway, Merry Christmas. Is your father there?”
I am silent, listening to her tap those long fuchsia nails against her kitchen counter in New Jersey. “No, MaryAnn. He isn’t here. Actually, I haven’t heard from him lately. Is everything okay?” I didn’t want to ask. I knew it wasn’t okay. I know my father.
“Oh God,” her voice trembles. “Well, I haven’t seen him in a week. I came home from work and he had packed his suitcase and was gone. Just left. No note. Nothing.” She breaks into soft muffled cries, similar to my daughter when she gets hurt on the playground but doesn’t want her friends to see her tears. “I think there may be another woman. He had been acting so funny lately. Do you know anything? Has he told you anything? I am really worried about him. It’s Christmas for Christ’s sake! He told me I was getting a ring! What if he was in a car accident? Oh my God, what if he is hurt, lying in a ditch somewhere? That bastard! I can’t believe this!” She dances between wanting to believe and knowing. I listen. I think of my mother before the divorce, making us dinner and always saving a plate for Dad. She always wanted to believe that he might come home for supper. As kids, we always knew he wasn’t.
“What do I do now?” MaryAnn whimpers.
“Nothing,” I say. “I’m sorry.”
Three weeks later, I receive a postcard from my father. There is a post office box for a return address. The card is short and casual, stating that he is fine, just “working through some stuff”. He promises to visit as soon as he can ” get away”.
There are valentine cards to write, then Easter eggs to die and eventually a new soccer season starts. My father finally calls. He is staying with a “friend” now. Her name is Sandy. He is back at work, his disability lawsuit fell through. He curses the big business, the legal system and the government. He lectures me about the pit falls of life using casino analogies like “the house always wins.” He gives me Sandy’s phone number in case I need to reach him.
I can bet that I will soon receive cards signed in Sandy’s hopeful script. She is the new Queen in my father’s house of cards. I will open the carefully chosen Hallmark greeting, study the generic poetry inside, and then throw the card into the kitchen trashcan, jamming it against my daughter’s half eaten banana. I was the first to be discarded for a better hand, when the stakes were the highest. I will remind myself that I am a better parent because of what he did to me. I will retell the stories of Lucille and MaryAnn and Sandy to my friends at a dinner party and we will all laugh at my father’s antics and the naivety of his casino women. After a few glasses of wine, I will go home and fall into bed, call my own bluff and silently weep for a man that I wish I knew.