Paul McCoy believed in community service. He’d been doing pick-ups and drop-offs for the local Salvation Army for the past decade, which was a good Catholic thing to do. Furniture, mirror, refrigerator deliveries. The customer bought it cheap, and Paul would drive it over to their home. Sometimes they were poor or old, usually they were poor and old. For each trip, the store manager, Robin, offered Paul ten dollars for his trouble. Paul always told her to donate it. This was one of his offerings to the community. One small repayment for the gift of his life in Watsonville, on the central California coastline, which Paul considered to be the most beautiful stretch of seaside in America.
One morning he’d received a call from Robin. A woman had bought a medium-sized sofa the day before and needed it delivered to her home at Bluebird Court.
Paul and his wife, Sally, ran Surfs Reach motel by the beach. They lived in an apartment at the back with their Maltese, Poppy. The motel had been passed on to them thirty years ago, after Sally’s father retired. It had twelve units, and the couple had a staff of two housekeepers working for them. They only recently hired the second after Paul and Sally hit their late-60s and realized they were slowing down. Lately, Paul found himself dreaming of retirement, but he and Sally didn’t have a willing heir to take on Surf’s Reach.
Paul didn’t like to leave Sally on her own at the motel for long, especially in the summer when it was so busy, so he always made delivery trips on his lunch break. Sally had started to discourage Paul, on account of his bad back. She didn’t want it to get any worse. Paul waved her off, and drove over to the Salvation Army, eating a peanut butter and banana sandwich on the way, as usual. He parallel parked in front of the store and let down the tailgate. Robin was waiting with the two-seater couch, and the two of them heaved it into the bed of his silver truck.
The couch was cushy and a Pepto Bismol pink. Paul didn’t have an eye for interior design, but he thought it looked comfortable. It was faded, and when they’d tipped it to the side a Dorito fell out from under a cushion. Robin was a sturdy woman, and unbeknownst to Paul, she lifted more than her fair share of the couch. Her hair was thrown into a sloppy knot on top of her head, she wore a Salvation Army t-shirt with the sleeves cut off, sweats even in the 80-degree sunshine, and white high-tops.
Normally, Robin would have accompanied Paul for the drop-off. “Can’t today,” Robin said, opening her mouth wide and pointing at her back molar. “Root canal appointment.” She handed him a slip of paper that said Bambi Panders, Apt. 12. P:831-738-4599. Paul was disappointed as he enjoyed Robin’s company. He also knew he needed her muscles more than he let on.
Paul had driven past the billboard for Bluebird Court several times, on the way to Poppy’s vet. It was advertised as an affordable retirement community, but Paul thought the billboard made it look like an elderly swingers’ village. The photo resembled a still from a Viagra commercial, with two oldies staring lovingly into each other’s eyes. He laughed to himself as he drove past it, but knew he was only a few years younger than the people on the billboard. He and Sally couldn’t run the motel forever. Maybe I should pick up a brochure, he thought.
This was the first time he’d ever turned down the drive. The attached apartments were small, and they didn’t have a view of the ocean, but the yards were well-kept. A landscaper buzzed his trimmer around the angular hedges, while an old man in a lawn chair watched, sipping lemonade.
Paul parked in the central lot and looked around for number 12. A woman in a fuzzy robe and slippers that matched the color of the couch was standing on her stoop. That must be Bambi, Paul thought. Guess she likes pink. He started wrestling with the couch; it had been so much lighter when Robin was helping him. He put his whole body into it, thrusting in ways he hadn’t with his wife in weeks. He tugged, heaved and hoed, but could just barely shift it from the truck bed. A drip of sweat slipped down his sore back. The woman at the door watched. Surely, she’ll come over, Paul thought. When she didn’t move, he called to her, “I hate to ask, but can I get a hand?”
The woman pointed to her leg. “Got a bad knee. Wait a minute.” She turned her head and shouted into the house. “Kid! Kid, come here.”
A boy about fourteen emerged from the apartment, barefoot. Bambi pointed to the end of the driveway, where Paul stood awkwardly with the couch flipped vertically at his feet. The boy sauntered over. He had freckles on his warm brown skin, dark eyes, and fiery auburn hair. Paul had only ever seen one person who looked like the boy: his granddaughter, Dalia.
Paul and Sally’s daughter, Kelly, lived close by in Watsonville. She had hated growing up at the motel and couldn’t wait to get out. The day after she graduated high school, he watched her walk away with her roller bag and purple backpack, to the end of the driveway where her boyfriend, Ricardo, waited in a pickup truck. She was only supposed to be away in San Francisco for the summer, but that was when she moved out for good. They got married. Ricardo was a Nicaraguan immigrant, and Paul was ashamed to think that he’d once worried aloud to Sally about it being a green card situation. Now, thirteen years later, it was Ric’s well-being he was concerned for.
His granddaughter, Dalia, secretly brought Paul much more joy than Kelly ever did. He’d always had a hard time bonding with his daughter because she had a mean streak. Even as a child, she was beautiful, but she was a bully. Paul had a burn scar on his face from a house fire he’d survived as a boy. As a toddler, Kelly would point to it and repeat, “Daddy ugly.” She’d carried this coldness into adulthood, it even seemed to intensify, and Paul could never put his finger on why she hated him. She wasn’t that way with her mother.
Paul was so distracted by how much the boy resembled Dalia, he hardly noticed, apart from the twinge in his lower back, that they had moved the couch across the lawn and reached the front door. Getting the couch through the door took a bit of maneuvering, shifting back and forth, under the watchful eye of Bambi. “Careful! No bumping,” she ordered. “Lift with your legs, that’s it!”
The couch finally fell through the doorway. “There, put her over there,” Bambi said, pointing to the one bare side of the living room. The room was already well furnished, with two plush La-Z-Boys and a plaid loveseat. Bambi immediately sat on it. “Yes, this will do,” she said. Bambi motioned for Paul, who was still panting, to sit beside her. The living room was attached to the kitchenette, and Paul could see into a small bedroom, a pink blanket covering the twin mattress.
“Hey, thanks bud. My name’s Paul. What’s yours?” Paul stuck out his hand to the boy, who hovered by the open front door. He was interrupted by Bambi snapping her fingers.
“Waters, kid,” she said. “Waters. Get the good glasses and fill them with ice. Two of ‘em.” He plodded off to the kitchen.
“How long is your grandson visiting?” Paul asked.
“Grandson?” Bambi put her hand to her chest as though she was insulted. “No, the boy’s my son. Not by blood, but by law.”
Normally, Paul would have the highest respect for an adoptive parent. It was a selfless act, community service at its finest. But for some reason, none of these feelings were there for Bambi. “And it’s just the two of you?” Paul asked.
“There’s never been a Mr. Panders, if that’s what you mean.” Bambi waggled her eyebrows at him, and her tongue flicked out between her lips. “I know what you’re thinking, this woman’s too young to be living in a retirement village. You’re right, I’m only 59. Been teaching first grade for thirty odd years, counting down the days till early retirement. Got my pension, that keeps us going ‘cause I keep things simple.” She flicked her thumb to the boy. “The kid and I moved from Oakland last week.”
Bambi’s pale skin made her look much older than she was. All of the vinyl window shades were pulled down, and the harsh overhead lights reminded him of a hospital. He wondered why she’d move to the beach; she obviously didn’t like the sun. While Bambi bobbed her foot, she accidently knocked over a full ashtray off the coffee table. “Shit,” she said, scooping the ashes off the carpet with her hand and putting them back into the tray. “Oopsy,” she giggled, smiling at Paul.
Paul watched the boy crack ice cubes into the good glasses, when the boy should have been tossing a baseball, or talking to girls at the beach. The room smelled like smoke and mothballs. “He seems a little young for Bluebird Court. He’s allowed to live here?”
“Sure he is,” she said. “People have their live-in nurses, right? That’s basically what he is for me. I got some back pain from bending over those tiny desks for so many years, bad knees, anxiety, irritable bowels, various fungal rashes.” She listed her ailments like they were medals. “He keeps my pills organized.”
The boy delivered the waters with his head bowed, then sat on the La-Z-Boy with his bare feet tucked underneath him. He was half-watching The Price is Right, half picking at some dead skin on one of his toes. He wore a clean white tee, the kind that Paul knew Hanes sold in packs of 5, and cloth shorts. His eyes were glazed with boredom, as he leaned against a pillow and blanket that were draped over the arm of the chair. Was that where he slept?
Bambi sipped her water and turned her attention to the TV. Paul took that as his cue to leave. He set down his full glass of water next to the ashtray and muttered an unacknowledged goodbye.
On the ride home, Paul called Kelly. Acid instinctually crept up the back of his throat whenever he looked up her number in his contact list. Kelly was a loose cannon. Paul never knew what she might say. He’d been bullied growing up because of the burn; they called him bubblegum because it looked like a wad of pink gum was stuck on his cheek. Paul was sensitive, and he often left conversations with Kelly with hurt feelings. She knew how to make him feel small. But, because of Dalia, he never stopped trying. Besides, Kelly was pregnant again, and Paul desperately wanted the new baby in his life.
Paul told Kelly about the couch, Bambi, and the boy. He described the boy in as much detail as he could, his mind a viewfinder with only slides of him. “Just like Dalia, honey. You wouldn’t believe it. Even his mannerisms, the way he scratches his nose, the way he stands.” Kelly was quiet for a moment, which was very unusual. Paul thought the call had dropped. “You there?” he asked.
“What are you insinuating, Dad?” Kelly said.
Paul was confused. “Nothing, Kel. It’s just strange, and I can’t get my mind off of it.”
“Well, it sounds like you’re accusing me of something awful,” Kelly said. She’d always taken this tone with her father, as if she had been born a teenager and never outgrown her angst.
Paul worked to keep his voice even. “I’m not saying you did anything, Kelly. I just thought this boy looked like Dalia and I wanted to share it with you.”
“Fine. Whatever,” Kelly said. “Look, Dad, I gotta go.”
“Okay,” Paul said. “Tell Ric I say hi. Are you coming by tomorrow?”
“What’s tomorrow?” Kelly said.
“It’s Sunday,” Paul said. “Father’s Day.”
“Shit. Okay, we’ll be there,” Kelly said.
“Don’t mean to be a hassle.”
“God, Dad. Quit it with the martyr thing,” Kelly snapped. “I just forgot. I said we’ll be there, we’ll be there. Barbeque at 5?”
“Alright,” Paul said.
Paul had several tasks to do that afternoon when he returned to the motel. There was crabgrass to be sprayed, a leaky drain that needed fixing, and an endless heap of dirty bedding in the laundry room. He was desperate to have a word with Sally about the boy, but she was tied up on the phone in the front office. At three o’clock, he heard a scream from unit 9, and found one of the housekeepers, Nina, standing over a long trail of blood from the front door crossing the kitchen all the way to the bathroom. Paul remembered who was staying there, a middle-aged French hiker with a big backpack. Paul hurried down to the beach to find the man lounging on a towel. He pointed to his bandaged toe, which he had busted on a rock. “Sorry about that. I promise I don’t have any STDs.” He laughed and flipped over to tan his back.
Paul nodded. “Glad you’re okay,” he said, before turning to retreat to unit 9. He groaned as he donned rubber gloves and told Nina he’d take care of it. Sally and Kelly never would have put up with this. Paul remembered Kelly, at fourteen, cursing out and giving the finger to a man who’d left three used condoms on the bedside table. She’d found him on the beach, dragged him back to the motel to clean up his mess. Luckily, that was before Yelp reviews existed. Now the Internet could make or break them. Plus, Paul was a self-proclaimed pushover, so he cleaned up the blood.
All check-ins were completed by 6 pm, and though they were still on-call for any late requests for extra pillows or toothbrushes or condoms, Paul and Sally could finally retreat to their apartment at the back of the motel for the night.
Paul uncorked a bottle of red. Sally smiled and said, “You do know it’s a dry night, right?” The couple had been heavy drinkers for the first few decades of their marriage; in fact, they’d met at a bar, but they had decided to go sober by the time they hit sixty. Then it got pushed back to seventy. Paul and Sally had a lot of older friends, and the ones who were the most mobile didn’t drink. They were supposed to be weaning themselves off, only drinking a few times a week. But the whole thing had really been Paul’s idea, and Sally didn’t argue much whenever he wanted to cheat.
“I need this,” Paul said, pouring two glasses. “So do you.”
They bellied up to the kitchen island with carrots, hummus, crusty bread, and cheese. Lately, they were too tired to cook a full meal after work and preferred to snack. They usually turned on the TV and watched a crime show as they ate, but that night Paul needed to talk. “I saw something today,” he said. “When I delivered the couch. Someone. A boy.”
“Oh?” Sally said, crunching on a carrot. “At Bluebird Court?”
“Yes. He was about fourteen, and he looked just like Dalia. The hair, the eyes, the skin. Everything.”
“Huh. How wonderful.”
“Is it wonderful?” Paul said, taking a gulp of wine. “He looked just like her, Sally. Have you ever seen a kid like Dalia?”
“Well, she can’t be the only Nicaraguan redhead in the world.” Sally narrowed her eyes at Paul. “What are you saying?”
“I’m just saying, I don’t know. It’s not impossible. There was that time.” The time Paul was referring to was when Kelly had disappeared for almost two years, right after she’d graduated high school. Paul didn’t get to speak to Kelly much at all during that time. She’d only call home once or twice a month and would only talk to Sally.
What time?” Sally said. “Oh, Paul, I’ve told you she was doing an internship in San Francisco and figuring herself out. It’s a normal young adult thing to do. She didn’t run away and have a baby.”
Paul ignored her. “Poor boy. He just looked so bored there. He lives there, and I couldn’t figure out where he sleeps. The woman, Bambi, calls him her nurse. She smokes and bosses him around, and she just seemed… repulsive.”
“Boredom isn’t child abuse, and all teenagers are perpetually bored.” Sally was shaking her head. “Look, who are you to judge? This woman has taken a child into her home, out of the goodness of her heart, and you’re calling her gross? You’re not being a good Catholic here, Paul.”
“He was wearing one of those cheap t-shirts and he was barefoot.”
“Stop it,” Sally put her hands over her ears. “None of this is a red flag to me, and I don’t want to hear it.”
“He had Kelly’s hair and Ric’s nose,” Paul said.
“Listen to me, Kelly would never,” Sally said. “And the fact that you think she would means you don’t know our daughter. She always tells me that you think the worst of her, and she’s right.”
“But how do you know for sure?” Paul said. He set down his cheese and tried to meet Sally in the eye, but she wouldn’t look at him. He understood why. Sally doted on Kelly, and the two talked about everything. They were more like sisters. What he was insinuating about her was unforgivable.
“You need to drop this, Paul. Now.” She stood up from the island. He didn’t want to push it and hated to upset his wife. That was the end of the discussion.
The next morning, Paul complained about a sore back, and asked Sally if he could take the phones and she’d manage the housekeepers. This wasn’t too unusual; they occasionally switched off. “I told you,” Sally said. “No more deliveries.”
As soon as Sally disappeared to the laundry room, Paul went into the front office and shut the door. This was unusual. They always kept the door open during the day to welcome incoming guests.
Paul dialed the number on the slip of paper and prayed the boy would answer the phone.
“Hello,” the boy said. “Hello?”
“Hi son,” Paul said. “I didn’t catch your name yesterday, but this is Paul. I brought by the Salvation Army couch, you know, the one you helped me carry? Well, I run the Surfs Reach motel, and I was thinking if you need a summer job you could come on by and help out. Or if you’d like to play catch, I’ve got two gloves, and we could toss the ball around down at the beach sometime. Or you could come over for dinner tonight, or any time you want.”
There was a sharp intake of breath, but the voice on the other end didn’t sound scared. “Fuck off, perv.” The line went dead.
Initially, Paul wasn’t hurt. He just marveled at how much the boy’s tone sounded like Kelly’s. He would just drive over and explain himself. If he could only talk to him, he’d understand. He couldn’t go back to work now, work didn’t matter. He was about to grab his keys when he thought of telling Sally where he was going. He couldn’t lie to her, but the truth put him in “creepy old man” territory. That wasn’t where he wanted to be, he thought, leaning back in his chair.
Kelly’s hands shook as she cut into a tomato. Whenever she was at her parents’ house, she felt like a loose cannon, but especially that evening. Her father was chopping garlic beside her, in such a perfect way it frankly pissed her off. Ricardo was out front, twirling Dalia in circles by her arms. Kelly hated when he did that; she envisioned them popping out of their sockets.
“Hon, why don’t you guys take the dog for a walk at the cove, and dinner will be ready when you get back? The two dads shouldn’t have to cook on Father’s Day. Kelly and I can handle this,” Sally said.
“Thanks, girls,” Paul gave his wife a kiss and Kelly didn’t look up from her tomato as her father awkwardly pecked her on the cheek. He called for Poppy, and suddenly the two women were alone.
She stole a sip of her mom’s wine. “Kelly,” Sally clucked at her. Kelly was in her second trimester. Dalia would be a big sister in four months.
“Mom, it’s one sip.” She sighed and leaned against the counter. There was a conversation looming in the air, like smoke.
Sally didn’t look up from the hamburger meat she was squeezing between her fingers, mixing in garlic, and forming into patties. She said, “There’s a boy at Bluebird Court.”
“A boy,” Kelly echoed in a tone intended to shut down all conversation.
Sally tossed the patty between her hands until it was the perfect width for the grill. She tried to sound casual. “It can’t be him, can it?”
“Who?” Kelly said icily, taking a deep gulp from Sally’s wine glass and raising her eyebrow, a look she knew shook her mom to the core. It was a threat, a question that Kelly was certain would get no response. She smirked at her mom’s silence, and turned to the sink to wash up, victorious.
“You know who,” Sally said, gathering all of her strength, yet still wobbling. “The baby, your ba—”
“You shut your mouth,” Kelly said. The knife was shaking in her hand. With every word, she thrusted it toward her mother. “We don’t speak about him.”
Sally grabbed the counter to steady herself. She’d finally managed to push this to the outskirts of her mind over the past few years. After Sally swore on Paul’s life that she wouldn’t tell a soul, Kelly had fessed up over the phone about the baby, a few months after she had him. She was supposed to be doing the news station internship in San Francisco, but was actually working at a Domino’s and staying at Ricardo’s cousin’s house. She refused to give Sally the address. Sally told Paul she was going to a yoga retreat in Big Sur, and spent a few days driving around Oakland, asking strangers if they’d seen a tall redhead in the neighborhood, until she found her, sitting on a bench and waiting for a bus to the grocery store.
It was far past the 30-day revocation period. The boy had already been adopted, and Kelly had signed away all of her rights. Sally tried everything, secretly meeting with lawyers in Oakland, until Paul called asking when she’d be home, questioning if she was having an affair. She was stronger than her husband; she knew how to move on from a bad thing without falling apart. Kelly got that from her. She had promised Kelly she’d leave any thoughts of the boy in Oakland. But now her grandson was just down the street.
Dalia pressed a piece of shell into her grandpa’s hand. There wasn’t anything special about this shell, it was just a fragment, no different than millions of others on the beach. Paul put it in his pocket.
“Thank you, Dal,” he said.
“De nada, Grampy,” she said, running to the shoreline ahead with Poppy. She always liked to be first, she got that from her mom. That and her hair. In the setting sun her red hair was embers. Over the course of the summer, her freckles had multiplied. She’d started reading Paul books. Her favorite was, Are You My Mother?
Paul didn’t get much one-on-one time with Ricardo. He desperately wanted to tell Ric about the boy, but the word “pervert” still hung heavy in his chest. He didn’t want to ruin the moment. Instead, he focused on Dalia. “She has a lot of you in her, and I’m happy for that,” Paul said. Ricardo smiled and his brown eyes crinkled. Even though he was in his thirties, Paul still saw him as the gangly teenage boy, following his daughter around like a puppy dog, putting up with too much.
Early on in their marriage, Paul had tried to commiserate with Ric, making some comment out of the side of his mouth while Kelly raged at Thanksgiving about Ric leaving the toilet seat up. He said, “I hope you’ll learn to ignore that mouth. I’m still trying to.” This was the only time Paul found himself on the receiving end of Ric’s pointer finger, jabbing into his chest. “Don’t speak about her like that, ever,” he said quietly. Paul had blushed and wasn’t able to look his son-in-law in the eye for close to a year. He loves blindly, Paul thought. He was oblivious to what the two had battled, and what they’d lost, including a baby who they had somewhat wanted but ultimately feared.
“Second one is coming soon, huh? You ready?” Paul said. “Wouldn’t hurt to have another Dalia around. People say that you always have a soft spot for your first born, though.”
“I’ve heard that, too,” Ricardo kicked a rock at his feet. “I’m ready, I think I’ve been ready for a while now.” In the distance, they watched the girl and dog stop to inspect something. As they got closer, they realized it was a dead fish, rotting on the beach. Dalia bent over to touch its eyeball, and Ricardo shouted, “Ey! Basta!” He ran to her and snatched her up, placing her on his shoulders, and Dalia hugged his neck. Paul dropped back.
He looked down to see Poppy’s signature shuffle in the sand. He watched the waves wash away her pawprints. The night before, Paul had dreamed up a sad mantra. Not my blood, not my problem. He said it with the sea.
Devan Brettkelly is a copywriter who lives in Oakland. She grew up in Maine, and is a graduate of Scripps College and Saint Mary’s College MFA in Fiction. Her fiction has appeared in Barely South Review, Inverted Syntax, and The Plentitudes.