The day Anna Claire Hebert had circled on her calendar each year for as long as she could remember arrived. Anna, divorced, widowed, then divorced again, labored out of her six-year old Ford, wincing as her weight settled into her knees. She walked around and opened the trunk as a leaf, brittle and yellowing to brown, skittered across the parking lot and settled against her rear tire. She reached into the trunk and grabbed the folding chair-in-a-bag, price tag swinging, and her six pack of beer, then slammed the trunk shut.
Anna stuck her nose into the air and sniffed. Wood smoke. Hickory maybe. She tucked the chair under her arm, tightened her grip on the six pack, and walked through the black wrought iron gate and down the main path, gravel crunching beneath her feet. She lost her bearing, but then sighted the sweet gum tree, its red, yellow, and orange leaves vivid against the blue sky, where a lone jet trail lingered high in the stratosphere like a soul swiftly rising.
Left at the sweet gum, count nine, and she was there. She placed the six pack on the ground and pulled the chair out of its bag. Unfolding it, Anna snorted and wondered what genius thought of such a thing. A portable chair with its own cup holder.
She settled into it, her weight testing the nylon, the aluminum legs sinking into the earth, still damp from rain the night before. Reaching down, she forced one of the cans out of the plastic ring, and then popped the top, raised the can to her lips, and tipped her head back for the first long pull. She sighed and looked around her. Not another living soul. Anna chuckled at the thought, the sound grating amidst the surrounding silence. She took another swig and let her mind drift back to the last time she’d seen Daddy. Two, no, three years ago. Crotchety as ever. Years tempering, not softening.
Ninety, he’d been. Calcasieu Retirement Home had contacted her about their plans for a birthday party, complete with cake, ice cream, and invited guests, rather than the customary cupcakes after lunch. She couldn’t not go. She still had friends here. News of her absence would’ve swirled around town like a flutter of leaves on the autumn wind.
It came as no surprise that Calcasieu was celebrating his 90th, even though some days he didn’t know his own name much less his age. Daddy was a war hero, a pilot shot down over the Solomon Islands in World War II, riding that fame to a judgeship in his home town. He’d been the parish court judge for forty-plus years.
She had sat across from him that day while Miz Couvillion pounded out the birthday song on the aging upright piano. As the singers held the last syllable, his eyes met hers. She’d seen no spark of recognition, though wouldn’t assume he didn’t know her. The stroke he’d suffered two years before had paralyzed his facial muscles, and he could at most slur a no. And then only when he was particularly displeased or irritated.
Wak-wak-wak. The silence was riven by a flock of ducks flying in an orderly pattern across the sky, followed by another. Anna shifted her weight and flicked open another can. She heard a rattle of leaves from the sweet gum behind her, announcing a change in wind direction. The wind more biting now, out of the north. The smell of wood smoke was overcome by something stronger. Marsh fire. She wondered about the source, knowing it could be two miles down the bayou or twenty, and remembered another marsh fire. Realized with a start that it had also been on Daddy’s birthday.
That fire had threatened Daddy’s duck lease. How old had she been — nine, maybe ten? The LSU/Alabama football game was on the radio when Daddy got the call. He’d rushed out the door to join fellow hunters and help the fire department contain the blaze, his partially unwrapped birthday present fallen to the floor. Only a disaster of epic proportion, the threat to his duck lease, would cause him to abandon his beer and leave his recliner in the middle of an LSU game.
That was back when she’d thought, in her child’s mind, that finding the perfect gift would change everything. But the gift remained where it had fallen until the next Wednesday when Mrs. Prejean cleaned house. She’d scooped it up and laid it on Daddy’s bedroom dresser, dusting around the silver key ring each week, as its tiny mallards in flight steadily tarnished to black.
Anna took another swallow and recalled other gifts: a hunting vest, a Swampman fishing lure, once a biography of Huey Long. The reaction was always the same. A grunt of thanks. To pay for the gifts she’d taken small jobs, like weeding Mrs. Robichaux’s garden and walking old Mr. Boudreaux’s Catahoula hound. What a mean old cur he was. Mr. Boudreaux, not the dog.
What had she hoped for? Well, honey. What a great gift! You always know what’ll make me happy. Honey? She barked a laugh and popped another top.
“He just doesn’t know what to do with a little daughter,” she’d heard Auntie Clair say more than once. You’d have thought he would’ve figured it out. Her momma had died when Anna was a toddler, leaving only the two of them.
Used up, she’d finally decided years ago. His booming laugh and clever stories were lavished on friends, hunting buddies, and voters. She remembered walking with him into the café in town and watching the faces of the diners. Daddy lit up a room. He drew people to him like turtles to the midday sun. Six foot five with massive shoulders and a trim waist, he towered over everyone. Ruddy cheeks. Wiry dark hair, turning salt and pepper, then silver. He had a nickname for each person, and each wore it like a medal of honor. She remembered his enormous hands, boxer’s hands, one of them patting her head as they walked through the room. Judge Jeansonne, the model father. She also remembered when the crowd was gone. When the light in his eyes went out, hibernating, ready to flicker back on — for an audience.
Anna, shivering, took her last swallow as the sun lowered, reeling in the day’s warmth. She braced her knees and heaved up, listed to the side, then righted herself. She reached for another can and raised it in a toast to the polished white marble, two miniature American flags stuck in the ground at its base. “Happy Birthday, Daddy.” She lifted the beer higher, took a long last swallow, then stooped and fumbled with the can, nestling it into the gold mesh pocket. With a grunt of satisfaction, she straightened and headed back toward the main graveled path.
When she reached the sweet gum tree, she stopped and turned. The rear of the purple chair, with gold LSU emblazoned across it, trembled in the wind, the beer secure in its cup holder. Anna grunted, turned and walked away.
Cheryl Mathis has been published in Thema Literary Journal and was recently chosen for and participated in a fiction workshop given by Pultizer Prize author Shirley Ann Grau.
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