by Paula Gail Benson
I have a habit of viewing life as a screenplay. I can’t help it. That’s what happens when you teach film studies to university undergrads for twelve years. You realize most experiences are just fodder to be incorporated into a script.
Take tonight, for example. A week before Christmas.
Here I am at the Study Break Cafe, a local, hole-in-the-wall, fast food hangout on the outskirts of campus that caters to students and the surrounding community. A place where I’ve spent many significant moments of my life. It has lots of memories for lots of people. First jobs. Study dates. Surprise proposals.
Oops. Let’s not explore that back-story.
Who am I? Full name and title are Associate Professor of English Hambly Harrison Richards, III. I’ve been called Ham all my life because Dad took Harry and Grandpa was Double H.
Blessedly, I have only a daughter, so the moniker rests in peace with me. I’m here tonight to meet my daughter, the light of my life, my Jessica.
I wait ten minutes, wondering when the undergrad behind the counter will come to take my order. It's not like he's overwhelmed with work. There's only one other person in the cafe, a derelict slumped in the back booth. Just mumbling to himself. Must have come in to get out of the cold.
Finally, the undergrad approaches, pushing his black rimmed glasses up, and getting ready to write my order on his pad.
“Just coffee, please. Black,” I tell him.
I watch his face cloud over.
“Oh, man,” he sighs. “I just broke down the machine. Didn’t think we’d get any more coffee drinkers tonight.”
I hear the door to the back office slam and Mr. Kressley, the proprietor, rushes forward. I smile up at him as he reaches my booth. I can tell from the frown he gives the kid that trouble has been brewing, if not coffee.
“Then, it’s good I’m still here to keep the Professor entertained while you set it back up and make a fresh pot.”
“Yes, Mr. Kressley.”
Mr. Kressley shakes his head as he watches the kid amble back behind the counter.
“Oh, Ham. The ones who work here now are nothing like your generation. You were always here early for your shift and ready to stay late to clean up.
I shrug. “We didn’t have iPad games and the Internet beckoning us.”
“Even those your Jessie’s age had more gumption to them.”
I cringe when I hear him call my daughter “Jessie.” To me, she will always and only be “Jessica,” namesake for Shylock's daughter in the Merchant of Venice. But, nobody crosses Mr. Kressley. I take a look at my watch.
“She should be here by now.” Jessica is always prompt or early.
Mr. Kressley agrees. “Ah, such a lovely girl. The most professional worker. Spitting image of her mother.”
I concur. And, “spitting” is an appropriate tribute to Jessica’s mother.
Mr. Kressley continues. “Jessie and her young man relived a little of your history here a few nights ago, you know.”
Mr. Kressley leans close to my ear, as if sharing a good joke. “Gave her the ring. Right in the booth where you proposed to her mom.”
History should have taught Gordo what a mistake that was. Of course, since Gordo was once my student, I knew his learning capacity was minimal, at best.
A mechanical sputter sounds from behind the counter and Mr. Kressley goes to check out what the rookie is doing to his equipment. I sit back in my seat to wait. I can't help thinking of past visits here with Jessica. When my baby was a little girl, I brought her here so her mother could grade papers without distractions. We called it our daddy-daughter date nights. I let her wear the pink Cinderella outfit she wore every Halloween until she outgrew it and stopped trick-or-treating.
Actually, Halloween wasn’t the last time she wore the costume. She wore it here for a very special daddy-daughter date night. Our last. When I told her that Momma and I were divorcing.
I decided to repeat our date night ritual tonight out of desperation, despite its potential ramifications. Surely, the bad can’t outweigh all the good we’ve shared here. And, I have to confront her someplace about the decision I’m sure will ruin her life.
How could Jessica go live with Gordo after her mother left me for the adjunct gigolo?
Oh, sure. Mr. Kressley says she got a ring. But, I’ve seen it. It’s no diamond. And, I’ve heard no talk of marriage.
I always told Jessica she was my princess, and to settle for no man who would treat her as less. So how did that bozo Gordo breach the perimeter?
Good grief. I don't even like myself for thinking that. What time is it now? She’s definitely late. No doubt Gordo’s influence. I remember when he took my class. Never turned any assignment in on time.
Mr. Kressley comes back with my coffee. “You and Jessie were all I could have asked for in employees. Nothing like the kid I’ve got behind the register now. But, it’s Christmas, and he has expenses like everyone else. So I give him a chance, despite my misgivings. I’m even going to leave for a few hours to spend time with my family. I told him I’d be back to help him close.” Mr. Kressley looks back toward the rookie. “You think I’m making a mistake?”
“No, no. He’ll be fine. Everyone’s a little rough around the edges in the beginning. He’ll get the hang of it.” I sipped at the coffee, which is surprisingly good.
“Do you mind to keep an eye on him for me, while I’m gone, Ham?”
Of course, it's the last thing I want to do, but as I say, nobody ever crosses Mr. Kressley. “Sure, sure.”
“He should have no trouble.” Mr. Kressley doesn’t sound as certain as his words, but then another thought seems to give him some hope. “Besides, if there is something serious, we’ve installed a buzzer just under the counter that sends a silent alarm to the police sub-station. You’ll have to ask Jessica about the night she hit it by mistake and all hell broke loose.”
I nod, figuring she might talk with me about that if not Gordo.
“Okay, I'm off.”
Mr. Kressley turns, and I see him smile and open his arms wide. Jessica has just walked in the door. He embraces her and she gives him a kiss before coming to join me in the booth.
“I can’t stay long, Dad. I’m meeting Gordo at a party.” She raises her hand as I open my mouth. “Don`t try to talk me out of it because we accepted weeks ago and people are expecting us. And while we’re at it, don’t waste time trying to talk me out of living with Gordo. My decision’s final. I’ve already given notice at my apartment. I’ve got no place else to go.”
“Stay with me. I’ll give you your space.”
Jessica sighs. “Dad, you barely have your own space in that apartment. You don’t need another occupant.”
“I want one. I want you.”
She shakes her head. “I love you, Dad. But, I’m living with Gordo, so get used to it.”
I sip the coffee, now gone cold. How can I convince her? I blame myself. I know the divorce left her rootless. But how could she think that Gordo, that lackluster student and party boy, could give her security? He doesn't even like to discuss film. Who won’t talk about the movies? What has attracted my only beloved daughter to such an unimaginative, worthless male?
She interrupts my anguish. “Dad, don’t move.”
“That guy who was sitting behind me in the back booth? Well, he's talking to the kid behind the register. I think he has a gun in his pocket.”
“How can you tell?”
“The bulge in his pocket is bigger than a fist and he's pointing it straight at the kid. I don't think he's just happy to see him.”
“Oh, my God.” I don't even comment on her crude remark because I feel the panic seize me. I've got to get Jessica out of there. To safety.
“Just stay calm, Dad. There’s a silent alarm beneath the counter. If only this kid remembers what Mr. Kressley told him to do.”
I watch her face like it's a rear view mirror. “What’s happening?”
Jessica shakes her head slightly. “The kid just keeps whispering to the guy. I can't tell if he's pressed the alarm. But, I can see the guy with the gun's getting nervous. Maybe I can call the police. Move in front of me so the gunman won't turn around and see me use my cell.”
I can’t stand something happening to Jessica. If only I could be a larger shield.
Jessica pulls out her phone, an old flip style model. Jeez, couldn't she have upgraded by now? What it the gunman hears her cut it on?
Of course, the phone sounds a few notes when it’s activated. I hear a voice behind me and I know it's not the rookie's.
“What’s that noise?”
I can't sit still any longer. I pull out of the booth and face the gunman, head on. I glance at the hand in his pocket. I see his fingers curl around a gun handle. The rookie behind the counter shakes his head fiercely at me, but there's no stopping me now. I'm a dad. I've got to make sure Jessica is not harmed.
Where my words come from, I don't know. “I don’t believe it myself. I ask my daughter out for a night of quiet conversation and what’s the first thing she does but whip out her cell?”
The guy tells Jessica, “Put it up.”
I block his view of her. “Maybe she’ll listen to you. I’m sure my pleas will have no effect. I’m just her father who’s worried sick about her throwing away her future on a worthless bum.”
The guy starts to shake and pulls his gun further out of his pocket. I ignore the gun and concentrate on the guy's face, being sure to maintain eye contact.
“She’s just like her mother,” I tell him. “I thought my girl was stable and secure, but no. Her head’s turned by the first male bee to BUZZ HER.” I glance at the rookie as I emphasize the words. “BUZZ ‘ER. BUZZ ‘ER. BUZZ ‘ER.”
“You mean, 'buzz around her.'” The gunman must have been an English major.
“Exactly. BUZZ ‘ER.”
The rookie's still shaking his head, so I approach the gunman and put my arm loosely around his shoulders like we're the best of buds. I try to steer him a few steps toward the door, but he's firmly planted and not moving.
I continue. “She’s my one little girl. I’ve always told her to settle for nothing less than someone who adores her, but what does she wind up with?”
“Somebody like me?” At least, the guy is listening to what I'm saying. Half my students don't do that much.
“Not half your caliber. A wing nut. Like the low life who ran off with her mother.” Then, a thought strikes me. “Can you believe it, that scum who stole my wife went on a game show, knew all the answers, and got so excited he called them out before he HIT THE BUZZER.”
I look at the rookie, and he's staring at me like I've gone crazy. “Pitiful,” I say, not even sure who my comment is describing.
Suddenly, Jessica decides to get into the act, which terrifies me even more. She jumps up from her seat and approaches me and my gun-toting buddy.
“How dare you insult my mother and step-father,” she says.
All I want to do is keep the gunman’s trigger hand immobilized while Jessica’s in range. “How dare I? How dare YOU inflict our family’s trauma on this good man who has simply come in to seek shelter from the cold. You should be ashamed to act this way so close to Christmas.”
“Why?” She’s taunting me now. Pushing her face so close up into mine that I’m ready to scream. “Are you threatening that I’ll get on Santa’s naughty list and receive no toys? I’m not a little girl anymore, Dad.”
I can barely speak, my heart’s beating so strongly against my chest. “More’s the pity. The way you’re acting now, I should paddle you across my knee.”
Jessica laughs. At me. HER FATHER. “I dare you to try. The shame’s on you, Dad, for not being able to realize how deeply Gordo loves me. I don’t care what you say, I’ll shout it from the mountain top.”
She passes us and heads straight behind the counter where she tells the rookie, “Boost me up.”
I see her grip underneath the counter where the buzzer must be located. Please God, let her have hit the alarm. I’ve never been so frightened and so proud in all my life.
Then, in the next minute, she’s standing on the counter, arms spread, like Kate Winslet in Titanic. “Gordo loves me and I love him. And we’re going to live together so just get used to it.
I am screaming now. “Stop making a spectacle of yourself!”
“You started it.”
Somehow, I’ve got to diffuse this situation. Think Bruce Willis in one of the Die Hards. I turn to the gunman. “I really have to apologize for my daughter’s behavior.”
He’s looking at me as if I’ve lost my marbles. “Let me go, mister.”
“She isn’t usually so dramatic.”
“I just want outta here.”
Okay, that sounds encouraging. I loosen my grip on him. “Certainly. I’ll be glad to take care of your bill for the trouble we’ve caused you.”
Maybe not my best move. As soon as his arm is free, he pulls his gun and starts swinging it wildly, pointing at Jessica, the rookie, and me.
Now, I'm feeling more like Bruce Willis in Look Who's Talking. Got to get back in control. I know I have to play shield for both Jessica and the rookie. I put up my hands and step in front of the gunman, making sure I’m the only target.
“Keep away from me, mister,” he yells. “You are one crazy bastard.”
From somewhere, I maintain that Bruce Willis inner reserve of calm. “I’ll do anything you want, just don’t hurt my little girl.”
Suddenly, someone rushes past me. It’s the rookie. Crazy kid. He grabs the guy’s arm.
Point that gun away from Jessica! I run forward. The minute I collide with them, the gun goes off.
I’m falling. I try to talk, but words won’t come.
Jessica, I love you, baby. I always will.
“Daddy, can you hear me?”
I open my eyes. I’m lying on the floor of the cafe. I hear noises in the background. The only distinguishable one is Mr. Kressley yelling. I can’t focus on what he’s saying. All I can think about is Jessica’s beautiful brown eyes staring at me with tears. Such worry. Such love.
“Don’t cry, baby. What happened?”
“It’s all over now. The police are here, taking the guy away. You all hit the floor hard after the gun went off. We couldn’t get you to wake up. The police just called the paramedics. They should be here soon.”
“Help me up. Let me sit at our booth.”
She holds me and walks with me. The rookie comes up, bringing me a wet towel. I hear her thank him as I sit down and lean my elbows on the table. I hold the towel to my aching forehead.
I feel Jessica sit on the bench across from me and listen as she takes out her cell phone. “Gordo? No, I’m not going to make it to the party. I’m okay. Really. I don’t need you to come get me. Don’t worry. I’ll explain everything when I see you at home. Love you. Bye.”
She must hear my groan. She asks, “You really hate Gordo that much?”
Do I? Be smart here, Ham, I tell myself. This is not just about you. It’s about her future happiness.
I take the towel from my head and look earnestly into her eyes. “I guess not. It just irks me that he only wants to live with you and not commit to marriage. Maybe what happened to your mother and me makes you wary about the institution, but Jessica, baby, a marriage is about promise and trust. Living together is just about convenience. I mean, even though your mother left me, she found real happiness with your step-father, and they committed to each other. I want you planning a future with someone, not just hoping it works out.”
Jessica reaches for my hands and gives them a squeeze. “Okay. I get it. Now, I have something to give to you.” She lets go to get something from her purse. She places an envelope in my hands. “You were supposed to get that Christmas morning.”
I take my time breaking the seal and pulling the card from inside. My eyes are still blurry, but I can make out enough of the printing on the card: Jessica Richards and Gordon Humphreys . . . honor of your presence . . . marriage . . . thirty-first of December . . . nine o'clock . . . University Chapel . . . Reception following . . . Faculty Club.
When I look up at her, I see her smiling. Like she’s the happiest girl in the world. “Think you could take time out of your busy schedule to give me away?”
I can’t give in to her that easily. “How do you know I’ll be in town?”
“Because New Year’s Eve is the one holiday you and I always spend together. Now, we’ll just have Gordo along.”
Oh, joy. What a grand new tradition.
“But, I swear to you that Gordo will never put our child through what you just did to me.”
I brace myself, wondering if another unexpected gift is about to come my way.