Using her key, Sarah opened the front door and entered the living room. Softball practice had been cancelled because of bad weather and her girlfriend’s mom had dropped her off. As a result, she was home earlier than expected.
Her father, Joe, must have heard her come in. The doors to all the rooms were closed out of habit since they had gotten the puppy. She was surprised that little Daisy didn’t come running as she entered the house. When Sarah didn’t see anyone in the living room she reached for the door to her father’s bedroom. Before her hand made contact the bathroom door opened and her dad stepped out.
“Don’t open that door,” her father said firmly. Sarah pulled back her hand and looked blankly at him. He had not spoken in a loud or threatening voice. He was a gentle man and his voice had always matched his demeanor.
Joe was dressed in his usual paint-covered jeans. He spent his days off painting. Not walls but portraits or landscapes. Occasionally he would attempt to paint a vase with flowers or another still-life object but his preference was to portray life with his tiny, impressionistic brushstrokes. Life represented the opposite of death and death was a subject he wanted to keep buried deeply.
Then Sarah heard Daisy whining. She looked toward the kitchen and saw that the gate was up. Daisy kept leaping but was too small to jump over. Sarah grabbed the leash off the front door knob and walked toward the kitchen.
In the instant that her back was turned, Joe slipped back into his bedroom. He emerged shortly thereafter, quickly closing the door behind him. Sarah looked at him while Daisy licked her fingers hoping to find some taste or scent that would stimulate her senses.
“What’s going on, Dad? Are you working on a new painting?” Sarah asked.
Without waiting for him to answer she said, “This gate is great. We should have gotten it sooner.”
Joe looked distracted. Then he responded to Sarah’s comment, “You’re right. I don’t know why I didn’t think of it when we first got her.” He had ignored her first question.
Sarah heard a sound coming from her father’s bedroom. The door opened. As if it were perfectly normal, Sal, the man from down the street came out. He was tall and skinny and walked more like her mother had when she was alive than her father. His hips swayed reminding her of a model on a TV commercial selling jeans. Although two years had passed, every detail of her mother’s movements still lived in Sarah’s vivid memory.
Sarah remembered laughing at how much Sal resembled her mother. Sal was a natural brunette. Her mom told her that she had mousy brown hair until Sal dyed it to a rich color similar to his. Sal was a hairdresser and her mother starting letting him fix her hair. Occasionally he commented on her mother’s clothing and she would take his advice and buy a blouse similar to a shirt he wore saying it went well with their shared hair color. Sarah used to tease them about looking like twins although her mother’s body was shapely, not angular like Sal’s.
Sal had been her father’s friend when he met her mom. The three of them used to watch old movies together sometimes. Her mother used to tell her about it and how she wished she had more time alone with her dad, but she didn’t want to be the kind of wife that broke up a friendship.
Sarah was startled out of her daydreams by Sal’s voice. “I really should get going,” he said, glancing at Joe. He greeted Sarah with a friendly smile as he always had before. She thought his lips appeared to be just a little darker than usual – almost red.
Sal was wearing slacks and a long-sleeved salmon colored shirt. Sarah’s mother used to have a blouse that color. Joe loved seeing his wife in that blouse. Sarah was suddenly uncomfortable when she realized how much Sal reminded her of her mom.
To escape the situation, she stepped to the kitchen and opened the gate. Daisy came rushing out. The puppy ran straight to Sal, her little black nose sniffing at the cuffs of his pants. Sarah’s eyes followed the puppy’s movements. That’s when she noticed it. Sal was wearing pantyhose, or stockings or some kind of women’s knee-highs.
“Get down, Daisy,” he said firmly. “No. No!”
Sarah turned to her father. He looked down at Sal’s ankles and the muscles of his forehead creased. His eyes opened wider as he realized what Sarah had seen.
“I’m taking Daisy for a walk,” she said and walked out the door. It was confusing. Why was her father in his bedroom with Sal and why was Sal dressed to look like her mother? Her dad had loved her mom. None of this made sense. She couldn’t get her father’s expression out of her mind when he saw her looking at Sal’s ankles.
As Daisy pulled Sarah along a smile spread across her face. Her parents were married less than a year before she was born. Her dad worked long hours and no longer had time for painting and he missed it.
It seemed so obvious to Sarah now. He had never had a chance to paint her mother’s portrait and that’s why Sal was dressed like that, wearing her mother’s blouse and lipstick, with stockings on his feet. Dad was just missing mom, too. He was using Sal as his model. Sarah felt like she had solved a giant jigsaw puzzle.
“It’s okay, Dad,” Sarah said when she got home. “I understand.”
Excerpts from Leroy Cooper's memoir as told to me during conversations that took place during the 2 years we knew each other. I also write humor, flash fiction, celebrity interviews, real and made up stories--see if you can guess which are which.