Jackson was sitting on the porch of his mostly remodeled craft house, if you didn’t count unfinished bathrooms, staring at a week old, two-foot square slab of concrete next to the curb thirty feet away. He heard the storm door close softly behind him, knew it was his daughter. His wife would have banged it open with her butt, folder in hand and started talking, or banged it open with her butt carrying two cups of coffee or half a sandwich. No matter what, she would have banged it open with her butt, not sneaking up on him.
“Dad, what’re you doin’?”
“Thinking about building the mailbox, Amrie. Pull up a step. What’re you doing?”
“Nothin.’” She dusted the step with her hand and flumped down next to him. “Are you gonna think about it or build it?”
“You’ve been talking to your mom.”
“She says it’s already built in your head, and you can see it. The problem is gettin’ it out an puttin’ it on that place.”
She was eight and her mom all over again. “You tell her it’ll be there before the sun goes down. I have lots of help coming.”
“She says it’ll be a Morisè company party, and nothin’ will get done.”
“She’s part of that girl-power thing they have. They won’t do it, but I’ll get it done with the guys.” He couldn’t say mom was part of the smart, pretty, pain in the ass hot girl thing to her. Yet.
“Kristen from school? Her mom and dad got a divorce. She’s comin’ back next year, but her dad isn’t at her house. She cries a lot at school.”
“Yeah? She told you about it?”
“She said they yelled a lot every night for a long time before.”
“Too bad she had to hear that. Is she okay? You wanna invite her over this afternoon? Feed her a dad burger, get her out of the house for a while?”
“Sure.” Just like her mom used to be, dance around it. “Amrie, spit it out.”
“Are you and mom gettin’ a divorce?”
“I don’t think so. I’m not, anyway. Why?”
“She’s been yellin’ at you every night.”
He thought about the free standing garage in the back. What sort of backyard beer and burger bribery was he going to have to put up to insulate and soundproof it?
The door banged open this time. “Jax? Sweetie? How about this, if I say…Oh. This looks serious.” She took three steps, sat down on the other side of him, squeezed his leg. “Good morning, husband. Today’s the day, huh?”
“Yeah, your mailbox gets built today. Your daughter Amrie has a question for you.”
“My daughter? You two were supposed to decide which of her big girl names to use. How long has that been?” She leaned forward, looked across him. “What’s your question sweetheart?”
“Are you and daddy gettin’ a divorce? You’ve been yellin’ at him every night just like Kristen’s mom and dad and they’re divorced.”
She made a wide-eyed what-the-hell face at her husband. He returned an ironic smile. “Is it time for the talk?”
“I suppose so. Will you fix the garage for us?”
“Okay. Little Sweetie, I’ve been yelling at your daddy like that for what, twenty years? 1974?”
“Well, seventy-five is when you started on this, but seventy-four is okay. You yelled about other things. You took three years off to get smarter, but that’s about right.”
“Stop it.” She tapped his arm with the folder. “It’s your daddy’s fault. He told me I was full of crap when I was sixteen and thought I knew it all. He sent me to your mean Aunt ‘Manda and we’ve been yelling like this ever since. We’re really not yelling, sweetie. I’m using my big girl voice, and your dad is helping me get ready for a presentation I have to make, that’s all. You must have just slept through us all this time. The last time I yelled at your daddy for real was about the hole in the kitchen floor.”
“No, I heard you. But I didn’t know it meant divorce and dad was leavin’.”
Deanna looked at her husband with some theatrical seriousness. “Big Sweetie, are you leaving?”
“Going to D.C. with you in a couple of weeks,” he said. “Should we bring her, let her see you yell?”
“She’s old enough to behave. If you can get her out of cutoffs and ballet tights at the same time. Maybe get her to wear a dress and use a napkin.”
“Me? You’re in charge of girl stuff. I drive her around and clean up after her. Like somebody else I know.”
“I’ll wear one mom, promise. Can I come? Really? The Grammas can take me shopping with Aunt ‘Manda. I’ll get a nice one, promise.”
“If they take you to Dallas again without telling me first, I’ll kill all of you, do you hear me? Okay. If you wear a dress, you can come. Jax, are you going to tell her about us? I have work to do.”
“I’ll tell her.”
“You watch what you tell her. I can still hear. If I hear any ‘your mom was this or that’ I’ll come set her straight, understand?” He heard the door close and the big window open.
“She’s really not mad at you?”
“No. I’m not mad at her either.”
“When mom gets mad at you does she use all your names?”
“No, I just have one name. She just says Jackson one of those ways she does so I know.”
“She says ‘Celeste Anne-Marie Jackson you git in here ryat this minute.’”
He laughed. “That’s pretty good. How about this. ‘Deanna, would you like me to bring you some lunch?’ What’s she say?”
“Hail yayus.” They high fived.
The window spoke. “That’s enough you two.”
Dad and daughter both got the grins. “Dad, when you say ‘Dammit Amrie would you please pick this shit up?’ Mom says, ‘Welcome to the club. My name is really Dammit Deanna.’ Is that true?”
“Yep. Dammit Deanna. She has some others, but I’ll get us both in trouble if I tell you.”
“Her big girl name is ‘What kinda shit is that, D.C. Collings?’”
He let that one go, knew he really needed to fix up the garage.
“Which of my big girl names are you gonna use? I’ve been Amrie forever.”
He wanted to say six and a half years, give or take a little, isn’t really forever. He let that go, too. “Well, if I were your boyfriend I’d call you Anne-Marie. It’s musical and it sounds just as pretty as you are. I’d feel all goofy every time I said it. The boy who isn’t afraid to call you Anne-Marie, he’s the one.”
The window spoke again. “Jax, she’s eight years old. Jesus.”
“It’s never too soon to be watching for that sort of thing. I’m your dad so I’d just call you Marie because it’s short and bouncy and fun like you are. Celeste is a good name if you’re ever going to be a night club singer. You could add all of Aunt Alix’s French names to it. You could be Celeste Alexandrie Anne-Marie Juliette Moreaux Jackson. You’d have to say Jackson with a French accent, Zhock-zone. Your business card would be as big as an envelope. You could keep your hair all in your face like you do anyway and wear bright red lipstick.” He reached over and messed up her hair a little more than it had been.
“Stop it, Dad, I do not. Celeste is Aunt ‘Manda’s pretty name she doesn’t use, and Anne-Marie is aunt Alix’s.”
He raised his voice a little. “So who is this girl who’s not your daughter?” He checked his daughter, smiled. “Marie? Close enough to Amrie?”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“You wanna hear a story?”
“You sound just like Eeyore or your mom. It’s not a boring dad story. It’s a love story about a beautiful princess in hiding who’s just a tiny bit nuts.”
“Jax, I heard that.” The voice from the window seemed to be losing its sense of humor.
“Does she meet a boy and fall in love?”
“Oh, she tries out a lot of boys. All the wrong boys but she keeps trying. Then she meets the one boy who knows her secret. He steals her heart away and won’t give it back until she learns to behave like the princess she is.”
“Okay, Jackson. It doesn’t go exactly like that.” The voice from the window had some velocity this time.
“See? Did you hear that? That’s the way she says my name when she starts to get mad. Let’s get off the porch. I’ll tell you about the princess if you’ll help me start on the mailbox so we can get it done today. You know the princess looked a lot like you when she was little. I’ve seen pictures.”
“You know how dads know about stuff by magic? That’s how.”
“Alright. I guess.” She looked at him, wondered if he really had seen pictures of a princess that looked like her, decided he probably had. Dad spent a lot of time in California, where a most princesses she knew about seemed to come from. Probably because of Disneyland. “Mom says you’re really full of stuff sometimes, but I believe you. Do I really have to wear a dress if I come with you?”
“You promised your mom. You ready to argue with her about it?” He could see her chewing her lower lip. “No?” He grinned at her, offered her a low-five hand. She smacked it, hard. “I didn’t think so. You make your mom a promise, kiddo, you gotta keep it. Trust me.”