Tom Ray devotes his time to writing adult, contemporary fiction, dealing with Washington, the military, suburban life, East Tennessee, and growing old. His fiction has been published in New Pop Lit, Penny Shorts, Writing Raw, Twisted Vine Literary Arts Journal, and Literary Yard. He is a native of Knoxville, Tennessee, and a graduate of the University of Tennessee. After two years of active duty in the U. S. Army, including a tour in Vietnam, he entered U. S. government service as a civilian. He retired after working thirty-five years in the Washington, D.C., area, and currently lives in Knoxville.
THE PROBLEM CHILD
Ryan Blanchard was sitting at the crowded bar checking email when he looked up from his phone to see a young woman approaching him. He wished that she was the one meeting him for a drink, rather than Kimberly Flanigan. Continuing to look at email, he sensed someone standing next to him. Looking up again, he saw the young woman, who smiled and said, "Hey."
It was Kimberly. She'd undone the French roll and let her hair down, which he now saw was more than shoulder length. She'd shed the jacket of her suit, and unbuttoned one more button of her blouse. There was more color to her lips, and more makeup on her eyes. The biggest change was the smile, with sweet lips opened to display straight, white teeth, making her face beautiful rather than pretty.
"I didn't recognize you. Here, have a seat." He stood up to free up the barstool.
"Thanks. Sorry to keep you waiting. I wanted to dress down a little. The business look is a drag after hours." He could tell she enjoyed his amazement at her transformation.
After drinks they moved to the adjoining restaurant. They talked all through dinner. His accounting firm and her law firm had been hired to resolve the tax problems of a family-held corporation. Throughout the weeks they had worked together she had been aloof, an austerely dressed professional who never smiled or showed any personal interest in him. As they had wrapped up their work that day she had surprised him by suggesting they get together for drinks that evening. Now she was a completely different person, funny and pleasant, joking about the eccentric family that owned the client company, and talking about experiences in her professional life.
They were still at the table after dessert and coffee while the wait staff was cleaning up for the night. Ryan said, "I was going to the gym tonight."
"I was, too," she said. "This was more fun than a workout, though."
"Yes it was, Kimberly. You want to go to the Belcourt on Friday to see that French film?"
"Call me Kim. Yeah, I'd love to go."
They agreed on politics, TV shows, sports, books, music, restaurants, everything. She became his regular date to business-related social functions, where she came across as serious but cordial. In a purely social setting, his friends liked her, especially for her irreverent wit, and her friends were a fun group who accepted him. After a few weeks he couldn't imagine being without her.
They were together for a couple of years before they got engaged, and had spent every holiday with his family in Nashville. He'd suggested they might enjoy a Thanksgiving or Christmas in Knoxville with her family, but she always assured him she'd rather spend holidays with his family.
It had bothered him how Kim hadn't shown any interest in introducing him to her family. Her excuses varied, beginning with her father being tied up with some business issues, to her mother not feeling well, to finally saying there was nothing to do in Knoxville.
He began to think that Kim might be ashamed of him. When they were together in public he was sure people were thinking, "What's a beautiful girl like her doing with a nerd like that?" He worked hard at maintaining a good physique, but his nose was too big, his teeth were too prominent, his hair was thinning, and he still wore glasses because he couldn't stand the thought of having to insert contact lenses.
He was on the verge of asking Kim if she were ashamed of him when she finally gave in. They visited her parents one weekend to attend a concert in Knoxville. Kim's father, Dennis, and her mother, Joyce, kept up a continual stream of loud, jovial conversation throughout the visit. They were welcoming toward Ryan, and seemed to be proud that their daughter had a relationship with him. Ryan enjoyed the weekend, staying in the Flanigans' large house in a well-to-do suburban neighborhood. They ate all their meals at home, and Joyce was an excellent cook.
But Ryan was disappointed that he didn't meet any of Kim's friends in Knoxville, or her sister Christina. When he asked about Christina and her family, Joyce said, "You know how big sisters are. She and Eric got tied up this weekend." He knew Christina was four years older than Kim, but he didn't see what "big sister" had to do with it, particularly for women in their thirties. Meeting the Flanigans, at least, eased some of Ryan's concern about Kim being ashamed of him.
He finally met Christina at the wedding in Nashville. She was attractive, although not as pretty as Kim, with dark hair cut short. She was a little heavier than Kim, but not fat really. Her eyes had a softness that contrasted with Kim's piercing gaze.
Ryan managed to talk briefly with Christina and Eric Hardin, her husband, during the rehearsal dinner. When Ryan danced with Christina during the reception she said, "We're so glad to have you in the family, Ryan."
"Thanks, Christina. I'm lucky to be a part of your family."
She squeezed his hand and said, "No, we're the lucky ones, Kim and all of the family." She spoke with a warmth he'd never heard from Kim.
"I look forward to meeting your daughter. Maybe the next time we come to Knoxville." As he said this, her face seemed to tighten for a second.
"I hope so." Her radiant smile returned. "Nicole insisted on staying home to study for midterms, otherwise she'd be here. I'm glad she takes school so seriously."
Eric, Christina’s husband, hadn't talked much after initial introductions at the wedding rehearsal. He was handsome, although beginning to put on weight like Christina. His dark hair worn in a brush cut was just beginning to gray. Ryan had exchanged a few words with him about their respective business activities, but at the reception Eric had kept to himself.
In the months after the wedding, Kim's parents visited the newly weds in Nashville a couple of times. They went to dinner and shows with Ryan and Kim, and with Ryan's parents. Kim seemed to enjoy this, but when he suggested that they repay those visits back in Knoxville she, again, had resisted. He now accepted this as a quirk of Kim's, but kept pushing until she finally agreed to go back to her home for another visit.
He had just settled down on the sofa in the Flanigans' living room to watch a history lecture on C-SPAN when he was startled by a female saying, "Hello, Ryan Blanchard." He hadn't heard anyone come into the room, and didn't recognize the voice. In the doorway leading to the foyer he saw a teen-aged girl in skinny jeans and a tank top. She had striking brown eyes and a trim figure. She was pretty, although he didn't care for her spiked hair, dyed blue, and for the piercings in her ears, eyebrows and nose, decorated with rings and beads.
"Hi. I didn't hear you come in." He stood and took a couple of steps toward her.
"Yeah, I like to sneak up on people. Do you know who I am?" Her voice was initially laconic, but her question had a mildly accusatory tone.
"I don't think I do." He was embarrassed, sensing that he should have known her. "Have we met?"
"No. They wouldn't let me come to your wedding. I'm your niece."
"Oh, yes. Nickie, is that right?" Her statement bothered him. Christina had said her daughter didn't want to come to the wedding.
"No. It's Nicole." She showed a flash of anger.
"Sorry. I was just guessing you'd go by Nickie."
"Why would I? Nicole has the same number of syllables as Nickie, and Nicole is prettier. Why go by Nickie?" He felt foolish. He now remembered that Christina had referred to her daughter as "Nicole." It was just that looking at the teenager now, the name seemed too grown-up for her.
"I can see your point," he said. He did see her point, but her argumentative tone irritated him. "I'm sorry you couldn't make our wedding."
"Me too. Where's Kim?"
"She had to go to the store to buy some makeup she forgot to pack."
"Where are Grandma and Grandpa?"
"Upstairs getting dressed. We're going to the game."
"Good for you. Have you ever been to a UT game?"
"I went to Vanderbilt, and I saw the Volunteers play in Nashville once. Never been to a Neyland Stadium game, though. I hear it's quite a spectacle."
"I guess. I've never been to one either."
She walked past him and took his seat, stretching her legs out on the sofa. He moved to an easy chair facing the sofa. He tried to think of something to talk about. If she was so offended by something like him calling her "Nickie," a civil conversation with her might be difficult.
She solved the problem by asking, "So you're a CPA, huh?"
"Yes, I am. Do I remember right, you're a junior in high school?"
"Yeah, you remember right."
"Nicole! I didn't know you were here." Dennis had been coming down the stairs, and hurried when he saw his granddaughter. He stopped and stood at the living room door.
"Do your folks know you're here?" He came on into the room, sounding and looking worried.
"They know I've gone out." Nicole sounded at ease. "I didn't know you were going to the game, since you didn't invite me."
Dennis sat down. "I didn't know you liked going to football games. The last time I invited you, you said they suck."
"Since my aunt and uncle are in town, it would've been nice of you to ask me." She smiled at Ryan, who shifted in his seat. "When are you all going back, Ryan?"
"Tomorrow morning. We're going to brunch, then taking off."
"Maybe I can go to brunch with you. Where are you taking them, Grandpa, the Copper Cellar?"
Dennis was slow to answer, but finally said, "Yeah," in a flat voice.
"Usual time, nine o'clock?" She turned to Ryan. "Whenever they do Sunday brunch they always go at nine."
When Dennis didn't answer her she said, "OK, I'll see you all tomorrow at nine."
C-SPAN had finished the history lecture and was starting another one. Ryan couldn't think of any thing more to say, and apparently Nicole and Dennis couldn't either. He was relieved to finally hear the door between the garage and kitchen open and close, followed by the sound of Kim's steps. She walked into the living room carrying a bag from Walgreen's. She stopped as soon as she entered the room, looking at Nicole. Ryan said, "Hi, baby."
Kim ignored him and said, "Hello, Nicole."
"Hi, Kim. They didn't tell me you were in town. If I'd known you were going to the game I would've asked Grandpa to get me a ticket to go with you."
Kim just kept staring at the girl, finally saying, "I have to go upstairs and finish getting ready. I won't be long."
Ryan resumed his seat, and began pretending to listen to the lecture on TV.
"Don't you love Grandpa's big orange shirt, Ryan? You should get one."
"I should. I have an orange baseball cap for today. Maybe I'll get an orange shirt the next time I come."
"God, I was being sarcastic. Please tell me you won't buy any of those ridiculous orange clothes. At least Grandpa went with white trousers. I swear to God, some of these bozos wear orange and white checkered pants."
"It doesn't hurt to support the team." Ryan smiled as he said it, trying to hide his discomfort. Dennis kept silently eying Nicole.
"Why are we watching this crap?" Nicole picked up the remote and clicked on the cable guide.
"I was watching a history lecture that was on earlier."
She scrolled through the guide quickly, and selected a slasher movie. "Have you seen this one? It's pretty good."
"I don't think I have. It must be pretty good if you want to watch it again."
"There's nothing else on."
They sat in silence until Kim came down a few minutes later in khaki shorts and a white blouse. Her only token in honor of the team was an orange band holding her long hair in a ponytail. She sat on the arm of Ryan's chair without saying anything.
Joyce came down a couple of minutes later. "All right, let's load up the car." She stopped short when she saw Nicole. Ryan saw the same concerned look on her face that he'd seen on Dennis's and Kim's.
"Hi, Grandma. I was just leaving." She went up to Joyce and kissed her, then went to Dennis and kissed him. As she went out through the front door she said, "See you guys tomorrow."
After she'd gone Kim said, "What'd she mean about tomorrow?"
"Uh, she's coming to brunch." Dennis sounded ashamed.
Everyone became quiet until Joyce suddenly said, "Come on, boys, don't stand here all day. We're going to have a hard time finding a parking place."
"All right, Mom. Give me a hand, Ryan." Dennis led him into the kitchen, where the cooler and bags of food were arrayed on the table
The family loosened up during the tailgating and the game. Ryan forgot about the awkwardness that had prevailed while Nicole was with them.
The next morning, though, he again felt tension among his wife and her parents. When they joined Joyce in the kitchen she said, "I called Christina. Nicole won't be there today."
Kim said, "Good."
He wondered why they were so afraid of the girl. She must have had some condition, maybe bipolar disorder, which would cause her to embarrass them. Kim and her parents couldn't have known Nicole would show up at the Flanigans’ house yesterday, but they should have foreseen that she might turn up unexpectedly at some point. He wished Kim had given him some warning about Nicole's problem, whatever it was. It was not his style to raise an issue, though. He didn't want to embarrass Kim by asking about her niece. In time, he hoped, Kim would tell him about it.
Conversation seemed to flow more normally as they drove to the restaurant, but when they pulled into the parking lot he noticed the Flanigans and Kim scanning the area. Even after they were parked and got out of the car, they continued looking around, watching for something or someone. Once inside, though, they relaxed and had a nice meal without any problem.
Back at home afterward he had to wait in the living room again as Kim finished packing. Dennis and Joyce went to church. Ryan was looking for a news talk show on TV when the front door opened. Nicole peered around the partly opened door, and her face brightened as she saw him looking at her from the living room.
He stood up. "Good morning, Nicole. I didn't expect to see you again so soon."
"I bet," she said as she came into the living room and sat on the sofa. "Where's Kim?"
"Upstairs. We're just getting ready to leave."
"Did she tell you about me?"
He didn't want to answer that. While Kim and the Flanigans hadn't explicitly told him anything about Nicole, he felt they had signaled that the girl had problems. "She told me I have a niece named Nicole. It was my mistake to think I should call you 'Nickie.'"
She gave a sharp laugh. "I can see they didn't. They don't want you to know." Her smile faded and she began speaking in an intense voice. "They didn't want me to know, but good old Sara McKinney told me in seventh grade. Mom, I mean Christina, my adopted mom, freaked out when I told her what Sara had said. Then Mom told me everything, a real heart-to-heart talk. I already knew it all of course, from Sara. Sara's mom told her everything, and Sara told me. The whole town knows about it. Yesterday I made Grandpa and Grandma and everybody nervous being around you. They're afraid I'll tell you about it. I didn't like them trying to keep it from me, and I don't think it's fair that they keep it from you.
"They didn't tell me you all were coming here this weekend, but I heard Mom on the phone with Grandma. That's how I knew to come over here yesterday. Grandma or Kim must have called Mom last night. She told me I couldn't go to brunch today. I had to get a friend to drive me. She's outside in the car now, waiting for me. We were at the Copper Cellar watching you all, from a distance. Grandma and Grandpa and Kim wouldn't leave you unguarded long enough for me to come up and talk to you. I bet they expected me to show up there. I took a chance on finding you here. I hope I'm not upsetting you, but I thought you had a right to know. Just like I did."
"I don't quite know how to respond to this, Nicole." He spoke slowly, trying to give himself time to think of what to say. So she was adopted? It bothered him that the family would think that was such a shameful secret that they couldn't share it with him.
She laughed again. "Don't say anything, I'm not finished. Anyway, the big secret is that Kim is my mother. And here's the other thing: Dad, Eric, really is my dad. He was engaged to Mom, but got Kim pregnant. She was sixteen. So they got married. That only lasted a couple of years. They got a divorce, and he went ahead and married Mom. Kim gave me up, and they pretended she and Eric were never married. That's the weird part."
He felt a jolt like an elevator coming to a sudden stop. "Nicole, I--," he was struggling to think of something to say.
"Don't say anything. I don't want to hear a lecture. I just told you this because you should know." She approached him. "Don't tell them I told you. They'll just freak out." She came still closer, and put her arms around his neck. He instinctively started to pull back, but then relaxed. She kissed him on the cheek and whispered into his ear, "Good-bye, Uncle Stepdaddy." She backed away laughing, turned, and walked out the door.