JEFF BAKKENSEN - LEVELS
Jeff Bakkensen once placed second in a George Washington look-alike contest. Recent fiction can be found in Oblong Magazine, Smokelong Quarterly, The Antigonish Review, and Straylight Literary Magazine.
They clicked right away, single dads taking a break in the shade of the cabana bar set on a platform above the pool.
“Those are mine,” said Daniel, swiveling to find two boys in the water below. “Braden, twelve, and Dylan, eight. My dudes.”
“And mine is,” said Rick, searching. He stood, scanning the water, but she wasn’t there. A moment of panic, then he turned to find her laboring up the concrete stairs to the bar.
“Coming to join us, baby?” he asked. “This is my Amber, six.”
Daniel raised a toast.
Amber wanted to go down to the beach, had been asking all weekend, which unfortunately was not going to happen, Rick checked his watch with careful regret, because her Mommy was coming soon to pick her up. Shoulders slumped, she took a piece of grilled cheese back down the stairs, one sodden step at a time.
“Mommy?” asked Daniel, leaning across the bar.
Rick watched Amber try the pool with her foot.
“She and her boyfriend both, if you can believe it. They’re across the way in Fort Myers Beach.” He gestured with his beer towards the water, which was in fact the Atlantic and not the bay side. “Keeping an eye on me, I think.”
“That’s criminal,” said Daniel. “You don’t even get a week just the two of you?”
This was their first attempt at a joint vacation, an agreement hammered out to accommodate the dance camp Amber wanted to attend over her second school break.
“I admit it’s not a perfect system.”
Daniel snorted in commiseration while he signaled to the bartender for two more beers.
The pool beneath them was itself set on a raised slab of concrete surrounded by grass and then on three sides by the rectangular wings of the hotel, with the fourth open to the beach. Rick tried to pick out his and Amber’s screened-in deck on the second level, but couldn’t tell it apart from the others.
“It’s been just over a year,” he said, holding up a ringless left hand. “My grandparents used to live out in Boca Grande. Figured it would be nice to get her down here as well.”
“Men don’t need jewelry.” Daniel slid a beer across the bar. “We take our boys’ trip every year. We fish, we golf.” He made air quotes to show that golf was a relative term. “They have a good time. Right now I’m just trying to stay in the game, you know?”
“Their mom?” asked Rick.
“Yeah, they live with their mom.”
Rick checked his watch again, then looked through the railing into the pool below them. Two elderly couples sunned on deck chairs. A snoring man crushed a newspaper against his stomach, wife very thin in a baggy one-piece suit with a kind of cloth shower cap. Cancer, thought Rick reflexively. Can’t let it get in the way of some sun. He watched Amber lower herself into a sit at the water’s edge, her arms fattened by the twin ducks of her swimmies. Another parent, e.g. Jess, his ex, might stand at this point and call out to Be Careful, because of course a six year old knew exactly what that meant. Not his way. He imagined himself as a platform rising up beneath her; she wouldn’t know he was there until she needed him.
“I see you noticed my girlfriend,” said Daniel. He raised his chin, whistling softly.
Rick followed his gaze to a youngish woman dipping her toddler onto a submerged step at one corner of the shallow end. She was a big girl, bone-white skin and dark hair slicked back with water. From where he sat, Rick had a direct view down at the pair of handguns tattooed one on each breast, their barrels curving down into her top.
“You wish, right?”
“I don’t see any competition,” said Daniel. “What do you think, early twenties?”
Rick considered the handguns. No doubt they had something to do with the guy who’d got her pregnant. And where was he?
“Don’t fall in love now,” said Daniel.
Rick looked up.
“Guilty,” he said. He raised his beer. “Needed this.”
“You forget how tiring it is,” said Daniel.
Rick was halfway through the next round when he got a text from his ex that they were leaving the hotel in Fort Myers, and stood up so fast he had to hold onto the bar until his vision cleared. Daniel told him to hurry on back and catch the green flash at sunset.
“I have some sobering up to do first,” said Rick.
“Not on vacation you don’t,” said Daniel, and winked.
Rick navigated down to the pool the same way Amber had – deliberately. The stairway deposited him by the shallow end where Tattoos was now up to her waist, and they made lingering eye contact as Rick scanned the edges of the pool from shallow to deep, looking for his daughter’s swimmies. He didn’t see them. There were maybe half a dozen kids variously submerged, but no Amber. He scanned back from deep to shallow. Then he spun around like a dog chasing his own tail.
His stomach cramped and the beer drained down into his toes. How long since he’d last seen her? Fifteen minutes? She’d been fine on her own when they practiced swimming that morning. And with so many people around – what color was her swimsuit? Pink? He saw a flash of color down by the drain and was leaning, unbelieving, towards the water when he felt someone touch his arm.
Tattoos. She had her toddler balanced on one arm.
“Are you looking for your girl?” she asked.
Rick nodded. He followed her finger out towards the ocean, past the pool enclosure, across a strip of grass set for horseshoes and a dirt track that divided the grass from the dunes and the beach, where a tiny pink blob was studying the path leading to the other side.
“Oh my God,” he said. “Thank you.”
“Thank you!” he shouted again as he left the pool deck and took off on a brisk walk towards the beach, conscious as he pounded across the grass of his breasts moving within his shirt and the heat, yes it was shame, spreading across his cheeks. Slowly the blob clarified itself against the dunes and became his Amber. Everything was alright.
He smoothed the concern out of his voice. “What are you doing?”
“I wanted to see the beach.”
“I bet you’ll go with Mommy,” he said, and regretted it immediately. He knelt, thinking of the crowd at the pool, and wrapped his arms around her. “Come on. We gotta get you washed up.”
While Amber showered off the chlorine, Rick made himself coffee in the peeling kitchenette. He gargled mouthwash. Amber’s clothes lay scattered over her side of the room; he folded them into her little pink suitcase, wringing her swimsuit into the sink. He and her Mommy had gotten her a stuffed bear, her Buddy Bear, the last day before they all moved out of the home they’d shared, and he was placing this on top of her suitcase when his phone rang. It was Jess.
“Ready whenever you are,” she said.
He walked to the bathroom door, listening for a moment to the rushing water.
“Amber,” he said. He heard a tentative yes, and told her to get dressed and meet them outside.
For the first few months they’d handled their exchanges like black-market dealers, walking her between cars parked outside Denny’s or Dunkin’ Donuts. Now at least they were allowed on each other’s front steps.
Jess and her boyfriend, Oystein, which was his honest-to-goodness first name, were playing the part of criminal fences here, waiting with arms crossed in front of Jess’s rental. Was that tension he sensed? Oystein feeling resentful at sharing his vacation? Get used to it, says the irresponsible biological father. He smiled broadly as he turned at the landing and came down the second set of stairs.
They exchanged greetings, a hug and a handshake, both equally forced.
“What have you been up to?” asked Jess.
He spread his arms.
“A little of this, a little of that.”
“I meant with Amber.”
They’d gone on a group bike ride through the bird sanctuary. Played tennis. A day at the pool. Television. Order-in dinner. He'd let Amber tell her they hadn't been to the beach.
“I taught her how to play tennis,” he said. This was stretching things, clearly.
Jess raised an eyebrow.
“We do have fun together, you know,” he said.
Oystein was big and bald like Mr. Clean. He was Norwegian, or Swedish, something like that, and worked for an energy company. That was all Rick knew about him.
He heard a bright, “Mommy!” coming from the second-floor walkway, and they all turned to see Amber closing the door behind her, pink suitcase in tow. Jess rushed up the stairs to help her, and, alone for a moment with Oystein, Rick felt like a barrier descending the weight of having absolutely nothing to say to him.
They repeated the cycle of handshake and hug, and then he hooked Amber under both arms and held her close against his chest, smelling the chlorine still her hair.
“I’ll see you when you get home,” he said.
He watched the minivan pull away, walking after it, and waited for one last wave as they turned onto the road. When they were gone, he turned left to round his building and go through the portico leading back out into the pool area.
A successful weekend, he thought, so long as Amber didn’t realize he’d almost lost her.
Tattoos was still there with her kid. Rick thanked her with a nod and a smile as he passed, but didn’t stop to see whether she smiled back. He didn’t need judgment from someone like that.
What to do now? Where was the handbook for the one-man family vacation? He climbed to the cabana and got himself a beer. Then he got another, and a chicken sandwich with potato chips. Scrolled through the news on his phone. He watched for the green flash, but all he saw was a sunset.
The pool below him cleared out, and then the deck cleared out as well, and when it was just him and the bartender, he felt a hand on his shoulder.
“Sprung at last,” said Daniel.
“Looks like it.”
Daniel took a seat and ordered a beer.
“Now you’re in that place where the responsibility’s been lifted off your shoulders and you have no idea what to do with the freedom. Am I right?”
“Do I feel bad about feeling this relieved or do I just feel relieved?”
“What happened to the little lady?”
“No,” said Daniel, gesturing towards the pool. “The big little lady.”
Rick looked down to see that she was gone.
“Went to dinner, I guess.”
“We had an early one,” said Rick. “Now they’re in there watching a movie.” The bartender, an older woman with short hair the color of rust, turned her back to them and began to stack liquor bottles into a box. “Give them their space and take yours. Nobody should expect you to sit around waiting.”
They had a few more beers, swatting the mosquitoes brave enough to make it past the citronella torches, and when all the liquor was boxed up, the bartender told them she was closing down. It was only 8pm.
“Come on, I have a bottle of Jack in my room,” said Daniel. Rick watched him rise, sway towards the stairs, and turn back when he realized he was alone. “Two rooms; the boys have their own.”
Rick glanced at the bartender counting her boxes. He and Daniel both knew he had nowhere to beg off to.
They crunched across the grass to the screen porch of Daniel’s first-story room and then, finding it locked, “Shit,” they walked through the portico and around to the front door on the other side. Daniel’s room was an exact replica of Rick’s: kitchenette to the left of the entrance, doorless doorway leading to two double beds and a TV with a sliding glass door and a screened deck facing the pool. An open suitcase lay on a luggage rack in the corner. Daniel grabbed cups and a bottle from the freezer and led the way out to the deck without bothering to turn on the lights. They each took a seat. He produced cigars out of his pocket and passed one across as he poured their drinks in the dark.
“I always come prepared,” he said Daniel.
“Some family vacation,” said Rick, but it came out with the wrong tone, and Daniel gave him a look like he was having trouble placing where they’d met.
“Hmm,” said Daniel.
They were both quiet for a minute.
“Plans for tomorrow?” asked Rick.
Daniel shrugged, messed around in his shorts pocket and brought out a lighter and a cigar cutter.
“Who needs plans?” he asked, handing over the cutter. “There’s a second act in the lives of single men. Probably married men, too, but I wouldn’t know about that anymore. Maybe women, but again.”
Rick cut his cigar and leaned forward for the light. Their eyes met. Daniel cut and lit his own cigar.
“And I’m not saying you need to be prowling around, hell no. Think of this new phase as an opportunity. You have options you haven’t even thought of yet. Forty or fifty years is a long time to live your life in ‘after’ mode.”
“After what?” asked Rick.
“Exactly. It's all in front of you again.”
Daniel pointed with his thumb to the room next door. “When I was a kid, I never would have thought my parents could change who they were. Once you were an adult, bam, that’s it.”
“But it’s perfectly natural to keep on changing,” said Daniel. “You never wake up one morning and you’re you, complete. You’re always yourself, always changing.
“What I worry about is them. In this age of the internet. Without a father in the house. No one to show them the ways of the world, so to speak. I guess it’s different with a girl.”
“I don’t think we’ve reached that point yet,” said Rick, sucking on his cigar.
“Don’t tug so hard,” said Daniel. “You’ll turn green.”
He reached across the space between them and pulled the cigar from Rick’s mouth, setting it on the rim of an ashtray.
“Easy now,” he said.
Someone turned off the lights above the pool, and the courtyard settled into semi-darkness. Across the way, Rick could just make out pairs of silhouettes sitting together. In some rooms the lights were on and person-shaped snatches of color flashed back and forth behind the screen doors, and in others the curtains were closed.
Amber was probably in bed by now. Or maybe they’d got her hyped up on ice cream and gone for a walk on the beach. It was easier with three; when it was just the two of you alone, people tended to see an absence that wasn’t there.
“Am I keeping you from something?” asked Daniel.
Rick turned towards the room, noted again the two beds. A separate room for his boys.
“You know,” he said. “I think I’m going to call it a night.”
He set his cup on the table and stood.
“Now?” Daniel looked at his watch. “Did I say something wrong?”
“No, I’m just tired. I’m sure I’ll see you guys tomorrow.”
Both reached for the sliding glass door.
“Rick, I don’t understand what’s happening.”
“It’s alright. It’s my mistake.”
He turned to the screen door and gave it a push, remembered it was locked, fumbled with the button above the knob and let himself out. Sawblades of grass tickling around the edges of his sandals. The door creaked closed behind him.
“Hey wait,” said Daniel. Then he shouted, “Hey, Rick!”
Rick fought the impulse to look back, or to count the pairs of eyes set into the courtyard perimeter that followed him as he pointed his toes towards the water.
He turned left around the side of the building closest to the beach and found himself in the same crushed pumice parking lot where he’d let go of Amber a few hours before. He stopped for a moment and listened. Hearing nothing louder than his own breathing, he climbed the steps to his room and flipped on the light.
There was a lump beneath the covers of Amber’s bed, and for a moment he thought it might be her, but the lump was much too small. He stepped forward and pulled back the covers to find a stuffed animal lying with its head on the pillow. She’d left her Buddy Bear. No, she’d left him her Buddy Bear. What a marvelous little person he’d helped make.
Eventually he’d have to brush his teeth and take off his swimsuit. He’d deal with tomorrow tomorrow. For now it was enough to lie in her bed holding the bear close and feeling its soft comb of fur against his neck.