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David Alexander McFarland decorative flourish The moment he could have

How can I, that girl standing there,
My attention fix
On Roman or on Russian
Or on Spanish politics?

For no reason he could later remember he looked up when an anonymous girl passed through his field of vision. She looked familiar, too much so, but he could not place her in the panorama of girls he knew who were somewhere near his daughter’s age: full, longish brown hair, a girl who had the quirky smile that says to every man I know what you want. Every man responds, no matter his age; no man can resist. She flashed that smile at him—not a toothy grin but a look that warmed as it spread over her features—when she noticed him watching her. She was with an older boy who buzzed constantly around her. Another teen couple sat down with them; they were all well dressed in the fashions of the moment, low cut and tight blouses that emphasized the roundness of their small breasts, their flat, trim waists, the boys in wide jeans and t-shirts that proclaimed yet another rock band of which he had not heard. She took the seat that left her facing him—was it deliberate?—and she smiled at him watching her, and he turned away, guilty without cause. No doubt he looked lecherous to her, a dirty old man. He was not so old, just over forty, and he did not want her—but his not-so-old body responded independently, uncomfortably.

“Are you done?” The young man in the restaurant’s uniform was collecting trays, had his hand out for Martin’s.

“Yes,” he said, “quite.”

As the boy picked up the tray, Martin asked, “Could you get me some more coffee?” and extended his cup.

“It’s right there, sir.” The skinny boy pointed to the counter where two glass pots sat on the warmer next to the creamers and sweeteners. “You can help yourself.” And he was gone in a swirl.

He could not say I really can’t stand up right now. Because she was still looking at him. He could not be sure she had ever stopped looking at him.

His daughter would all too soon be that age, probably acting like all the other girls today; he prayed she would never allow herself to be treated so—the boy’s arm draped possessively around her, she leaning into him so that his hand, from Martin’s angle of vision, seemed to hover absurdly, unconsciously over her breast; there was a tattoo, red and green and black, running over his arm and underneath his sleeve. It was disturbing to even contemplate his daughter sitting so with any boy. True, he was becoming more old-fashioned every moment of the day where Jena was concerned. So his wife, Susan, told him. He argued with her aloud but accepted silently. One cannot deny truth, no matter how uncomfortable, unflattering. He had learned that much.

He had never acted like that with any girl. But, then, his had been a different day, with different standards and rules, more parental supervision. Parents now were more … well, relaxed about things like that. It was hard not to be judgmental about kids today, but that boy, the way he was treating her, was inexcusable. When he had gone out with girls from his school, usually in a crowd of other school friends, nothing had gone on. His parents had sent him to a deeply fundamentalist religious school where teachers railed daily against overt sin and sinful thoughts. Though he and every other boy and most of the girls had explored the bare edges, never daring to go past the point where one could draw back, safe from the sparkle that made one’s senses the only thing in life that mattered, you always knew. Someone always smiled too much, laughed a bit too loudly, wiggled and bumped, and then it was over. Innocent fun, but the thoughts behind it made it delicious. All the girls—Susan, too—had teased him that way. In a rush it was back, that moment he could have had those years ago, when blood had pounded everywhere in him, when realization had opened his eyes to the world. Girls had teased him, had put their hands high up on his thigh or sometimes brushed a hand across his lap on the way to poking the girl on the other side of him; those little touches had made him alive, brought every one of his senses to a fever. Only once had his hands touched Susan’s breasts, when they were alone, hidden from view, and never had he put his hand down on her as other boys bragged of doing. He had been afraid to try. Until marriage and explorations of a different kind. Children, a home, a settled home life that saved him from the worst temptations.

When he thought about it, what a distance he had come. Too much and too little experience, damned little time to reflect on it. Time was what he lacked—time was what the young had.

The girl was talking at the boy now, saying something directly in his ear while smiling and half-pointing in his direction. The boy glared at him. Another dirty old man, he believed the boy was saying. And she had moved his hand away, wiggled out from under him. The two girls got up, wandered away in the direction of the restrooms.

What sensuality, even in their walking. As an adult he knew what the word meant, had absorbed it naturally, but now the feel of it slithered through his skin to become permanently embedded in his body, filtering into the brain.

To be young. Not again, but for the first time.

Not that he was old now—just at forty, a bright young partner, an active husband, still somewhat athletic. People still talked of him as young. But he knew that youth is relative, like so many things, and the four teenagers were young in that way that meant most of all inexperience. For himself, young meant still being healthy, energetic—balanced between old Benton, who at seventy-five still came in but did little real work; and that new secretary who at age twenty-two churned out memos like confetti to prove she was a keeper before her probationary period ran out. His balance was perfect. It had been so before he had been distracted, when he was unfocused on the here-and-now, following trails of thought about clients, money, arrangements, solvency—as a partner in one of the most important accounting firms in town should be thinking. And so the ambush was of his own making. He had allowed himself to be distracted.

To be disentangled from the world in the same way that quartet of teenagers enjoyed.

“Mr. Hobson?”

“Hello.” He looked up into the girl’s open, smiling face, one he recognized but could not put a name to. Across the room, she had looked different, older, more sexual. Then her name came—no, fell—into his mind. “Hello, Karen.” Saying her name opened a geyser of information about her, her family, old associations with his own family.

“Mr. Hobson, you won’t tell my parents you saw me, will you?”

“Not if you don’t want me to.” He smiled. Her eyes were clear and vivid, her skin—despite the makeup—flawless in the way only young skin can be, before age and experiences mark and mar the flesh and eyes and heart.

Karen flashed a thumb to the table where she had been sitting. “They don’t like Sam.” Sam was watching them, watching him, not in an apprehensive manner but sitting up straight, expectant.

He stood up; he could stand up now without embarrassing himself.

“He’s older. Is that what they don’t like?”

“Sam’s eighteen. A senior.”

“Oh.” Karen was fourteen. He understood. “No, I won’t say anything, but you ought to listen to them.”

“They wouldn’t understand.”

The eternal complaint of the young. What could he tell her? The tides of thought forced him finally to the true but trite, “Yes, they will. You just have to accept some things as they are, and parents are one of those things.”

Her friend came up, the one with whom she had gone to the restroom. “Oh, this is my friend Marci,” she said.

“Hello.”

Marci smiled, a broad, open-mouth smile. “Hello,” she said. Martin could hear the differences in the two of them, differences that a year, maybe a year and a half could make in one’s voice, stance, in smiles that seemed nearly an invitation. A Lolita, he thought, experienced, but not so, changing his mind instantly; maybe she was only a girl with a firm knowledge of men, what interests them, what they respond to. Marci was taller, browner than Karen. A year at this age made all the difference.

“You’ll be fine, Karen,” he said.

“Thank you.” A little breathless.

“It’s all right.”

So they left him, returning to the boys, slipping back into their isolating milieu.

He tossed his cup away, checked around his area for anything he might have dropped by accident, and left without looking at the group again.

When he pulled into his driveway at home, he did look at Karen’s house, though he had said to himself he would not. Of course no one was outside; it was the wrong time of day, wrong day of the week. Karen’s parents did all their yard work on Saturdays, the two of them planting and replanting, mowing, raking, trimming trees and bushes. Theirs was the most manicured lot on the street. Inside, the two or three times he had been inside their home, had been as orderly, as carefully arranged as the outside. But he had not gone in any farther than the family room, and could not know if the rest of the house was as cheerless. Too perfect, too arranged, a great sense of style but not the slightest suggestion of warmth.

It was just rebellion, that’s all, he said. And hoped.

“Jena, do you talk to Karen much these days?”

“No, not really.”

“You’re friends, aren’t you?”

“Well, yes. I guess.”

“But you don’t talk to her?”

“We don’t talk much, Daddy.” She gave him an odd look, sideways, with that same little element of alarm that appeared in her expression whenever he was bordering on being too much the parent, wanting too much information about her life, her friends.

He had it: Jena and Karen were friendly with each other but not friends. Once they had played with dolls together, in their elementary years. Now, he could not remember the last time one had visited the other.

“She’s always with Sam Wilson. He’s a loser. Her parents hate him.”

“Oh?”

“If her parents see him with her, she’ll be grounded until he leaves town.”

“Maybe until he goes to college. It’s still a long time.”

“He won’t be going to college—he’ll graduate and start working at a car repair shop the next day. His uncle has a shop, I think. Sam only thinks about cars and sex.”

“Jena!” Susan sounded more shocked than she likely was.

“Mom, I know him.” She hesitated. “That’s the way older boys are. Well, I’ve seen him around. People talk, you know. I know about him.”

She sounded truthful, at least just now. A long time ago he had picked up the ability to tell when she was lying, a difference in her voice, a practiced difference, maybe because it was rehearsed too much in her mind. But this was right—honest, laced with that defensive tone and a bit of uncertainty.

“She’s too young for him.”

“How do you know?” Susan was feeling, he believed, not quite at the center of things in this conversation, and she had never liked that.

“Jena said he was a senior.”

“No, I didn’t, Daddy—you did.”

She was right. And he was caught. His training at keeping private information that came his way had failed.

“I heard about the two of them today.”

“From whom?”

“It doesn’t matter. And I can’t tell.” The magic phrase, I know things I can’t reveal. A refuge.

“Someone in the office, a client.”

“I can’t say.” I know things I can’t reveal: A wall of secrecy.

“Tired, dear?

“Yes.”

“Tough day.”

“Yes,” he said, “meetings, conferences with clients. The usual, only more of it.” Though true, he was lying—a small thing, and small things are forgotten by everyone. But it had been hard for him to concentrate all afternoon. He did not know what it meant. Which, all afternoon, had made him worry more.

“Me, too.”

Now, seeing his wife slipping out of her dress, her slip and bra and into her nightgown, he was excited again. Susan still had her looks, still was slimmer than most women her age though forever trying to take off those few pounds she had gained, using a bit more makeup to cover the lines around her eyes. But she got him excited. As soon as she slipped into the bed he embraced her, started caressing her in the unmistakable pattern that signaled his urgency.

“Marty, I’m really not up to that tonight. I told you I’m tired.”

“All right.” What else could he say? Sex had never been automatic for them, and, he believed, that had a lot to do with keeping their love life from becoming boring. There was still some mystery, even if that extraordinary excitement of their first year had worn itself away through use.

“She’s still up.” Jena was up, she would hear, she’s not stupid—all of that in a tiny stock phrase.

“I said all right.” He rolled and faced the wall, trying to fix his mind on sleep, but it was difficult. Eventually, he did sleep, but not well and not long enough.

In the morning she woke him by snuggling up to him. This time of the day was her favorite; morning was not his best time, though once or twice it had been pretty wonderful. His body was beginning to respond when they heard Jena in the hallway, heading for the bathroom.

“Shit,” he said.

“Yes,” Susan said, clearly disappointed, though she never used that same word.

And in a minute, “You’ve been horny a lot lately. What’s going on with you?”

“Maybe it’s male menopause.” Mid-life crisis come early. “Too many young girls on TV with tight shirts.”

“Look, I’m sorry about last night.” She sighed a little. “I was just tired. Long day and all that.”

“It’s all right. No problem. Really.” He fondled her a little until she forced his hands down.

“Tonight.” Likely a promise that would not be kept, not with their daughter in the house. Thrown out so lightly, it was something less than a promise, really, when he thought about it. It was life. Nothing could be done about it. Not until Jena left home, and that was years yet. And who knew how they would be at the end of those years.

In a little while he had eaten, gotten dressed, collected the things he needed to take into the office.

“Trash day!” he heard Susan say just before he closed the door.

“All right,” he said to the closed door.

He put everything in the car, briefcase on the seat, keys on the dash, draped his jacket across the driver’s seat. In his shirtsleeves he took a handle in each hand, took both cans out to the end of the drive. He was a symbol, he believed, of the helplessness of the American male. After all the years he could never get Susan or Jena to take the cans down to the curb. Or bring them back in, either.

“Mr. Hobson?” Karen was standing across the street, waving in that low-handed manner that both attracts and puts one into a state of caution at the same time.

“Hello.”

She walked most of the way across the street. In the morning light she looked even younger, smaller. Her eyes suggested she had been crying.

“You didn’t say anything to my Dad.”

“No, of course not. I had no reason to.”

“Somebody told. They said someone called.”

“I didn’t.” He smiled. “As I said, I didn’t have any reason.”

“Well, Dad wouldn’t say who had told on me.”

“Maybe he was just guessing.”

“Maybe.” Obviously, she was not buying that idea.

“It wasn’t me.”

“All right.”

Now she believed. Karen straightened, smiled gracelessly at him, said, “Thanks.”

“Your parents only want what’s best for you.”

“I know. But it’s not like Sam and I’ve been having sex, you know. Dad just won’t talk to Sam, won’t talk about him. He’s just closed his mind.”

There was nothing to say. She too had made up her mind, and there was no challenging that. His parents had never been like that, but he could not recall—not just this minute in the brief review he could manage—any moment when he had disappointed his parents in any similar manner. So he was left feeling a bit flat-footed, off balance.

She seemed even smaller than she had yesterday. Yesterday she had seemed so sexual; now, without makeup, her hair free and a tangled in the bit of breeze, Karen seemed far too young to be thinking so seriously about boys, about sex. He took a step toward her. He smiled, remembering yesterday, how she had walked, how she had exhibited herself. “If there’s anything I can do to help you,” he said, “you only have to ask.”

Later, hours and days after when he had thought and rethought, recalled each word and gesture the two of them had made, he saw no reason for her reaction.

“You can’t do that to me!” Her voice was nearly a scream. And she ran away just as quickly as her little feet could take her.

In that moment he began to feel adrift, unstable, slightly queasy. The feeling persisted through the morning, then faded away under the pressure of work, appointments, the details of his business life. It returned that night when Susan said, quite bluntly, “We have to talk.”

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David Alexander McFarland teaches English composition and literature at community colleges in Illinois and Iowa. His work has appeared in Mississippi Review, Stories, and Painted Bride Quarterly, and in previous issues of The Paumanok Review. He lives in Rock Island, Illinois.