He sat quietly with his eyes closed, pinching the bridge of his nose as he mulled over the notice in his in left hand. It stirred up more anguish and stress, piling on to the trouble that had been riding his back for months. Worry lines etched along his forehead as he furrowed his brows, no alternative solutions coming to mind.
“Daddy, do I really have to stay with grandma for a while? Her house smells like old people and funky feet, and that’s not a smell I want sticking to me. I like the floral, lavender, and lemony fresh scents of our home much better.”
Shaking his head, forcing himself not to laugh, Nathaniel opened his eyes to see his five-year-old daughter, Winter, standing in front of him with a serious look on her chubby face. To his surprise, her hair was still neatly nestled into the ponytails he’d struggled with earlier that morning. They were sitting in the park; her bright idea when he announced they wouldn’t be able to spend the day at a local eatery that offered games galore for overactive children to burn out on. He wondered if she was disappointed in him.
She quickly encroached his space, stepping between and leaning against his legs with her elbows while attempting to peek at the paper he held. Nathaniel crumbled the paper in his hand before she could pick up specific words and ask more questions. She was a bit advanced, already a good reader with great comprehension skills.
Winter was highly inquisitive, what Nathaniel considered to be outright nosy. One question would spin off into a million more, and she would not stop until she got the answer she felt was closest to the truth. While he was proud of her, always enthusiastic about her love for learning and discovery, a love that had evaded him as a child; there were things he did not want her to know or think about while she was so young. He wanted her as worry-free and carefree as possible. He would protect her innocence and happiness at all costs, even if it meant hiding things from her.
She faced the playground, starting with her first question of the hour. “Daddy, what was that?”
“Nothing you need to worry about, Winnie.”
She huffed, poking her little lip out. “You always say that. I want to know what it is.”
“It’s grown up things, Winnie. Grown up things that only Daddy needs to worry about, okay.”
She stomped her feet, folding her arms across her chest. “I never get to know any grown up things.”
Nathaniel shook his head, hugging her tightly just before planting a kiss on her cheek. “I love you. And yes, you have to stay with your grandma. The way things have been between she and I, we should be very thankful she’s helping. And I want you to be and remain respectful.”
Winter nodded, sighing as she turned to face her father. “And where will you be?”
“I have a lot to take care of so I’ll be gone a lot.”
“We won’t see each other anymore? Are you leaving me there, by myself?”
The sad look that settled on her face tugged at Nathaniel’s heart. For the first time, it dawned on him that it had only been the two of them. It had been him that nurtured Winter, sacrificed and went without for her, made sure she had all that she needed and wanted. He jumped through every hoop known to man to ensure and maintain her happiness, protected her, provided relentless care and love when she was sad, sick, or hurt. “I’ll be living there too. You’ll see me every morning and every night before you go to bed, I promise.”
She smiled, nodding her head as she stood up straight. “I don’t have to share my stuff with Penelope, do I?”
“It would be very nice if you shared your toys with your cousin. What have I always told you?”
“It’s not very nice to be selfish. But she breaks people’s stuff. I’ll share everything else, but can I keep my dolls to myself, please?”
Nathaniel stared into his daughter’s eyes, seeing the faux anxiety. He was tickled by how dramatic she was acting suddenly, the way she stretched her words as she went on to explain the way her older cousin Penelope tended to ruin every single baby doll she got her hands on. Still, he kept a stern look on his face. “Be polite when saying that you don’t wish to share a specific toy, instead of jerking it away the instant you see someone else with it.”
Winter exhaled sharply, nodding as she agreed to do as her father said. “Daddy, may I wear your hat?”
“Because I like it. And I asked the correct way. And you can’t tell me no because I’m cute, like you.” He finally laughed, sending her on her way to finish playing.
Alone with his thoughts again, Nathaniel straightened out the paper and read over it once more, as if the words would have changed in his favor as he put on a front for his daughter.
It still read EVICTION. It was still a final notice.
And he still had no idea what he was going to do.
Returning home just as the sun set, Nathaniel sent Winter straight to her room to finish packing. She’d procrastinated long enough. Whether she wanted to or not, they’d be leaving out around ten p.m., making a long but necessary drive to his parents’ home.
“Can’t we just leave in the morning?”
“No, we have to meet her early in the morning so that we can get you settled in the house while she’s at work. Don’t want to go there and be locked out, do you?”
Winter stood in her bedroom doorway, her eyes darting from side to side as she tried to decide if she wanted to tell the truth. “If it meant we could come back home, I vote to be locked out.”
Nathaniel groaned, in no mood to argue back and forth with a five-year-old. “Go and finish packing, Winnie. Next time I tell you, it’ll be with a belt in my hand.”
Winter frowned, dragging her feet as she walked into her room, speaking her young mind. “Sheesh, can a kid at least try to worm her way out of things she doesn’t want. What happened to me being too cute to spank.”
“The cuteness comes and goes. Mostly when you try my patience, like you are now. Go and finish packing, and move quickly.”
Hearing her bedroom door close, Nathaniel took a deep breath.
Walking into his kitchen, he picked up the receiver of his phone. Thankful that it hadn’t been disconnected yet, he dialed out to the only number he knew by heart.
Tapping his foot as he waited, he listened as Still Water by The Four Tops played from the tiny radio that rested on his kitchen counter. Hanging up, he stood for a few seconds before picking up the receiver again. Carefully turning the rotary with his index finger, he made sure he selected the correct numbers, waiting again.
There was a long pause before his mother’s sour tone rang out, offering little to no mental comfort or relief. Without evening seeing her face, he knew that her lips were pursed and a permanent look of disappointment rested on her youthful face. He had been the constant disappointment, the difficult child. The thorn in her side, as she’d stated without a single regard to his feelings. And Maxine Deveaux never wasted a chance to make it known.
It was why, until now, he’d never bothered to pick up a phone and call his mother for anything. And this time, he’d only done so out of dire need, a last resort. “What you calling for? I don’t know how many times you need to remind me that you’re coming back.”
“It’s not because I want to, Ma. Right now, I don’t have a choice. I don’t have anyone else or anywhere else to go.” He exhaled sharply, resting the palm of his free hand on the counter next to where he stood. “You know how prideful I am, so you should know how hard this is for me. To reach out, to ask. To be forced to beg to come back. I don’t want this. But you’re all I have, Ma.”
“Could have gone to that girl. You’re not a scientific wonder or miracle. You ain’t lay down or produce that child by yourself. Why she can’t do for her own?”
Nathaniel sighed, rubbing the back of his neck as he felt tension building. “I don’t wanna talk about that right now, Ma.”
“Something needs to be said! I told you what would happen. You ain’t want to believe me. Had to go out and make a point and now look at you.”
Nathaniel rolled his eyes, choosing to remain silent. As strained as their relationship was, had always been, the one thing he would never allow himself to do was disrespect his mother. Not intentionally. Not when he needed a safe place for his child. “You can rest your nerves. I haven’t forgotten, I won’t leave you locked out. Everything is set up and ready for you and that child. There will be rules, and as long as you’re going to be here, you will follow them all. Am I understood?”
“Mm.” She grunted, shooing away her youngest son as he tried to listen in on her conversation. “And first time you mess up, you’re out the door. I won’t send Winter away, but you will be out my door. I mean it. I will not tolerate your old ways, Nathaniel.”
“I understand, Ma. Thank you. I just called to let you know that we’ll be leaving at about ten tonight. We should make it to you around six a.m.. I don’t plan on making any stops.”
“I’ll be up. Just don’t come here with a whole lot of noise. Going out my way for you, that don’t mean I’m gon’ let you disturb or inconvenience everyone else living here.”
Maxine’s voice finally softened, though she remained silent for a full minute before saying anything else. “Be careful driving late like that. If you have to stop, do so and rest. And make sure that baby eats something.” Nathaniel dropped his head, remaining silent. “Your brother will still be here if you miss me. He can let y’all in.”
“Alright. Bye Ma, see you in the morning.” Hanging up the phone, with no pleasantries, Nathaniel shook his head.
Mentally, he was scolding himself. Beating himself up for how far he allowed himself to fall when he had been so intent on living his life his own way. “It’s just temporary.”