By Scott Laughlin
Packer flipped the glove box, removed his flask, and watched the fog finger the gray streets descending from Twin Peaks. The burnt caramel coated the barrel of his mouth; he usually couldn’t afford Bourbon this good, but he’d splurged. He tipped the flask again, returned it to the glove box, tucked a mint in his gum like a chew, and walked into his daughter’s school.
Posters inside made by children urged water conservation. Packer stopped before a painting of a girl kneeling, her hand reaching toward a faucet, a drop of water lengthening off the rim to match a tear on the girl’s cheek. “Save San Francisco’s Water,” it said. The drought was the worst in California’s history. Wildfires flared around San Francisco, in the Central Valley, down in Southern California, and he wondered where people went when they lost their homes. Each kid was making a poster, and tonight he and Ellie planned to make hers, a project he knew she was looking forward to all week.
He entered the yard and saw Ellie crying. Marta, the after-school coordinator, was bent before her, and when Ellie saw Packer, the crying came harder, her body shaking, and she ran to him. He took her in his arms, her howling filling his ear. He let her cry, and Marta stepped back.
“Daddy?” Ellie said. “Amelia and I were playing, and a boy, you remember Joshua?”
“Yes,” Packer said.
Ellie had told him about this boy. He threw a ball at her two weeks ago, hitting her on the back of the head and knocking her to the cement.
“He came over when we were playing,” she said, “and he threw Amelia against the wall and started choking her. Yeah, Daddy, he choked her.” Packer returned Ellie to the ground and met her at eye level. He stroked her long, thick brown hair. “And then he came over and pulled down my pants, my underwear and everything. He pantsed me, Daddy, and his friend was watching, and they were laughing.”
Packer hugged her again, looked into her almond eyes, and said, “Oh, honey, I’m so sorry,” and he stroked her hair again.
He then rose to meet Marta, who said, “She seems all right.”
She was a young woman with black hair pulled so tight that it cut a white scar down the center of her skull. Cursive script crept up her neck from under a pink sweater.
“All right isn’t what she is,” Packer said.
He’d had trouble with Marta. Public school ended at two in the afternoon, so many working parents put their kids in the afterschool program, which was poorly run, a kind of glorified daycare. Once he’d complained when he came to pick up Ellie and found the kids watching cartoons for the third time. Marta defended the choice because it was a cartoon based on a book they’d read, and they’d almost argued in front of the kids.
Packer suspected what she thought of him, that he was just another rich gringo complaining, another gringo thinking he owned the world. But Packer wasn’t one of those gringos. He didn’t work in tech, like so many people moving into Noe Valley, his neighborhood in San Francisco, and he wasn’t the one contributing to rising housing prices and rents. He was just a registrar at a high school and lucky enough to find a basement apartment after getting separated from Ellie’s mother.
“It’s unclear what happened in this situation,” Marta said.
“It seems very clear what happened,” Packer said, his voice deep and harsh.
Ellie was behind him now, her arms around his waist.
“I understand why you’re upset,” Marta said, “but Joshua’s mother was here and said there would be severe consequences at home.”
“At home? What about the consequences here?”
“The boys said the girls were teasing them,” Marta said.
“We weren’t teasing them, Daddy,” Ellis said. “I swear, Joshua’s just saying that.”
“Hold one second, honey,” Packer said.
“See, so it’s ‘he-said, she-said.’ We really don’t know,” Marta said.
Her left eye began to twitch. Packer’s ex-wife Morgan’s eye also twitched when she was angry. In the months leading up to the divorce, whenever Packer saw her, especially when they were in a room with the lawyers Morgan assembled—she was a lawyer and made three times what he made—Packer took secret satisfaction in watching her eye twitch.
“I don’t care if the girls called the boys the worst name you can imagine,” Packer said to Marta, his voice louder than expected, the Bourbon spiking his blood. “I don’t care if the girls called them pansy-ass pussies, there’s no reason for boys to choke a girl and then take down her pants. Now what the hell are you going to do about it?”
A group of boys playing basketball had now stopped and were watching.
“Now you listen,” she said, but something flashed across her face, as if she suddenly remembered a missed appointment. She swallowed and stepped back. “You are out of line, Mr. Packer. You can’t yell at me like this. You can’t talk to me like this.”
Ellie hugged him tightly from behind.
He put his finger up to Marta’s face and was about to say something. Instead, he took Ellie’s hand and walked off the playground.
Packer got the bag of pens, paint, and poster board he’d bought for the project out of the car and carried them downstairs to his apartment. He put on the living room light, though it was still light outside, passed two unpacked boxes, and dumped the supplies on the table in the kitchen alcove where he and Ellie ate.
Ellie ran to the table and took up a pencil and began tracing her idea. She wanted to make an underwater world full of life. People would be frolicking and dancing, and in the distance, there would be clouds to show more water on the way.
As she sketched at the table, Packer took down a bottle of whiskey, halfway filled the glass, drank it, then refilled it again, and plopped two ice cubes inside. He told himself he wouldn’t drink but for that nip in the car, but the situation with Ellie gave him an excuse to break the negotiation he’d set up. He was often breaking his negotiations with alcohol, even when he had Ellie, which was fifty percent custody, although he didn’t want her to see him drinking, for her to see a strong father instead of a drunk.
“You okay, honey?”
“What do you mean,” she said. “Can I have a piece of gum?”
“Yes,” he said. “I mean, back there. In the yard.”
“Yeah,” she said and colored. “I guess so.”
“That boy and no boy should ever touch you in a way you don’t want. We will deal with this, I promise.”
“Okay” she said, but Packer felt like a failure. He wondered what he could say to make it right. And would this settle into her psyche as she grew older?
An hour later, Packer had finished the bottle of whiskey and drunk half a bottle of wine. Flour and milk covered the counter, and garlic bread burned in the oven.
“Shit,” he said and took out the black toast, smoke filling the close air in the kitchen.
He felt Ellie’s eyes on him, and he smiled at her, aware enough to know he must have looked crooked with drink.
“Don’t worry about that,” he said. “Let’s set the table.”
Ellie’s poster lay almost finished on the table, and around it were many colors of paint cans and paint brushes and pastel crayons. Packer came to the table to move some of the paints to make room for dinner, but he knocked a red paint can over, sending a violent splash of red over Ellie’s poster.
“Shit,” he said.
Ellie looked up; her eyes glazed with tears. Packer hustled to get paper towels to mop up the mess and try to salvage the poster, and when he turned back, Ellie was gone, the door to her room silently closing.
Packer stopped drinking after he spilled the paint, but there was enough in his system that it didn’t matter. He mopped the red mess, and finally went into Ellie’s room.
“Will you come have some dinner?” he said, concentrating so as not to slur.
She was sitting cross-legged and reading a book.
“Okay,” she said.
They went to the table and ate quietly.
“I promise we’ll spend the whole day this Saturday making another one. I’m with you this weekend. You don’t have to show it to everyone until Monday, right?”
“Yeah, Monday,” she said into her bowl.
“We can even get more supplies.”
“But I really liked that one,” Ellie whispered. “I was proud of it.”
“I know, honey. I’m so sorry, but maybe your next one will be even better.”
“Okay,” she said, but the hideous feeling she would never forgive him, that she would remember this forever, spread inside him.
After putting Ellie to bed, he took his computer to the couch to email Morgan about what happened to Ellie at school. He wrote, but the perennial anger he harbored toward Morgan cut a shadow around his words. She lived in their old house, which was ten minutes away in The Mission, and it was worth about two-hundred thousand dollars more than when he’d signed the divorce papers, and it was going up every day. Packer looked around his sorry apartment, at the tattered couch he’d had to buy, at the ugly green wall, and he thought about everything she’d gotten, and all he’d lost, since separating.
After he sent the email, he cleaned the dishes, then got a cigarette from the pack next to his bed and hiked the steps to the sidewalk. He smoked and listened to the cool San Francisco wind rattle the leaves above.
When he was almost finished, a Lexus pulled up, and Morgan got out. Packer tossed his cigarette in the bushes.
“Smoking again I see?” she said as she approached.
“It was only one,” he said.
“I assume Ellie doesn’t see you,” she said.
The streetlight cast a circle around them, and Packer could see her stomach in the contour of her green cashmere sweater. She’d gained weight since the separation, and her face was now outlined by a line of flesh around her jaw, physical changes that made Packer feel superior, as if some higher power had visited this revenge on her in his name–but he also knew the meanness of that feeling.
“I want to see her,” she said.
“She’s asleep. You could’ve texted.”
“She texted me. Said you’d ruined her project. She was sad.”
“She texted you? I can’t believe you got her that phone.”
Morgan raised her eyebrows to dismiss Packer’s objection. Throughout the marriage, many of his thoughts, feelings, and opinions had been rejected with this gesture. After they split, Packer wondered why he’d let himself disappear so completely underneath her will, how much he’d allowed her to dominate him. There were deeper reasons he could guess at, but she had all the money and therefore more of the power.
“Did she ask you to come?”
“Then you should go. You can’t come here on my custodial day and wake her up, demanding to see her.”
“You’re drunk,” she said.
Packer saw flecks of red wine stains on Morgan’s lips. Many nights she’d had those stains. She always invited people over to the house to drink wine and eat dinner, and there’d been a constant stream of people coming through the house. Toward the end, she’d started drinking more, then had an affair. After Packer found out and left her, Morgan came at him with a cadre of lawyers.
“Looks like you’ve been drinking, too,” he said.
“We know each other so well,” she said sarcastically.
They stood awkwardly, as if waiting for a bus to pull up, and then Morgan said, “You know, you ruined my life.” She stepped back and pulled at her green sweater.
“I ruined your life?” he said. “You cheat on me, then say I ruined your life? What about the house? What about what you did?”
“You drove me to that, and don’t forget I pay you support,” she said. “I shouldn’t even be paying you that, and I should have Ellie more time.”
“Get the fuck off my doorstep.”
She moved for the steps behind him, but Packer caught her by the arm and squeezed as hard as he could.
“Don’t you dare,” he hissed.
“I want to see my daughter,” she shouted. “Get off me! You’re hurting me!”
A dog barked in the distance, and a light went on across the street. He stared at her, and her eye twitched, and in that look of hers, he understood if he went further, she’d claim he was violent and take him down. He released her arm.
“You’ve crossed a line,” he said.
“So have you,” she said and turned into the rustling night.
The next day at work, Packer received a call from Ellie’s teacher.
“Mr. Packer,” she said, “Ellie had an accident.”
The mundane world of his office, of his files, the progress reports sitting in a stack on his desk, the picture of Packer and Ellie together at the Monterey Bay Aquarium… all of it spun into an orb he couldn’t contain.
“An accident?” he repeated.
“Yes, oh I’m sorry. Ellie was in line and peed her pants. I thought because of recent events, you should know.”
The idea of an “accident” as a term applied to children wetting themselves suddenly gained meaning for him, and the office returned to its petty little place.
“How do you know what happened yesterday?” Packer asked. The afterschool program was too inept to communicate what happened with Ellie that quickly, or at all.
“Your ex-wife sent an email to the head of school and cc’d me and some other teachers,” she said, “but I’m calling you because I know it’s your day with Ellie, and she should probably go home. She’s a little embarrassed and doesn’t have other pants.”
“I’m coming,” he said.
Packer drove furiously to Ellie’s school, the nasty edge of last night’s alcohol clamped in his stomach. Morgan had sent an email but hadn’t included him. He rolled through a stop sign, and when a car honked, Packer honked harder and longer, and then he banged his fists on the steering wheel until the sides of his hands were red.
He parked, leaving one tire on the sidewalk, and entered the school. As he passed the head of school’s office, Packer glanced inside to see Marta. The outer office door blocked the rest of his view, but he could see Amelia’s mother and another woman inside. Though he’d never met her, he knew it was Joshua’s mother. And then he saw Morgan. She’d called this meeting without him.
He paced the hallway, past a long, draping poster that read in blocky blue letters, ¡Salve El Agua! He turned beneath it, sweat high on his forehead, and he quickly checked his phone to make sure he hadn’t missed an email, and when he scrolled and found nothing in his inbox, he barreled toward the office and banged the door open.
The throng turned. Packer saw the shadow of a smile pass over Morgan’s lips. Mr. Webb, the head of school, rose and extended his hand, but Packer didn’t accept it.
“The fuck is going on here?” Packer said to no one in particular.
“Mr., please calm down for a moment,”,” Mr. Webb said and reached toward a button under his desk. The eyes of the women regarded Packer with fear, all but the eyes of Morgan, which were cast to the floor.
“Ellie pissed her pants,” Packer said. “You all talking about that?”
“She what?” Morgan said, looking up.
“Are you Joshua’s mother?” Packer asked, turning to the thin woman he didn’t know.
“I don’t feel like–” she said. “It’s inappropriate to use his name.”
“Inappropriate to use his name?” Packer said.
“Yes,” Mr. Webb said, “there are legal—”
“Is this what you do, Morgan, organize a meeting behind my back, cut me out when I was the one who was there?”
“You weren’t there,” she said.
“Yes, he didn’t see it. No one did,” Marta said.
“You shut the fuck up,” Packer said.
Marta rose and said, “I’m sick of you and your shit. You just yell and say ‘fuck’ all the time in my face. You threaten me.”
Her eye was twitching, and Packer remembered Morgan’s eye twitching after he grabbed her on the stairs, and he raised his fist above Marta, then slammed it into the wall, sending his fist through the drywall more easily than he expected. A spume of white dust billowed into the air and bits of paint and white particles scattered across the floor and onto the head of school’s desk.
“My gosh,” Mr. Webb said.
He turned to Morgan, but somewhere in the haze of his anger, he understood he’d done something very wrong, that he’d gone too far, and that he might not find his way back unless he stopped now or unleashed his fury even more.
“Did he almost hit me?” Marta said.
A school guard was now in the room and within seconds had Packer’s cheek pushed against the desk, his arm twisted around his back. In a deft motion, the guard brought Packer up and lifted him through the door.
Outside in the hall, a teacher was leading Ellie down the stairs as Packer was being led out. He could see a dark, wet spot on her pink leggings.
“Daddy?” she said. “What are you doing?”
“It’s okay, honey,” he called. “Everything will be fine.”
But the doors had closed behind him.
Packer sat in his car outside Ellie’s school. His window was open, so he could hear the Drought Assembly happening inside. He’d been charged with destruction of property and had written a formal letter of apology, but until the case was settled with the district, he wasn’t allowed on school property.
Ellie was presenting her poster, which they’d made again that Saturday, and Morgan was inside, watching, which rankled him. He looked at the glove box, which held the flask with the good Bourbon inside, and he wanted it.
He flipped the glove box and stared at the flask. Applause erupted from inside the school, and Packer hoped they were cheering for Ellie.
Scott Laughlin’s work has appeared in Guernica, Post Road, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Common, Green Mountains Review, and other publications. Recipient of a Gulbenkian Grant, Scott has an MFA from Converse College and is Associate Director of the DISQUIET Literary Program in Lisbon, Portugal. He currently teaches English at San Francisco University High School.