Who Is Not My Dad?
It’s 7:26 p.m., and you know what that means.
Little Bother is upstairs in his room, ramming Matchbox cars into the furniture, each other and probably DJ, our orange tabby. Mom’s in the kitchen, washing dinner dishes. Neil’s in there, too, drying dishes. And singing.
Conditions would be perfect for me to enjoy a quiet game of Jeopardy! in the living room by myself, except for Neil’s singing. It’s not like he’s crooning softly, either, and being considerate of other people in the house. Neil’s belting out an Aretha Franklin song like he’s auditioning for American Idol. And he’s completely mangling the lyrics.
“What it is you want,” Neil practically shouts. “Baby, I got it.”
Mom’s laughter rings out over the sound of running water.
If it’s possible, Neil seems to be ramping the volume up even more. “All I’m askin’ of you, my lady,” he sings/shouts, “is just little bits of respect when you come home.”
Mom chimes in, “Just little bits.”
I can’t help but smile at the happiness in Mom’s voice.
“Hey, my lady.” Neil’s voice ruins my mood.
“Just little bits,” Mom sings.
“Whenever you get--”
“Stop!” I scream. “Jeopardy! is almost on!”
Mom skids out of the kitchen into the dining room, a dish towel draped over her shoulder and a soup ladle clutched in her left hand--the hand that used to hold her wedding ring. She grins at me like this is a big joke and sings into the ladle as though it were a microphone. “Just little bits.”
Neil stands behind her and puts his hands on her hips. “My lady!” he sings into Mom’s hair.
She looks up at him and smiles. “Little bits.”
They sway back and forth.
Yuck. “Um,” I say. “Jeopardy! is about to start. Could you please take your little show on the road?” What I don’t say is: Our house used to be nice and quiet before Neil moved in one month, three weeks and five days ago. Not that I’m counting or anything.
“Jeopardy!,” Neil says, and looks at Mom.
She nods toward the living room. Toward me!
My shoulders slump. I like it better when Neil has to work at the library until they close at nine. On those nights, it’s just me, Mom and Charlie for dinner--just like it was before he moved in. And I get to watch Jeopardy! alone.
As Neil heads my way, Mom snaps him on the butt with the kitchen towel. Thwack!
He leaps forward.
“Adorable,” I mutter. “Barfingly adorable.”
I strain to remember whether Mom and Dad ever acted that way when they were together. Maybe in the beginning when they first met, but not any time I was around to see it. The only kind of music I remember Mom and Dad making together was loud fighting.
Just then, I hear the Jeopardy! theme music, so I push Mom and Dad out of my mind and focus on the TV.
“Mind if I join you?” Neil asks, pulling up a stool and sitting beside me without waiting for my answer. He leans forward and scratches his scruffy beard, which makes him look like a college professor . . . or a homeless person.
I’m silent, hoping he’ll take the hint and go back into the kitchen with Mom. I want to say that there must be dishes that need drying, but I don’t. I want to say that maybe this time, they can sing “Over the Mountains and Far Away,” but I don’t do that either.
Dad used to request that song when I learned to play violin in fourth grade. “Jelly Bean,” he would say. “Could you please play ‘Over the Mountains and Far Away’?” It took a bit of research to learn that Dad was teasing about my screechy playing. There is no song called “Over the Mountains and Far Away”; it was Dad’s fun way of asking me to practice somewhere else.
Neil leans forward and rubs his hands together. “Ready, Olivia?”
I slide away from him, like we’re repelling ends of magnets, and I don’t answer.
Neil sighs, but stays where he is.
Maybe that should make me feel guilty, but I can’t worry about hurting Neil’s feelings right now. It’s especially important that I focus on Jeopardy! tonight. The practice might help with tomorrow’s geography test.
When I was younger and told Dad how much I wanted to be on Jeopardy!, he shook his head and said, “Oh, Olivia, you wouldn’t do well on that show. There are a ton of geography questions, and geography just isn’t your thing.” Dad was right, of course. I am lousy at geography--it’s my weakest subject--but I hope that if I study hard and get better at it, I can be on the show someday.
If I watch Jeopardy! now and hit the books later tonight, maybe I won’t completely bomb the test tomorrow.
As Alex Trebek introduces the three contestants--Jenny from Oklahoma, Jack from Nevada and Asia from Michigan--Charlie, aka Little Bother, rockets down the steps, a Matchbox car in each hand. He stops in front of the TV. “Bet you didn’t know flamingos pee on their legs on purpose to cool off.”
“Ew,” I say. “And get out.”
Charlie doesn’t move.
Neil glares at him. “Charlie Bean, we’ve talked about this. Jeopardy! is on and it’s Olivia’s special thing. You need to go somewhere else.” He leans close to Charlie’s ear and whispers loudly, “I have it on good authority your mom’s in the kitchen making brownies.” When Charlie doesn’t scoot, Neil adds, “With chocolate chips.”
Charlie tilts his head like he’s thinking about which would be more fun, eating brownies with chocolate chips or bothering me; then he zooms into the kitchen like a race car. I hear him tell Mom the flamingo fact.
It’s no surprise that Charlie got the Bean gene for collecting trivia, but unlike me and Dad, Charlie loves gross trivia. Yesterday, he shared with us that an emetomaniac is a person who always feels like throwing up.
I’m pretty sure that little gem of information will not help me on tomorrow’s geography test. I just hope I don’t get so nervous when Ms. Lucas hands out the test papers that I become an emetomaniac in front of the whole class. Right now, though, I’m grateful Charlie’s in the kitchen.
I can focus on Jeopardy!
Neil hunches forward, his bushy eyebrows furrowed.
Dad used to sit back while watching Jeopardy!, relaxed as Sunday morning. He’d answer about 90 percent of the questions, then wave his hand dismissively. “I should be on that show,” he’d say. “I could do better than those bozos. It’s easy.”
Jeopardy! is not easy; Dad’s just really smart and can hold a lot of information in his head, like when he plays blackjack and can remember which cards have already been played. I’m a lot like Dad when it comes to remembering information . . . except most geography facts.
Alex Trebek reads each category--“Elementary!, Quick Foods, Chairman of the Board, Famous Captains and ‘CAT ’-astrophes.”
A tingly shiver runs through my body.
The game is about to begin.
Copyright © 2012 by Donna Gephart. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.