If you pay close attention, you may notice Richard Alpert's ("off-screen") appearance in this chapter.
"Excuse me?" she sputters, angry.
"I said, 'what happened to your real dad?'"
She glares at him. Well, no, it's not a glare. Actually, her face goes completely still and emotionless, but still he knows a glare when he sees one, and that is most definitely a glare. She says, in a quiet, measured tone, "If you mean the guy who taught me to ride a bike, and took me to the ER when I broke my wrist skating, and paid for my college, then you just missed him. You might be able to find him at the gardening supply store buying topsoil. Or he'll be back before lunch."
"Yeah, that's not what I mean. You said your folks met at PT, and you said your mom didn't start that until you were old enough to leave with day care. How old was that, huh?" he demands.
Her eyes get really wide and dart to the door. She takes a step backward. He realizes he's frightening her. "I don't know," she splutters. "Two? Three? Yeah, three, I guess. It was, I, uh . . ." she stumbles over her words, nervous and frightened by the demanding stranger. "I think 1981. I was three. Yeah."
"Sorry," he murmurs. "I didn't mean to freak out on ya. I just . .. what happened to your real dad?"
"I don't see how the hell any of this is your business," she snaps.
God, no. Right. Not at all. What the hell is wrong with him? "I'm sorry. Sorry," he apologizes. "It's just. . . it's just last night at the bar? You tellin' me about how great your dad is? I mean, that's the kick in the pants I needed. Then you tell me some advice from your mom, and it's like . . ."
She scoffs. "What advice was that? Always wear moisturizer with sunscreen?"
"Only those who have truly loved can truly grieve?"
"Nuh uh." Juliet used to say something along those lines when he'd catch her mooning over her sister. It hurts my soul to miss her, but it's only because I loved her so much. Some people never have that. My grief is a reminder of that. Boy, he understands that now, yes, indeed.
"If you liked it, then you shoulda put a ring on it?"
He feels physically ill and more than a little angry. It's a lot more complicated than Alex or her advice-spewing mom could ever know, and while she's correct on the face of it, it's too late. It's too damn late and he feels angry at the world . . . He's so close to exploding and frightening her again.
But she says, "Wait. . . wait, no. No, I'm pretty sure that was Beyonce, not Mom." She looks amused at herself, and he'd like to wipe that goddamn smirk off her face. "You had your turn, now you're gonna learn," she's singsonging. Beyonce? Who the fuck? ? ? That chick from Destiny's Child? Adjusting his pop culture references to 1974 was tough because he knew more than everyone else. Now he knows less, and he hates feeling like an idiot. He simply shakes his head.
"Look, pal, I could keep going. Mom's got a ton of 'em. It doesn't matter who you were, it only matters who you are? Don't sleep with wet hair? If you have everything you want by the time you're thirty, then you didn't want the right things? Keep an extra pair of sunglasses in the car? Always appreciate . . ."
He cuts her off, he don't wanna listen to her mom's advice for freaking ever. "No. You said, 'Nothing's unforgivable. Some things just require a lot more penitence than others.' And that's true. I need to start earning penitence now. I'm on the road to go meet my daughter, and that's gonna require more penitence than you can even imagine. But I'm gonna do it. 'Cause I need to and 'cause you think it's so important to have a good relationship with your dad. Because, oh, you have the greatest dad ever. Or so you tell me. Now I find out you didn't even know that dude till you were three? ? ? That dude's not even your real dad?"
He's accusing her, but he wants her to understand. "Maybe the real reason you think I should go there is that your real dad is some kinda deadbeat asshole, and you're sending me into the lion's den just 'cause you wanna get back at him. So, come on. I'm tryin' to do the right thing here. I really am. I wanna do what's right for my girl. What if she's got some kinda perfect stepdad like you do?" (She don't, he got enough detail from Kate to know that, but if he needs a hypothetical excuse to get out of this, that would be a good one.) "What if I'm just gonna ruin everything? Help me out here. I mean, what's the story with your real dad? What would you do if he just walked through that door right now?"
She takes a step closer toward him, the counter and cash register still between them. He can see the debate in her eyes: whether to answer him, how to answer him, how much to share. "Guess I'd start preparing for the zombie apocalypse," is what she lands on. "He's dead."
"Oh, shit. Sorry." He means it. He knows what that's like, losing a parent (losing both parents). All the "comfort" people dole out, as though their lame words and casseroles brought over in their best dishes will make any bit of difference – ever. You ain't never gonna see your dad (or mom) ever again. Forget how it happened, or what he saw and heard when it happened, at the time, he mostly just couldn't fathom that one fact: Never gonna see his mom or dad again.
Alex, though, must not have the same hang-ups. "It's OK," she offers. "I never knew him. He died before I was born."
"Oh," he acknowledges. Wonders if that would've been better for him? Whether it would be better for Clem? Then, "He die in that same accident your mom was in?"
"No, no. He was in the CIA. He was on some secret mission to Laos. He died over there."
James snorts a laugh. "Seriously? Secret agent mission to Laos? That what your momma told you? Really?"
"Yeah? Why?" she challenges.
"All right, now I don't mean to insult no one, but, I mean, come on. Doncha think it's more likely your real dad is, I dunno, the married mayor who your momma was havin' an affair with? Or some one-night stand whose name she don't even remember?"
Anger clouds her face. Her eyes narrow, and the rest of her features sharpen, her eyebrows drawn into a point over the bridge of her nose, forehead wrinkling right there. He's bigger than she is, but he's glad for the safety the counter barrier provides.
"Get out," she spits. "Get the hell out. You have your books. Go meet your daughter. Or don't. Just get out of here, and leave me alone. My dad'll be back soon. He may be old, but he'll kick your ass. I promise you that."
Thing is, James'd probably let him. A good ass-kicking can be a relief when you feel you deserve it. He's spent most of his life feeling he deserves it, even if not for too-intrusive questions to a bartender/shop girl/PhD/wanna-be novelist. What he could use a beating for is any number of things that lead to Juliet getting sucked down that hole. It'd be a proxy beating, since Alex's dad probably couldn't give two shits about that.
Proxy beating or no, James thinks maybe he should stick around for it. He thinks that even though Alex's dad is up about thirty years and down one leg, he had the look of the kinda fella you don't mess with. But he also remembers Miles' words about Pierre: I don't get why she had to be so hard on him all those years. Never told me one good thing about him. Nothing.
So he decides to explain rather than flee or wait for a beating. He holds up his hands and backs away a few steps. "I apologize. That was wrong for me to say that. But, listen. I told you what I did, right? Spent a better part of a year conning this gal, skeedaddled with her life savings, left her pregnant. Wanna know what she told our daughter?"
Alex stares. A stare he somehow realizes is a 'yes.' So he says, "She told her what I just told you. All of it. And I realize that I deserve that. I do. But Clementine? That's the little girl. Well, how do you think she feels knowing that her dad, half of who she is, is a good-for-nothing bastard? Can you imagine growing up like that?"
Alex shakes her head no.
"That's right. 'Cause even if the truth was too painful or sordid or who even knows what, least your momma had the decency to protect you from it. Spin out some fancy tale of a secret agent. Come on, that's gotta make you feel good, right? Good for your mom to put you first, and not her hurt feelings or whatnot."
She's no longer glaring.
He keeps on. "But secret agent spy man? James Bond? Really?" Then he ventures, "You still believe it?"
She sighs. "All right, fine. Truth is, well, the truth . . . you know, when I was like 13 or 14, I remember thinking it all seemed too good to be true. I remember asking Mom all sorts of questions, like trying to catch her in a lie or something. But, luckily enough, that was right around the time the CIA declassified a lot of his mission info. We had this man from the CIA to the house. He brought my father's intelligence star, mission reports, all sorts of official stuff. So, sorry to disappoint you, but turns out it's true."
"Huh. Well, then, good. That's good. You'll have to pardon me. I get real cynical about lotsa things."
"You don't say," she smirks at him again. It's more endearing this time than it was not even five minutes ago.
"What if things'd been different?" he asks her, wondering again if he's doing the right thing by showing up in Clementine's life out of the blue. Thinking again about Miles. "What if you had known him?"
"Yeah." He needs to call Miles. It was wrong to drop out of his life like that, and James needs to find out the story with his dad, what made it all change, what he got to see of his parents before everything imploded (literally? Or exploded? Or what the hell happened to them all?). He's thinking of Miles when he asks Alex, "Yeah. What if there was some kind of magical mystery place? Like a magic island and you could go back in time and, you know, meet your dad. Like even before you were born?"
It looks like she's holding in a laugh. She points to the corner of the store. "Sci-fi's over there. Not really my thing."
He won't give in easily. "But what if? What if you could change things? What if you could meet him?"
He's surprised to see her actually consider the question, her eyes focused on the middle distance.
"I don't think I'd want to," she says finally.
He's done asking her pushy and insensitive questions. He won't ask why. He's also going to quit applying her life to his. She isn't Clementine, and it's a whole different situation. He needs to get on the road.
To his astonishment, though, she explains, "The thing is, I have a really great life, you know? I'm not sure I'd want to mess with that. Besides, my biological father? Mom used to tell me all sorts of stories about him. Even now, every so often, I'll do something she says reminds her of him. In my mind, from the stories I've heard? He's this big, handsome, funny, brave, charming guy. All that, plus he never grounded me for running up the phone bill. He never yelled at me trying to teach me to drive a stick shift. Never embarrassed me in front of a date. He's this myth in my mind, and he's perfect."
She smiles at him. She has a dimple on her left check he hadn't noticed before. Her answer makes sense. James nods.
Turns out, though, Alex isn't done. "Then there's my dad. The guy who raised me. He's a big, handsome, funny, brave, charming guy, too. And he did ground me for running up the phone bill and embarrassed me in front of dates. And teaching me to drive stick?" she shakes her head in mock disgust. "Well, eventually he gave up and let Mom teach me. We've butted heads, and he's not perfect. No one who's real is. But I've got both: my 'real' father who is a perfect, wonderful myth and my dad who may not be perfect, but who's real and always been there for me. He never once treated me any different from my little sister, and she's his 'real' daughter."
She stops abruptly, as if she had more to tell, but has thought better of it. Or she has a slightly different answer.
"Jess," she says. "My sister." James isn't following. Alex continues, "No. I wouldn't want things to be any different. 'Cause if they were? If my father had lived? Then no Jess. And she's more than my sister. She's my best friend. I can't imagine life without her. I mean, I'd do anything for her." She looks to him, gauging his reaction. "Do you have a brother? A sister? You probably think I'm exaggerating."
"Naw, I don't think you're exaggerating." He looks at the floor.
She's prattling on about her sister. "You'd think I'd hate her. Trust me, she's the most gorgeous person ever."
"Doubt that," James mumbles. Besides, isn't like this Alex ain't a looker herself. He might have less than zero interest, but she's a nice looking gal. More important, all this talk about sisters and lost fathers has him very clear on what's important. He'll go meet Clem. He'll do that, but after, he'll go to Miami and meet Rachel too. He will. And he'll get back in touch with Miles, give him a chance to talk about his dad. "Hey," he says to Alex. "I better head on out, but I just wanted to say sorry. Sorry for bein' so weird. And thanks. Thanks for takin' the time to talk to me. I . . ." In one conversation, she's managed to get his head screwed on straight. Managed to remind him what's important: his daughter, his best friend, Juliet's sister . . .
The shop phone rings before he can wrap up his closing remarks. "Books on Bay Street," Alex answers. "Buy, sell, and trade. This is Alex. How can I help you? … Oh, hi!"
He picks up his books and waves his goodbye.
"Hold on just a minute," Alex says to the customer on the phone. She tucks the receiver against her neck and shoulder. "Good luck. I know you're worried, but it'll go fine. I know it will." She reaches out a hand, and he takes it in his own to give it a shake.
There's a million reasons why she's wrong. A million reasons things won't go fine. Hardly any reasons she's right. But he believes her. It surprises him it's taken him this long to figure out, but he realizes it's probably because of her voice. Calm but steely. Wonders where she picked that up. Always thought Jules got it from med school or if not that, Others 101. Where a bartender-slash-book girl would pick it up is beyond him.
"Thanks again," he says. "I appreciate it. And don't worry 'bout me. I ain't gonna come back stalkin' ya or nothin'. I'll be out of the state by lunchtime." He pumps her hand once more for good measure, tucks his books under his arm and heads for the exit.
He hears Alex return to the phone. "OK. Sorry about that, Mom. What? . . . Oh, no one. Just a customer I helped out. . . . No, really. . .So, listen, Dad stopped by earlier. He wants to surprise you for your birthday, but why don't you just tell me what you want, I'll tell him, then you act surprised when you get it, OK?"
James grins despite himself. He turns back once more at the door. He waves bye to Alex and pushes out of the store. He blinks in the bright sunshine. Because his eyes haven't adjusted, he runs smack dab into a man he eventually recognizes as Alex's dad, returning to the shop. Guy's pretty solid. Maybe a good thing James talked his way out of that beating. "'Scuse me," he apologizes to the older man.
After his ridiculous, more-than-a-little-threatening performance with Alex earlier, Jame figures the very least he owes her is a few minutes to work out birthday surprises with her mom. His brain runs through about a thousand things he can say to this guy to waylay him for a bit, but what comes out of his mouth is simply, "Thanks."
"You're welcome," Alex's dad answers reflexively. Then, "Uhm . . . for what?"
Yeah, for what? Exactly. What's this dude ever done for him? What made him thank him so instinctively? "Uh, for, uh, for your service. Your, uh . . . your daughter told me about 'Nam."
The older man nods impassively. Shit. Maybe he don't like talking about it. James tries to cover. "My Uncle Doug fought over there. Pretty sure it was the Agent Orange that caught up with him in the end. Anyway, just glad to see things seemed to work out OK for you."
Alex's dad nods and smile slightly. He looks over James' shoulder into the bookstore. James is running out of time. He hopes Alex and her mom got the whole birthday thing worked out. Alex's dad smiles bigger then. "Appreciate you saying it. Lucky for me, turns out you don't need both legs to live a good life."
Really? 'Cause I got both legs and my life is shit. "How so?" James can't help but ask.
"You married?" the older man asks. He rubs the back of his right shoulder with his left hand. His wedding band catches the sun. James feels himself falling into a black hole of despair. He can't find his voice, simply shakes his head. "Have kids?" Alex's dad asks.
"I got a daughter," James manages.
"Then you know what I mean." As if it could ever be so simple. "Thanks for visiting us," he says politely, essentially dismissing James.
"You bet," he answers. Maybe it is that simple. Maybe that is what he needs to pull himself up. He needs his daughter.
No turning back now. He dumps his books in the front passenger seat, settles himself in the driver's seat, and heads for Albuquerque.
A year and a half of penitence later, and he wishes he could see Alex's dad again. This is what he has to thank him for, James thinks, smiling at Clementine. He stole this idea from him.
He opens her car door and helps her out of the back seat. He offers his forearm.
"This is the best night ever, Daddy," she whispers to him. Even if it's not be his best night ever, it's surely in the top three, and far and away the best night he's had since he's been back. He has nightmares still and bleak periods of despair. But less and less these days. It's his daughter he has to thank for that, he thinks. Things are getting better, and he even has a real date next week. Probably won't be as good as the one he's on now, though.
He takes Clementine's little hand in his and escorts her into the father-daughter dance.