By Linda S. Gunther
She watched Shark Tank on Friday nights. Phoebe’s dream was to invent a product and make $2 million in the first two years. But she had no idea what her product might be. After the first commercial break, she grabbed the trash bag and went out in the dark to toss it in the garbage can outside her white stucco cottage, feeling chilled in only a short sleeve t-shirt and Capri leggings. The temperature seemed to have plunged. Southern California weather was unpredictable. Hot sunny days often turned into bitter cold windy nights. Once she tossed the bag in the can and replaced the metal lid, she turned to rush up the steps to her front door.
“Phoebe!” a male voice called out from somewhere in the dark. “Don’t move and don’t turn around.”
She froze. Was the man armed? A week ago, on Amazon she had purchased a small device for protection, a hot pink plastic oblong thing shaped like and sized similar to a Vienna finger cookie. When you pulled the pin at the top it would supposedly make a death-defying shrieking sound that would frighten away any thief or attacker within seconds. Her closest neighbor’s house was for sale and nobody had occupied it for six months. So, she felt more vulnerable. There in the dark outside her house at the garbage can she had nothing to save her. Her yellow lab “Doozie,” her only other protection at home, was upstairs sleeping in his crate.
“I’m your father,” the voice said drawing out the ‘a’ in father or maybe she imagined him elongating the vowel. She turned her head slightly towards the sound of his voice. “Stop,” the deep voice insisted. “You don’t want to see my face.”
Was it a threat? Her body stiffened.
Or was this really her long-absent father playing some twisted game? There was only a black and white tattered photograph which her mother showed her from time to time. But as she recalled, the photo was blurry and faded.
Phoebe knew so little about her father, only that he had French parents who had emigrated to the U.S. when he was a young child and then returned to their home country years later when their only son was in his early twenties and working as a machinist in L.A. Her mom had said that he left when she was a baby and then came back once when Phoebe was three years old, staying with her mom and Phoebe for sixteen days but disappeared again without any discussion or warning. There had been no contact from him after that.
“I heard she died,” the grizzled voice said from behind Phoebe’s trash can. “I wish I’d been…” he whispered, and then quieted. She heard his long sigh. Maybe she could get away, run into the house. She pivoted to go. “Wait!” he said firmly. “I’m leaving you something on your back deck.”
Her thoughts raced. Did he know the latch was broken on her gate? Had he been watching her? She felt the twitch in her eye. Her neck ached. She was confused. Was it an imposter’s trick to get her to go inside, go out to her back deck, then force his way into her house? But then it could be him.
“You show up now?” she said. “Why hide from me?” She turned to leave and heard the garbage can crash to the pavement. Startled, she turned back in the dark to hear footsteps running away, the sound of the hard soles getting fainter and fainter. Then, an eerie quiet, only the wind whisking around the corner of her small cottage, and the clanking of the rusted latch on the back gate.
She sprinted up the stone steps to her front door, bolted inside and locked the door, her body trembling, her brain speeding down a twisty track, dizzied by what just occurred. She wanted to cry but no tears would come. Half hopeful that it might have actually been her father, half infuriated to have him pop up out of the blue after more than twenty years, she could hear the beat of her heart inside her head.
Doozie came wandering out of his dog crate. She knelt down on the crimson carpet by the foot of the tiled fireplace and lowered her head to her knees. Doozie licked her arm and nuzzled up close to her, a fuzzy woodchuck dog toy in his mouth. He wanted to play.
Did the man leave something on the deck? Phoebe grabbed a steak knife from the kitchen, turned off the TV, went to her bedroom and slowly opened the slider to the back deck. Doozie followed, the toy dangling from his mouth. Still a bundle of nerves, Phoebe switched on the deck light. She glanced around, her eyes darting everywhere wondering if he were there somewhere. The wicker settee, table and chairs were clean, no sign of a package or anything out of place or added. He had left nothing, was probably a prowler and caught in the act, so he made up some bizarre story. But he did know that her mother had passed.
Phoebe had tried for years to find her father, Georges Delacroix, starting the search when she was thirteen and then on and off well into her twenties. She never told her mother but looking back maybe she should have engaged her. It seemed her mother carried a heavy sadness about her husband’s disappearance too, although she never actually discussed that with Phoebe. It was the way her mom stared at the tattered black and white photo, her eyes moistening and then she’d quickly tuck the photo away in her jewelry box. Phoebe’s search for her father each time only led to a dead end. She’d wait a year and then try the search again. She attempted the DNA match route with two different genealogy companies, but nothing came up. Her mother had been dead for two years, the lung cancer winning out in the end. Phoebe remembered the last night with her mom in the hospital room.
“Carl…,” her mom had mumbled. “Carl.”
“Mom, what are you saying?” Phoebe moved her ear closer to her mother’s lips. The nurse stood at the foot of the hospital bed, looking away, granting them some privacy.
“Carl. Georges. Simonier.” Her mother whispered the name, her voice weak, yet her words deliberate, a pause between each part of the name. “Your father. His real name.”
Phoebe felt her mother’s fingers press into her forearm, the nails, overgrown, digging into her.
“Mom? That’s his real name? Is that what you’re saying?”
Her mom nodded.
“But it says Georges Delacroix on my birth certificate. You named me Phoebe Delacroix.”
“Had the certificate changed to Delacroix.”
Phoebe’s eyes went to the hospital room window, the blue linen curtains pleated and stiff. Her mother’s confession was like a knife to her heart, her soul. She’d been looking for the wrong man and she was named after a make-believe person.
When Phoebe looked down to ask another question, she saw her mom’s fingers open as if in slow motion. Then the thin hand fell limp hanging on the edge of the hospital bed. Her mom was gone.
Phoebe had been asking her mother the same question since she was a little girl. She’d catch her mom early in the morning in the kitchen while she made breakfast before Phoebe caught the bus to school. “Who is he, Mom? Tell me about Georges, my father,” she’d plead.
“I don’t really remember much. Our time together was so brief. We married but he left before you were born,” her mother would say, her eyes far away. She’d swiftly change the subject to schoolwork or weekend plans or something else. Phoebe felt frustrated each time but persisted. At least once a week she’d pose the question when her mother tucked her in at night.
“Can you tell me about my father?”
Her mom would shrug, for a moment get that distant look again, then kiss Phoebe’s forehead. “So many more things to worry about, Phoebe. More important things in your life.” Finally, she had stopped bringing up the topic with her mom.
Once Phoebe heard his real name from her dying mother, she googled it, even on the very night her mother passed. She found six men with the same name across the U.S. Three were listed as Carl Simonier and the other three actually with the exact full name, Carl Georges Simonier. It took her two weeks to track each one down. Four of the six turned out to be dead, with no sign of living relatives and the other two were both under twenty years of age, a letdown that put Phoebe into a deep depression. Maybe he did go back to France and there’s no hope of finding him. She couldn’t sleep at night, stayed up late on the internet trying to find more Carl Georges Simonier’s.
She stopped dating and instead switched to red wine and no longer went to the gym after work. She almost lost her job as Sr. Executive Assistant for a well-known talent agency because of missed deadlines on her top projects. Phoebe became obsessed with finding her father. Fortunately, her boss sensed her pain, having lost his own mother two years before at about the same time she did. He counseled her to get back on track, to do it fast, not place her continued employment in jeopardy. She straightened up at work and re-committed to her previous history of excellence. She got a prescription for Ambien, and finally gave up on the search for her father. What did it matter anyway?
She was twenty-five now, single, with what had been until the last few months a solid career track to talent agent, which her boss had encouraged her to aspire to longer-term. She purchased a small one-bedroom cottage in Long Beach, with a hefty mortgage. On the plus side, it was located just four blocks from the ocean where the Queen Mary, now an elegant stationary hotel and museum, majestically sat.
With her mom gone, Phoebe inherited her savings, which was $140,000 after paying all the lingering bills and medical costs. She used the money to pay off her college student loan, her VISA bill, and was able to re-finance her cottage, reducing the monthly payment. Although she slept at night with the prescribed medication, she had become almost a hermit outside of work.
It was Saturday, two days after the trash can incident. She took Doozie on the four-block walk to the Queen Mary to watch the boats go out of Long Beach for sunset dinner cruises. She let Doozie off leash at the park near the Hotel Maya. The sun was close to setting and the Queen Mary was faintly lit up. Phoebe sat on a wood bench, facing the Harbor, feeling the chill in the air on the late October evening. There was a lot of trash in the harbor waters in front of her. She didn’t understand how a cruise port and setting for a famous landmark like the Queen Mary could possibly allow such a littered harbor scene to exist. Her thoughts went to how much she missed having a date on Saturday nights but she had given up on love, although her body yearned for a sensuality. She looked up to see Doozie sniffing at something on the ground near a tree several feet away from the bench.
“Doozie,” Phoebe called out to him. “Doozie, here boy!” The dog ignored her, his golden Lab body half hidden by the tree. She stood from the bench and watched as a man wearing a baseball cap, black sweatshirt and jeans came towards her, Doozie following behind.
The man was tall, well over six feet, with a bulky build. He reminded her of Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator, his walk like a bear, yet robotic in his movements, his body muscular. He was square-jawed, his sideburns deep, strands of thick curly dark hair peeking from his cap. He wore dark sunglasses, a black leather jacket and blue jeans and black leather shoes; and seemed a throwback from a past century. As he came close, Phoebe noticed a hairline scar which ran from below one ear and arched down under the side of his chin.
“Jelly bean,” he said softly before sitting down beside her, placing a small tan backpack on the wood bench next to him. His presence felt vaguely familiar to her, like an echo from long ago. Jelly bean, he had called her. She felt jittery and stood from the bench, then bent down to hook the leash onto Doozie’s collar.
“Come on, boy.” she said.
The dog didn’t budge. She tugged on the leash. “Doozie, come, let’s go.”
“I gave him a bone,” the man said, his voice gravelly. The same voice from the trash can episode. “Real beef. Sit down, please,” he said.
Phoebe turned away.
“I’m your faaather. Do as I say.” There it was again, a Boston accent.
“What?” she said.
“He won’t go with you,” he said. “The dog wants more. We’re all like that.”
“Well, that’s just…
“The way of the world,” he said. Something in his sad voice melted her retort.
“I’m on the run,” he said in a low voice. “But I had to see you. Been in prison for over twenty years.”
An old man walked by, a huge white English Sheepdog on a leash.
Phoebe closed her eyes, disgust surfacing inside her.
“Fuck you Carl Georges Simonier.” She sat down on the bench and closed her eyes, a lump catching in her throat.
He put his head down, then shifted his shoulders and turned to face the back of the bench, hiding his face with his hand, looking away from the man with the sheepdog who had glanced at them a couple of times. But the man’s dog pulled him further along the stone path headed away towards the Queen Mary.
“You’re gonna get me in trouble,” her father said, and chuckled. “I’m a fugitive. But I’m a good man. My friends call me Carly.”
He took off his sunglasses and grinned. His eyes were ice blue and clear like her own.
“To whom do I owe thanks to seeing you again after all these years?”
“Two dumb-ass guards from the state penitentiary,” he smiled. “They were in the process of transferring me to another prison, somewhere in the desert. Good thing I got crafty friends.” He grinned.
A young couple walked by hand in hand on the path in front of them. Carly put on his sunglasses and turned away again. Once the couple passed, he reached for Phoebe’s hand. “They must be searching high and low for me. I’m edgy.”
She didn’t resist the touch of his warm hand. “I loved your mother,” he said, “my dear Sarah.”
“You look years younger than my mother was,” Phoebe said, arching her eyebrows.
“Eleven years,” he said. “Didn’t matter. We were soulmates.”
“Yeah, soulmates,” she said, her response an intended jab.
“I was a bad sort. Your mom thought I had given it up. But she found out I was still doing robberies. She hated me for it but loved me anyway. So, I went to prison for a couple of years when your mom was pregnant. Got out and visited you and your mom for a couple of weeks.
“Yes,” she said, “now I remember you calling me Jelly Bean.” She took a deep breath. “And then you left again.”
“I did another job. Something bigger than before, and went off to prison again. Didn’t tell your mom. She probably thought I ran away, left the country or something. I couldn’t face her with the truth. Been in prison this whole time.”
“Over twenty years? What did you do, kill someone?”
“It was serious alright. Life sentence without parole.”
“You did kill someone?” She felt the stab in her heart.
“No, but a well-known multi-millionaire died of heart failure during that robbery. I was blamed for his murder.”
Phoebe yanked her hand from his. Doozie rested his head on Carly’s knee.
“What do you want from me now?” she asked.
“Nothing. I’m headed out tonight on a plane to France, maybe somewhere else after that.”
“Easy come, easy go,” Phoebe blurted.
Carl picked up the backpack. “This is for you. I didn’t get to leave it that night. Thought I was being watched. But I wanted you to have it.”
“Stolen cash you want me to hold? No thanks!”
Carly shook his head.
“I don’t need or want money from you,” she said, her voice shrill and angry.
“I love you Cherie,” he said. “I know you don’t believe me. Can’t blame you.”
“Jelly bean,” he said, standing from the bench. He bent down and pecked her cheek, squeezed her knee and walked away. Doozie yanked on the leash to follow him. Phoebe stroked Doozie’s head and looked back at her father walking away. When he got to the tree at the far edge of the park she wanted to run to him. But she didn’t. Then, he was gone. Again.
She threw the backpack to the ground. The zipper was half open and an envelope slid out onto the pavement.
She picked up the backpack from the ground and unzipped it to find a stack of letters, a thin strand of red yarn loosely tied around maybe thirty or forty of them in white sealed envelopes. She picked up the envelope that had first fallen out of the pack and saw that it had been returned to the California Correctional Facility – Kern County with a rubber-stamped imprint that read ADDRESSEE UNKNOWN. The letter had been addressed to Phoebe Simonier at the address she lived at all through her childhood in Los Angeles. But her name was Phoebe Delacroix so the letter got returned. After receiving the first letter, her mother must have known that her husband hadn’t run away but was incarcerated. Unless she never saw the letters. Phoebe wondered if her mother ever visited him in prison and kept it a secret from her daughter. More questions crammed Phoebe’s head.
She sat under the dim streetlight and softly read four of his three-page letters to Doozie while the sky started to darken. The Queen Mary lit up brightly. The vintage ship in all its former glory looked as though it could depart any minute. She imagined cruisers from a previous era tossing streamers at the crowd of people seeing them off. But the cold truth was that the grand ship was washed up and had lost its ability to move even an inch.
The streetlight above the bench suddenly brightened, its glow lighting up the stack of still unopened letters sitting on the bench beside her. She thought of the words she had just read to Doozie. Words of love from her father, words that described the books he read in prison each day, how he thought of his little girl every minute of every day, how he couldn’t wait to see her again, how he held her on the sofa when she was three until she fell asleep in his arms and her mom took her out of his arms, how he had to leave for good not because he wanted to but because he had no choice. He had made a mistake but that someday he would see his Jelly Bean again. It was his promise to her.
She had searched for him to no avail, looking for the wrong man. She gathered up the rest of the unopened letters, tied the red string of yarn around them and placed the stack inside the backpack, about to zip them up in a safe place to read more of them later. Something else fell from the backpack onto the ground and landed by the streetlight. It was a strip of four black and white photos taken in one of those dime store photo booths. She picked it up and grinned at the different poses of a handsome man holding a toddler in his arms, their cheeks touching, their smiles broad. He wore a kerchief around his neck like a Frenchman, a striped cotton shirt, his sideburns long, his hair disheveled. There was Phoebe at three years old, curly-haired and blonde, her eyes ice blue like his. She sat back down on the bench in the dark and sobbed for the first time in years. Like her mom had, Phoebe still loved him.