Stepfather

The day C. D. Reinhart accepted a job offer in Las Vegas, he decided to ask Grace Ritchie to marry him. That Grace was older, divorced, and had a daughter, he saw as assets, not the complications she feared. The big move to Vegas might be harder for Grace than agreeing to his proposal—such a rooted Washington girl, despite issues with her mom. Then consider all the delirium of the casinos and the fleshpot buzz and neon excess of the Las Vegas Strip with all its promise of luck and excitement, that life could change in a blink, that the universe itself might after all be made up of pure chance, and who could imagine living in such a place? Still, what kind of a salesman was he if he couldn’t get her to say yes? After that, the tougher sell might be little Catherine. How would she accept being so far away from her dad? He had no idea, but he trusted he could find a way.

He believed he had been getting along well with Catherine, cautiously building a relationship, and, as Grace had noted, her excess energy did seem to settle down with him around, as if she craved male attention. For his part, he’d begun to feel an inner scrape of jealousy when Catherine called out, “Daddy! Daddy!” so excitedly on the days when her father, Frank O’Malley, a boozy deckhand from the Ballard fishing fleet, drove up in his battered truck, greasy baseball cap pulled low over his eyes, reeking of fish holds and beer. He watched Grace conferring with her ex-husband at the curb, handing over a bag packed with little Catherine’s things.

“Aren’t you worried about letting her go off with him when he’s like that? After he’s been drinking?” C. D. had asked. “I mean, does he have a problem?”

“I worry about Frank when he’s not drinking,” Grace said. “He only gets mean when he’s sober.” C. D. also gathered that, in their marriage, Frank O’Malley had indulged in a kinky side that Grace abhorred. “Sex for Frank meant slapping a porn tape into the VCR first. Boring. Let’s not talk about that, ever,” she said. “Don’t ask me why I married him. When we met, I thought I saw something in him that reminded me of my dad. Wrong,” she said with a bite that implied something deeper she wouldn’t talk about, a wound devolving all the way back to her father’s death by carbon monoxide poisoning—maybe accidental, maybe not—in the garage of his mostly one-man logging company after her mom had left him for another man. “But Frank does love Catherine,” she said. “He’ll keep it together, and clean, for her, which is all I care about now.”

Most of Catherine’s visits with her dad were hosted by Grace’s mother and her mother’s husband—her fourth. Frank drove Catherine up to their “hole in the woods” as Grace called it, with many outdoor, wholesome activities set up for her by her grandmother because Frank rarely had money enough to do much more than pay for his booze plus the upkeep on his shabby trailer near Mount Vernon, a rust-streaked double-wide that Grace swore she would never set foot in again.

After their modest wedding, they sent little Catherine off to visit her dad and grandparents while C. D. and Grace did the heavy lifting for the big move. These arrangements left Catherine even more confused—how could her real daddy not be living with Mom anymore, and her mom be living with this new man with the funny name instead, and so far away, while her Grams and Grampa kept acting like nothing had changed?

After the baffling disruption of the move to Las Vegas, Catherine grew even more concerned, straining to comprehend her new reality. In the modest new tract home they would all live in from now on, C. D. and Catherine were on their hands and knees together, busy unpacking boxes piled up in the dining room, hunting for her books to carry into her bedroom. Catherine insisted on doing this chore herself, arranging her books by the colors of their spines on her small, red bookshelf. She pulled out an oversize green picture book with a leprechaun on the cover that Frank O’Malley must have given her, and she asked, “Will Daddy come to see me here? When am I going to see Daddy?”

A tremor in her voice struck him—her voice when she was about to cry.

“Soon,” C. D. said. “You’ll see him soon. When he’s back from fishing, okay?”

From the kitchen, Grace let out a frustrated breath, loud enough she meant that he should hear it. She clattered more loudly, unpacking pots and pans. C. D. poked his head around the archway at the noise. She aimed an urgent, silent signal at him, moving her lips: We need to talk!

“Why did you say that? Part of the attraction of moving here is to get away from his raids,” she said. “Frank driving up unannounced, drunk, with some cheap stuffed animal. She won’t forget what you said, you know. . . .”

“I’ll buy him a ticket. It’ll make her happy. Poor kid.”

“Poor kid? What about me?

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