by Garrett Socol
Exactly two days after her twelfth birthday, Shawna Deardorf’s exceedingly tall father hung himself in the guest bathroom of the family’s two-story, five-bedroom house. Because of his height, it was perplexing to the police how he managed to accomplish this in such a small space. The conclusion was that he must’ve bent his legs or touched his chest with his knees as he inhaled his final breath.
The day before, Charley Deardorf spoke to his daughter as if she were an adult. “When you meet someone and fall in love, don’t let him go, no matter what the circumstance.” They were strolling through their postcard-perfect New England neighborhood on a cloudy August afternoon. Charley seemed content, happy even; he cherished the time he spent with his only child, and Shawna felt comfortable asking him questions that she wouldn’t dare ask her mother.
“What if the person I love is mean to me?”
“That’s a cue that you should stop loving him.”
“What if he wants me to join a religious cult?”
“Your answer would be an emphatic no.”
“What if he wants us both to join the circus?”
“You’d have to think long and hard about a life of snake charming, stilt walking and flying trapezes, not to mention heaps of elephant dung.”
When Shawna learned of her father’s suicide, she could barely move, and when she did, it was in slow motion. All that was good in her life had been connected to her father. Every holiday memory, every weekend getaway, every word of encouragement came from him. Her mother Claire, fair-skinned and freckled like Shawna, wasn’t quite as devoted to the family patriarch. “Your father was troubled,” she said. “A troubled man. He had problems.”
“Do you mean his moods?”
“That was part of it. Those gray periods grabbed him by the throat like the Boston
Strangler. I had a feeling it would end this way, though not in the guest bathroom.”
“Where did you think it would end?”
“The master bedroom. Charles loved that room with all those framed diplomas and art deco furniture. There was nothing he enjoyed more than lounging in bed with a good spy novel and a bottle of Courvoisier. If he’d been able to, he would have stayed in that room all day. Instead, he died down the hall at dusk.”
The afternoon of the funeral was an uncommonly cool and windy one for late
summer. Mourners held onto their scarves, sweaters and jackets. Shawna recognized
everyone in attendance except a stylish woman in a camel hair coat and black felt fedora. “Who’s that pretty lady in the man’s hat?” Shawna whispered to her mother.
“I haven’t the foggiest.”
There was something hypnotic about this dark-eyed stranger. Shawna was dying to ask her how she knew her father and why she was wearing that hat, but when the fedora flew off her head, she scurried to retrieve it and then summarily disappeared.
The day after the funeral, Claire began sorting through her late husband’s clothing. Aghast, Shawna asked, “He’s only been dead a few days and you’re cleaning out his closet? How can you be so insensitive?”
“Charities need clothing, and your father had excellent taste. He owned dozens of designer suits.”
“I’m sure some homeless guy will look great in them.”
“He’ll be the toast of Skid Row.”
The days passed slowly. Shawna’s life continued, but nothing was as joyful as it would’ve been if her father had been there to share it. On several occasions, Shawna thought she spotted the mysterious woman in the fedora, but she was always mistaken. She continued to wonder what her father felt for this stranger in the felt hat.
When Shawna was a junior in college, she met a sophomore named Jonathan Lamp and fell obsessively in love. Like her father, he was extremely tall and lanky, but unlike her father, Jonathan Lamp had a tremendous zest for living. Shawna fell for his substantial intellect, dedication to learning and insatiable libido. With psychology his major, Jonathan was constantly analyzing situations, making judgments and drawing
conclusions. Shawna, a neuroscience major, viewed life from a different but complementary strategy. She could clearly understand the intensity of their feelings;
their profound bliss was a result of the dopamine bursting from their nucleus accumbens.
After four idyllic months, Jonathan grew distant, preoccupied. In the middle of
a mediocre Mexican dinner at Pappasito’s Cantina (the chicken was rubbery and the chimichangas too cheesy), Jonathan worked up the courage to admit he fell for a political science major named Tallulah Light. “She’s Light and I’m Lamp,” he explained. “We have electricity.”
“But you’re destined for a blackout,” Shawna warned. “A power outage of major proportion.”
“Don’t be dramatic.”
“It’s me you love, Jonathan, and I love you!”
“Do you love me or the idea of me? I think you love the idea.”
“No. I love the person, not the idea. If it were my idea, you’d be two inches
shorter and less analytical!” she shouted.
“Please keep your voice down.” He hovered forward, over the table, acutely aware of the neighboring diners. An orange-haired grandmother in glasses with rhinestone-encrusted frames eyed the couple with disdain. A middle-aged man with an extra chin and a comb-over gawked. A debutante with pasty skin and crooked teeth smiled in a commiserating way that suggested she was glad to be witnessing someone else’s misery.
“I’m sure you’ll meet another great guy. You’re a dynamic girl with all that red hair.” Her thick mane was occasionally unmanageable, and Shawna wondered if that was the underlying reason for the breakup: hair upheaval. “What kind of hair does this Light girl have?”
“Dark,” he said. “Shoulder length. Soft and silky like a dog’s coat after a bath.”
“I love a dog’s coat after a bath,” Shawna mumbled.
“Chin up, sweetheart,” he said. Those were Jonathan’s parting words. He lay two twenties on the table then stood up and walked out.
The next few days were spent sobbing, sniveling and sipping various concoctions made with cranberry juice, ice cream and Courvoisier. Shawna called her mother for emotional support.
“There are plenty of fish in the sea, dear. But there are very few you can count on to swim home to you every night.”
“So you think I should try to win him back?”
“I don’t give advice on the subject. After all, my husband chose death over me.”
Almost a full week into her abandonment, Shawna briefly considered killing Tallulah Light. But after careful consideration she concluded that she couldn’t pull it off without being caught. She devised another plan.
It was easy enough to locate the homewrecker; she was one of the most active students in the political science department. Shawna studied Tallulah Light from afar, her sea green eyes, tomato red lips, bronzed olive skin, sable brown hair that bounced like quivering Jell-O. And she always dressed in blue – – baby blue, cobalt blue, cornflower, royal, cerulean, steel, teal, midnight, Tiffany, turquoise, Yale.
Like a warrior heading into battle, Shawna marched six blocks to Hair & Now under a sky swirling with dark, ominous clouds. A light drizzle turned into a deluge as the male stylist worked on her with intense concentration. Two hours later, the rain had subsided and Shawna left the salon. She purchased a tomato red lipstick, then she picked up a pair of contact lenses that changed her eye color from light brown to sea green. Following that, she headed to a tanning salon and bought ten sessions. She finished the day by shopping for a new wardrobe, every article of clothing cornflower blue.
She decided the right time to reveal herself to Jonathan was immediately after his Friday morning class in schizoaffective disorders. In her double-breasted cornflower blue jacket with its crisp white collar, she leaned against the beige wall in the hallway. When the class ended, the students dispersed and Jonathan quickly trotted down the corridor.
Shawna scurried to catch up to him. “Jonathan!”
Jonathan stopped trotting. Dumbfounded, he stared at her as if she were an apparition. “Wow,” he mumbled. “You look so different. Your clothes, your hair.”
“Yes, I made a few changes. Do you like the new me?”
“I do,” he said. “Very much.”
“Thanks,” Shawna responded. Then she strolled away with confidence, feeling his
eyes still on her as if they were glued.
Jonathan addressed the new look immediately, his reverse Vertigo, and he went into a short but detailed analysis of his ego. But his attraction to the new Shawna was so intense that none of this made the slightest difference. It took him exactly 28 minutes to call and ask her out.
Shawna and Jonathan fell in love all over again. They studied together in the university library, read under the towering campus trees, and made Freudian love in her dorm room. (He convinced her, as Freud believed, that the sexual drive was the primary motivational force of the homosapien.) Once again, the serotonin flowed as did the oxytocin, cascades of it, produced from the paraventricular nucleus of Shawna’s hypothalamus and released by her posterior pituitary, filling her with jubilance and joy.
Tallulah lit no more.
One balmy evening at the popular seafood place Fish Frolic, Shawna and Jonathan were feasting on baked whitefish and classic Maryland crab cakes when the woman in the black fedora walked through the door. She sat at a table for two even though she was alone.
“What’s wrong?” Jonathan asked.
“The woman who just walked in,” Shawna whispered, “I know her.”
“The one in the hat?”
“Right. At least I think it’s her.”
“Do you want to say hello?”
“I have to,” Shawna said as she stood up.
The mystery woman removed the hat from her head. Her wavy black hair (with flecks of gray) fell past her shoulders; it seemed soft and silky as a dog’s coat after a bath. She was dressed in a black silk shirt, black knit blazer and gray ankle pants.
Shawna clumsily weaved her way through a gauntlet of tables, chairs, patrons heading to the loo and servers carrying enormous platters of food. “Excuse me,” she said. “I hate to be a bother, but I think I recognize you.”
“About ten years ago, did you attend the funeral of Charles Deardorf? He was my father.”
The woman gazed into Shawna’s searching green eyes. “Mon Dieu,” she said. “Charley Deardorf. Please take a seat.”
With great anticipation, Shawna sat down across from the femme fatale. “So it was you.”
“Indeed. My name is Althea. Althea Iris Fawning.”
“What a lovely name.” Shawna extended her hand. “I’m Shawna Rochelle Deardorf. I’ve been hoping to run into you.”
“Have you been searching for me all these years, Shawna Rochelle?”
“In a bizarre way I have, yes.”
“You see, I don’t think my parents loved each other very much, and I was convinced my father was involved with someone else. I always imagined clandestine liaisons in secluded cabins and lingering rendezvous in romantic hideaways. Then when
I saw you at the funeral, I couldn’t help wondering if you were the love of my father’s life.”
“The love of his life,” Althea repeated. She took a long, troubled breath. “No. I was not.”
“Then how did you know him?”
“I’m a clinical psychologist,” she explained. “Your father was in session with me for several years.”
“I see.” Shawna saw, but not enough. The need to know more was unmistakable in her face, the crucial need to unravel the mystery of her father’s life. “Was there someone else he loved?”
Althea took her time. The only reason she considered divulging details of Charles Deardorf’s personal life was that he was deceased, and his daughter seemed desperate to discover the truth; she sensed the young woman’s emotional state depended on it. “There was another individual,” Althea said in a hushed voice. “Someone your father loved deeply.”
Shawna’s face lit up. “There was?”
“Yes.” Again she hesitated, falling back into her thoughts, eyes closed. After a few moments of internal struggle, she opened her eyes and forged ahead. “He was an Englishman who worked with oceanic animals.”
Althea nodded. “A prominent marine mammalogist who sadly perished during a shark attack off the coast of Nova Scotia.”
Before Shawna had a chance to react, a fresh-faced waitress in taupe appeared at the table with a sweet smile and two menus. “My name is Fedora and I’ll be your server this evening.”
“Fedora Twine, and I’d like to tell you about tonight’s specials. May I?”
“By all means,” Althea said, admiring Fedora’s aquiline nose, fleshy body and uncommonly long lashes.
“We have a slow-baked Faroe Island salmon. The Faroes are an archipelago of 18 small volcanic islands between Iceland and Norway in the North Atlantic Ocean. Because of its picturesque cliffs and valleys, it’s a destination for bird-watchers and nature lovers. Tourist season is July and August, but if you want to avoid the crowds, I’d suggest visiting in late May or early June. We also have an Ecuadorian cazuela de mariscos, a crustacean stew made with tomatoes, peppers, cumin, sage leaf and other enticing spices to satisfy the palate. Ecuador, of course, straddles the equator on the west coast of South America. When visiting, you’ll obviously want to explore the fierce and fabulous Amazon jungle, but please don’t forget the wildlife-rich Galapagos Islands, all right?”
“Uh, OK,” Shawna said, her head spinning.
“And finally, we offer a Nova Scotia deep-water shark steak. Almost completely
surrounded by water, the province of Nova Scotia is a truly remarkable region with —”
“We know about Nova Scotia,” Shawna interrupted. “A Nova Scotia shark killed the love of my father’s life.”
“I’m sure it’s not the same one,” Fedora said.
Althea gazed at her young server. “You are an enchanting creature of the sea,” she told her.
“What a fascinating thing to say,” Fedora replied. “I always believed we as a species originated from the depths of the earth’s vast oceans.”
“I should return to where I originated,” Shawna said. “A table in the rear of the restaurant. I just felt compelled to say hello.”
“Take my card.” Althea reached into her large, faux leather tote. “You may have questions later, beaucoup de questions.”
“Thank you,” Shawna said, clutching the card.
“By the way, how did you recognize me? The violet eyes?”
“Frankly it was the fedora.”
“Ah, le chapeau. Believe it or not, this very fedora was a gift from your father. I admired it on his head, and he insisted I have it.”
“This was Daddy’s actual fedora?”
“Mais oui. Do you know how much I’d like you to have it?”
“Very much indeed.”
“Thank you, Althea,” Shawna gushed, eagerly reaching for the hat.
“But I can’t part with it, I’m sorry.”
Flummoxed, Shawna stood up, glanced quizzically at Fedora, then ambled back to Jonathan.
“Was she who you thought she was?” Jonathan asked.
“She was the woman I recognized, but she wasn’t the woman I thought she was,” Shawna said softly.
Sometime between her crab cake entrée and pecan-crusted key lime pie dessert, without understanding precisely why, Shawna decided to let her hair grow back to its natural color, lose the green tinted contact lenses and return to her original wardrobe that had nothing to do with cornflower blue. Then she swiped her palm across her mouth, permanently erasing the tomato red lipstick.
Under a luminous half-moon, Jonathan locked arms with Shawna and they walked seven blocks to the car. Neither spoke very much until Jonathan stopped in his tracks, reached into his jacket pocket and took out a small box. He presented it to Shawna who
immediately opened it to find a shimmering rose quartz engagement ring. “Will you be my bride?” Jonathan asked as he bent down on one knee.
“Please stand up. And tuck your shirt in.” The wannabe groom followed instructions. “This is a psychogenic shock,” Shawna said. “My blood vessels might be dilating and it’s possible I’ll pass out.”
“I had a feeling you’d be surprised.”
“I’m beyond surprised,” she admitted. “This is so out of the blue that it’s not even a color.”
“I’ve been thinking a lot about settling down, and I don’t want to do it with anyone except you.”
“Me Shawna? Or the me who looks like Tallulah Light?”
Jonathan became tongue-tied. He was so taken aback that he didn’t know how to respond.
“The fact that you hesitated proves we have a serious problem,” she stated.
“I’m convinced we can solve any problem together as man and wife,” he said.
“You mean woman and husband?”
“Well,” Shawna said, “I’d love to give you an answer right now, but I can’t.”
“Because I might not love you as much as I thought I did. And you might not love me as much as you think you do.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because I went to extreme, ridiculous lengths to get you back. I virtually became somebody else.”
“I knew exactly what you were doing and I felt sorry for you.”
“I don’t want your pity, Jonathan. I want someone to respect me,” Shawna said. “Look, I realize I’m not entirely innocent. I fell for the first person who paid attention to me, and that was you. But I need to experience more life. I feel like I’ve just been born.”
“Don’t be silly. You’re one year older than me.”
“Then that means you’re still in the womb,” she told him. “Chin up, sweetheart.” Those were her parting words before strutting toward the twinkling lights in the distance.
When Shawna arrived home, she carefully placed the business card of Althea Iris Fawning on her night table, detecting a subtle floral scent emanating from it.
As she tried to fall asleep that night, she focused on the fascinating eccentricities of her new acquaintance. Shawna’s body, head to toe, warmed with the woman’s image as if a pilot light had been lit deep inside her. The hypothalamic region of her brain was fully activated. Electric. Alive. Her pulse was racing.
She didn’t know if she’d ever see the psychologist again, but she was sure there would be other Altheas. There would be women and men and places to visit and lessons to learn and an entire world to experience. And she would experience it as Shawna Deardorf with thick red hair, big brown eyes and a wardrobe of blacks, whites, pinks, greens and golds.
Garrett Socol is a former cable television producer and episode writer. He created “Talk Soup” for the E! Network. His stories have been published in several dozen literary journals. His collection, Gathered Here Together, was published by Ampersand Books. He has a slightly twisted sense of humor.