by ANNE HOSANSKY
“My father jumped out of a window.”
Those were the first words I heard from her.
We were standing in the schoolyard when she said that. She was a new girl in my class, kind of funny-looking, skinny, with messy braids like no one taught her how to do them right.
“Wasn’t that brave of my father?” she asked.
I wondered what I could come up with that would match her drama.
“My father jumped out of a plane,” I said. “He was in the army.”
“With a parachute?” she asked.
“Anyone can jump with a parachute. My father did it without anything. He got on the windowsill and jumped, calling my name as he fell.”
“He called your name?” I asked. How fast did he have to say it before he finished falling?
“He said, ‘I love you, Didi.’ That was his special name for me.”
I tried to imagine calling out love to someone as you fell—how many stories?
“It was fourteen stories up,” she said, as if she’d heard my mind. “It was his office. A woman he worked with told me how he called my name.”
I was jealous. Would my father think of me as he was falling fourteen stories?
“Wow,” I came up with.
“Yes,” she said proudly. “‘Wow’ is right.”
“There’s a new girl in my class,” I told my mother, over the hot chocolate she insisted I have every chilly afternoon. “Her name is Deirdre. I never knew a Deirdre before.”
“Hmm,” my mother muttered. Some days she was good at not listening.
“Her father jumped out of a window.” That should get her attention.
“Why did he do that?”
It occurred to me that I hadn’t thought to ask Deirdre.
“He called her name as he was falling,” I reported.
“I doubt it,” my mother said.
That night I had trouble getting to sleep. I kept seeing a man flapping his arms like a bird’s wings as he was falling, calling his love to his little girl. I couldn’t imagine my father doing that—either jumping or using those last minutes to tell me he loved me.
“Love me, Daddy?” I asked him at breakfast.
“Oddly enough, I do.” I think that’s what he said, gulping his coffee.
“Why is that odd?” I asked.
He was looking at his watch. “Got to run,” he told my mother, kissing her. “Bye, sweetie,” he called out to me.
My name isn’t Sweetie, I felt like saying. Actually, it’s Elizabeth. I hated my name. Why wasn’t I given a poetic one like…Deirdre?
My father wouldn’t have time to say E-liz-a-beth while he was falling,
I tried to avoid Deirdre, but she was the type who wouldn’t take avoid for an answer. She followed me around the schoolyard.
“I’m really busy,” I tried to tell her.
“You weren’t doing anything,” she pointed out.
“I was…in my head.” I didn’t want to say I had started writing stories. Telling her would be sort of like handing them over to her.
“I’ll be quiet,” she promised, so sweetly I felt mean.
She stopped talking—mostly—but still followed me, standing around like my shadow. None of the other kids seemed to want to be with her.
At three o’clock one day, she was waiting by the school gate. “Let’s walk home together,” she said.
I couldn’t think of a reason not to, since her house was on the way to mine.
The trouble was, she kept talking about that father of hers. How he had loved her.
“Then how could he leave you?” I asked.
“He didn’t want to,” she said, so low the wind almost stole the words.
“Why did he jump?” I finally asked.
“He was dying.” The words came one at a time and hung in the air.
“Well, if you fall fourteen stories, you have to expect to die.” I sounded like my mother.
“He jumped because he was dying. He found out he had a rare tropical disease.”
“Tropical?” My head was starting to whirl. “Where did he get that?”
“In the jungle. Africa! He worked there years before, and the disease stayed inside him all the time afterward. He jumped because he didn’t want us to have to take care of him.”
I couldn’t think of an answer. But my mother did, when I reported this to her.
“I’m not sure your friend is being truthful,” Mother said. Truth is the number one virtue with her, as I learned after too many fibs.
“Have you met her parents?” she asked.
“What do you mean, parents? It’s just her and her mother now.”
“Wouldn’t it be something if her father’s there, too?”
I shuddered. “You mean, they keep his dead body…?”
“Of course not, Elizabeth.” When Mother used my full name, I knew I better stay on alert. “I mean, perhaps he didn’t die.”
“It was fourteen stories,” I said in my most superior voice. “You can’t expect to live after falling that much.”
“Perhaps he didn’t jump,” she said.
That took any words out of me. Because if my mother was right, Deirdre had me beat by a mile when it came to making up stories.
The next day, when we reached her house, I asked, “Can I come in?”
She hesitated. “My mother doesn’t like me to have company.”
“I have to pee,” I said with a squirming pantomime. “I’ve got to use your bathroom.”
But the door was opening, and a woman was saying, “Deirdre, invite your friend in.”
Deirdre seemed like that was the last thing she wanted to do, but she led me into the house. There were no lights on, though it was the season when days end early. We ended up in the kitchen. At least there was a light, but it showed what my mother would call “a real mess,” dirty dishes piled in the sink, a pot with something that looked like soup clinging to one side.
Deirdre’s mother, Mrs. Reilly, reminded me of a nervous bird twittering around.
“Cookies? Milk?” she asked, her voice kind of shaking.
Deidre seemed as if she’d become mute or something, but Mrs. Reilly asked me all kinds of questions. Like, did I have siblings?
“No,” I mumbled.
“Deirdre is an only child, too.” Her sigh was louder than the words.
“Mom,” Deirdre said,” Elizabeth has to leave now.”
“Not yet,” I surprised myself saying. I was on the trail of something and not about to give up. Maybe my first story could be a mystery.
“What does your father do?” Mrs. Reilly asked.
“He’s an insurance salesman,” I said, wishing I could say he was a famous explorer or writer.
“Insurance?” Her voice was rising like a shriek. “I hate those insurance people. They had no mercy on me.”
“Mom,” Deirdre said. “Please!”
Her mother waved her away. “It’s not your father I’m angry at, Elizabeth. It’s those insurance men who were so cold to us, so cruel after my husband died.”
Died! There it was, my pearl of discovery. Deirdre had been telling the truth.
“How did he…?” I didn’t have the courage to continue.
“He committed suicide. That’s why those insurance vultures…” And she was off on them again, but I had stopped listening.
“Suicide! Deirdre was telling the truth,” I announced to my mother. “So there!” I added. That was one of my favorite expressions, though I didn’t have any idea where “there” was.
That day Mother was ironing. She ran the iron over the sleeve of my blouse very carefully for a few minutes. Then she said, “And he called her name?”
“I didn’t ask.” I heard the resentment in my voice. Don’t steal my story from me.
A week later, Mrs. Reilly invited me in again. I realized the invitation was never from Deirdre even though I seemed to be her only friend.
I sat in the kitchen again with the two of them. I’d never been alone with her mother, as if Deirdre didn’t want to leave us alone together, but this time she had to go to the bathroom.
“Be right back,” Deirdre said as she scurried away.
Alone with Mrs. Reilly, I noticed how grim her lips looked when she wasn’t talking
a mile a minute. She tried to smile at me, but it was as if her lips found it painful to move. Her hands kept clasping and unclasping, like she was trying to get something to hold. It must be so hard to lose your husband, I thought, especially when he decides to leave like that.
And I had what I still think was my first really grown-up thought: How did she feel about her husband calling Deirdre’s name, but not hers?
I heard the unmistakable flushing in the bathroom. Better be quick.
“Deirdre told me about her father having jungle fever.”
Her mother stared at me. “Where would he have gotten that? The only fever he had was the racetrack, gambling our lives away.”
I was stepping on thin ice, and it was cracking under me. But I had to know. “Deirdre told me how he called her name as he fell.”
I heard the ugliest laugh, like ashes were sprinkled over it. “She told you that?”
But Deirdre was back. “Mom, Elizabeth doesn’t want—”
“Why do you tell your friend such lies?”
“What?” she stammered.
“That your father called your name as he fell. Are you crazy? He jumped without a thought for us.”
“No!” Deirdre shouted, her face red and blotchy. “People heard him. He said—”
“Said nothing. He didn’t even leave a note. That man wasn’t capable of loving anyone, not even you.”
“You’re lying! Lying!” Deirdre was screaming over and over.
I got up and left without saying goodbye. No one would have heard me anyway. Mrs. Reilly had her hands over her face, and Deirdre was making big gulping sounds like when you’re trying to throw up and nothing will come.
When I told my mother, she didn’t say anything for once. Just shook her head. I saw tears in her eyes.
When Daddy was reading the paper that night, I sat in his lap, even though I was getting too big for that.
I was mad at Deirdre for making a fool of me. So I did something terrible. I told another girl in class about Deirdre’s story, and that girl told another, and on and on. Soon they were all whispering about “crazy Deirdre,” and she was more alone than ever.
I was too ashamed to tell my mother what I’d done. But I did tell her I wouldn’t walk with Deirdre anymore.
I thought Mother would say, “That’s being smart.” But sometimes she surprised me. What she said was, “That poor child. How she must miss her father.”
I started thinking how much Deirdre must have wanted him to love her, if she could make up a story like that. And how she needed a friend. So the next day I waited for her after school.
“I’ll walk with you,” I said.
“I’d rather not,” she said and walked away without once looking back at me.
She never came near me in the schoolyard again, so I didn’t have a chance to tell her I was sorry. I passed a note to her in class, but she sent it back unopened. Soon after, she and her mother moved somewhere, and I never saw her again.
I wrote a story about a girl whose father did call her name as he fell and who did love her.
I wanted to send it to Deirdre, but I didn’t know where she was.
I wish she could read it. Maybe then, she’d know I understand. Maybe you tell yourself a lie you believe because it’s all you have of someone.
Anne Hosansky is the author of the memoir “Widow’s Walk,” four additional books and a dozen short stories published internationally. Several of her poems have won awards. In her “other life,” she was an actor. Years ago her late husband and she spent a memorable year in Chapel Hill, where he was a graduate student and she acted with the Carolina Playmakers. So “The Carolina Quarterly” has special meaning for her.