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The Good Father

NE Skinner

It’s dark still. Renata’s sleeping, but stirs as I get out of bed.

“Do you want me to come?” she asks without turning toward me, her voice muffled by a pillow. But we both know it never goes well when she comes. She and Shelby are too much alike. So...strong.

“No, my love,” I say, smoothing aside her long grey hair and kissing the warm skin of her shoulder. “Sleep.” And she doesn’t hesitate; before I’ve got my shoes tied her breathing has become loose and open-mouthed once more.

I don’t really mind the drive to the Pranger Outlets, where my daughter is expiating her breach of the Adultery Standards. The drive is short, and goes easy at this hour with not a soul on the roads. The truth is, I enjoy being out this time of night — or morning — depending how you think of it. It brings to mind my youth, and the pre-dawn adventures that made me feel so alive. But then I remember the task waiting at the end of the drive and my mood flags.

I reach the mall. The red entrance sign is unlit, but reflects my headlights in a fiery flash as I turn in. I skirt the empty parking lot and pull up near the courtyard in a spot where my headlights don’t shine on the pillories. The offenders hate lights in their faces; constrained as they are, they can’t turn away from the glare.

“Hi honey,” I say, when I get to Shelby’s unit. Lowering myself, I give the top of her head a sort of kiss, then stay crouched low for a minute where she can look me in the eye.

“Hey, Dad.”

She’s quiet today. I can tell it won’t be a day she wants to chat. Shelby’s always had her moods. From the day she was born, if truth be told, I’ve never known how to be with her. Not at all like Greta, our first. With Greta things have always been...simpler. Greta would not be found in this situation asserting, unwavering, “a love more important than rules.”

I’m not the first visitor this morning among the stocks arrayed in sections across this vast courtyard. You don’t want to look around too closely, so as not to embarrass any of the other offenders’ family members; but I manage to take in a couple women who’ve already begun morning ablutions of their relatives. No one who knows me; that’s a relief.

I set to work. Like most mornings, the dew has collected on Shelby’s hair and her face, and her hands can’t reach it, of course, so the first thing I do is towel that off. And dry the backs of her hands. Then I move on to the other things. Some days, her skin and hair get completely caked by food and occasional excrement, and it takes forever to sponge her clean. That’s mostly on the weekends, though, when more people are off work and come to the outlets for shopping and entertainment. They swing by the Pillory Courtyard, next door to the Food Pavilion, while they have lunch or a cigarette; and watch people harassing the miscreants, or join in the abuse themselves. Today, though, Shelby’s not too bad.

“We’re anxious for you to finish your correction, Hon, so we can have you back home,” I say.

“Right,” is all she says. She never seems very impatient to get back home.

Having finished cleaning her, I’m now spooning oatmeal into her mouth. I make instant. All this cleaning and feeding takes me back to when she was a baby girl. Even then, that bright, intense little face was so often angry. So perplexing to me, but still my secret favorite, in spite of it.

I finish feeding her, and when I set to picking up my rags and things, which are now filthy, she says “Dad?” and she is watching me so intently, some of the runny oatmeal dribbles out the side of her mouth. “You know I don’t need ‘correcting,’  right?”

I say: “Shelby...your mother and I...we just, you know, we just want you to have a good life, Sweetheart.”

While I’m peeling off my rubber gloves, I add: “We’ll always love you, honey.”

She doesn’t answer. She tries to look up at me, straining against the neck hole, but from where I stand, I can’t see her face for the hair spilling over it. And, honestly? I’m glad I can’t see her expression. I give her a kiss goodbye on the top of her head. With the light coming so quickly, I’ve got to hit the road, I’m not crazy about people seeing me here.

I say, “See you tomorrow, Honey,” and head for the car.

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