Theo sat in the tiny dining room next to the kitchen, trying to concentrate on a book he wanted to read for a long time now. In lieu of a dining set, there was a burgundy recliner and a small round table that once sat in the breakfast nook. His twenty-six year old daughter, Magda, had dragged the large dining room table into the kitchen because of the great light from the bay windows. He heard her typing on his old PC that took up half of the table. Occasionally, the printer sounded off like some hospital alarm.
“Mag, you okay?” Theo worried; his daughter struck the keys so hard. He thought about a necklace that came apart the other day when he was going through some of his wife’s things, how the tiny beads clattered all over the wood floor in the bedroom.
There came no answer. Just the clattering of fingernails against keys.
“How’s it going?” Theo said as he came into the kitchen, opening the fridge.
“I’m almost done with this chapter,” said his daughter. She hadn’t showered yet and had been at it since early that morning. Cowlicks of thick hair stuck up all over her head like miniature detonations. “This one’s called ‘How We Hurt, and What Others Do About It’, and it’s dealing with exactly what you’d think.”
“You’re getting it done,” Theo said.
In previous years, Magda sold houses, and also sold furniture with a college roommate. Then came a falling out between the two young women. Magda came to stay with her father seven months ago when her luck at selling houses again didn’t pan out.
“I’ve got something here that people will want,” Magda said to the computer screen.
The phone rang. Theo went into his bedroom. His oldest son, Larry, had called in a sick day. Theo was overjoyed to hear from him; it had been too long since his son checked in. Larry lived in a studio apartment in Dallas, and Theo worried his son would grow old alone, never finding love and moving into a bigger, nicer place with kids. Theo’s wife died almost a year ago when she filled up with more fluid than her weak heart could get rid of, and he was glad for the time with her. Larry dismissed the whole idea of having a family, like usual. And like usual, Larry carped about his job, how it made him ill just showing up to the place, the unreasonable comptroller, and how the people she supervised whined and stabbed each other in the back day in and day out. Larry brought up his sister.
“Has she found anything yet?”
“No, she’s still writing on that book. Mag said she’s started a new chapter today.”
“Self-help books are today’s snake oil. She’s not even an authority on anything.”
“Mag says she’s read a lot of books and studied—”
“It’s a distraction, Dad. Follow the flashing strobe lights. Run after the furry rodent down the hole. Mag’s adrift. She thinks her paddle is working, but it’s full of holes, the water passing straight through.”
“She says she’ll help others and make a lot of money once the—”
“No, she’ll use up all of your retirement money, Dad.”
“She’s okay here. We’re okay. I like the com—”
“No, you’re not.” Larry let out an abrupt noisy pant like he’s done since childhood. “I wasn’t ever going to say this to you, but you need to hear this because Mag is leading you toward a downfall. You said the same thing about Mom, when she couldn’t stop coughing. ‘Mom’s okay. It’s just a cold,’ you said.”
“I took your mother to the ER,” Theo said quickly. He stood by the bed, vaguely swaying, holding the phone against his warm ear.
“That’s right. You did finally see what was what.”
“Your Mom insisted it was just a bad cold.” Theo wasn’t worried about her cough. Before she was sick, he didn’t worry much, about anything.
“But you finally snap to, Dad. That’s all I’m saying about Mag.”
Larry returned to complaining more about his job and finally signed off. Theo came back to the kitchen. Magda stared intently at the wide computer screen.
“Mag, I’m worried about you,” Theo said. “Have you found other selling positions lately?”
“I’m finishing this chapter today.”
“You need to get some money generated sooner than later, is all I’m saying.” Magda looked over at her father for the first time that morning. “I’m anxious for you,” Theo continued on, “and I know this’ll make you sore, but this distraction isn’t doing—”
“Distraction, Dad?” Magda said. “Seriously?”
“I knew you’d get this way. I’m right, though, like I was with your Mom, finally—”
“Right about Mom?”
“And…and you can’t just drift along with a defective paddle. Though, I’m sure, you may think this project is a working paddle.”
“Where is this coming from?”
“Let me finish,” Theo said, feeling out of breath. “But it’s just steering you, and me, down a rabbit hole. And…and…how can anyone read around here with all the clattering racket going on day in and day out?”
Magda pushed a stack of paper across the table at her father. “I’ll stop and you can read this,” she said, staring him down.
Theo sat back down in his recliner, holding the pages. Now he worried about how quiet it was in the kitchen and the rest of the small house.
Dan Crawley lives in Phoenix and has taught fiction workshops at Arizona State University, Northern Arizona University, and other colleges. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in a number of journals, including Wigleaf, apt, The Airgonaut, North American Review, Jellyfish Review, and matchbook. He is a fiction reader for Little Patuxent Review.