Bobby tossed the stuffed chihuahua between his bare hands, Suboxone in his right coat pocket and a picture of Alyssa at two months in his left. Should have worn gloves, he knew. Cape Cod winters tug the cold out of bones. The bus depot, of course, wasn’t heated. What if I can’t find you in the parking lot, he said over the phone when they arranged the meeting. Just stay in one place, Alyssa’s grandmother said, and then she named it. Sharon added: You’ll recognize your blood.
The call went clipped like that: Yeah, he was still at the halfway house, working, wanting to see Alyssa. No, he wasn’t paid on the books or sure about child support. He didn’t have any other kids. Yeah, he was sure.
Sharon and his kid pulled up and Bobby tightened his stomach lips colon toes fingers throat knees jaw. He put the stuffed animal behind his back. He watched Sharon get out and fiddle with the backseat. When Alyssa dropped her feet into the snow, Bobby dropped the chihuahua. He said, Oh, shit. Then Alyssa was upon him.
She said, Hey. They did not hug. As he shook the snow from the toy, he watched her watch him.
This is for you, Bobby said. And hey, yourself.
I’m not allowed to have a dog, she said, brown eyes a story in themselves. Bobby knew better than to point it out, but the kid really looked nothing like him. Carved from clouds, not smoke.
This one is good, he said all slow. Because it’s not real, you know?
Yeah, she said, solemn. I know.
Father and daughter didn’t talk again until the three of them were seated in a booth. The place was packed for lunch hour, all pop radio and pitchy kids. Sharon chatted for them; she caught Bobby up on Alyssa’s flute lessons, three times a week, which Bobby thought sounded like a lot, but shit if he knew.
Bobby nodded nodded nodded and sat straight straight straight. His posture was a knot, he admitted it, but he wanted Sharon to see him as different than the last time. He had been fucked up, yeah. He and Alyssa’s mom were screaming pretty bad. Some shit got broken. Neighbors were pissed about the noise and all, and Bobby couldn’t even tell them to fuck off, on account of them being right. Spine straight, Bobby housed his pizza and was glad to see Alyssa ate like him, big bites, teeth worked as weapons, oil all over the damn place. And why not, he thought, watching his kid suck grease from each of her ten fingers. Why not.
She’s a busy girl, Sharon said. Almost a young lady.
Bobby got her point. He crumpled a napkin, cleared his diet Pepsi, asked if they wanted refills. Sharon said no thank you and Alyssa eyed her cup, almost drained. At the drink fountain, he was small, cramped. He knew, but did he? Last he’d seen Alyssa, she was in diapers, drinking milk. He gambled. He filled hers to the top with cherry Coke and plenty of ice.
Under Sharon’s gaze, Alyssa mumbled thanks and gulped gulped gulped. Soda drizzled down her chin and onto her lap napkins. She and Bobby shared a look. Happy, happy.
Back in the parking lot, Bobby considered what they hadn’t talked about. Visitation, supervised or not. Alyssa’s mom—if she was dating anybody or if she was still working at the diner by the bay. If Alyssa was gonna be allowed to come over his apartment, once he got one, once he finished up the program. Holiday photos would be cool, he’d been thinking. Family portraits, the kind they take at the mall. Corny, he thought, but shit. Why not.
To Sharon, he said, Thank you. She didn’t ask him what for, which he appreciated. Later, in his bunk, Bobby would think about what he owed her, and how the debt made him feel weak and also relieved. Ever since Sharon became Alyssa’s guardian, he knew his daughter was good. He trusted she went to school and had enough to eat. That her hair was clean. That she wore socks under her boots. That she didn’t miss him much, because why would she? He only recently started to miss himself.
With Alyssa, he held out the chihuahua, mostly dry from sitting on a heater in the back of the restaurant. Its glass eyes were warmer than he expected when he rooted through the discount bin at the outlet across town. That’s special, he thought.
Alyssa said, Thank you, and took the dog. Against her pink puffer, the chihuahua looked cozy. She asked if Bobby would bring her a real dog next time.
That’s up to your grandma, he said. Around them, crows convened low, indifferent. If Sharon said sure, bring the girl a dog? Bobby would steal one, he guessed. He’d make it work.
Alyssa rolled her eyes, letting Bobby know grandma was the big no in the game. She asked if he wanted a hug goodbye.
When he stooped to her level, Bobby thought his back would splinter. Hamstrings were fists. Knees shuddered. His case worker told him he had to let go of his rage, that he couldn’t carry stress around the way he did. Bobby wanted to put his fear into a box or a closet or a bag. Wouldn’t the sadness open in another place, he wondered? Waiting for him, waiting to find fresh light. Still: He wanted, he wanted.
While they hugged, Bobby noticed a lot. Alyssa’s hair smelled like fruit. Her face was soft, not like skin, but pillows; the nice ones, the department store kind. When she coughed into his shoulder, unabashed, he smelled her breath: all hot cheese and pepperoncini. My kid, he thought. My kid. In his throat, a hummingbird.
“The Opener” previously appeared in Popshot Quarterly Magazine.