Webster jogs down the narrow stairs in stocking feet and says, “French toast,” as he rounds the corner.
Rowan blushes over the pan, the one that has more scratches on it than Teflon.
Webster loves his daughter’s face. Even when she was an infant, she had that extra, what, quarter inch above the eyebrows. As though someone took a pair of pliers, stretched her head a little. It makes her blue eyes open up. It makes her look a bit startled by life. Webster likes that. Rowan has the same widow’s peak as Webster’s, her hair brown, almost black. Rowan covers hers with bangs. Webster covers his, more pronounced, with a baseball cap. The widow’s peak is a problem, always will be.
Webster, on automatic, opens the fridge for the juice.
“I already did that,” Rowan says.
Webster turns and sees that the kitchen table is set with plates, silverware, napkins, and butter in the old butter dish instead of just a saucer, the juice in proper juice glasses. Rowan has on a pale blue sweater from J. Crew that he bought her for Christmas. Something is ending, and they want to mark it. Webster has been thinking this for months now.
The birthday has to be celebrated in the morning. Webster has the night shift.
Rowan slips the French toast onto the plates.
“You should have applied to culinary school,” Webster says as he sits down and pulls the chair closer to the table.
Mistake. He sees the tiny wince at Rowan’s mouth. It’s there, and then it’s gone.
Rowan has been rejected by three schools, one of them Middlebury, her top choice. Webster remembers his daughter waiting at the computer in the kitchen for five o’clock on March 15, the day and hour at which some of the schools sent out acceptances and rejections. Webster was messing around with the dishes, washing the same glass twice, pretending he wasn’t there. He knew to the minute when five o’clock arrived. The minute came and went. More minutes came and went. Not a sound from Rowan. No joyous yelp, no happy shout. Maybe the schools were late with the results, Webster thought, though he knew that whenever you hoped for divine intervention, it never worked out.
That day, he gazed at her back. The girl was still, studying her hands, fiddling with a silver ring on her middle finger. Webster wanted to say something, to touch her, but he couldn’t. It would embarrass her, make it worse. Better if Webster left Rowan her dignity. After twenty minutes in the same position, Rowan stood and left the kitchen. She went up to her room and didn’t come down, even for supper. Webster was angry with the schools, and then sad. By morning, he had worked himself around to encouraging. He talked up the University of Vermont, which had been her safety school and to which she had been accepted in the fall. She didn’t want to go there, though. She had hoped for a smaller college. What Webster minded most was the loss of the joyous yelp, that happy shout.
Rowan deserved it.
Webster deserved it.
“Delicious,” Webster now says.
The bread is thick, drenched with egg and milk and perfectly toasted. Rowan loads her plate with syrup. Webster eats his toast plain, the way he’s always done, though sometimes he covers the last piece with jelly. Webster doesn’t recall buying the eggs, and he’s pretty sure the syrup can had only crust at the bottom.
“I’ve got the four-to-midnight,” Webster says. “Covering for Koenig. His daughter’s getting married. Rehearsal dinner tonight.”
Rowan nods. Maybe Webster has already told her. “I’ve got practice till six anyway,” she says.
What to do about Rowan’s supper? He’s been asking himself that question for fifteen years. He lifts his head and notices a wrapped plate of extra French toast on the stove.
“Open your present now,” Rowan says, the first time either of them has acknowledged the birthday, the father forty today. Rowan, five nine and seventeen, stands and glides into the dining room. She returns and sets the present to one side of her father’s plate. The box is wrapped in gold paper with red Christmas trees. It’s almost June. “It’s all I could find,” she says.
Webster leans back and takes a sip of coffee. He has the present in his lap. He sees that Rowan has been generous with the tape. With his Swiss Army knife, a present from Sheila a hundred years ago, Webster gets the package open and puts the silver cube on the table. He begins to fool with it. He discovers that if he lays it on one side, it tells the time and date. If he sets it on another, it shows the weather for the next four days: two suns; a cloud with rain coming out; and then a sun.
“It’s hooked up to a weather channel somewhere,” Rowan explains as she moves her chair closer to her father’s. “It’s better if you keep it near a window. This side is an alarm clock. I tried it. It’s not too bad. The sound, I mean.”
Webster guesses the silver cube cost Rowan at least three days’ pay from her job at the Giant Mart over the state line. She commutes from Vermont to New York and back again two afternoons a week and every Saturday if there isn’t a game. Webster puts his hand on Rowan’s back and lightly rubs it just below her long neck. “I can really use the outside temperature thing,” he says. “And what does this side do?”
Rowan takes the silver cube from her father and demonstrates. “You rock it from side to side and then set it down. It tells your future inside the black square.”
Webster remembers the black balls of his youth, the ones with sayings floating in who knew what liquid. Probably something toxic.
“Yours, I guess. It’s yours now.”
Rowan returns the cube, setting it on her father’s lap. They wait. Abruptly, Webster flips the cube over, but not before he’s seen the ghost of his future struggling to the surface. Prepare for a surprise. He refuses to own the prediction.
“Why did you do that?” Rowan asks.
“Surprises, in my business, are nearly always bad.”
“You’re too cynical,” she says.
“I’m not cynical. Just careful.”
“Too careful for your own good,” she adds as she glances at the clock. “I have to go.”
She slips from her chair and kisses his cheek. He watches her graceful movements, performed a thousand times. She holds up her hair, twists it, and lets it fall over her right shoulder. He’s never seen this particular gesture from his daughter, and it hits him in the gut.
“Thanks for the breakfast and the present,” he says.
Webster swivels back to his French toast.
He registers an odd silence in the hallway, not the rattle of the knob, the usual friction of the warped door in its frame. After a few seconds, Webster turns his head around.
His daughter is still in the back hallway, gazing out the window of the door.
“What’s up?” he asks.
“Don’t bite my head off.”
Webster notices what might be the outline of a hard pack of cigarettes in the pocket of her light jacket. He suspects his daughter is drinking. Is she smoking, too? Is she experimenting? Is this normal for a girl her age?
Webster can’t remember the last time he’s felt relaxed with Rowan. For a few moments earlier this morning, his heart lifted: Rowan remembered the birthday, Rowan cooked for him, she was excited about his present.
“What?” Rowan asks, grabbing her backpack from a hook.
“I just… I just want you to be happy.”
Rowan sighs and rolls her eyes.
Webster struggles for the high note of the birthday breakfast. “Love my present,” he says again.
Webster can feel his daughter’s impatience. Eager to be away.
He turns back to the table. He hears the tug and pull of the door, the necessary slam.
He walks to the window and looks out. As he watches his daughter get into her car, an ache moves through his chest, sucking him empty.
Rowan is leaving him.
She’s been leaving him for months.