SERIES: Very Gently
PART: 1 of 1
RATING: PG (Adult thematic material)
PAIRING(s): AS/OC; Past LK/AB
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PART OF: Cheshyre's "Dad" Canon
SETTING IN TIMELINE: Before "The Day The World Stood Still", with an epilogue post-"Daughter"
SPOILLER/SUMMARY: Squiggy goes out on his first date after Punky's birth.
NOTES: Written for Cheshyre, in honor of her birthday 1/12/07.
The bathroom mirror was narrow, with a tiny crack at its very corner, but it was wide enough to reflect back the images of the three crowded around it -- two men and a girl.
The shorter man nervously ran a plastic blue comb through his hair for the millionth time that night, then squinted at his reflection, eyes coal-dark and impassive. He shifted his shoulders around, trying desperately to appear calm. "You think I need more musk?"
Immediately, the taller man and the little girl whipped around -- the funny faces they had been making frozen into strictures of horror. "NO."
The shorter man frowned, re-buttoning his dark purple button-down shirt and pulling on his bright yellow tie. "You sure I look good?"
"Sure, Squig!" the tall man smiled, wiping his toothpaste-ringed mouth on the back of his sleeve. "You look like...like..."
"Like Bonko the Clown!" Offered the girl.
"Yeah! Only you don't got a red nose!"
Squiggy winced. "Aww, why didn't ya say Bozo, Punky? Bonko ain't even a big name clown."
The taller man shrugged. "Maybe she'll have a clown fetish."
"What's a fetish?" Pearl asked, her little face a mask of confusion.
Squiggy's eyes narrowed. "Ask Uncle Lenny - I gotta scram."
"Hey waitaminute," Lenny requested. "You ain't told me nothing about this girl."
Squiggy lifted his chin. "I told ya - her name is Lori, she works for Wink Martindale across the lot...."
"How'd you meet her?"
"Remember when you stayed home with Punky while she had the stomach flu?" Lenny nodded. "We was in the commissary and we reached for the last tuna salad at the same time."
"Yeah, it's a regular Harlem Quinn romance," Squiggy said, tugging on his collar. "C'mere, Punky - kiss your old man good-bye."
Punky quickly turned around, nearly tipping over the bench she used to properly see herself in the mirror. Squiggy scooped up the little girl and gave her a long hug before depositing her into the arms of her Uncle Lenny. "Remember - dinner's at five, then the bath, then she goes to bed at eight, got it?"
Punky frowned. "I'm not sleepy."
"And that's your Uncle Lenny's problem tonight." Squiggy grabbed his leather jacket from the doorknob and donned it. "Be good!" he ordered.
"Okay!" both of the people he loved said automatically. Squiggy exited quickly, leaving Lenny alone with his charge.
Lenny rinsed the sink, something Squiggy had neglected to do after shaving before turning toward the small girl. "You heard your pop - bathtime!"
"I don't wanna," the seven-year-old whined.
Lenny knelt down, turning the taps on the bath and plugging the tub stopper into place. "You gotta, Pearl - you don't wanna go to school all dirty and have people pick on you and beat you up for your lunch money..."
Punky gently patted her Uncle Lenny on the shoulder as he indulged in an emotional display. "Can I have a cookie first?"
Her upper lip turned downward. "Pleaase?"
Lenny waved slightly. "Okay, one Oreo! But first you take your bath."
She eyed the water suspiciously. "Two."
For once, her uncle was wise to her scheme. He carefully combined warm and cold water, then dumped a capful of bubble bath into the water as well. It foamed up into a luxurious-looking mess, and Lenny quickly placed the girl's Rainbow Brite nightgown and bright pink robe on the sink, just within her reach. Before leaving the room, he added, "wash your hair kid -- if it ain't wet, then you ain't done."
Lenny heard a vague grumbling from behind the door, followed by a splashing noise. Another reminder that Punky was getting older, her insolence more creative and regularly expressed.
He shrugged, walking over to the sofa and picking up the new issue of Mad Squiggy had picked up during marketing. Reading felt like a pleasant way to spend the time -- and considering how long it took Punky to bathe generally, he'd probably be there for fifteen minutes or more. Contented, he sat down and began to read from the Tome of Alfred.
Sergio Arragones proved so enchanting that he fell asleep instantaneously.
By the time Squiggy reached Grauman's Chinese, the rain had begun to pound against his battered leather jacket like the impatient tapping of a woman's fingernail. He quickly pulled it up over his neatly-combed hair, walking stiffly in a single-minded way over to the ornate overhang.
Alone among the tourists, he shuddered in the chilly air, breath coming out in white clouds. He squinted through the heavy curtains of water pouring down, trying to recognize Laurie's long, dark hair and her extremely tight blue jeans among the indistinguishable faces parading before him.
For the millionth time that day, Squiggy wondered what he was doing. It had been around seven years since he'd even considered touching a woman - Darla had been gone twice as long, emotionally if not physically. His life had been absorbed in Punky's scholastic achievements -- far more brilliant than his, for some reason he did not understand -- and in the day-to-day raising of a female, a problem he'd never thought he'd encounter as a rakish teenager.
Then why had he said 'yes' to Laurie? She wasn't his type -- brunettes were never his thing, especially ones twice his height -- and she was one of those mysterious 'liberated' women. It had been five years since he and Lenny had nearly been pelted to death with placards by angry protesters just for running by the group of them yelling 'up with miniskirts!' -- the last time he'd left his daughter with anyone but Lenny for more than a minute, he realized, and the last time anyone who WASN'T his daughter or his best friend had touched him with any feeling behind it. If this was what the new generation of women had to offer him, no wonder he preferred to cocoon with his daughter at home.
But...didn't he want Pearl to be a self-actualized, brilliant woman? A 'new' woman, different from what he had expected to marry as a young man?
He felt dizzy. This date was turning into a truly bad idea.
He turned to see Laurie occupying the front door of Graumans, a large yellow rainslicker curtaining the body he'd admired from afar, her dark hair dripping down over her nose and plastered against the wet slicker. Squiggy's jaw locked firmly into place, his head coming up. It was too late to back out now, and, though he might be many questionable things, Andrew Squiggman was no mouse.
"Hey," he said, cutting across the crowd and taking her in with a smirk. "Nice coat."
Half-conscious, Lenny could recognize any song. He was a musical savant that way. The soft humming coming from nearby was at once recognizable as Pearl's, the song 'Pleasant Valley Sunday' by the Monkees. Before Lenny emerged into the brightness of the waking world, he yawned-loudly.
"Aww, don't move!" Punky's little voice piped out, "you're gonna ruin your nails."
That got his attention -- a quick glance downward at his toes making Lenny groan. "Why'd you do that?" All of the nails on his right foot were coated in a bright pink polish, and half the ones on his left were covered in yellow.
"I wanted to see how it'd look before I put some on," Punky said, sitting down at the edge of the coffee table. Lenny noticed that she'd followed his directions -- her hair was clean, and combed out. She grinned. "It's awesome -- you look just like Cyndi Lauper!"
Lenny groaned, humiliation turning his cheeks pink. "I gotta go to work tomorrow!"
"I wanna finish your other foot." At his look of mild panic, she sighed like a wise woman. "Uncle Lenny, it peels off."
She scratched at one of the pink nails, seeing it flake he lay back against the couch. "Okay."
Bending her head, the girl dipped her brush back into the bottle, bringing forth another brush coated in brilliant polish. Humming again, she went back to work, coating the last three toes quickly. Lenny wiggled them, watching the embedded glitter catch light and shine in the small side-lamps. He tried to decide if having his legs shaved or wearing toenail polish counted as the most emasculating moment of his life. There was a swift way to bring about revenge -- he picked up the bottle of pink polish and coated the brush quickly.
"You want your left hand pink or your right hand yellow."
"Make both hands pink, please."
As Lenny bowed to his task, he slipped backwards in time, to his life with Amy. She was a fastidious, feminine woman -- insistent on looking pretty, like her favorite rag doll. At the end, when she was barely able to raise her arm for a sponge bath, she had begged him to do her nails. As he became adept at the job, he came to realize that this small pleasure became the sole one left to his wife -- the only joy he had the whit left to give her.
He managed to finish his task before quickly turning away and wiping his eyes with the back of his sleeve. The ken of Punky's mouth told him that she knew something was wrong -- and perhaps that it was a bad idea to ask him what was going on in his mind. The kid had an intuitiveness that was not her father's. After an uncomfortable moment, Lenny jostled himself back to the present.
"You want some supper?" he finally thought to ask.
"Mac and Cheese!" the girl cried, and he scooped her up, happy to have a merry distraction.
"...So then I says to Charles Grodin 'shut up'!"
Laurie choked on her shake, and her date felt a wave of relief at the enjoyed interplay. He never really tended to feel at ease with women, but Laurie had a way about her that made him feel comfortable.
"So, whatta do? When you're not sprayin' down Wink's hair?"
Laurie smiled thinly. "Well, I have a series of side-businesses - none of them have really taken off at the moment. You?"
"I raise worms in my bathtub."
She giggled. "Oh, Andrew - you're fun!"
Squiggy's brow lowered. "I wasn't trying to be fun."
Laurie didn't quite stop laughing at his declaration. "Well, that's very inventive. Where did you grow up?"
"I grew up in Osh Kosh!"
"Yeah? They still got sewage treatment plant?"
"They do," she swirled the scotch around in her glass. The dim lighting of the restaurant he'd chosen for their after-movie date made her look somewhere beyond her thirty years, but apparently she wasn't one of those girls so wildly fixated on her own appearance that she couldn't laugh freely and crack her foundation. "You went to Filmore, didn't you? I went to Johnson!"
That got his attention. "You went to Johnson?"
"I went to all of the football games!"
"I thought you looked familiar - I think I saw you at one of the home games - you're rather unforgettable," she admitted quietly.
He cleared his throat. "I was a waterboy. It ain't like I was some kinda athlete or something..."
"Neither was I," she snorted. "I was underdeveloped and enjoyed monster movies."
"What was your favorite?"
"Godzilla Meets Frankenstein's Mummy."
Squiggy grinned, meeting Lori's eyes through the hazy smoke-embued night. "I have a feeling this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship," Squiggy said, in his worst Bogart impression.
They clinked glasses - beer to scotch.
Lenny eyed Punky as she mechanically dried each piece of silverware he handed it to her. She did it exactly the way he'd taught her to.
The Mac and Cheese, he reasoned, had turned out nicely this time -- he had even let her stir in the cheesy powder by herself. There had been glasses of apple juice (and a beer for himself) and a salad as well-something Squiggy never insisted on at meal times, but something Lenny preferred.
For desert, Lenny picked up two pudding cups - which, he hoped, would be better for her than the Oreos she coveted - and carried them over to the sofa. Quickly, they dug in while Lenny channel surfed, hanging over the table, his toes twinkling in an annoying way.
"You got two choices kid - "The Hogan Family" or "Life With Lucy".
Punky's nose wrinkled. "Those the only two choices I get?"
Lenny smirked. "We don't get cable, kid."
"We could rent a VCR...Jessica's Mom has a copy of Evil Dead 2!"
"You know we can't afford that," Lenny sat down, switching off the tube. "Why don't I tell you a story?"
Her eyes lit up. "Tell me about the time you and Daddy went to Mexico again!"
Lenny winced. "That story ain't for kids." He pulled her over, until she could rest her head against his shoulder. "Once upon a time, there was a beautiful girl. Her name was Amy..." And he told her about a fairy princess and her lifelong sleep, that no prince could ever wake her from.
For Lenny, it was a spell-like moment, and he was nearly speaking an incantation to the girl when he returned to the present.
"That's a sad story," Punky observed. "Prince Leonard should try to find another princess. It's no good to be sad all the time..." she yawned, and for a moment Lenny thought her asleep. "Uncle Lenny?"
"Can you tell me another story?"
"Tell me about my mom." Lenny's head almost fell off of his shoulders. His response wasn't quick enough, and Punky seemed to notice. "Daddy doesn't want to talk about her. He gets angry if I ask..."
Lenny gulped. "Your mom..." He tried desperately to withhold his intense loathing of Darla. He was aware of Punky's eyes on him, watching, anticipating an answer. Quickly, he came up with a half truth. "Do you know how much your Mom loves you?"
She shook her head.
"She loves you so much that she gave you to me and your Dad to raise." His hand began to rub her upper arm automatically, the same way he did when comforting Laverne or Amy or his sister Ava all those years ago.
"If you love someone, you don't give them away," the girl said, her voice implacable.
"That ain't true. Sometimes, if you really, really love somebody, you've gotta let them go." His voice thickened, as he subconsciously brought Amy to mind. "You give them to someone else who loves them just as much. Yanno, sometimes that's the bravest thing." That, Lenny decided, was enough of the truth someone as young as Punky could handle.
Punky considered this, yawned again, her dark head resting against Lenny's shoulder. "Did you give Daddy to someone who loves him even more than we do?"
Lenny managed a chuckle. "No. He's just out seeing a movie with a girl."
"Eww. Don't worry. He'll come home."
Punky was satisfied by that procclaimment, and rested her head against Lenny's shoulder. Her Uncle admitted to himself that it was a long day - and they had a nice, soft grey velveteen cover lying on the arm of the couch - no reason for them not to just sleep there.
And they did, their bright nails poking out from underneath the plain gray of the blanket.
The night was perfectly clear as Squiggy and Laurie walked down Sunset Boulevard, examining the many stars on the Walk of Fame.
Her hand was on his arm, but their eyes were on the ground. The strange camaraderie between them seemed to stretch on through a companionable silence, and his need to try too hard seemed to evaporate in the cool of the night.
Lazily, Squiggy examined every glittering star. Marilyn Monre....Humphrey Bogart....Pearl Bailey...
Stirred from her day-dream, Laurie glanced quickly at her watch. "It's eleven..."
Cursing mildly, Squiggy pulled himself free of Laurie. "I gotta get home - Len's gotta be worried sick."
"I'm sorry - were you supposed to meet someone?"
A wave of guilt washed Squiggy's joy away. Somehow, he'd forgotten that he was a father. "He's watching my kid."
"You have a child?" Mild curiosity, no reprove. In surprise, Squiggy turned around and met her gaze.
"I got a seven-year-old girl named Pearl. We call her Punky." Squiggy's eyes showed a flash of discomfort. "Look, this is my first time seeing a real, live broad who ain't the mother of my kid in almost ten years, and Darla and me stopped looking at each other long ago. I'd use the ol' Squiggman charm on you, but I'm out of practice. All I really care about is getting home and checking on my kid..."
"That's why you've been distracted." Had he been distracted?
"...it's the first time I ever left her for this long."
She closed the space between them, kissed his cheek, and said, "I don't think we should see each other for a while."
Fear squeezed his chest - he thought he'd been doing so well! "Why?"
"Because you love your daughter, and since you're her only parent you should concentrate on raising her and enjoying her while you still can." She stepped back from him. "I have two sons - ten and seven - and their father has custody of them. We see each other every other Christmas. You have a chance to be with your daughter, and love her, now."
"What about you and me?"
She smirked, a rakish smirk that hinted they might have more in common than he imagined. "Look me up in ten years. I'll still be here."
"...And you never saw her again?"
Squiggy broke off from his tale, staring at a red-eyed Shirley Feeney as she sniffled into her handkerchief. "A few more times. I heard she moved back to Osh Kosh some time in '89. Never heard if she married again or anything. Whenever I had a tuna salad, I'd get all misty...don't tell Len that, or I'll squish ya."
Shirley wiped her eyes on the back of her sleeve. "That's the sweetest, most adorable..."
"Enough with your sugar, woman," Squiggy grumbled, pushing carefully away from the table. Today was a good day - he could make it to the counter and get himself a cup of coffee without his cane.
"Osh Kosh?" Shirley's eyes lit up. "Squiggy, have you ever tried..."
"No. I ain't gonna look her up." He sat down carefully. "Two weeks after we went on our date, I fell down for the first time."
"And?" he mocked. "What kinda woman wants to be seen with me? Hunk of manhood that I is..."
Shirley squeezed his arm. "Hush. You're a fine man."
"Wow, you said it that time without throwing up."
"Yes, I'm getting used to it. But there's a woman out there for you, Squiggy," she stood up and walked to the coffee maker, "you just need to look for her."
"Nah - I don't need another broad. I got my family," he insisted. "I'm luckier than most guys."
"You could be luckier still," Shirley insisted.
"Yeah," Squiggy said. "But I got Punky and Len - and you and Laverne. I ain't gonna push it," Squiggy said, facing the wall - and seeing the wheels turn behind Shirley's eyes.
"We'll see," said Shirley.
"Oh brother," retorted Squiggy.
"Oh brother yourself - you've given me quite an idea," she grinned. "How do you feel about Monster movies and Oreos until midnight?"
Squiggy's brow went up. "How long is your best buddy gonna keep my best buddy out tonight?"
"It's Laverne and Lenny. God only knows with the two of them."
Squiggy shrugged. "Okay. But first I gotta do something..."
Shirley smiled knowingly and made herself invisible. Squiggy pressed one button and listened to the phone burr.
"Kiss your old man goodnight," he requested.
The smooching noise sounded more like mosquito eviscerating its prey, but the emotion behind it was not at all exaggerated.
To Bringing Home Holland