He would probably never get used to the idea that his daughter knew more about the sperm donor’s taste in music (he was fond of the Eagles) than his face, the likeness of which Dary had never seen. When Gene learned this, it had appalled him, though he’d had no shortage of grounds on which to raise objections to his daughter’s decision. It had taken him a long time to recognize that the more he ex- pressed his discomfort, the less Dary would disclose to him. Maida had encouraged him to focus on the future, the one in which she prudently anticipated that he would want to have a good relationship with his grandchild—an unlikely outcome if he alienated his child in the process of her be- coming a mother. How grateful he was to Maida, then and now, not because she had magically smoothed over his differences with Dary, but rather because the future his wife had helped him envision had in fact arrived. He loved his grand- daughter more than he thought possible. Sometimes it was easier to love a grandchild than a child.
He’d been in the habit of telling Annie how beautiful she was until Dary asked him to stop, or to find something else to praise besides her looks. He hadn’t stopped thinking she was beautiful, but mostly he had stopped saying it.
When he asked her what she was doing that day in town, she told him she had been in the store downstairs. He asked her if she knew that was where his store used to be.
“Yeah,” she said. “But then you ran out of money.” “That’s not exactly how it happened.”
“Did she tell you how much she used to love the store as a kid? It was a little girl’s dream, all those high heels. You wouldn’t know it now, but your mother used to be a dress-up girl.”
Annie picked up one of the shoes from the corner of his desk. She peered inside it, sniffing a little, then quickly drew back with exaggerated disgust, though he happened to know it didn’t smell of anything but the leather it had been made of. “How come you sold shoes, anyway?” she said.
“Everyone has to sell something. And my father—your great-grandfather—worked in a tannery. Do you know what that is?”
“Great-grandfather wanted you to sell shoes?”
“He died when I was just about your age. I never got the chance to ask.”
“Then how come you didn’t decide to do something else? Something more fun? Why didn’t you make ice cream? Or work at the zoo?”
“Is that what you’re going to do when you grow up?” “I’m going to be famous.”
“What for?” “Everything.” “Like what?”
“Like the way I dress, and the music I listen to, and just everything.”
He noticed then that she was wearing the Sugar Dakota neck- lace. So she had bought it. “I hate to break it to you, Annie Moon, but you don’t have a rich—family.” He had almost said “father”—he had wanted to—but he caught himself in time. “You’re going to have to find a way to make money.”
“Famous people make lots of money.”
“Sure, but they did something to become famous first, right?”
“Not everyone has to make money, Papa.”
“You either have to make it, or you have to have it already. Trust me.”
“Are you making money? Is that why you’re here?” He told her he was trying to write.
“No, about Nana. For the memorial.” “Still?”
After she was gone he felt dissatisfied with himself for not having given her a better answer about his work, about why the shoe business and not something else. He believed it fell to parents and grandparents to create the impression that events didn’t arrange themselves according to arbitrary forces, at least not completely, and that labor directed in a purposeful fashion would be rewarded with desirable outcomes. He felt a responsibility to demonstrate to his grand- daughter that his life had had a purpose and that this purpose was inseparable from his life as he had lived it. He didn’t always perceive this to be true—sometimes, in fact, he longed for an alternate life whose main attractive quality was simply that it was different from everything he knew— but in his everyday sort of life, the one in which he felt it was a matter of good faith and character and citizenship to be reconciled to the life he had, he told himself that his path reflected only what his path could have been, and that it was inherently meaningful in spite of his inability to fully articulate the meaning.
But somehow, with Annie there, he had been less certain that the signs he’d followed as a young man had pointed unambiguously in this one direction. A slight shift in circumstances might have made for an entirely different life. What if Ed had changed his mind about introducing him to Maida? What if he hadn’t married her? What sort of career might he have pursued then? Without the loan from Maida’s father, he never would have been able to open the store. But without a wife or child to support, he also might have chosen an entirely different path.
It was a game he played with himself—how far could he go, how different could his life become—before he said Stop and withdrew, reversing out of the discomfort he had caused him- self. At this juncture another part of his mind took over, one that was genially affirming to the choices he had made and which, in its own conservative way, returned him once again to a known, secure world.
He didn’t really believe any of it had been arbitrary. It couldn’t have been.
He hadn’t misspoken to Annie when he’d mentioned his father. Not that he would ever claim, in any kind of one-to-one correlation, that he had sold shoes because his father had worked in a tannery. The truth was that he didn’t really know his father and his father hadn’t lived long enough to see who Gene became. Still, the heft of his father’s truncated life intruded on the reality of Gene’s own. That was perhaps what he had failed to convey to Annie, who was too young to comprehend how the person missing in her life might shape it anyway.
This story originally appeared in The Dependents (novel).