When her dad was drunk and in the yard making short films that lasted anywhere from ten seconds to a minute, Amanda Bean hosted her family of weary stuffed animals to an afternoon tea in her room. Though only seven, her life felt burdened. Among the sewn up malcontents she was, at least, in good company.
Pig Wig the Bear was unhappy with her name but never admitted how squat her nose was or how profound her midsection either. She was a cold and uptight bear, but Amanda desperately sought her approval.
Then there was Mazzy Monkey who had IBS and was awfully sore about it, but she was watching her diet lately and had been eating lots of fiber. Besides, Mazzy had finally sought a second opinion after all of the earthy-smelling supplements Dr. Duck pushed on her only exacerbated her problem. But anyone having tea that day could have told her Dr. Duck’s word was worthless.
Dr. Duck was a fraud and everyone knew it. He had been sued for malpractice in several states, though still claimed he was a Johns Hopkins grad to new patients. No one knew how he began his “career,” but it was no secret that most of his work came from abortions. Kim Kangaroo was so crass as to question him at the table about his services, even though her son Kyle had always wanted a little sibling.
Devon Dingo, famous among the circle for his frequent fit-throwing and cursing, did not like that one bit. He spun into a minor rage over Kim Kangaroo’s solicitations to Dr. Duck, especially since she had the poor manners to make their private affairs public. Mazzy Monkey, a southern Baptist, had the nerve to proselytize the warring couple. Devon Dingo, his temper well past its boiling point, told the Monkey she stunk, which shut her up.
Fine, he admitted to all sundry, he did not want the bastard child anymore than Kim Kangaroo did, but at least he had the good graces to keep his mouth shut. Of course, according to nosy Ms. Bumble, his lips were not exactly sealed the other night when the two shared a bottle of wine. She had a tendency to buzz in as the third party when drama reared its ubiquitous head. A retired school teacher, she was always the first to ask Amanda Bean about her home life, but the young girl was bright enough not to divulge more than was necessary. There might come a time when she could trust Ms. Bumble, but until she knew she could, until she knew the information gathered would provide a happier conclusion and not simply make even more a mess of things, she would be careful with her admissions. The world was a tricky place, Amanda Bean knew.
“String Bean, String Bean, honey, check this out,” her dad shouted.
She turned her head quickly from the table and looked down to the uneven crack between the bottom of the door and the floor. A shadow appeared. She excused herself from the party, feeling her face flush with embarrassment, and headed to the door.
“I’m busy, Dad,” she called out while reaching for the doorknob. Devon Dingo, continuing to be abusive as he always was when in a foul mood, ridiculed her for not remembering to lock the door earlier.
It was too late. The door swung open, violently. She stepped back but far too slowly. It began as a cold shock and settled into a warm throb. A thin stream of blood ran from her nose. She could taste it on her lips. She felt like crying but had learned to hold back her tears. She looked down and squeezed her eyes shut.
The pressure passed, and she looked at her dad. He stared at her. His face was red and swollen.
“Dad, I’m busy,” she said.
“What’d you do to your face? What’d you do String Bean? Jeez, Bean, you’re bleeding.”
He reached for her nose and rubbed his thick thumb across it, smearing the blood. She backed up, but he moved forward, wiping it raw.
“Shut up, String Bean, I’m trying to fix ya. You’re bleeding.”
Dr. Duck began to pipe up but Amanda shushed him.
“Oh, don’t you shush me! No don’t you shush me, goddamn it!” Her father yelled and hit the wall with his fist. She stood petrified, and could hear her guests talking to each other in hushes only she could hear and it made her want to drift away and never be heard from by any of them again. This was a true humiliation, but then they all had their own demons. Every one of them had told her as much. They were kind to her that way.
“We’re going downstairs, String Bean. I need to show you something.”
She nodded quickly and followed. She looked back at the tea party as she left the room, saw them ignoring her, dealing with their own private crises, and knew the moment she was out of earshot Ms. Bumble was going to hold proper court. That was reality though, she knew. That, she had learned, was how people were.
Downstairs Amanda Bean sat on the carpet and watched her dad reach for his laptop, holding it loosely in his hand. It made her nervous. His fingers were like his face—red, swollen, tired. It looked like he could have dropped his computer any time, like he could trip over himself and land forcefully on the beaten coffee table, destroying it. When her father was drunk and feeling creative, he lurched around the house like an earth-mover on a single wheel. It felt to her that anything he touched could break.
“Just look at this and tell me what you think. I swear you can go back and play with all your stuffed friends after you just tell me what you think.”
Her dad put the computer down on the coffee table and fumbled with his camera, plugging it into the wrong port at first and talking to himself in inconsistent, garbled tones. Amanda Bean looked out the window and hoped that Ms. Bumble was not getting Devon Dingo too riled up. In truth, she wanted to speak with him privately and would wait to do so in the evening right before bedtime. At his best, Devon Dingo was as loyal as anyone she had ever met, though his vices were very real. At times she feared what he might do if this temper rose to the fever-pitch that Kim Kangaroo had confided to her about on several occasions. And then there rumbled an unsettling rumor that he liked to sneak whiskey into his tea when no one was looking.
“You got that, String Bean darling? Just take a look and tell me what you think. I need to know what you think. Your opinion is very important to me. I’m doing this for you, you know. Your mother can say all the nasty things she wants, but I’m going to be recognized one day. All artists starve for a little while, that’s the period I’m in right now. Hey, String Bean? Are you listening? Look at me! This is very important that you tell me what you think!”
Her eyes had begun to wander out the window, but she pulled them back into the present and put her mental fussing on pause. Though she did not mean to, her answer came out in a snap, “So put it on, Daddy.”
His sneer was hideous. “You sass me, little Bean.”
“No, Daddy! I’m not sassing you, I just really want to see it.” She gulped. “I’m excited, that’s all.”
He breathed in hard and slowly nodded his head. “Okay, just tell me what you think. It’s very important to me.”
He pulled up the file that contained his latest work, and before hitting the play button, instructed, “You have to be honest. That’s all that matters. Just be honest and honestly tell me what you think.”
“Okay, Daddy, show me. Please, just put it on.”
He looked down, his eyes unsteady and the lids half-closed, muttering to himself about sassing. When he looked up a dull pain rippled in her stomach. He was shaking and tearing up.
“No need to be impatient, String Bean. There’s so much of that in the world already. Your mother never had the patience to stand by me when I got fired. Losing my job was a blessing, String Bean, a blessing!”
He was on his knees and swaying. He said, swatting the air, “But you’re young. You’re too goddamn young to understand any of this anyway.”
He belched and jerked his head back. Then he hit play. The short film was fifteen seconds long and revealed Amanda Bean’s dad raking leaves in the front yard, only to find a half-full bottle of whiskey in the pile. Pulling the discovery out and unscrewing the cap, he takes a sip and makes a strange face, before turning to the camera to say, “Some days are better than others. Finding this baby today sure beats falling asleep outside last night.” He takes another sip as the film fades out.
Amanda Bean had seen movies like these from her father before. There was the one where he searched all over for a bottle opener for his beer, finally relying on his own tooth to open it, chipping a canine in the process. It was one of the “organic surprises of his work,” those moments that made the creative process exciting, malleable, unpredictable. In the film, his spontaneous reaction was simply to say, “I got more of ‘em, anyway. Teeth that is, not beer. It’s Sunday after all. Hallelujah!”
In another film, her father had a flat tire and needed to get to the grocery store, so he rolled out a tractor tire he had leaning against the house. He rolled it down the street and leapt in as it gained motion, only to be spat out moments later. Still, he was able to edit away the ending and give the poorly executed stunt the appearance that he was indeed using the large tire for transport.
The underlying theme of all his brief films, as he told Amanda Bean time and time again, was optimism.
“You see that, String Bean? You see that fade out? I learned how to do that just the other day. I’m just getting started. I put gems like these online and develop a fan base, then before you know it I’m showing up at film festivals. I’m just getting started, String Bean.”
“I don’t get it, Daddy.”
He blinked hard at Amanda Bean.
“I’m sorry, I just don’t get it, Daddy.”
“What’s there not to get? A well-built guy, a good guy, hardworking, serious, down on his luck but finds something to be happy about. There’s always a bright side, String Bean. You can always see the glass as half-full. And people need the bright side, honey. People are hungry for it.”
“I hope so, Daddy.”
“They are! They are, String Bean! That and people have no patience anymore so I’m giving them what they want. Micro Movies! Benjamin Bean’s Micro Movies! Quick pick-me-ups for all the sad, beaten souls out there. I’m just getting started, String Bean, I’m just getting started here!”
She really hoped Devon Dingo had not done what he was best at and alienated everyone at the table. She worried when she was not there to mediate. She worried all the time, just like her mother had, apparently.
She heard her father belch again in a low, sustained hum. She stopped looking out the window and beheld his puffy face and searing eyes. She said quickly, “Sorry, Daddy. I just don’t get it.”
He rose from the floor and looked down at his daughter. She trembled. She did not mean to say what she just said, but when Devon Dingo and his histrionics were on her mind sometimes things just slipped.
“Fine. That’s fine, String Bean. You’re just a kid.” He smiled smugly and nodded his head. “You’re just a kid,” he repeated.
He picked up his laptop and put it on the kitchen table. He watched the clip again, laughed to himself, nodded his head. “Sassing, always sassing. Doesn’t give a goddamn,” he said.
She tried to sneak away, but he turned and roared, “Don’t you run away!”
“I’m sorry, Daddy!” she pleaded, Devon Dingo now the least of her worries.
“No, you’re not sorry. You don’t get it! And if your mom was still here she would just give me the same shit!” he yelled and kicked the coffee table, sending shards of old wood flying.
“Daddy! Please! I like it actually, I like it!”
“No, you don’t, you never like any of them. That’s because you never get any of them. Now just go to your room, Amanda. Just go to your room! I’m just getting started today and I’ve got more work to do. I’m just getting started.”
Amanda Bean wanted to cry but not in front of her dad. She really just wanted to see Ms. Bumble now. She didn’t even care if the bee gossiped about Amanda’s dad afterwards. She just wanted to see her faded yellow face, that sagging stuffing in her cheeks and the pearly teeth in her doting, quaint smile.
“You goddamn kids!” her dad yelled behind her as she hurried back upstairs to the tea party. “You goddamn kids have no imagination!”
Sean Pravica is a writer and entrepreneur living in Southern California. He has been nominated for writing awards including Sundress Press' Best of the Net as well as storySouth Million Writer's Award. His first novel, Stumbling out the Stable, is due for release by Pelekinesis Press in November 2015.