Taking Care of TillybyA_Little_Show©
Matilda Swanson stepped off the bus into the Colorado January sun. She clutched a heavy coat purchased in St. Louis during an overnight layover. The Florida native gritted chattering teeth and cursed the cold. A breathtaking view spread out before her. Far below and miles away, her husband performed his duty as a soldier training at Fort Carson. Teaching high school art classes may have been his calling, but he loved being a medic in the Army Reserves almost as much.
"Tilly, over here," her father-in-law shouted and waved as he waited for a line of slow moving cars to pass before he crossed the street. When a gap formed, he jogged to stand beside the young woman and followed her gaze into the distance. "Let's get in my truck. It's warm."
Tilly had mentally rehearsed a greeting, but her tongue stumbled over the words when she started talking. She had met the man the day before her wedding to his son, and he asked her to call him "Papa" then. They had only spoken on a few occasions since that day. She wasn't used to the name that seemed overly familiar given their relationship so far. She had never known her father or any grandparents and couldn't remember ever uttering the word.
He opened the passenger door for her. When Tilly struggled to lift a foot to the high step into the cab, he grasped her hips and hoisted her in. She reached for the handhold to pull herself the rest of the way while he steadied her. "We'll have to work something out for the car seat," he said in a way that assured he had the matter well in hand.
Tilly noted a kick as she fussed to find the buckle for her seatbelt under the overhang of her coat. Papa watched her struggle and said, "Let me help." She sat back and he snapped the belt tight enough to compress the heavy coat between her swollen breasts. Tilly tugged on the shoulder strap for some slack but found it locked.
Papa had left the truck running to fill the cab with blessed warmth. Tilly unzipped her coat while Papa merged with traffic on the two-lane highway headed west into the mountains. She watched him drive in silence. He didn't ask her about her trip or the baby or even her husband. A half hour later, the truck rolled to a halt in front of a log home. Gray smoke wafted from three of its four chimneys. She estimated he had enough firewood to build the house again stacked on a long cement slab a few yards from the door.
"What's the cord for?" Tilly asked as Papa snapped a power cable out from under a dusting of fresh snow.
"It's for a block warmer," he explained. "The truck's got a diesel engine. It can't start when it's too cold. There's an electric warmer to keep things above minimums." He connected the cable to a short plug hanging out of the truck's covered radiator.
Inside a small foyer, Tilly kicked off her snow-covered shoes and hung her coat on a peg in the wall. Papa brushed snow off her travel bag and set it on the floor beside her.
"Did the rest of my things arrive?" she asked.
"Already in your room."
George, Tilly's husband, had always called Papa's place a cabin, but Tilly saw it was more than that. The foyer opened to a large space containing a gourmet kitchen, a dining area, and a living room with two fireplaces. Papa pointed to a door off the living room, and Tilly opened it to find a large bedroom. An unmade queen-sized bed occupied the middle. She saw folded sheets and blankets stacked on a shelf. As Papa was busy in the kitchen, Tilly decided to explore her new home.
Five cardboard boxes stacked against a wall contained everything she owned. When George's unit got called up, he knew he'd have to find a new teaching job. The school pretended to be sympathetic, but they wouldn't hold his position for the year or more of his deployment. The newlyweds sold their furniture and let the lease on their condo lapse. Tilly shipped everything else to Colorado and bought a bus ticket.
With a baby on the way, it seemed best to stretch George's meager salary by living with his father during two months of pre-deployment training at Fort Carson. Being less than an hour away meant they'd reunite when he got weekend leave. Tilly couldn't wait to see her husband. Pregnancy hormones revved her already high libido into overdrive. The two weeks they'd been apart since he reported for duty were a special kind of hell. Being less than an hour away meant he could be present for the birth of his child.
Tilly found a grand bathroom en suite and shook her head at her reflection in a wall sized mirror. She certainly looked eight months pregnant. "You're going to be a mother. You should have more self control," she muttered, recalling the times she masturbated during the three day bus ride and blushing with a moment of embarrassment. The first time, she held a demure pose with her thighs crossed and flexed muscles for relief. The second time, she used her hand under a blanket. She suspected one of the other passengers knew.
Tilly relieved her bladder and wiped away excess moisture that wasn't urine. The bathroom featured one of the luxurious walk-in showers Tilly had only seen in magazines. A clear glass wall formed an S-shaped path preventing water from escaping without requiring a door. An expanse of floor tile under a stained glass window left ample space for a bathtub, but none was installed. The empty space gave Tilly a sensation of being exposed on the toilet. All she could reach from her position was a wicker basket full of toilet paper rolls.
She washed her hands, splashed water on her face, and tucked a few loose strands of hair back into her ponytail. A delicious aroma prompted Tilly to rejoin her father-in-law in the kitchen. The soothing shower she coveted would have to be postponed.
"I know you're a vegetarian," he said when she leaned around him to see the cast iron skillet. "It's acorn squash." He shook a bag of pine nuts into a thin layer of bubbling oil surrounding the squash and put the whole skillet back in the oven. "Protein," he said.
Tilly hadn't said much, and Papa didn't press her. Over dinner, she complimented him on his home.
"Thank you," Papa replied with some pride. "It will be tight here. I expected to live alone and didn't put enough thought into guest accommodations." When he saw Tilly's look of concern, he added, "But, I'm delighted to have you."
Tilly understood he meant what he said, but she still felt awkward. "You really built this by yourself in one year?"
He nodded. She asked where he was going to sleep, and he pointed to a couch.
"Can I borrow your truck to go to the Army Hospital on Tuesday?," she asked. "I need to check-in and meet the Army's obstetrician."
He nodded and answered, "That's fine, or I can drive you."
Papa didn't own a TV. He stretched out on his couch under a flannel blanket and worked on one of the super high-end Apple laptops she'd been coveting for years and could never afford. Tilly felt like chatting, but she didn't want to disturb whatever he was doing. She made her bed and savored a long hot soak in the gigantic shower. In the morning, she cooked oatmeal for the two of them while Papa fetched logs and stoked the fires. She noticed he carried a half-full glass bottle out with him and brought it back empty.
To Tilly's pleasant surprise, the obstetrician was a woman. Everything checked out normal. The doctor even ordered an ultrasound performed during her checkup. Tilly floated out to the parking lot on an emotional high to show Papa a high resolution printout of his granddaughter. He smiled and squeezed her shoulder with one hand. They spent the afternoon shopping in Colorado Springs. Papa insisted on paying for everything. Tilly tried to argue, but the man was immovable, and she gave up.
Back at the cabin, Papa asked to use his bathroom. Tilly laughed and said, "Of course, it's your house." He showered and emerged in a tailored suit. "Are you going out?" she asked.
"It's dance night."
Tilly almost asked to accompany him before an ill-timed kick and her tired back reminded her that dancing was a bad idea. Solitude provided an opportunity for Tilly to masturbate and be as loud as she wanted. She found her Hitachi Magic Wand Massager and let it take her over the brink multiple times. She fell asleep and didn't hear Papa return.
In the morning, Tilly solved the mystery of the half-full glass bottle. She cracked open her bedroom door at dawn to spy Papa peeing into it. She shook her head and quietly closed the door. After breakfast, Papa brushed his teeth at the kitchen sink. He dressed in heavy overalls and chopped wood for an hour. When he returned, Tilly was engrossed in a Netflix video she had download to her craptop the night before. He tapped her knee gently to get her attention and nodded toward the bedroom, "May I?"
"Of course, it's your house." She smiled.
Over dinner of leek soup and corn bread, Tilly asked, "Do you cook everything in your skillet?"
Her father-in-law smiled and said, "Old habit."
She had to admit, the man had a clever system. He chopped the vegetables and heated the soup right in the pan, poured the soup into bowls, mixed the cornbread batter in the pan, and baked the cornbread in the same cast iron. "It certainly cuts down on dishes," she said.
Tilly had two emails from George waiting when she checked after dinner. He told her about showing the ultrasound pictures to his buddies. Tilly had taken a picture of the printout with her digital camera and sent the picture to him the day before. The other email described how much fun he had making the baby with her. Tilly went to bed early and mentally replayed events leading to the conception. When she could think clearly again, she sent her husband a list of baby names to consider. "Matilda," was not on the list.
A couple of days passed but George didn't respond. It bothered her, but it had happened before. Maneuvers sometimes kept George out overnight. She rode her wand to an orgasm and cursed her husband for missing the wanton performance. She looked forward to seeing him on the weekend if he got a pass. When she didn't hear anything by Friday night, she feared the weekend reunion she badly needed wouldn't happen. When there was no contact by Sunday night, Tilly cried softly in hormone-charged frustration and loneliness.
Her bedroom door stood open, but Papa knocked anyway. Tilly gave him a smile around tears, and he sat next to her on the bed. He put his arm around her shoulders without saying a word. As she grew accustomed to the closeness, Tilly leaned into Papa's shoulder. She found it comforting. They sat together in silence for an hour or more until Papa nodded to the bathroom and asked, "May I shower?"
Tilly pushed him to the bathroom and closed the door behind him. "Pushing" was an exaggeration. Papa stood six feet tall and weighed a hundred pounds more than Tilly. It would be more accurate to say Tilly goaded him as a way of emphasizing that he should use his own bathroom without asking every time. Once he was inside though, Tilly realized she needed to pee. "Shit, bad timing," she whispered and crossed her legs. She wondered where the glass bottle was hidden before acknowledging how impractical that would be.
Tilly knocked on the door, but she heard no answer. He might not have heard over shower noise, so she cracked the door and knocked louder while asking, "Can I come in a moment? I need to pee."
Papa stepped out of the shower and wrapped a towel around himself. He displayed an amused smile and opened the door. They edged past each other to exchange places. Tilly's baby belly rubbed against Papa's towel, and due to their height difference, she suspected she brushed a bit more of his groin than a daughter-in-law should. Papa closed the door and waited in the bedroom.
When Tilly emerged, the dripping wet bedraggled man resumed his shower. She lingered outside the closed bathroom door and wondered how to make the limitation of only one bathroom less of a nuisance. One thing pregnancy taught her was hyperawareness of her body. More people poked and prodded her in the last six months than her entire life to that point. She didn't know Papa well, but surely they could make arrangements a little more flexible. It wouldn't mortify her if he chanced a glimpse of her flesh. At least, she told herself that.
On Monday morning, a pair of soldiers in dress uniforms knocked on the door. Papa answered and invited them in. The news was as bad as could be. George's helicopter went down during training, killing George and seven of his buddies. The men apologized for the late notice. George had never changed his official address or something in the bureaucracy got crossed. The Army had sent a team to notify Tilly back in Florida. It had taken them three days to find her less than an hour from their gates.
Tilly sat on the couch in a numb stupor. Papa thanked the men and received pamphlets about military funeral benefits and God-knew-what else before he sent them away. He looked at his daughter-in-law until she made eye contact. Seeing the anguish in Papa's eyes broke her will to remain calm, and she let loose an animal scream. Papa sat beside her as she wailed incoherently. He kissed the top of her head and rocked her. When sobbing subsided, Papa stayed beside her.
"He'll never know his daughter," she whispered.
"I think he will," Papa whispered back.
Neither slept or said another word until morning.
"I have to tell Mama," Papa said.
"Do you want me to come? I've never met her."
"She might like that." He smiled.
Mama, Papa's wife, lived in a nursing home down in the valley. It was one of the reasons Papa had built the house and stayed in Colorado.
She had suffered a brain hemorrhage similar to a stroke when she was thirty-four. Doctors said it was an undetected defect that had been present all her life. Papa had been living alone for the decade since. Mama was bedridden and could barely talk. She had no memory of being married or having a son. She recognized Papa, but only because he visited often. The bewildered expression on the woman's face drove Tilly to step into the hallway for another crying jag.
Her mother had displayed similar bewildered expressions when high. Tilly had suffered through a few years of foster care. She searched for her mother when she turned eighteen, but the only lead she found came from a junkie who said her mother had hitchhiked to Mexico City.
Papa grabbed take-out bean burritos on the drive home. Tilly ignored the seatbelt and slid close to hold Papa's elbow while he drove. Over dinner, they took turns telling stories about George. Papa recounted the time George won an art contest as a third grader. Tilly described her terrible first date with George. Papa suggested watching the wedding video, but Tilly knew it would be too painful.
Neither of them had slept for more than a day. Tilly rested her head on Papa's shoulder while he stroked her hair. She woke sometime in the night with her head in his lap. He remained sitting, but his head lolled and he snored softly with a tiny dribble in the corner of his mouth. His large hand rested on her neck as if he had fallen asleep in the middle of petting her hair. Tilly stayed awake for an hour or so listening to her father-in-law breathe before fatigue overwhelmed her. She found herself under a blanket on the bed in the morning.
Faint shower noise through the bathroom door informed Tilly where to find Papa. She knocked and cracked the door again. "I have to pee really bad."
Papa moved to pull a towel from the rack beyond the shower entrance, but she said, "Just close your eyes. I'll only be a minute." He wrapped the towel around himself and obeyed while Tilly took care of business.
She couldn't help noticing the family resemblance between Papa and his son. She wondered how far the resemblance extended. It wasn't sexual curiosity. She was too numb for that. It was more about her mind slipping a gear while reaching out for her only remaining family. She knew little Georgette would need her Papa. The baby's name was settled at that moment, sitting on the toilet with Papa squeezing his eyes tight enough to wrinkle his face.
The funeral had a closed casket. It left Tilly hollow with no visceral confirmation of George's death. Her friend, Megan, flew out for the funeral. Megan had taught math at the same school where George had taught art. Megan was the one who introduced Tilly to George. Tilly needed the extra emotional support from her friend, but it came with a price. Megan couldn't take time off and fly across the country for the funeral as well as Georgette's birth. It had to be one or the other.
The three people in Colorado who knew George best went out to dinner and an impromptu wake.
"Do you remember the time George got covered in mud digging out the drain pipe at my house?" Megan reminisced. "I put his clothes in the washer, and you stole all the towels while he was in the shower."
"Yeah," Tilly laughed. "I knew I wanted to see more after he streaked to the laundry room holding his junk in his hands."
Papa smiled and said, "He started streaking at an early age. Back when we lived in California, he was maybe four, he jumped out of the bathtub while my back was turned and ran starkers into the front yard. Then there was the time Mama and I came home to find George and his buddies skinny-dipping in the neighbor's pool. It wouldn't have been so bad, but I think the boys nearly gave old Mrs. Fraser a heart attack. Mama went over and embarrassed the boys by making them each call their parents for a ride home."
"He never told me that one," Tilly mumbled while leaning against the table with her chin in her hands.
"Do you know what he told me after your first date?" Megan asked. "He swore me to secrecy, but I guess it's OK now."
Everyone paused to collect their emotions. "What did he say?"
"He said you looked at him like he had two heads, and he thought he'd blown his chance. Then, you said dating could only get better after that, or something similar. When he got back in his car, he called me and said he had a new strategy: set expectations low on the first date, get better each time, and by the tenth date, you'd be ready to marry him."
"He really talked about marrying me after the first date?"
"He really did." Megan smiled. "I wasn't sure he was serious, but turned out he was."
Papa described a phone call from George after Tilly had accepted George's proposal. "He said I'd love you." Papa looked squarely in Tilly's face and said, "I do."
Tilly hugged her father-in-law, and Megan put a hand on his where it rested on the table. "I'm glad Tilly has someone for her here," she said with wet eyes.
Papa held Tilly's hand through the labor and delivery. It went fast after they got to the Army hospital. Tilly worried about her modesty at first but gave the concern zero attention once pushing started in earnest. She watched the baby crown in a mirror the doctor positioned for that purpose. Papa cut Georgette's umbilical cord and kissed the baby's head before the nurse had a chance to wipe it clean.
Papa was her only family, and the time for modesty had past. Something mystical caused Tilly to forget most details of the delivery, but she remembered Papa whispering between contractions. He said, "This little angel brings tidings of love," and thanked Tilly for bringing Georgette into the world.
A few hours later, she held her daughter to her breast and asked Papa what he meant.
"It's a kind of prayer," he explained. "I said the same thing when George was born, and I thanked his mother, too."
"But, what does it mean?"
He remained silent for several minutes while she adjusted a nipple to improve Georgette's suction. When she looked in his eyes, she saw a single tear.