The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 8, No. 4


by Catherine Dupree


Although the scientist’s daughter calls every Sunday evening, he hasn’t seen her in three years. So when she calls and invites him to join her in Hawaii for a weeklong vacation, he pauses—more out of habit since there’s nothing, besides weekly colloquia and a vague idea for an astronomy textbook, on his agenda—and agrees. They discuss flights, weighing the benefits of a night flight versus a long layover in San Francisco, and shall she order him a low-salt meal? Once the logistics are settled and civilities exchanged, his daughter declares, “I’m happy you’re coming. I think we should see each other more.”
           “I agree,” the scientist says, but wonders which of his daughter’s boyfriends broke it off at the last minute. Whose place is he taking in Hawaii?
           “Don’t forget your bathing suit!” Lia chirps as she hangs up, leaving the scientist listening to Beethoven’s Pastoral in the dark and wondering how she can take a vacation in the middle of April. Lia teaches mathematics at a small liberal arts college in Pennsylvania and has told her father she thinks she’ll make tenure there: in the lush hollows of the Alleghenies. She’s content to teach earnest if mediocre students in overheated classrooms because long ago she relinquished any dreams of working at a research university like her father.
          The scientist remembers the last time he saw his daughter—at his emeritus ceremony—but he can’t remember how she looked. Did she wear lipstick, or an elaborate hair style? What he does remember about that day happened after she had left, and after he had packed his papers and books into long white boxes that reminded him of coffins and carried them down the hall to a smaller office with a dirty window and a shared secretary. He was in the middle of unpacking when the lanky string theorist who had moved into his old office appeared in the threshold, a mug of steaming coffee in one hand, an Astrophysical Journal in the other.
           “Harold,” the string theorist said. He had a nasal, childish voice. “I thought you might want this.”
          The scientist thought he meant the coffee; but the theorist held out the ApJ.
           “It had fallen behind the file cabinet.”
          Harold thanked him and he nodded crisply and left, the smell of his coffee still heavy in the air. Standing in the threshold, Harold stared down at the journal in his hands. He recognized it immediately because it contained his first article as lead author, published forty years ago.

Harold flies to Hawaii from the East Coast alone—Lia’s on a nonstop from Chicago—and he is grateful for the window seat on such a clear day. Although he has flown this route over a hundred times on the way to Mauna Kea’s telescopes, he has always been mesmerized by the placidity below. He remembers his wife used to pack him crossword puzzles and mystery novels to pass the time, but he’d tell her he was never bored. He thinks of his wife—her corn silk hair and translucent skin—and that he never invited her on his trips to Hawaii. “It’s not vacation,” he’d tell her. “I’m on the mountain day and night.” But she’d throw her slender wrists in the air and say he was married to the telescopes. Now, it aches to think of her eating silent, solitary dinners, or that morning’s emergency appointment—her pale knees knocking together like small branches—and the phone that rang and rang and rang unanswered on the mountain. Harold breathes in deeply and stares at the plane’s own shadow sweeping across the dun-colored fields. As much as he had tried—and after her death he had stayed home for months, as if skulking about the dim rooms would coax self-reproach from him—he could never conjure enough shame or guilt to make him regret his work. But now, twenty years later, he is not as steadfast about the wisdom of past choices. He stays late in his office, compiling lists of what he has accomplished as a measure against his regret: awards, honors, admission to the Academy. In the night he wakes sharply to a single thought: I will not win the Nobel Prize.

It is not until dinner that night, after arguing over the rental car in the airport and checking into the low-rise, stucco hotel, and after a short nap followed by a quiet walk along the seawall to the fish restaurant in Kailua, that Harold finally can take in his daughter. She sits across from him in an aqua tank top and white Bermudas belted high on her waist, her copper hair clipped back severely to reveal a splattering of rusty freckles across her forehead. She is a solid, broad-shouldered woman: unabashed about taking up space, raising her voice, fanning her face with a menu if it’s too hot. Has she always been so sturdy? Harold wonders, glancing at the table because he is afraid to stare for long.
          They order ono and opakapaka, and for fun: two bright blue drinks.
           “Oh, wow,” Lia says when the drinks arrive. She sips from a straw, her eyes widening.
           “That’s good!” she says.
          Harold puckers his lips around the straw.
           “Sweet,” he says, smiling. But he is unaccustomed to the slow drag and pull of alcohol through his body, the fleeting sensation of euphoria and promise. He places his hand on the table as if to steady himself.
           “So,” Lia says, and exhales loudly. She drops her arms on the table and her bracelets clatter.
           “I met a man,” she says.
          Harold raises his eyebrows. “Oh?”
           “His name is Gus.”
           “Gus,” Harold says. “Is he at the college?”
           “Actually,” she says. “I met him here.”
           “Here?” Harold presses his finger onto the tabletop. “Here?”
           “Back at the hotel.”
          Harold frowns as he processes this information. They’ve been in Hawaii, he calculates, for approximately four hours.
           “Where is he from?”
           “New York,” she says, her lips curling coyly at the corners. “He comes to Hawaii more than you do. He’s a fruit expert.”
          Harold fingers the tip of his straw and listens as she describes meeting Gus earlier that day: how she’d been sitting on the beach when he appeared in green swim trunks with two guavas in his palms like eggs. He asked if she’d like to taste one—he promised they’d be exquisite—but she demurred, admitting she never accepted food from strangers. He nodded gravely and then sat beside her on the sand. With the small knife he wore on a shoelace around his neck, he carved one of the guavas and told her this particular strain was as rare as a panda. He showed her the guava’s milky flesh and tiny cavity of soft seeds and whispered, “Gorgeous,” as if witnessing the unveiling of an ancient masterpiece. He begged her to simply smell the fruit, and when she dropped her nose to his palm, he explained how a year ago he’d stumbled upon a guava tree growing like a weed in a forgotten nook near the hotel’s tennis court, and he’d kept it a secret, but returned to the hidden spot frequently. “As long as there’s sun, a little water, she’ll thrive. That’s how guavas endear themselves to you,” he said reverently. “They’re not fussy.”
           “He said guavas aren’t fussy!” Lia shouts, eyes wide. “He was utterly serious!”
          She bangs her palms on the table, startling her father.
           “So we chatted for an hour about fruit and it turns out he’s a worldwide authority. He doesn’t bother with commercial varieties—he called oranges ‘ho-hum’ and bananas ‘a bore’—but he travels the world for the most obscure hybrids of melons or persimmons. Things you’ve never even heard of!”
          She drops her chin and smiles at the table.
           “He’s extraordinary,” she says softly. “You’re going to love him.”
          There are a million things Harold wants to ask. Such as is Gus all there and is it possible to last a day without male companionship? He remembers a family trip to Mesa Verde twenty-five years ago when Lia—no older than twelve—managed to meet a boy in the short walk between car and park entrance. And within minutes, they were chattering away, their glossy auburn heads bent together, their soft voices like murmuring birds. Even when they climbed the ladders to the cave dwellings—the boy extending his right hand in a dramatic flourish to allow Lia to climb first—their conversation never seemed to wane.
           “Are you genuinely interested in him?” her father finally asks. “A fruit expert?”
          Lia doesn’t answer, only regards him with narrowed eyes, her lips pursed.
           “He wears a knife around his neck,” Harold says. “Maybe he’s a hobo.”
          Lia squeezes her eyes shut.
           “Dad,” she says angrily. “He writes articles for the New York Times
          Lia sighs loudly. “And he wears a knife around his neck so he can cut specimens.”
           “He’s a scientist, Dad,” Lia says. “Like you.”
          Harold chooses to ignore this. He rearranges his silverware, stares at the table. He hadn’t meant to be cruel.
           “I don’t know what’s normal these days,” he says. But because Lia calls every Sunday and reports on the previous evening, he knows what’s normal for her is a different man each weekend. At one point, there was a live-in boyfriend—a newspaper reporter named Robert, Harold remembers, or maybe he was a teacher—but now there are casts of characters: Luke from admissions or Brian with the convertible. And when Lia merrily describes candlelit dinners or hikes along muddy fire roads in the Alleghenies, Harold invariably imagines her on the phone at the stove of her sunlit kitchen in the house he’s never seen, stirring an enormous pot of something while somewhere else—her office maybe, or even right there on the table—is a glowing computer screen, a mess of papers, a steadily increasing pile of neglected work.
          Lia takes a roll from the basket in the middle of the table and rips off a piece.
           “Well for starters, spending your entire life slaving over data and numbers and theory isn’t normal,” she says. She presses the bread onto her tongue and looks away.
           “Anyway,” she finally says, with a small sigh. “He invited us to go to the volcano with him tomorrow.”
          Harold drops his hand on the table.
           “To Kilauea? You just met this man, Lia.”
           “I know,” she says, cheeks glowing. “Isn’t it crazy? But he knows where there’s still steam rising from the vents, and there’s even a school bus submerged in lava!”
          Harold rubs his eyes. “I’ve seen the postcard,” he says. He wonders if she knows the volcano is on the other side of the island.
           “It’ll take four hours to drive there,” he tells her. “It’s a whole day’s affair.”
           “Have you been?”
           “Once,” Harold says, although he is lying. “A long time ago.”
           “Well I’m excited to go.” She crosses her arms and stares at her father. “And I think you should come too.”
          Harold feels like gripping his daughter’s bare shoulders and shaking her. How can you be so obtuse? he thinks, his anger surging. But he knows she’ll go even if he doesn’t, would leap over cracks and peer into the steaming crevices of an active volcano. All this for the fruit expert, Harold thinks.
           “It’s a long drive,” he says. “I hope you like this fellow.”

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