Droit de Seigneur
By Jo Salas
Perry looked down at the fields and scattered houses far below, minuscule cars beetling along straight roads. One of them might be her elderly father, heading to the airport to meet her. Perry shrank at the prospect: her life once again in his hands. Her father allowed no one to question his privileged position behind the wheel. Sort of a droit de seigneur, thought Perry; not, in this case, the right to deflower one’s female peasants but the right to kill one’s passengers, particularly one’s family.
Hal had always driven like a joy-riding teenager, braking at red lights at the last possible second, tailgating drivers obeying the speed limit, erupting out of intersections with the accelerator to the floor. It gave him a thrill to scare other people on the road, including pedestrians—Perry, a middle-aged daughter imprisoned in the back seat on a scenic drive with her parents, had clenched and gasped as he bore down on a group of children crossing a country road, barely slowing as they scattered in fright. Her mother gave a strangled scream and Hal chuckled. And now his appalling driving was compounded by advanced age and deteriorating vision.
Perry and her three siblings were scattered around the country. Since their mother’s death they had undertaken periodic visits to check on their father, timing them to celebrate his birthday at his favorite restaurant.
“Remind me why I do this, Spider,” Perry said to her younger brother on the phone. “Why do I go visit someone who’s going to annihilate me one day?”
“He’s our dad. And he’s lonely. And you’re fond of each other.”
“True,” said Perry. “Amazing, isn’t it? When you think of it.” They were silent for a moment. “But still. I like my life. I’d prefer not to die at his hands.” She stroked Gulliver, purring in her lap.
“I know what you mean,” said Spider. “Last time I was there he almost killed a cyclist, did I tell you?”
Perry had heard the story several times. The reports of almost-catastrophes had become routine after the siblings’ visits.
“Spider—we have to do something. He’s going to be 89 and he can’t see. He’s a menace.”
“But Perry,” he said. Perry recognized the tone. “It means so much to the old bastard to be independent. Don’t worry. You’ll be in the car for a total of what, a couple of hours. Statistically, the odds are in your favor.”
Spider was three years younger than Perry. They’d always been each other’s ally and defender, closer to each other than to their two older sisters. As adults Perry and her sisters were cordial but the dynamic remained the same: Celia and Lynne, intimate with each other, equals in their considerable worldly achievements; and Perry, who remained the younger sister no matter how old they all grew. Perry, with no PhD, no husband, no children, only a small rented house outside a New England village and an occupation that her family found amusing. At forty-seven she had found peacefulness and joy and wanted no more than she had. It was only in conversation with her high-flying siblings or her father that she saw herself as deficient.
Lynne called to remind her of the yearly obligation.
“I have a ticket already,” responded Perry. “Can’t wait for some of that Huntsman’s special gravy.”
Lynne laughed. They all loathed The Huntsman’s Table, a pretentious, expensive restaurant with dull food. “Well, once in a while I guess we can put up with it. How’s the business going?”
“Great, actually,” said Perry, pleased to be asked. “I got so busy I had to hire somebody to help, this terrific woman Mimi…” but Lynne had moved on.
“You’ll let us know how he’s doing?”
“I will,” said Perry. “What I’m most worried about is his driving. I really think we have to do something, Lynne.” Since her conversation with Spider she’d had a thought. “Look, I’m willing to stick my neck out and tell him that it’s time for him to give up the car. I’ll say that we all feel the same way. If he thinks it’s just me he’ll dismiss it.”
“Oh no,” said Lynne. “No, don’t do that, Perry. He’ll feel like we’re ganging up on him. It’ll just make him furious. It won’t work.”
Perry felt a thwarted anger rising into her throat, bitter and familiar. She swallowed it back and made her voice light. “Well, keep your fingers crossed that he doesn’t kill me, then.”
“You’ll be OK,” said Lynne, reassuring her as Spider had, with the same faintly patronizing tone. What made them think she’d be OK?
Her father was waiting for her at the airport, peering at the arriving passengers until Perry stood right in front of him. He had lost mass and height since the last time she’d seen him, his tall frame more stooped and his skin slack. He brightened when he recognized her. “Well, here you are at last!” He hugged her and for a moment, in spite of everything, she was a girl again in her father’s strong arms.
“Just this?” he asked, nodding at her wheeled carry-on bag. He took the handle from her and led the way slowly to the car park.
Perry cranked up her nerve. “Hal,” she said as he hoisted the bag into the trunk with a grunt. “Can I drive? I’d really like to.” She’d rehearsed this request, imagining his various possible responses. Surly: “Forget it.” Or uncomprehending and offended: “Why the hell would you want to drive?” Or chivalrous: “No, no, I’ll drive, it’s not every day you visit your old man.” Or improbably easy-going: “Sure, honey, if you’d like to.”
But he said nothing at all, simply opened the passenger door and waited for her to climb in. Shit, she said to herself, a great start. Just get me there in one piece, she begged the un-deity that she turned to at such moments.
Apart from a few tense lane-changes the drive was uneventful. Perry’s relief gave way to the familiar sinking of spirits on entering the house. It was messier than it had been the last time she was there, dried-out mugs perched on piles of magazines and newspapers, the refrigerator harboring evidence of old meals. The coffee maker was sticky to the touch. Perry was not herself an immaculate housekeeper but she addressed herself to the disorder as soon as Hal was out of sight. As a child her Saturday morning job had been to dust the carved staircase and the mahogany dining room furniture. Spider had to empty all the wastebaskets. The girls—as they were always called, as though Perry wasn’t a girl too—were in charge of the vacuum cleaner, hefting it importantly up the stairs and using it as an excuse to invade her room and Spider’s, pronouncing judgment on their untidiness.
Hal had not prepared a bedroom for her visit, leaving her to choose one and make up a bed. She chose Celia’s old room, preferring not to sleep with the ghost of her own child self. She found sheets and settled herself in, then curled up on Celia’s blue beanbag chair with her cell phone.
“You’ve reached Mimi at Pet People. We’re there when you can’t be,” said Mimi’s recorded voice. “We’ll call you right back. Miaow!” Perry smiled. It was still a novelty to hear Mimi’s voice announcing the business. “I’ve arrived,” Perry said. “So far so good. Maybe I’ll get home alive after all. Good luck with the Kahns’ kitty today.” She paused. The rote “I love you” never came easily to her. “Bye, Mimi.”
When Perry came down in the morning she saw, for a split second, an ancient and genderless person at the table holding up the newspaper with mottled hands. Then it turned into her father.
“Finally decided to get up, lazybones?” Hal greeted her.
“Morning, Hal,” She made herself some tea.
“I’ve been waiting, so as soon as you’ve finished that, we’ll get going.” His tone was peremptory.
“To the grocery store, remember, then to pick up some annuals at the garden center. You can help me plant them.”
“I was wondering–do you still have Susan coming to clean?” she asked.
“She comes, but I don’t think she sees very well. She must be almost as old as me. Probably should fire the old gal.” Perry knew he’d never fire Susan, who’d been cleaning their house once a week for thirty-five years. It’s remarkable she can do it at all, thought Perry. I guess that’s what you do, just keep going as long as you can, as long as they let you.
“Well, I’m ready,” she said, rinsing her cup and once again mustering her courage. “I’d like to drive. It would be fun. You can navigate if I forget the route.”
“There’s no need for you to drive. I’m perfectly able.”
This time he heard her, at least. He didn’t like it. Her heart pumped a little harder. “Hal, please let me, I don’t get to drive a car like yours at home.” Her father always had large American cars, boring and comfortable.
It didn’t work. “What are you in these days, a 1990 Nissan? Like all the other greenies up there. Or do you just ride a bicycle? Go get your jacket, we’re late.”
Hal, irritated, drove too fast in the short stretches between traffic lights, braking at the last moment. Perry kept quiet. She was determined to give face-saving indirectness a chance to work. Only if it failed would she resort to speaking bluntly about danger, and eyesight, and age.
A car in front of them braked suddenly. Hal was much too close. At the impact Perry lurched forward, her seat belt clamping her chest and midriff painfully. “Dammit!” she screamed. “I told you!” Instantly she understood that if she was able to yell like this it was not a serious accident. Cursing, Hal pulled to the side of the road behind the other driver. A young woman ran to Hal’s window, looking shaken.
“Are you all right, sir? That dog ran right out in front of me.”
Perry looked where the woman was pointing. A medium-sized mutt careened toward the sidewalk. Perry jumped out of the car and followed him, reaching into her bag to find the leash she always carried. “Hey, fella, what’s your hurry?” The dog stopped at her voice. He was shivering with fear. He allowed her to grab his collar and hook the leash on. “Where’s your people?” she murmured, gently feeling his body for injuries. He seemed to be unhurt, just shocked. “What do you think you’re doing, running around town causing accidents?” Her voice was soothing in spite of the scolding words.
She brought him back to Hal’s car. He and the woman were exchanging insurance information, Hal now conciliatory and charming. He looked at the dog, started to object, and changed his mind when he saw Perry’s face.
“I want to go back to the house,” she said. He nodded. She sat in the back seat cradling the dog, crooning to him. Hal drove slowly.
The damage was relatively minor: a dented bumper, a cracked headlight lens. Hal called his insurance company and a car repair shop, then left to do his other errands. Perry called the number on the dog’s collar. The owner, horrified and grateful, promised to come and pick him up.
Mimi answered when she called this time. Her voice suffused Perry with comfort as though she’d surrounded her with her soft arms.
“It’s as bad as I thought,” Perry said. Tears threatened her voice. “He actually hit another car this morning because the driver had to stop suddenly and Hal was far too close. Thank god they were both going slow. I don’t know if it’s his vision or his bull-headed aggression or both. And there was a dog…” The dog, noisily lapping water in front of her, looked up. She reached down and petted his head.
Mimi listened, her silence itself a reassurance. “Come home,” she said. “You don’t have to put yourself through this. Change your ticket. You could be here by eight o’clock tonight.”
Perry thought of home: Mimi beside her on the couch, two dogs and three cats entwined nearby, the dark Vermont hills outside the window. “There’s the damn birthday tomorrow. I just have to hang on for that. But I’m not going to let him drive me there.”
“Stick to your guns, girl. Tell him I ordered you to drive. Does he know about me yet?”
“No,” said Perry. “Not yet. You’re my secret. You’re keeping me alive.” She looked around the kitchen, seeing it in a kind of double vision: a cluttered, ordinary kitchen, unimaginatively modernized from its original 1900s design. A high ceiling and tall cabinets, a Formica counter with toaster oven and microwave, a polyurethaned wood table, an aging dishwasher. Overlaid onto these prosaic features was a patina of misery, decades old. A child’s abject experience of repeated humiliation in this room, her face hotly scarlet at unjust accusations, being punched and kicked to the floor. Hearing her little brother screaming in pain too and knowing she could not save him. Seeing the livid bruises on Celia’s arm, the furious tears in Lynne’s eyes.
And then afterwards the consoling, confusing affection, the forgiving hug, the balm of his soothing words. Sometimes the sweetness came first, when he would arrive home good-tempered and playful with little gifts in his pockets for each of them, until the moment that something enraged him. They tried constantly to guess what would please or displease him but they never got it right.
“Honey,” said Mimi, her voice gentle and firm, “you take care of yourself. He’s not safe for you.”
“Mimi…” she began, but didn’t know how to continue. Mimi was her magnetic north, her safe haven. She’d somehow known it the minute Mimi’s small, lushly rounded form had appeared at her door to interview for the job ten months before, a refugee from a toxic marriage in search of a new start. Mimi knew better than most what it took to remove yourself from danger.
“I’ll be here whenever you come,” Mimi said.
Perry sat with the dog’s head resting on her lap after Mimi hung up. Hal was still out in the car, endangering his fellow-citizens. She didn’t want to tell Hal about Mimi, risking his incomprehension or derision or disgust at the idea of a female lover. Anything but simple happiness for her, or a desire to meet his daughter’s partner. He’d managed a meager affection for the man who’d been her husband for four years in her thirties, though mocking him behind his back for his slender physique and lack of ambition. They’d eventually established a semblance of friendship, the basis of which was a teasing dismissal of Perry’s sensibilities: her concern for abused animals and children, her defense of feminism and gays and racial minorities. Keith, who shared or at least did not object to Perry’s views when they were alone, laughed enthusiastically at his father-in-law’s jibes.
“Why didn’t you say something?” challenged Perry after Hal’s jocular lunchtime discourse—sure, he used to knock his kids around a bit but it didn’t do them any harm, on the contrary, look at how well they all turned out, except perhaps Perry, but she’ll improve one day, ha ha. “You know what he did to us.”
They were walking in the park after Perry had telegraphed an urgent need to get out of the house. Keith put his arm lightly around her shoulders. “He’s a decent guy, Perry,” he said. “I know he was strict but he did love you all. Sometimes I think you and the others are a bit hard on him.”
Perry stopped dead, unable to speak. Her own husband, the one person in the world who owed her complete loyalty, sympathizing with the man who had inflicted his rage on her and her brother and sisters, imprinting their souls and bodies so that the faintest echo of violence made them shrink and suffer.
A cold realization settled around her. “You don’t believe me,” she said. “You don’t believe what I’ve told you, or you couldn’t say that.”
Their mother had wept at her husband’s rampages but had not tried to restrain him. The children saw how he alternately bullied and doted on her, so that she was as confused as they were. They did not expect her to protect them, though they tried, fruitlessly, to protect each other.
Perry remembered a lake cabin, an overcast afternoon, a sandy driveway. Her father was punishing 10-year-old Spider for sitting in the parked car and pretending to drive. Inside the cabin Perry crouched by her bedroom wall, flayed by Spider’s screams. She ran from the house and into the lake fully clothed, as though the freezing water could extinguish the agony of failing to stop the blows.
No one noticed her leave, or come back soaked and chilled hours later. In a rare time of closeness in their twenties she had told the story to Celia and Lynne, speaking hesitantly in the dark in the bedroom they were sharing during a family gathering. In the opaque silence after her revelation she regretted her openness. But then they stammered their own secrets: Lynne at sixteen had stood poised at the side of the highway longing for the oblivion that would come when a truck mowed her down. Celia took pills, vomiting when the blood started to roar in her ears.
They lay in their parallel camp beds, weeping, hands reaching out to clasp in the darkness.
“Why should he get away with it?” whispered Lynne fiercely. “He’s a criminal.”
Perry was thinking of Spider, their beloved baby brother. Had he, as well…but she couldn’t bear to voice the question.
By morning their words had sunk back into silence, drowned by the bustle of Thanksgiving breakfast.
And here we are, she thought, waiting in the kitchen with the dog. He’s still threatening our lives and we’re still silent. We still cannot save ourselves or each other. The thought shamed her profoundly.
The next day was Hal’s birthday. All day, through the birthday calls from his children and grandchildren, the pleased opening of cards and gifts, Perry anticipated the twelve-mile drive to The Huntsman’s Table. This time she would insist. This time she would prevail. Her position was strengthened, she realized, by yesterday’s accident. Lunchtime, she thought, that’s when I’ll raise it, so it’ll be settled long before we leave.
“Happy birthday, Hal,” she said, serving a quiche that she’d adorned with a single lit candle in the middle. Tonight at the restaurant there’d be a proper birthday cake. “Blow it out and make a wish. Excellent practice for later.” She sat down opposite him, where Isabel used to sit.
He laughed and leaned forward to blow. The candle flickered and died. “I’m glad you’re here, dear. You’re all so good to me.”
She nodded, smiling. “Tonight I’m going to drive, Hal, OK? That way you can relax and be the birthday boy, have as much wine as you want.” He’d invited two of his old cronies to join them, widowers like him. She knew they liked to drink together.
But he shook his head. “No need, Perry. I’ll be fine. By the time we’ve had dessert I’ll be sober as a nun.”
Perry’s smile stiffened. “Hal. I need to say this. I’m sorry. I don’t feel safe driving with you. I don’t think you see well enough any more.” She braced for his anger.
Which came. His face grew red. “The hell with it, Perry,” he said harshly. “You have no right to criticize my driving. What happened yesterday wasn’t my fault. I’ve been driving since before you were born.”
Perry’s heart thundered. She forced herself not to back down. Something loosened inside her. “Yes, and all these years you’ve driven like a madman! Isabel was terrified every time she got in the car with you, you must have known that.” She felt reckless, unmoored. The nerves in her hands and feet seemed to have shut down. “It’s only luck that you haven’t already killed someone. And now you can hardly see where you’re going! You shouldn’t be on the road.” With difficulty she stopped herself from adding “and Spider and the girls think so too” though it was true.
Hal stood up. His eyes blazed. Perry stood up too. She could hardly breathe. “Don’t you bring your mother into it,” shouted Hal. “Don’t you dare. You know nothing about it.”
They stood staring at each other across the table.
“If you won’t let me drive tonight,” Perry heard herself saying, “I’m not coming with you. I’m leaving. I’m going home.”
Home! The word anchored her back to earth. Home, a thousand miles away, the other side of a moat that he could not cross once she’d pulled up the drawbridge.
“You go home,” he sneered. “Go on, run away. Back to your flea-ridden four-legged friends.”
Perry’s vision abruptly changed. She saw the wizened old man clinging to the table, fearful and diminished, turning away from the ghosts of the past.
“Hal,” she said quietly. “I’m so sorry. I wish you well. But I can’t be here.” She gathered her unused plate and cutlery off the table, put them away, and went upstairs. In her room she sat on the bed, trembling.
Spider answered the phone on the first ring.
“Spider—I did it. I refused to drive with him. We’ve just had a showdown.” Her voice was shaking still. She told him about the accident and her ultimatum about the birthday dinner. “So. I’m leaving as soon as I can pack and get a cab. I can’t believe it.” She paused. “What will you do?”
“What do you mean, what will I do?”
“Will you support me?”
She’d never asked him before.
“Yes,” he said at last. “I’ll back you up, Perry. I’ll call the girls too. Wow. Maybe he’ll actually hear us, finally.”
She leaned back on the pile of pillows on Celia’s bed and closed her eyes. “Thank you,” she said. A hysterical laugh rose in her. “Spidey!” was all she could splutter.
He started to laugh too. “What, though? What’s so funny, you crazy person?”
She didn’t really know why it was so funny. “Look at us, look at our gray hair, we’re middle-aged, the four of us! Lynne’s a grandma!” She fought to control her voice so she could say what she meant. “It only took us forty years!” Her laughter was perilously close to sobs. She turned her face into the pillows to wipe her eyes and nose. In her ear Spider was howling too. “I have to hang up!” she gasped at last.
She half expected Hal to come to her door as she gathered her things and waited on hold for the airline to change her ticket—for a penalty of $150, cheap at the price, she considered—though she had no idea whether he’d appear in rage or appeasement. But he didn’t appear at all.
Perry came downstairs an hour later when the cab was on its way. Hal was sitting where she’d left him. From the back he looked thin and defeated, hunched over the table. He didn’t turn around. She was stricken and put her hand on his shoulder.
“Dad.” She hadn’t called him that for years, not since she’d privately demoted both him and Isabel as not worthy of their parental titles. They’d taken her use of their given names as just another of her eccentricities.
Hal brushed away her hand. He turned to look at her, his gaze withering. “Your sisters would never speak to me like that. They’ve made me proud, both of them. Your brother too. But you! What do I care what you think or do?”
Perry bowed her head. There was nothing to say. Perhaps there would be a rebuilding between them some day. She had to leave, not knowing.
She didn’t call Mimi until the plane had landed in Burlington and she’d retrieved her car. It smelled of hay and apples. Dusk was falling and the first stars had appeared.
“I’m here,” Perry said. Placid fields and woods stretched out beside her. “I’m almost home. I left this afternoon. He was insisting on driving, in spite of the accident yesterday. So I let him have it. Part of it, anyway.”
“Oh, honey.” Perry drove along the darkening road, listening to Mimi’s breath as she walked with the dogs.
“Tell those pooches I’ll see them soon.”
“They say you did the right thing. They say bravo.”
Perry slowed down to turn onto the winding road, recently resurfaced, that led to her home. The new paving sang an unearthly tune beneath the wheels.