Irene stood at the window, gazing westward and drinking watery oatmeal from a mug. Her eyes focused far beyond the green undulations of treetops, as if she could actually see the funeral taking place a thousand miles away. It wasn't that she wanted to be there. Rather, she was tugged by the gravity of obligation, as if her attendance was somehow required despite the distance that had separated her from her father for years.
Behind her a commotion arose, a tussle over which station to watch. She turned and observed the careless argument between dorm-mates until they finally settled on a soap opera that interested no one, but was better than anything else. Irene walked to a chair and sat, pretending to be absorbed. Instead she slipped into a flicker of memories of her father.
Her first bicycle was pink and the fanciest thing she'd ever owned. A peace offering, contingent on a night's stay with his former family. He had assembled it with strong competent hands, putting her in charge of bolts and tools and saying please and thank you when he asked for parts. They presented it to her mother and he gave Irene all the credit for putting it together. She bashfully accepted the lie, carrying it in her heart like a prize. He promised to teach her to ride without training wheels; shortly afterward he tried drunkenly to crawl into bed with her mother and was ordered in harsh whispers to leave in the middle of the night. Irene hadn't understood his crime – she often climbed into bed with her mother – but her confusion was overshadowed by disappointment.
Years later cold wind slid up her skirt as she stumbled over frozen tire tracks in a Sunday-morning-empty parking lot. The crossing felt like a prisoner exchange, despite the effort she had made to look nice. Her father lingered in the warm Saab until she was nearly there, but made up for it by stepping quickly around the front and opening her door. As they drove away she glimpsed her mother, still anxiously standing by the open door of the rusty old sedan.
By Irene's final, and longest, visit, she was rarely invited to his house. He'd gotten dogs, a promotion, married, and no longer had time for her. The sudden invitation must have come from the new wife. Still Irene combed through her closet to create the most impressive outfits possible. The first night she and the wife baked an apple pie for his birthday. He was effusive in his praise, but his grandiose and supposedly charming monologues were peppered with statements attributing Irene's brains and looks solely to his parentage. By the second day Irene decided she liked his wife more than him. By day three Irene's love for her mother, diluted by teenage angst, was so rekindled by his comments that her mother was baffled – gratefully – by the warmth of Irene's greeting at the end of the long weekend.
“Change the channel!”
Irene jumped at the sudden shout. She glared, still seeing the pie alight with candles and and her father's cheery face, and tried to reorient herself. She stared up at the television and caught a glimpse of a sappy advertisement featuring a loving father and devoted daughter before the channel changed.
“You know how much I hate these stupid commercials! They remind me of my family.” Mike finished with a grin. Everyone laughed. No one noticed when Irene's tears began to fall.
Note: I submitted this for NPR's Three Minute Fiction contest. Someday I'll try again (with a different piece)