Just Practice

by Kurt Heckman

Copyright May 20 2009

Janet Riser worked at Blue/Grey Towing for 8 years. She started when she was 16 as a dispatcher helping her dad who was getting close to retirement. Her dad, Charlie, thought that a job would help keep her out of trouble, which was generally true. But “generally true” usually means at least a little false. For Janet, staying mostly out of trouble meant having good grades, not getting in trouble with drugs or alcohol, and not much rebellion. It did not include avoiding the boys, and that was visibly obvious in the baby bump that could be seen under her graduation gown from Chambersburg high school. Still, she ended up a good person and responsible single mom. She dated guys often, and as she got older she was better and better able to spot losers and reject them like midget point guards trying to dunk over Shaquille O'Neal. But the midgets did try, and often. At 16, she was cute. At 21, she was hot. Now at 24, she was smoking. She was worth a try even if your odds were long. She didn't mind. She was confident the right guy would come.

The men at the garage were mostly tame. Her dad was still well known and liked, and all of the older men were very fatherly to her. Since she never knew her mom, her dad and the garage was all the family she knew. Holidays were interesting affairs. Janet learned to cook and by 14 was having the garage bachelors of all ages over for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners. The table was always clean, the shirts on the men were clean, their hands were clean and their fingernails greasy. She was probably in her teens before she realized that men had the same natural occurring color of fingernails as women. Her dad asked her why she worked so hard to do these things, and she told him it would be good practice if she had a big family one day. It didn't hurt that she never had to clean up afterward. The men resembled Snow White's dwarfs in their efficiency. By the third big meal, they knew where everything went as well as Janet.

Taking care of the lonely bachelors, bringing in the occasionally home cooked treat and being a natural beauty made her the goddess of the garage. The pin ups in the garage slowly all disappeared as she became a woman. Those poor naked models couldn't compete with the flesh and blood in front of the men every day. She also made the men embarrassed to have posters, not by accusation or even by attitudes or looks, but just by being a flower growing in a field of weeds (men). She made them all better without trying. It's a pity she occasionally swore like a sailor, like her dad, to be specific. If she had pruned that branch of fraternal frailty from the tree, Blue / Grey could have doubled as a finishing school.

The cussing did stop at times, almost like when the preacher came-a-calling. Except the preacher wore pink, Janet's baby girl Katie.  Katie was the image of her mom, and that was enough for the men to adore her. But the plow of her beauty dug even deeper. Where Janet was the perfect tom-boy, Katie was all doll-baby pink. The whole shop, Janet included, was determined that she would be the most protected, most loved baby girl that breathed. And even though her biological father was just a name on a birth certificate, Katie had The Uncles, 11 to be exact. It was very startling for the Kindergarten teacher when 11 gritty men showed up to the Fall Pumpkin concert to hear their little girl sing. Three of them bought new video recorders just for the occasion.

At 18 months, Katie could rattle off the names of The Uncles like a drill Sergeant: Uncle Andy, Uncle Joe, Uncle Mike, Uncle Mike, and the other Uncle Mike. Uncle Jamie, Uncle Tony, Uncle Kurt, Uncle Tom and the other Uncle Tom and finally Uncle Earl. The redundant Mikes and Toms posed no problem. Their names were augmented with a feature. There was Uncle Mike with no hair (Bald Mike), Uncle Mike with the Girl, a reference to the tattoo on his arm (Girl Mike), and Mustache Mike. Mustache Mike thought about shaving once. He got the razor and shave cream ready before he realized the dilemma it might put on Katie. The mustache was saved and so was his name. The Toms were easier. There was big Tom and old Tom. The funniest part is that Katie's names for them became their names for each other. For at least two of them, this was a big improvement. Girl Mike was Nads, and Old Tom was Stank.

The most reserved of the uncles was Earl. He was tall, lean, had a full beard and was tough as nails.  He was also the supervisor. He was married a few years before Katie was born and had a daughter almost Katie's age. His wife divorced him before their baby girl was two and moved back to Arizona. She was a witch, and if it wasn't for the little girl, the whole garage would have thrown a party when she left. Earl just got quieter and tougher. After quite a legal battle, he got visitation rights with his daughter. The mean-spirited witch would have kept him from ever seeing her if she could have. As it was, she was just poisoning the child to her father. It didn't help much that Earl's only interaction with kids was when Janet brought in Katie, and then he was one of a herd.

Not long after his first required visit with his daughter, Earl came in to Janet's booth to pick up some paperwork on a dispatch. “Hey, Earl. What's up?”, Janet asked. “Do you have the insurance papers on Mike's accident?” Mustache Mikes had an accident towing a car and Earl had to write an accident report. “Sure. I set it out for you yesterday.” She handed the stack to him. “Here, I have a folder you can put it all in.” He said thanks and was about to turn and walk out, but Janet sensed that something was bothering him. “No time to chat, boss?”, she asked, stopping his departure. “Sure”, he replied. “So, how was the visit with your daughter?”  He sighed. Janet hit the nail on the head. “It was great to see her, but I'm pretty sure she would rather have been in Death Valley, instead of in Hagerstown with her dad. When I told her that there was going to be a new cheap airline flying from our airport directly to Vegas and that I could afford to bring her out more often, she looked like I had stepped on her teddy bear.”

Janet smiled sympathetically. “Give it time. She doesn't really know you yet.”

Earl: “Yeah, that's what I'm worried about. When she does get to know me, she'll go from disliking me to hating me. Truth is, I don't know anything about little girls.”

Janet: “That's not true, you're great with Katie.”

Earl: “... here in the garage, with you and everyone else around. But, my house is a shack for a red neck and his dog.”   Earl was quoting his ex-wife. For the record, Earl had a great dog. It was the prettiest golden retriever, and like all goldens, she was great with people. Since the dog hated Earl's ex-wife, it gave material evidence to the widely held suspicion that the X was an evil alien disguised as a human female.

Janet paused and looked intently at him, clearly hatching a plan between her eyebrows. “Okay. Here's the plan.” … almost like she was planning a dispatch. “I want to start taking Pilates, but the only class at the Y is on Thursday night, dad's bowling night. If you're willing, I'll leave Katie with you at the shack (mocking) this Thursday, and if you're both alive when I'm done, we can do it again next week.”

Not grasping the plan yet, “Okay, but how will that help?”

Totally satisfied that this dispatch was in perfect order, and as mechanically as if she was giving driving directions, “Katie is your typical little girl. She will tell you what she wants without hesitation. Being at your house, she'll tell you what things are interesting and what things aren't. Do what she says, as long as it's safe and watch her play. In no time, you'll be an expert in 7 year old girls.”

The plan made sense to Earl. It certainly couldn't hurt, and he would like the time with Katie, but this did mean that he'd have to do all of the dishes and laundry in the next two nights. American Idol would have to be watched from across the room, a small inconvenience.

Thursday came, and Janet had a talk with Katie. She told her that she needed to teach Uncle Earl how to take care of a 7 year old girl so his daughter would be more comfortable around him. Katie got the idea immediately. She was now the TEACHER. Earl and Bella (the golden) were waiting for them as they pulled up. Katie jumped out without saying goodbye to her mom, and school was in session. Earl was totally amused. For the next two hours, it seemed like every other sentence started with “Now what girls really like is ….”. What would follow would be a rolling commentary on every imaginable topic.

It's amazing what brutal honesty can teach. In two hours, Earl learned:

  1. Antlers on the wall are sad.
  2. Every house needs a room for just kids stuff even if it's a small room
  3. The man over the sink (a Velvet Elvis) didn't look happy
  4. Letting the dog lick your plate clean made all plates suspect even if you had a dish washer.

On the positive side, he learned that the shack would look like a doll house if it was painted, pink preferably, but white would be good too. This he added to his to-do list. He also learned that the tree in the back yard next to the stream would be wonderful for a tree house (to-do #2). He learned that the little storage room upstairs would be the best girl's bed room, and that if it had nice furniture, any girl, Katie included, wouldn't mind sleeping there.

The two hours passed before Earl realized they had started. Janet pulled up, and Katie gathered herself up and walked to the door without Earl saying a word. Before she let herself out, she assured Earl that he did a good job watching her. She also said that she would be happy to come back, and that if he tries hard, that he'll be a great dad. It was like a psychiatrist saying “we've made real progress today. See my secretary to schedule your next appointment.”

Earl's smile lasted for days. He'd be greasing a fitting or changing a flat and just start to chuckle remembering something she said. At first the guys in the shop were wondering if he got a new girlfriend, but then someone said something to Janet, and she told them about the plan. She thought it would save Earl some ribbing, and it did.

The next Thursday came, and Earl was more prepared. Not only was the laundry and dishes done, he had mowed around the tree and stream, built the first small platform of a tree house, and hung a tire-swing. Katie loved it. They spent the time outside, Katie playing in the stream and up in the tree. Earl sat nearby on a lawn chair drinking a beer. This was better than any TV, heck, he might drop cable.

When Janet got back, she spent some time talking to Earl while Katie kept on playing. Earl told her what he had done and what he was planning to do with the tree house.

Janet: “So, you want to keep doing this?” Earl nodded, “It's like having a litter of puppies that can talk, and the things she likes are sure to be things my little girl will like. But I could use your help too.”  Earl gestured that he needed her help on something inside the house. They both glanced at Katie and saw that she and Bella were by the little stream and fine, so they went in. The house was much the same except for some bare spots on the walls. Earl told Janet about the antlers and Elvis. She cracked up laughing. “Katie also told me that I should paint the house, so I'm going to. White, I can't bring myself to paint it pink and the guys would never let me live it down. But I don't know the first thing about girl stuff in the house. I was hoping you could help with ideas that would look good, but not scare the guys away for poker night.” Janet smiled, “Sure. There's no reason your house shouldn't look like a man's house and still be really nice for your little Amy. You'll also make it worth more money if you ever want to sell.”

In the next few weeks, Earl learned even more. He found out that girls like to talk about the same things even if they talked to you about it eight times before. He learned what things Katie liked to eat and what TV shows she liked. He learned about her friends at school and why she liked them. He learned about a bully and made a mental note to orchestrate a display of displeasure from the Uncles to the bully at the next school program. “That should scare the brat.” He was also surprised to learn that she was interested in some of the things he liked. She wanted to help build the tree house, and while hunting seemed like it hurt the Bambies, fishing, which was really his favorite thing to do, interested her a lot. She spent over an hour asking him about every little thing in his tackle box. He told Katie that he and her grandpa used to fish in the Potomac together, and asked if she'd like to go out on his boat. He was sure that her Pap would love it. Before she left, he called Charlie (her grandfather) and they now had a date for the following Saturday if her Mamma didn't mind.

For the next few months, Earl spent a lot of time with Katie, Janet and Charlie. Janet went shopping with him. She also talked him into going with her to an auction and a couple flea markets to help redecorate the Cottage. The Elvis void was filled with a painting of a man fishing from a canoe. The spaces on the walls left by the antlers were filled with Adirondack nature prints. Earl grew up in the Adirondacks and when Janet did the math in her head, she was surprised that he was only 32.  His beard made him look over 40.

Janet and Katie joined forces on “Amy's Room” and when they were done, Katie informed Earl that it was perfect but that she would still need to sleep over just to make sure the room was good to sleep in. Janet and Earl laughed and agreed to the test-sleepover. Katie also came by every Thursday to continue Earl's lessons, and on most Saturdays, Katie and Chuck came by, sometimes to work on the tree house, and sometimes to go fishing. They enjoyed each other’s company and saw their progress in the painted and transformed house.  Everyone, Janet included, shared Earl's growing excitement at the reaction his daughter would have.

On poker night, the guys all came by and couldn't believe the changes Earl was ready for some serious ribbing but got just the opposite. They all liked what he was doing, thought the place looked great and envied the time he spent with Katie and Janet. The smokers in the group wouldn't even suggest lighting up in the house, let alone fill it with cigar smoke. Earl was quietly grateful.

The day of Amy's next visit finally came.  For the first time in any of their memories, Earl was clean shaven, and looked like a younger man in his early thirties.   It was a Friday, and the whole shop was tempted to spy, but didn't. They just wished him luck and Janet gave him a kiss for luck on his cheek. Earl was excited and nervous that evening when Amy came through security at the airport. He knew what to ask her, and was surprised at how well it worked in getting her to talk. Katie was right. They talked the whole way home from the airport, and Earl learned some things about his daughter. Some of what he learned made him happy, but unfortunately some of the things were not good news. Amy thought school was stupid, and didn't get good grades. Amy was very interested clothes and how she looked. This was a play straight out of her mother's play-book. She also told him that her mom was getting a new husband. That was bad enough, but the description of the man and his money were demoralizing. The man had everything and was giving Amy things he could only dream of giving her.

When they pulled into driveway, Earl was holding his breath. A before and after picture, which he actually had from Janet, would have shown quite a transformation, the exact one that Amy would see, but she didn't. She noticed nothing, but she had been traveling and might be tired. He took her bags in and walked her straight to her new room. “This is better than the couch”, and she flopped into a chair and pulled out her pocket video game. Earl was crestfallen. He told her that dinner would be in an hour and left the room. The bedroom decorated by Janet and Katie was his biggest change, and her reaction gave him little hope that she'd notice the rest, and she didn't. After dinner, he invited her to the back yard. When he pointed out the tree house she said, “I don't climb trees. They get your clothes dirty. Can I go back inside?” He was glad he hadn't canceled cable.

Friday dragged into Saturday. On Saturday evening Katie and Janet stopped by. Janet suggested that Amy might like to have a friend during her visits. Janet and Katie couldn't have been nicer, but it took Janet about 10 minutes to see that Amy's mom had poisoned the girl from enjoying anything but possessions and glamour. No one understands women like women, and Janet knew that it was just a matter of time before Amy would be just like her mother. The visit lasted for two hours and Katie told Amy that she would come by every time Amy visited. Katie gave Amy a hug and left.

Sunday came as did the time for her return flight. Earl was quieter, but still very nice to Amy. He offered her every comfort he could and encouraged her in every way he could imagine. When he asked her about her next visit, she said “Earl, I don't like coming here, but mom says the Judge makes me, but she did say that I wouldn't have to if you agreed to it.” Earl pulled the car over and looked at his daughter. She didn't even call him Dad.

“Amy, I love you very much. I always have and I always will, but if you don't want to visit, you don't have to. Just promise me that you will remember one thing. I'm here for you if you ever need anything.” She was clearly happy. “Promise?” She did, and he continued to the airport. When he left her at the terminal, he knew that he probably wouldn't see her for a long time. It was a long ride home with his thoughts.

When he pulled into the driveway, Katie, Janet and Charlie were waiting with Bella on his porch. Janet and Katie were drinking iced tea, Charlie had a beer. They were smiling. Janet knew it was a hard weekend and told her Dad. It was Charlie's idea to be waiting for him. Earl got out of the car and joined them. There was both a beer and a glass of iced tea waiting for him; he took the beer; no one would blame him. When Katie went to play in the tree house, Earl told the grownups about his daughter's decision; Janet wasn't surprised. They had a subdued visit for about an hour before Katie's bed time started to loom. It was a school night. “Well, we better get going. “ As they walked to the car, Charlie commented on how good the place looked. Katie turned and said, “I'll see you on Thursday.” Earl was about say, “of course” when he realized the reason for her visits no longer existed. The distress in his face was obvious, and for the first time, it looked like he was about to breakdown. He swallowed hard and looked at Janet. “Do you mind if we keep up the visits?”, he asked. She reached over, hugged him and kissed his cheek for the second time in a few days, and said she wouldn't have it any other way. He was noticeably relieved and a smile crept back over his face. Charlie winked at him. They got in the car and drove away.

A few months later, Katie and Earl where on the river by themselves. Charlie was at a gun show. Katie had just caught a big walleye, when another boat pulled up. It was an old friend of Earl's. “Nice fish, Earl. This your little girl?” Katie answered, “No, I'm just practice.” Earl winked at his confused friend and told him he'd call him later. He started the motor and headed for home.


Kurt Heckman,
Nov 30, 2013, 3:37 PM