by ABBIE JOHNSON TAYLOR
Michelle stood in the open doorway and stared at the grocery delivery woman who struggled under the weight of three cartons of cigarettes which she claimed were for Al Johnson. "That's my dad," Michelle said in amazement. "He doesn't live here but he often comes here on his lunch break because it's so close to his office."
"It seems to me I vaguely remember delivering cigarettes to this address a few months ago," said the woman.
"Dad thought I wouldn't be here today but there was a mix-up in my work schedule and so I thought I would surprise him when he comes," Michelle explained.
The woman placed the cigarettes on the living room couch while Michelle found her check book. After she paid and tipped the delivery woman who soon departed, Michelle stood staring at the cigarettes. A few months ago, her father promised her stepmother Ruth he would quit smoking. He asked Michelle for a key to her apartment because he needed a quiet place to go during his lunch hour that was close to his office. Michelle agreed to have an extra key made for him and kept her refrigerator stocked with sandwich fixings so he could make his own lunch. She realized that her father was coming to her apartment to smoke and he was having his cigarettes delivered in order to save time.
After denying her existence for so many years, he finally accepted her as his daughter when she showed up at his doorstep several months earlier after her mother died and Michelle became a part of his family. Ruth and their two children Scott and Kate, who were in college, also welcomed her. Ruth became a second mother to her. Michelle decided the best thing to do was to keep her father's secret.
Her thoughts were interrupted by another knock at the door. What now, she wondered in annoyance as she glanced at her watch. Her father would be here any minute and she had yet to make lunch. When she opened the door, she was surprised to see Ruth. She smiled at her stepmother and hoped Ruth didn't notice the cartons of cigarettes that lay on the couch near the door.
"Hello dear," said Ruth with a smile. "I know it's awfully sudden but I drove by and saw your car and so I thought I'd ask you to lunch."
Before Michelle could say or do anything, her father appeared, breathless and looking strained. When he saw his wife and daughter, his mouth gaped in astonishment.
"Surprise!" exclaimed Michelle.
"Surprise?" asked Ruth.
"Yes," answered Michelle, relieved to have come up with a solution to this dilemma. "I was planning to surprise Dad today and now we can all go out to lunch together."
Al glanced at his watch. "Honey, I can't. I'm supposed to be in court in half an hour."
"Then I'll make lunch for us here," said Michelle. "I've got plenty. It won't take long." Michelle hurried into the kitchen and Al and Ruth followed.
"Oh Michelle, I hope you haven't started smoking," said Ruth with a hint of disappointment in her voice.
"What?" asked Michelle, acting startled. "Oh, the cigarettes. Those are Rick's. He ordered them from Bino's but then he was suddenly called to work before the delivery person came so I told him I'd take the cigarettes when they came and he could pay me for them later."
As Michelle talked, she removed bread, lunch meat, cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, and onions from the refrigerator in preparation for making sandwiches. "Here honey. Let me help," said Al, taking plates out of the cupboard.
"Well, since this kitchen is barely big enough for the two of you, I'll just use the bathroom while you get everything ready," said Ruth, leaving the room.
Michelle breathed a sigh of relief and Al whispered with a note of tension in his voice, "Those aren't Rick's cigarettes, are they?"
Michelle grinned and shook her head. "Your secret is safe with me, Dad," she whispered back.
Al embraced his daughter. "Honey, I love you," he said. As father and daughter worked together to prepare the sandwiches, Al began babbling. "I tried to quit. I really did but I just couldn't do it, not cold turkey anyway. So I'm cutting down."
"Dad, you don't have to explain anything to me," said Michelle. "But don't thank me yet. We're not out of the woods. But listen, I have some errands to do later so I could drop the cigarettes by the office. Do you think your secretary would say anything to Ruth if I did that?"
"That won't be necessary," said Al. "When I leave, I'll just say I'm taking the cigarettes up and leaving them outside Rick's door so he won't have to come down here and get them when he comes home from work. Since Ruth and I both met Rick when we helped you move into this apartment, Ruth shouldn't suspect a thing."
The sound of the toilet flushing interrupted their conversation. "Everything's ready," said Michelle. "I'll set the table."
A few minutes later, the three of them sat at the dining room table with their lunch of sandwiches and milk.
As Al ate his sandwich, he chattered about the weather and other current events. He mentioned the court case he planned to argue that afternoon. From time to time, he glanced at the cigarettes that still lay on the living room couch. Michelle realized thatz her father was probably accustomed to having a cigarette or two with his lunch and her heart went out to him. But what could she do?
Fearing that Ruth might become suspicious of Al's behavior, Michelle tried to divert her stepmother's attention from her father by asking her about her work as a counselor at the women's center. For the next few minutes, they discussed that and Michelle's job as an activities assistant at a nursing home. Al finally looked at his watch and rose saying, "I've got ten minutes to get to the courthouse. I'll just drop those cigarettes outside Rick's apartment on my way out." He hurried around to Michelle's side of the table and kissed her. "Thanks for lunch, honey," he said.
Michelle jumped to her feet and dashed ahead of her father into the living room and in the direction of the front door. "I'll get the door for you, Dad," she said.
Al and Ruth were right behind her. Al picked up the cartons of cigarettes and headed out the door of Michelle's apartment. Unaware that Ruth was following him, he hurried in the direction of the outer door.
"Al, where are you going?" asked Ruth. "Rick lives upstairs, remember?"
Startled, Al almost dropped the cigarettes. With a sigh, he turned toward the stairs that led to the second floor of the apartment house.
"I'll wait while you take those cigarettes up to Rick's apartment and then I'll walk you to your car," said Ruth.
"Oh, you don't have to do that," said Al with a note of desperation in his voice.
"But I want to!" cried Ruth.
As Al staggered up the stairs with the three cartons of cigarettes, Michelle thought if she could get Ruth back into her apartment and close the door, Al could make his escape with the cigarettes.
"Oh Ruth, must you go too? Why don't I make us a pot of coffee and we can visit a while?" she suggested to her stepmother.
"I'd love to, dear," replied Ruth. "But I just remembered I've got an appointment in fifteen minutes. You know, I worry about your father from time to time. He gets under a lot of stress with these court cases."
"It seems he's always stressed out about one court case or another," Michelle commented. "I guess that's why he's such a good lawyer."
Al returned, looking more strained than ever. Michelle gave him a conspiratorial wink she hoped Ruth wouldn't notice as they walked out the door of the apartment house. Michelle decided that after retrieving the cigarettes, instead of taking them to Al's office and risking his secretary saying something to Ruth about them, she would leave a message on his voice mail telling him his cigarettes were safe and he could pick them up on his way home that evening.
When she was sure both Al and Ruth were gone, she hurried up the stairs to Rick's apartment, her heart pounding. She hoped Rick wasn't home or if he was, he didn't see the cigarettes and take them, thinking they were a free gift. She didn't even know if he smoked. But she breathed a sigh of relief when she saw the cartons still lying outside his apartment door. She listened for a moment but heard no sound from inside. He must not be home, she thought. She lifted the cartons of cigarettes and carried them back to her apartment.
As she reached the bottom of the stairs, the outer door flew open and Al rushed in, the door slamming behind him. Startled, Michelle almost dropped the cigarettes but without a word, she handed them to her father. The door again opened and in came Ruth. For an eternity, it seemed to Michelle that the three of them stood frozen in time. Finally, Ruth sighed, "Well, I had a feeling something like this was going on. But I guess life's just too short to worry about catching lung cancer, isn't it?" Before anyone could say another word, she turned and walked out the door.
Stunned, Michelle stared after her departing stepmother but Al wasted no time. "Honey, would you mind if I came in and had a smoke? I'm actually not due in court for another half hour."
"Of course," said Michelle, leading the way into her apartment.
Her father closed the door and flopped onto the couch. He tore open one of the cartons of cigarettes and removed a pack and opened it and withdrew a cigarette. Setting the pack aside, he withdrew a lighter from his pocket and lit the cigarette. As he took a long, satisfied drag, Michelle saw the tension leaving her father's face. Al removed the cigarette from between his lips and for the first time that day, he gave his daughter a broad grin.