Lina leaned out over the railing of her 16th-floor balcony and swirled the Chablis in her glass. This was her favorite time of day, the roughly two hours between the time she arrived home from work and the time her father got home. It was the only time she had to herself and the only time she could do as she pleased. Like drink Chablis from a juice tumbler. Her father forbade her to drink alcohol, one of his many strict house rules; she was, after all, still underage—her nineteenth birthday, the legal drinking age in Arizona, was still four months away. Even if she was twenty-eight instead of eighteen, she rued, he’d still forbid her to drink. As long as she continued living under his roof, she lived under his rules and unbending control.
But, she thought, that control is about to end.
The thought brought a smile to Lina’s lips, as she turned her head and looked to the east, her platinum waves backlit and set aglow by the setting sun in the west. The familiar profile of Camelback Mountain, shaped like the back of a reclining camel, rose from the valley floor in the distance. Directly below lay Central Avenue, the main business corridor which divided the affluent eastern half of Phoenix from its working-class western half. Dotted with restaurants, multi-story office buildings, and modern residential skyscrapers, like the 17-story Camelback Towers where Lina lived with her father, Central Avenue stretched north and south, a thin thread that connected two very different versions of the city to one another.
To the north, beyond Camelback Road and as far as the eye could see, lay one well-tended suburban neighborhood after another. To the west, she could see nothing, blinded by the blazing sun as it set over the vast flatlands of strip malls and cheaply-constructed John F. Long tract homes. She could see her old stomping grounds, Xavier Preparatory Catholic High School for Girls, down below, just four blocks due east of Central Avenue, walking distance from her home. Behind Lina, Central Avenue stretched over ten miles to the south, bisecting the nearby downtown district’s handful of skyscrapers and government offices before continuing past the railroad tracks, then past the warehouses, housing projects, and juke joints that lay on the wrong side of those tracks, collectively known as ‘South Phoenix’, until crossing over the Salt River and through sprawling acres of fragrant citrus orchards and colorful bursts of Japanese-American-owned flower farms. Finally, the avenue’s four lanes narrowed into two as it petered out in the desert foothills of the 16,000-acre South Mountain Park, the largest city park in the country.
A knock on the condo’s entry door jerked Lina from her thoughts. She glanced at her watch—six p.m., on the dot—swilled the last of her wine and rushed inside. The knock sounded again, persistent—“I’m coming!”—then a series of pounds shook the door, alarming Lina. She peeked through the front door’s peephole, sighed, and pulled it open. A stout woman with a white toy poodle in one arm and a fringed suede purse over the other pushed through.
“I said I was coming, Kerri. Didn’t you hear me?” asked Lina of her older sister who, at only twenty-five, looked thirty-five due to the excess forty pounds she carried and the deep frown lines on her face.
“I heard you,” replied Kerri. “But Wade,” she said, motioning to the man behind her, “Decided to be an asshole.”
Wade held up two fistfuls of heavy plastic bags. “Asshole?” he said to Kerri, scathingly. “I just thought it’d be nice if she let us in before the food got cold.”
Lina watched Kerri as she set the dog down on the living room’s white shag rug, then looked at her brother-in-law Wade—Sergeant Wade Gross—as he dumped the take-out bags onto the glass dining table. “Good of you to dress for the occasion,” she said to Wade.
Wade looked down at his choice of clothing. “What? I came straight from the gym because you said to be here no later than six.”
Lina gawked at his attire: A white, clingy tank top boasting a large Superman logo and skin-tight nylon athletic ‘short shorts’ that left nothing to the imagination. Rubber flip-flops finished the outfit. Wade spent most every off-duty hour pumping iron and his steroid-enhanced physique showed it. “All you need is a perm,” said Lina, looking at Wade’s bushy, greying hair, “And you’d look like the love child of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Richard Simmons.”
Kerri burst out laughing but instantly regretted it.
“Just keep laughing…” Wade said as he flashed a menacing look at the little dog who had wandered over to sniff one of his flip-flops.
“Corky!” The little dog ran back to Kerri who swept him up in her protective arms.
“If you ever so much as lay a finger on him…” Kerri warned.
Wade caught Lina’s look of horror. “I was just kidding!” he told her, then turned to Kerri, “Honey, kidding! Geez, what’re you both on your periods? It was a joke.”
Kerri ignored him. She turned to Lina. “When will dad be home?”
The question knocked Lina from the shock of Wade’s brutish suggestion of a threat. She glanced at her watch and then at the tumbler still in her hand. “Oh, crap!” Lina rushed into the kitchen to rinse out the glass, just in time to hear the opening of the front door.
“Smell’s good in here! What’s for dinner?” bellowed her father.
Army Jones laid down his briefcase and hung his suit jacket in the entry closet, carefully smoothing the fabric before closing the door. He gently tugged down the long sleeves of his silk dress shirt and adjusted the pair of gold studs adorning his cuffs. Turning, his eyes beheld his eldest daughter, Kerri, and her husband of five years, Wade, standing in the dining area of his modern-concept condo. The sight of Wade in his Superman tank and bulge-hugging, barely-there shorts churned his stomach. He turned to Kerri. “You need to take him shopping. Buy him some real clothes.”
“I didn’t have time to change, Army,” Wade muttered.
Army paid him no mind, too busy sizing up Kerri and noting the tight fit of her clothes and the spare tire spilling over her jeans, “Maybe buy something for yourself, too, in a size or two larger.”
“I love you, too, Dad,” said Kerri. She set Corky back down on the floor; the ball of fluff made a beeline into the living room and jumped up onto the room’s black designer sofa.
“Corky!” Kerri scolded. Tail between his legs, the little dog scampered back to her side.
“He’d better not mess in here,” warned Army.
“He won’t, Dad. He went just before—”
“There she is!” Army cried, his face all lit up, as Lina emerged from the kitchen carrying an armload of plates and silverware. Kerri rushed over to help her set the table while Army and Wade seated themselves into the chrome and leather dining chairs. Army began unbagging the take-out containers and arranging them in meticulous fashion in the middle of the table. “This doesn’t look like Sing High,” he said, eyeing one of the containers. He shot a critical look Kerri’s way as she and Lina were taking their seats.
“Wade wanted to try China Doll tonight,” she appeased.
“For a change,” said Wade.
Army abruptly pushed his chair back from the table and headed over to the wet bar in the living room. He stopped short when he noticed a half-empty bottle of Chablis sitting on the counter. He picked it up, eyed it suspiciously, then turned on the threesome at the dining table. “Did somebody help themselves to my liquor cabinet?”
Lina clapped a hand over her mouth upon realizing her failure to replace the wine bottle to its rightful place.
“I did,” said Kerri. “Sorry, I forgot to put it back where it belongs.”
Army grunted then turned to put the bottle back into the cabinet before pouring himself a snifter of ten-year-old Cognac.
Lina mouthed ‘Thank you!’ to her sister who responded with a wink.
“I’ll have a beer,” ordered Wade.
“In the fridge,” said Army, his back to Wade. “Feel free to help yourself.”
Drinks in hand, Army and Wade returned to the table to find the girls already digging into the waxy, white oyster pails, piling their plates high with fried rice, chow mein, and sweet and sour pork. “Damn, save some for us,” said Wade, reseating himself.
“First come, first served,” said Kerri.
Wade studied Kerri’s plate as she piled on more sweet and sour pork.
“Easy on the pork or you’ll turn into a porker yourself. Hell, you’re already half-way there.”
“Fuck you, Wade” replied Kerri, spooning an extra helping of the pork just to spite him.
“Enough!” snapped Army, directing his displeasure at the bickering couple before turning his attention to Lina.
“So, Lina. How was work today?”
Lina noted a hint of derision in his tone. “Fine,” she replied, then remembered the day’s big scandal over Sergeant Hook, “We might be getting a new sergeant.”
“Did anything exciting happen? Did you catch any bad guys?” he asked, now openly mocking her.
Lina kept her cool, answering between mouthfuls. “No, nothing exciting, Dad. Mostly just non-emergency calls.”
“How exciting,” Army said, dryly. “I’m giving you another month before you quit out of boredom.” Softening his tone, he added, “You know, it’s not too late to enroll at Grand Canyon College. It’s the best private Christian college in Arizona.”
“No thanks,” said Lina, who knew that attending GCC would mean another four years of living under her father’s roof.
Army kept pushing. “You’re wasting your talents. With a degree from GCC, you could have a real career; go somewhere; be someone, instead of rotting away in that basement as a peon civilian.”
“Gee, thanks, Dad. I guess that makes me a ‘peon civilian’ too,” Kerri said, offended.
“If the shoe fits,” laughed Wade, taking a swig of beer and missing the nasty look Kerri leveled at him.
“You’ve done well for yourself at DPS, Kerri,” her father said, in an attempt to temper the insult. “For someone who struggled all through school, rising to the level of dispatch supervisor is quite the accomplishment. I just had higher expectations for someone with Lina’s talents.”
“She’s got talents, all right!” exclaimed Wade. Turning to Lina, he teased, “What was it that all the high school boys over at Brophy Prep called you? PT-109?”
Kerri slapped Wade’s arm. “Shut up, Wade!”
“You told him about that?” Lina asked, upset with Kerri’s breach of confidence.
“PT-109?” asked Army, confused. “The patrol torpedo boat made famous by John F. Kennedy—what’s that got to do with Lina?”
“Do you want to tell him…or should I?” asked Wade of the two women, snorting with amusement.
“Tell me what!” Army demanded of his daughters.
Both daughters sat in stony silence, their faces turning red: Lina’s with embarrassment; Kerri’s with anger at Wade, who was now laughing so hard, beer shot out his nostrils.
“P.T.” Wade blurted out, “As in ‘Prick Tease!’”
Kerri and Lina buried their reddened faces in their hands.
“Oh, for God’s sake!” spat Army, throwing down his fork, now embarrassed himself. He gave the table an angry push and stomped off into the living room to refill his snifter.
Lina took his exit as an opportunity. “Did you remember to bring today’s paper,” she asked her sister.
Kerri grabbed her purse from the floor and pulled out the classified section of the newspaper, folded in half. “I did,” she said, “And I circled a couple for you.”
Lina snatched the paper, excitement in her eyes. She read the circled advertisements as a recomposed Army returned to his seat.
“What’s that for?” he asked, referring to the paper.
Lina and Kerri exchanged looks of trepidation.
“Apartment hunting,” answered Wade. “Your little girl is looking to fly the coop.”
Lina and Kerri sat frozen, waiting for Army’s reaction.
Army swirled his cognac, took a long, silent sip and set down the snifter. He looked over to Lina, not a shred of emotion in his face. “Well? Have you found anything yet?”
Lina stuttered, tripped up by her father’s unusually calm demeanor. “Um,” she started, as she scoured the listings. “This one looks good. A one-bedroom for just two-hundred a month.”
“You could totally afford that,” said Kerri.
“Where is it?” asked Army.
“Fifty-first Avenue and Thomas,” said Lina.
“That’s in the Maryvale district,” Wade scoffed.
“Oh, forget that then,” said Kerri. “What else is there?”
“What’s wrong with the Maryvale district?” asked Lina.
“No way will I let you live in Maryvale,” said Army.
“High crime rate,” Kerri replied.
“Lots of gang activity,” added Wade.
“It’s the wrong demographic for you. Let’s leave it at that.” Army said.
Lina laughed. “Wrong demographic? What does that mean?”
“Demographic, as in Mexicans, beaners, gangbangers, and wetbacks,” said Wade, who appeared especially amused by the slurs.
“You had no problem with Maria living with us,” Kerri told her father.
“That’s different. She was your nanny, not your neighbor.”
“Whatever happened to Maria?” asked Lina.
“You wouldn’t remember; you were only four when she left. Or, rather, was forced to leave,” replied Kerri.
“Why was she forced to leave?” asked Lina.
“She left of her own free will,” Army said, the tension in his voice rising.
“Mom made her leave,” said Kerri.
Army snapped. “We don’t discuss your mother in this house!”
“Is she even still alive?” asked Lina.
“Maria?” asked Kerri.
“No, Mom,” said Lina.
“Maria went back to her family in Mexico. And your mother’s probably drunk herself to death by now,” said Army, settling the matter. He got up to take his unfinished plate into the kitchen.
Kerri and Lina stared at one another with mutual disdain for their father’s insensitivity.
“I wish my ex would drink herself to death,” said Wade, ruefully.
“If I had a dime for every time you wished her dead…” said Kerri. “And you need to stop making her alimony checks out like that.”
“Like what?” asked Lina.
Kerri gave Wade an incriminating look. “He makes the check out each month to Ms. C-U-N-T-F-A-C-E.”
Wade laughed. “But she cashes it anyway.”
Army returned from the kitchen, took the classifieds Lina still held in her hands, and tossed it into the kitchen trash bin.
“I wasn’t done with that,” Lina said.
“You don’t need it,” replied Army. “I’ve already found you a place.”
Silence reigned as the other three tried to comprehend the unexpected news from Army.
“Where?” asked Lina, breaking the silence.
“Just the other side of Central,” Army said. “A nice little garden apartment on Mariposa, between First and Second Street. I know the property owner personally.”
“That’s a really nice neighborhood,” said Kerri.
“Can I afford that?” asked Lina.
Army smiled. “No,” he said. “But I can.”
“Must be nice…” said Wade.
The initial shock of her father’s gesture worn off, Lina’s head now spun with excitement.
“When can I see it? When can I move in?”
“This weekend, if you want.” Army retrieved his briefcase and suit jacket from the closet. “I have an after-hours meeting I need to get to,” he announced to the three still sitting at the table. “I’ll be home late, Lina, so don’t wait up.” He paused in the doorway with one last order for his youngest daughter. “And stay out of my liquor cabinet.”
Lina didn’t catch the pointed gist of his last remark, nor did she respond; her brain was far too busy processing the news of her pending move. Independence Day, the day she’d been waiting for and dreaming of for so, so long, would soon become a reality. Army was out the door and gone before she finally acknowledged his words.
“Okay,” she mumbled.
It was the snap! of Kerri’s fingers just in front of her nose that jolted Lina from her stupor.
“As long as he’s paying your rent, he’ll still control your life, you know that don’t you?” said Kerri as she collected the dirty dishes from the table.
“Not entirely, he won’t. I’ll have the place to myself. I can have friends over, have parties…”
Kerri yelled out over her shoulder. “It’s your life—but don’t say I didn’t warn you!”
“…maybe even start dating,” Lina added. The image of the blue-eyed Officer Tampon leapt to the forefront of her thoughts.
But Kerri didn’t hear her as she was already in the kitchen loading the dishwasher, with the little dog, Corky, at her heels begging for scraps. Wade, on the other hand, was all ears:
“Anyone in particular?” he asked, an obscene grin forming beneath his porn-star mustache.
“No more PT-109, eh?” asked Wade, with a presumptuous wink.
Lina’s blush deepened.
“Wade! I could use some help with the dishes!” yelled Kerri, irritated as usual with her husband.
Wade cursed beneath his breath, then stood up from the table. He looked at Lina, her face still flushed, then pressed a hand to his gut and pushed out a loud, sustained belch, the action of which released his naked penis from the constraints of his shorts, letting it flop free and land with a thud on the glass tabletop. It was just the effect he was aiming for.
Wade laughed, then wrapped his hand around his meat and gave it a slow stroke before tucking it back inside his shorts.
“Wade! Did you hear me!” called Kerri from the kitchen.
Lina bolted from the table and flew to her father’s liquor cabinet where she grabbed the bottle of Chablis, yanked out the cork, and took a swig straight from the bottle.
“Tsk, tsk…Remember what daddy said, stay out of the liquor cabinet,” taunted Wade.
Lina refused to acknowledge him, keeping her back to him until she could feel his toxic presence leave the room, his exit confirmed by the onset of muffled bickering in the kitchen between husband and wife. Night had fallen and the stars and city lights beckoned from beyond the living room’s expansive wall of glass. Lina slipped through the slider out to the balcony, her private space, and leaned as far over the railing as she dared to invite the desert breeze to wash over her face. Turning to the east, she looked out a block past the great Central Avenue divide and raised the wine bottle to the cluster of garden apartments she could faintly make out in the yellow haze of the street lights below.
“To freedom,” she whispered.