Finding Shelter
Chapter 1

You know, if I didn't hate the bitch so much at the time, I probably would have thanked her. Of course that would imply that my ex-wife's actions were meant to benefit me instead of her, so she wouldn't have known what I was thanking her for in the first place. I'm glad I let it pass.

Instead, I think I'll just tell you the story.

My ex-wife and I were married for 12 years. I would guess that 4 of the 12 were happy — but only because a person sleeps one-third of his life. We got married for the wrong reason — she was pregnant with our daughter — and we stayed married for the wrong reasons — we had a comfortable life and we didn't want to disrupt the children's lives.

Yeah, children. We added a little boy to the mix two years before the divorce. I truly think the only reason we stayed married so long is because we both were simply too busy to take the time to file for divorce. I knew shortly after the nuptials that my life would be hell. I think Kelly figured it out pretty quickly too.

But we had a little girl to think of and we toughed it out. Kelly dropped out of college to raise Kasey while I finished school and started to work. I got a job at a newspaper out of college and Kelly went back to school when Kasey turned 5.

Our son was as big an accident as our daughter and the volatile household exploded when the demands of an additional child came along.

Kelly had completed her master's degree and was working toward a doctorate in sociology when she announced that she was pregnant. I did not greet the news enthusiastically. I was working 70 hours a week and Kelly was trying to finish her thesis when our son was born.

I took one look at his cute little face and I immediately regretted all the years I missed of Kasey's life. I vowed that I would be there for the important moments of Mark's childhood.

Of course, Kelly had a different plan. I cut back on my hours to help out with Mark and Kasey. I was rewarded with divorce papers about 6 months after Kelly finished her Ph.D.

She accepted a professorship at a college in another state and was granted physical custody of the children. I was left in an empty house with little to fill my time. I started doing volunteer public relations work for a little known state representative candidate and was rewarded for my efforts by becoming her press secretary when she actually won.

I worked for her for a year before parlaying my success into a managing editor's post at a newspaper five miles from my children. I moved in three blocks from my ex-wife and immediately started to exercise my custody and visitation rights with more frequency that I could have from 400 miles away.

My life was going pretty well. I got to spend time with my kids almost every day without seeing my ex-wife. I was doing a job I enjoyed and I was making enough money to cover my bills, my child support and still be able to eat.

Little did I know how much was missing.

It was a Saturday morning like most others. It wasn't my weekend with the kids so I was planning some housework and a series of naps.

I'm nothing if not Mr. Excitement.

That all changed when a hateful old man fell down the stairs.

When I say "hateful old man" I mean every word in its sincerest connotation. Kelly's grandfather was almost 90 years old and mean as a snake. He hated everyone and everything — and the feeling was reciprocated. He lived alone because a dog couldn't even stand to be around him.

I'm not kidding. No less than 3 dogs had run away rather than deal with the man. But I digress.

Kelly's grandfather lived about 150 miles from us and the nursing agency called because someone — anyone — needed to come and take care of him. Not a problem for me because I was no longer married to the hateful old man's hateful middle-aged granddaughter.

Of course, when Kelly has a problem everyone has a problem. One phone call from Kelly and some of her difficulties were passed on to me.

"I need a favor," Kelly told me.

I will admit that I am unlikely to grant a favor to my ex-wife for any reason. OK, I guess "unlikely" is the wrong word. I refuse to grant a favor to my ex-wife under any circumstances. It's just the sort of relationship we have.

If my kids need something, I'm all over it. If my neighbor needs something, I'm there. If a stranger on the street stops me and asks for something I can deliver, it is likely I will.

My ex-wife? Not a prayer.

"Too bad," I replied.

"I'll give you an extra week with kids this summer," she answered.

"Two weeks and then we'll discuss it," I shot back.

There was silence on the line. We already split the kids' summer breaks down the middle anyway — sometimes right down to the hour. Don't ask. As I wrote, it's just the sort of relationship we have.

"One week to talk about it," Kelly said. "Two weeks if you'll help me."

"I want it in writing from your attorney," I told her.

"I don't have time for that," she insisted. "I'll hand-write it and I'll tell the kids they get the extra time with you. They'll never let me out of it. Will that do?"

"What do you want?" I asked.

"It's not for me really," she said. "Look, granddad took a spill and broke his hip. Mom and Dad are God knows where and won't be home until Christmas Eve. I have to go down there and take care of the old bastard."

"Kelly, I'll keep the kids without a deal," I interjected. "You know that."

"No, I want the kids to come with me so I won't suffocate the man in his sleep," she told me. I didn't get the impression she was joking. "Look, you know that shelter I help out with?"

Ah, the She-Woman Man Hater's Club. I did, indeed, know of the battered women's shelter of which she spoke.

"Yes," I said warily.

"They have a big Christmas dinner planned for Monday," she said. "I agreed to make a ham and mashed potatoes for them. Oh, and to get some gifts for the kids. If I'm with granddad I won't have time to do that. Will you do it for me?"

"They would be afraid I laced it with arsenic," I answered. I also wasn't joking. I knew that the women at the shelter had come from abusive relationships but I also knew that not every man behaved like a Neanderthal. The women who ran the place didn't seem to get that memo.

"I told them it would either come from you or they would go without," Kelly said. In her defense — and I don't come to her defense often — she was uncomfortable with many of the policies of the shelter but she also viewed the women there as worthwhile. I had to agree with her on that point — and I don't agree with her on much either.

"OK," I said. "Let me know what I need to get and I'll handle it."

"I've already got it," Kelly said. "I just need to drop it off to you. All you have to do is fix it. Oh, and Mark needs two dozen cookies for a program at church this week. Can you do that too?"

"Of course," I answered. "Have you got the dough?"

"Yeah," she said. "I was planning to bake all weekend. I am sorry about this, Mike."

Stop the presses! My ex-wife said she was sorry.

"No problem," I said. "Honestly, if it would just screw you over, I probably wouldn't do it. But the only people who'll suffer if I don't help you are the folks at the shelter and Mark. So I'll do it."

I told you about the relationship I had with my ex-wife, right?

"I know," Kelly said. "And I really do appreciate it. Do you want the first eight weeks of summer or the last?"

She must have been in desperate straits indeed.

"We'll talk about later," I concluded. "Just drop off the stuff and get down there to wipe your grandfather's ass."

"Prick," she said before she hung up.

Please don't get the impression that my residual anger is over the divorce. It isn't. The divorce was inevitable and it was necessary. My anger is a direct result of my ex-wife moving the children far away and with the fact that she treated visitation as an inconvenience for her rather than something important for the children until I moved closer to them.

I would routinely travel 6 hours one way every other weekend to stay at the Super 8 Motel with my son and daughter. Kelly refused to meet me halfway and she refused to work with me on making things easier for me to spend time with the children.

For that, I'll never forgive her — and my daughter seems to feel the same way. Or perhaps Kasey — who is now 17 years old — simply inherited her mother's bitchiness gene. I'm not as rigid as Kelly so Kasey and I have a little better relationship. She also has figured out that on the rare occasions that Daddy says "no" he means it. With Kelly — who was only 19 when Kasey was born — "no" often is the starting point for negotiations.

I believe it is a product of her liberal arts education.

Mark is the same way. He is 5 and I have personally witnessed some of the tantrums he has thrown at his mother. Depending upon her state of mind, Kelly will either give in quickly or slowly. But if the tantrum is severe enough, she will always give in. She was the exact opposite when Kasey was a child.

I would like to think that I am consistent. Mark understands a tantrum around me is a quick way to an evening in his room without whatever he wanted in the first place. Oh, he's tried it a time or two — what kid hasn't tested his limits — but he figured out quickly that Dad doesn't tell him "no" often but when he does it is for a pretty good reason.

But again, I digress. I thought I should point out that I had no problem with the split but only with the manner it was done and the ensuing problems that were created.

Kelly dutifully dropped off the groceries and Christmas presents — and wrapping paper — and even thanked me for helping her out.

"If I could have found someone else to do, I would have," she said.

I fought the urge to tell her that if she wasn't such a bitch she probably would have more friends. It was a fight I barely won.

"So I just drop the stuff off Monday at 5," I said instead. "Are they going to be pissed off I know where their super-secret clubhouse is located?"

Hope Haven thrived on secrecy. Unfortunately, it was necessary. It was a place for women and children who had no place else to go. Their husbands and/or fathers were batterers and more than one had threatened to kill his wife after he was released from jail.

"I mean, you can make arrangements for someone to pick it up," I offered. "You know I know where the shelter is located but that doesn't mean they want the women there to know that someone else knows. You know?"

Kelly actually smiled. It was a rare occurrence, I can assure you. It looked as though it might have hurt.

"It's fine," Kelly assured me. "The woman who is setting things up isn't one of the hard-liners. If you would be more comfortable, just set the things outside the door and ring the bell before you leave. I was planning to help them set up but they should be able to handle things. They're always packed this time of year."

I nodded sadly. Through all the years of bitterness and outright hatred (at the end) I never had the urge to strike Kelly or the kids. Well, I had the urge a few hundred times but I was always able to stop myself.

Kelly appeared to know what I was thinking.

"It's hard to believe that those people had a worse marriage than we did," she said. "But it never came to that. I mean, there were times I wanted to stab you in your sleep — and there are times I still want to — but we never got to the point where we got physical. Thank you for that, Mike."

"Shit, Kelly, we rarely even argued in front of the kids," I stated. "Honestly, I think we knew it was a waste of effort. We each knew the other was going to do whatever he or she wanted anyway. And I don't think there was enough emotion left in our marriage after the first couple of years to even rate a harsh word let alone anything further. We were simply not interested in the other."

Kelly bowed her head slightly.

"I guess you're right," she replied. "But still, it wasn't always that way. Even when things started to go bad we didn't get to that point. One or the other would always walk away when things got too heated."

"It's how adults handle things, Kelly," I answered. It was as close to a compliment as she was likely to get from me.

"I'll have the kids back by Christmas Eve morning," she said finally. "By the way, thanks for swapping holidays with me this year. Mom and Dad appreciate that you let the kids do things with my family on Thanksgiving and Christmas.

"And I do, too," she added almost as an afterthought.

"Hey, they're big deals with your family," I replied nonchalantly. "Your whole family gets together. It seems petty to keep the kids with me on a day when your Mom and Dad and aunts and uncles and cousins are all together. Besides, the kids enjoy seeing everyone."

I concluded with a shrug.

I gave the kids a kiss and they set off to be mortified with several days with a bitter old codger. I set off to do some cooking.

That probably would have been the end of the story — and a less-exciting story I've never before seen — except for Monday morning rolled around.

I finished cooking on Sunday and had everything wrapped, tagged and ready to go. My refrigerator was filled to capacity with a bunch of food I wouldn't get the chance to eat. Well, that wasn't exactly true. I cut off a piece or six of the ham and ladled out a generous portion of mashed potatoes as payment for my efforts. It was the least I could do.

But Monday afternoon I received a second urgent phone call from my ex-wife, this time at my office.

"I need another favor," she said reluctantly.

"You have nothing to bargain with," I said. "I doubt you're willing to go all summer without the kids. And I'm not missing Christmas Eve with them. So forget about just staying down there until the day after."

"Damn it, Mike," Kelly said hotly. "It's not for me, it's for the shelter. I'm not staying here past the time Mom and Dad get home. I swear to God that man gets nastier each and every day. I hope my Dad dies before Mom because he's going to be exactly the same way."

I bit off my retort about Kelly coming by her hatefulness genetically.

"What do you want?" I asked.

There was silence on the line.

"Santa Claus is sick," she said finally. "I mean, the guy who plays Santa for the kids at the shelter is sick. Monica called me a little while ago and asked if I could convince you to do it."

"I figured they just dressed up some bull-dyke lesbian in red faux leather," I replied. "I had no idea they let a person with testicles in there to play Santa."

I heard Kelly take a deep breath. My lack of political correctness had always been a sore spot. In my defense, it was only in my personal life that I would use terms such as "bull-dyke" or "Pollock." To those who knew me professionally, I was another liberal media do-gooder.

Why, I once even told a racist joke — quietly, though.

"Will you do it?" Kelly asked hotly. "If you won't I don't know what they'll do. I mean, if she knew the real you, she wouldn't have asked. But since she only sees your public façade, she thinks you're a perfectly respectable human being."

"Wow, she seems to like you and she views me as respectable," I shot back. "This chick must be an imbecile."

"Possibly," Kelly said — purposefully ignoring the "chick" part, "bordering on likely. So will you do it?"

"I have to bake Mark's cookies tonight," I said. I really didn't want to be in a room with a bunch of man-haters for even a short amount of time. And if the amount of Christmas gifts I had wrapped Sunday night were any indication of the number of children staying at Hope Haven, the time I spent there would be extensive. "What time to I have to be there and how long will it take?"

Since it was already a foregone conclusion that I would do it, Kelly saw no reason to stay with her feigned niceness.

"Why didn't you bake the cookies this weekend?" she asked harshly. "They would still be good later in the week."

"Because I would have eaten the damned things and Mark would have had to take store-bought Little Debbie's," I answered. "What the fuck difference does it make why I didn't do it? I wasn't supposed to have to do it in the first place. Now what time to I have to be there and how long will it take?"

"I guess you should stay when you drop off the food," she said. "And it will take as long as it takes."

"Have Monica call me personally if she wants me to do this," I stated. "I've had enough of dealing with you for the week."

"Fine," I heard before Kelly hung up. Twenty minutes later my office manager told me I had a visitor from Hope Haven. A portly woman was shown in.

"Monica, I presume," I said in my sweetest, syrupy voice. "A phone call would have sufficed."

Monica lowered her substantial bulk into a chair and rolled her eyes.

"The crones would shit if they knew you had the phone number there," she said. "I mean, come on, you guys are all in a league together. You would probably write it on the men's room stall at the county jail."

I couldn't help myself, I laughed.

"Actually, we have a web site now," I replied.

"Oh yeah, I heard about that," Monica laughed. ""

"So, it's OK for me to know where you're located but not to have the phone number?" I mused. "Seems a bit backward to me, but I have little knowledge of the inner workings of the female mind."

"Suffice it to say that it would be much more difficult for someone to break into our facility than it would be to harass someone via telephone," Monica said. "Not that I believe that you're a prospect for either action. Anyway, I've known your ex-wife since I was in college. She says you're an ass most of the time but you're harmless."

I chuckled.

"Well, with praise like that, I can't imagine why I'm not on your board of directors," I replied. "I'll ask you the same thing I asked Kelly: what time to I have to be there and how long will it last?"

Monica looked at her hands.

"I'm not sure," she said. "Your ex-wife said you have other commitments this evening and I'm worried that this could take a while. I mean, there are a lot of kids there this year — 27 as of this morning. I'd rather try to find someone else than have you rush a kid off your lap because you're in a hurry."

I frowned.

"I wouldn't do that," I stated. "Look, I know this is a big deal for those kids. I would guess that some of them haven't had much of a Christmas before and I would guess that some of them are having trouble adapting to life at Hope Haven. I simply was wondering if was going to be up half the night baking cookies or not."

Monica let out a full laugh.

"I figured when Kelly said you had other commitments it was work related," she said. "I pictured budget sessions or meeting some 'Deep Throat' type operative for an expose on the state legislature."

"Actually, it is more important than either of those," I said. "My son needs cookies on Friday morning. I'm supposed to bake them and this is the only free evening I have this week."

Monica looked thoughtful.

"What kind of cookies?" she asked. Monica appeared to have put a way a cookie or two in her day — or perhaps about 1,000 Oreos per day.

"Sugar," I said. "At least I think so. Kelly bought the dough. Why?"

"Why don't you bake the cookies while the rest of the group eats?" she asked. "I'll stop and get some peanut butter cookies and maybe you could fix those as a treat for the kids. That way you get your cookies baked and everyone is happy."

"That could work," I said. "But I'll pick up the cookies on the way over. It will be my small donation since Kelly bought all the food. Do you folks have a cookie tin?"

"We're set as far as utensils," she answered. "We have two pretty big ovens. You should be able to bake four dozen cookies at once."

"Sounds like a plan then," I said. "I have to swing home and get the food then I'll show up and ring the bell precisely at 5 p.m. Please tell me that you'll be the only person I have to deal with there."

"Not exactly," Monica admitted. "Some of the other volunteers will be there. But I'll make sure that no one comes after you with a carving knife."

It was the best I could hope for.

"Last question: Do you have a Santa suit?"

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Story tagged with:
Ma/Fa / Romantic /