He was the kind of man that knew you had to cut a cigar, but not which end to cut. The day his daughter was born, Nolan A. Haines smoked alone in a room that the nurse had led him into for five dollars after he refused not to smoke in the regular waiting room. He had heard the baby was born and that everything was okay, but other than that he might as well not have come at all.
After smoking he visited his wife and the baby. She told him that her name was Nancy, a name that he remembered from all their discussions in the spring, a name that he’d avoided. He wanted to smoke a cigarette, but she told him it was better to wait. He stood by the window and imagined smoking a cigarette. She asked him if he wanted to hold the baby, but he didn’t. All he wanted was a cigarette. His wife looked out the window with him and told him it might rain.
The merry-go-round seemed slower than others Nolan A. Haines had seen before. It made approximately a round per minute, the horses and elephants and giraffes bouncing and sliding in pairs in and out of his periphery vision. Nancy waved at him, begged him to look how high she was getting on her mount of choice, a white stallion. She was wearing a blue dress, her hair put up neatly in a knot by her mother, who’d refused to go with them to the carnival because of her pregnancy.
After the merry-go-round Nancy wanted ice cream. He bought her three full scoops because it was payday. She’d chosen three scoops of strawberry flavour and it was the reddest ice cream that he had even seen in his life. They walked around the park while she ate and announced the other rides she would try, the ice cream melting from her hand in flakes.
“You should eat your ice,” he said, noticing a piece fall on her thin wrist. “You’ll waste the rest of it like that.”
She looked down and smiled at the dripping ice cream until a piece landed on her dress and left a stain. She stopped outside the shooting galleries and looked down at herself in horror. She wailed.
“I told you that would happen.”
“I can’t get it off,” she said. She rubbed at the dress with her knuckles and nails. “I can’t get it off.”
He stared at the rest of the ice cream that she had dropped on the ground. It continued to melt. “You’re never getting the rest of it back,” he said. “It’ll melt and you’re never getting it back.”
“I don’t want the ice cream,” she said. “I want my dress. Mommy is gonna be mad.”
“Well, suits her well for getting mad over a ruined dress.”
She lifted her dress towards him. “Help me.”
Sweat grew down his neck as he stared at the stain. Nancy was only making it worse, the stain wider and bigger, growing. He reached out, but bit his tongue and looked away from her thin, bare legs. “I’m not gonna help you.”
Nancy stomped in the ground and walked away. He didn’t follow but walked on at his own pace, smoking a cigarette, relieved she was gone. In the distance he heard two dogs howling and he wondered who’d gone and lost their dogs at this hour. Later that evening, he found her back at the merry-go-round. They walked home, looked up at the grey sky. She asked if it was going to rain. He told her that she shouldn’t count on it.
The next day they lost the baby. His wife hadn’t talked much about it, mostly cried in a room where he wasn’t smoking. It was a damned shame, he thought. It was gonna be a boy, too.
Sitting in his office, Nolan A. Haines’s eye spied nervously as Nancy walked from boat to boat. She put her fingers against the miniature portholes and touched the tops of the pointy masts.
“This one doesn’t have a sail,” she said. “And this one doesn’t have a deck.”
At his desk he was making a model of Lord Nelson’s HMS Victory. It was the hardest model he’d ever built, the carvings and intricacies all more delicate than he was used to with modern ships and ferries.
“There’s a hole in this one,” said Nancy, pointing to the bottom of a model of the SS Arcadia. “It can’t sail.”
“Of course it can,” he said. “Any boat can sail, even with a hole that size.”
“Over the Atlantic, too?”
“Maybe not that far.”
“I want to cross the Atlantic,” she said, touching the mast of another ship. She was wearing a red shirt and a white skirt, her hair falling down her shoulders. “I want to cross the Atlantic so badly. It’s almost the biggest ocean you know.”
“And what’d you do on the other side?”
“Visit the cities I’ve seen in movies,” she said. She didn’t take her eyes off the model ships. “But I don’t think I could use any of your ships. They’re all damaged.”
“The Titanic isn’t,” he said. He nodded at the huge model in the centre of the collection. It was the first he’d built, the only model he had ever finished. Nancy looked at him and rolled her eyes.
“I’m not sailing with the Titanic,” she said. “Not even the other way. And I’m tired,” she said, yawning. “I might go to bed early tonight.”
He looked up.
“What’s the matter?” she asked and smiled. She walked away from the hobby ships and to the window. Opening it, she looked out at the grayness. “I think it’s gonna rain, don’t—“
“I don’t care that it’s gonna rain!” he said. He stood up, locked eyes with her. A breeze from outside moved her hair closer to her body.
“Really, dad,” she said. “What’s the matter?”
“Nothing,” he said. “Your mother is leaving. You’re leaving with her.”
“I’m going to live with her, but I’ll still be here. I’ll visit you. And your boats.”
“I don’t need that,” he said.
“You don’t need what?”
He sat down and fumbled with his model. He aligned the pieces by shape, by colour. He looked for a piece that would blend in with the desk and disappear. The model had grown in his hands for a long time now, but he’d lost interest. He would buy a new one the next day. Some kind of warship. When he looked up, Nancy was gone and it was night and it hadn’t rained.
Nolan A. Haines looked at the broken model of the Titanic and wondered how long ago he had dropped it. The plastic was cracked from the stern, past the hull of the engine room, to the bow. The two anchors had fallen off and he’d only found one. It was besides the model, unglued.
He stepped back to the desk when the phone rang for the fifth time. It kept ringing and he picked up.
“Why aren’t you picking up your phone?”
He recognized Randall’s voice. He didn’t answer.
“Why aren’t you talking to me? Nolan? I know she’s sent you letters, pictures even. It’s today,” he said. “They’re sailing tonight at nine, right after the dinner and… the speeches. You could still come. I don’t think anyone would mind, not when it’s your daughter. The ceremony is at one.”
The phone hovered farther and farther from his ear until he hung up. From the top drawer he took a cigarette and smoked it. He scratched his neck and looked out the window where the sun was shining. A bee was scraping against the window pane, then another bee flew by and they both disappeared. The garden sprawled with life, and he knew it was because he left it to itself. Other people were so obsessed that they ruined their own gardens, deflated the very nature out of their roses, tulips, and geraniums. He knew that when it rained, it rained, and when it shone, it shone. The sun was still trailing upward. There was still some time until one o’clock. He knew he wouldn’t feel like this if they had had a son. It would have been easier, more natural. A boy you could leave to himself and he would grow into a man on his own, but with a daughter there was nothing to do even if you tried. He knew it wasn’t his fault. Even as it happened, as he had tried to love her, he knew it wasn’t his fault.
Nolan A. Haines hurried through the docks. He could see the ships towering in the distance, the tall black chimneys shooting upwards, pumping smoke into the greying sky. His lungs had seared since he had started running near the town square. He knew he would make it. Not a single ship had left the pier yet. They were still boarding, singles and couples and families led up into ships that led to Washington and South America and Europe.
Empty of breath, he stepped out of the shadow of one of the warehouses when he saw the big transatlantic leave the docks. It sailed away as it started to rain, people lined up along the railings to wave at the docks. There were two dogs among all the people, barking at the sky. He took off his hat and scratched his unshaven chin, and just stared at the disappearing ship, getting drenched in the rain. He put a cigarette between his lips even as his lungs still wailed. He would smoke another one after that, and another and another, and he wouldn’t be sorry. Now that he’d missed the ship, he knew that he didn’t have to be sorry anymore, and that she could finally be with another man.
Vanja Artak is an astrophysicist from Aarhus, Denmark, where he teaches math and physics at a high school. He came to Denmark as a fugitive in 1993, and a lot of his stories are about the war-torn country of Yugoslavia, and about the struggle of being stuck between two cultures. His work has previously been published in the online literary magazine, Five on the Fifth.