Daddy's Little Girls
by Don Stefanovich
Photo Illustrations by Lucio Villa

Jack Gunham needed his rest. Not getting enough sleep could cost him. Hesitation, a delayed reaction, even an ill-timed yawn could prove fatal. After nearly 12 years on the force in Santa Ana, it wasn't something he took lightly when working graveyard.

His wife, Nancy, understood. When he came home, she was always ready with Scotch tape and construction paper to blackout the windows so he could sleep. Once the inside of each window was delicately shrouded, she would line the outside with tinfoil to reflect the heat. Their home didn't have air-conditioning and the Southern California sun was less than sympathetic.

Even now as Nancy tiptoed into the bedroom, she was careful not to make a sound. As silent as she was, she had left the door open. Their youngest daughter, Sharon, was 6 years old.

This was playtime.

An ear-piercing shriek ripped Jack from his sleep. This was the third time today. He had had enough. He turned over in bed, obscenities spewing out of his mouth.

Jack saw Nancy's blonde hair glinting in the light that intruded through the open door. His piercing blue eyes caught hers — the same emerald green he had once fallen in love with. She cast a wounded glance to the floor, crestfallen, as he snarled at her. His words leveled her.

Jack leapt from the bed and began tearing the construction paper from the windows. What was placed so painstakingly and lovingly was torn apart in a flash of clawing, angry fingers. Sunlight crashed in, not warming the scene. Jack's 5-foot 11-inch, 190-pound athletic frame displaced furniture and clothing. Glass smashed and a familiar scent invaded his nostrils. It was Nancy's perfume. She saved over a month to afford it.

In the closet, on the top shelf was a .357 Magnum. It was supposed to be a gift for his father, but his dad preferred an automatic. So Jack added the revolver to his own collection. It was number 37. Now the cold Smith & Wesson steel was nestled beneath the warmth of several layers of folded T-shirts.

Jack had never raised a hand to Nancy. He even avoided the shoptalk amongst other cops that seemed to focus on whose ass they kicked. Until now, his words had been his only violence.

By the time he made it to the front room, his three daughters were cowered with their mother. They were crying. Jack realized in that instant that his girls were afraid of him. He felt like a terrible husband and an even worse father, but he couldn't say he was sorry.

He shot an angry glance at the clock.

"I'm going out for dinner," he growled. "You'll probably just fuck it up anyway."

The door slammed.

Nancy held her daughters.

It wasn't that he didn't want to say he was sorry. He couldn't.

Born in 1940s Brooklyn to a French father and Italian-Polish mother, Jack grew up in an apartment where the L-Train would rocket past his bedroom window, bellowing its mournful call. When his parents fought he always took his father's side, right or wrong.

A woman's place was at the hearth and she needed to be taken care of like a child. And like a child, she was expected to be modest and humble. It was a weakness on the part of a man to say, "I'm sorry, ya see."

And Jack wasn't weak.

And it wasn't that he didn't love his wife. But she was still his wife. He had a marriage certificate, and in his mind, that was as good as a title deed.

When Jack came home to get ready for work, Nancy's brother was there. He was a preacher. Nancy thought having him there would help keep the peace. It didn't. By the time he left for work, Jack had done more damage to his marriage with his words that night than he had with all his stupidity in the 16 years before.

He should have known Nancy was on her way to telling him to shove off long ago. He read enough of her journals. He didn't have permission, but he didn't need it. He was a man.

Jack steered his black and white 1983 Chevy Impala through the dark streets of Santa Ana. His cruiser was two years old already, but still ran like a champ. Jack made sure of it.

You never knew how the graveyard shift was going to end. It had been a slow night with nothing more than a few routine traffic stops.

It was 1 a.m. when the first call came in for a domestic disturbance in a local trailer park. A neighbor heard an argument. Then came a second call. More screaming. The unit or squad car to respond called in a UTL, or "unable to locate." It was notebook information at that point.

Jack's Motorola crackled again. "Another complaint," said the dispatcher. "This time, the neighbor said there was no mistaking it."

It was physical.

"Copy that."

Jack was one of three units to respond.

Narciso answered the door of the double-wide trailer wearing polished, black dress shoes beneath black slacks. He no longer wore the dress shirt that completed the outfit. A white, ribbed tank top was tucked in behind his gleaming buckle.

Narciso insisted in a thick, Hispanic accent that everything was fine and he was alone.

His knuckles however, were scraped and scarred and he reeked of booze.

One of the officers asked, "Mind if we take a look around?"

"Please, come in," he said.

As Jack strolled through the trailer he couldn't help but notice that except for the holes punched through doors and cupboards, and some toys and baby bottles lying around, the place was well kept. It was obvious someone took great effort to care for the little home. He thought of Nancy.

Narciso was alone.

The television was on.

The police left.

More notebook information.

Unsatisfied, Jack continued to cruise the neighborhood. Something didn't sit right with him. He was never as quick as other officers to overlook domestics. Hell, some of them even turned a blind eye when a husband or boyfriend explained that, "She had just gotten out of line."

He glanced down at the clock on the Impala's dashboard. 2:15 a.m.

Jack pointed the black and white down another street. His halogen headlamps reflected off something white at the end of the cul-de-sac. As he slowed down, Jack turned his spotlight on.

Maria stood barefoot in the street. The blood-soaked white, satin slip clung to her naked body. Her short, gasping breaths were visible in the cold February air. She clutched a small, white bundle. It was a baby wrapped in a bath towel. The towel looked as if it had once been white.

"Please," thought Jack. "Don't let it be the baby's blood."

There was something solid and reassuring in the sound of his own boots against the pavement as he approached her.

"Is the baby OK?"

She didn't speak any English.

"Is your baby OK?"

"Baby OK," she stammered, her splayed lip leaking crimson with the effort of each syllable.

She had a black eye. She had bruises on her neck and back. Her arms and wrists were black and purple in the shape of hands – large hands. Her dark hair was a mess, still standing on end and tangled where she had been dragged by it. She stood in the spotlight, shivering.

Jack's Motorola crackled as he called for backup and an interpreter.

"How long is it going to be?" He thought. "How long until I beat her? I don't want this. I don't want to be that fucker."

Sharon was a tough cop. She was, in fact, one of the only female police officers that Jack respected. She held her own, better than some guys on the force. She sat now in the back of his Impala with Maria.

Narciso had been drinking all day. He wasn't a friendly drunk. The argument began over a poorly cooked meal and escalated, along with Narciso's blood alcohol level, into the night.

Maria had been beaten, thrown around, and locked in a bathroom. She was then dragged back out. Narciso's fist split her lip. As she spun and fell, her face bounced off the kitchen counter. The resulting shiner was a penance for poor cooking.

It went on for several hours — several torturous hours. Then Narciso declared that his wife no longer lived there. Neither did baby Victor.

When the police returned, the double-wide was empty. With Maria's help they found Narciso at a friend's house. When he was arrested, the first hints of dawn were beginning to smolder on the horizon. The handcuffs clicked until they bit into his flesh. Then they clicked a few more times.

Maria sat in a stark interrogation room on an ugly, woven couch. She clung to her baby boy as if someone might take him at any moment. Sharon was hunched next to her on a stool, speaking in Spanish. Maria had no friends or family in California. Most were in someplace called Zacatecas, deep in Mexico, some in Guadalajara. She had no job. She had no money.

Tears stung her bruised cheeks. Police officers are trained to remain professional and emotionally detached. They are trained not to become involved. They can't. It can rob them of their efficiency and ability to act.

It can kill them. It was 6:30 a.m., half an hour before the next shift change. There was an unusual energy and bustle in the station outside the interrogation room. Sharon returned, smiling. Maria stared at the wall. Sharon once again assumed her roost on the stool and with a hand on Maria's shoulder spoke in warm, excited tones. "Gracias" was the only reply, mumbled through stitched lips. Maria's face was still blank. Sharon spoke faster now, her voice rising. Then it happened. Maria smiled.

Jack moved with purpose through the station. He spoke rapidly, eyes wide, to each of his colleagues. He had a fellow officer posted at the employee entrance in the rear of the station as the next shift filed in and another by the front desk as the graveyard guys clocked out. They spoke quickly to those passing, collecting crumpled wads of green and stuffing them into large manila envelopes.

Jack was on the phone now, dialing furiously, a list of numbers on a wrinkled sheet in front of him.

"Hey!" he shouted into the receiver. "Think you can pick up a few cans of something on your way in?"

Stacks in the washroom began to grow. Boxes of food piled up. There were toys. There were clothes. There was money. A lot of money.

Maria had been adopted.

Later that day in a motel on First Street, Maria slept peacefully with her son. It was the first time in a long time.

Jack and Sharon picked her up the next morning after their shift and took her to Kmart. She wore jeans and a T-shirt donated by another officer. They didn't fit. But beneath the bruises and baggy clothes Jack couldn't help but notice how beautiful she was.

"How could that bastard do this?" he thought. "Didn't he know what he had?" His thoughts once again drifted to Nancy.

Desitin, diapers, baby wipes, clothes that fit; the shopping cart quickly filled. There was even a squishy basketball. That was Victor's favorite.

Maria would soon be on a Greyhound that would carry her far away from hands that hurt her, that threatened her child. She had a well-stocked diaper bag, food, clothes and enough money to make it back to a place she where was welcome and loved. Jack felt far away too. He was different somehow. The last few days had changed the way he saw his wife, the way he saw his daughters, the way he saw his mother. The way he saw women as a whole in society had been turned upside down. Something stirred inside him. His oldest daughter was 10 years old. Maybe it wasn't too late.

"My god," he thought. "I think I'm a feminist."

He told his daughters things were going to be different. But he never told Nancy. He doubted she would have believed him anyway.

Now he began to try to quantify how much effort it took his wife on a daily basis just to mollify him.

"I was a lousy fucking husband."

The summer sun baked down on the shooting and target range of the Izaak Walton League in Yorba Linda.

Jack's oldest daughter, Cynthia, squinted

her blue eyes behind the oversized polycarbonate goggles.

The ear-protectors pressed her blonde hair against her head as she wrinkled her nose and peered down the barrel of the .357 Magnum at the smiling face of her friend Casey.

"I want you to know what happens if you play with guns and one of your friends is accidentally in the way when one goes off," Jack had said as he taped Casey's photograph to a watermelon. The melon was balanced on a post roughly as tall as a 12-year-old.

Jack wanted to instill a healthy fear and respect of weapons in his daughters, but he also wanted them to know how to defend themselves from anyone, including whomever they might marry or become involved with. He had decided that he was going to teach them hand-to-hand combat, how to handle knives, how to shoot guns and how to work on cars. After all, this isn't a man's world. It belongs to whoever steps up and takes charge, and damnit his daughters were going to be able to compete with anyone who came along, male or female.

Donning the oversized protective gear and clutching a cannon she could barely lift, Cynthia looked comical, almost cartoon like, evoking a caricature of lost innocence. She was far from the hearth. She was playing with boys' toys now. Her sisters watched wide-eyed from the bleachers. Casey was still smiling. Cynthia's tiny finger found the trigger. She squeezed. Casey exploded.

As the girls grew closer to becoming women, they also grew closer to their father.

"It wasn't too late. Thank god, it wasn't too late," Jack thought.

But Nancy grew distant. She no longer hung her head and looked to the floor for answers. Her tongue was sharper now and she wasn't afraid to use it. She was getting brave.

Three more years passed.

The marriage would limp on for 10 more, legally, but he had lost Nancy long ago. He had failed as a husband, but as a father he grew closer to his daughters every day. Jack returned home after work one evening. It was dark when he got off work now. He had put in for a shift change to be able to sleep at night like a normal person and spend more time with his family.

Tonight he found his middle daughter, 12-year-old Susan, perched at the kitchen table, grinning ear to ear over a bowl of rainbow sherbet. Jack shot a confused glance at the clock.

11:30 p.m.

Tonight was a school night.

He raised an eyebrow.

"She got her reward," Nancy said.

"OK," Jack sighed. "Tell me what happened."

Nancy nodded toward the wrinkled, brown paper bag on the kitchen table.

Jack unfurled the top of the bag and peered in. His inquisitive glance was greeted by a jumble of metal. He instantly recognized a recoil spring, a slide, a magazine and several bullets. The equation was simple. The sum of the parts was a Walther PPK semi-automatic pistol. It was the same gun James Bond used. It was the same gun his neighbor owned.

Jack listened. Susan recounted how she had been next door with several friends playing with their neighbor, Eric, who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

The father, whom Jack knew as "Jackass," had left a group of 11 and 12-year-olds unsupervised to run an errand.

A wild-eyed Eric seized the moment. "Hey! You guys want to see something cool?!" He disappeared to his father's bedroom, returning almost instantly brandishing the pistol his father kept under the mattress, imitating 007 and swinging the loaded Walther from one astonished friend to the next.

Jack felt his pulse quicken. There is a reflex action that goes along with firing a gun the first time. You don't pull the trigger only once. You fire multiple shots. Susan continued. With a sugary-sweet smile, she had asked to see it. Eager to impress the green-eyed girl, Eric complied.

Susan dropped the magazine and field-stripped the weapon with an adeptness the astonished Eric had only seen in his favorite action films. Not even his father handled the gun with that much confidence and efficiency. The wrinkles in the corners of Jack's blue eyes hinted at a smile even before his lips moved.