It is still dark when I hear the footsteps. In his stocking feet, he pads down the hallway and into the kitchen. I wait, under the covers of my purple Cinderella sheets, for the click of the stove light and the familiar pop of the gas burner as it alights.
Quiet as a mouse, I creep out of my bed and inch along the hallway wall into the dimly lit square of kitchen.
His back is to me, and his light blue shirt, neatly starched and pressed, falls pristinely over his shoulders. His dark blue pants are creased to perfection. Through the thin light, I make out the pale area on the back of his neck just between his collar and his dark, square-cut hairline. It must be a special day … he’s wearing the pretty uniform instead of the one with all the dirt colors.
Oh! He caught me again. I can’t surprise him. Ever!
I sigh and slip across the linoleum in my bunny slippers to the kitchen table.
“Cream and sugar?”
“Yes, please,” I climb onto the metal chair, careful not to scrape the chair legs on the floor. The last thing I want is for my brothers or my mom to wake up and disturb these special predawn moments.
His thumb holds open the kettle neck so he can hear the boil, not the whistle. His head turns slightly and I see a wink escape his dark eye in the blue-white glow of the stovetop. I know his thoughts are one with mine—“Let no one disturb this precious time.”
The burr of the boil grows and he moves the kettle from the burner, turns off the blue flame with a single, graceful motion of his hand.
Two spoonfuls of coffee each deposited into big, white ceramic cups, followed by two spoonfuls of sugar for each. A few drops of milk from a sweaty glass bottle and finally, the kettle tips and the steaming water cascades into the cups.
I look beyond him to the window above the sink. The sky is still black but hints of a lighter blue are starting to form over the house across the street. Not yet. Not…yet.
The faint clink of the two cups resting together as he picks them up in one hand breaks the momentary silence. The floor creaks as he turns toward the kitchen table.
He places the cups down in front of his place at the table before he picks up his chair and sets it away from the table.
“Shhhh,” He knows how to do this chair thing—and all things, really—in complete silence so that no one in the house hears him moving about in the early morning hours.
But then he sits, and there is nothing he can do about the weight of his trim body, so the rubbery chair seat releases a small wind noise that makes me giggle out loud.
One eyebrow floats up, and he frowns in jest.
“Excuse me,” he whispers.
“Ha-ha.” I whisper back.
“Ha-ha yourself,” he smiles.
My feet dangle a few feet above the floor, but I can put my arms on the table if I sit up very straight and tall. I windmill my feet and tap my fingers impatiently on the Formica tabletop.
He pushes my coffee gently across the table until the edge of the cup touches my fingertips. I can’t see inside the cup—I’m not tall enough in my chair—but I watch the steam jiggle above the rim of my cup.
He pulls an opened pack of Pall Malls from his shirt pocket and fishes for his lighter. The flame illuminates his face. His eyes close as he sucks on the filterless cigarette. The end glows like a beautiful ember. He inhales deeply.
“How about you?”
“No thank you,” I wave my hand to push away the white smoke. “I’m trying to quit.”
“That’s my girl.”
We sit in silence. He smokes. We drink our coffee. Through the kitchen window, the sky turns purple, then dark blue, then a reddish orange. Clouds appear like dark streaks on the horizon.
Finally, he looks at his watch. It must be 6:00 now. He stands and takes our empty cups to the sink and returns to the table. With one great swoop, he lifts me onto his back and pretends to nearly run into the wall, then the refrigerator, then the doorjamb.
“You have been eating too much,” he says.
“You always say that.”
“Someday you’ll have to carry me.”
In my room, he slips me from his back and plops me quietly into bed. I wiggle under the covers and he pulls my Cinderella blanket up to my chin as he tucks the covers around my six-year-old frame.
“See you later, Lala?”
“Love you, Daddy.”
He reaches my doorway and turns back. I see his handsome face in the glowing light of day and he winks again.
I can’t wait to learn how to wink.