American Family: A Novel

American Family: A Novel

by Catherine Marshall-Smith


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American Family: A Novel by Catherine Marshall-Smith

Richard and Michael, both three years sober, have just decided to celebrate their love by moving in together when Richard—driven by the desire to do the right thing for his ten-year-old-daughter, Brady, whom he has never met—impulsively calls his former father-in-law to connect with her. With that phone call, he jeopardizes the one good thing he has—his relationship with Michael—and also threatens the world of the fundamentalist Christian grandparents who love Brady and see her as payback from God for the alcohol-related death of her mother. Unable to reach an agreement, the two parties hire lawyers who have agendas far beyond the interests of the families—and Brady is initially trusted into Richard and Michael’s care. But when the judge learns that the young girl was present when a questionable act took place while in their custody, she returns Brady to her grandparents. Ultimately, it’s not until further tragedy strikes that both families are finally motivated to actually act in the “best interests of the child.”

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781631521638
Publisher: She Writes Press
Publication date: 06/13/2017
Pages: 360
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Catherine Marshall-Smith teaches writing and history to 6th graders, runs long distance, is married to the love of her life, mother to three adult children, has two grand dogs and one dachshund with a very straight nose. In the process of writing American Family, she observed in Family Court, interviewed lawyers and a judge and read the Supreme Court ruling on grandparents’ rights with a lawyer. She has her bachelor’s degree in English from University of California at Berkeley and earned a Creative Writing Certificate from the Writing Program at UCLA where she was short listed for the James Kirkwood Award for Fiction 2012.

Read an Excerpt

American Family

A Novel

By Catherine Marshall-Smith

She Writes Press

Copyright © 2017 Catherine Marshall-Smith
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-63152-164-5



Moving in with Michael should have been perfect. It wasn't supposed to feel like this. Richard stood on the honey-colored oak floor of the upstairs study and inhaled the scent of the Pacific Ocean coming through the dormer window. He whistled to convince himself he was happily preoccupied with unpacking, but the sound grated against his ears.

As he stooped to pick up another box, he saw the corner of the letter poking out, demanding attention. He yanked it out and unfolded it, as if somehow this time it would read differently. Brady's picture fell out. It was the standard school-picture pose. She smiled in it because she had been told to do so. He searched for himself in her face. Except for the curly hair, she didn't look like him or what he could remember of Brenda. He touched the picture and leaned closer to the window, but there was no breeze and the sun pressed in on him. Sweat trickled down his back. He closed the window and turned on the AC.

He shelved a box of books on the mahogany bookcases that matched the Civil War–era desk Michael had given him to encourage his writing on the same period. Richard had admired the desk in an antique store but had never mentioned it. Today while Michael was at work, it was delivered. The gesture, so tender, caught him off guard and made him cry. Now he ran his hand over the surface of the desk and then slipped the letter inside a paperback of Lillian Hellman's Pentimento. He'd never be able to write until he settled things with Brady.

Desperate to stop thinking, Richard decided to go running. Thinking hurt. Trying not to think hurt more. Maybe going for a run would clear his head. Richard selected running clothes that comforted him, his shirt from the Big Sur Marathon that qualified him for the Boston and the lucky hat he earned running it. He placed his crusty Nikes against the wall and began stretching mostly so he could tell himself he had done so. He pressed chest against thigh, but the image of Brady's face floated up in his mind and a spasm of guilt clenched his stomach. This was the moment to call, and he was letting it pass. But he should call Michael first. He switched legs, clutching his ankle as he pressed forward. He would call Michael, he thought, reaching for the phone. But he called information for Oregon instead, asked for the Nordland's number. His voice echoed through the empty house. He lowered it as if he were doing something sneaky, wrong, or both. The phone was slippery in his sweaty hand as he listened to it ring, half hoping, half dreading they wouldn't be home. He stared around the room and then at his feet.

He wanted to hang up. He wouldn't hang up. He'd put this off long enough, and now, safe and sober in Michael's house, he was ready. He was going to hang up after the next ring.

"Hello," a gruff voice answered.

He cleared his throat, "Frank Nordland, please."


"Mr. Nordland, I'm Richard Lawson. I, well, I was married to your daughter."

"I know who you are, Mr. Lawson."

He could feel his heart pound. It was like those seconds at the top of the first hill of a rollercoaster before the plunge began. There was no getting off the ride now. He had identified himself.

"I wondered if I could talk to Brady." His voice sounded mincing. He hated it. His hand shook, and he fumbled with the phone. He pressed it harder against his ear, trying to steady it.

"She isn't here," Mr. Nordland said.

"Where is she?"

"In school, like most kids her age."

Richard cringed. Of course. Real parents knew when school was. He opened his mouth to apologize but Frank didn't give him the chance.

"Last I heard you were in some rehab in California. You still there?"

"That was a long time ago. I've been sober for three years, four months ... and something," Richard said.

"You waited three years to call? Why now?"

Richard couldn't remember why. He just knew he desperately needed to talk to Brady. "I'm sorry I left the way I did. But I want to ... to make amends. Make it up to her." Richard's voice trailed off. He was losing his one chance to do so. He forced himself to continue. "I think it would be good for her to know me too. I'm her father, Frank."

The silence went on so long that Richard wondered if Frank had hung up.

"You're not her father. I am," Frank said.

Richard held the phone away from his face, but he could still hear Frank railing.

"Kathleen and I have raised her and we love her!"

"Exactly," Richard interrupted. "I want a chance to love her too."

Frank talked over him. "We know she's allergic to strawberries and loves peaches. We were the ones the cops called after they pulled her from the wreck. We know she is afraid of the dark, and we know why. We know how to comfort her so she can sleep. You are nothing more than a name on her birth certificate." Frank stopped.

Richard could hear him breathe.

"I can't change the past. But I can make the future better," Richard said.

Frank continued. "It was hard enough losing her mom, but what made it worse was the fact that after the accident her father didn't even care enough to show up. I know it's just a call, but it's going to make her ask where you've been. Are you ready to answer that question?"

Richard's thumb rested on the end-call button, and he leaned against the wall to steady himself. But he made himself answer. "I know I haven't done anything to make either of you trust me. But I think it would be good for her to know me." He held the phone with both hands to keep it still. "It wasn't easy for me to make this call."

Frank spoke slowly, enunciating every word. "I'll ask her if she wants to call you, but I won't force her. Make sure you know what you're doing is right for her and not just for yourself."

Richard started to say goodbye, but the dial tone stopped him. He held the phone to his chest.

"I am her father," Richard said out loud to himself. "It's just a phone call. I do have a right." But was he kidding himself? Was that really all he wanted?

He dropped the phone on the entry room sideboard and ran out of the door. He bounded down the red tile steps to the sidewalk. The path to the beach was wide, and people were sparse. They were probably at home starting their cocktail hour. An image of a gin and tonic flashed in his mind. A drink would feel good right now. Fear released adrenalin in his brain, and he sped up.

Around the third or fourth mile, his breathing finally became deep and rhythmic. He didn't need to be afraid. Michael loved him and wouldn't mind a phone call with his daughter — not when it meant so much to Richard's recovery. He would be honest with Michael, and the rest would fall into place. He raised his hands over his head as he leapt up the steps and into the house.

A savory smell of roasting beef drew Richard to the kitchen. "Be not afraid, for I bring you tidings of great joy. For unto us a child is born," he called out.

"Ritorna Vincitor" resounded as Aida blared from the speakers accompanied by Michael's singing, loud and off-key. "What? I can't hear you. The music is too loud," Michael shouted, turning down the volume.

Richard exhaled deeply, relaxed from the run and relieved to be able to share news of his phone call. Despite having driven the length of the state three times in the process of selling homes to the upwardly mobile from the overly entitled, Michael was in full cooking mode. He had changed from his Armani suit and tasseled loafers and now wore a flour-sack apron over his UCLA T-shirt and jeans. Enclosing Michael in a huge, musky bear hug, Richard ran his fingers through his naturally curly hair, noting that it had just been cut and now stood in tidy furrows.

"I love you," Michael said, "but you're sweaty and you're getting me sweaty. Please tell me you remember that we're having Tom and Vince over."

"Right, Tom and Vince ..." When had Michael mentioned they were coming over? Richard didn't have a problem with Tom, Michael's ex, whose dot-com had survived the shakedown of the '90s and IPO'd, making him a millionaire overnight. He was a good guy, warm and funny, but Vince, his much-younger boyfriend, had a predatory nature and only Richard seemed to be able to discern it.

"What were you saying when you came in the door?" Michael asked. Testing the sauce, he looked at Richard. "You're all buzzed up about something."

Richard crossed his arms and stepped back, bouncing slightly on his toes. "I called Frank today."

Michael opened the oven and lifted the roasted vegetables, took a deep sniff. He smiled before pivoting and placing them on the dark green granite counter.

"Frank who?"

"Nordland — in Oregon." Richard said. His breath caught and he dug his fingers into his upper arms.

"Oregon? What? You did what?" Michael stepped back from the counter. Richard shot forward and closed the hot oven, straightening up to catch Michael's round-eyed stare.

"Shit! What were you thinking?"

"I'm sorry, I felt I had to. And anyway you said you wanted a child." Richard said, his hands outreached with fingers splayed.

"I do. But now? Jesus, we just moved in together." Michael punctuated his words with open palms. "And tonight we have guests." He exhaled and crossed his arms over his chest.

"It's just a phone call." Richard touched Michael's shoulder, but Michael brushed his hand away.

"Just a phone call? It's so much more than just a phone call." He ran his fingers through his hair. "Go get ready. We'll discuss this later."

He raced up the stairs to shower and then paused at the top. What if the grandparents called during dinner tonight? Should he turn off his phone? He looked down at Michael, still busy cooking, and then at the table in the alcove next to the bay window, which would offer a view of the setting sun. The table was decorated with a centerpiece of pink magnolia blossoms in a glittering cut-crystal bowl. Beneath the flowers was the pink batiste tablecloth embossed with Michael's grandmother's initials. Matching napkins lay beneath silver cutlery that reflected the candlelight.

Maybe they wouldn't call tonight.

He emerged from the shower freshly scrubbed and smelling of lavender, lemon, and mint. All of Michael's soaps came in elaborate bottles with French writing, and Richard was never completely sure if he was putting soap into his hair or washing his body with conditioner. He smelled like Michael now though — which was all that mattered.

The comb moved easily through Richard's frizzy curls made dark by the shower water. He smiled at himself in the mirror. Sobriety became him. As the sober years progressed, his complexion had gone from red to ashen, and now he was tan. He'd lost weight and then gained a little, and now he was healthy and slim. He pulled on a pair of Lucky Brand jeans, topped by a Ralph Lauren striped shirt, and unbuttoned it lower than usual. He looked at himself critically in the mirror. The outfit was worthy of the impending event, he decided. He descended the stairs and rounded the corner into the kitchen, where Michael was bending to test the pastry. He considered snuggling up behind Michael but drew back at the last minute.

Richard cleared his throat. "How do you like me now, cowboy?"

"You'll do." Michael sighed and then smiled. "You look great, as always. Let's enjoy our evening."

The doorbell rang and Richard followed Michael to the door. "If I'm really good, can I be dessert's dessert?"

"Absolutely." Michael pushed Richard against the wall and gave him a deep kiss and then reached for the door.



The door sprung open before Michael's fingers could make contact with the knob. Tom held out a potted begonia, and Vince handed Richard a bottle of non-alcoholic wine.

"How thoughtful," Richard said, accepting the bottle and exchanging a look with Michael.

"I'll take it," Michael said. And as he did, Richard whispered, "Non-alcoholic wine is for non-alcoholics."

Michael nodded.

Despite his fifty-seven years, Tom moved with the energy of a twelve-year-old boy. He was slim and naturally tanned, and he bore what seemed to be a permanent smile that caused crinkles to form around his eyes. Richard remembered that Tom once described his hair as black with gray highlights. He wore an unconstructed white silk blazer over a pastel blue oxford cloth shirt. His unbelted slacks matched the jacket. He wore his sleek, brown leather lace-ups, without socks.

Vince, twenty years younger and a foot taller, jingled his keys as he placed them on the oak sideboard. "I don't want them to wear a hole in my pants pocket," he said to Richard, who smiled and gave him fleeting eye contact before he moved to Michael's side.

"Great to see you, Mickey and Dicky!" Tom said. "I hope you like the wine. You should not have to compromise taste to be alcohol free."

Michael ushered them into the living room, where he poured the wine for the guests and brought out sparkling water for himself and Richard.

Tom and Vince settled deeply into the chocolate brown leather couch. Richard pushed himself into the wingback Windsor chair as their guests launched into a travelogue about the lavish vacation in Napa from which they'd just returned.

This might have been interesting, but the conversation centered on their pug, who had contracted food poisoning after eating some improperly refrigerated catfish. They had dashed from their hotel room in the foothills to downtown to find a vet in the middle of the night because the poor dear was erupting from both ends and they desperately feared dehydration.

Richard tried to tune them out and savored the aroma of the appetizers Michael was arranging on a silver tray. Tom had produced his iPad, loaded with two thousand pictures from their trip — but all roads led back to the ailing dog.

Richard feigned an intake of breath to show how anxious he was to find out whether the beleaguered pug pulled through at last. This encouraged Tom, who took hold of Richard's elbow and leaned closer and angled the iPad at him. "Do you want to see?"

Richard drew back, not wanting to see Pugsly lying in a pool of his own vomit. But Tom shifted to another slide show that showed Pugsly in drag, Pugsly dressed as the Easter Bunny, Pugsly as Santa, and Pugsly as a Jack O' Lantern."

"This one is my favorite," Tom said. "It really captures his nobility, don't you think?" He held out a picture of Pugsly in silhouette, staring off into the distance in continental ennui.

Richard gave the picture a passing glance, realized he was rolling his eyes, and blinked instead.

"He slips him his Viagra." Vince tilted his head toward Tom.

"He should have some joy in his life," Tom said. "He's such a good dog."

"I told him it doesn't work that way," Vince said, leaning away from Tom to whisper to Richard. "It increases the blood flow, not the desire."

Richard nodded but couldn't think of anything else to say.

Michael gave him an understanding smile as he set down the tray of savory canapés next to the small stack of delicately flowered Limoge plates.

Richard realized he hadn't eaten all day and lunged for the food. He put an entire pastry in his mouth. He bit down into the crust of one that was filled with steaming spinach and melted cheese and regretted it. While sucking air all around the morsel, he tried to chew and swallow quickly. He could visualize its progress by following the burn all the way to his stomach. What he could taste of it through the seared flesh on his tongue was wonderful.

As Tom and Vince's chatter bounced to other travels and the final remodeling of their faux Versailles in Palos Verdes, Richard emptied the tray.

"Looks like we're done with the first course," Michael said.

Richard looked down at the now-empty tray and saw Michael's arching eyebrows reflected in the silver. "Sorry," he said through a full mouth.

"Let's move to the table, shall we?"

"Oh, this is splendid," Tom said, as Michael led the way. "You're giving us a lovely soiree, like old times."

Michael smiled and lowered his eyes.

Richard felt a stab of jealousy and raised his gaze to Vince, who leaned toward him, nodding. Richard stood and escaped to the dining room table.

Michael placed both couples on the sides of the table facing one another, rather than seating himself and Richard at the heads of the rectangular table. It was more democratic, he said. Richard would have felt safer at the head of the table. He stared at the flowers as Michael retrieved the salad and began tossing it with balsamic vinegar and olive oil infused with lemongrass and garlic.

Richard always found it hard to make small talk because his mind seemed to have a small army of pop-up ads that shot through his consciousness at random. He really was trying to listen, but there was so much interference that he was afraid his response would be illogical. Now, making it all much worse, he was distracted by the possibility of the Nordlands calling. He could feel the weight of his phone in his pocket. He looked up and found both guests staring at him, waiting for him to answer an unheard question. Oh shit!


Excerpted from American Family by Catherine Marshall-Smith. Copyright © 2017 Catherine Marshall-Smith. Excerpted by permission of She Writes Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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