AN: From the PR drabblememe and prompted by pristhebest - Pregnant Rachel seeks Papa Puckerman.
The sudden shock of sunlight cutting across the dark interiors of the nondescript motel in Middle-of-Nowhere, Texas temporarily blinds the three occupants sitting around. The whitewashed outdoor silhouettes a small, slim figure and by the time their eyes adjust, they can make out a woman looking around her surroundings curiously. She turns to an unseen someone and they hear her whisper that she would be back in a while and to wait for her in the car.
She steps into the lobby and they get a good look at long dark hair, shapely legs and a gorgeous young face. Decades old dust is disturbed as she clicks her way to the front desk. She smiles at the manager behind it and her smile manages to make her even more beautiful, if it was possible.
"Good afternoon," she says graciously. "I'm looking for a Mr. Puckerman. I'm told that this is his residence."
The manager looks at her up and down and knows that he has never seen the like of this kind of woman in these parts, with her scent of jasmine and mint wafting in the air and her simple yet obviously expensive dark blue dress. He knows she's a long way from where she belongs.
"Number 42," he replies gruffly. "He's on the fourth door on the left. Can't miss it."
She smiles at him again, murmurs a thank you and turns towards the stairs. When she is out of earshot, the two old coots sitting on the worn out plaid couch start their buzzing. Nothing this mysterious or dramatic had happened in this town since 1987, when Earl from the garage a block down left his wife for the guy who delivered his spare parts. All of them are wondering what a woman like that was doing looking for a bum like Eli Puckerman.
Knocking on the door numbered 42 resulted in a hollered "Door's unlocked" from the inside. When she opens the door and steps in, the first thing she notices is how dark the room is. The Texas sun has been sequestered behind heavy curtains with only a sliver of light peeking through here and there. The only source of illumination is the old TV set, which is currently turned to an old episode of 'King of Queens'.
There is movement from the periphery of her vision and then, only then, does she notice the man sitting in the armchair to her right. He is so gaunt and exhausted looking that he almost disappears into the mustard yellow upholstery.
He is looking at her from behind a pair of recognizable hazel eyes sunk so far in their sockets, she can barely reconcile the older version sitting in front of her with the smiling, vigorous man in old family pictures. "Well, howdy," he says quietly, as he continues his appraisal.
She steps further into the light and his eyes widen when he catches sight of the swell of her belly. "Shit," he exclaims. "I swear that ain't my baby, lady. I ain't never seen you before."
She resists the urge to roll her eyes. "I'm not here for you, Mr. Puckerman. I'm here because of Noah."
A spark of something sets fire in his eyes and he sits up. "Why? Something happen to my son?"
"You could say that."
She makes her way to him and sits down on the couch. The wedding band and simple circlet of diamonds on her finger and the designer clothes slightly camouflaging her pregnancy pretty much tell the whole story.
"Well, well, well," he mutters.
"I'm Rachel Berry-Puckerman," she says, offering her hand. "It's nice to finally meet you."
He shakes her hand. "Call me Eli, darlin'."
For a few minutes, he does nothing except stare at her. He doesn't make any offers of refreshments or ask her any questions and they regard each other silently.
"Does Noah know you're here?" he asks abruptly.
She takes a breath. "Not really. He's on tour with his band right now." Her eyes meet his. "He thinks I'm back home."
"And where is home?"
"New York," she says simply.
He smirks and Rachel is disconcerted to find the similarity in the expression. She is waiting for the comment or remark she had come to expect from his son; instead, he lapses back into an introspective silence. She was never fond of silences and she fidgets slightly in her seat.
"How far along are you?" he asks suddenly.
She smiles softly, her hand automatically resting over her pregnant belly in a caress. "7 months."
"Boy or girl?"
"We're having a boy."
There is a sudden brightness in his eyes but he blinks it away. "Is that why you're here? Spread the joy and all that shit?" he smirks.
Irritated, she dodges the question. Instead, she asks him one of her own, a question that had been on her mind since as long as she can remember.
"Why did you leave, Mr. Pucke—Eli?"
He actually laughs in grim amusement. "Took you long enough." He regards her with a jaundiced gaze. "I don't know if anyone has ever told you but the Puckermans were always known for three things: good looks, quick tempers and a problem with hitting the sauce a little too often. My granddaddy drank himself to death and so did my pops. Course, before he kicked the bucket, he managed to kick me around a few times too."
He pauses minutely. "The minute I found myself with a belt in my hand, ready to deck my own kid…I left." There is a faraway look in his eyes like he has gone back to that day so many years ago. "I took my demons with me and left."
He looks back at his speechless daughter-in-law. "Took me close to 10 years to sober up. By then, it was too late."
She shakes her head vehemently. "No, it wasn't. You could have come back," she objects.
He smiles. "To what, honey? To a wife who was pregnant the last time I saw her? To a grown-up kid who hated my guts?" Now it is his turn to shake his head. "They were better off without me."
She doesn't say anything because she knows it might be, most likely was, true. Instead, she says, "Your leaving broke him. For the longest time, he was this just messed up boy who was angry at the entire world, who expected everyone he loved to leave him. You broke him."
Eli takes this calmly, like it's just as he expected. "I'm guessing you took care of that," he replies matter-of-factly.
"Not by myself," she admits. "And not easily. It took a long time but he was – is – worth it."
The affection in his face makes him look like an entirely new person and he nods in understanding. Rachel casts her gaze over the dreary room and makes a decision in her head.
"You asked me why I came here. I came because I wanted some answers," she says quietly. "And because I thought that my son deserved to know his grandfather," a pause, "and that his grandfather deserved to know his son."
His smile drops off his face and for the nth time in how many minutes, they sit in silence. When he finally finds the words, his voice is hoarse and full of longing. "How is he? He treat you right?"
"He's wonderful," she says in a soft, earnest murmur.
"Tell me about him."
So she does. She tells him about Noah in high school, about Quinn, Beth and juvie. She talks at length about their roundabout courtship and how Noah followed her to New York with nothing but his truck, his guitar and $400. She tells him about their little wedding in City Hall when she was still slinging hash in a tiny diner and Noah was singing in subway stations and street corners. With a fond grin, she recounts how he graduated to performing in cafes and bars to a legitimate record deal and his songs on the radio to sell-out shows across the country. She tells him too about Aviva and Becca - how Becca is now a junior in high school and on the swim team and honor roll; how Aviva is finally enjoying having her time to herself with two grown children and how Noah spoils his ma with trips to Paris and New York. She pretends not to notice the tears in his eyes when he hears about the baby girl he never got a chance to know or the way his jaw clenches when she tells him about Aviva dating her former boss.
"Good. That's…good. I'm glad he's happy. I'm glad they're all happy," he finally chokes out.
For the first time since she went on this crazy mission, Rachel is filled with sympathy for the broken man in front of her. She knows now that he has regretted every day of his life since he left behind his family, that, most likely, every day since then has been haunted by their memories.
"Why don't you come with me?" she says suddenly. "I can't promise anything but…you're his father. Surely Noah would—"
"I don't think Noah will ever forgive me for what I'd done, no matter the reason," he sighs resignedly. "Can't exactly blame him. And I wouldn't see him now, not when y'all are busy with work and having a baby. No – my being there would only mess things up even more."
"Then come visit," she pleads. "Once the baby's a little bigger and—"
His laugh is quick and bitter. "I appreciate the sentiment, hon, but I don't think so. Think I look like this just for the heck of it?" he asks sarcastically, gesturing to himself. "Hepatocellular carcinoma. Apparently, all that drinking finally caught up to me. It's pretty advanced, according to the docs. Could've done something if they got to it early but hell if I'm gonna let those idiots cut me open or shove drugs up my keister. They said I have about a month, 2 months if I'm lucky."
The weight of the words he just said seem to make the room darker, more oppressive. She doesn't know what to say. "I'm so sorry," she whispers.
"Live like a dog, die like a dog, right?" he says with a cavalier grin and she can see him for what he truly is: a man who felt like he deserved this fate but not his son's forgiveness.
Wiping off an errant tear, she glances at her watch. She has to be at the airport in Lubbock in two hours for her flight back and it was still an hour and a half's drive away. She didn't know what she'd find when she first got the call from the private investigator she had hired but it wasn't this. Nothing about this trip was expected and now, she doesn't know what to do.
When he sees her start to stand, he manages to get up to usher her to the door. They walk awkwardly towards the doorway, unsure on how to say their farewells. "Are you going to tell him about this little visit?"
She stops midstride. "Honestly…I don't know."
His hand is holding on to her arm in a tight but not painful grip. "If you do, tell him…shit, I don't know," he bites out, frustrated. "Tell him I'm sorry. Tell him the truth. Tell him everything, if you want."
"Does that include the fact that you love him?"
His grasp loosens for a second before he holds on again. "Yeah, you can tell him that too," he says in a pained whisper.
At the door, he pecks her on the cheek. "Bye, sweetheart. I'm happy that Noah managed to find a girl like you." His smile is resigned. "God knows that boy deserves some good in his life."
She gives him a hug, surprising the older man. "I think everyone does, Eli. Even those who think they don't deserve it," she breathes. "Goodbye."
Four and half months later, the manager of the Cactus Motel opens the door to room 42 after 2 days of unanswered calls and accumulated mail. He finds the still body of Eli Puckerman, looking for all the world as if he was merely slumbering. He has a beatific smile on his face and a single photograph clutched in his hand.
The envelope that it came in is on the floor, the expensive kind made of thick cream card stock with the sender's name and Manhattan address engraved on the front. Eli's details, however, are written in a loopy, feminine cursive.
The photo is of a dark-haired young man with his arm around an young woman. The manager thinks the woman looks familiar but he can't be sure because both persons in the photo have their faces turned towards the bundle in their arms. Swaddled in a blue blanket with "Jackson" embroidered on it, the baby has a chubby little fist raised high up in the air and a shock of hair as dark as his parents standing straight up on his head. He also has his face turned slightly to the camera, seemingly regarding the person behind it with a curious, hazel-eyed gaze.
Turning over the photo, there are only two words written in a cramped, messy scrawl: For Dad.