His eyes were the same color as his hair, kind of a muddy reddish-brown.
It was raining, so I didn’t get to go outside and play with my kickball. Instead, I’d been on my fold-out loveseat/bed reading Gone with the Wind. I’d never seen the movie, but for my History class, we were to read a novel, historical fiction or non-fiction, and then write a paper on it. Being the over-achieving student that I was – along with being an avid reader – I’d opted for this massive tome. Well, to my delight, the story was far racier than I’d imagined, and I could get away with reading it because it was for school. I’d been reading about Rhett and the “muscles of his big body,” so my 12-year-old mind was in a bit of daze as I wandered out of the bedroom toward the kitchen.
Mom was making dinner already, and it was one of Dad’s favorites: navy beans and cornbread. I didn’t like the beans, even when they’d been doctored with ketchup and relish. I usually made do with the cornbread by smearing it with peanut butter and honey. Mom turned the cornbread out of the iron skillet, placing it on the cutting board to cool. I was setting the table when I heard Dad’s truck pull up.
I could tell from the way Dad opened the back door that it was going to be a bad night. My stomach seized up a little, and I automatically became quieter; my body huddled down a little bit. All peace and easygoingness immediately left the air, leaving tension in its place. Dad came into the kitchen, carrying his lunchbox and thermos, his work hat still sitting atop his flushed face. He had his tight-lipped, straight-lined mouth, which confirmed my anxiety. Plus he was a little later than usual, and we all knew why.
I set down the silverware ever so gently, taking great care not to meet his eyes, playing possum. You had to do this exactly right. You had to greet him but not really draw that much attention to yourself, because if he really realized you were there, the whiplash of his anger might strike you. But you couldn’t not say hello, either, because that was rude and could also get you on the wrong end of the stick. So in my practiced, perfectly pitched tone – not too chipper, not too flat, not too loud, not too soft – and with my lips in their practiced smile, I spoke.
“Hi, Dad.” That was it. Saying anything else might piss him off. You never knew what was going to do it, so I typically took the minimalist approach – the less said, the less ammunition for him. But then I messed up. I glanced up without thinking and caught his eye. Jolted, I quickly looked back down at the table and continued with my work. His eyes were the same color as his hair, kind of a muddy reddish-brown.
Mom was fussing around, asking him questions and being chatty, which also made me nervous. She never seemed to know when not to fuss. He was a trip wire, and her babbling could easily set something off. I could tell that the sound of her voice was grating on him. I wanted to tell her to be quiet but couldn’t. My sisters Kara and Jackie came in then from feeding the dogs. They came in loudly, slamming the screen door. With one glance into the room, they sensed the tension as well and adopted my operating methods: quiet and invisible.
Dad put his stuff on the counter, and we all wordlessly sat down to dinner. He was at the head of the table, and my unofficially assigned seat – you know how that happens at the family table, each person has their seat and that’s the way it stays – was to his immediate left, uncomfortably close. Kara sat to his right; Mom and Jackie were further down the table.
I sat with my head tilted down, eyes studying my cornbread. I was too scared to ask for peanut butter and honey, and my mouth was too dry to eat, anyway. This was another balancing act: You had to eat but not too quickly or too loudly. You had to use your silverware, but delicately. This was all to not call attention to yourself, lest you be the one to tip the balance, break the eggshell. But it happened, anyway. It always did when he wore that look on his face.
Mom started talking again, and this time she crossed the line. She asked him about his day and if he’d had to work over. She knew he wasn’t late because he’d worked over. She knew he was late because he’d stopped at the Moose Lodge after work to have some whiskey. We could all smell it on him. I was so startled and mad at her for asking this that I set my fork down too close to my glass. They clinked. Dad looked at me, and there I was, frozen. Still staring down, but I knew I was in the crosshairs. He sat back in his chair, placing his loosely curled fists on either side of his plate.
“Now, by God, I’d like for just once to come home and be able to eat and not have to answer a bunch of this bullshit. And you —”
He was talking to me, I could feel it.
“— and you sitting there all mealy-mouthed and sad. What’s your god-damned problem all the sudden? By God, you’d better start telling me something. And you’d better start eating some of those god-damned beans.”
I was hot, panicked, my stomach flipping, my throat scissored shut. But I had to speak, and quickly. “Nothing’s wrong at all, Dad. This is good.” I smiled, reaching for my spoon.
He sat back, looking at all of us.
“Jay, now, we don’t need for this to be…” Mom started, but Dad cut her off.
“We don’t need for this to be a god-damned nothing! What the hell are you trying to say? I’ve had about enough of this shit, god-dammit. I need some god-damned peace.” He pounded the table then, sending the silverware flying and jittering into the air. “You girls – you women – are nothing but a bunch of fucking cats I gotta live with and tend to. And I’ll tell you something else, girls. You think a man loves you, well he don’t. A man with a hard cock will love anything. You just remember that, by God.”
Kara squirmed in her seat, turning the radar of his muddy eyes on her.
“You aren’t gonna piss your pants again, are you? Get your ass up NOW. Get your ass in there, by God. You’re too old to be pissing your pants. What the hell’s the matter with you? Get on the god-damned toilet, now, god-DAMMIT!” He jumped up, viper quick, and grabbed Kara by her arm and hauled her off the chair, a stream of urine running down her legs to the floor. She ran to the bathroom, crying and peeing, the back of her skirt with a wet circle right in the middle.
I sat there, perfectly still. I wasn’t there. I was gone, detached, this wasn’t happening. I’d mentally pulled the shades in my brain – imagined them as actual sheets sliding down behind my eyes so I couldn’t see. To an outsider looking in, I could’ve been deaf and blind, sitting there in those chairs, me not more than 18 inches from the pounding fists and braying mouth. Mom sat there, too, her lips moving slightly as she muttered prayers under her breath. Jackie stared at the floor while her she frantically and nervously twiddled her thumbs.
Our captor stood mightily, legs spread, breathing hard, and looked around at each of us left at the table. He shook his head in disgust. Then looked at his meal. He was apparently even more disgusted with that and flung the beans aside. The beans and bowl arced in the air and hit the far wall.
Mom held out her hand. “Jay ....”
I sent her a furious look, my eyes screaming at her to please, please be quiet. Dad walked out of the kitchen. We heard the jingle of his keys, the slam of the door, the start of the truck. We all sat there numbly, the three of us at the table and Kara on the toilet, until we heard the gravel crunch as he pulled away.
I clicked back on then, resuming life functions and all electrical brain activity. I started picking up the beans off the floor. Jackie helped. Mom started crying now that it was over and headed toward the bathroom, calling out “Kara? Did you get all cleaned up? I’ll get you some dry clothes to put on.”
The evening now had that odd aftermath feel to it. Everything was cast in an off-kilter light. Darkish but not dark, and not really light, either. Our house was overcast inside. I felt very conspicuous and aware of myself, like I’d been outside myself and was now coming back inside my shell, but I felt too real and too obvious. I felt big, oversized, my hands thick and cartoonishly large. I always felt this way after a particularly scary blow-up, but it was really just a typical night that came right on schedule – nights like this seemed to be on rotation, and we were guaranteed a show with fireworks approximately every seven to ten days. Sometimes two days in a row, sometimes two weeks without one. It all just depended on Dad. He was gone now, though, so we were worry-free for the rest of the night. He wouldn’t be home until late, and he’d be too drunk then to get mad. He was most dangerous when he’d drunk just enough to make him edgy and easily hateful but not enough to make him dull.
Rubbing the last of the bean broth into the carpet, I went back to my loveseat and picked up Gone with the Wind. After all, tomorrow was another day. I really liked that philosophy and had decided to use it as often as possible. Maybe the next time Dad blew up, I’d just say “Why, fiddle-dee-dee!” I knew I would never dare, but it was fun to think it. It cheered me. I called Kara and Jackie over to where I was sitting and told them that I could show them some “dirty” parts in this book I was reading. I thumbed to the part where the Yankees are coming and Scarlett is escaping to Tara. Rhett is leaving her to join the Army, but before he does, he kisses Scarlett with “slow, hot lips that were so leisurely as though he had the whole night before him.” We spent at least an hour finding more racy parts, stopping each time Mom circled the room.