The door is open, but it’s heavy and doesn’t move easily. Impressive white oak door. I push it open slowly.
“Hello, hello,” I say softly. It’s late, and I know how my father is. He could be in the hall with a gun, poking its black nose around the corner. But I don’t see him. Just beige walls and a naked white leather couch like a big potato.
I steal into the kitchen: yellow walls and a small table with four empty chairs. Sounds are coming up from the basement. Dull, clunking sounds, like a washing machine. On the counter top there’s a pad of paper with some familiar but illegible scrawl. The handwriting is angry. Next to the pad is a five-dollar bill under a refrigerator magnet. Too obvious. More clunking sounds from the basement. I wonder if he’s down there.
The fridge is almost empty and spills an ugly fluorescent light on the floor, but empty in this house is full in mine. I make a barbecued-pork sandwich and eat it over a paper towel. It tastes sweet and salty, and little shreds get stuck between my teeth. It’s the first thing I’ve eaten today, and I’m crazy with hunger. Footsteps rumble up the stairs from the basement.
“Hi,” my stepmother says. She has nice hips for a woman with two children. She’s pretending to be happy to see me.
“Hi, Kathy,” I say.
“It’s OK. I’m helping do a mural on the side of the Great Hall.” In the middle of the kitchen table is a black bowl filled with apples. I wonder if they’re just for decoration.
“Good for you, Leo. You always were an artist.”
I laugh a little. She’s never seen any of my work. “The old man around?”
“No. He’s not home yet.”
I take a bite of the sandwich, chew it slowly, watch her neck, the line of her sweater on her skin. She presses a button on the dishwasher, and it starts up with a whir. The basement is clunking and the kitchen is whirring. All the machines are running, cleaning everything.
She’s chattering now, on automatic: Work is fine. (Uh-huh.) Weather is nice. Kids are upstairs asleep. (Uh-huh.) Billy’s been withdrawing. They want to hold him back a year. (Uh-huh.) But all the time she’s watching me, looking to see what I see. She doesn’t trust me, even though she smiles. I try not to look at the five dollars.
More steps, clomping on the back porch. The door opens. His cheeks sag and his face is red. It’s cold outside. He’s leaning a little, still not fully recovered from his operation. It’s been a while now; he should be walking better than this. Is he going to say something to me? (What could he say?) No, he looks straight at Kathy. “That shelf is staying,” he says. “I don’t give a shit.”
Kathy shrugs her shoulders and gives him that little banker’s smile, a smile that says nothing. “You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do,” she tells him, and walks upstairs. She’s not afraid of him.
So now he turns to me. Will he say hello? Tell me how much he misses me? Old cheeks sagging, sliding off his face. Five dollars next to me under a refrigerator magnet. I’m not afraid of him, either.
“I hate her,” he says, his voice weak with misery.
I take another bite of my sandwich. He walks into the dining room and takes off his jacket. “I work all the time,” he says. But it’s not true. He’s never worked very much. (Like me.) He manages slums and beats up tenants when they don’t pay the rent. Then he works at the jail house on the weekends for an extra fifty, herding prisoners into cages so he can carry a deputy’s badge and a gun. “That bitch wants me to fix this fucking shelf. Says we can’t eat in the dining room with this shelf.” He screws his voice up all high. “ ‘Fix the shelf,’ she says. Shelf’s always been there. Five years and that shelf’s never bothered us. She just wants to destroy me. She hates me, fucking bitch. Wish I was dead, and her, too! Then the kids’d be fucking orphans.” He runs his huge hand over his bald head. The cold has made his lips deep red. He’s mumbling like he would when I was little, when we were waiting in a diner for a burger, or for paint at the hardware store. It’s as if he’s somewhere else, his eyes all glassy, his deep red lips barely touching each other. A fool with sagging cheeks. Can’t even crow with any thunder anymore. Nobody’s afraid of him now, limping around, half crippled. Nobody but the kids upstairs sleeping, or not sleeping. Maybe huddled underneath their bedsheets, shaking. To them, he’s a giant, an ogre.
“I’m a cripple,” he says, his flappy jaws covered in stubble. “I was a good man all my life, had nothing to be ashamed of. Took care of your mother when she was sick all those years. Now I’m a cripple, too.”
Mom used to piss in a bucket. I remember taking the bucket to the toilet to dump it, all full of yellow urine and tissue paper. Nothing ever smelled so bad. After I dumped the bucket into the toilet with a sploosh, I would lean against the wall and steady myself, try to swallow the vomit.
“I’ll never walk properly again, and I’m stuck here with this woman.” Now he’s walking, hobbling, trying not to limp too much, trying to look strong. His spine wasn’t corrected by the surgery; he’s almost hunchbacked. He goes upstairs. There’s screaming for a while.
“I’ll leave you!” she yells. “You’re worthless!”
“Fucking bitch, I’ll kill us both!”
“Don’t you yell at me that way. The kids are sleeping.”
Then silence. I’m still eating my sandwich, and next to me on the counter there’s five dollars. I listen for him to hobble back downstairs. The house is clean, smells like Pine-sol and ammonia. The kids aren’t allowed to climb on the couch because it’s white and shows dirt.
He left his jacket on the chair. It’s black and puffy and has a sheriff’s deputy’s patch on the shoulder. I run my fingers over its creases, feeling the material with my nail. Nothing in the first pocket. The washing machine is clunking, the dishwasher whirring, the refrigerator humming. A concert of appliances. The jacket is so soft I could put my lips on it. Nothing in any of the pockets, nothing at all. Damn, damn, damn! It must be in his jeans. Fuck!
I go back into the kitchen, grab the pad and pen (I’m not a coward), and write:
What about the kids? They’ll be all messed up. All you think about is yourself. And don’t say I don’t know what I’m talking about, because I fucking know. Kathy’s not afraid of you. And I’m not afraid of you either. You’re a cripple now and you can’t hurt nobody. Your problem is you don’t know how to communicate. What are you gonna do — handcuff Billy to a pipe like you did me? I’m glad you’re a cripple. I’m glad.
I snatch the five dollars off the counter top and walk out of this ugly house. It’s cold outside. I ride my bicycle out of the quiet, peaceful suburbs and back to my apartment in the noisy city. Noises come from the bars, from gas stations, from guys hanging out on the corner trying to look like they’re not selling anything, from group homes filled with delinquent boys who couldn’t get along with their fathers.
I get to my block and lock my bike to a parking meter. Three guys walk up the street toward me. One is carrying a cane, but he’s not limping. He’s maybe eighteen, with a shaved head on top of thick shoulders. The one with the cane stops; his two friends continue past me, whispering. “Yo, man, give me a dollar,” he says, his fingers tight around the gnarled old cane that he doesn’t need.
“I don’t have any money,” I say, and quickly go inside, my fingers trembling.
My apartment is on the fourth floor: one room, with a shared bathroom down the hall. The bathroom always smells of oil and urine, but my apartment is clean. Potpourri in a little pot on the radiator gives the room a good smell.
I turn on the radio and sit on my bed, looking out the window, listening to jazz. Across from me there’s a large canvas I’ve been painting; I don’t know whether it’s finished yet: layers of brown and black with lines of texture like angry scrapes, like someone dug their nails into your skin and it tried to heal, but it just got puffy and red instead.
In my room there’s just a bed, a phone on the floor, my painting, some paints, and a pile of clothes in the corner. Someday I’ll have a nice apartment: six or seven rooms, close to the lake, with lots of windows and soft, round lines. Maybe a wife.
The phone rings and I hesitate, trying to decide whether to let the machine answer it. I pick up just before it does.
“You leave me that note?”
“Yeah.” My fingers are cold. I run them around my neck. My shirt feels too tight.
“You think it’s good I’m a cripple? I should never’ve had you. What’ve you ever contributed to this family? Best fucking thing you ever did for us was leave!”
“Who left who?”
“Fuck you. You were a fucking drug addict. No one knew what you were capable of.”
“Is that why you handcuffed me to a pipe in the basement?”
“I used the necessary force to make the arrest.”
“You fucking asshole! You’re a monster and they should’ve locked you up when they had the chance! You fucking worthless, bald cripple!”
“I’m going to kill you!”
“You’re not going to kill anyone, you coward!”
“I’m going to kill you. You wait and see. You think I’m crippled, but I can still kick your ass.”
“You’re not going to kill me. I’m not afraid of you anymore. I’m coming over there.” I hang the phone up and grab a warmer jacket this time. He’s not going to kill me. I’m not a coward. I should’ve gone to Janet’s. She sleeps in a big bed and tells me anything I want to hear, even leaves me the keys to her car, in case I want to drive somewhere. But I’m too angry to see her right now. It wouldn’t be fair to her. Her apartment is always so clean and comfortable and I’m so angry I can’t think.
The suburbs again: quiet, dark, peaceful, secretive, spotless. The house in the middle of the block isn’t as pretty as the rest: green paint peeling, mailbox a little crooked. All the lights are on in the living room. The door’s locked, so I knock.
“Get the fuck out of here!” he yells.
“Fuck you! You’re not going to kill me!” The kids are upstairs sleeping. I look in the window. He’s standing by the white leather couch that shows dirt. He’s got his jacket on, and there’s a small gun in his hand.
“Get the fuck out of here!” he screams when he sees me at the window.
“Fuck you!” I put my foot through the window.
“I’m going to kill you!”
“No you’re not — you’re a coward!” Lights are coming on in the neighbors’ houses. He turns on the porch light. It’s light everywhere now. If I had the chance, I would paint snakes and dragons all over this house, brightly colored monsters with thick, oily scales. There’d be hundreds, every one with its mouth open, screaming. All of them screaming, all the time, and biting themselves and each other. “You killed my mom!”
“I ain’t killed nobody yet. Get out of here.”
“You’re a fucking coward, always picking on women and kids!” I put my foot through another window, glass shattering. We look at each other for a moment. A second of guilt and recognition. An understanding. It’s stupid, screaming like this. His eyes, sadder than anything in this world. I can’t hear anything. All this light swallows me whole. I can see only his eyes. Then I get on my bicycle and ride away.
Janet’s sleepy when she opens her door. “It’s after one in the morning.”
“I know, baby. I’m sorry. Go back to sleep.”
She puts her arms around my neck. Her breasts push into my chest. I lower my head into her shoulder and she rubs her hands over my back, runs her fingers through my hair. She smells like dark flowers. Her legs are so warm. I try to feel safe, but there’s no safety in her softness.
“Come to bed with me,” she says.
“No, I’m going to stay up for a while. I have to think. I’ll come to bed in a little while.”
She goes back to bed. In the fridge there’s three cans of beer. I open one and sit on the couch in the dark. Orange street lights outside. The beer can is so cold it burns my hand. Janet is asleep again in the next room. Sometimes I like to pull her on top of me like a blanket, smother myself with her smell. Sometimes I like to grab big chunks of her and squeeze hard. She doesn’t mind.
I finish the beer. I think I saw some pasta in the fridge, but no meat. All the women I date are fucking vegetarians. What I need now is a steak. A big steak, thick and bloody.
I’m so tired I fall asleep on the couch.
Janet kisses me in the morning. She’s dressed for work. “Did you sleep OK?” she asks.
“I left you the newspaper and some cereal and orange juice.”
She looks great, a picture of responsibility. Part of me wants to tear her clothes off, but I don’t want to make her late for work. She leaves.
On the front page of the paper is a story about a drug bust on the South Side, twenty pounds of cocaine. The ink comes off on my hand. I call to check my messages.
There’s a message from Kathy. She wants me to come over right away. She doesn’t say why.
I ride my bicycle past Touhy Park, where I used to hang out with Jason after I stopped living at home. Jason’s dad would beat him with bamboo sticks that left welts up and down his body. We shared everything. If I came across a little money I’d flip Jason five, and he’d do the same for me. We were even fucking the same girl. One time, my father was chasing me through the park, around the baseball diamond, and he grabbed hold of Jason instead and started punching him in the face. Another time, Jason’s dad tried to run me over with his taxi. We hung out in Touhy Park all day, and we stole a little bit here and there. I haven’t seen Jason since after we got arrested.
When I get to the house, there’s an ambulance in front. Kathy’s standing on the porch, her lips tight and severe. The kids are pushing their toy trucks on the lawn; they should be in school. Clouds dot the blue sky, all puffy and white, their lips sealed. I can see the broken windows on the porch. Men in uniforms — police uniforms, paramedic uniforms — carry my unhappy father out on a stretcher, his mouth curled into a grimace, fighting back the pain, trying to be noble in his misery but failing. The kids are crashing their trucks and crying.
“What happened?” I ask the paramedic.
“He fell down the stairs.”
My father’s in pain for sure. Kathy feigns concern, but her eyes are cold and sparkling. My father’s face looks blue. I imagine endless hours at his bedside. He’s helpless now. Kathy’s sweater is tight. The kids are crying on the lawn. My father’s cheeks are blue and innocent. Someone will have to take care of him. The doors of the ambulance swing open and they put him in the back. He tries to smile at me. Kathy’s almost smiling now, too. I think about endless hours at his bedside.