With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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Mom ranted and howled and screamed about how she just gave and gave and gave and we just took and took and took. Dad ran his hand through his hair and looked out the window into the backyard at our lone, birdless tree. I stared into my mashed potatoes, imagining a mountainous alien world.
“Jesus Christ,” my brother, Chris, whispered.
Mom threw her apron down and stomped out of the room and up the stairs. Dresser drawers were yanked open and slammed closed.
“Just let her cool down,” Dad said.
It was a familiar pattern. Yesterday Mom was all smiles, full of energy, vacuuming, cooking meals, snapping on rubber gloves to scrub the floors, the counters, the walls, whatever needed scrubbing. Then, as if triggered by some random event — a voice on television, a mismatched pair of socks, a freak weather system in another hemisphere — today she was someone else.
I picked up my fork and waited for the urge to eat. With Mom’s seat at the table vacant, I had a clear view of the photo she’d taped to the refrigerator to inspire her to lose weight: taken just after my parents married, it showed her posing in a black swimsuit on the sunburned grass of her mother’s rural-Indiana backyard, a taut smile on her lips. The photo had been there as long as I could remember.
A half-hour later my dad, my brother, and I were in the TV room watching the news at a barely audible volume when Mom came downstairs, walked briskly past us, and placed two pink suitcases by the front door: one medium-sized, the other small, like a cosmetic case. Together the suitcases looked like mother and daughter, waiting.
The next morning the suitcases were still by the front door. Mom was cooking, and my father sat at the kitchen table drinking coffee. He was usually long gone by now. It was his habit to go to bed at eight in the evening and wake at 4 A.M. to develop photographs in his basement darkroom, then head to work before any of us got up.
“You know what I just thought of?” I said, pulling my chair quietly from the table, making my tone upbeat, as if there weren’t two suitcases sitting in the entryway. “I just thought of how nice that trip we took to the Holidome was.”
“Uh-huh,” Mom said, slamming a plate down on the counter.
My father finished his coffee and started to get up for a refill, but my mother rushed over and took the cup from his hand.
“Sit,” she snapped. “I will get it.”
That afternoon the junior-high school bus dropped Chris and me off in front of our house, and we walked in the front door to see the suitcases still there. Chris pretended not to notice them.
“I wonder what’s for dinner,” he said. “I hope it doesn’t suck.”
At dinner Mom held a pan over the table for us to see: meatloaf. I hated meatloaf. Chris hated meatloaf. Even Dad didn’t like it much. Mom was aware of this.
“Oh, man, meatloaf?” Chris said.
The explosion had been waiting for just the tiniest spark to ignite it. From there on it was the usual: We didn’t give a goddamn about her. We didn’t help her. We didn’t love her. She’d be better off dead. She should just kill herself, but who would miss her? No one! Not a single person! I’d heard all of this so many times that the words themselves had begun to lose their meaning and sounded like some indecipherable code.
I knew what was coming next: the screaming she did when she was too frustrated or angry to make words. Mom’s face contorted, and her voice became anguished, with guttural undertones that sounded animal in nature. My dad pushed back his chair and remained poised. I put my hands on the table, bracing myself. As Mom writhed her way out of her apron, her hand accidentally hit me on the side of my head. A laugh escaped Chris. Astounded, I wanted to tell him to stop, to explain to Mom that he didn’t mean it, but Mom threw her clutched ball of an apron down, and the next thing we heard was the front door slam. She’d taken the suitcases with her.
We knew she would be gone for a day or two. She’d stay at her mother’s in Indiana, a half-hour from our suburb on Chicago’s South Side. There was no reason to think it would be different this time, but I went to my room to worry about it anyway.
It was my understanding that in situations of divorce, the children generally went with the mother. Lots of kids at school lived with their moms — in particular, the ones bused from the city. In our neighborhood, though, I knew of at least two divorced households where the dad ran the show. I lay in bed after dinner, wondering if I’d one day have to stand up in court and point to the parent I wanted. I thought of choosing my father and felt a sharp pain in my stomach as I imagined my mother’s reaction. She regularly accused Chris and me of loving our dad more. Outside, the streetlights came on and buzzed. I wondered whether they got quieter as the night wore on or I just got used to the noise. I felt tired enough to sleep. My eyes closed, but the first vivid scenes of a dream formed — a car engine at dawn, my bare feet on cold pavement, a road I had never noticed running through the empty lot across the street from our house — and I awoke with a start. I went downstairs and told my dad I was going to a friend’s. Dad said OK and sipped his drink.
Four houses down from us lived the Fuller family: Mr. Fuller, Doug, Tom, and Russ. No Mrs. Fuller. I’d never even seen her. Russ was the closest to me in age, a friendless kid who existed in his own little world. He wore thick glasses, had a giant orb of curly blond hair, and talked about sex constantly. I’d never been inside his house, but, circumstances being what they were, I wanted to visit to learn about life in a male-only household.
I pushed an overgrown hedge out of the way to reach Russ’s doorbell and pressed it several times, thinking it couldn’t possibly be hooked up, given the cracked button and burned-out light. I was starting to knock when the door opened, and Russ’s oldest brother, Doug, peeked out.
“Little Frank. What the fuck?”
Doug was a notable party guy around the neighborhood, drinking at night in the driveway with other kids who’d taken high school on the five-year plan.
“I’m just looking for Russ.”
Doug closed the door without saying anything. I didn’t know whether to stay or go, but I decided it couldn’t hurt to wait.
Russ opened the door.
“Wanna hang out?” I said.
I followed Russ inside. The Fullers’ house was identical to ours in floor plan. The developer who’d built the neighborhood had offered only four models, and most everyone had picked the Lexington. So the feeling of entering a house exactly like mine, only filled with other people’s furnishings, was not new to me. But the Fullers had found some unique uses for the space. A weight bench sat in the middle of the dining room. (Mrs. Fuller must have taken the dining-room table.) Like every other weight bench I’d seen in my life, it didn’t look used. The seat was piled high with empty pizza boxes. Strewn about the room were dumbbells, newspapers, underwear, and men’s magazines. The house was dark, the blinds all pulled. Doug lay on the couch in the family room, a blanket over him and the blue glow of the TV lighting his face.
“What do you like on your pizza?” Russ asked, phone in hand. I said I didn’t care and added that I’d have to leave after we ate to do some studying. Russ was fine with this. Russ was flexible. He dialed the pizza-place number by heart and picked up a copy of Forum magazine as he waited for someone to answer.
“See this chick on the cover?” he whispered to me. “She likes it in the ass!”
The other male-run household in the neighborhood was the Quinns’. They were a military family, and each of the four boys was scarier than the last. No one ever had to ask why Mrs. Quinn had left.
My brother hung around Mike Quinn from time to time, so when I got home that evening, I went to ask Chris about life inside the Quinn home. I knocked on the door to his room. He unlocked it, opened it a crack, did an exaggerated look-both-ways, and let me in.
At Chris’s desk a towel lay neatly over whatever he’d been busy with, and dust rose in the beam of his hundred-watt desk lamp.
“What do you want?” he asked. “Mom will be back. You know that.”
“The Quinns live with their dad, right?”
Chris’s demeanor softened. Despite his new lowlife friends and the obvious drug dealing he was doing, he was still my big brother when I was scared.
“Yeah,” he said. “Their mom left last year.”
“What’s it like there? I mean, does Mike like living with his dad?”
“Well, he had a nasty black eye last week. You saw that, right?”
Mike Quinn was the toughest kid in Chris’s class. The only person who could have given Mike a black eye was another Quinn. It was Dan, Chris said, the oldest brother.
“Dan made this rule around their house that you have to keep your guard up at all times.”
“So they were fighting, and Mike let his guard down?” I said.
“No,” Chris said. “Mike was just walking into the kitchen — but with his guard down.”
I returned to my room and lay on my bed. Evening light stretched across the ceiling, and I could hear traffic on the interstate through my open window. I knew a household consisting of Chris and Dad and me wouldn’t end up like those others. Still, we had our flaws and peculiarities that would come to the fore. Dad drank a lot. Every day. He cared little about his appearance, often having to be prompted by my mother on matters of basic grooming and personal hygiene. He also took an antipsychotic medication, for reasons that were never fully explained to Chris and me. Was Mom somehow keeping him sane? It didn’t seem likely. Still, the idea of Chris and me possibly having to get him to a mental hospital by ourselves sounded frightening enough that I didn’t want to find out.
The next morning at breakfast the kitchen was silent except for the clink of our cereal spoons. Mom normally listened to the radio every morning. I thought of turning it on, but it seemed stupid. Chris slurped milk out of his bowl and then pushed it toward the middle of the table. I reached again for the cereal box, but Chris said we’d be late for the bus.
Leaving the kitchen, I looked at Mom’s photo on the fridge and thought about how bad she’d had it as a kid. Her stepdad was a drunk who’d told her that no one would ever love her. He’d once held a gun to her head and fired an empty chamber. She’d be out at her mother’s place now, probably sitting with my grandmother and drinking wine and talking. I felt sorry for her. I wanted to tell her stepdad that I loved her, but the guy was dead. Nothing could be done. I imagined finding his tombstone and firing bullets into the ground where he lay.
When we got home from school that afternoon, Mom’s car was in the driveway. My stomach sank. Of course, it would have done the same thing if her car hadn’t been there.
“Hi, boys,” Mom said. As usual she gave no sign that she even remembered the night before. This made me angry, but it was impossible to express anger over something that apparently had not even happened, so I accepted her good mood.
She’d signed up for an oil-painting class, she told us. “It meets every Wednesday evening. Tonight is the first one.”
Chris and I responded with enthusiasm, as we did to all her new hobbies. Over the years she’d filled our basement with homemade dolls, macramé plant hangers, stained glass, and boxes of handmade stationery. She approached these crafts with an energy that bordered on desperate. Her mother had once said that Mom used to get so excited about things as a girl, people found it disturbing, but I loved and understood this side of her: I regularly played guitar in my room for six hours at a time, forgetting to eat.
Mom left after dinner that night for class, telling us she’d be home late and not to wait up.
Before her car had even cleared the driveway, Dad dimmed the lights in the family room and pulled out some of his old jazz records. Smoke from his cigarette hung in the air as he reclined in his chair with a glass of whiskey, listening as the tiny needle found music on the slightly warped vinyl and brought it crackling to life. Jazz didn’t sound like anything to Mom. She didn’t want it on and didn’t like that my brother and I found it interesting. The music hadn’t quite won us over yet, but we listened, our eyes looking off at nothing while jazz worked its way into our minds. When we were small, we’d done crafts with Mom at the kitchen table, her hands guiding ours on the safety scissors. Someday we’d drink whiskey and listen to music she didn’t understand.
Dad looked over at me and smiled. His eyes closed. His socks lay at the foot of his recliner, and his glass sat sweating on the end table, empty but for a sliver of ice afloat in a pool of pale gold. These items would remain in their places, I knew, until Mom took care of them. It was her job to erase whatever evidence of himself my father left behind as he moved through the home.
His arm hung limp beside him. It was getting dark. I woke him and said I had to go see a friend. He told me to be back by ten.
There was no friend. I went through our neighborhood and then the next, not really doing anything, just looking at houses and wondering what went on inside each one. I walked over the river and around a cul-de-sac of relatively fancy homes. One belonged to the Vogels, a red-cheeked family who always looked as if they’d just returned from a ski trip. I wondered why Mr. Vogel, an architect, had built his snazzy, modern home here on the South Side. Wasn’t that what the North Side was for? Did he need to have the nicest house in the neighborhood to feel good about himself? I imagined him inside, screaming at his wife and daughters until his fancy glasses went askew on his face.
Back home I turned the doorknob on the front door to find it locked. I hadn’t brought a key. I went around back to the patio and tapped on the sliding glass door. Dad was sleeping just a foot or so away on the other side of the thick pane, but he didn’t wake up. I tapped louder. Then I pounded with my fist. I heard the phone ringing on the end table, inches from his head. He didn’t move. With the whiskey he drank and the medicine he took, he was generally hard to wake, but this was odd. Unable to pound any louder, I stopped. The phone stopped ringing.
He’s dead, I thought. He’s totally dead.
I felt a stabbing pain behind my eyes: all this time I’d been thinking about what life would be like without Mom, and now my dad had dropped dead. His hand was down the back of his underwear, indicating that he’d gone into the afterlife scratching his ass. Nice, old man. You were a fool, and I am your son, and your crazy wife will be home in two hours.
He twitched but then was still again. Had it happened? Then his head turned slowly, as if the noise of my pounding and the ringing of the phone had traveled across the vastness of space to get to him. He opened his eyes and looked as startled to see me as I was to see him alive.
The next morning at breakfast Mom told us her painting class was taught by two gay men named Peter and Gregory who drank wine constantly. What characters! Mom had decided to paint animals, as opposed to landscapes, because Peter was a fellow animal lover (what a coincidence!) and because landscapes were too easy. My father had taken a photograph of a tiger at a zoo several years earlier: would he blow it up for her?
Dad drained his coffee and began to get up for a refill, but I took the cup from him and told him to sit down; I would get it. He looked surprised, as I rarely offered to help out. Mom stopped in midsentence and stared at me. Her expression said maybe I wasn’t helping out; maybe, by doing her job, I was demonstrating that we didn’t need her. And maybe, by getting coffee for Dad, I was taking his side.
I dropped Dad’s spoon into his empty cup, and Mom’s gaze went over my head, as if she’d noticed something outside the window: a cardinal in the lone tree, or a curtain opening in our neighbor’s house. “Relax,” my dad said, jumping up. “I’ll get it.” Chris rolled his eyes at the big show we were making over a cup of coffee. We were, each in our own way, trying. Mom took a deep breath and resumed talking but never quite regained steam.