My father closes the refrigerator door and takes seven steps, so I know he is halfway through the dining room when he lets out one of those long-winded farts to beat the band. The shuffling sound of socks on tired linoleum tells me he is doing the victory dance he always does when he thinks he has outdone himself.
My friend Debbie mouths, “Yuck, gross.” She knows better than to make a sound.
From the kitchen there is a familiar thwack and dishes rattle. I don’t need to see my mother to know she has slapped the table the way she does when she wants to make her point.
“Jesus Christ, I’m eating here,” she shouts.
“S’cuse,” he says, but he sounds more proud than sorry, which must piss her off more, because she whacks the table again.
For a minute I start humming This old man he played one, he played knick-knack on my thumb, to block out what might come next. They don’t know I’m in the closet so when I hum I do it in my head so only Debbie and me can hear. While I hum I count his footsteps. I’m good at this keeping track while I do something else like hum, so I know he’s going to sit down even before I hear him plop into his chair.
It’s always the same with him, seventeen footsteps to get from his Lazy-Boy to the refrigerator, four from the chair to the TV, five to get to the bottom of the stairs. Even though my mother always nags and calls him unreliable, you can at least guess where you stand with him. Not like her, who might take twenty steps to get from the kitchen to the living room, but sometimes gets there in twelve or fourteen.
My father rattles the handle on the side of his chair and the swish tells me he is back to half-lying-half-sitting while he swears at the idiot ref on TV, which is what he was doing before he got up to get his beer.
With him settled, and my mother still in the kitchen, Debbie and me get back to playing in the closet under the stairway. My father started to build this closet before I was born. Like most things in his life, he never finished it. He broke through the wall and put up some shelves but never hung the door. To spite him for not finishing, my mother hardly puts anything in here, which leaves room to spread out when we play.
Before my father got up, we were playing Miss America Pageant, but now Debbie wants to play Indian princess falling in love with the white-man cowboy, which is something we saw on an old movie when we snuck downstairs a few weeks ago after my mother went to bed. We waited until we knew she was asleep; watched her back through the crack of the open bedroom door. She was scrunched all the way on the edge of her side of the bed, even though my father wasn’t in there with her. Him not being there was the reason we crept downstairs in the first place. My mother always turns all the lights out if he’s not home by ten. I don’t want the neighbors to see him stagger either, but I worry he might trip and break his neck on the front steps, so whenever I can, I sneak down and turn the porch light back on.
Like every time we’ve played this new game since that night, Debbie wants to be Laughing Waters. It’s the best Indian princess name and just once I want it to be my name, but Debbie is my best friend, the only one I let inside because most kids would make fun or not know what to say, so I let her have her way so she doesn’t get mad and disappear. I can be Bubbling Brook she says, but that’s too much like Laughing Waters, so I pick Weeping Willow instead.
We don’t have buffalo teeth, or feathers, or stones to make necklaces in the closet, so we wrap winter scarves around our necks and pretend we are weaving baskets near the fire when the handsome cowboys ride up. Hers wears a white hat over his blond hair and looks like Brad Pitt. No matter what we play, my boyfriend always has shamrock green eyes and curly black hair like my father. Sometimes I wonder if my mother ever told my father dreamy things about his eyes. When I get married, I know I will tell my husband what is nice about him.
The cowboys are just getting off their horses to tell us their names when my father pumps the handle on his recliner to get up. There is one step, then a crash like thunder and the sound of breaking glass. In a blink Debbie is gone. No matter how I try, I can’t make her stay when the noise starts.
My mother’s feet thud-thud-thud ten times. Already she is in the living room. The sound coming from her throat reminds me of when the car won’t start.
I peak around the missing doorframe at her back. She steps over my father’s passed out body. Without touching him, she picks up the end table and wipes up a wet mark on the tabletop with the tissue she always keeps in the sleeve of her cardigan. “Would it kill you to use a goddamn coaster,” she says, even though he is passed out. “I can’t have one frigging thing you don’t ruin.”
I am extra careful to slip out of the closet when she isn’t looking so she won’t know where I came from, because I am going to be ten on my next birthday and she says that is too old for playing in a closet. It is never good to do what she thinks you are too old to do. I learned that once and for all when I was brushing Debbie’s hair when we were almost eight. My mother had asked me what I was doing, and when I said can’t you see I am brushing Debbie’s hair she took the hairbrush from me. She said you-are-too-old-for-this-make-believe-nonsense, spanking me with the hairbrush each time she said a word.
Ever since then, I don’t mention Debbie.
The closer I get to where my father sprawls on the floor, the more he looks dead, but I know he isn’t because he is making the fog-horn sounds he makes when he is asleep. My mother bends down to pick up some pieces of the broken vase. She gawks at those two pieces of broken glass like if she stares hard enough she might figure something out. I look closer at a wet spot on the braided rug beside my father’s face to make sure it isn’t blood, but it’s just spit-up dribbling off his chin. My mother finally sees me and as if she can read my mind and knows I want to wipe his mouth and put a pillow under his head. “Don’t touch him,” she says. “Just get the broom.” She sighs so deep she looks like a blow up raft when you pull the plug and the air escapes in a hiss.
I dart to the broom closet and grab the dustpan and broom; afraid if I take too long she’ll pass out too, leaving me alone to clean up their mess.
When I get back, she is still staring at the glass in her hand, making little start and stop sucking sounds, as if even breathing has become too much to handle.
Her head tilts to the left. I lean in a little closer, because her eyes look like what she is about to say is really important.
“I was so happy the night we got engaged and your father gave me that vase filled with violets.” For a second, she sounds like someone else, like someone I want to know better. That happens every now and then, and when it does, it makes me want to tuck in next to her on the couch, and coil my finger in her hair. I take a step toward her, but she pulls back and tosses the broken pieces into the dustpan. Her voice is all-brittle again. “It might as well be broken. It’s been empty for years.”
I sweep up the rest of the vase and put the broom and dustpan away, but when she isn’t looking I hide the broken vase in my closet. I am thinking if I fix it and buy violets; maybe she could be happy like that again.
A few hours later my father is still asleep on the living room floor. He is on his back, making huge, gurgling snoring sounds. In the kitchen I eat dinner in silence while my mother goes on about never having one uneventful day, and having to do everygoddamnthing all by herself.
“I’ll help,” I say.
“What can you do?”
I lower my head and separate the tuna from the macaroni and cheese on my plate. When she isn’t looking, I push little flakes of tuna over the rim and cover them with my napkin.
“I can dust and mop after school. I’m almost ten, I’m old enough.”
I know I will miss going next-door to Patty’s everyday to do my homework if my mother agrees. I like next-door Patty with her pink-tinted lips and hair neat in a bun, so unlike my mother, who doesn’t have time for smooth hair or a touch of lipstick. When Patty leans over me to check my homework, she smells like baby-powder and there’s a sparkle in her voice when her husband Eddie comes home and she asks him about his day. She kisses him hello on the lips everyday, and looks happy to see him, not just relief because he didn’t go drinking, but like she is glad just to have him there.
After dinner, I do the dishes so my mother can go out on the front step to smoke with Patty.
Maybe because she lives in the row house next door, and can hear the truth through the too thin walls, or because her Eddie drinks too – whatever the reason – my mother talks to Patty. She is the only exception to my mother’s it’s nobody’s business rule. I have overheard plenty from my closet while they sit on the porch or at our kitchen table pouring out coffee and their troubles.
I rinse out the sponge while my mother carries the coffee pot and two mugs out to the front porch. After she leaves, I cover the rest of the casserole with aluminum foil, and put the dish on the pilot light to stay warm. I scoop up the napkin filled with tuna flakes and push it to the bottom of the trashcan. Why anyone has to ruin good macaroni and cheese with tuna fish is beyond me, but the nights she makes it, it’s easier to get rid of the fish when she isn’t looking than to remind her I don’t like tuna.
Even with the water running I hear my father stir. I turn the water off and carry his warmed plate to the living room. He wipes his mouth on the sleeve of his flannel shirt and settles in his chair. I flatten a section of newspaper so he can use it like a placemat on his lap. His eyes are yellow-green and bloodshot when he winks and asks if I don’t mind getting him a cold one.
“How about it, my pretty baby girl?” he adds. I do mind, but I mind less after he says that, so I go to the kitchen and open his beer with the magnet bottle opener stuck to the freezer door. The opener has a design on it like an American flag. We got it from Avon when Patty was selling it last summer around the fourth of July. We don’t really have money for things like Avon, but we had to buy something, since it was Patty. Lucky for us she stopped selling in August, so we didn’t have to buy anything else.
After I give him his beer my mother is still outside, so Debbie and I are in the closet playing getting ready for Saturday night dates with our boyfriends. Debbie wears a pink sweater-set with jeans, and I wear a turquoise v-neck with a short black skirt. We saw Rachel wear these same outfits on Friends on TV, so we know they are the latest thing. We take turns putting on each other’s makeup before our boyfriends ring the bell to pick us up. Our boyfriends, Matt and Timmy, look the same as the cowboys, but now they wear Gap chinos and pressed shirts, and smell of woodsy cologne. They take us to Appleby’s and tell us we can order anything on the menu. I want spare ribs, but I know Rachel thinks you can’t look ladylike eating spareribs, so me and Deb get the shrimp combo with two kinds of shrimp, like on the commercial. After dinner we go dancing and Timmy holds my hand. While we’re dancing my father gets up and I don’t stop dancing, just count to seventeen, listen to the fridge door open and close, and count seventeen again and he is back in his chair.
He has hardly sat back down when the front door swishes open. My mother comes in and picks something up and slams it down. It is probably his beer. Sometimes talking to Patty calms her down, but not tonight. Tonight she starts right in on him. Already Debbie and Matt and Timmy are gone, and I am sitting in the closet alone, holding my own hand.
“You haven’t had enough?”
“One beer, Alice,” he says.
“One fucking beer, my ass,” she says.
Like usual, instead of answering, my father raises the volume on the television louder, as if by some miracle it will drown her out while she tells him for the millionth time how much she hates her life. She stomps from the living room to the kitchen, opens drawers and bangs them closed saying, I am sick of it, sick of it, sick of it. It might be my only chance, so I run upstairs and make a tent under the covers to read with my flashlight.
“I have had it. I can’t take anymore,” she says. There is a crash and rattle, like a metal tray hitting the wall, and I know she is throwing the kitchen utensils again.
“You wouldn’t drink if you loved us.”
I am trying not to listen, but needing to know if he loves us is all that I can hear.
When she finally goes to bed, I listen for her sobbing to stop. It seems like hours before I tiptoe to her door to hear the steady breathing that means she is asleep. My father is sitting in the dark when I go downstairs. I pick up the spatula and slotted spoon, the eggbeater and wire whip to clear a path and lead him, half-sleepwalking to their bedroom. My mother doesn’t move when I pull the cover up the best I can from his side to cover her too.
I listen from my room. When he starts to snore, Deb and me will sneak back to the closet with the flashlight. She’ll help me glue the vase back together. We’ll get it fixed, even if it takes all night.Carol Brill is the author of two novels in progress, Ordinary Eggshells and Peace by Piece. Her work has appeared in The Press of Altantic City, NovelAdvice, WriterAdvice and several professional journals. She holds a MFA degree from Fairleigh Dickinson University.