Anne convinces Dad to move into our upstairs guest room, a few weeks after the funeral. He and I haven’t spoken since the night of the crash. Since he stood there looking at Mom’s and Jamie’s bodies without sorrow or remorse and I told him I wished it would have been him instead.
“You need to talk to him,” Anne says after helping Dad up to his room. The three of us have just endured another dinner the tense, hateful silence of which rivaled those of my childhood. Dad’s been here a week, and I’m ready to throw him out.
“He’s grieving,” she says.
I’m still at the table, in front of the only unclean plate. Anne grips the back of her chair and bores into me with those analytical blue eyes of hers.
“A person can die of loneliness, you know. Especially at his age.”
I prod a spongy baby carrot with my fork and try not to look at her, to give her anything.
“You could die from it, too,” she says. “Continue holding on to that hatred, and you just might.”
Her ambivalent, professional face belies nothing. As a psychologist, her perspicacity is impressive. As my wife, it’s frustrating.
She walks out into the hall and a moment later our bedroom door closes with a definitiveness that says it won’t be open again tonight. Fine. Not like I sleep anymore anyway.
I hear Dad tottering around upstairs, wandering from one room to the next and back, as if he’s confused or lost, and I remember why I’ve never looked to him for direction. Maybe I should go talk to him. Try to smooth things out so we can both get some sleep. His insomnia, according to him, has been worse than ever since Mom and Jamie died. Good. He deserves it. And I’m not about to go up there and get sucked into a pissing contest over whose grieving harder. It’s late. I’m tired. And the road of reparations between Dad and me is too long of a journey to begin tonight. Hell, I’m not even sure there’s a road there anymore.
After clearing the table and cleaning up, I lie on the sofa in the den. The house and the neighborhood nestle down into the late evening quiet. But Dad is restless. His footsteps are loud and shake the house like thunder. I force my head between the sofa cushions and burrow as deep into the silence between them and as far away from him as I can.
Two thick lines of burned rubber arc across the road where Jamie braked and swerved to avoid what we think was a deer. I follow them to the base of a new telephone pole. Its bright surface stands out among the old ones lining the road like a fresh gravestone in an ancient cemetery. From the grass I pick out a shard of glass and slip it into my pocket. Anne doesn’t know about my collection. Or that I run by the crash site every morning. She’d say I do so because I haven’t accepted Mom’s and Jamie’s deaths. But she’d be wrong. I have. Otherwise, I wouldn’t resent Dad as much as I do.
It took her a while to convince him to move in with us. She was tenacious, though, undeterred by his prideful resistance or my perpetual assault on his character and her reasoning. Dad said he wasn’t an impotent old man just yet. I told her I thought he deserved to be in prison, that I’d be the first to testify against him should there be a trial. But she got him to cave. Hired movers and had them install Dad and all of his things upstairs while I was at work. I thought he might hold a grudge against her for taking away his independence. But she and Dad get along just fine. They have breakfast together every morning. Anne has him eating egg whites to help with his cholesterol. Dad is teaching her to drink coffee his way: without anything sweet to blunt the bitterness.
Their conversation, as it tends to do, stops when I come in from my run. Anne’s smile is forced and fades without much effort on her part to save it. Dad concentrates on his breakfast, as if he’s too engrossed in his egg whites to be bothered.
Anne isn’t mad at me. She’s disappointed. Even if it takes years, she likes seeing progress in the people she tries to help. I have to remind her often that I’m not one of her patients. That I’m her husband. But I avoid the argument as much as I can because it feels as if I’m demanding her blind, unquestioning loyalty, as if I’m Dad yelling at Mom.
He was an irascible man, when I was a kid. I never knew what was going to set him off, to send his fist through the wall, to bring out the belt, to put Mom and Jamie in danger. Yet Mom returned to him after every drunken outburst, comforted him as if he were an upset child. And in those moments, I hated her almost as much as I hated him. The only time he and I ever really got along was during deer season. We were good at being quiet together. Or perhaps we were just comfortable because we knew the deer stand was the one place the other wouldn’t be able to talk. But we haven’t been hunting since I graduated high school. Since he got me a job as an apprentice mechanic at the Buick dealership where he was service manager and I told him I was going to college instead. That he was off his fucking rocker if he thought I’d ever follow in his footsteps, let alone work under him. I called home from school often, to check on Mom and Jamie. Dad and I spoke on rare occasions. Even then it was only cursory remarks. I could feel Mom force the phone into his hand. But I gasped for words too.
I pour a cup of coffee and leave it black, which is all it seems Dad and I have left in common. I kiss Anne on top of her head. She smiles, but it’s closer to a wince. I walk out and down the hall. As soon as I close the door to the den, their conversation starts up again, as if someone hit play on a paused movie.
The glass from the crash site poked a hole in my pocket and gouged a small chunk of flesh out of my leg. I felt it cutting me as I ran, a subtle but sharp reassurance of its presence. Pockets can be sewn and the body heals itself. I’m just thankful the glass didn’t fall out and I don’t have to run back for another piece. I’ve done it before.
After locking the shard in the desk drawer with the others, I get ready for work. Anne leaves. Dad heads back upstairs. I hear him scooting around up there doing god-knows-what, as I munch on a piece of toast over the sink. I think about the open house I have today. The small yellow ranch-style I grew up in. The one Dad just moved out of and Anne had the audacity to ask me to sell. If I don’t get an offer soon, I’m going to give another agent the listing. I can’t stand to look at the thing anymore.
Anne feigns a phone call during dinner and leaves me with Dad. It’s the first time the two of us have been alone together since the visitation when we took our places beside the caskets. Anne says she’ll only be a minute. But I know she isn’t coming back, that she’s likely listening from the hallway.
Dad and I don’t share words. Only a mutual embarrassment. He stares at his lasagna. I want to leave but can’t. As much as I hate to admit it, the thought of Dad eating alone conjures up a pity for him I’ve never felt before. Besides, I know Anne will only be further disappointed in me if I don’t take this opportunity to make an effort.
So I clear my throat. Take a drink. No idea what I want to say. Just going to open my mouth and see what comes out. Except Dad beats me to it.
“Your mom made good lasagna,” he says. “She crumbled up those little cheese crackers on top. I liked that.”
I white-knuckle my fork and clench my teeth so hard my head shakes.
“You should have told her things like that more often,” I say. “Maybe she’d still be alive.”
I’m pissed he spoke first. But I’m ready to kill him for mentioning Mom. As if he’s trying to make amends with her. He knows I’m not stupid, that I know better. That I know about the old him. The one who drank himself dumb every night and was the reason Mom made us lock our bedroom doors even after she was sure he was asleep. Who undermined her perpetual optimism every chance he got. Who stormed out of that smoky riverfront bar on her and me after she told him she was pregnant again, screaming about how he didn’t want anymore kids, that he hadn’t wanted them in the first place. Who always left her alone like that when she needed him most. Who got drunk at the impromptu parties he often threw at the old house. Who flirted with Janet or Barb or Glenda or someone else’s wife in front of Mom after ordering her to make more food for guests she was already struggling to afford to feed. Everyone uncomfortable but him. Mom forcing a smile and going along with it. Jamie curled up against me as we watched from the hallway. Him seeing us and giving me the belt after chasing us back to our rooms. Me going back for round two when he turned on Jamie.
I want the Dad I remember to come out and take the beating he’s had coming for forty years. I want the man whose mercurial temperament made me question every move I made as a kid, as if I were walking around an armed bomb and any quick, unexpected movement could set it off, to drop that pitiful old man mask he’s cowering behind now and face all he’s done.
“Jamie would still be here, too,” I say. “If you would have just been nicer to Mom, treated her the way she deserved to be treated instead of drinking yourself blind and trying to beat the life out of her because you’re so unhappy with who you turned out to be, she wouldn’t have had to barricade herself in that closet. Jamie wouldn’t have had to come rescue her. They wouldn’t have been driving on that road. You murdered them.”
He picks at the layers of his lasagna and refuses to look at me.
“That why you agreed to move in here? You saw Anne and I were happy. Thought you’d come screw this up too?”
He clears his throat.
“I deserve that,” he says.
“You’re god-damn right you deserve it!” I jump up, knocking my glass over and spattering the table with red wine. “You killed them. Mom and Jamie are gone because of you. They’re dead. And you might as well be too.”
“That’s enough.” Anne steps in from the hallway. “Stop it, Paul. Just stop it.”
Dad’s head hangs like that of a beaten child. I know. My head used to hang the same way.
I storm off into the den and listen to them clean up dinner. Neither says a word. Anne helps Dad upstairs. She doesn’t even look at me when she passes by the den. Our bedroom door slams. I listen for Dad’s footsteps, but the house and everyone in it is quiet. Which is almost even more frustrating.
None of the prescriptions or home remedies I’ve tried for insomnia have worked. Anne says it’s because psychology trumps biology. That if I’d talk to Dad instead of yell at him, he and I might both be able to get some sleep. That tragedy is a proven catalyst for reconciliation. But the crash wasn’t an opportunity for us to reunite. It was the moment every feeling I’d ever had toward him was justified and galvanized. When I knew I’d been right about him all along.
Around midnight, I give up on sleep and head over to the old house. I sprawl out in the backyard like I used to do when I was a kid and Mom and Dad were fighting and I needed to escape into another corner of the universe. If you lie in the direct center of the yard, you can’t see any of the trees, even in your peripheral vision. The entire sky is open. Thousands of stars right there in front of you. And you get that light-bodied, vertiginous feeling as you tilt your head back, as if you are about to depart from the earth’s surface and fall deep into space.
The town has almost doubled in size, since I was a kid. Which has been nice for real estate but hell for stargazing. Tonight is a bare-bones sky. Four dim bulbs hang in the light-polluted darkness. Not nearly enough for lift-off.
It’s Sunday, almost two in the morning. Anne and Dad will get up in a few hours for mass. I quit going a long time ago, before I met Anne. Dad never went, even when Mom begged him. Mom, Jamie, and I would come back on Sundays to find him having already started, his breath so sour with whiskey you could smell it across the room. It was a warning to tread lightly and stay out of the way. The bomb was close to exploding.
Dad says he quit drinking cold-turkey after the crash. I don’t buy it. He’s always been too selfish for that momentous of a change, even if he does know he’s to blame for everything. Which might be why he accompanied Anne to mass last Sunday and her bible study on Wednesday night. Why he says he enjoyed himself and looks forward to going back. I’ll admit there is a shadow of shame on his face I’ve never seen before. As if he realizes how alone he is after spending most of his life alienating everyone who’s ever loved him. But he’s wrong if he thinks going to church might help him receive penance for all those sins of his. There’s no way he’s going to atone for everything before his time runs out. And I’d bet money he’s got a bottle or two holed away up in his room.
I lay there until the sky is all bright blue, until I know Anne and Dad have left for mass.
The house doesn’t receive any offers, despite my desperate attempts to unburden myself of it. I know they were getting along in their years, but Mom and Dad really let the place go. People complain it’s outdated. Shag carpet and wood paneling just aren’t in anymore. Neither is yellow siding. The roof needs to be replaced. There’s obvious termite and water damage. All the wiring is still knob-and-tube, which is uninsurable, not to mention illegal. The pea-green range I can forever picture Mom in front of is still in the kitchen. As is the matching refrigerator, the yellowed linoleum, and the dinghy, sunflower-patterned wallpaper. At the top of the cracked and upheaved driveway, a dense cluster of oil stains from Dad’s old Buick show like bruises that refuse to heal.
Dad won’t fix any of it. I tell Anne there’s no way I’m going to be able to sell the house if he doesn’t fix it up first. She talks to him. Comes back and says no. He’s done with the place. Me too, I tell her. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t things that still need to be fixed. She rolls her eyes and walks away.
I figure up how much it would cost to get the house in a more marketable condition, never mind profitable. The amount of time and effort alone isn’t worth it. I’m better off tearing it down and selling the lot.
Dad agrees. Anne says he says I can do whatever I need to sell the property. He doesn’t want to have anything to do with it anymore. Which is probably why I can’t and don’t pull the trigger on the demo team. His callous attitude toward the house is just one more example of the indifference he’s shown toward anything of real value in his life.
I tell Anne to tell Dad I’m not tearing down the house. She says she’s done being an arbitrator. That if I want to tell Dad something I’m going to have to talk to him.
Carl was Jamie’s husband. They’d only been married a couple of years, when the crash happened. He told me afterward they’d been trying to have a kid and had asked the coroner if Jamie had been pregnant. She hadn’t. So there was no familial line anchoring Carl to our family. He moved back to Colorado Springs to be with his own family (his mom had Alzheimer’s and his dad had been struggling to take care of her by himself). We haven’t seen him since.
I still talk to Carl, though. After he left, I e-mailed him copies of all the paperwork from the house I’d sold for him. I said I hoped he was doing all right. He said he was getting along and asked how I was. We’ve exchanged e-mails about once a week since then because, for some reason, it’s easier to talk to people who are not the closest or most loving or bound to you by blood.
Anne knows I talk to Carl, which is why, I assume, I find a voicemail on my phone from him after I get done showing a house one afternoon. He says he’s just calling to say hello, to see how I and the rest of the family are doing, even though he e-mailed me yesterday. I don’t like hearing Carl’s voice. It’s a fixture of that past world, the one in which Mom and Jamie are still alive. Yet I find myself listening to his voicemail over and over, each time a stride back toward that life. So I delete the voicemail, don’t call him back, and stop responding to his e-mails. I don’t like Anne going behind my back, or that Carl was willing to be her accomplice.
But I let it go and don’t bring it up. Our dinners are silent now. No one says a word. Anne won’t look at either Dad or me.
Despite my average night of sleep dropping to around three hours, I start running six miles every morning instead of four. My lungs ache and lose their rhythm. After two weeks, my legs feel as if they are going to snap out from underneath me. Which is my goal. I need something to break. The constant tension of it all—Anne, Dad, the house—I’m pushing for that big cathartic release. Something to send a wave of relief rippling through me, no matter how bad it hurts.
To keep myself from fixating on my splintering leg bones, I hold the glass and metal pieces from the crash site in my hand. I squeeze, let them tear up the soft flesh of my palm. I can adjust the pain by how tight I keep my fist. It’s a welcome distraction. And, finally, something I can control.
A few weeks into my new routine, Anne says she wants me to see someone. She found a blood stain on the carpet and has noticed me limping. It doesn’t have to be anyone at her practice. She prefers it isn’t. We can drive to another town, if I want. But I need help. She says it’s no longer about my relationship with her or Dad.
“I’m fine,” I say and leave it at that. She follows me into the den. I keep my fist closed, to hide the glass and the blood.
“You need to talk to someone,” she says.
“I talk to you.”
“Someone else. Have you heard from Carl lately?”
I glare at her. “Subtle.”
She looks like she’s just been slapped.
“We’re worried about you,” she says. “You haven’t been yourself since—”
“Since you moved Dad into our house? Since the two of you have been getting along? Jesus. I can only imagine the shit he’s feeding you. You know, maybe when the two of you are finished conspiring against me we can all get along.”
“You’re going to lose both of us, if you don’t pull yourself out of this,” she says.
I crush the glass until a new cut bursts and fresh warm blood fills the creases of my palm.
“And you’re going to lose me,” I say. “If you don’t fucking drop it.”
Her face changes. Her mouth relaxes into an almost straight line. Her eyes go cold. She transforms from my wife to the woman I used to bring lunch to at her office: the psychologist, the professional. A hard, repressive shield slides down over her features. No emotion out. I can see it all building up behind her complexion like water behind a dam. But she’s had too much practice. She won’t cry. She won’t let me see that I’ve hurt her. The only reason I know I have is because of her obvious resistance measures. Because she’s shut down entirely.
She walks away and is gone by the time I leave for work.
All day, I think about whether or not she’ll be there when I get home. How grateful and repentant I’ll be if she is. But after my last showing, I can’t bring myself to go home, to know the truth. I spend the night in the old house, on the floor of my old room. The door locked, just in case he comes looking for me.
Some of Mom’s and Dad’s old things are still in the house. Her dresser. A few of his tools out in the garage. Things, I suppose, he no longer wants or needs. I’m surprised there isn’t more. That he’s holding on to as much as he is.
I call in sick the next morning and cancel the open house. I spend the day going through what’s left, the pieces of a past life of mine. What I’m looking for or if I’m even looking for anything specific, I can’t say. Just that it feels good to search. To stand in the garage and remember where my bike leaned against the wall. To pull lint from the carpet in my old room. To pretend to shoot the red-winged blackbirds in the oak tree outside the window like I used to do as kid, imagining myself as some great hunter of exotic beasts. To touch the stains on the kitchen wallpaper and try to imagine what they might be from and when they were made. To go into the attic, just to make sure Dad didn’t leave anything important behind. To run my fingertips along the walls, something Mom used to yell at me for often. She’d chase me around with a dish rag and wipe away the smudges left by my dirty fingers. She’d snap the rag at me. I’d laugh and run away. She’d laugh and give chase. Then Dad would step out from behind a corner, having heard Mom yelling at me, not understanding or caring that it was all a game, his belt in his hand.
There came a point early in my life when I stopped running away, when I quit looking to Mom for salvation. When, instead, I stood up straighter and approached him, showed him I was more than ready for whatever he had to dish out, that I wasn’t afraid of him. He’d raise the belt high and strike as hard as ever, screaming that I’d learn to behave someday. But by that point I knew the only thing to learn from him was how not to be.
Thinking of Dad invokes a dense, opaque anger. Rage revs in my gut like a drag car primed at the starting line. It won’t take much to get things going. To lose it once more over my life back then, over how it is now. Just another little thought to tip my mental balance. But it’s not the incipient flash-flood of blinding animosity that worries me most. It’s the innate sense of normalcy and even comfort I feel in its approach. As if relief is on its way. But I hold back. Anticipation ripples through me like a contained explosion. I feel my face contort under the pressure and run into the bathroom. In appearances, Jamie took after Mom and I after Dad. And, sure enough, the look is there on my face: the one he used to get when he came home from work with a brown paper bag to liquify and make tolerable the rest of his evening and Mom would detain him with a question or something that needed fixing around the house. It’s a desiring look marred by frustration, the look I imagine might shape a starving man’s face as he’s being teased with food.
I call the demo company. The house will be gone by the end of next week. But that isn’t fast enough. So I take a sledgehammer from the garage and start in the living room, Dad’s former sanctuary. I beat the hell out of the room. Put hole after hole in the walls until my arms and shoulders burn. Until my legs hurt from transferring so much hateful energy. Until the cuts on my hands break and grease the sledgehammer’s handle with blood. Until the cloud of dust and insulation is too thick for me to breathe. Until the sledgehammer is too heavy to hold and slips from my hand. Until I look around at all that remains standing and realize I’m not equipped to handle this job on my own.