I told her that I was. She said, "Can you go and make them stop?"
Whenever they fought, my sister asked me to talk to them because she said I was better at making them feel guilty about it. Her excuse was that I was the older one--even though I'm only older by seven minutes--and that it somehow gave me a greater influence on them. I groaned.
"Please," she murmured. "I don't like it."
"Then you go and say something," I said.
"I don't want to. I don't want to see them like that."
I buried my head under the pillow. "Hear that?" I said. "They stopped, OK?" They had stopped, but later--as the sun crisped the sky a deep blue, and I could make out the unpacked cardboard boxes and my sister's coloring books on the floor and our clothes hanging from the dresser drawers--they started up again, louder than before. Mom said something and Dad barked back.
"Dad will leave for work soon," I said.
I kicked the bottom of her mattress. "They'll stop"--and that's when we heard it--a sharp crack--like someone at church had tried to start an applause with no one following or like breaking a stick over your knee. We heard the sound five times--crack crack crack crack crack. I lay there stunned. Lizzie gushed tears. I thought perhaps Dad had hit Mom--something he'd never done before. Then there was the slam of a door and the whistling stream of water pipes like someone had turned the shower knobs. Lizzie said, "Mommy, is Mommy--" but I shushed her. I said, "I'll go and see." I didn't want her to call for Mom and then Mom not come.
In the hallway, the thin strip of light underneath their door slashed the floorboards. I felt my hand along the wall toward it. The door knob was chest height, and I pressed my ear to the wood to listen. I couldn't hear anything over the stream of the water pipes. The pipes were so loud that whenever anyone turned on a faucet or flushed a toilet, the whole house sounded like rain. My father always joked about it, saying that we were stowaways on Noah's Ark sailing toward a new life. He'd been laid off from his previous job, and we'd moved house after he'd been hired on staff at our church. I knocked on the door. Mom said, "What is it?"
When I opened the door, light poured into the hall. In the room were scattered more packed and unpacked boxes, and the air smelled of chemicals from when the men from church had painted the room tan. Pictures on the walls showed the different places Mom had traveled to over the years while writing for Charisma--an evangelical charismatic magazine. Famous preachers-silver haired and regal--and popular worship musicians--tattoos showing through shredded clothes--posed beside Mom at revivals known for miraculous phenomena--revivals like The Toronto Blessing, The Pensacola Outpouring, and The Lakeland Healing Revival, the last of which claimed at least twenty-five reports of people raised from the dead. The window on Mom's side of the bed was open. Crickets and morning birds chirped and hooted outside, and the blinds sailed a little in the breeze. The light from Dad's nightstand lamp cut over the headboard to where Mom laid in a mound of sheets with her curly brown hair splayed over the pillows. She sniffled and blinked. She held the comforter to her eyes and said, "What's wrong?"--her voice muffled beneath the sheets. I looked to the bathroom to make sure the door was closed, then I weaved past the boxes. Mom said, "No honey, don't," but I was already climbing on the bed. She tried to reach across the bed for the lamp switch. She propped herself on her elbow and stretched, and when she did the comforter slipped down, and I saw her face--all the blood in her body had settled in her left cheek.
"What happened to your face?" I said.
She hadn't had the chance to see herself in the mirror yet. If she had, then she probably wouldn't have answered when I knocked. Her cheek was swollen, and the skin over the bone bulged crimson. She saw my mind working to connect the dots. She took my head in her hands--her thumbs rubbing my temples. "Look at your mother," she said. She smiled, but I knew she feigned it. "Your father didn't hit me, OK? I was hitting myself. It wasn't him--it was me." She lowered my head and kissed my brow.
"Why were you hitting yourself?" I said.
She wiped her eyes with the bedsheets. She said, "Because when you're older, you'll understand. It wasn't a good thing to do. I know that."
At the time, my mother only meant this remark to me as a passing one. She didn't want me to ask more questions. I was confused but I believed her. I said, "You shouldn't hit yourself."
"No, no, you're right. I shouldn't hit myself." She sniffled again. She was trying to dam back the tears. "Sometimes people do strange things, OK? Sometimes people do strange things, but that doesn't mean they don't love you." We heard the pipes shut off and the metal curtain rings jerk on the shower pole. Dad's piss stream bubbled in the toilet. "Go back to bed now," Mom whispered. "I'll come wake you for breakfast in a bit." She nudged me off the bed with her knee and I scampered from the room. We heard the towel snap off the bathroom door hook. "Go on," she said. "Close the door." I shut the door slowly to not make any noise. Before it closed, I watched her collapse on the bed and yank the covers up, burying herself.
Before all of this, when my father was laid off from his accounting firm, his job search was brief and fruitless. Nothing opened up on the market. Apostle Amery offered him the accountant pastor position at our church--Crossway Community Church--which was growing rapidly in membership size and was set for a large building expansion that upcoming year. At first, my mother supported the job. Our family was struggling financially, and she was tired of my father sulking about the house. But when my father was offered ordination she protested. Ordination meant that my mother would have to quit her job as a journalist in order to homeschool Lizzie and I. It was one of the rules of the church--to set an example for the congregation, the pastors' children had to be kept out of public schools--which taught immoral curriculum--and even faith-based private schools--which taught curriculum that was theologically incorrect. In the months since he'd become the church accountant, my father had enjoyed the attention and stature being on staff brought him, and now he was eager to stand at the podium with the word of God on his lips. He nagged and nagged my mother about it until one evening he simply announced over dinner that he'd accepted Apostle Amery's offer. My mother slapped her palms on the table. Lizzie and I cried because we would lose our friends at school. My father accused my mother of turning Lizzie and I against him. There was a brief argument that culminated in my father throwing a spatula against the wall. The rest of the night my mother sat on the back deck, listening to the crickets and toads and bats' wings cutting the muggy air, watching the lightning bugs blink in the Virginia blue ferns. I imagine she was wondering how her life had turned on its head so soon, how the people you know one day are strangers the next.
Later the morning of the fight, Lizzie and I followed the men from church around as they renovated the house. Mom hadn't woken us like she said she would, but we'd heard her wrestling the boxes in her room and had seen her figure briefly in the window when she parted the blinds to watch the men. They had been working on the house before, and ever since, we moved in. They were sent by Apostle Amery once my father had accepted ordination. They tore out carpets and repainted walls and hauled out the old kitchen cabinets, tossing them in a junk pile by the driveway. They, no doubt, meant well, but they were incompetent renovators. The windows were smeared in white paint because they either forgot or couldn't be bothered to tape them off. The new kitchen cabinets were installed off-level so that, if someone jumped or stomped on the floor, the water glasses and mugs inside tipped over. This morning, they were preparing to demolish the wall between the kitchen and dining room, which would become their largest blunder of the whole job.
Lizzie and I pestered the men all morning, like we did whenever Mom wasn't there to fend us off. At noon, the workers lounged on the back deck for lunch. One man with a sharp nose and curly beard that reminded me of a pirate, was showing Lizzie and I magic tricks--pulling quarters from our ears and guessing numbers we thought of, saying it was the power of Jesus--when the doorbell rang. The man got up and walked through the house and answered the door. On the front steps stood Dad's secretary from church--a young woman in a white blouse with straight blonde hair whose smile was so small that her cheeks didn't move. The man and the secretary knew each other, and they exchanged pleasantries before she handed him a large bouquet of flowers. The flowers were bright pink and swirling with little twisting petals that flared from the center. A small white box rested between the stems with an envelope tucked beside it. The secretary leaned to one hip and said, "I wish someone would buy me flowers."
"None of the congregation's young bachelors have noticed you yet?" asked the man, propping a hand on the doorframe. He saw that Lizzie and I had crept behind him. He turned holding the flowers. "See this, kids. Your father took time out of his busy day to buy a present for your mother. Why don't you two deliver it to her?"
Lizzie stepped in front to take the flowers. She nestled them in her arms like a baby while I escorted her upstairs. Behind us, the worker told the secretary that all of the congregation's bachelors were really missing out. She giggled.
Through Mom's door we heard her talking to herself. At first, we thought she was praying--sometimes she prayed out loud or spoke in tongues when she was stressed--but this time she seemed to be holding a whole conversation with herself in several distinct voices, posing questions and answering, back and forth. She repeated things we'd heard Dad tell her, like that preaching was God's call on his life and he had to listen to the voice of God before the voice of anyone else. Her gruff tone was unnerving, and I quickly knocked on the door. Mom yelled like she was startled. "What?"
"We have a surprise for you," I said.
"Mommy," said Lizzie. "Dad bought you flowers."
"Bought me what?"
"Flowers," we said in unison.
We heard something heavy sliding across the bedroom floor and zippers zipping and latches locking. The door cracked open and Mom peered out. She wore an old pair of jean shorts and a gray sweatshirt with the hood tugged over her head and her hair veiling half her face. "What's this?" she said.
"Flowers," repeated Lizzie. "They're from Dad."
"Is he here?" She shot a glance down the hall.
"No, some lady dropped them off."
"Dad's secretary at church," I said.
"Look, there's a box and a letter."
Mom squinted at the bouquet. She tried to reach for it with one hand through the crack in the doorway, but her chest was too large and the flowers drooped too wide, and so she had to open the door further. Lizzie and I pushed forward, curious, and when Mom felt that keeping us out was a lost cause, she flung the door open. I dashed into the room and leapt onto the bed. Mom took the flowers from Lizzie, and Lizzie leapt after me, and I hit her on the head with a pillow. Lizzie lunged back, and we crashed into the headboard. Mom walked the flowers to the window, glanced through the blinds to the men on the deck, then examined the box and envelope. Lizzie popped up from the mattress and said, "What does the letter say?" I said, "What's in the box?"
"I don't know. Will you two please shut up?" she said.
Mom had never told us to shut up before, and we cowered behind the pillows, watching. She untied the box from the flower stems and opened it. Inside sat two round aquamarine stone earrings. Dad always bought Mom birthstone jewelry for her birthday, but it had been three months before. She stared at them dully like she didn't know what she was looking at.
I punched Lizzie's arm. She swung back but I ducked. I rolled her off the bed, and she fell onto the floor. She pouted at me with her lower lip tucked. She fingered something underneath the bed. "Mom," she said, "are you going on a trip?"
Mom whirled from the box. She tugged her hood down and marched toward Lizzie. "I'm going to visit Grandmother," she said. A suitcase packed with clothes jutted out from under the bed and Mom kicked it back, then she took the flowers to the bathroom.
"Are we going, too?" I said.
Mom didn't answer.
"Why can't we come?" said Lizzie.
I said, "How long will you be gone?"
"Just a couple of days."
"But why can't we come?"
Mom opened the drawer by the sink. She flung the box inside and kneed the drawer shut. Through the floor we heard the men from church reenter the house from their lunch break. We heard them laughing and stomping their boots and triggering their saws. Mom plucked the envelope from the stems and dumped the flowers into the garbage. She tore open the letter.
Lizzie said, "Mom, flowers don't go in the trash. They go in a vase."
"Well, put them in a vase then," Mom said.
Lizzie ran into the bathroom and gathered the flowers. "Where are the vases?" Mom had the letter open on the counter. She looked up from it to Lizzie with her eyebrows lifted and her mouth agape, bewildered. She stuttered then said, "They're in a box in the closet."
"Cam, help me."
There was a loud crack downstairs. Mom flinched. The workers were swinging their sledgehammer into the wall between the kitchen and dining room. In the closet, Lizzie and I found the vases. I held each one up to Lizzie and she told me they were all too small or too big or not pretty enough. We found one wrapped in plastic--marble with blue stone inlays showing two faces in profde about to kiss. Lizzie nodded. After I unwrapped the plastic, I carried the vase into the bathroom to fill it with water. Mom was still reading the letter.
"Mom, how do I get the water in?" I said, trying to tilt the vase under the faucet.
Mom watched me tilt the vase. She pushed the letter aside, stormed into the bedroom, snatched a water glass from her nightstand, then returned. "Use this," she said. I set the vase on the floor and filled the glass in the sink. I poured the glass into the vase over and over to fill it up. Mom grabbed her toothpaste and brush from the counter and her shampoo and conditioner from the shower. She pushed past me to the bedroom. There was another crack downstairs, and Mom flinched again, and the workers cheered. The ceiling fan in Mom's room shook, and the cords swung in circles.
Lizzie held a flower from the bunch and smelled it, then twirled the stem so the flower spun. "They don't smell like anything," she said. "Why don't they smell like anything?"
"They're dahlias," said Mom. "They don't have a scent."
"Mom, is Dad going to make pancakes for dinner?"
Mom pulled her suitcase out from under the bed and stuffed her toiletries inside. She tried to zip it, but it was too full, and she forced the top down with her knees. I finished watering the vase and Lizzie carefully placed the flowers inside it. I lugged the vase between my legs to the bedroom, squatting like a bodybuilder past the bed to the table by the window, but I couldn't lift it higher. Lizzie rushed over to help. We hoisted the vase together onto the table. Lizzie arranged the flowers so they sat in sunlight. We both admired the pink dahlias and the pretty vase they were in with the kissing faces and the sunlight streaming over the twisting petals. We thought there had never been a more perfect placement of flowers then by this window for the men to admire whenever they gathered on the back deck to take a break from their work.
Mom pulled clothes from the suitcase and refolded and repacked them. She was trying to fit everything into something that wasn't big enough to hold it. Another crack sounded downstairs, and the picture frames swung lopsided on the walls. Lizzie approached her as she was tugging at the zipper. The zipper wasn't catching. "Will you be back for our birthday?" Lizzie asked. "Our birthday is Wednesday. You promised half a strawberry cheesecake for me and half a chocolate cake for Cam."
The men swung the sledgehammer and the room shook.
"What about our birthday?" I said.
"I don't know," said Mom.
"But it's our birthday," wailed Lizzie.
"I know," said Mom, tugging.
I said, "But it only happens once a year."
Mom was shoving the suitcase down. She yanked and yanked on the zipper and then the zipper handle snapped off. She held the tiny handle up, dumbfounded. The workers were swinging and swinging, and the room was shaking and shaking.
Just then there was a violent eruption downstairs. A picture from the wall crashed to the floor. Lizzie shrieked. We heard the men yell to each other and water spouting and spraying, and all the house pipes squealing like a chorus of alarms. Mom scrambled to her feet and bolted from the room. Lizzie and I chased after her. There was a great commotion downstairs with the workers shouting orders and directions. At the bottom of the stairwell we stopped behind Mom. The men dashed frantically with towels and rags, sopping head to toe with their T-shirts stuck to their skin, and their boots squishing water. The water poured from the half-demolished wall across the floor with drywall and wood bits floating. One of the men spotted us and said to stay upstairs. He told Mom that he was about to call her husband.
"There's water everywhere," Mom said. She said it like she was in a dream. "Look at all that water."
Dad came home early from work when he was told about the busted water pipe. The workers didn't even know it was there when they planned to demolish the wall. They'd departed an hour earlier, and towels were bunched up on the floors and the dining room table and along the walls where they'd left them. Dad stood inspecting the half-gone wall from both sides--from the dining room where Lizzie and I ate dinner, and from the kitchen. He wasn't a big man--under six feet--but he had bowling ball shoulders and a broad chest, and he liked to go to the gym to stay fit. He wore a staple mustache, which Mom had once told us she'd never seen him without, and he kept his black hair trimmed short. The workers would have to reroute the plumbing (years later, water soaked the kitchen ceiling, and Mom always complained about drainage problems with the sinks and tubs welling up) but Dad didn't seem to care. He knelt in the kitchen and peeked at Lizzie and I through the wall.
"When this wall is gone this place will look wide open and magnificent," he said. "I can already see it."
He disappeared upstairs to change his clothes. We heard him and Mom talking, but they weren't fighting. A few minutes later Mom's footsteps pattered down the steps and she waltzed into the dining room in a turquoise dress that frilled above the knees with shoulder straps crossing over her chest in a v-shape. She stood with one bare foot flat and the toes of her other pointed to the floor with her knee bent like a model, holding her high heeled shoes by the straps in one hand and her purse in the other. Her hair cascaded down her shoulders and was brushed to cover the one side of her face. Her face was caked in makeup--layers of foundation and powder with inky black eyeliner and startling red lipstick. If I hadn't known it already, I never would've guessed that her cheek was bruised. She posed in the space where the wall was demolished. The aquamarine earrings Dad bought her dangled above her shoulders and glimmered in the light. She said, "Kiddos, how does your mother look?"
Lizzie glanced up from her cereal. She said, "You look pretty."
Mom turned her attention to me. She flashed me this gleeful smile, eyes gleaming, like she'd completely forgotten everything that had happened that day. "Are you still going to Grandmother's?" I said.
Mom's whole body recoiled like I'd thrown a rock at her. Her arms slipped down to her sides and her smile shriveled. She stepped through the wall and pressed her hands on the table, glancing back to the stairwell. "What are you talking about, honey?"
"You packed all your clothes to go to Grandmother's."
"And your toothbrush and toothpaste," said Lizzie.
"Oh that?" Mom said, wrinkling her nose. "Never mind about that. I was just checking to make sure all my clothes made it from storage."
I was confused again. I wasn't sure why she was lying. "That's not what you said. You said you were going to Grandmother's for a couple of days."
"You must've misunderstood me," she said. "I left some clothes with Grandmother, and I said they'd been there for a couple of days."
"But then why were you packing?"
"You know what?" Mom said, looking toward the stairwell again. "It was just make-believe, OK? Forget it. Mom was just playing a game. I'm going out to dinner with Dad now." She stepped back from the table and posed again, hitching her hand on her hip. "Cameron, how do I look?"
At the time I didn't know why I said it. Often times I wish I hadn't. I wish I'd just told her that she looked pretty. I know what her situation was--she was frantically navigating a maze, searching for a way out but also waiting for any reason to stay. Years later, when we were teenagers, Lizzie once searched through Mom's nightstand looking for some eyeshadow, and she stumbled upon one of Mom's old journals. She flipped through it briefly and a certain entry caught her eye--an entry with scrawled handwriting. Mom described how she was reevaluating her marriage, how Dad had hit her that morning, and how she was planning to stay at her mother's to rethink things, but then something miraculous happened. There'd been an explosion downstairs that rocked the very foundation of the house and a crazy flood had ensued. She wrote that she believed the flood was a sign from God, supernatural, and that it meant without a doubt she was supposed to stay, she was supposed to support her husband as a pastor's wife. I wish I'd understood her situation then as I stared at her posing for me in the kitchen, but I was caught up in the cracks I'd heard that morning and her packed luggage and the general chaos of the day. I said, "You look like a monster."
Mom burbled out a laugh. She wrinkled her nose again as if amused but knit her eyebrows like she was angry. She glared for a moment before gathering herself. "A monster?" she said. She tried to say it like it was some kind of joke. She rushed to the mirror at the bottom of the stairs and leaned over the table. She ran a fingernail across the rim of her lower lip and messaged her temples.
Dad bustled downstairs behind her. He strode back into the kitchen wearing dark pants, a button-down shirt, and a coral-red tie. He rolled up his sleeves and stared at the wall again. "Are you ready to go?" he said.
"Almost," said Mom. She found the lipstick in her purse and uncorked it and smoothed it on. She leaned back from the mirror, fluffing her hair. "Are you sure I look all right?"
Dad knelt by the pipe. The workers had sealed it and the pipe stuck up from the floor like it was waiting for someone to trip over it. "You look good," he said.
"Steve, look at me."
Dad glanced over his shoulder. "I told you you look great."
"OK, all right," said Mom. She gave herself one last look over and gathered her belongings from the table. "Cameron thinks I look like a monster."
"A what?" Dad said.
"Like a monster."
Dad stood from the pipe. He stepped through the wall and towered over Lizzie and I at the head of the table. Lizzie, who was slurping Cheerios from her spoon, paused to watch. Dad gripped my forearm to stop me from eating my next bite. "My father never would've allowed me to speak to my mother that way," he said.
Mom approached quickly behind him and placed a hand on his round shoulder. "It's OK," she said. "I'm not mad about it." She stepped around him so she was between us. "OK, kiddos," she said, forcing a smile. "You know the rules. Television off by eight and bedtime at eight-thirty. If you get hungry again there's more cereal in the cabinet. Our cell phone numbers are on the fridge. Don't stay up past your bedtime." She bent down and kissed Lizzie on the cheek. A big red lipstick mark stained there and Lizzie knew it and smiled. When Mom bent down to kiss me I grabbed a towel from the table and held it over my face. "Come on, honey," she said. "Let me give you a kiss."
"Let your mother kiss you," Dad said.
I said, "I don't want lipstick on my face."
Mom pried at the towel, but I held it tight. "Oh, he's not letting go."
"Let go of the towel," my father barked.
I've thought about what happened next many many nights, lying in bed staring at the ceiling. I haven't spoken to my parents in quite a few years, and I left their church long ago. I have a wife and kids of my own now, and I love them very much but sometimes, sometimes I get this urge--this urge I don't know what to do with. I leave early in the mornings and work behind a shaded welding helmet fusing steel together all day and I return home late and once I'm home I heat leftovers in the microwave and sit in front of the television drinking lite beer from cans while my wife reads upstairs and my kids play on the living room floor. My kids are five and seven years old--two boys. That's why I'm remembering all of this now--now that my boys are approaching the age I was when this happened. My boys ask me to play with them but I tell them I'm watching the game. I don't want to get too worked up. I don't know what will happen if I do. I have this habit, you see, what I get too worked up. When I get too worked up I hold my breath and tuck my elbows to my ribs and squeeze my fists together over my chest. I don't know why I do it. I feel like I'm damming something back. I don't know what it is I'm damming back, but I'm scared of what it might be. I'm scared of what I'll do if I don't dam it back.
I was holding the towel over my face when I felt my father's hands. He seized my elbows and jerked me to the floor. I swung the towel at him, but he snatched it away. We were on the hardwood floor and it was damp beneath my back and he straddled me holding both my arms over my head with one hand while he tickled me with his other hand. My father bit his tongue between his teeth so hard I thought he would bleed, his face contorted in concentration--eyes narrowed and cheeks pinched. His fingers jabbed my body repeatedly. Jabbed and jabbed. My body was in bedlam. I laughed. I laughed so hard my eyes watered. My vision went blurry from the tears and I couldn't hear anything except my own laughter. I didn't want to be laughing but I couldn't help it. I croaked for oxygen--my ribs crunched to my spine, delirious. Lizzie jumped from her seat and wrangled my father. She beat her fists on his back and yelled, "Stop. Stop it."
My father howled, smiling. He spun around and reached to catch Lizzie, but she dodged him. I squirmed my hands free and wriggled out from underneath him. I scrambled through the half-demolished wall, but he clutched my leg and wrenched me back. He straddled me again but backward this time--facing the opposite direction and clamping my legs down with my arms trapped by my sides. Lizzie flung herself on him again, but he shook her off. My mother stood watching, immobile. She watched as if she was a little girl herself and could do nothing about it. My father yelled, "Kiss him, Meg. Kiss him."
My mother hitched up her dress and knelt beside me. Her perfume smelled of lavender and honeysuckles, and it made me want to puke. She sucked her cheeks in like a fish--her lips blooming red---and made smooching noises. "We love you, yes we do, we do, oh yes we love you," she said.
I couldn't get my hands free. I couldn't breathe. My father's ass was in my face. I screamed.
"Stop, stop," Mom said. She tapped Dad's shoulder vigorously. "Stop."
"What's wrong?" said Dad, peering back. Both he and Mom stared at me, waiting. I didn't know what to say. I didn't know what was wrong except that everything was wrong. I didn't know what to say so I said, "His butt smells."
Dad and Mom locked eyes, then broke out laughing. Mom stood and smoothed her dress. Dad climbed to his feet and brushed the little bits of drywall from his pants. He said something about eating too many fries at lunch. Mom tilted her head to his shoulder and covered her mouth.
"OK, we have to go," Dad said, checking his wristwatch. He grabbed Mom's hand and led her through the half-gone wall. At the front door, Mom glanced back at Lizzie and I. She kissed her palm and blew the kiss, then disappeared into the outside dusk, the door shutting behind her. Lizzie crawled to me from the corner and lay down, curling herself into a ball. She was crying, but I couldn't hear her. I only felt her body shaking. I lay there, supine, staring at the ceiling. There were such strange and squiggly shapes there in the textured paint. I heard a faint sound-a whisper, a hissing--the surge of the water in the sealed pipe.
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|Article Type:||Short story|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2019|
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