The doorbell rings. Dad. It’s weird he’s ringing the doorbell to his own house. Well, what used to be his own house. It’s all so weird.
“You’re late,” says Mom, swinging the door open. My brother, Dave, and I linger in the vestibule behind her. “Are you drunk?”
Dad runs his hands, first one, then the other, through his Mick Jagger hair then restrains them in the back pockets of his jeans. “I only had a couple beers.”
He must be sewing his own patches now, I think, noting the new squares on his knees, sewn over previous ones, each one a darker shade than the original denim. I remember how Mom used to complain: Your knees are like razor blades! These patches need patches!
“Why would you go to the bar before picking up the kids?” Mom asks.
Dad leans back, pushing his hips forward like a thin tree being blown by a strong wind.
“It’s Friday. I worked hard all week. Give me a goddamn break.” He straightens and reaches into the breast pocket of his flannel shirt, finding a new box of cigarettes. He flips it over and slaps it hard against his palm a few times. He once told me this is called “packing”. It tightens the tobacco so it doesn’t fall out of the paper. He unwinds the plastic wrapper, pulls it off, and lets it fall to the porch. Then he sticks a cigarette into his mouth and uses the New York Giants lighter I got him for his birthday, cupping a hand over the end as he flicks the fly wheel. He takes a long drag and taps his cigarette, sprinkling ashes.
Mom sighs and turns away from him. “Alright guys, have fun.” She kisses the top of my head as I step around her and out the door.
Since moving out of our house, we haven’t seen Dad at all. He kept saying he had to “figure some stuff out.” I’m glad he finally has, but I don’t like not knowing things. Like where his new house is and what bed I’m going to sleep in.
“How’s school, guys?” asks Dad as we walk down the sidewalk to his car.
My brother and I both say, “good”, at the same time. I don’t know why, but it bothers me a lot. It’s like when we go see Grandma Pat in the nursing home—How’s school? Good. And since there’s nothing else to talk about it circles back to this five or six times before it’s time to leave. I don’t want to have “visitor talk” with Dad.
He slings our backpacks into the trunk of his old black Mustang. The car is all curves. Dad once told me people are dumb for driving around in boxes, which are not aerodynamic, the way cars should be.
“Shotgun, no blitz,” I say, claiming the passenger-side.
“I want the front!” says Dave, trying to pry my hand off the door handle. I take my palm and spread it over his entire face, pushing him backward. He grows red, about to boil over.
“She’s older,” says Dad. “So she gets the front on the way to McDonalds. You can have it afterward on the way to my house.”
McDonalds. The magic word. Dave and I both cheer. Mom hasn’t let us eat Happy Meals since she started dating Art, who says fast food is for “white trash”. Apparently civilized people eat things like pesto, which is pasta with green slime on it.
Dad has to turn the key a few times before the Mustang will start and when he backs up, it sputters loudly. Whenever my neighborhood friends and I hear a car like this, we yell, “Get a new muffler!”, but I’m not embarrassed, because classic rock blasts from the radio, my arm hangs out the window, and I’m with my dad. We’re cool.
I can’t tell if Mom is glaring at us or if the sun is in her eyes. She picks up the wrapper from Dad’s cigarette box and starts moving her leg side to side, spreading Dad’s ashes with the bottom of her flip-flop so it will look as if he were never there.
Dad smacks his steering wheel and starts screaming at the box-shaped car in front of us. “The light is yellow, not red! You don’t have to stop!”
I can tell it’s an old lady from her curly dome of white hair.
“If you’re too senile to drive then get off the road you fucking Q-tip!” says Dad, craning his head out the window. When the light turns green he gets really close to her bumper, until she turns off onto a side street. “Good. Go home to your fifty cats!”
I laugh a little at the cat-thing, even though it’s not that funny. When we get to the boulevard, I realize I’ve been gripping the door handle the whole time. I relax when I see the golden arches. McDonalds.
Inside, we order our usual meals. We sit in our family’s old booth. The familiarity of routine feels good until Dad asks: “How’s school, guys?”
Dave and I both say “good” again, followed by at least five seconds of silence as we unwrap our burgers. And if that isn’t awkward enough, my idiot brother starts telling Dad about Art. How he is coming to Grandma’s house for Thanksgiving and how we might go to Long Island to meet his family for Christmas. How Mom and Art are turning our playroom into a dining room. They’re putting wallpaper over our murals. We have to keep our toys in our rooms now. They’re hoping to find hardwood floors under the carpet. As Dave spews information, I pretend to play with my Happy Meal toy, Kermit from the Muppet Babies riding a skateboard.
Dad takes off his flannel. As usual, he wears a Hanes undershirt. His arms are thin and muscular with bulging veins that look like snakes. They branch to form baby ones all over his hands. Mom, a nurse, used to say: I could start an IV on you easy.
Dad’s foot taps wildly under the table, shaking the entire booth. Mom once told me he’s so skinny and can’t sit still on account of his “high metabolism”. He’s like Jack Sprat, who could eat no fat. Mom used to be his wife who could eat no lean, but that’s all changed.
“So what do you think of mom’s new boyfriend?” asks Dad, looking at me.
Dave squeals with laughter.
Dad breaks into a wide grin, his teeth big like the Cheshire cat. “Yeah, that guy.”
“He stinks,” I say.
We all laugh, letting the subject linger and dissolve in the air without another word until we’re ready to leave. We tilt our trash into the garbage and stack our trays on top.
At the car, Dad gets a Pabst Blue Ribbon from the trunk. He calls them “road sodas” and has made it clear that we are not to tell Mom about them. I’ve seen commercials saying Friends don’t let friends drive drunk, but never Daughters don’t let dads drive drunk, so I’m not going to say anything. Besides, I don’t know how many beers it takes to make a person drunk. At the Napa Auto Parts family barbeque last summer Dad had, like, one hundred beers and Mom let him drive us home, so he’s probably fine now.
When I slide into the backseat of the Mustang my feet crunch on all the take-out containers and Styrofoam coffee cups lining the floor. The blare of the radio makes me jump as the car starts. I can’t find my seatbelt. I dig my hand between the seats, disgusted by all the unknown things I feel in there, mainly crumbs, but also something squishy like a gummy bear and something hard like a bottle cap.
With a click, Dad opens his beer and takes a few giant gulps. He pushes the car lighter in so it can heat up. When it pops out he lifts it to his cigarette and I can see the red coils glowing brightly in the darkness. Just as I find the seatbelt and pull it across my lap, he starts driving.
Dad’s window is all the way down. Streams of ash blow back into my face and when I inhale it feels like one hundred percent second-hand smoke, zero oxygen. The seat beside me has a pile of tools on it, so I can’t move over. I crouch down low, pull my t-shirt over my face and hold my breath as long as I can. On the highway, the smoke clears, but I’m whipped repeatedly by cold air. It’s torture. The wind is so loud it drowns out the radio.
I want to ask Dad to roll up his window. Not long ago, the words would have just spilled out of my mouth without needing to think about them first. Not wimpy requests, but commands. Now, I’m unable to speak at all. It’s like he’s a stranger.
When we get off the highway and turn onto a side street I emerge from my t-shirt like a turtle coming out of its shell. I’m light-headed. My ears feel like I just dove to the bottom of a deep pool.
We slow down and come to a stop. Dad’s house. This is where he now keeps his model cars and his Pat Benatar albums.
There are three men in Dad’s living room. Two hold beers, watching a war movie. They don’t say hi or even look at us. The other one is asleep with his head turned to the side, drool pooling on his shoulder, his hand in his pants. Dad just leads us past them to his bedroom.
“I’ll hook up your Nintendo in here,” he says. “Both of you can sleep in my bed. I’ll stay out on the couch.”
“Hey Dad, where’s the bathroom?” I ask.
“At the end of the hall.” He fiddles with bunny ears on a tiny black-and-white television.
Sounds of explosion and gun fire come from the living room. I make sure the coast is clear and dart to the bathroom.
The first thing I notice is that the toilet seat is up. Second thing is that there are little curly hairs all over the place. I drop the toilet seat and when I turn to sit, I notice a third thing. An awful, horrible, disgusting and dirty thing.
On the wall, directly in front of me, is a picture of a topless woman with enormous boobs, in the process of pulling down her see-through undies. Her expression is almost mean, like she is challenging me to pee. My heart begins to race when I realize, I’m the only girl in the house. Not only are those men out there strange and rude…they’re pervs. And I’m sure they didn’t just put the poster up tonight while Dad was gone. So that means he’s a perv, too.
He is not cool at all with his snaky arms and razor blade knees. His loud, beat-up car. His road sodas and cigarettes. His tapping all the time. His ashing everywhere. He is so not cool.
I can’t pee with the woman watching me. I creep out of the bathroom, find a back door off the kitchen and go into the wooded backyard. I pee behind a tree, feeling a wildness I have never felt before—like I’d be better off going into the forest and being raised by wolves.
Laura Carnes Williams lives in Central New York between her two favorite places: The Finger Lakes and The Adirondacks. She is a school nurse and mother to two wild boys. 2020 Publications: Alchemy and Blood and Thunder. She is a First Reader for the literary magazine Stone Canoe.