My mother is quietly crying at the breakfast bar. She’s not making any sound, but every few minutes she brings a quick hand up and brushes it across her eyes.
There’s a bright red mark on Dad’s cheekbone, and I suspect it’ll swell and darken as the day drags on.
“Clint,” my dad says. “Hey, we gotta talk.”
My father stands at five foot eight, and speaks so evenly no one outside the house would ever suspect that the words he throws at my mother reach the abusive cannon bursts that they do. He’s a good man, generally speaking. He’s a good dad. He’s good at his job, managing logistics for a delivery company. He’s a good Methodist. He only diminishes when it comes to his marriage.
He runs a thumb along the red spot my mother must have given him. She doesn’t speak with nearly the cruelty he exhibits when they fight, but you can measure the zenith of his abuse by the size of the welt her hand leaves on his face. Sometimes her palm is open, sometimes her knuckles are clenched.
I don’t really listen because this should have ended well before now. They tell me vague plans regarding the immediate future. With my move-out date only a week away, none of this really affects me. My mother’s retaliation tells me she’ll be the one moving out. She can afford it. She makes a little more than Dad anyway. Besides, my dad has fumigated this house with too many insults. Mom wouldn’t be able to breathe with the vapor of his words hanging in the air.
The plan is to keep the decision between the three of us until after Granddad’s estate is managed. My parents sit shiva holding hands and leaning against each other. They are the image of love in grief.
I sit with them. An enlarged photo of my grandparents on their wedding day sits above the couch, over my parents. If the photo had been in color it would still look grim. Neither my grandfather nor grandmother smile. In another picture, beside the portrait, are the bride and groom lifted high during the horah. They smile here but out of minimal obligation. My great-grandfather hoists his new daughter-in-law high and proud. When she was alive, my grandma would speak fondly of Great-Grandpa Anton. Grandpa would scowl at the praise. I never met my great-grandfather, but from what Grandma Beth told me he was very devout. “A very good Jew.”
When I was ten I found a small handful of yellowed photos in the back of my Grandpa’s wallet. In them he smiled in a way I never saw whenever I was around him. In one he sits alone, a common state for the old man I knew. But the dark youth in the picture smiled so widely his mouth was open. He was probably laughing.
In another there was a woman. She was laughing too, sitting alone in a 1920’s bathing suit. She had a plump face, and hair so blond her eyebrows were nearly invisible. Despite the differences, when I think about her now she makes me think of Greta Garbo. She’s alluring despite the heavy black suit’s attempts to subdue her figure. A silver cross shines on her bust, the chain coiled lazily against her neck.
There were three more photos. In one of them my smiling grandfather wipes at his chest with a towel. In another the blond woman stands ankle deep in the water, her back to the camera. She’s bending down, not to entice, but to examine something in the water the camera can’t pick up. The last photo showed nothing but a sepia-toned shot of the beach.
There’s a name on the back of the photo where the woman stands in the water. “Ethel.”
Nick comes to help me move. Dad scowls in the kitchen, drinking small glasses of Glenlivet and forcing himself to be personable whenever Nick or I are around. “Need any help?” he keeps asking, staring at the microwave over the stove.
“Is he okay?” Nick asks me, and I just tell him he needs time alone. “They’re separating,” is all I tell him.
“Oh, my God! Baby, why didn’t you tell me?”
I reach out and squeeze his hand. His skin is soft and the color of stained pinewood. He teaches first grade and then lifeguards in the summer. His blond hair has become bleached with streaks of white from all the sun. Touching it is what I imagine clouds feel like. He wears khaki shorts and a polo shirt, modest but not so loose they don’t show off his body. He doesn’t mean to be, but he’s kind of a total gay man. I love him just as totally. He teaches me Hebrew during quiet moments when we’re alone. I wear the pewter Star of David he got me for my birthday under my shirt.
“It’s no big deal,” I tell him, which is true for everyone but my dad. He met my mom when they were in middle school. Their first dates involved him going to church with her family. He never cared much for shul, so converting in high school seemed normal enough. It was an easy way to integrate himself into her world. Grandpa never attended temple without telling Dad he’d missed a great service. Always unsaid, you missed this, missed that, over some girl. Left the synagogue. Got new friends. Over some girl. Married some girl.
After a while, Dad started saying those things too. To Mom.
“Hey,” Nick says later, while we empty out my chest of drawers. “Is this your great-grandpa?”
He’s holding a little gray photo. In it the image of my grandpa stands in a long wool coat, wearing a flat cap. He’s in the doorway of a shop, Cyrillic lettering plastered on a nearby window.
“Nah. That’s his brother. From the old country.”
“Is this before they moved here?”
“He didn’t come. It was just my great-grandpa.”
“Rest of ’em still in Russia?”
“Where’d they move to?”
“They didn’t. They were killed in a pogrom.”
Nick screws up his eyebrows and looks at me. “Jesus!”
“People forget that shit happened outside the Nazis too.”
Nick stares at the photo a little bit longer. “You wanna keep it?”
“Maybe. Just put it back in the box it was in.”
Eventually Nick’s truck and my car are both full. There’s a small load left, so I’ll have to come back in the morning to finish up. I go into the kitchen and hug Pop.
“Love ya, kid.” He holds onto me a little longer than I expected. The sharp odor of whiskey steams from his empty glass.
“Love you too, Pop.”
“You sure about this?” he asks when he pulls away. “You sure you and Nick are gonna be okay?”
“I guess we’ll see.”
“If…if for whatever reason, things don’t work out…you know you can come back here, right?”
“I know, Dad.”
He hugs me again. “I guess I’ll see you on Labor Day.”
“I’ll be back in the morning. I got one more carload to go.”
“Sounds good. I’m gonna miss ya, you know.”
“You left us all behind!” my grandpa sometimes yelled on the phone, whenever my dad would decline to take us to temple with the old folks. “You left us the way your grandfather left his own!”
Guilt is a knife built of small needles.
“I know, Pop. I’ll miss you too.”
I hug him and kiss his stubbly cheek. When I walk outside I roll my shoulders. The sun warms them through my shirt. Beneath the blue sky, there is no foothold on my being for anything to hold to.