Tag Archives: broken home

Folding Chairs

old folding chair

 

The pickup lurches a little when I put it in gear, and there’s a rattle I’m starting to fear is coming from the water pump. If it’ll hold for the next two paychecks I’ll be able to have it replaced.

It’s October and warm for the afternoon. I steer to avoid smashed road kill and a deputy notices that I cross the center line. I see him in my rearview mirror, debating whether or not to hassle me. He never pulls out, though. I’m at my pop’s house in twenty minutes.

He gives the dogs free reign inside, which gives the house the suffocating odor of musk and hidden dog shit. I make a mental note to set aside a weekend to help him clean.

He’s sitting at the kitchen table, a fat boxer sitting over both his feet. Two disassembled pistols are on the table, and he’s cleaning them with oil and cotton balls. The guns give off a sharp odor that I hate worse than the smell of the dogs.

“Hey, Pop.”

He’s let his hair grow since retirement. He keeps it tied back but he doesn’t brush it enough, and it looks stringy. I can see patches of his scalp between the vines of gray hair. He turns, slowly. “Hey, kid,” he tells me, looking almost stunned. He runs a hand over his unshaven face. “How’s work?”

“It’s work.” I grab a nylon folding chair from against the wall and bring it to the table to sit. The whole tabletop is overrun with mail and small tools. Mom always hated this. “I wash dishes. I fry eggs.”

He nods gravely, like I’ve said something worth pondering. “This is that .357 I got you that one Christmas. The one you left behind when you moved out.”

“Oh, yeah.” The gun is somewhat obscene in size, and I can’t imagine ever being in a situation where I would practically need it. I do carry a gun, though, sometimes. A little .38 I’ve always been fond of. Pop bought it for Mom but she never much cared for it. He’s something of a lone enthusiast under this roof. I doubt the dogs care about guns at all.

Roscoe, a rickety old brown pitbull, comes hobbling over. He’s got bad knees, and watching him sit down or stand up makes me wince. But he’s a sweet old thing and I scratch him behind the ears.

“I oughtta take that gun back with me one of these days.”

“Well, I can hold onto it for ya,” Pop tells me. “Keep it safe till ya need to come home.”

I moved out five years ago. I’ve been taking night classes the past two years. The nest is old and covered in cobwebs.

“You ready to head out?” I ask him.

He turns and checks the time on the microwave. “Yeah, I guess we should go.” He stands up, takes a moment to steady himself against any joints that might yell out. He grabs his cane, an oak branch with a handle shaped naturally like a duck’s head, and I stick close in case he loses his balance. He doesn’t. He shuffles his feet loose from the boxer and we head for the door.

 

***

 

“Sean’s here, too.” Pop waves at me, standing by the door.

“Oh,” Mom says, sounding unsure. “That’s nice.”

“Hey, Mom.”

“Come on in, kid,” Pop says, obliviously.

“I’m okay, Pop.” The only thing she remembers about me these days is the rage I used to inspire in her. Last summer she swung at me with a plastic fork. Pop sits alone across from Mom.

“Me and Sean are heading out today, the way we used to when we all had Sunday off.” When she shows no interest he asks her as casually as he can: “Would you wanna come with us sometime?”

“Oh. No.” She turns to watch hummingbirds out her window. Her roommate mutters in her sleep.

Pop reaches out and squeezes her hand. “I miss you, baby.”

Her arm doesn’t move. She doesn’t pull her hand away or hold his tighter. The knuckles sit there, unflinching.

When we start to leave Mom is still looking through the window. The nurse at the desk tells her she’s been more lucid than usual lately. This nurse always says that.

 

***

 

Pop and I dig a fire pit. Really I dig it, but Pop sets out the can and lays the charcoal inside. A grill is balanced, and sausages begin to sweat alongside hissing potatoes in foil.

We drink bottles of water pulled from a cooler. “I almost miss beer,” Pop says after a quiet moment.

“You ever miss it much?”

“I said I almost miss it,” he reminds me, then lights a cigarette. Putting the lighter down makes him wince.

“You alright, Pop?”

“Back,” he mutters. “My fuckin’ back.”

The aluminum armrests of the folding chairs scrape together when we move. Pop chews his food loudly, smacking and sucking at his teeth. I’ve learned to not let this bother me. Conditioning makes it hard to ignore, though. Nothing used to irritate my parents more than when my sister and I smacked our lips at meals.

“You’re doctor’s kids,” Pop would say, in that tone he used during lectures. “Behave like it.”

The old man in plaid and faded denim wipes his face with a dirty napkin.

It’s getting cold. We sit under blankets and sometimes talk about Mom. At some point I notice the wheezing breaths he takes when he’s fallen asleep. I put my arm around his shoulder. There are stars out tonight. Moonlight shines against the armrests of our folding chairs. I hold my father while he sleeps.

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Dybbuk

Dybbuk

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?”

“Not anymore.”

“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.

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