The sound of the truck tires in the gravel driveway immediately sobered them.
Dad’s home! one of them would shout, and the others would squeal in nervous panic. Plucked from their fantasies, the three of them melded into one entity: the kids.
He would prod slowly up the front steps and into the house where their mother would greet him and ask about his day. He would grumble a few complaints, help himself to the chips on top of the fridge, then stretch out on the couch and shut his eyes. He wasn’t asleep, but it was understood he was not to be disturbed. Even a pot banging during meal preparation was enough to prompt a scowl.
Dinner discussion was reserved for work plights: condescending bosses, uncooperative co-workers, and impossible clients. Their mother would chew in thoughtful silence. As long as he was the victim he was also the hero; she granted him that. The serious dinner tone provided the exciting possibility that one of them might lose control and burst out in laughter. They would gaze around the table with twinkling eyes hoping to set each other off. While laughing was a grave offense, the ultimate transgression was a fart. Should one escape, accidental or otherwise, his head would snap in the perpetrator’s direction and his pale eyes would lock into theirs, sending tingles in their bones. There would be a sacred moment of stillness, their bodies perfectly in tune, before he lashed. His foot would strike their backs or his fist against their shoulders as they fled, banished from the table. The two remaining would fight desperately to control the pity tinged grins that swept across their faces. Every evening was colored with this invigorating drama.
His childhood had not been easy; he never hid this fact. You’re lucky, he’d once told them, which meant I’m not so bad.
Things changed when there was beer in his blood. A brightness came over him. He would smile and invite them to sit down at the kitchen table. He would ask them questions and tell them stories. It was as if he were meeting them for the first time. His voice sang with excitement and he would forget all about their bedtimes. Later, once everyone was asleep, he would get out his easel and paint long into the night. In the morning when they came into the kitchen for cereal, there would be a new painting: a forest scene or an orange sunset over water. He’d get up in the afternoon and move slowly about the house, burdened with disgust. His life was hell and his family repulsed him. Sundays were funerals and they were obliged to mourn. He was the deceased, hollow, eyes grey and lifeless. They were to stay clear, not to play too loudly or get too close. Eventually he would go downstairs and smoke his pipe or lay listlessly on the couch, willing night to fall.
The day he sawed his guitar, they watched from the upstairs window, stood in helpless panic as he mutilated his one true love. For years they’d enviously observed the gentleness with which he held the instrument, how carefully he would take it from the case and lay it on his knees, how he’d lean over it and place his mouth between its curves, swaying as he pulled the strings. Now, they looked to each other with open, wordless mouths as he sawed into it. This was when they realized that anything was possible. The next morning, they salvaged the pieces, divided them up and hid them under their beds where they remained for years like a silent, undiscovered corpse.
He made no effort to hide his journal and they would sometimes read it when he was at work. They hoped to find a fond reference, something that would prove their importance in his life, but it only featured cryptic poems and to-do lists. One night they saw him disappearing into the thick forest behind the house with a shotgun over his shoulder. Their mother was away and he had been in the basement drinking whisky. They understood his intention but did not intervene. He was already shrouded in too much darkness, already gone. Instead, they ran to his notebook and read the last entry: Cash in. Have fun. For hours they waited for the blast and wondered what to do when it came. Eventually, he returned home without the gun and went to bed. He’d chosen life.
They didn’t know it, but he would have thrown himself before a raging bear, pulled them from a flaming car wreck or taken a bullet in their place. He would have done it instantly, without thought or hesitation, but everydayness took its toll and his love remained latent, eclipsed by his own torment. His venom leaked into his children. They learned to hate, first each other, and as adolescents, it shifted inward.
The eldest began using a razor to decorate her skin. She observed with satisfaction as crimson beads raced to the surface. The tiny slits released stockpiled self-loathing and allowed a certain admiration as she watched her body seal itself again and again.
The middle learned to drink. He invited liquor down his throat, enjoyed the sensation of it searing his insides and hijacking his cells. He wouldn’t stop until his mind lifted and hovered above his languid body.
The youngest held cigarettes firmly between her slender fingers and sucked smoke beneath swelling breasts and a stolen necklace. She stopped eating and welcomed her bones as they pushed to the surface of her milky skin.
Years later, after they’d left home and bought houses and started families of their own: a phone call. There was mention of paint thinner, alcohol and an assortment of pills. As the news filtered through the receiver, they, for an instant, fully recognized the wonder of their beating hearts.