--I’D RATHER BE WITH YOU
We knew something was wrong because our sister wasn’t there. Ray and Davey looked at me like a pair of frightened dogs, their eyes jumpy and evasive. Each had their fingers clasped and held between their thighs to keep them from shaking. I was the oldest and they expected me to have answers.
I shrugged, but the fact was my cheek twitched.
The table shone glossy, waxy-looking, something you’d see at a diner, yellow from use with ribbed aluminum railing for edges. I studied my reflection because I was too nervous to face Mother.
“Here he is now,” she said, clearing her throat. In recent months she had taken to coughing often, hawking up stuff she spat into a hankie hidden in her lap.
My father was still in uniform. He’d come directly from the station. No matter how many times I’d seen him dressed that way, it always thrilled me, same as a The Mad Hatter ride at the fairgrounds. He’d told me plenty of times not to stare at his gun, yet my eyes always disobeyed before my brain could set them straight.
There was something new in his comportment, a heaviness, worry or regret staking claim and taking root right there in his grizzled mug.
He lit a Marlboro, took a long drag and blew smoke at the hanging lamp all in what seemed a single maneuver. “Here’s the thing,” he said, “I’ve had the day from hell. I’m tired. But your mother--your mother and I, we called this meeting because something of hers was missing and she found it, found them, the articles in a place they shouldn’t have been.”
Davey squinted at me as if I was the sun. Ray bit his bottom lip. They were good kids, a bit directionless, but not thieves.
“So who knows what I’m talking about? Who’s the culprit?”
“You might need to be more explicit,” Mother said, her voice warm but brittle.
“The person that did it knows what I’m talking about.” Somehow Dad had finished the cigarette and was onto his next. “Come on, let’s get with the program here. I’m not a detective.” He wasn’t but I knew he wished he was. He thought riding around in a squad car boring. He’d once confessed that most of his time was spent writing speeding tickets. “I haven’t got all goddamn night!” he said, slamming his fist so that one of the daffodils broke its spine and toppled from the vase onto the table, flinging water driblets against my cheek.
“Daryl,” my mother said. Her voice was enough to calm him these days. There’d been a time when nothing could, when he was as mean as a scorned bear and would take to beating anyone of us with his weekend rodeo-styled belt.
“Why isn’t Lilly here?” Ray said, convincing me further that his mouth was going to be the very thing that kept him from making it in the world.
“She’s not feeling well.”
“Nuh uh,” Ray said. “She’s up in her room playing her dumb David Cassidy albums.”
“Ray,” I said aloud because I couldn’t get his attention otherwise.
“If this is a family meeting, she should be here too. Maybe she took those things. She--”
“Enough!” my father screamed. He ran his thick-fingered hands across his face and tugged on his jowls. “I’m sorry Linda,” he said. “You just wouldn’t believe the day I had.”
Mother put her palm on top of his hand. I watched her thumb work overtime, as if she were scraping glue off his knuckles. “I found some of my intimates in the wreck room,” she said.
“What are intimates?” Ray asked.
“My matching bra and panty set, plus my good pair of black heels.”
“Why were you undressing downstairs?” Ray asked.
“She wasn’t, that’s the thing,” I said before I knew I had.
“And how do you know that?”
“Isn’t that why we’re having this meeting?” I said. I knew how those raccoons felt now, once they stepped into the traps Dad had set and the metal doors slapped shut.
I looked him in the eye, taking in the creases of skin nearby and the wisp of cigarette smoke that flirted with his cornea. He blinked and I knew.
“They had obviously been worn, used. They’re not clean anymore, my panties,” mother said, dropping her head and speaking to the table top. “We just want to know. We’re a family and a family that keeps secrets is a family that’s doomed.”
“I ain’t gonna wear your underwear!” Ray said, emphatic. “That’s sick.”
My father swallowed and withdrew a third cigarette.
“It was me,” I said.
Davey jerked and Ray slugged himself.
“I told you,” my father said to my mother. His jaw was set. He looked triumphant and defeated at the same time.
I followed the rug of smoke hugging the ceiling, fanning out like fog, breaking apart in tufts and then disappearing.
I was on-call, so Jean took the kids to her sister’s place in Seaside for the weekend. I didn’t mind some space.
When my cell rang, I figured it to be the hospital but it was him. It took me a few moments to sort it out, the unfamiliar number on caller I.D. and the fact that he was bawling, not saying anything really, just raging into the receiver.
“Dad, Dad, what is it?”
I stared out the window at all of the lifeless greenery. Our house sat in a cul-de-sac, yet these were acre estates and the Baker’s and Hahn’s never stepped foot outside.
“I killed a man today.”
“Shot him dead. Three times.”
“At work? I mean, on the job or what?”
“I haven’t ever killed anybody.”
He was never good with details. “Dad, help me out. What happened?”
“He wasn’t even a man; he was just a kid, a punk.”
“I met his family. His mother, she’s destroyed.”
I thought of my own mother, the swift moving cancer taking her away ruthlessly, horribly.
“Was it in self-defense? Dad, it was in self-defense wasn’t it? In the line of duty?”
At The Evergreen Fair one year we watched a cow give birth. Its bar soap tongue lolled out and she moaned so low and pained it seemed as if her calf were Satan clawing his way to life. That’s how my father groaned into the phone, just like that show cow. “You don’t know what it feels like.”
But I did. I had lost patients in surgery, a few I shouldn’t have, and some that wanted it that way.
I listened to him mourn. My only other option was to hang up, which I’d done a couple of times in the past when he was loaded and babbling. I could tell he hadn’t had a drink yet tonight. Though he was choking and crying, he words were too crisp.
“What’s a little fucker like that doing with a gun anyway? Why do you need a gun if you’re just hot-wiring cars? It doesn’t make sense.”
“A lot of things don’t make sense, Dad.”
“What’s that mean? What’re you trying to say?”
“Nothing, I don’t know. I was only responding.”
“Why don’t you ever call? Why’s it always me that does?”
“I’ll bet you are.”
“You grew up to be one mean son of a bitch, didn’t you?”
After I hung up I threw the phone at the window so hard that the glass cracked and a piece of metal casing bounced back and ripped a decent-sized chunk out of my cheek.
I was going to the hospital after all.
I met him at Fred’s Tavern in Snohomish. Mother loved that place because she was a beer drinker and they had every kind of ale God ever created.
I had to make myself promise I’d go. Do you ever do that--talk to yourself, talk yourself into something even when you’re pretty certain it’s not going to be any good for you? There was any number of excuses I could have invented, many legitimate.
“Hey, here he is, the golden boy,” my father said, rising at the same time as number six. “I thought you were going to stiff me for a minute there.”
“Come on, Dad, really?” He pounded my back harder than necessary. During the hug, his whiskers bit my cheek skin near the fresh scar.
“This is Roberta, Bobbie this is my son.”
She was black-haired like all the others, all except mother. Her lips were too pulpy, as if they’d been injected. But what I did was I studied her eyes, even to the point of making her uncomfortable. After a moment I could tell she didn’t know.
We spoke small-talk and then nothing while we ate. It was me that got drunk and when he offered to drive me home I was clear-headed enough to get a cab instead because I had lied about Jean being gone.
The next morning he found out anyway. He waved at Jean when she dropped me off on First Street in front of Fred’s. I wasn’t sure how long he’d been waiting.
“He looks so sad,” Jean said, trying not to move her lips.
“Don’t you go feeling sorry for him now.”
“Everyone deserves happiness Derek, everyone deserves to love and be loved.”
“You sound like my mother.”
“That actually makes me happy, you comparing me to her.”
I didn’t want to cry but I felt the press and sting on my eyes.
“Last thing?” she said, and I nodded. “Usually love requires a sacrifice from one party or another.”
I ran my thumb across Jean’s eyebrow, wishing there was some way to tell her how much I loved her, how little my life would mean if she weren’t in it. She’d had my back from day one and that much gave me peace.
I turned to go but she caught my arm, pulled me back. A squeeze toy squeaked as she took my face in her hands and kissed me open-mouthed. “It’s not his fault, you know. What he does, it’s not as weird as you make it out to be.”
“He needs his son.”
“He has two others.”
“But he lost you a long time ago.”
It was hard to breathe in the car and I kept thinking how I’d need to shower once I got to the hospital, but even before I did that I’d be catching shit from Sanders and that dick, Armstrong.
He didn’t look at me right away. Something on the face of the windshield had his attention, a cluster of dead bugs maybe, or bird crap. “I loved her, you know,” he said, his voice thick and metallic.
“I do know that.”
He reached his arm across the car seat. It seemed as if the arm were moving independent of the rest of him. His hand landed on my thigh. For some reason it surprised me that it was warm.
“There’s something I have to,” he said, his voice breaking apart, too weak to hold the idea.
I pondered for a moment. I talked to myself some more. I said, Go. Get the hell out of here. Then I recalled Jean and I said before I could stop myself, “Go ahead.”
When he sighed, his breath fogged the window glass. He wouldn’t face me, or maybe he couldn’t.
“Dad, go ahead.”
“I need to know.” His voice shook sounding like bits of gravel under tire.
“Do you?” he asked.
I knew what he was asking now. I’d been waiting for the question most of my life and now that it was presented I feared my answer.
I thought about my brothers, my sister, Mother being gone, and the man beside me. We were a unit, bound by blood if nothing else.
“If you don’t, then say you don’t,” he said.
Did I love him? I wasn’t sure but I said I did anyway.
Her burst out crying, shuddering against my shoulder. I’d lied before when it mattered. My wife’s comment about sacrifice came back to me. I’d done my part, and for his sake and the sake of everyone involved, I’d do it again.