Because of a Dirty Rag: Age 6
Your eldest daughter, Morgan, bends over the circular glass dining table, Windex in hand. Her russet brown hair is kept tidy in a ponytail. Her big brown eyes stare back at her, reflected by the transparent table. She pumps the lever of the Windex and waits anxiously as the individual molecules hang in the air, plummeting much too slow for her comfort. Her forehead bears its usual frown lines. You always said that a ten-year-old girl shouldn’t have frown lines like hers.
The glass catches the buckshot blast of Windex and Morgan leans over the table with all her body weight, wiping in a circular motion until her forearm and shoulder began to burn. She glances at Kaity and I. “You guys need to hurry!” She hisses at us. Your footsteps loom above our heads, as you change out of your work clothes. You charged us with cleaning the kitchen tonight. “Spotless—for Momma,” you’d said.
“He’s coming!” Morgan whispers, and we follow her to the couch in the living room that opens into the kitchen. A little litter of bunnies, we hop onto the couch and tuck our bendy, youthful knees beneath our bottoms. Kaity, just four years old, nuzzles between Morgan and me. She clutches her pale pink blankey, which houses the scent of momma. She breathes in the familiar odor of momma’s big bed—bedtime stories, backrubs, tummy kisses. While she presses her face into the pale pink relief, Morgan and I listen to your footsteps grow louder as they descend the stairs. They reach the hardwood and steady out, heavy after your twelve-hour workday.
“Let’s see how you did, then,” you say, scanning the kitchen. The dinner table: spotless. The island countertop: spotless. The sink: spotless.
“So when I said I wanted this kitchen spotless, did you think I meant to leave your dirty rag on the floor?” You bend over at the waist, keeping your knees locked, and swipe up the rag. We all gape at the filth in your hand. We glance at each other, trying to silently figure out who’s guilty among us.
Just then, the pager on your hip beeps at you. As your eyes dart down to scan the green light, your grip on the rag slackens. You go to the telephone in the kitchen to call the office back. The three of us deliberate in whispers from the couch.
“Kaity, say it was you!” Morgan says, her chocolate eyes frantically landing on Kaity.
“It’ll be okay, Kate,” I tell her.
“Why does it have to be me?” She asks her older siblings.
“Because you’re the youngest. Dad won’t flip out on you like he would on me,” Morgan whispers.
You pace around the kitchen, phone pressed to cheek. You wipe your thumb and index finger over closed eyelids, then finish the conversation curtly. You pause as you hang up the phone, mouth motherfucker at the receiver on the countertop, then return to us.
“Which one of you was it?” Your thick eyebrows aim towards the bridge of your nose, frayed and black. Your brown eyes sit more pointed than Morgan’s circular eyes do, although the color is nearly the same chocolate blend. Your jaw is offset slightly to the left, grinding away behind the snarl curling up into your left cheek. Your knuckles turn white as you clutch the rag.
“I forgot. It was me,” Kaity says quietly, but loud enough to break the silence.
“Go to your room,” you command, as your voice gives way slightly. Kaity cuddles her blankey and runs up the stairs, trying to suppress her tears.
Because of a Pancake Breakfast: Age 15
My friend Jameson and I struggle to sell our portion of pancake breakfast tickets, to help our school baseball team afford a trip to Myrtle Beach. After he and I return home from walking around the neighborhood, knocking on doors, you recommend we try selling to your old high school teacher, but when we knock on his door, nobody answers. So, we walk back home again, still with a dozen tickets left to sell.
“Well, I think that’s it for the day,” I say, when Jameson and I return empty handed.
“Nooope, you guys can come to the college hockey game with me and sell there,” you say, rocking casually in your chair. Your blank face says, man up, as if selling pancake breakfast tickets was the ticket to manhood itself. My insides twist at this telepathic scorn. I want Jameson to go home, but you rope him into it too. You’re the adult, and he’s too polite to refuse, which makes me more uncomfortable. You stop rocking in your chair and rise. You grab your coat and lead us outside, silently.
We follow like sheep. I look at your drooped shoulders as I walk behind you and Jameson. Their casual disinterest enrages me. You deliberately humiliate me in front of my friend, then mosey on outside to your Chevy pickup truck like you don’t have a care in the world. I clench my fists like I’m readying to punch the back of your skull, although that thought never crosses my mind.
Instead, I hang back a few steps and wait until I’m sure neither you nor Jameson can see me. I feel an energy welled inside me. The hydroelectric dam in my skull has flooded, overloaded bright with power. Before I pass mom’s Toyota Rav4, I place my hands against the metal siding, grounding myself. I grit my teeth and then slam my forehead into the car’s metal siding. As my skin collides with metal, it feels as if I’ve been electrocuted. A bolt zips through my body, from forehead to pinky toes, as my head bounces back off the car. Jameson turns around at the sound, but neither one of you has seen me. I enter the truck, reset by the loud thumping pain in my head.
You don’t notice my body swaying when we walk into the ice rink.
Because Families that Ski Together, Stay Together: Age 7
When we’ve tired ourselves out from shredding down bunny hills, we head to the Shawmut Grille for chicken wings. They come to us in red plastic baskets, slathered in Frank’s hot sauce, extra crispy. When we’re finished gnawing through our baskets of wings, we turn our attention to the “Ring Game.”
Through dim light, you watch us, Genny Light in hand, as we snatch at the dangling ring. Morgan, the tallest, reaches it first. She stands at the line, eyeing up the nail jutting out of the wall, then lets the ring fly, arching towards the nail. It misses, knocking against the wooden wall. Kaity and I rush the ring, fighting to go next. Momma and grandma Stella laugh at us from their seats.
Your tune finally plays on the jukebox: “Sherry Darling,” by Bruce Springsteen. You set down your Genny Light on the nearest high-top table and extend a hand to momma.
“Well, this is your song,” you tell her, as she places her hand in yours. Her smile sprawls as you twirl her around, her cherry brown hair bouncing on her shoulders. You smile too, a lucky man to have such a smile in your arms
When we return to the cabin for the night, we decide to pick out a movie. Morgan wants Titanic, but I say that it looks like a chick-flick. She makes a fuss, so we end up watching it. You seem to be passed out on one couch, alone, until Morgan refuses to make room for Kaity on the other couch, next to momma.
I watch you wake, rise, and glare at Morgan—those bold lines above your eyes so suddenly alive. Morgan shrinks before you, trying to skitter outside the range of your grasp. You corner her near the wood-burning stove in the living room. Stacks of firewood rest neatly arranged beside the iron box of flames. You take her wrist in your palm as she tries to scamper away. You collect her towards your chest and gnash your teeth in her sunken face. Grandma Stella croaks from the other side of the room, “Billy!” but you release Morgan with a thrust of your arm, letting her fall. Tumbling atop the woodpile. Scattering logs.
Because of a Hair Cut: Age 10
“People are gonna start to think you’re a girl if you let it grow out much longer,” you tell me, recalling last week at Applebee’s, when our waitress mistook me for your daughter. You corrected her: “This is my son, Connor,” which only made me more embarrassed. “I already got you the appointment, so you’re going.”
“But Mom said I can keep it long!” I reply.
“No whining. You’re getting it cut.” I follow you outside to your new Ford Taurus, a company car. The silver exterior is polished. The interior is leather, unlike your old Taurus. You even have heated seats. I doubt you really like it, though; it’s not a truck. I just think it’s cool that your construction company gave you a free car.
You take me to a new salon, not Kerry’s Cut Above, where mom always takes me. The door dings as we walk in. The receptionist lets the stylist know I’ve arrived.
“Oh my, you really let your hair grow out, didn’t you? Well we can help with that. So, what do you want, sweetie? Maybe spiked up in the front? Or we could do a cute little mohawk!” The stylist says, cheery.
“I just want it trimmed,” I tell her, trying to be polite. I want to say, “Keep those scissors away from me!” But I’m already in the chair. She wraps my neck in a little towel, then cloaks me in black. She goes around and around my head snipping. I cringe. She gives me awkward bangs and her stylized twist on a bowl cut. Perhaps I look more like a little boy now, but I’d rather be mistaken for my sister than rock a bowl cut at picture day next week.
“All done!” She sings, as she whisks me out of the seat. I wonder if she’s blind. I wonder why I can’t speak up and tell her no, there’s been a mistake, please fix what you’ve done to me.
“Hey, that looks better!” You tell me when I walk over to where you’re sitting, reading an ESPN magazine. I glare then squint, trying to hold back tears. I walk out the door and go sit in your car. You pay, then drive me home.
Once you’ve settled into your favorite blue recliner, I tiptoe towards the front door. I twist the golden knob silently, then march across our stone driveway, barefoot. I reach into the backseat of your new car. I spot the hardhat you keep, for when you need to survey job sites. I clutch the hat with both hands. I wait, listening for you to open the front door in search of me. The only sound I hear is the cardinal whistling to the breeze, sitting in the tree that reaches over our driveway.
I eye your backseat door. I see my stupid haircut in the reflection of the window. I close my eyes and hear my classmates laughing at me, pointing. I imagine a note, passed to me from my fourth-grade girlfriend: we should break up. I open my eyes again and I’m still trapped in the glass of your stupid new car, staring back at myself, bowl-cut-hideous. I use the helmet as a battering ram, pounding the blunt orange plastic into the door until I’ve left a dent.
Because I Didn’t Run It Out: Age 16
When I step into a batter’s box, my heart is a hummingbird. I can’t focus. I can only think of the many ways to fail. As the great catcher Yogi Berra once said, “How can you think and hit at the same time?” Tell me about it, Yog. Actually, it’s you that tells me this quote.
Baseball begins to feel like one great big long slump. Yet, I love the game. I love the sounds: the hide of the ball colliding perfectly into the pocket of a leather glove, the sweet soprano of the ball against aluminum, metal cleats clacking along the floor of concrete dugouts. I love the smells: newly groomed grass, the familiar salt of a worn in cap, hot dog skin popping open on Buddy’s grill after the game. But I don’t love the slump. I don’t love the strikeouts.
You drive me to hitting lessons and I feel guilty because I can’t slow the hummingbird’s wings in my chest during games. You watch me in the hitting cage with Nick, my coach. Nick asks me if I’m hitting leadoff for my varsity team. I mutter, “I’m not hitting at all.” He can’t believe it, I hit so well with him in the cage when I’m comfortable, when nobody’s watching, except for you and Nick. But when there’s eyes on me, the wings in my chest beat fifty-three times a second. You pay for my hitting lessons and I feel guilty that you believe in me. You even help coach my summer league team to watch me play, to be closer to the sounds and smells of the game we love.
There’s comes a point when I realize my “slump” is just a lack of talent, or at least a lack of execution. This point comes during one of our summer league Devil Dogs games, in July: My heart begins its hummingbird dance as I step into the batter’s box. I dig my back foot into the sun scorched clay and tap the plate with my bat. I eye the pitcher, a skinny, lanky kid with freckles covering his nose and cheeks. The first fastball I see, I swing hard, but I dip my hands, causing the ball to pop up weakly. I watch the second baseman backpedal, trying to track it down. I jog slow and heavy down the first base line, watching the ball’s lazy rainbow trajectory, until it plops into shallow outfield grass for a hit. But I know that I didn’t hit the ball square enough to truly deserve a hit, so I refuse to hustle. You’re waiting for me beside the bag as the first base coach.
“You should be standing on second base right now!” You hiss when I reach first.
“Yeah and then I’d be out,” I say, surprised by the gall of my reply.
“You know to always run it out! Quit acting like such a fucking baby!”
Because of Ten Strikes: Age 8
“Hey buddy, go grab your glove. I’ve got something to show you,” you tell me, barging in from our back deck, into the kitchen. I hustle out to the garage, grab my glove, and meet you back outside. You reveal to me a homemade pitcher’s mound in our backyard: a piece of wood slotted into raised ground, measured fourty-six feet from a strike zone painted on our back shed. You were a pitcher yourself. The last year you pitched in high school was the last year our high school won a championship.
“So I know you’re hoping to pitch, but it’s gonna take some practice. I only want you pitching in a game if you can throw ten strikes in a row, into that black square.” You square my shoulders towards the shed and point out the strike zone. I gleam. Suppressing my grin as much as possible, I give a nod. Then, I place my foot against the mound, and drag against the grass until I reach dirt. I pretend to get the sign from the imaginary catcher, wind up, and nail the strike zone.
“See? You got it! Easy. Just turn your shoulders, point your glove, step towards your target, throw! Two in a row! A natural.” You extend your hand to “gimme five,” before I throw the next pitch. The confidence goes to my head. I must forget to turn my shoulders, or point my glove, or step towards my target, but all I know is that I’m back at zero strikes.
“That’s okay. Just keep practicing. You’ll get it.” You walk back inside and leave me to pitch. I practice over the next few weeks, but I can only make it up to eight straight strikes. You surprise me weeks later, the night before our game against the A’s, that you’re going to let me pitch.
“But I can’t throw ten in a row,” I tell you.
“Well, I think you’re ready. Besides, pitching in a game in the best practice you can get. Just do your best.” You place your palm on my cap and give it a little shake.
My debut against the A’s does not go well. I give up too many walks and I can’t find the strike zone without lobbing the ball right down the middle. We lose badly. I hang my head. “Don’t get discouraged,” you tell me, as we walk away from the field. “It just takes practice is all.”
When we arrive back home, I march outside and mount the mound once again, still in my uniform. Strike. Strike. Strike. Strike. Ball. I refresh from zero. Strike. Strike. Strike. Ball. Again: Strike. Ball. Ball. Ba—I wince as the leather sphere cracks against the wooden shed, just outside the strike zone. My mind clouds over, dark. A heat pools in my temples. I tear at the glove on my hand and spike it against the Earth: “Motherfucker!”
I walk briskly towards the shed and grab a shovel. I stare down the mound, then plunge the point of the shovel into the dirt. I dislocate the wooden slab and heave it into the woods, as if it were any other fallen twig.
Because Scrap Wood Can Be Insubordinate Too: Age 18
We tear up the old deck grandpa Keihl built for our house in ’99 and pile the splintered two-by-fours on the side of the house, near the woods. I could see it on your face that it hurt to rip up the boards he’d laid—your cheeks raising into a wince as you kept your lips taught. But it was too much work to keep repainting and staining.
It’s Sunday, and you finally ask me to help you take the scrap wood from our deck to the dump. I agree, of course, sorry that you always find ways to work on your days off. Under your eyes are tiers of tired bags. The dark blue crescents define your face these days. I want to scrub them off your cheeks.
The first armful of lumber that I grab sends a brown field mouse scampering into the safety of the woods. Beside me, you pull out your phone and read a message. It makes you shake your head and laugh, but not because something is funny. You laugh because no matter how hard you work, there’s always some new message demanding more from you. You tuck your phone away and grab your own load of the scrap wood. I walk by your side, each of us hauling an armful. As I go to drop the wood into the bed of your truck, I catch you twist your torso and whip the scraps into the truck’s bed. Splinters of shrapnel fly my direction and bounce off my flannel, as I turn my face away and close my eyes. I decide not to walk in tandem with you, but to pick up a new armful just as you’re flinging yours against the hard, plastic lining of the truck’s bed. Smart as a mouse.
When it’s all loaded, we take off for the dump in silence. Bruce Springsteen plays off your iPod. I tap my foot to the rhythm of Clarence’s saxophone. “Well wild Billy, was a crazy cat, and he shook some dust out of his coonskin cap.” Do you think of yourself when you listen to this song? I always imagined you thought of yourself as Bruce’s “Wild Billy.” Maybe you were wild once, but I’m betting grandpa Keihl would’ve beat the wild right out of you with his belt, if you ever were “Wild Billy.” Still, maybe you imagine yourself in a coonskin cap every now and again.
You keep up the silence, though, all the way to the dump. When we pull in, you ask me to hop out and guide you while you back up the truck to the edge of the big green dumpster. I motion you with my hands: further, further, a little further, alright stop. You put it in park and come out to start unloading with me.
“You know, when you guide someone backing up, you should stand off to the side, so they don’t back into you,” you say, perfectly calm.
Because No Means No: Age 7
For my seventh birthday, you and momma bought me a Pokémon game. It was a handheld poké-ball capsule that opened to reveal a little screen and game pad. I took it everywhere with me, played it nonstop. I would bring it with me to grandma Keihl’s house after school. On her little box television, I would watch Pokémon in the afternoons with Kaity. Then, when Pikachu and Ash had defeated Team Rocket in the show, I’d open my own poké-ball and join the effort.
“Connor, leave your game at home,” you say, as I lace up my black leather dress shoes on the stairs. We don’t usually all go to church together, but for some reason you told momma we would today. You don’t really care much about church, but momma does.
“But I won’t bring it into church, I just wanna play in the car,” I say.
“No, leave it here.”
“Because I said so. No means no,” you say, lowering your voice. I put my head between my knees on the steps. Momma has already left to save our seats in a pew, but we’re waiting on Kaity and Morgan. When they meet us downstairs to put on their shoes, you go out to start your car. I put the game underneath my coat and the three of us walk outside to meet you.
I sit behind you, trying to hide the game, but the little sound effects give it away. “I thought I told you to leave that thing here!” You say, twisting your head back towards me. We haven’t left the driveway.
“I’m sorry, I just wanted to play it on the way,” I mutter back. You open your car door and hop out, all dressed up in your charcoal grey, wool sportscoat. You open my door next and rip the red and white sphere from my clutches. “No!” I plead, but you’ve already made up your mind. With a quick flip of your wrist, you throw the toy into the woods to decompose.
“Next time, listen. No means no.”
I sulk throughout church. I don’t sing the hymns. When we kneel on the little cushions to pray, I know what to say. Why did you give me my game if you were just going to take it away? I’m sorry for not listening. I love you. Amen. I do the sign of the cross over my body and lightly kiss my index finger when it’s complete.
When we return home, I stare at the red and white ball among the trees. Its bright colors are stark in contrast with the brown and black earth tones of the woods. I want to snatch it up and reclaim it, but I notice you staring at me. I quickly fix my gaze to my shoes and walk inside.
As you go upstairs to change, I snatch a photo of us off the refrigerator. I’m on your shoulders and we are both wearing baseball caps, smiling. I sneak away to my room, cradling the picture. Then, my hands consume it. I twist the picture of us, which is protected in a transparent plastic sleeve. I’m not strong enough to rip the plastic, but I mutilate it and stress the plastic so that the image beneath is no longer pure. The photo of us bends and warps. When I’m satisfied, I go back downstairs and throw it in the trash. The next day, though, it’s been fished out and displayed on the fridge, damaged.
Because of Blood Sugar: Age 21
“Hello there, little tail-wagger! I know, it’s good to see you too!” You bend to scratch Pixie’s head and she licks your fingers. “Hey momma, hey buddy,” you say to us as you walk into the kitchen. You put down your wallet at the end of the countertop, in your little corner of the kitchen. You stand there with your back to me, but I can see you fiddling with your blood glucose meter. I remember when you used to let us test our own. The little needle would shoot out and bite my finger like a baby snapping turtle, drawing a little blot of blood.
“How was your day? Was it a meeting day?” Mom asks.
“Uhh…No…” You start to say, but you get distracted by your shirt. It’s a button-down shirt, checkered by light orange and blue lines. It’s a little too dressy for you, though, a little too preppy. You start to unbutton the shirt, from the top, loosening its grip on your throat. Pixie does a little dance around your feet; the jingle of her collar calls her out.
I watch your hands fumble the button. You turn to the sleeve, instead, maybe it’ll be easier to roll that up, but the button on the cuff gives you trouble, too. Motor functions seem to disobey. You sink your teeth into themselves, popping the tendons out in your jaw, in silence. Mom has just served out plates of spaghetti, but we’re both just watching you.
You take a handful of the cuff and rip it away from your torso, dismembering the sleeve from the body of the shirt. You turn your attention to the top button again, hands bumbling about without precision.
I can’t see your legs across the island countertop, or Pixie waddling around your feet, but I hear her scramble suddenly, in a jingling panic. I clench my fists beneath the island and watch your stupor. Did you just accidentally kick the dog? I hold my breath.
Mumbling to yourself, or to the shirt, you pry each side of the shirt apart at the buttoned seam. You rip the checkered thing to rags, and let it fall to the kitchen floor. Then, you sit across from me in your plain white T-shirt to eat. You dig your fork into a plate of spaghetti, managing to catch a few strands.
Possessed, you look me in the eyes and start to giggle. A smile, then a chuckle. Paying no attention to mom, or to Pixie beneath you, your eyes meet mine and you laugh. Like I know exactly who I’m staring at, like we’re both in on some secret, or an inside joke. I want to shudder, but I can’t move or look away. I need to know what’s so funny.
The vacancy behind your eyes lays on my chest like a locket. Tiny golden wings of a heart, begging to be pried—to unfold innards. Watching the light hit your crooked canine, I tuck my arms across my chest.