“So you understand, right? Why you have to go away for awhile?” The softness of his voice betrayed the hard granite of his eyes as he watched the two young children in front of him crumple their faces and cry. He knew exactly what he was doing and why. The only thing that mattered to him in those days was where to get his next fix. Doctors, the street, he didn’t care. Coming home at three in the morning with broken bones and bloody noses, screaming at the top of his lungs that if he wasn’t sleeping, no one would. Radios on full blast, tables flipped and dinners scattered, doll clothes tossed out the window to float on the coldest wind until they too reached the ocean where Ronnie had been reclaimed. All this juxtaposed with the man who would play dolls with his daughters and feed them candy until their mother complained about all those ruined dinners.
Boxing up the house was the hardest part, wrapping plates and cups into dish towels and fitting as many as possible into a single box. Jessie packed and unpacked the forks until her mother snatched the cutlery from her grubby fingers and dumped them unceremoniously into a plastic bag. “We don’t have time for this, Jess,” she sighed. “Go pack your toys.”
Two days later Jessie’s father stood in the kitchen doorway and watched Becky zip the girls into their coats and usher them toward the door. The house was barren apart from the few dishes left behind for Charlie. His hands shook as he felt the beginning grip of withdrawal and all he could think about was getting them all out of there so he could sink into his high. Colors only he could see would bloom in his eyes and the constant pain that made it near impossible for him to move would abate long enough for him to fall asleep. It was the only thing that mattered. The girls were young enough that in time they would forget him.
Breaking her mother’s grip and running back into the house, the older girl flung herself at her father and wrapped her arms tightly around his neck. “I still love you, even if Mommy doesn’t,” she told him. He peeled her little arms from around him and held her hands. “Go with your mother,” he said, and turned and walked down the hallway to his darkened bedroom. He shut the door behind him and effectively shut himself out of her life simultaneously.
It was the fucking chip fryer that did it. Coming home with Jessie to find Charlie sprawled on the couch, mouth open and spittle just beginning to work its way down his prominent chin, with Charlotte alone in the kitchen playing next to the plugged in empty fryer. She had been furious, had woken him up by whacking him with her purse. Becky knew he’d been into the fucking pills again, had taken them from her purse and swallowed them down with water straight from the bathroom tap. It was probably when he’d said he was taking a shower that he’d done it.
Jessie was a good girl. Whenever she caught him digging around in her mother’s purse in search of his favorite bottle, she’d run out to the deck and let her know. Whispering, as if she knew she was telling a secret, she would tell Becky exactly what she’d seen and where Daddy was. The last time she told on him, he’d grabbed her by the cheeks and screamed straight into her face, “SO YOU’RE MOMMY’S GOOD LITTLE SPY, NOW ARE YAH?!” Jessie had batted at her father’s hands as he berated her for speaking up and Becky had stepped between them, daring Charlie to raise his fists. He never did, but would turn around and grab the staple gun from the garage and staple his hand to the kitchen chairs. The cheap fake leather would crack around the stapled skin and his blood would seep into the stuffing. Afterward his pain would be so bad, he would crawl into Becky’s lap and tearfully ask her for just one pill, maybe the Vicodin, or the codeine if she preferred – anything to stop the burning pain in his hand.
One time, he took Charlotte into his lap and twisted her leg until she cried out in pain, bringing Becky running into the kitchen yelling and throwing the bottles at him, telling him to just fucking take them until they killed him, he was too far gone for her to save.
Her children learned how to cope with chaos before they had learned how to spell.
HE DOESN’T UNDERSTAND. I DIDN’T SWEAR.
The book was glossy and the pages slipped between my fingers. They had been protected against the inevitable spills caused by small children, but I knew better anyway. I was careful with my books because they meant so much to me. I never ate while I was reading.
Forming the words I saw with my eyes by using my mouth like teacher said was harder than it had seemed. With every correctly pronounced word, I felt a small sense of pride growing bigger. I was GROWING UP, I was turning into a BIG GIRL, and soon I’d be able to read the thick books I loved looking at in the library.
“The squirrel…. goes… CHIT CHIT CHIT!” I yelled, impressed with my ability to finish a sentence with minimal stumbling.
I was instantly shaken when a voice boomed from the kitchen.
“YOU CAN’T SAY THOSE WORDS IN THIS HOUSE!” My father screamed. He stormed into the living room, where I had set myself up with a blanket on the floor. My mother stepped in, eager to defend me. “She’s not saying SHIT, Charlie! She’s saying CHIT, like a squirrel!”
But my father would have none of it. He was enraged that I had dared to defile his house with my prepubescent profanity and I would therefore have to be punished.
It was a long time before I would be able to read aloud again.
(To be continued.)