Featured Art by Phoebe Mol
Cigarette smoke hangs thick in the kitchen of my dad’s two-bedroom rental, across town from my other house and my friends. It’s a scrambled version of the place before with chipped-paint windowsills and a rusty basketball hoop.
A black-and-white cow stares at me from a carton of milk left out. This, two decades before 700 independent dairies began displaying the faces of missing children.
The fridge is egg yolk yellow, a survivor of the 1950s.
I watch my stepmom through the window, hanging laundry on the clothesline. Her hair is a tangled Slinky. A Winston seesaws between her lips.
Some days I count the wooden slats on the fence, each one born from a skill saw and raised by a host of hammers and eight-penny nails. It’s impossible to breathe even with the doors open.
This is where my mother sent me, where she thinks I belong for the summer because she works full-time and doesn’t trust me. There aren’t any photos of me from the time between my freshman and sophomore high school years.
Daddy has passed that precarious time after the third or fourth beer and before the second six-pack. The armpits of his wife-beater T-shirt are stained the color of wet sand. (Wife-beater, the worst-ever name for a garment.)
My stepmom Marilyn, half-brother and I, tiptoe around his slippery shadow. Frankie, Jr. is too young to notice the red flags unfurling.
Daddy grabs his wallet and car keys. “Be right back.”
He must’ve cashed his unemployment check. I should’ve emptied his wallet, drained his beer, flattened a tire.
I take his place on the mustard-yellow couch left behind by the last tenants and stick my finger in a cigarette burn. Rip. I pick at what’s left of my frosted nail polish. Twiggy wears the same color.
Mom changes the subject anytime I call and ask about coming home. Maybe I should tell her that Daddy drives with his knees while poking triangle holes in beer cans? Or that he once fell out his car door while rounding a corner? I haven’t ratted him out. Yet. He gets in enough trouble on his own.
Maybe I’m not being fair? Mom must feel so trapped, on her feet all day, punching a cash register at Thrifty Drugs: Save a nickel. Save a dime. Save at Thrifty every time.
My other house, a never-before-lived-in house, is an 1100-square-foot mansion with three bedrooms, two baths, and a built-in dishwasher. The ceilings are bumpy and look wet, as if covered with fresh spitballs.
At that house, I’m a latchkey kid with the jigsaw edge of a brass blade hidden in plain sight under the doormat.
Marilyn appears in the boxy hall with a plastic egg dug from the sale bin at Woolworths. She’s on some kind of meds that stretch her face into the same egg-oval shape. She bends to tug on pantyhose, her neck an accordion.
“Your father better not be humping that floozy at the motel,” she says, or something like it.
I want to stuff her in a jar and screw the lid down tight.
Her mother shows up for their weekly excursion to Topanga Plaza, a big deal because it’s California’s first enclosed mall. I love the rain fountain in the raised landscaped area. Clear liquid flows down nylon strands that run floor to ceiling.
Marilyn loves the magic of her mom’s checkbook and buying clothes she can’t afford and will return for cash. Plus, the mall is air-conditioned.
No one ever asks if I’m hungry or if I want anything to eat or drink. I wander into the kitchen, slice a hot dog and fry it in butter, bored with my own mind. Most of my friends live near my other house, five or six miles away. I’d probably get a ride if I stood on the corner with my thumb out. An odd combination of fear and excitement always follows me into a stranger’s car.
In a gap of time, Marilyn returns with shopping bags from The Broadway and May Co. “Where’s your dad?” she asks.
“He isn’t back yet.”
Frankie Jr. runs a gleaming Oscar Mayer Wienermobile over the braided throw rug. “Look what Grandma bought me!”
“A wiener with wheels.” I sing, “I wish I were an Oscar Mayer Weiner. That is what I truly wish to be. Cause if I were an Oscar Mayer Weiner, everyone would be in love with me.”
Marilyn lights a cigarette and aims her three-pack-a-day barrel at me. “If he’s with that woman, this is the end! I mean it! I’m done! Really done this time! He can pack up and move back to that flea bag motel!”
“Why are you yelling at me? It’s not my turn to watch him.” Some functioning part of my brain says, Why bother?
She continues her tirade, cigarette ash trailing from room to room. On and on, through our pork and beans dinner and Frankie’s bubble bath. After putting him to bed, she shuts herself in her room with Gilligan’s Island.
Daddy rarely stays out past dark. Auto insurance, canceled. License, expired.
I once saw his eight-by-ten, black-and-white glossies, professional headshots for potential agents, directors, and producers; kept in a drawer of hope. I poke my finger in another burn hole, more wound than scab, remembering my first pack of cigarettes. Shoplifted from Thrifty Drug to impress my fourth grade boyfriend. The assistant manager made me empty my pockets while pistachio cashew ice cream dripped on my saddle oxfords.
Cars drone by, their lights illuminating everything I don’t want to see. The egg yolk fridge vibrates, bottles rattle. I think about going to bed, the top bunk above Frankie Jr. I sound out facts: My hip-huggers and crop tops are folded in a cardboard box because a suitcase would make my stay seem like a vacation.
I slide the ashtray to a corner of the coffee table and start a house of cards. The bottom floor is just about set when lights cut through the mini-blinds. I get up, flick on the porch light, and open the door.
And there’s Daddy, slumped between two police officers in dark uniforms. His head hangs as if it’s unhinged. Blood seeps through the gauze bandage wrapped around his forehead. Dried clots flake from his wife-beater. His eyes are what shock me most, like he’s wearing smoky makeup.
“Is this the home of Frank Webb?” one cop asks.
Daddy stumbles over the threshold. “Hi Honey.”
“Mr. Webb had a head-on with a power pole,” the other cop says. “Drove him to the hospital to get stitched up. He’ll be fine. Just needs to sleep it off.”
I take it from there, helping Daddy to the couch. He smells flammable. We bump the coffee table; the house of cards fall in on themselves.
Daddy winks at me before passing out.
I’m not sure what the cops said before leaving.
The room is quiet, as if thinking about what it should do next. I drop into a chair, sitting away from myself, and fixate on the bandage of rosebuds. I’m terrified he won’t make it to breakfast—but don’t cover him with a blanket or take off his shoes or check his hair for glass.
Daddy drinks the venom while the rest of us are being poisoned.
I relate stories in my head, a birthday party in elementary school I never had, and games I never played. Pin-the-tail-on the-donkey. Clothes-pin-in-a-bottle. Barbie theme. Pineapple pizza.
I make up best friends with gold-foil gifts: Barbie in a classic zebra-striped bathing suit. Her dream house with fold-out walls and plastic hangers in the closet. Or did her house come later?
Daddy’s chest rises and falls. Then it doesn’t rise. Only falls. My breathing slows to be in time with his. The energy of it uses me up.
I want to say, Damn it, Daddy! Why are you such an asshole? If you could keep a job Mom wouldn’t have dumped you! And married her asshole boss!
In a split-second gap, strange light filters through the space between the blinds. I’ve been up all night. Daddy groans and slowly rises to an elbow.
“I can scrabble some eggs?” I said.
“I’d take black coffee and a couple of aspirin.” He winces and fishes a butt from the ashtray. “Thanks, honey.”
The bedroom door slams open with such force the knob sounds like a fist punching a hole in the wall. “Goddamn it Frank! What’d you do this time?”
Three weeks later, mid-afternoon. Hot and sticky.
Yellow leaks through the kitchen window, landing in triangles on the linoleum floor. A moth twitches in the sill. Dish soap sputters in the sink.
The table is pocked from forks, knives, and smoldering cigarettes. I wonder if Formica has a memory?
I’m in the kitchen making a fried baloney sandwich.
Marilyn has taken Frankie, Jr. to the mall.
Daddy’s sober, and then he’s not—breaking his promises without a hint of Lavoris. The scar on his forehead has dissolved into creases crawling into his graying temple. Smashed beer cans fret on the kitchen table. Pabst Blue Ribbon must’ve been on sale. He sucks in smoke, blows it out.
One of his bar buddies sits across from him: a skinny guy coating the rim of his PBR with salt.
Daddy leans back in his chair, teetering on two spindly legs. His eyes don’t meet mine. (Or maybe he was wearing sunglasses?) He opens another beer, words tripping from his mouth. His switch is about to flip.
He turns to his friend. “Have you met my little girl?”
Time slithers down a rabbit hole.
The guy shrugs. “How’s it going?”
“She’s all grown up now,” Daddy says. “Quite the looker, don’t you think?”
“Knock it off, Frank. You’re drunk.”
I want to bolt out of there—to run like I always do to escape the madness. But the bottoms of my Zoris grab something sticky on the floor. Seconds unhitch themselves from the wall clock while my bones scratch themselves raw.
Daddy isn’t about to let it go. “You should see her in a bikini.”
“JesusChristFrank. She’s your daughter.”
“Come on, honey. Model it for him.”
His words throw what’s left of me against the greasy wallpaper. Here, my memory stutters, bleaching certain details. I peel my Zoris from the floor and plow into the hazy afternoon.
“Hey, honey? Where’re you going? Come on, you know I was only joking!”
The sidewalk is both sharp and fuzzy, stretching out and caving in. I walk single file, one foot in front of the other. Flip. Flop. Flip. Flop. No sense of time. I trip over weeds in search of nourishment and step over dead bees in the coffin cracks of concrete.
Dead bees can still sting.
Slow down. Take a breath.
My brain takes over, helping me through the motions of moving. I kick a rock so far it’ll never find its way home. Through the blur I wonder if I’ll ever find mine. Maybe if I pretend none of it happened it won’t matter? Maybe it won’t matter if I pretend none of it happened? Maybe it was only a splinter of time in someone else’s story?