DO NOT ENTER
For several weeks after the accident your father refuses to use your brother’s name. His logic is unrealistic, that somehow this lack of acknowledgement will undo the tragedy. One example is he instructs you and your mother to never open the door to your brother’s room. Taped to the door is a piece of paper that reads “DO NOT ENTER” in a mixture of capitalized and lower-case letters. Your brother’s jagged handwriting in crayon. He hung it two days before he died last March, after being sent to his room for talking back. Decades later, on one of the few calls you have with your father each year, typically on your birthday or around the holidays, you bring up the sign, ask why it stayed up so long. He says, “It felt like he was in there, pouting. I remember thinking he’d come out one of these days complaining he was hungry.” Here, you both laugh. It feels strange, but good. In the next moment you think how your mother, unlike your father, had been more realistic, never shying away from the reality, never afraid to remind you things were this way because of you. At this sudden recollection, you shut down. You make an excuse to end the call. You’ve got to get to campus, you say, but are caught in a lie immediately—it’s June. Classes ended weeks ago. “I’m teaching a summer course,” you add. “A little extra cash.” Like old friends, you tell one another it was great catching up. Your father says, “Let’s do this again soon.” Like old friends who live halfway across the country, neither of you will hear one another’s voice for seven months.
Pots, pans, plates. Countless glasses and mugs. The cordless phone. A brass lamp. These objects and more all thrown against the wall. There’s this afternoon when you stumble into one of your mother’s more aggressive fits, barely dodging the Osterizer blender, thick glass urn and all. The remnants of a citrus-smelling cocktail drip down the wall around the hole it’s made. Minutes later, your father consoles you, assures you she wasn’t aiming at you. You’re unable to tell who he's trying to convince. Your mother’s outbursts were plentiful that first year, which meant plenty of trips to MacDonald’s Hardware & Supply on 1st Avenue. Your father insists you tag along on these. He sets you down different aisles to search for things: patch kits, spackle, sanding sponges, putty knives, rolls of tape, paint. One afternoon, the old man in overalls who always works the register rings your father up for the fourth or fifth time in a few weeks and says, “Doin’ some renovating?” Your father shakes his head. “Just some repairs.”
Your childhood home was built in 1888. There’s no air-conditioning. And during the colder months, an ancient heater growls from the basement, pumping hot air through a series of vented grates. One vent on the upstairs bathroom floor offers a bird’s-eye view of the kitchen. This night in August, your parents’ arguing wakes you. From your bedroom you tiptoe to the bathroom. You lie flat on your stomach, place your face above the grate, and close an eye to focus as sweat builds up on your brow. Even with open windows, it’s hot. Your parents sit across from one another. It’s quiet. You hear them breathing. Your father’s arms are extended across the table, palms up. Your mother’s holding herself, looking off to the side where the breeze flicks the white curtains above the sink. You smell honeysuckle. You hear traffic drifting along I-5. “If we would’ve quit smoking when we became parents, like we’d talked about,” he says, “he wouldn’t have had the matches. We could’ve prevented this.” Your mother grabs the edge of the table, leans over it. Her chair creaks, like a tree falling over. She stares at your father. “The only thing that would’ve prevented this was not having children,” she says. Hearing this, something inside you breaks, but you’re too young to know what it is or what to call it. A bead of sweat rolls off your forehead, drops through the vent, and lands on the table. Your mother drags a finger over it, rubs it dry with her thumb. She looks up. You hold your breath.
By late fall, your mother isn’t eating. Your father’s eating too much. Somehow, leftovers pile up, but your father continues cooking different meals each night. It doesn’t take long before he starts packing leftovers for your school lunches. Chicken and rice. Pork chops with mashed potatoes. Lasagna. Other kids are jealous until they aren’t. There’s a solid week and a half where you eat meatloaf sandwiches. One friend finally offers a pity trade, his ham and cheese sandwich for yours. He says he doesn’t get how you aren’t sick of meatloaf. Thing is, you are. It took no time to hate the sight of it, the smell of it. Even the word itself disgusts you, how it’s all smashed together too. You don’t tell him this. You tell your friend, “No thanks.” You say, “It’s my favorite.” You take an enormous bite, nearly choking because of how salty and dry it is. 25 years later and the mere mention of meatloaf causes bile to climb the back of your throat.
New Year’s morning your father wakes you. “Dress warmly,” he says. “Meet me out front.” Birds chirp from the Douglas fir in your yard. Streetlights flicker. One at the corner snaps off. The sky is purple, fading like a time-lapse bruise. Your breaths float away in gray tufts. Your father stands at the end of the walkway in sweatpants, a sweatshirt, a brown beanie, sneakers you’ve never seen. He’s holding the green handlebar grip of your Mongoose BMX. From the porch you whisper-shout, “Dad, what’re we doing?” Your father touches his stomach. “I need to do something about this,” he says. “Help me keep pace.” The first run he doesn’t go far, only about a mile. Down to Monteith Park and back. You arrive back home just as the sun breaks, fanning over the horizon. Your father gasps as he strips the beanie and sweatshirt off, steam rising from his head like smoke from an extinguished match. He doubles over in the yard, hands on his knees, coughing. He coughs so hard he vomits onto the frost-shimmering lawn.
The Longest Time
February. Your father’s no longer gorging himself. He runs a couple miles each weekday morning. He’s lost weight. A change has occurred in your mother too. Her appetite has returned. Now at school, you eat sandwiches and potato chips like other kids. And it seems her fits have subsided as well. Though she’ll have one in a month. Historically, this will be the most extreme. It will take place on the eve of the anniversary of your brother’s death, ending a sixteen-week streak. Dinner that night, she’ll drink too much. She’ll ask your father to put a record on. When Billy Joel’s “The Longest Time” strikes up from the other room, she rushes there, leaving you at the table. First you’ll hear the record scratch, then your father say, “Elaine? Elaine! Just take it easy,” followed by a crash. After this, your mother will go on another drinking binge that’ll last months. Your father’s running shoes sit by the front door. He’ll put on the weight he lost, and then some. You’ll accept those pity trades for your sandwiches. You’ll become regulars again at the hardware store. But none of this has happened yet. Right now it’s Saturday, you’re still eleven years old, and life as you know it, you think, has finally returned to something close to normal.