Joe Neal has fiction forthcoming in Salamander. He is pursuing an MFA in fiction at Cornell University and is working on a collection of short stories and a novel. He is originally from Franklin, Ohio.
I used to hide army men in the holes of the cinderblocks under our front porch. One time, I pulled out a soldier that had a centipede crawling on his back. The centipede was red and fast, and I hit it with a tank. The legs moved like they were still trying to run away. Then they stopped. I wiped the guts off with a clump of grass and felt bad inside. This guy had been comfortable at home until he got smashed. That was last year. I was younger then, more scared.
I put a stick in the grass and jumped over it from the porch. When my feet hit, I rolled on the ground like a ninja. The dirt was hard and poked my back. The streetlights came on, dim at first, and then bright and buzzing. Already time to come in. It didn’t seem fair when yesterday there was light in the sky at the same time. Mom had moved the hands of the clock in the kitchen and said we were falling back.
The tv was up loud, and Mom and Dad didn’t hear me come in the back door. Mom was in her recliner, and Dad was in the kitchen putting stuff from the junk drawer into a cardboard box. I saw the good scissors go in, a stapler, and the coffee mug that looked like a tree trunk. Dad looked at a framed picture of him, Mom, and me. Mom was wearing her old glasses in the picture. It went in the box, too.
“I’ve put in enough time. I know that much,” Dad said.
Mom nodded and watched the tv. She was wearing the sweatshirt and jeans that came between work clothes and pajamas.
“It’s really just to try me out. But, I’ve got my foot in the door. Do we have any staples? Why do we have a stapler if we don’t have any staples?”
I put my coat on the back of a kitchen chair. Dad walked over and knelt down in front of me. I wasn’t sure what to do since he never did that.
“Gettin off the line, Jake. No more tip-toeing around when I’m on midnights,” Dad said and turned to talk to Mom again.
“You should have seen Clyde when word came down. That fat boy will have to think twice about being such a smart ass. God, he’s asking for it.”
Mom made thin eyes at Dad. She didn’t like cursing, but I didn’t mind. Dad was happy and talking a lot more than usual. I sat on the kitchen floor and crossed my legs. The heels of Dad’s slippers were crushed flat, and I could see how dry the skin was around the bottoms of his feet. He yanked a drawer up and down, but it didn’t come out.
“What the hell. Pens, do we have any pens, a pencil? Why is everything hidden?”
Mom put her hands out like she didn’t know what to say.
Dad screwed a light bulb into a reading lamp that had a flexible neck. He plugged the cord into the wall and twisted the switch. Nothing.
“Figures. Guess I’ll have to get in there and cross some wires. Can’t work without light, right Jake?”
Dad wrapped the cord around the base of the lamp. He looked at Mom.
“So we might go out tomorrow night. Some of the guys were talking about going for beers. We won’t be long. What? What’s that look? Is a little joy okay with you?”
Mom stood up fast and went to the oven. She got out a small box of fried chicken and walked me to her recliner. The cushion was warm from where she had been sitting.
“Your Dad got you some chicken,” she said to me.
Mom walked past Dad without looking at him. She went down the hall and slammed the bedroom door. Dad looked at the oven like he was waiting for it to do something. He tried to open the drawer again; shook it faster and harder, and then slammed closed the little part that had opened. He said something to himself and hit the kitchen table with the bottom of his fist. The salt and pepper shakers knocked into each other and tipped over. The little pig that held napkins in a slot on its back fell behind the table. When Dad turned around, I looked away and stared at the tv.
“I’ll be in the garage,” he said and grabbed the lamp.
I kept staring at the tv for a while without watching it. The chicken inside the box was warm and felt good against my stomach. There was a foam cup of mashed potatoes and a biscuit. There was also coleslaw in a smaller cup. I tore off all the chicken skin and ate that first.
There was a show on about people trying to escape the police by driving fast. No one was good at it, because they all ended up wrecking. The video from the cop cars was old looking, and you couldn’t make out anyone’s face when they got out to run. The same thing happened over and over, just in different places. It took away the good feeling I got from the box of chicken. It made you think everyone was losing their minds.
Mom came back into the living room. She was wearing her robe.
“Where’s your father?”
“Garage, I think.” I licked grease off the side of my hand. Mom put the pig back on the kitchen table and slid the spilled salt and pepper into her palm.
“Go say goodnight and get ready for bed.”
Mom gave me a hug and sat at the kitchen table to smoke. She liked to smoke there. I would get up in the night to pee and see her looking out the window. A cigarette would be burning in the ashtray and Mom would be watching the window like there was a movie playing on the glass. But, there wasn’t a movie. All you could see was the light on the neighbor’s back porch or the moon if it was out.
Dad was hunched over the workbench in the garage. I stood next to him and watched. He pulled the cord out of the neck of the lamp. The wire that had been inside was thin and had two copper curls at the end. A little pile of parts sat in a mound next to the bulb.
“I think a dropped a screw,” Dad said without looking up.
I crawled around on the floor and pretended to look. It was too dark under the bench to see anything.
“Forget it. I’ll pick up a light somewhere.” Dad pulled a stool over for me. I sat and spun a washer around like a coin. He tossed a screwdriver into the toolbox and yawned.
“You okay?” he asked.
I shook my head yes.
“The way they treat you in there, it just builds up after a while. You have to ask to use the bathroom. You see what I’m saying?”
I nodded. I didn’t. Dad looked up at the scrap wood stacked in the rafters. He smiled at something.
“Hey, I’d shovel shit if I had to.”
We laughed at that. We laughed at ‘shit’ in secret.
“Hand me that.” Dad pointed to the metal trashcan. He slid the lamp parts and what remained of the body into it.
“Better get to bed,” he said and took the push broom from the hooks on the wall. I heard him talking to himself as I walked back to the house, but I couldn’t make out what he was saying. He pushed together little metal parts and woodchips and used a shovel as a dustpan. He was still wearing his slippers. Dad stopped sweeping, and I was nervous because I thought he had caught me watching him. But, I was in too much dark for him to see. He just looked out for a minute. Then he started sweeping again without talking. I ran inside when he looked down.
I heard Dad’s truck start early in the morning and looked out my window. He put the box from last night on the seat next to him, and then pulled away barely using the gas. The grass outside was white from frost. There were no birds or squirrels running around, just people driving on the road with white air coming out of the tail pipes. The floor made my feet cold, and I got back in bed where it was still warm from my sleep.
Mom leaned on the counter and drank coffee, and I ate cereal at the table. The pig with the napkins was missing an ear. I touched the unpainted porcelain where the ear had broken off. Mom put envelopes and a jumble of keys in her purse. She gave me a hug and left for work. I put my bowl in the sink and looked to make sure there weren’t any lights on.
Thinking about walking to school and the grease smell of the cafeteria and the clock moving so slowly made me feel awful, like it would never end. I wanted to sneak and stay home. But, Mom’s recliner was cold and stiff. Dad’s too. There were springs and foam down inside and nothing else, just a couple chairs that didn’t mean anything. Nothing was comfortable, and I hated it. I turned the little lock on the backdoor knob and locked the deadbolt with my key.
After school, I walked with my friends Dave and Steve. We raced to a big pile of leaves on the side of a street. We dove in with our bags and coats, laughing like crazy. Everything was soft and crunchy but hard to get out of. I had itchy leaves in my collar and hair.
An old man swung open his door and yelled. I think he was cursing, but you couldn’t really understand him. Drool came out of his mouth and made a wet spot on his sweatshirt. We ran away, scattered like birds. I’d been run off before, but the old man looked like he would have hurt us if he had caught us. I split up from Dave and Steve and ran through the alley that led to my house.
Mom’s car was in her spot on the gravel and Dad’s truck was on the street. I looked inside Dad’s passenger window. The desk stuff was spilled out on the floor mat. The stapler was spread open, and you could see the slot were the staples were kept.
Dad was sitting in his recliner looking at his knees. A bag of frozen peas was on top of his hand. Mom stood in front of him. She was still wearing her work clothes.
“Go out and play for a bit, Jake,” she said when she heard me in the kitchen.
I dropped my backpack on the floor. It was covered with leaves, but Mom didn’t say anything. She just closed the door behind me.
An old tree stump was on the side of the house, just below the kitchen window. I stepped up and had to lean to the side to see into the living room. Mom was still standing. Dad moved the peas around on his hand. They were talking, but the window was closed and I could only hear mumbles. They looked like the people you see at the bank when they go over to the desk, serious and confused. Dad’s eyes were red. Mom took some clips out of her hair and put them in her pocket.
Dad covered his face with the hand that had been under the peas. It was swollen like one big hotdog. He cried real hard under his hand. The bag fell off his knee and split open on the floor. The little green balls rolled everywhere. Mom just stood there. When I spilled something there was always a rush to clean it up. But, Dad just cried and Mom just watched.
I got some rope from the garage and tied it to a big rock that was next to the stump. I climbed up into the tree at the edge of our yard and pulled up the rock. If I balanced it just right on a branch, I could push it off with my feet and bash the crazy old man if he came looking for me. I leaned against the trunk and waited. The streetlights had been on for a while, but I finally understood. They didn’t know if it was late, they just knew when it was dark.