Our annual holiday fiction issue
My dad, Johnessey, yelled for me to leave his house and kicked the cat’s water dish across the living room after I got grounds in his coffee. That was after I woke up at 5:30 a.m. to fix it for him. He likes to sip on it while lurching his way to his sorry excuse for a job at the Purina factory in his baby-blanket-yellow, sorry-excuse for a 1970-something Chevette that’s missing half the paint on its hood where the metal’s rusted through.
So, I left. I didn’t go back that night. Or the night after that. Or the night after that, either. I had it in my mind not to go back at all because sometimes I think a dad like Johnessey don’t deserve a son like me. I could have gone to stay with my grandma. But it was almost Thanksgiving and all, and it just didn’t seem right to leave a man whose wife had left him two years earlier, and whose kid kind of hated him, alone for the holidays.
I think that sort of loneliness—during a time when lonely is about as desirable as a snake in baby Jesus’ manger—makes some men ponder on what they need to do to turn things right in their lives. But some men, well, when they get too much alone time, the bitterness of their sins starts eating away at them like turpentine on gum that’s stuck to the bottom of a shoe.
I knew what Johnessey would do if I didn’t go back. He would let his loneliness and self-pity multiply into thousands of rattlesnakes. He would let that disappointment stare through him with its beady cave-black eyes, shaking its devil’s maraca of a tail at him, until it finally sank in its fangs, filling him so full of that poison of self-hatred that’d he’d either have to kill himself or … kill himself, I guess.
I didn’t think Johnessey deserved to die, especially at the hands of that cruel man who was the bigger side of himself. Besides, I’d heard some awful things about suicide from a girl at school—her name is Leela, and she always seems pretty right in her mind, balanced like that level in my dad’s garage with her bubble right in the middle, not like anyone else I know.
She said we’re all born over and over until we finally get things right. Then we get to be happy forever “in a state of bliss.” I imagined Bliss like a real state that you’d find on a map, but I figured with the number of people who seem to “get things right,” Bliss could be a teeny tiny place, smaller than Rhode Island. Leela said that living and dying again and again is like going through different grades of school. You come out a little wiser each time until you finally graduate.
According to Leela, something called karma makes sure that everything you do and put out into the world comes back at you. It isn’t until all that stuff has come back on you that you get to graduate. A surefire way to flunk one of the grades of life, Leela said, is by doing yourself in. Because I skipped school so much, I had to do third grade twice myself, which makes me a year older than all the kids in my sixth-grade class now. I’m 12 almost 13, and let me tell you, third grade almost seemed harder the second time.
If Johnessey wasn’t going to flunk at life, he needed some help, and I guess I aimed to help him. I wanted to help him wash away his sins, or at least wash away the salty sweat of guilt that was the result of him sinning all the time and then reflecting on it.
My dad is a good man … kind of. He wouldn’t ever harm anybody in non-verbal ways. I must admit, though, that the bullets from his mouth sting pretty damn bad. They used to pierce Mom’s skin like a spark from Johnessey’s homemade arc welder, burning and burrowing its way into the fabric of his flannel shirt, leaving a hole. Mom hated those welding holes, just like she hated his shameful sass.
I decided it would be wrong to run away like Mom had. So I went home. Three days after Johnessey kicked me out, I went home.
I didn’t get a warm welcome. I really wasn’t expecting one. I didn’t get a lecture either, which was good because I was filthy. Me and my sleeping bag’d been camping out in the desert behind our house in a teepee-sized hole that went straight into the ground. Christ knows how it got there.
It was kind of hard to sneak in on the night I came home, since the steps leading up to our mobile home door were starting to rot away. They creaked louder than Grandma’s knuckles during moments of quiet prayer when we used to go to church.
Dad was inside trying to watch TV, although there was a lot of snowy static on the screen.
“Hey, Domino,” my dad said. Mom had thought Dominique was a beautiful name. But Johnessey never liked it, so he called me Domino instead. “Hey, Domino. Climb up on the roof and adjust that antenna.”
I did what he asked without saying a thing and came back inside to see Mister Ed coming in as clear as if he and Wilbur were really in our living room—if the world played in black and white, that is, and sometimes I’m not so sure it doesn’t. I wish I had a horse like Mister Ed. I wish I had a horse at all.
“I hope you had a nice time while you were away,” Johnessey said. “Jesus, you wouldn’t believe how nice it was not having to take care of you for a few days. You’re a handful.”
There wasn’t any reason to what Johnessey said. After all, I usually cooked him dinner and did the dishes and his laundry and made him coffee every morning. Actually, I felt sorry for his sorry ass. He probably waited all three days for me to come back just so I could fix that TV. Lazy bastard. Sitting there in his stained flannel, face with skin like the chalk at school (minus the red whiskers), slumped toward the television like he was a retard. He called it an idiot box sometimes, and he sure looked like one, hypnotized from quitting time on Friday to starting time on Monday.
I had to bite my tongue real hard not to say anything. I told myself, “Dominique, you’ve got it in your mind to help the man. Don’t stir things up, and be as obedient and dutiful as you know how. You’ve got to give to get.”
Yep, that’s what I said to myself, you’ve got to give to other people to get.
“Did you eat dinner already, Dad? Because I’m pretty hungry, and I was thinking about fixing myself some ramen noodles?”
“No,” Johnessey said. “I’ve been eating ramen noodles for the past few days. Why don’t you make us some eggs and biscuits with gravy?”
“I don’t know if we have what we need to make it. But I can go to the store, if you don’t mind waiting.”
“I suppose you’re going to need some money? You know, I think you’re about old enough that you could get a job.”
“Yeah, Dad. I’ve been thinking about it. Dave Orely down the road … I know a boy who used to work for him. You know, Dave goes out in the desert all over Nevada and California and collects dirt samples. He tests them for minerals. I think Dave’s always looking for good workers.”
“Yeah, that sounds good. You get on that. … There’s $10 in the microwave. Grab that and get us some groceries. We’re out of milk.”
Riding my bike to the store, I started thinking about the things I could do to help Johnessey realize he needed to turn his life around. I hoped he had some of the copycat instinct in him, so every time I did something good, he’d maybe feel like doing something good, too. I imagined a little seed of goodness planting itself in his toe at this first friendliness of mine. Yep, I imagined that tree, ready to grow, fuller and bigger than those redwoods I saw with Mom and Dad in California six or seven years ago. I was going to water and fertilize that tree with everything I knew how.
We enjoyed a grouchy but delicious Thanksgiving dinner at Grandma Sukie’s house—she and Dad get along like ants and Raid—and the following Monday I went to Dave Orely’s after school to ask him about a job. Dave showed me how to dump a bag of dirt in a sieve and collect the fine powder that came out in the bottom like powdered sugar after a few good shakes.
After my very first day—I was there from 3:15 to 7:15—Dave gave me $20. He said he hadn’t ever had a worker as speedy as me.
“Dave,” I said. “Do you think you could do me a favor? I know you don’t know me enough to trust me yet, but I’m still gonna ask. You see, this is the first money I ever made in my life that wasn’t from my mom when I helped her do chores. And I’d like to buy my dad something. He’s real proud of me for getting this job, and I want to show him that I think he’s a good dad for encouraging it.”
Dave caught the drift of what I was saying and sent me on my way with some beer out of his own refrigerator and a little bottle of whiskey. He didn’t even make me pay for them. He gave me a six-pack of Molson lager. He said it was a good beer and that if I was any indicator of my old man that he should like it. When I got home, I hid the whiskey inside a ragged Teddy Ruxpin bear that I had decapitated and taken the machine voice box out of.
I wrapped the six-pack up in old sun-bleached wrapping paper, the only kind we had. I also found a piece of red yarn tied around a pinecone in the middle of the road on my way home. It had been wet, but it dried out quick. I tied it in a floppy bow around the beer.
When Johnessey took a bathroom break from Leave it to Beaver later that night—man, he pisses loud—I put the beer on the TV tray next to his stinky, dying rat-gray recliner.
“What’s this?” he asked when he came back out.
“I got you something. It’s sort of a thank-you present for encouraging me to get a job, and also a thank-you for being there like a good dad should. When Mom left, you could have left, too. Then where would I be? I’d be stuck with Grandma and her stupid little poodles.”
Many times I’d thought about living with the six teacup poodles and Grandma in that house that smelled sweet and oily. And really, it had always seemed better than living with Dad. But I was determined to make living with Dad good.
“What the hell. How did you manage to buy me this?” Johnessey’s eyes grew bigger than the dirty dinner plates stewing in the sink.
“Dave Orely paid me today … and here, Dad.” I handed him my $20. “I figure you’ve given a lot to me, and now I can start contributing to our household. It’s my first pay money, and I want to give it to you.”
Johnessey smiled, but then his smile did something funny and curled into a weird fishhook shape that looked more like suspicion than pride. I walked away and went to bed.
As Christmas got nearer, I did more things around the house than I ever had in my life. I started fixing Johnessey toast and scrambled eggs for breakfast each morning, and even started packing him lunches, since I was already packing my own. When I got out of school for Christmas break, I decided to clean up our yard. It was mostly car parts, really, strewn around the outside of the trailer. There were also pink, orange, red and yellow plastic puzzle-piece-looking things from a jungle gym for toddlers that a friend of Mom’s had dropped by a long time ago when I was already way too old to use it.
When I wasn’t cleaning or cooking, I encouraged Dad to do the things he used to love—cooking, shooting, fixing cars. Half the time he ignored me, and the other half he grumbled to be left alone.
I even cut down a tree for the house. It was a little guy in a ditch near a house next to school. It wasn’t really in the people’s yard, and it looked more like a weed than a tree next to all the big green pines on the house’s front lawn, so I didn’t feel bad hauling it off. I think the people’s dog was upset though. He growled at me the whole time I sawed it down. He must have liked to pee on it.
Dad didn’t care about the tree. He wouldn’t let me waste popcorn for garland like Mom used to do. So I used some Styrofoam packing peanuts that I found in someone’s trash five trailers down. I made stars and birds out of folded paper. And I bought a box of see-through glass balls that had golden glitter made into snowflake patterns on the outside. It was only $3 in the Safeway discount bin because one of the balls had cracked up and there were broken shards of glass inside the little cardboard box. I got a tiny piece stuck in my finger like a sliver.
On Christmas Eve, just before we were supposed to leave for Grandma’s house, Johnessey yelled for me to leave his house again because he said I got pee on the toilet seat and his butt got wet when he sat down.
“It couldn’t have been me, Dad. I haven’t hardly drank anything all day, and I know I haven’t peed since first thing this morning.”
“Are you telling me it was the cat or some stranger come walking into our house? Because it sure as hell wasn’t me.”
“I’m not saying anything, except that it wasn’t me. And I don’t think it’s fair of you to get mad at me after all I’ve been doing for you lately.”
“What do you mean, ‘All I’ve been doing for you?’ “
I realized that redwood seed I’d hoped was sprouting in Johnessey’s toe never even tried to grow. It was all in my head. The only thing in Johnessey’s head was hate toward the world—the world that included me.
“You know,” I said, “fixing breakfast and lunch and dinner and helping you clean up the yard and doing everything I can to help you have a nice Christmas since I know you’ve been sad ever since Mom left. You were even kind of sad before that.”
Johnessey didn’t say more, except “Get the hell out.” It was a lot colder than it had been a month before when I’d camped outside, so I figured I needed to go to Grandma Sukie’s. I decided I could walk there in an hour, and we could pick Dad up the next morning. I thought maybe he’d think about what I said during the night, and when me and Grandma showed up the next morning he’d be grateful—infected by some of that Christmas sprit that I thought was supposed to come to old bastards like him during the timeless, cold dark of Christmas Eve.
As I walked in the frozen air that Johnessey would have said was colder than a witch’s tit, I swear I felt that cold-weather witch wrap her icy fingers around my guts and heart. Then, I felt her fingers around my throat. I don’t know if it was the cold air or the feeling of failure that was ready to strangle me, but I felt like dying. Showing goodness and kindness to my dad had been hard, and if it hadn’t even helped him become a better man, I might as well have never gone back to him. I thought I’d have been better off living in that hole and leaving my dad be in his hellhole. A hole’s a hole the world over, except when it belongs to a rotten dad like Johnessey. And now I’d be stuck at Grandma’s.
I slept warm in Grandma Sukie’s guestroom bed. She insisted we get Johnessey before eating breakfast. I said it didn’t matter. The more time we gave him, I thought, the more time he’d have to turn around.
Grandma warmed up the car before leaving because she said it was colder than a witch’s nose. The bench seat of her scabby, maroon-colored Grand Prix was draped in one of her afghan blankets. I wrapped it around me. I wasn’t cold, but I was shaking.
The drive took 15 minutes. There were hardly any cars on the road. When we pulled up to the house, the loss of all the trash in front made it look empty. I hadn’t noticed it looking that way before.
“Why don’t you just run in and get your dad? I’ll keep the car running,” Grandma Sukie said.
I peeled the blanket off my sweaty shoulders and pushed the heavy car door open with my foot until it grinded. As I tip-toed up the steps, I could hear the TV blaring, although I couldn’t tell what it was from outside, maybe it was that Maury Povich show—it was usually on this time of day. The steps seemed squeakier than normal. The door was frozen shut. When I pulled, it reminded me of popping ice cubes out of a tray.
Johnessey was sitting upright in his chair. His face looked more like a week-old bruise than crushed chalk, like normal. His eyes were open large, and his mouth was open medium. His lips were weirdly red like Grandma’s when she wears lipstick.
He was dead.
There was an empty bottle of soot remover on the TV tray in front of him.
Johnessey’s mouth looked like a snake hole. I thought that maybe a snake had been living inside him, just like Johnessey had been living inside of me, but the bastard was gone now. The snake had got the best of him, but Johnessey wouldn’t get the best of me.
“Is he coming?” Grandma asked as I settled back into her toasty car. I wasn’t shaking anymore.
“No,” I said. “He killed himself. Drank some soot cleaner or something.”
I managed not to pay much attention as Grandma Sukie fussed. She kept going back and forth between the car and the house. I think she was making phone calls and waiting for the police to come. I wasn’t really listening.
My throat knotted up, and I felt like I might cry, but it passed.
“All that charity and Johnessey didn’t learn a thing,” I thought clear as a bell in my head.
I was disappointed, but then I understood. He had to save himself. He had to want to save himself. Johnessey put himself in a hole that he had to work his own way out of.
So, on that day that my dad got rid of his own life, I decided that time is best spent improving yourself. I wasn’t thinking about becoming a lawyer or a doctor and earning lots of money and fame, I was thinking about becoming a saint, even though you’re stuck in a pig pen. I was thinking about “getting things right,” truly right, righteously right.
I decided I wanted to live right for myself. I told myself I would fix me up. I was on the mend. … And you know what? I had never even realized before that I was broken.