Father scorches Mother’s arm with a fat cigar. She screams in agony, falls to the kitchen floor with her grease-stained apron caught beneath her knees. Father puffs the cigar, lets ash fall to the floor, and kicks Mother’s leg. The cigar ash reminds me of when Father hurled Brother’s urn across the living room. Mother never forgave Father—even before he smashed the urn.
Father notices us watching him. We huddle together in the dim hallway as he approaches with the lit cigar like an electric stock prod. Sara and Yasmin, my older sisters, scurry away, but I slide between his legs and run out the door.
Freedom. I hear my sisters’ screams while hiding in the middle of some knotted bushes out back. Hearing them is my punishment, my pain. Letting the prickly branches poke my flesh is my punishment, my pain. This is the cost of freedom, of disloyalty.
When I emerge from hiding, they glare and push me. Mother cuts off my hair and makes me sweep it up. Gertie—you traitor. Why should you be exempt? Mother and my sisters never escape. They want a break. I wonder what day it will be—the day Father gets me. I dread the day Father will burn me with his cigar or kick me down the basement steps or cut off my ugly red hair with a dull knife or shake me out of a deep sleep with his electrified eyes.
That evening, Mother’s bandaged arm leaks yellow. She fries pierogi and onions in a large iron skillet. The smell of fried onions and melted butter saturate the guts of the house. Mother has downcast eyes, a deadly frown. Father takes a nap before dinner and before going to work. I glare at him, sleeping on the couch. My chest rises from revulsion. He is passed out. An empty glass is on its side on the floor by his limp hand. The skin on his face is loose, careless, with drool leaking out his mouth onto the couch pillows that will smell like fried onions for days.
I toss and turn in bed. The train comes and goes, a rushing, pulsating, rhythmic interruption. Sara and Yasmin snore lightly, like breaths snagged on barbed wire. The moonlight pours through the bedroom window and falls onto my sisters’ white bandages. It starts to flurry. The snow looks blue.
Father is a bartender. Mother stays up late waiting for Father. I hear the television from my dark bedroom. She watches Gunsmoke, or other late shows, and then with a glazed-over demeanor, she guards the stillness of the television’s black and white test pattern. The test pattern looks like a practice target at a shooting range. Father has guns, hidden away. Mother knows where they are but she chickened out. Sometimes she stays up so late she greets the milk man. I get to eat the cream on top of the milk from the cold glass bottle since I’m the first one up. The coffee percolator brews and bubbles. Father’s car comes up the driveway with the sun rising over the burning hills. Mother’s eyes widen, and the cream curdles in my stomach.
Mother watches me work fast. Mother watches me drop rat poison into Father’s coffee cup. Mother sits at the kitchen table holding her head up like it’s made of lead. Tears fall from Mother’s eyes as she watches me work. She nods her head yes, yes, that’s right, brave girl. My sisters are still asleep. Father barges inside with puffs of snowflakes blowing around his bulky figure. He slams the door shut and grabs the coffee cup from me. “Cold as hell,” he says, and Mother says, “I thought hell was hot,” and he says, “What’s the damn difference!” He lights a cigar, sits across from Mother. A look of disgust and contempt slap his unshaven face. We watch in silence with tortuous wonder: Father slurping his coffee, smoking his cigar. “Damn strong!” he says, wincing.
The next three days, I douse his morning coffee and his evening drink. Mother nods her head: yes, yes, that’s right, brave Gertie. By dinner the third night, we witness the blood, the convulsions, and eventual fall to the floor. Mother cups her mouth. My head is dizzy but I lean over to check his heartbeat, his heavy breaths. Sara is paralyzed. Yasmin gets up from the table to phone for help but I place my hand over hers to stop her from doing so.
I rest my head against Father’s massive chest, and the only evidence of our past is the smell of fried onions on his shirt from dinner three nights ago.
* "Fried Onions" was previously published in Prairie Wolf Press Review, Spring 2013.