WRITER & VISUAL ARTIST
Father likes to scorch our arms with fat cigars. He gets Mother. She screams, falls to the kitchen floor with her grease-stained apron caught beneath her knees. Father kicks Mother and puffs the cigar, letting ash fall to the floor.
Father notices us watching him. He glares like a mean beast. We huddle together in the dimly lit hallway as he approaches us with the lit cigar like an electric cattle prod. Sara and Yasmin remain frozen, but I scurry between his legs and run out the back door. His rough hand grabs at my back. He grunts and stumbles.
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. I watch how Father flings open the back door. “Gertie!” he says. “I’m gonna get you, girl.” He falters down the stone steps without a coat, his breath clouding in front of his sweaty face.
When I emerge from hiding, they glare and push me. Father is sleeping. Mother pulls out my hair and makes me sweep it up. “What makes you so special?” Yasmin says. 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 arm is bandaged and it leaks yellow. She fries pierogi and onions in a heavy pan. I imagine hitting Father over the head with that pan. The smell of fried onions and melted butter saturate the guts of the house. Mother has deadly eyes and spidery wrinkles stretching down her cheeks. Father always naps after dinner and before going to work third shift. I glare at him, sleeping on the couch. My chest rises from revulsion and my shoulders tighten. He is passed out again. 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 from his mouth onto the couch pillows that will smell like fried onions for days.
I toss and turn in bed. I listen to the train come and go, a rushing, pulsating rhythm, like my heartbeat. I hear Sara and Yasmin snoring like their breaths are 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 late-night bartender and Mother stays up waiting for him. He owns the place. I hear the television from my moonlit bedroom. She watches Gunsmoke, and then with glazed eyes, she guards the stillness of the television’s black and white test pattern. The test pattern looks like Father’s practice targets at the shooting range. He hides his guns but Mother knows where they are. Sometimes she stays up so late she greets the milk man. I get to eat the cream from the cold glass milk bottle since I’m the first one up. It’s another snow day. Mother spoon-feeds me and we giggle and splatter cream all over the kitchen table. We like how good it is without Father. The coffee percolator brews and bubbles. But then we hear Father’s car come up the driveway with the sun rising over the burning hills. The tires crunch over the fresh snow. I feel the cream curdling in my stomach.
Mother watches me work fast. She watches me drop rat poison into Father’s cup of coffee. She sits at the kitchen table holding her head up like it’s made of stone. Her cheeks flush as she watches me work. She nods her head Yes, yes, that’s right, brave girl. I stare at Mother’s bandages and the way her liquidy eyes widen as the back door swings open and hits the railing. “Shit. No good damned thing,” we hear Father say about the railing. My sisters are still asleep. Father barges inside with puffs of snowflakes blowing in around his bulky figure. He slams the door shut and grabs the cup of coffee 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 us at the kitchen table. Disgust slaps his gritty face: “What are ya looking at, girl?” I just look to the floor with the black dime-size holes in it from his cigars. He makes holes in everything. We watch in silence: Father slurping his coffee, smoking his cigar. “Damn strong coffee,” he says, wincing. I don’t look at Mother.
The next three days, I douse his morning coffee and his dinner drinks. Mother nods her head: Yes, yes, that’s right, brave Gertie. By dinner on the third night, we witness the blood, the convulsions, the fall to the floor. Mother cups her mouth. Her shoulders cower but then she stands up straight for the first time. Sara is paralyzed. She drops her fork to the floor. It makes a loud sound. Yasmin gets up from the dinner table to phone for help, but I jump up to stop her, placing my hand over hers. I hang up the receiver. Yasmin, Sara, Mother, and I stand over Father. We don’t look at each other.
A roaring fills my head as I lean over to check for his heartbeat. I rest my head against Father’s round chest, and the only sign of our past is the smell of fried onions from dinner three nights ago.
By Jenn Powers
Previously Published in Prairie Wolf Press Review