You could always tell what kind of mood he was in by the way he set the table. On good nights, our father laid the china plates down ever so carefully, like each one was made of fancy crystal or something. He folded the paper napkins into tidy little triangles and, on really good nights, into little squirrels or bunnies for me and my sister.
A bad mood meant a crash landing; his calloused, thick-veined hands shoving the plates across the kitchen table as if they were on fire or something. Tonight, me and Maddy could hear the shatter all the way from our room. He must have missed his aim. The little fragments tingle and a large chunk spins to a dead halt on the floor.
Lying in our beds doing homework, we sit up suddenly, then freeze, as we wait to be called in for dinner.
He does the calling, “Wash your hands and get your butts in here.”
I feel a giant knot at the pit of my stomach as I listen to our mother sweeping up. But I’m brave for Maddy and smile a little as we head into the kitchen. Three years younger and only 9, she looks forward to spaghetti night and eagerly takes her place at the table.
The broken plate has been replaced, the shards hidden in the garbage, and our mother stands at the stove, stirring the sauce one last time. Though our father sits closest to the refrigerator, she quickly reaches in for his bottle of beer, pops off the cap and lays it down carefully at his place. He swallows the beer in long, brooding gulps while she dishes piles of noodles and thick, red sauce on our plates.
She takes a deep breath, then forces up a smile. “Grace, tell your father about your science project. School is so much more creative than when we were kids.”
“We’re growing frogs from tadpoles. Then we’re going to release them into Miller’s Pond in the spring. It’s part of our life cycle unit.”
Without looking up from his plate he snarls, “What makes you think them tadpoles is gonna survive in the wild after growing up in a plastic dish? Don’t your stupid teacher know that their chemistry’s all screwed up after a bunch a kids been pokin at ‘em?”
Our mother twirls spaghetti noodles tightly around her fork, trying hard to hold back. But she just can’t let this go. Oh how I wish she would just let it go. “Gil, I’m sure the teacher is making certain that the tadpoles are grown in a large tank with the right nutrition and what not. Right Grace?”
I want this to go away, and I wish I had never told her about the stupid tadpoles growing up to be stupid frogs. “Maybe Dad’s right. Maybe it’s a dumb project and all the frogs’ll grow up to be mutants.”
“You’re damn right they will. Aint nothin good ever comin from that freak show.”
I’ve ended it now, so we continue eating, the sound of our forks screeching against our plates. Maddy is the first one done and the only one to eat all of her food. “Can I go watch TV?”
Beads of sweat are forming above his rabid upper lip and he pierces poor Maddy in an instant. “You’ll sit your ass down until this meal is over. And I say when you get to leave, you got that?”
I can almost see the bones in our mother’s back grow rigid. She rises quickly from her chair and, in one clean sweep, she grabs up all of the plates and nearly slams them into the sink. The hot water and soap bubble up quickly and she hovers over the rising steam, “Have you both finished your homework?”
Maddy and me mumble “yes” to the dead space that lies between the two of them.
“Then run off now and don’t fight over who watches what. And remember to stick with the comedies. No cop shows.”
I spread out on the sofa and Maddy lies on the floor, head propped on her wobbly, little elbows. The silence in the kitchen sits there like a bleeding sore just waiting to burst wide open. This is the time I hate most because I know the worst is still coming. Another beer cap pops, and this tells me he’s going all the way with it tonight.
We hear him mumble in an angry slur, “Don’t you never cross me in front a them girls.”
Please oh please God, keep her safe. I will clean my room every day, say my prayers even when I’m tired, take good care of Maddy, never ever tell another lie….
“Don’t you got nothin to say, like sorry or somethin?”
But our mother refuses to cave. “So very sorry, should have agreed with you about the pathetic tadpoles.”
More silence, then a chair screams across the floor. He’s up, and she’s probably hiding in front of the soaking dishes. Water sounds like it’s splashing everywhere. Our mother is coughing. No, choking. Can a person drown in a sink full of dishes? Another crash, another plate. This time louder than the first.
The back door slams hard and he goes stumbling into the night. It is the most wonderful sound I have heard.
Our house is never still, even in the darkest hours of the night. The wood floors crackle and groan, and shrill whispers of cold air sneak through all of the windows.
He’s home now, calmed back down. The creak, creak grows louder. He’s walking towards our room. Maddy is safely asleep, as it should be. But I’m fully awake and expecting him. He kisses my forehead, grabs my hand and guides me out of my bed. “Let’s go watch some TV together.”
We walk to the living room, his arm around me in a soft, tender embrace. He gently pulls me down onto the same couch where I watched The Simpsons just hours earlier with Maddy. My eyes close instantly and I drift far, far away until I’m totally invisible.
Afterward, our father rewards me with what he calls my “princess potion.” He ever so quietly reaches into our mother’s ‘company’ china cabinet and pulls out two delicate, hand-painted cups. He fills mine with steaming hot chocolate and splashes some whiskey in his. When we are finished, he carefully cleans the cups and returns them to the cabinet, taking care to set them back in the exact same place. He takes my hand, leads me away from the kitchen table and whispers, “Remember Gracie, this is just our little secret. Don’t tell Mom we borrowed her special cups. You know how protective she is of the good china.” And of course, I know he’s right.
Linda S. Mills is a health and lifestyle writer for both digital and print media. When she is not researching handy health tips for blogs, magazines and newspapers, she enjoys crafting short stories and personal essays.
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