“DAD, I’M home.”
It wasn’t the most original greeting, but it had become a habit. Every day, as soon as school was out, I hit the road, barging past anybody who might stand in my way. I biked the mile to my house, fast enough to build up a slight wheeze and the beginning of a burn in my lungs. As I rounded the last bend and the house came into view, I breathed in sharply and my heart really started to pound. All day I’d tried to keep my mind where it belonged—on schoolwork and avoiding getting dragged into anybody else’s drama. But once I cleared that last bend, I couldn’t duck the inevitable.
I skidded to a halt and leaped off the bike, then vaulted the three steps up to the front porch. My heartbeat sounded loud in my ears as I fumbled my key into my sweating palm, unlocked the front door, and pushed it open. For a split second, I cocked my head, as though I could hear what was waiting for me, and then I raised my voice slightly and called, “Dad, I’m home.”
There was rarely any response, and even though it had been the same way for months, a sick feeling twisted in my gut. The house had once been alive with noise—my mom yelling back a greeting and reminding me to wipe my feet or hang my coat in the closet; my dad calling from the back room asking what was for dinner, even though we’d had a routine for years and all he needed to know was what day it was to know what would be on the table; and my older brother, Jamie, shouting friendly insults.
Now there was only silence.
I pushed open the living room door and found Dad sitting on the couch in front of the television, exactly as I’d left him this morning. He didn’t acknowledge my entrance, and for a brief moment, my heart stopped, wondering if today had been a bad day. Wondering worse but trying not to let that dread take hold.
Then he turned and our eyes met, and he nodded at me. I read real recognition in his expression and let out a long breath as my rigid muscles unclenched.
“Jesus, is it that time already? Where the hell did the day go?”
My gaze flickered to the TV, still programmed to the channel I’d left on this morning. Which made it very easy to see where his day had gone—talk shows, soap operas, commercials—a blueprint for a life slowly seeping away.
“How are you, Dad?” I asked.
The sandwich I’d left on the coffee table was gone, and there was a candy wrapper beside him on the couch, so I knew he’d eaten. I crossed the floor, careful not to snag my foot on the worn carpet, and I bent down, briefly dismayed when I noticed a puddle of liquid on the floor. But it was only the glass of water I’d left on the side table, toppled over and spilled.
I glanced down and, with a sigh of relief, confirmed the dryness in his lap. He had probably jarred the table when he got up to go to the bathroom. I picked up the now-empty glass and righted it before throwing the towel that was draped over the arm of the tattered sofa onto the floor, more or less covering the puddle of water.
“Come on. Let’s get you to the bathroom.”
Although he hadn’t had an accident, I didn’t know when he’d last been, and I’d learned the hard way that it didn’t pay to wait until he asked to go.
He looked up blankly, but then he nodded and started to struggle to his feet. I grabbed him by the arm and hoisted him up, trying not to notice how unhealthy he looked from being penned up inside too long. I guided him to the bathroom door and pushed him gently inside, pulling the door but not shutting it completely. Then I allowed myself a minute to breathe.
The mail was on the kitchen table, so Mrs. Sweeney must have been in at some time during the day. She lived down the street and dropped by most days to look in on Dad. Though she was half his size and probably had twenty-five years on him, she was one of the few people who’d ever been able to keep him in line. Like everybody in our neighborhood, she was tough, outspoken, and never backed down from an argument. She was one of the few people who knew what went on behind our closed doors, and I trusted her to keep our secrets. It was probably because of her that Dad had eaten his lunch. Without somebody to remind him, he sometimes forgot to eat.
I flicked through the mail, disregarding bills, piling up flyers to be thrown into the garbage, and flooded with relief when I found the envelope I was looking for. Without it I’d never have been able to look after Dad at home. Though I had mixed feelings about accepting this particular handout, I couldn’t afford to be picky. So I choked down my distaste and propped the envelope beside the phone on the kitchen counter before pulling open one of the cupboard doors.
When Dad came out of the bathroom, he wandered into the kitchen.
“SpaghettiOs all right?” I asked.
We usually ate better than this. I cooked a big pot of chili or made a tuna casserole on Sunday night, and we made a few decent meals of it throughout the week. Mrs. Sweeney helped us out with dinner when she could, even though she lived on a fixed income and didn’t have a lot to spare. I had stopped trying to reason with her about money—it was an argument I always lost.
But today was Thursday, and we had scraped the dregs of this week’s chili out of the pot last night. Now we were down to our last tin of fake pasta.
“Isn’t Thursday pot roast?”
I turned my head sharply, just in time to see a fleeting glimpse of my real old man staring at me from behind pale, watery eyes.
“Used to be,” I replied, watching for any sign of what he might be remembering. But the light suddenly faded from his eyes and the blankness returned.
I poured the contents of the tin into a saucepan and cranked the heat, and minutes later the weird orange sauce was bubbling. I filled two bowls and pushed one across the table to Dad. The last crust of bread sat forlornly in the bread bin, its edges dried and curling up. I shared it equally between us.
We ate in silence until Dad said, “You think Jamie will be home soon?”
I swallowed quickly, a lump of congealed SpaghettiO burning its way down my throat.
“Probably tomorrow, though?”
I nodded. “Sure. Probably tomorrow.”
My father looked happy, with crumbs scattered down his sweater and orange sauce staining his lips.
And I decided to let him enjoy the illusion and left him that way.
LATER MRS. Sweeney came by with a loaf of homemade banana bread wrapped in a tea cloth. It was still warm from the oven and smelled so delicious my mouth immediately began to water and my stomach growled. Most nights she brought something over, but on Thursdays it was always really substantial, as if she knew how hungry we were by the time our money ran out.
“I’ll make us a pot of tea,” she said.
I stood in the doorway of the kitchen and watched her work, keeping half an eye on Dad, who was back in front of the TV. I’d changed the channel, and he was now watching the game. He sometimes forgot he was a lifelong sports nut, but whenever I turned the game on, his face lit up with real joy.
“He had a good day today,” Mrs. Sweeney said.
I grunted my agreement, my eyes drifting to the TV. A love of the Pirates was one of the few things my dad and I shared. Right now they were getting nailed by the Mets, but I didn’t really care. Dad seemed to be enjoying himself, and these days, that mattered more than the score.
Mrs. Sweeney poured boiling water into the teapot and started to slice the banana bread—big, thick slices that crumbled onto the plate. I was so hungry, my stomach actually hurt. She pushed the plate toward me and raised an eyebrow when I hesitated.
“Go on, now,” she instructed. “What are you waiting for?”
I picked up a piece and tried really hard not to just shove the whole thing into my mouth.
“So,” she continued, her eyes searching my face, “we won’t be calling social services today.”
It wasn’t a question, but I answered anyway, my voice thick with warm banana bread. Or something. “Not today.”
I forced myself to look into her face and watch the way the thin line of her mouth softened.
“Not today,” she repeated gently. I was grateful she didn’t say anything else.
She went before the ninth inning, with nothing left of her gift but a few flat crumbs on the plate, and even those disappeared as soon as she closed the door behind her.
When the game was over, I helped Dad upstairs to the bathroom. He stood in front of the sink, looking bewildered at the toothbrush in his hand.
“You want to brush your teeth?” I asked.
He nodded but made no move to follow through. I gently pried the toothbrush from between his fingers and squeezed toothpaste onto the chewed bristles. When I handed it back to him, he continued to stare at it blankly.
“Brush, Dad. Like this.” I made the motion, and he slowly copied me, giving his teeth a perfunctory cleaning. I lathered soap onto a washcloth and pressed it into his hand, and tonight he seemed to have a better idea what to do with it. When he was finished, his cheeks were ruddy, though there was still a lick of orange SpaghettiO sauce on the side of his mouth. I wiped it away with my thumb as best I could.
He changed into a pair of worn pajamas, the top and bottoms not matching except for their shared shabbiness. It took an age for him to button the top, his fumbled movements slow and uncertain, and I had to fight the urge to push his hands aside and do it for him. When he was finally finished, the whole routine taking at least twenty minutes longer than it should have, he climbed into bed. Tucking him in was one of the many ways our roles had reversed in recent months, and it never lost its weirdness. I leaned over to turn off the light, but his hand came out to stop me. His bony fingers wrapped around my wrist, and he squeezed tight.
“You’re a good boy, Emmett,” he said. “Your mother would be proud.”
I was startled into silence, wondering all over again what was going through his head. Sometimes he was totally coherent, though at those times, he rarely mentioned my mother or Jamie. I didn’t know whether this was lucidity or just some random trace of memory.
“You think Jamie will come home soon?” he asked, unwittingly confirming his addled state of mind.
I dislodged his fingers and patted his hand. “Maybe tomorrow, Dad.”
He looked up, his eyes bright with hope. “It will be good to see your brother again.”
I dredged up a wan smile and watched him settle down under the covers, and then I turned and left him to his dreams, hoping they were sweeter than his reality.