My brothers and I used to fight during commercial breaks. We’d punch and kick, hold down and fart in faces, two against one, the configurations always changing. But we’d keep the bruises to places Mom and Dad couldn’t see, under T-shirts and above the hems of our shorts.
One summer, my brother, Mark broke his collarbone. He wore a sling on his arm but he got around okay. It was summer in Ontario and it was hot and sticky. The cicadas were always buzzing, my T-shirt always soaked in sweat.
Mom would force us out of the cool house and into the murky pond so she could read novels with covers so racy I wasn’t even supposed to look at them, let alone crack a spine—which of course I did, as soon as she placed one back on the shelf in the living room. Some mornings, she’d go into town to buy groceries, visit with neighbours, and generally escape the farm. And she’d take Little Joe, her beloved, incessantly yapping, always peeing Chihuahua in her purse.
It was one of those mornings, and it was hot. We were sitting on the carpet watching cartoons and fighting during commercials, screaming “Show’s back!” as if it were “Mercy!” I took a commercial shift with Mark, despite his broken collarbone. We were making a lot of noise. We knew Dad hadn’t been himself. He’d sold our two pet cows—we suspected for meat—and he had grey-blue circles under his eyes. Mom had recently told us there’d be no more Twinkies for our lunches, no more desserts, no more store-bought cheesecakes after dinner unless Dad got paid for his latest construction job.
Mark and I had the same bowl cut, courtesy of Mom. I was holding his sandy blond hair and banging his head on the carpet while he laughed, and Sammie, our youngest brother, held his kicking legs down. Dad burst into the living room and lifted by shirts, grabbed for traction, just like a sheriff breaking up a fight in an old movie. We scattered like sheep on shearing day and Dad ended up catching Mark by the collar of his Blue Jays T-shirt. I watched my little brother, his arm in a dirty white sling. Mark doesn’t feel pain like a normal person. He’ll smash his head on a table or fireplace hearth and get up running. I once watched him burn his calf on the searing-hot motor casing of his dirt bike, cooking it until his leg looked like a baked ham, and he didn’t even call out. But he felt this pain. Mark’s face went from white to green as Dad shook him and yelled.
“Stop this! Stop!”
Dad never yelled.
“I’m on the phone,” he said, releasing Mark. I could tell he was remembering the collarbone. The three of us were quiet as Dad went back to the kitchen, where the work phone was. We huddled, decided to go outside, cartoons forgotten.
Outside, the cricket things buzzed with the power lines. Our collie, Baby, lay panting in the shade of the front of the barn. We didn’t know it yet, but she was pregnant. I wouldn’t get to keep any of her babies because what I also didn’t know was, we were about to move to the city.
“I think we should run away,” Mark said. Mark never said things like this—it was me, the oldest, the leader of our stories and plots, who usually did. Mark’s face was the colour of rotten hay and I could tell by the way he cradled his arm Dad had hurt him. We had friends at school whose dads hurt them. My best friend Cassidy’s dad was a drunk, Mom said. All I knew was whenever he got paid, she spent a lot of time at our house.
Trying to stall, I said, “Run away how?” We lived on fifty acres of land, half pasture and then two more parts woods and rented-out farmland. Town was a thirty-five-minute drive away. The only place to go was Cassidy’s, three farms down the dirt road, but her parents were friends with ours.
“Anywhere,” Mark said.
“No guys, this is bad,” Sammie, the baby, said.
“Shut up.” We were never supposed to say the S-word. “The tractor,” I said.
We had a ride-on lawn mower. Not even a real tractor. At the time, our farm had seemed like a real operation, but I know now it would have been called a hobby farm. There was only room for two on the “tractor,” unless you hooked up the trailer. Lucky for Sammie, the trailer was already hitched. We took the time to pack, expecting a long journey, given we had no idea where we were going. We couldn’t return to the house, so we settled for things we found in the barn: a five-gallon pail, some twine, a spade for shovelling sheep poo. Who knew what we’d need?
Mark drove and I sat beside him. Sammie rode in the trailer with the stuff. We cruised across the lawn, the sound of the mower reverberating against the house and drowning out the hum of summer.
We chugged along grimly. I felt a sense of hard justification. My dad had been good, but then he’d shaken my brother and hurt him and now he was bad. My dad was like all of the other dads. He wasn’t perfect. In fact, he was a monster. I glanced over at Mark, who was navigating the rocks with one arm, his ratty sling on the other.
“Kick her into rabbit,” I said.
He nodded and pressed the gear forward from turtle.
This is the part we still laugh about now, how we thought we’d run away on a lawn tractor and I said, “Kick her into rabbit,” although he swears it was “deer,” and maybe he’s right.
Just as we really got going, I remembered to look back for Dad. We were chugging down the track Dad had mowed for us along the fence at the front of the property. We’d race motorbikes or horses there, imagining it was a speedway or race track without corners, riding back and forth, back and forth, until it was time for dinner.
No one followed us, called us back. It was terrifying and freeing all at once.
And then the mower choked, coughing to a stop. No gas.
“You have to go back,” I told Sammie.
“You’re the youngest.” Always an irrefutable argument.
“You’ll leave without me,” he whined.
Sammie was always the butt of our jokes, the one we tricked into grabbing the electric fence, the one we left behind at the house with his Legos, the one who always had to play the baby in the fort in the woods.
“Come on, Sammie,” Mark said; “Go get it. We can’t leave without it.”
Mark and I sat side by side on the tractor as Sammie trudged back to the barn. We listened to the buzzing, watched grasshoppers clutch the long grass at the side of the track, closed our mouths to keep the dust out when a truck drove by, kept our eyes down. Everything was different now that Dad wasn’t Dad.
By the time Sammie got back our anger had simmered. The colour had come back to Mark’s face. The sun was high and hot, and even the murky, worm-filled pond behind us was starting to look good. My stomach growled, “Maybe we should eat lunch first,” I told Mark. “We need our strength.”
He nodded, wiggled the fingers of his bad arm, “Yeah.”
Mark took the gas can and filled the mower, and we turned around and were off again, this time only in turtle, “He didn’t mean it,” I said. Mark didn’t reply.
When we got back to the house, Dad was standing on the laneway in front of the barn. As he walked towards us, we huddled together, our sweaty arms touching. Would he say sorry? Say he’d report himself somewhere? We stood, stock-still, as he took in the mower, the wagon, the stuff we’d brought with us, the empty jerrycan. His eyes landed on mine.
“Where have you three been?”
I shrugged. “Nowhere.” Normally a response like this would earn me a few stern words, but it felt justified, given the circumstances.
Dad walked around our stronghold in front of the mower. We craned our necks to watch as he took the bucket and shovel from the wagon and walked into the barn. Mark looked at me, his eyebrows raised. I grimaced back. Silence wasn’t good. Dad came back out of the barn and stood in front of Mark, his arms crossed. Was Mark going to get it for the attempted run away?
“Let’s see it,” Dad said. I inched closer to Mark. Sammie grabbed my hand, his small fingers hot and sticky in mine. For once I let him hold it. The sun bore down on our heads, sending a trickle of sweat down Dad’s temple and into the collar of his stained T-shirt. He’d changed into his barn clothes.
“See what?” Mark said, his voice shaky. In the world of New Dad, none of us knew what to expect.
Mark glanced at me before stepping forward to allow Dad to feel around his collar bone, his hand under the sling, I guessed checking to make sure the bone hadn’t popped out or something. Mark’s face didn’t move as Dad pushed and prodded.
Satisfied, Dad let Mark go, “Seems okay to me.” He cleared his throat, like he was going to say something else. For the first time I noticed the red around his eyes, how he looked sad instead of mad. Instead of speaking, he turned and started walking towards the house, “I made grilled cheese,” he said, over his shoulder.
We followed, “Sit.” Dad dropped a platter of blackened cheese sandwiches in the centre of the table, beside a plate of cucumbers and a bowl of vinegar for dipping. His graph-paper notepad lay beside the phone, covered in scribbles and calculations. He was quoting on another job.
We ate in silence, dipping our cucumber slices into the vinegar, avoiding the burnt grilled cheeses. They tasted like the fires we set in barrels at the back of the property to burn garbage. We kids cast each other sideways glances. We knew from Mom there were no treats in the house, no Twinkies, no store-bought cookies, no Neapolitan ice cream, no reason to finish lunch.
“Finish those sandwiches,” Dad said. None of us moved.
“Drink the vinegar,” Mark said, his voice low. We all looked at the white Corelle bowl with the blue flowers around the rim. It sat in the middle of the table. Bits of cucumber rind floated in the acid.
Dad dipped his blackened bread into some ketchup and chewed it, swallowed hard. “If you finish,” he said, taking a sip of his milk, “I’ll drink that bowl of vinegar.”
The three of us choked down our sandwiches, more ketchup than bread in the end, and sat up on our knees in our chairs, eagerly waiting for Dad to honour his promise. Mark held his empty plate up for Dad to see, crumbles of burnt toast in the ketchup streaks.
Dad smiled and looked like Dad again. He shook his head, as if we’d gotten him good. Then he picked up the bowl and raised it to his lips. One, two, three sips and the vinegar was gone. We laughed at the face he pulled. Sammie clapped. Dad put the bowl on his empty plate and looked at Mark and nodded. Then his face turned from white to grey to green, like a cloud getting ready to rain. He asked us to load the dishwasher while he had a shower. We could hear the sound of his throwing up all the way in the kitchen.
Mom came home with Little Joe in her purse to find the three of us sprawled across the carpet in front of the TV, the patio door open to let the breeze in, “You’re awfully quiet,” she said. Her eyes scanned the room, searching for something broken, askew—a reason for our silence. Satisfied all was well, she let Little Joe down on the carpet and set a plastic bag on the coffee table. “For after dinner,” she said. Twinkies. Dad had gotten the job.