“They can’t help it. We can’t help them. And they won’t help themselves.”
He ambled down their street without grace or welcome as Shari saw it. Without a doubt in her mind the asshole’s intentions were anything but sound. It was obvious what he carried. Shari couldn’t figure what he held in one hand, but it seemed to be a sack. It was roundish, droopy, and lacked a pronounced shape. In the other, she was certain of what it was. There was an upsetting feeling in the pit of her stomach, where the mold of a pesky intuition flourished. If unattended, it would dissolve and flow throughout the rest of her like an infection: unless she called the cops. Shari was infamous for dialing the three imposing numbers and was even called a nosy bitch for it. She paid no mind to that; she had proper standards and had no qualms about making the call when she suspected something was wrong. Shari stood at the front window of her home of twenty-five years. She was among a community where neighbors nodded curtly at the sign of her presence and where she paid a gangly, well-mannered teenager to trim the untidy grass and yank spiteful weeds. Shari liked it this way, felt it was her duty to help keep it that way, because in the case where one hoodlum came to town others were prone to follow with the intent to leave their stain on the neighborhood.
The idiot wandered closer to view and Shari was able to confirm her thoughts. Its silhouette had a long straight neck that curved inward narrowly and out into a wide barrel. It kept swinging to his face with the swift motion of a puppet being forced by the string it was attached to.
She whipped handmade curtains to the side at the knowledge of the fact and to catch him swaying towards the fence that wrapped protectively around her home. Shari clasped the cordless phone at the side of her thigh, tapped it impatiently. She would wait for him to fall on his ass completely or lay a finger on her property to contact local police.
It didn’t take long to happen. She witnessed him stumble in that drunken way familiar to her. It was late, but she could still see well with the lights installed and situated between the bushes. They illuminated a path with every movement. He was like a child taking his first steps on the solid surface of the world; his arms stretched out pathetically for the non-present hand of help.
He probably wouldn’t have the brains to go after anything good for him.
As predicted, he lost his balance and teetered to the side, away from the street, and crashed his shoulder into her eggshell painted fence. At the snap of a plank, she pushed the TALK button on the telephone only for the dial tone to echo endlessly. Shari was fixed on his clumsy effort at lifting himself. She wondered if he was injured. How ugly would the bruise look? Would he remember how he got it? It was concern short lived with the way he hugged the bottle to his chest. It made sparks fly from her temples.
Her father was on his knees so that his eyes aligned with hers. His fingers gripped her forearms so tight she thought that they would disappear into the flesh and make contact with bone. She held her breath as he blubbered because she was worried that she’d either vomit on his shoes or breathe in contaminated air.
“Why does she hide what I need? Sweetie, it’s like medicine. Help me find it.”
Shari stretched away from him and wagged her head stubbornly as if he was begging her to take a spoonful of that pink stuff she had an aversion to for stomach aches. She tried not to look at her mother’s new hiding spot of the month. His drink was inconspicuously settled with various knick-knacks and photo frames in the hutch: Precious Moments figurines, mini china sets, a white plate with the face of Jesus on it, fancy Dutch milk jugs she collected from flea markets, and photos encased around wannabe fancy frames purchased from the dollar store. Her mother had taken to concealing his so-called medicine in the open just like the objects in her picture books where things were in plain sight and Shari had to find them. She speculated that her mother got the idea from there.
She zeroed in on the ceiling fan and tried to count the dust bunnies that accumulated around the edges of the wooden slats. This prevented her from looking at him but not hearing him. He made a sound that reminded her of a whale, a dark lament from the low sea that pained her. It was the first time that she pitied him and was moved to embraced his shaking, weeping form.
“You don’t care. Don’t you see? Help me find it.”
He wouldn’t let go and Shari felt like a doll being squeezed in the tummy to say something as sweet as candy.
“I care Daddy. I love-“
She was tossed to the side as her father scrambled to his feet and leapt at the hutch. He squinted at the collectibles, fidgeted around them with a squirreliness that caused the trinkets to crash to the floor. Doleful babies were cracked in half and frames landed face down. Shari scooped them up to safety, already feeling awful for her mother who had a sensitive attachment to things.
“Oh your mother got crafty,” he chuckled. He uncorked the flask with twitchy fingers to knock back every drop. When finished, he examined the glass as if it were a lifelong, loyal friend and pressed it to his chest.
“Shari. The kid’s just passing by. He’s not bothering anyone.”
She flinched at the appearance of Peter’s big calloused hands covering her own and her expression hardened at his interference. She shrugged away from him, but he managed to take possession of the cordless. He cut an end to the buzzing.
“Don’t grab me like that. Did you see? He just broke the fence!”
Peter leaned closer to the window and assessed the person out there through oversized bifocals. Yes, the fence was damaged and he was bent over it, trying to reach for something that had fallen. Peter’s burly chest rose like dough in the oven; the responsibility of a parent was in his voice for who he saw as just a kid. “I know the boy. Just started at the plant. Has a lot on his plate.”
Shari snorted, wagged her head in disbelief. “Are you the keeper of boozed up idiots? Running a sniffling ‘I’ve done bad’ pity party in the basement? And I don’t know about it? Gaby is upstairs. Give me the phone and go back to bed.”
He grimaced as if she crushed his male appendages with an iron foot. It wouldn’t be so far-fetched. Peter often thought that his wife had been chiseled from rock. Still, he made no sign of folding; he only watched her face stiffen as his mustache twitched. Did he expect Shari to not react? Never. She shot her hand out to snatch the phone, but Peter had reflexes improved by years of pulling lines from the lake and plucking glass bottles from a conveyor belt in record time. He caught her wrist and held it between them without strain.
She tore away then came to back to shove at him with all her weight. The action was in vain. He had the build of a stone hedge and Shari was a petite woman fighter. She pelted him the way a drummer might strike the snare; each blow sent vibrations through her fists. She continued to mutter profanities that came from the treehouse of her childhood, from behind the locked door of her parents’ bedroom, and from the music that her daughter wasn’t permitted to listen to but was. She spat out rough words while Peter remained firm and unfazed through her heated burst of emotion.
When she finally fatigued herself those mini mallets fell and Shari sunk into him; her bamboo spine went slack with his touch. She didn’t move until her face became too hot. When she shifted for air she was able to see a portrait of a younger Gaby on the wall. Dark, untamed hair fell over square shoulders and poked at a chin angled so. “Take a good photo for your mother,” she remembered saying. Gaby did. Her smile was all teeth as if she slept with a banana in her mouth the night prior. Despite the hair, that photo was always able to ease Shari’s attitude. She rubbed the collar of Peter’s robe. A wish to be carried upstairs and be placed into bed came over her. It was time for her brain to calm to the piano keys of David Nevue. Light, gentle melodies took her to dreamland. Shari raised her head and patted the damp spot she left on Peter’s shirt. She gazed at him with softness.
“Let’s go to bed…”
It’s happened before when she’d been tricked into thinking that events would occur without issue and that she would be spared from anything that popped up like a rodent at a dinner party.
“HELLO? HELLO? I WANTED TO SAY HELLLOOOOOO!”
Any tranquility that crept into her scurried away. Shari jolted to the door and flung it open to release that feeling of knowing something was wrong from the start. He wasn’t exactly a “kid” but he wasn’t quite a full-fledged man either: not by her standards. His complexion was smooth, not a single hair along the jaw. He was thin but not weak looking and he was almost as tall as Peter who was Paul Bunyan material. He was dressed as if he wasn’t ready to grow up: in a T-shirt of some cartoon character and ripped jeans. Among these things Shari discerned that he was drunk, but she already knew that.
“What do you want?”
His eyes were glassy and his grin reminded her of a cocky Corey Feldman from a 80s flick she was once coaxed into watching. The young man didn’t answer; he looked at Peter with recognition. He had a goofy laugh that disturbed her wind chime and Shari understood that the silly picture on his shirt was of Woody Wood Pecker. She got the correlation.
“I didn’t know you lived here man!”
He snickered, oblivious to the blank sheet of ice that was Shari. “Listen, I only wanted to introduce myself around town. Make nice with the locals ya know? Here. It’s not a fruit cake, but they could be related!” He stuck out a mesh sack of apples that Shari ignored and forced Peter to accept.
“That’s fine. Thank you. Joel, right? Maybe you should get home. It’s 2a.m. son. I can give you a ride.”
Shari’s chin jerked hazardously towards her husband, almost stabbing him, and in this process she caught a glimpse of her daughter, Gaby, sitting at the bottom of the stairs. She was grinning from ear to ear and focused completely on Shari. She continued to speak, although, the upset in her abdomen made her think of mold and chalky liquid.
“He’s not your son and that’s not happening,” she told Peter. “Think right for a second.”
She began to believe that her earlier actions were justified and that she married a man who couldn’t detect the smell of smoke or the sign of flames. She had the chance to take care of business herself and was stopped. She searched for his reasoning, for something she may have missed, but she only saw the kindness in his eyes. There was a lack of judgment absent. Wasn’t it what she respected most about him so many years ago?
“Quick to bitch, but slow to help are we?”
Gaby stood to her feet to reveal that she was clad in flimsy shorts and a loose camisole. It was too much for Shari. She could feel the tips of cold needles brushing over her skin not only at the presence of her but at the fact that Gaby wasn’t wearing a bra.
Shari hoped that time would move quickly; she wasn’t feeling well. She thought of how easily she caved into her mother’s wishes. Now, people that she knew had crossed the threshold of where she lived. The place wasn’t much to look at. The checkered sofa was beat up and the brown carpet was faded. There were a few punched holes in the wall that she creatively covered with tacky paintings, and she was worried about the weak toilet flush in the bathroom.
“You’ should have one party in your entire life and you won’t see your friends as much after graduation,” her mother insisted with eyes that plead and a smile stretched thin.
Shari was doing this for her. Her mother probably wanted to believe that something enjoyable could be pulled off in her home.
“Your father won’t be here.”
Oh, but he did come to the house. Of course he did! He barged through the door when Harry Marshall was swiping the harmonica across his lips and Maria Goodall and Diane Odzimowski were laughing hysterically over the yearbook. Samuel Roberts was flipping through records while everyone else was chowing down on the pigs in the blanket.
He staggered in. He’d forgotten how to walk normally by then and she couldn’t remember when he didn’t bang into things anymore. She couldn’t find a word to say as he shook his dirty hands with everyone, breathed on them. She watched him linger over the punchbowl and blatantly retrieve his flask from the inner pocket of his cargo jacket and pour whatever he had left in it.
“Cheers to my girl!” He waved a ladle in the air carelessly, slurped the punch and burped right after. “She’s goin’ to make it in the big time aren’t ya Shar? Bustin’ everyones’s balls.”
“Go back upstairs Gaby. Please.”
Gaby ignored her, marched over to them and planted a chin on Shari’s shoulder. Up close, it was apparent that she hadn’t been asleep. She was awake and animated with sparkly eyes and a perky smile. When she spoke, Shari caught the scent of liquor.
“What kind of wine is that?”
Joel observed the bottle as if he’d forgotten it was there. He took a few disorderly steps backwards and raised it to the sky for a toast. “To borrowed cups of sugar… and to hot girls that may bring em’ to my door.” He gripped the belly of the bottle, smirked at Gaby, and tilted the liquid down his throat.
“Cabernet! Ohhhh it’s a special occasion huh!’
She tried to wedge between her parents without success; her movements were too weak and uncoordinated. Shari grappled Gaby’s bare, knobby shoulders to keep her from falling.
“Time to go son,” Peter said hastily. He whispered to Shari the words just wait before disappearing for the car keys. She couldn’t hear him though. The only noise she heard was her daughter sniggering; and the only thing she could see were her breasts jostling obscenely.
“Gaby. Gaby. Stop this. Control yourself!”
She shrugged out of Shari’s desperate clutch to prance off the wooden porch and accept the offered wine from Joel. They looped an arm around each other and held the bottle together with a free hand. They danced on the lawn. They took sips one after the other, never breaking eye contact and snorting like partners in crime. Gaby took a swig and pushed her lips against Joel’s. Wine dripped down the corners of their mouths.
“Fuck off Mom.”
Shari had a moment where she was catapulted to the land of all the times Gaby brushed her off, snuck out of the house, and said shameful, inappropriate things. Then she saw herself slap that far-gone face.
Gaby was cradled in the grass, holding her cheek and weeping while Joel looked between them. He appeared shocked and searched all around as if trying to find the source of all the awkwardness. He backed away from the house mumbling that he was sorry. He found his way to the curb and sat. He held onto his head; his shoulders shuddered.
Shari was in her bedroom picking at the edge of a goose feather pillow. Her tendonitis was especially bothersome. It was probably caused by the tumult outdoors; the blast of the incident impaired her temporarily. She was waiting for Peter to return and she was trying to ignore the sense that a certain spot was empty, that her back was chilly because she didn’t have him behind her. The muffled sobs that came from Gaby’s bedroom had finally faded. Shari was glad for that. The moans made her anxious and induced feelings of pity she didn’t like. She listened to a favorite piano tune to fill the quiet and distract the guilt, but it failed to do much for her. She kept looking towards the closet until an invisible cord pulled her to the doors at the opposite end of the room.
In the closet, she slid the wire hangers across the bar gingerly, slowly sifting through each article of clothing faster than the last. Buried in the back she reached for a heavy work jacket that was the color of mustard. It was so worn thin she doubted it had provided her father any warmth during his last years. Shari brushed the cuffs of the sleeves ringed with dirt. The inside collar was also blackened and the label was faded. She pulled the line of the zipper down; it was missing teeth. When she opened the jacket Shari was overcome with the odor of gasoline and whiskey soaked in the threads. To stop her hands from shaking she clenched both arms; her nails could have punctured the fabric. She slipped her hand inside the inner pocket and pulled it out. The flask. It was oversized in her small palm. She didn’t know the reason for keeping a hated object that belonged to a person that she hated. It was heavy and it was empty. The glass was old and an olive hue; an upraised contour of an eagle was on the face of it. Its wings were spread. There was a strip of masking tape at the bottom that was curling at the edges. She smoothed it down with a thumb. The faded initials were etched with an unsharpened pencil.
The initials belonged to a line of men in which the drink was the culprit of their doom in some way or another: Daddy included…
Gaby was moving. Shari detected the measured footsteps upstairs. She heard the rattling of the window and scraping against the shingles of the roof. From the window she saw Gaby walking across the front lawn with a backpack hanging on her shoulder. She broke into a half jog across the lawn, ducking low as if it was possible to hide herself in plain sight.
Shari turned around, leaned against the panel with arms folded and flask tucked inside. She felt the letters of her daughter’s name smoldering into the family keepsake, heating and searing.
In her mind, she recalled the only words her mother ever said of her father.
“They can’t help it. We can’t help them. And they won’t help themselves.”