I managed, with the help of my parents, to maintain a 1.4 GPA throughout most of high
school, and I flunked out of vocational school, too. That was no small task. I showed up
late every night after sloshing a Dixie cup of whiskey around my gums while sitting in the
Murray J. Field Voc Tech parking lot listening to Foghat in my beat up Duster. I made sure
to get up real close to Mr. Chominski, even breathe in his face while asking how to operate
various power tools, but he’d just tell me to put on my safety glasses and get to work.
Then one night a purple Javelin slipped its jacks and rolled over Jimmy Watts, who was
underneath slapping at a stubborn exhaust pipe. He sued the school and won an
undisclosed amount of money by convincing a jury that the jacks were placed incorrectly
under the car by a classmate who was at the time intoxicated. That would have been me,
and that would have been how I flunked out of vocational school. But let me say here that I
did not misplace those jacks, and I was not drunk since I never really swallowed the whiskey but spit it onto the asphalt where I watched it spread like cancer before trickling into the cracks.
After getting kicked out of Voc Tech my parents said I had to get a job. I’d been living in
the basement, where I’d carved out a small space between the washer/dryer and my dad’s dark room, when my parents clomped down the stairs, classifieds in hand. I was nailing egg cartons to the paneling in an effort to do justice to “Bridge of Sighs” in a less than perfect acoustic set-up when my dad rapped me across the back of the head with the rolled up newspaper.
“Get a job if you wanna keep living under my roof,” he said.
“Doing what?” I said.
“You’re a smart boy, Raymond,” said my mom, wringing her hands. “Here,” she offered a
section of newspaper splattered with yellow highlights. “There’s lots of stuff you’d find
I glanced at the ads she’d honed in on: fast food restaurant staff, all-night party store
clerk, gas station attendant. I wadded up the paper and threw it on my bed. “What do I
look like, a moron?” I said.
“You don’t want me to answer that,” said my dad.
“I’m not workin’ no crappy ass job,” I yelled, looking for that red in my father’s cheeks
that indicates a sudden rise in blood pressure.
“Well I’m sorry, Raymond,” he said, “there aren’t any openings for brain surgeons just
“What about the ice cream parlor job?” said my mom. “That sounds nice.”
I walked to the stereo and cranked the volume up to ten so that Robert Plant shook the
basement windows with his plaintive question, “How Many More Times?” I think the
statement was lost on my dad, whose cheeks were reading crimson when he shoved the
turntable off the stack of milk crates I’d stolen from mom’s work.
“That album just cost you six bucks, my friend,” I said, and seconds later we were
replaying a popular family drama in my new basement digs: My back on the cold hard floor,
my dad straddling me, his fingers clenched around my throat, and my mother screaming,
“Christ have mercy!” I decided to apply at the record store.
The manager at Spinners was pretty cool, but I knew when he said that Katie couldn’t
hang around so much I’d have to get fired. At first I just ignored customers who asked for
help, but all I gained from this was the knowledge that people are entirely apathetic.
Instead of complaining to the manager, they just wandered around the store on their own until they came across another red-smocked, name-badged employee with a little less attitude. I ripped off the cash register so I’d have enough money to keep Katie in burgers and ice cream next door at Bosco’s until I got off work, at least on the nights mom cashiered at Food Town. Finally I just made sure that several other employees saw me stuff a Black Sabbath album into my backpack, and that did it.
This, of course, ended with a basement floor replay, which was really okay because by
then I had learned to fake choking so that my father always thought he was farther along in
the process than he actually was. It was worth it to see that fleshy pink face turn burgundy.
The old man used to take Katie and me to ball games at Tiger Stadium when we were little; he’d let us eat peanuts and cotton candy for dinner, scream at the opposing team’s batters and draw all over our programs. Then one day I noticed it, and it was like waking up from a dream. I was twelve, but I still wonder how long it was there before I realized it. Dad’s stomach was spilling over his belt in folds as he sat on the hard wooden bleachers, a grease-stained box of popcorn dwarfed by his bloated fingers, and as he stared past the field and off into a distance too far to name, I was disgusted. He caught me staring, and to hide my repulsion I launched into a desperate monologue. “Do you know Kaline’s batting
average? It’s .295. Yep, two-nine-fiver. They’ll retire his number for sure. Did you know
Mom is making spaghetti tonight, extra peppers? Her spaghetti always clears my sinuses.
Did you know basil is poisonous to cats?” He was staring at me then, looking me right in
the eye when he said, “You’re a smart boy, Raymond. You ask a lot of questions. People
don’t like that.” He resumed staring and I resumed being disgusted, and not much has
I tried calling Aunt Martha and Uncle Stu, but they had moved to Denver after the riots.
Aunt Lena and Uncle Marvin were killed in a car wreck six years ago, and Uncle Ted, my dad’s twin brother, is exposing himself regularly to the staff at the veteran’s hospital he’s called home for the past ten years. None of my mother’s sisters has spoken to her since I was in kindergarten, and I’ve pieced together enough evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that this is in no small way related to my father. The moral of the story: You never realize you’re alone until you need help.
Katie told our mom before she told me, and I think she only told me because she was desperate: Mom, who couldn’t handle any crisis past a burnt roast or a parking ticket, wouldn’t believe her. I remember it was the night of the football game against Cooley; I never went to another game after that, and I never went anywhere without Katie. I was in tenth grade and she was in eighth. I could tell she was embarrassed-she didn’t cry or anything, probably because that never got her anywhere with me before-but she kept her head down and snapped the ring on her pop can when she told me about the touching, the twine, the camera. When I found the pictures behind several cans of developer on a shelf in the dark room downstairs, two things occurred to me: that my father was very stupid to hide them there, and that it would have been okay if Katie had cried.
I hid the pictures in different places-one in the Peter Frampton Live album jacket, one under the floor mat in the Duster, one in a gutted 8-track-so that he’d never find them all when he came looking. My mom, though determined not to believe Katie, must have confronted him because the next time I checked the cans were scattered and my room had been tossed. Maybe my mom believed him when he said that I had taken his camera from the dark room, that I had done some horrible thing to my sister, that I was a sick, sick boy. One day when my dad and I are really going at it, when his face is as red as the paint on Crandell’s Mach I, I’m going to pull out those pictures and show him how sick I really am.
After the last heart attack, some fat guy from Social Services came to our house and
asked Katie a bunch of questions in front of our parents.
“She’s not gonna talk in front of him,” I motioned with my head toward my father
dismissively, but his face remained as white as chalk.
“Son,” said Fatso, “why don’t you let me do my job?”
He continued asking embarrassing questions and Katie continued staring at the carpet and flicking the ring on her Rock ‘n Rye can.
“Katie, honey,” said our mother while shooting me an accusatory glare, “look what your
father’s been through.”
Of course he wore the look of an invalid with ease, hand on his heaving chest, droplets of
sweat popping up on his forehead like blisters.
Maybe I should have brought out the pictures then, but who knows how that would have
gone? He might have believed us, taken us both away, even separated us. Or he might
have believed my father and taken me away. What would happen to Katie then? I knew
that in his condition the pictures could be a deadly weapon against my father, so I holstered them.
“Forget it,” Katie said quietly. “Nothing happened.” Fatso had his pen capped before Katie left the room.
That night I put a dead bolt on my sister’s door, hammering and pounding as the old man
recuperated in the bedroom next door, and we worked out a code so she’d know when it
was me knocking. In truth, I didn’t believe the old man would try anything-he just had a
heart attack, for chrissake-but I figured this was a good way of letting him know that
nothing would get by me again.
I know what you’re thinking because I’ve thought it myself. Instead of being such a screw
up, I should work my ass off to make some serious money and get Katie out of there. But
it’s hard to make serious money when you flunk out of high school or when you have to get
fired from jobs because you can’t work Monday, Wednesday or Saturday nights since those are the nights your mom is stacking cantaloupes and doing price checks until midnight, not that you can count on her for much, anyway. My escape plan involves more than slapping burgers onto a bun or sprinkling chocolate ants on some brat’s vanilla cone; it involves timing and patience. I’ve gathered up the pictures and slid them under a flap I cut into the carpet downstairs, and I bought two used speakers and mounted them to the basement ceiling. My dad hasn’t come downstairs since Fatso visited and his face has remained pretty white despite my best efforts, but I’m pretty sure I can count on Ozzy Osborne to help me restore his color.
My dad has already had two heart attacks, the most recent one triggered by a struggle
with Katie at about the same time the Javelin made sauce of Jimmy Watt’s legs. My mother remained unconvinced even though the paramedics told her we’d get a visit from Social Services, told her they’d found my father in Katie’s room, one hand clutching his chest, the other clutching the Polaroids. My mother believed him when he said that it was me, that I’d bullied my sister into lying, that I destroyed the lives of everyone in our once happy home.
Lipitor and angioplasty have made my job difficult, but not impossible: I have Led Zeppelin
and Black Sabbath on my side. Between my new speakers, Ozzy’s “No Rest for the Wicked” and Plant’s “Communication Breakdown,” I imagine it won’t be long before my father pays me another visit. After he’s sprawled out on the concrete floor with a red face and a bulging heart, I’m going to pull out the photos, then I’m going to pull out the twine, then I’m going to pull out the camera, and then I’m going to snap.
Dorene O’Brien’s work has appeared in the Connecticut Review, Carve Magazine, Clackamas Literary Review, New Millennium Writings, The Cimarron Review, the Chicago Tribune, Detroit Noir and others. She has won the Red Rock Review’s Mark Twain Award for Short Fiction, the New Millennium Fiction Award, and the Chicago Tribune Nelson Algren Award. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, has won the international Bridport Prize and has received a creative writing fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Her short story collection, Voices of the Lost and Found, was published by Wayne State University Press in 2007. She teaches writing at the College for Creative Studies and at Wayne State University in Detroit.