Spaghetti dinners were the norm these days. David didn’t blame his wife, Susan, for being industrious – it pleased the kids, anyway – but when he had the time, he tried to be more creative, tried to make something of a higher order. But time was no longer his to command, if it ever was.
‘Honey, can you pass the parmesan?’ she asked. He handed her the plastic container.
‘Daddy, he’s doing it again.’
‘Mouth closed, buddy. Manners.’
Susan reached over and wiped tomato sauce from her son’s cheeks.
‘Have you heard about Hannah?’
He spun his fork in the noodles and slurped them.
‘Oscar told her he wants a, uh…d-e-e-v-h-o-r-s-e. Caught her drinking again.’
‘Really? That’s a shame. Oscar seemed like such a supportive guy. Never thought he’d throw in the towel.’
‘Yeah, but come on. He couldn’t’ve been any more patient. I mean, how many chances has he given her now?’
‘Slow down, buddy. Drink your juice.’
‘If she didn’t get the message by now, she’s never going to get the message. I mean, we’re old friends, don’t get me wrong, I love her, but if you’re not serious about quitting don’t pretend to go through the motions. How many times has she been in and out of AA?’
‘That’s a little unfair, don’t you think? Alcoh—her problem—isn’t something to take lightly. It’s a serious thing.’
‘Mom, what’s a deev-horse? Is that a type of pony?’
‘Yes, sweetie. It’s a type of pony. Finish your plate.’
‘It’s serious business,’ he continued. ‘It’s too easy to chuck all the blame on her. It’s too simple. Plus, what the hell does AA matter, anyway. There’s a biological component, don’t forget. I mean, with those kinds of parents, what chance did she have?’
‘Well you definitely can’t blame him, sticking it out for this long.’
‘Sure you can. If he really loves her. It’s never easy to say who deserves blame. I don’t think anyone’s to blame.’
‘I think it’s pretty clear. If you say you’re going to stop drinking, then stop drinking. End of discussion.’
‘That’s too simple.’
‘Daddy! He’s doing it again.’
‘Davey, enough. We chew with our mouths closed in this house. Stop bothering your sister.’
David stood up from the table and put his dish on the counter.
‘Where are you going, daddy?’
‘I’m gonna go get some air, sweetie. You guys finish up. I’ll be back in a tick.’
Susan gave him a look. ‘Everything alright?’
‘Fine. Just need some air.’
He walked down the rear hallway past the laundry room and into the garage. He closed the door behind him. He hit the button to open the garage door. He removed an e-cigarette from his pocket, activated it, and sucked. He observed the empty street.
It had been nearly ten years since his last cigarette—probably five or six since he even had the urge, really had it—but recently the itch re-emerged, quietly, subtly. He found himself gazing through the break room window at coworkers in the parking lot. He found himself watching characters on television a little too closely when they smoked. So he bought a cartridge kit on a whim at the gas station—one of the interns had explained it to him—to placate his sense memory. A dip of the toes.
When he went back in, the kids were watching TV. Susan was on the phone.
‘Come on, guys. Bed time.’
‘Nooo. It’s too early.’
‘Don’t start, buddy. You know it’s bed time.’
He scooped up Davey and took Rosie’s hand and led them upstairs. He read them a story. When they fell asleep, he shut the lights and went back down to the kitchen. Susan was still on the phone. He wrapped his arms around her and gently nipped at her neck and ears until she hung up. Then they made love in the guest room.
The kids were fighting over the tablet when he came home from work. Davey was crying. Susan tried to mediate.
‘You have to share with your brother,’ she opined. ‘That’s what siblings are for. Big sisters have to share with their little brothers. Just be nice, already. Give your brother a chance.’
‘But I’m not doing anything!’
‘Rosie, be nice. Dad’s home. Ask him. He’ll say the same thing.’
‘Dad, can you tell Davey to stop messing up my game?’
David tossed his coat on the back of the dining room chair. ‘Let me get settled, sweetie. I have to put my things away. Listen to your mother.’
He went to his office and deposited his briefcase and laptop. Then he continued on into the garage. He opened the garage door. Rummaging through his toolbox, he retrieved a pack of cigarettes and a lighter. He walked around the side and lit up in the grass.
He thought about his kids bickering inside and running their mother ragged. He thought about the work he needed to do to get ready for the conference call in the morning. He puffed and savored the quiet.
When he went back inside, they were at it again. Susan manically waved a pack of cigarettes in Rose’s face.
‘Does lung cancer mean anything to you?! Throat cancer? Skin cancer? Cancer?’
‘Mom, relax. I only do it when I go out with friends. It’s not like I’m an addict or anything.’
‘And that makes it okay? Do you even understand what you’re doing to yourself?’
‘What about Dad, huh? Where do you think he just came from? You think I don’t see anything? You think I don’t smell anything?’
Susan darted a piercing glare in his direction. He raised his hands as if to say, ‘What can I do?’ and walked upstairs, out of harm’s way. Davey was in his room, on the computer.
‘Hey bud, what’s going on?’
Yells and screams clambered up the stairs, punctuated by a slamming door. Davey sat there stiffly, never turning from the monitor, never registering.
‘You know, tryouts are coming up for the fall. Are you interested?’
‘Come on. Don’t you want to get out there and make some friends? Get in shape? The air’ll do you good.’
David opened his mouth but caught his words. He wanted to tell his son he was concerned, but he struggled to broach the subject. The message wouldn’t get through. The concern wouldn’t be received, let alone well received. So he let him be and continued on to his office and fixed himself a drink.
That weekend, they went to visit Susan’s parents up north. The kids were not on board with it, and they resisted. Both were glued to their phones the whole time, Rose texting and Davey doing who knows what. Susan’s father, Richard, didn’t know what to do with them now that they were too large and too old to play with. He used to love watching them run around the yard. Now he watched them curiously, as if they were goldfishes that had sprouted arms and legs, climbed out of the bowl, and demanded to know why his Wi-Fi was so spotty. David saw them that way, too, sometimes.
At one point, his mother-in-law, Virginia, cornered him, as she always did.
‘So,’ she said, ‘Susan tells me you’re having trouble at the office.’
‘Trouble? Oh, no. No trouble. Just a few bumps in the road.’
‘Bumps. I see.’
‘Nothing to worry about. I’m still in line to take over for Bill when he leaves at the end of the year.’
‘Oh. That’s good. Very good.’
‘Excuse me a moment, Virginia.’
He cut out back through the sliding doors and walked across the yard to the edge of the woods, where the fallen leaves bled into the grass. He took out a smoke and turned to observe the house.
Even at a distance, he could feel the commotion, the quiet tensions roiling about: Rose’s indignation and tempestuousness; Davey’s passive indifference; Susan’s fixedness; his in-laws’ disapproval. Virginia was probably spying on him through the blinds, he was sure of it. She would complain to Susan about his smoking. An earful would be had. When he went back in, they were just starting on dinner.
‘David, you look worn out,’ Richard remarked. ‘Are you sleeping well?’
‘I’m fine. Just a little tired from work.’
‘Mother, can you hand me the salad?’
‘Here you go, dear. So, how are my little Davey and Rosie doing?’
‘Not so little anymore. Don’t let her hear you calling her Rosie or she’ll flip.’
‘What are they, now?’ Richard asked.
‘A freshman and a senior,’ David said.
‘How’s school going?’
‘Who knows?’ Susan answered. ‘They never call.’
‘Come on, honey. That’s not true. We hear from them from time to time.’
‘I’m sure they’re very busy,’ said Virginia.
‘Very busy. This is Rose’s final year, and she’s got a lot going on. And Davey’s in the computer science program. It’s a lot of work.’
Susan chewed her salad down to cud.
‘Davey isn’t coming home for Thanksgiving,’ she said.
‘Oh, no? How come?’
‘That’s not true.’
‘That’s what he said! He said, “Mom, what am I going to do at home? I’m staying here.”
‘Excuse me a moment.’
‘What do you need, David?’
‘Nothing. I’m just gonna run to the bathroom.’
He walked past the bathroom and snuck out the side door. He lit up a cigarette by the garbage cans. Leaf mounds lined the street, set alight by the setting sun. Their color matched the hue of the burn. He listened to the trees sway. A dog barked down the road. He watched a squirrel knock acorns off an oak branch.
On the way home, Susan was tense. She sensed something. Sensing, sensing, always.
‘Everything good at the office?’ she asked.
‘Things’re starting to settle down. Everything’s fine, now. Back to normal.’
He rolled down the window and sparked up, blowing smoke into the headwind.
‘Do you have to do that in the car? For god’s sake.’
‘I have to do it somewhere.’
At home he tried to get her going. He slid his hand under her rear while the news bleated on. ‘Gimme a break,’ she intoned, trance-like.
He was laid off not long after. This led to an extended period of lazing about the house and haphazardly thinking about a career change. Susan was displeased, to say the least. Suddenly sodden with idle time, he decided to quit smoking again, and stocked up on gum, same as last time. This led to a period of obsessive chewing. The plastic packaging accumulated in a drawer next to the bed, on the floor in a corner of his office, on the breakfast bar beside the key bowl. The bills seemed to pile up at the same rate. All day he chewed and chewed and tried to grasp time.
He grabbed a pack and went to sit on the deck. It was loud. The sprinkler system hissed and sputtered. An airliner descended overhead. The shrill wail of a chainsaw menaced from across the street. It made his jaw judder with every rubberized clench.
He thought about his wife and their empty nest. He had hoped to enjoy some quiet and calm before jumping back into the race—some time to recharge and remember what it felt like to sit and listen to the birds, to swim in the pool on a muggy evening—but all there was was noise. Noise and Susan’s disgust. She stopped hiding her disgust when he got laid off. It was actually visible, now. The funny thing was that he’d become close with Rose. She was the first one he told. Never further from his wife and never closer to his daughter. Davey was still AWOL, but Rose had turned a corner, all on her own.
His phone vibrated. Sure enough, it was her.
‘Rosie, how’s it going?’
‘Come on, Dad…’
‘Sorry. Old habits.’
‘Mark! He proposed!’
It took a moment for David to parse the words from the wail and the hiss and the drone and the gum.
‘Wow. Rose…wow. That’s wonderful, sweetie. Congrats.’
He broke the news to Susan while she nuked some leftovers. She’d been coming home later and later recently, and they’d gotten in the habit of eating separately. The reasons were obvious.
‘I want a divorce,’ she said.
Her face was as declarative as the statement.
‘That’s it? “Alright”? You could at least feign some surprise.’
‘You can’t change what people want, Susan. You can’t.’
Afterward, he shut himself in his office and chewed.
He spotted Rose getting out of her car with the baby. He realized now that the light in his condo was grim. He stubbed out his cigarette in the kitchen sink, dropping it in the disposal, and pulled up the blinds in the living room.
‘Hey, there’re my girls.’
‘Hi, Dad. Long time, huh?’
He was happy to see her. He kissed both of their cheeks.
‘Come in. Come in.’
They sat at the kitchen table. He’d gotten the high chair out from the closet. She wiped the dust with a wet paper towel and eased the baby in.
‘And how’s my little Melanie?’
He ogled his granddaughter’s little blue eyes and pinched her tiny fingers. She giggled.
‘She’s a pain. My eardrums are shot. Mark’s sorry he couldn’t make it. He sends his regards.’
‘That’s alright. And your mother?’
‘She’s doing fine.’
‘Still with what’s-his-name?’
‘Right. Hear from Davey at all?’
‘Here and there. Not in a while. He’s still out west, as far as I know.’
‘That’s good. That’s good.’
‘What’s in the oven?’
‘Pizza. Figured you’d be hungry when you got here. It should be ready just about now, actually.’
He took the pizza out of the oven and sliced it. He put a couple slices on some plates and brought them to the table. For a while, they ate and enjoyed each other’s company, and he tried to make the baby laugh. Rose spooned formula into her little smile.
‘How’s the new job?’ she asked him.
‘Meh. Nothing special. It’s a job. They’re a little old-school, which suits me.’
‘And the doctor? What did he say?’
‘Didn’t you go for a visit last week?’
‘Oh, that. Nothing. I’m fine. They gave me some cough medicine and that was that.’
‘Come on, Dad. I saw the cartons in the trash. It was practically overflowing.’
‘You’re going through my trash, now?’
‘Christ, this whole place smells like an ashtray.’
This remark irked him, more than it should’ve. Probably because he had no idea what anything smelled like anymore.
‘You know, I remember when you started sneaking cigarettes in high school and your mother caught you and chewed you out and I didn’t say a word.’
‘And that was a good thing?’
He banged the table.
‘Damn it, Rose! You can’t stop people wanting what they want. You can’t!’
The baby cried. Rose cradled her and pressed her cries into her neck, shushing. She shot him a scolding glare.
When she left, David locked the door and shut the blinds. He turned off all the lights. He sat at the kitchen table and lit up a cigarette in the fading dusk. The embers skittered nearer with every puff. Everything skittered nearer between the breaks.
Magen Mintz is an author from New Jersey.