My father tells me to come to the hardware store with him because my brother’s too busy playing with dolls. After spending the morning crouched and twisting a screwdriver into the core of a lawnmower, he stands and reaches into his pocket for the car keys. The Pall Mall never leaves the corner of his mouth.
My younger brother doesn’t want to learn how to fix lawnmowers or change the oil on the patched-up Impala. In the late 1970’s, Saturdays are safer in his bedroom — his Battlestar Galactica-Star Wars universe. While other seventh-grade boys scrimmage in alleys on summer days, he sits at a makeshift desk fingering miniature action figures, building starship models, and using a fine-point pen to draw deflector shields on the Millennium Falcon. Sometimes he whispers machine gun sounds.
His deflector shields and machine-gun fire offer no protection when my father calls him a lazy-ass sissy.
If my father tells me to grab a Phillips from the basement, I know to get the one with a star-cross on the end. I’ve learned this by watching him scream at my brother. Goddamn, son-of-a-bitch, I said a Phillips.
I’m the daughter who’s memorized where he keeps his tools. The Phillips hangs on the left. Just below the blonde centerfold he nailed to the wooden crossbeam.
I walk to the car trailing him, feeling like I won a scrimmage. The fertilizer-rat bait smell at the hardware store will make my throat burn, but I dodged my father’s bullet. I’ve worked hard to be his favorite. Because it’s safer to be on the winning team. When I do things exactly the way he asks, there’s no shouting or swearing. Sometimes he smiles when I get it right. My prize today? The front seat of the car. Shotgun.
On the way to the store, my father has the windows down, even though it’s in the high eighties. The A/C is broken. Something’s always broken. The AM radio blasts static as he searches for Merle Haggard. He’s losing his hearing because he works at a non-union shop where sissy things like hearing and eye protection are optional. My mother says that’s why he shouts so much. Because he can’t hear. On Sunday morning, maybe he can’t hear the part of the sermon about coveting a neighbor’s wife.
I hear my mother pray. Please, God, show me. Protect us. She also shouts, cries, and threatens to leave. Sometimes she sleeps on the couch and doesn’t even stir when my brother and I watch cartoons at full volume. Usually, she’s in the kitchen frying meat for dinner.
As the car approaches the stop sign at Belmont, two girls I recognize step into the crosswalk. They’re a year ahead of me—first year at the high school. The taller one is a swimmer who won regionals. The other girl helps younger kids with their homework. She’s friendly. My father waves them across as his eyes track their bodies. Without breaking his gaze, he says, “Take a look at that one. She’s bouncing all over the place.”
The girls stop talking and look directly into my loud car at my loud father. Then they look at me. They see me. Me looking at them. I want to escape. But the vinyl seat sweat on my thighs and a writhing spine have left me paralyzed. Merle Haggard just keeps singing, and no one seems to notice that I’m on fire.
In the crosswalk, the girl who’s friendly to everyone curls her top lip and scrunches her face. The other girl laughs, and they keep walking.
My father makes the left turn as if nothing happened. I stare out the open window and wonder if a girl can still go to heaven if she hates the father she once loved. I loved him when he steadied my shoulders as I pedaled my two-wheeler. I did. And, when he knelt on the bathroom floor bandaging my bloody knee, I loved him then, too. But now, it’s as if none of that happened.
I inhale the tears so they’re invisible. I’m not on the winning team. I can’t save myself or fix my broken family with a screwdriver.
As my father pulls into the parking lot, I think I can already taste the bitterness of the hardware store at the back of my throat. But, no. It’s something else. It’s a prayer my mother never taught me. I’m praying for one of my brother’s Millennium Falcon lasers to annihilate the Impala. I’m praying to disappear.
Image Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/steve