In the early weeks of November, Jack paced back and forth in the living room, looking out the picture window, down the long gravel driveway and out to the street. He expected Bruce Engebretson to drive his car down the long driveway, knock at the front door, and ask to speak to him. He expected the boy to apologize for his actions and offer to do the right thing for Lucy and their child. Even though he disapproved of the boy, he would consent to the marriage. ‘That was the way it always happened,’ he thought.
Two weeks went by. There was no car in the driveway, no knock on the door, and no marriage proposal. Jack spent every evening in front of the picture window, looking out across the rows of withered cornstalks. The family lived in a hundred-year old farmhouse they rented for eighty dollars a month. The Green Giant Corporation leased the surrounding farmland and barns. The era of the family-owned farm was ending. Abandoned farm homes were plentiful and cheap. They had chosen this one because it offered a bedroom for each of their six children. The sound of Jack’s pacing feet echoed through the silent house.
His family tip-toed around him. They could see anger rising in his face. His jaw was tight. His lips were pursed together as he tried to contain his emotions. The family could feel the tension build, see the clenching and unclenching of his fists, and hear the impatience in his barking voice.
“Pick up your toys,” he snapped.
“Hang up your coats,” he growled.
“Get in there and help your mother with the dishes,” he ordered.
The house was clean and the children were quiet, but it was an unnatural orderliness. A silent consensus had been reached. If they didn’t acknowledge “it,” then “it” wouldn’t exist.
Lucy was barely showing. Her condition was camouflaged with bulky sweaters and baggy skirts. Jack knew as time passed, it would become harder to ignore the life growing inside his daughter. Something had to be done; and the sooner the better.
Each time a car sped past, Jack’s eyes were drawn to the picture window, and across the cornfields, to the highway, to the car that was not Bruce Engebretson. He paced and waited for the next car that was not Bruce Engebretson, and then the next, and the next. It became painfully apparent to Jack the boy did not intend to do the right thing. He grew angrier by the day. The house teetered on the edge of eruption.
“You could call on the boy and his parents,” Carol suggested. “You could demand he do right by her.”
“The law is on our side. You can force him to accept his responsibilities.”
“No.” said Jack. His word was final. The boy had ruined his daughter, but he would not beg. He would not force him to marry her. It was beneath his dignity and hers. If the boy wasn’t honorable, then so be it. Jack could take care of his own. He had his pride.
On a Friday evening in mid-November, Jack accompanied Carol to the grocery store. It had been a gray, wet day. As night fell, the winter winds turned the rain to sleet. The streets were icy. Shoppers hustled from their cars into the A&P, running through the cutting wind. The weekly marketing for Jack and Carol’s large family required considerable planning and two full shopping carts. Usually, Carol took Lucy or Eliza, but today she felt the need to get Jack away from the picture window, if only to release some of the tension in the house.
The shopping was routine. Jack wore green work clothes and orange boots. They were wet and squeaked on the white tile floor. He took his soaked jacket off, and hung it over the bars of the grocery cart. Carol was bundled in a long, black wool coat, which she kept tightly closed. She took off her maroon wool scarf, and laid it on top of his jacket. They hurried up and down each aisle, tossing items into the carts as quickly as possible. Carol checked the items off her long list. She nudged Jack on the shoulder and pointed to items that were out of her reach.
“Miserable night, eh Jack?” said a neighbor as they were waiting in line at the butcher counter.
“Miserable,” Jack grunted his reply. His head was bent and his eyes were fixed on his groceries. He knew his neighbors were watching him, waiting for him to acknowledgment the predicament, so they could gauge their response. But he was too humiliated. He could not lift his eyes to meet the inevitable questions in their greetings.
Jack paid for the groceries, and left Carol inside the lobby of the A&P where it was warm and dry. He threw his jacket over his head and ran through the parking lot to the car. The sleet pounded his back. His shirt and trousers were soaked. He pulled the car to the front of the store. Friday night was the busiest shopping night of the week. Five teen-aged boys, wearing yellow raincoats with A&P stenciled on their backs in red, stood waiting at the curb to load the customers’ groceries. Jack pulled his car to the curb, then got out to unlock his trunk.
A stock boy wheeled the first cart of groceries out and stacked them neatly in the trunk. A yellow hood covered his head. The groceries were wet, the scent of Tide laundry detergent rose from the grocery cart.
“They won’t all fit in the trunk,” Jack shouted to the boy, his voice nearly drowned by whistling wind. He threw his jacket into the car. It was soaked and no use to him. “Hand me the rest and I’ll toss the bags into the back seat.”
The boy grabbed a bag with an egg carton on top. He started to hand it to Jack, then stopped abruptly and took a step back. Jack found himself staring into the face of a schoolboy. He had peach fuzz on his chin and pimples on his stubby nose. It was Bruce Engebretson. There was an awkward moment of silence while he absorbed the fact that this was the boy he had been waiting for. He locked his eyes on the boy. He knew the boy recognized him, too.
The grocery bag slipped from Bruce’s wet hands and the eggs fell. They lay broken, the yellow yoke dripping onto Jack’s orange work boots.
“Sorry,” mumbled Bruce.
“Sorry?” responded Jack, his fists clenched, and his knuckles white against his chapped hands. Sleet pelted his bare head and dripped off his nose and chin. His face was flushed red from the wind; his teeth chattered with rage. “Is that all you have to say to me? Sorry?”
“I’ll get you some new eggs,” the boy stammered.
“It’s too late,” shouted Jack above the pounding sleet. “They’re broken. They can’t be fixed.”
Bruce bent down and began to scoop the eggs back into their busted carton. Jack stood above him, his eyes burning holes through the red A&P logo on Bruce’s back. He had an almost uncontrollable urge to kick him in the groin and pummel him into the pavement. He took a deep breath and quieted his chattering teeth with his tongue. He slowly clenched and unclenched his fists. Carol waited in the lobby, warm and dry. She could see Jack and the stockboy loading groceries into the car, but was unaware of the tension between them.
Bruce stood up, holding the carton of broken eggs in his hands. He looked Jack in the eyes and said, “I know what you think, but it isn’t true. I’m not the one responsible for your daughter.”
“Are you telling me that you never slept with her?” Jack asked. His fists were unclenched and hanging at his sides.
“No. I’m not saying that.”
“What exactly are you saying?”
“I did sleep with her, six or seven months ago. It’s not my baby.” The other stock boys heard the commotion and gathered in a circle on the sidewalk behind Bruce.
“Then whose?” The four boys looked on in panic. The scent of an impending fight hung heavy in the air. Two boys ran off in search of the manager.
“I don’t know. She’s had a lot of guys.”
“Are you calling my daughter a tramp?” Jack shouted. He clenched his fists and prepared to strike. Shoppers coming out of the store loitered under the edge of the awning; their heads leaned into the wind as they strained to hear the confrontation. Carol looked out the store doors and saw a crowd gathering around her car. She hurried to see what was happening.
“You can ask around. It’s a small town. Everybody knows.” Bruce turned his eyes back to the groceries and stuffed another bag into the trunk.
Jack punched him on the shoulder, just hard enough to get his attention. “You’re lying.”
“Ask around,” and he turned back to the groceries.
Jack hit him again. This time a little harder. Bruce’s feet faltered slightly and he took a quick step backward to steady himself. “I can take you to court, boy,” Jack threatened. “I can make you take responsibility.”
Bruce stood up straight, both feet planted firmly on the ground, and looked directly into Jack’s eyes. “If you take me to court, I’ll drag your daughter’s name through the mud.”
“You’re bluffing,” said Jack. He wanted to knock the boy’s head off his shoulders.
Carol stood by his side now. She touched his shoulder softly. “Let’s go,” she said in a timid whisper.
“If you take me to court,” threatened Bruce, “those four guys standing behind me will all swear they’ve had sex with her. Bruce turned to point to his coworkers and found only two.
Jack looked to the two boys standing behind Bruce. They nodded half-heartedly in a feeble show of solidarity.
“There will be others,” Bruce continued. “Half the school’s been with her.” The manager and two stock boys burst out of the store and pushed their way through the crowd.
“Break it up! Break it up!” shouted the manager as he stepped between them. Bruce surveyed the faces in the crowd. He was confident Jack wouldn’t hurt him in front of so many witnesses. “Your daughter’s a slut,” he said. “I won’t let her pin her bastard on me.”
“That’s no way to talk to a customer,” said the manager. He turned his back to Jack and pushed Bruce towards the store.
Bruce stepped out from behind the manager and waved his fist in Jack’s direction. “She won’t get away with this!” he shouted.
Jack grabbed the boy’s neck with both hands and choked him. His neck was soft and thin like a chicken. Jack wanted to snap it in two. “You liar!” he screamed. “You no good liar!” He lifted the boy off the ground. Bruce’s legs kicked violently as he struggled for air. All four stock boys ran to Bruce’s aid. They jumped on Jack’s back and tackled him to the pavement. Jack clung to Bruce’s throat and the man and the five boys in yellow raincoats rolled on the ground in a pile of kicking legs and flying fists.
The manager circled the fight in a frenzy. “Break it up!” he yelled. “Break it up!” No one heeded his warning.
Jack wanted to kill the boy. He had his hands on his neck and all he had to do was give it one good twist and it would snap.
“Stop it!” cried Carol as she tugged on Jack’s shirt collar. “For God’s sake! Stop!”
Jack bit his lip and tightened his grasp…he wanted to kill him.
“Please!” Carol begged. “Please don’t!”
And then…Jack slackened his grip…and let go.
Bruce’s body went limp and he lay in a puddle of mud and ice, gasping for breath. Jack rolled to his knees and stood up. He looked down at the pitiful boy lying at his feet. His yellow raincoat had been torn off in the scuffle, and his thin tee shirt was soaked. He was crying like a baby. His face was red and his scrawny neck held the imprints of Jack’s hands. It would be black and blue in the morning but he was lucky to be alive. Jack had come very close to killing him. It would have been so easy to snap his neck. Jack hated the boy, but an even stronger emotion hit him. He felt contempt for himself. He was mortified. This boy had made a fool of him—not once—but twice.
“Jack. Let’s go!” Carol sobbed.
Jack turned and looked at the boy. “Liar,” he said and spat at his feet.
“I’m telling the truth,” the boy sobbed as he rose to his hands and feet. “You’ll see. I’m telling the truth.”
Jack and Carol threw the last of the groceries into the car and drove away.
“Show’s over,” said the manager. “Everybody go home.”
The crowd dispersed. Everyone hurried home, eager to spread the latest gossip.
The next day was as cold and wet as the day before. The sound of rain hammering on the rooftop was relentless.
It was a drafty, old house. The wind whistled through every crack and corner. Carol was sick to death of being cold. She began to wage war on the house. First, she turned the old oil-burning furnace up, full blast. It shuddered and shook in the basement. She felt a feeble burst of lukewarm air rush from the floor vents. The air around her ankles and knees warmed, but a gust of cold wind whipped in through the ceiling and chilled her head and shoulders.
She knelt before the fireplace in the living room and threw two logs in the hearth. She crumpled the front page from last week’s paper and lit a match. On the front page was a picture of the Mayor holding a pair of scissors as he prepared to cut the ribbon on the new clover-leaf exit ramp connecting the town to Interstate 94. It was the biggest news to hit the town in years. Black River Falls was finally connected to the world. Local merchants were gleefully stocking their shelves in preparation for the tourist trade they hoped would spill off the Interstate.
Carol watched as the flame licked the Mayor’s face. The newspaper curled and blackened. The Banner Journal carried all the local news—fact or fiction. She wondered how it would report the story of last night’s fight. The police hadn’t been called and no charges had been filed. It would probably be written up as an “incident” in front of the A&P, and whether or not they mentioned Jack by name wouldn’t matter. Everyone would know who the “incident” involved and why. God! How she hated small town gossip. It was one of the reasons she had left. Now she found herself right back where she started, and once again her family was center stage. This town and its smallness clung to her like the cold dampness of the house.
She picked up the poker and shoved the burning paper underneath the logs. The logs caught fire slowly and Carol warmed her hands near the fire. She remembered the look in Jack’s eyes as he gripped his hands around the boy’s throat. She saw beyond his anger and rage and it frightened her. Jack was losing control. Life had dealt him a blow he didn’t know how to handle, and he was reeling from the shock. She wanted to reach out to Jack—to steady him—but she didn’t know how. He was the rock on which she built her nest, and without the rock the nest would tumble. A wicked wind whistled under a crack and tickled her back. She shivered and withdrew to the kitchen.
Carol placed three large pots of water on the stove and turned the flame to high. The water began to boil and steam filled the room. She turned the oven up to 350 degrees and left the door open a crack. The hot air circled her and warmed her to the bone. For a short time, she was able to shake loose the memory of last night. She exhaled a deep sigh. She removed her sweater and shoes and wiggled her toes against the warm linoleum floor. She was as carefree as a clam on a hot summer day.
Jack usually slept late on Saturdays. But this morning, after a fitful night’s sleep, he woke to a suffocating house. The heat had risen from the downstairs up through the floorboards to the bedroom where he slept. His pine-green flannel pajamas were drenched with sweat and clung to his body like wallpaper.
He had tossed and turned throughout the night. His dreams had been filled with busted eggs and broken chicken necks. In his half-sleeping state, he struggled to remember the details of the fight. Was the boy alive? Or had he snapped his neck? In his dreams, the neck was broken and Jack felt a satisfying sense of justice. In his early waking moments, he was not sure. He rubbed the sleep from his eyes and crawled out of bed slowly. When he was fully awake, he remembered he had released the neck from his grip unbroken. He felt a burning shame. He slipped on his brown corduroy slippers and tattered terry-cloth robe, and went downstairs.
He found Carol at the kitchen counter, her hands immersed in mounds of white bread dough. She had long streaks of white flour mixed in with her brown hair, and small dots of dough on her chin and nose. She was smiling and whistling a polka. Her shoulders bounced up and down to the lively beat. The dough squeaked as Carol pushed it against the greased Formica countertop. She looked up to find Jack watching her. Her whistling ceased, there was something unsettled between them.
“How are you this morning?” Carol asked. She studied his face for a hint of his mood.
“Fine. Why wouldn’t I be?”
“I thought you might be upset about last night…”
“I don’t want to talk about last night.” Jack turned his back to her to signal the end of the conversation. “That boy is a liar,” was all he had said the night before and he was not ready to face it this morning. Jack walked to the thermostat at the far end of the kitchen. It was set at 85 degrees. The old furnace rattled as it labored to heat the house. He raised his hand to adjust the setting.
“Don’t touch that dial,” said Carol as she picked up her rolling pin and shook it in his direction. She hoped if she let the matter lie and pushed forward, they could get their lives back on steady ground.
“My God, woman,” he said his voice straining to be humorous. “It’s darn near 85 degrees in this house. Are you trying to suffocate us?”
“I’m comfortable,” she said. “And for just one entire day—I’m going to be comfortable in this miserable old house. I don’t care how high the heating bill is.”
Carol pounded the dough flat on the counter with the palms of her hands, then picked up the rolling pin and pushed the dough into a thin square. She sprinkled cinnamon across the top of the dough. She rolled the dough end-over-end until it formed a long-white tube. She cut the tube into one-inch pieces. Then placed them three across and four down in an oblong baking pan. The oven door creaked as she opened it. She slid the pan onto the top rack and banged the door shut.
“Call me when the rolls are done,” said Jack. “I’m heading to the basement where I can breathe.”
The air in the basement was cold and damp. Jack took a deep breath to clear his head. The basement smelled of old oil that leaked from the crack in the fuel tank. The children were still sleeping soundly and he could work in peace. Against the far wall was a workbench where Jack kept a variety of projects that he started but never finished. There were birdhouses without roofs, legs that needed to be attached to broken chairs, and toy chests that needed painting. This was the place where he came to be alone. He found solace here, when the noise of his large family rattled his nerves. He rarely ever finished a project; because once completed, he’d lose his excuse to escape to his basement.
On his workbench were his tools. The new ones, his kids had given him for Christmases and birthdays: sanders, drills, and socket wrenches. The old ones that once belonged to his father: a hammer with the handle worn to a polish, pliers blackened with age, and an old circular saw.
His father had been dead more than ten years, but Jack still missed him. He struggled with conflicting memories of him. On one hand, he was a caring father who took Jack everywhere. In the summertime, Jack woke at the crack of dawn to accompany his father on his morning rounds. He sat on the floor in the front of the milk truck. He inhaled the scent of wheat in the early morning as their rounds took them past acres of golden grain waving in the pink light of sunrise. His father always gave him a fresh bottle of milk. He pressed the bottle to his cheek and savored the coldness of it. He peeled the tin cover from the top of the bottle, and with the tip of his tongue licked sweet cream from the top. At noontime, Jack and his father ate from the same black steel lunch box. They’d talk about work and fishing and ball games—one man to another.
On weekends, he tagged along to the turkey farm where his father worked a second job. He watched him pluck feathers from stacks of dead birds. The tips of the feathers were brittle and sharp. At day’s end, his father’s hands were red and bleeding. “My son will never work on a turkey farm,” he said as he washed his bloody hands in the sink. “I want better for him.” He was a loving father who made time for his son.
On the other hand, were the memories of his father’s drinking. He carried a flask of whiskey in his jacket pocket and Jack could not remember a day when he did not take a drink. “Just a nip to keep the demons at bay,” he said as he took a long slug from the flask. By the time Jack reached high school, he had grown accustomed to the sight of his father sleeping in the recliner, an empty bottle of whisky lying on the floor beside him.
“Be quiet,” Jack warned his younger brother. “Dad’s sleeping.”
“Passed out—drunk,” his mother corrected. Then she poked and picked at him until she woke him. “Go to bed so we don’t have to look at you!”
He rose from his chair and looked up at her, as if unsure where he was, then stumbled down the hall on rubber legs.
“You drunk,” she swore. “You no good stinking drunk.” She followed him down the hallway, kicking his legs and slapping his back. Then the door slammed and Jack heard a thud as he hit the bed. His mother stayed inside the room, ranting and raving, for another ten minutes. But beyond the thud, there was never another sound from his father.
Like Carol, Jack had grown up in a small town, but it was a small Mormon town, and his father was the town drunk. Jack forgave him his vices. ‘You forgive the people you love. That’s the way life works,’ he thought. And he forgave his father over and over again; no matter how many promises he broke.
He picked up a piece of wood that he had been carving into a round ornament to replace the broken one at the end of the stair banister. It was smooth and relaxing in his hand. He soaked an old cloth in linseed oil and polished the wood slowly, absent-mindedly. Jack worked at the plastic factory where he punched holes in unyielding sheets of artificial material. The work was monotonous and it made Jack feel like a cog in the machine. Working with wood connected him to the natural world.
His father had taught him how to carve wood. Their first project had been a simple flute carved from a stick of soft pine. He’d showed him how to whittle the wood slowly—with patience—taking long even strokes so the wood was smooth to the touch. He remembered the scent of the pine shavings as they fell on his bare feet and the sweet low whistle of the flute the first time he blew air into it.
Jack rubbed his hand across the top of the stair ornament. He felt a small sliver and picked up a piece of sandpaper and sanded it down. He thought about the events of the night before. He had almost killed the boy—it would have been so easy—so quick. In one brief moment, all his years of righteous living and prayers were almost washed down the drain. He had almost broken the first commandment; “Thou shalt not kill.” The worst part of it was the realization that he felt like a failure—not because he had come so close to murder—but because he had backed down. He should have killed the boy.
“Your daughter’s a slut,” the boy had said and Jack wanted him dead. ‘Is murder justifiable under any condition?’ he asked himself. ‘If someone threatens you or your family, do you have the right to kill to protect yourself? God allows you to kill in self-defense. You can kill to defend your country—the law allows that. But what if someone seduces your daughter, then calls her a slut? Don’t you have the right to kill him? Isn’t it a man’s right—no, obligation—to protect his family?’
Jack knew what the New Testament would tell him. “Turn the other cheek. Forgive your enemies.” Jesus forgave those who took his life. “Forgive them, Lord, for they know not what they do.” But Jack wasn’t Jesus and there was no forgiveness in his heart. At that moment, Jack preferred the God of the Old Testament. “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. And whosoever smites me, I shall smite with vengeance.” He wished he was Jewish. He would go to church on Friday nights instead of Sundays. He’d even be willing to give up bacon and ham and wear a little hat on his head if it would allow him to seek vengeance on Bruce Engebretson. All he really wanted was to make the boy pay for hurting his daughter. Was that asking too much?
Above the workbench was a decanter of whiskey shaped like a turkey, given to him last Christmas by his sister-in-law, Polly. She gave everyone in the family the same gift, whether they drank or not. It sat on the shelf gathering dust. It was against his religion to drink and Polly knew that. Carol said Polly gave them whiskey because she was mean and spiteful. Jack said she did it to lead them into temptation.
Religion was bred into him. His great-great grandparents had converted to the faith in the mid-nineteenth century and immigrated to Utah with the early pioneers. They homesteaded the desert. For him, it was a heritage as much as a religion. Except for his father, who was the black sheep of the family, all his relations were clean-living church-going people. They didn’t drink coffee or tea, they didn’t smoke, and they didn’t partake of alcohol. They ate meat sparingly and they believed in hard work and regular exercise. They attended church an average of four times a week. Church for them was more than just praying, singing, and Sunday school lessons. It was picnics, bizarres, potluck suppers, weekends donated to picking cherries in the church orchards, and evenings spent working in the church canneries. Jobs were given and mortgages were granted solely on the recommendation of the Bishop.
Jack had not always been a perfect Mormon. There was a time in his life when he had forgotten who he was. As a young man in the Army, he drank because all the guys drank. It was what you did with your Army buddies on a long weekend.
One morning in San Diego, a month before his discharge from the Army, he woke up—alone—on a dirty mattress in a run-down whorehouse. His wallet and all of his money left with the hookers. He couldn’t remember their faces—only that one had been a blonde and the other a redhead. He couldn’t remember the sex either but assumed it was like all the other sex he’d had since he joined the army—quick and empty. He hoped he’d enjoyed it. It cost a month’s pay. He clutched a cold porcelain toilet—smelled the feces crusted on the inside of the bowl—and heaved his guts out. He prayed to God to take him right then and there and put him out of his misery.
Afterwards, there was a burning sensation whenever he urinated. The Army medic laughed at him because he had been such an innocent boy when he joined, but now he was as worldly and diseased as the others were. He got a good dose of penicillin from the medic and sobered up before he returned home to Utah.
His religion preached repentance and forgiveness, and he had long ago resolved his transgressions by reasoning he had fallen from his faith because he was young and susceptible to peer pressure. But he was a grown man now, who knew who he was and was firm in his values. Drink was always a temptation, but one he believed he could defeat.
Jack pushed the bottle to the back of the shelf and hid it behind a cracked mirror. In the mirror, he saw the dusty reflection of his own face. His blonde hair was turning white at the temples. He had wrinkles in the corners of his eyes, just like his father. They shared the same bump in the center of their nose. Sometimes when he looked in the mirror, he grew frightened he was becoming his father. His father was a drunk, and people scorned him. But they didn’t know him the way Jack knew him. He was a good person. He had a sickness. He couldn’t help that he drank. Jack wondered if the sickness had been passed from father to son, and if it lingered in his own blood.
Jack reached behind the mirror and picked the bottle up—Wild Turkey—his father’s favorite. He didn’t know why he kept the damn thing around. He should just throw it out. Polly said it was a collector’s item and he should hang onto it because someday it might be worth a lot of money. He ought to get rid of it and be done with it. Wouldn’t be long before one of the kids tried a nip. He checked the seal to make sure it wasn’t broken.
When Jack was a teen-ager he used to sneak a nip or two from the whisky bottle his father hid in the garage. He replaced the nip with water and thought he was getting away with something. Then one day his father snuck out for a drink, and found the bottle so watered down there was barely a whiff of alcohol left in it. He whipped him so good he couldn’t sit for a week.
“I don’t want you turning out like me,” he’d said. “I want better for you.”
Jack took another look at the bottle. The whiskey was a clear amber color. Jack remembered a time when he enjoyed the feel of liquor burning his throat and the sting in his nostrils. He longed for the satisfying little snort that comes from the back of the throat after a good hard shot. He thought briefly about cracking the seal and taking a quick snort, but then shook his head and put the bottle back on the shelf behind the mirror. He picked up the banister ornament and stroked the smooth wood. He dipped his rag in linseed oil, then rubbed the wood to a rich shine.
It had been more than twenty years since he’d had a stiff shot. He had quit drinking a short time before he met Carol. She was a new convert to the faith and zealous in her religious beliefs. She said she was looking for a good man with strong values and a tough moral fiber. He had grown to become the man she was looking for, and viewed his youthful sins as a short fall from grace. In the early days of their relationship, they found they had alcoholic fathers in common. They shared horror stories of waking up on Christmas morning to find Daddy passed out underneath the Christmas tree. They both wanted a better life, and swore their children would never see either of them drunk.
Jack heard the floorboards squeaking above his head and realized the children must be awake. He hadn’t spoken to Lucy about the fight. He couldn’t bring himself to repeat the horrible things the boy had said about her. “Your daughter’s a slut,” he had said. He was a liar. His words did not deserve repeating. Still, he knew it wouldn’t be long before the phone rang and someone filled her in on all the details. How would he explain what he had done? He wondered if she loved the boy. It seemed strange that he knew so little about the boy who had ruined his daughter’s life.
Jack finished polishing the banister ornament and laid it on the workbench. He picked up a broken chair leg and began to sand the rough edges. It was simple work and he did it without thinking. His mind drifted to the day Lucy was born. She was his first child and there was a special relationship between them. He remembered how small and delicate she looked the first time he saw her. She was so tiny; she fit in the crook of his right arm between his elbow and hand. Carol showed him how to support her head. “Cradle her head in your hand,” she said. “And never let it drop. Her neck is too weak to support her head and if you let it slide off your hand, the weight might snap her neck and kill her.” He kept his eyes fixed on her head while he held her, his heart beat rapidly against his chest. He realized her life was in his hands, and he was frightened he would fail her.
She looked up at him, her blue eyes full of trust. She had red skin and a lumpy skull from the delivery. He stroked her chin softly with the fingers of his left hand. She instinctively reached for his hand and grabbed hold of his pinkie finger. She clutched him tightly and he noticed that all five of her fingers fit between the tip of his finger and the first joint. She was so beautiful; his eyes welled with tears. He wanted to wipe the tears from his eyes, but couldn’t because he would have to take his hand from her grasp and he didn’t want to let go. He sat perfectly still, staring at his tiny girl with big teardrops dripping down his cheeks. Carol reached over and dabbed his cheeks with a tissue. He looked up at her and smiled. The baby let out a noise, more like a bleat than a cry. He was afraid he had hurt her and his hands began to shake. He quickly handed her back to Carol and she was quiet. He didn’t know if he could take care of her; didn’t know if he had what it took. She was his treasure—a gift from God. Jack searched that hidden place deep in his soul where people lock their most precious memories and remembered his vow to protect her.
There was his first Father’s Day, when Lucy was not quite a year old. The three of them, Jack, Carol, and Lucy, spent the day in the park. They were flat broke, but money didn’t seem important. Carol packed a picnic lunch, because they couldn’t afford the price of a restaurant meal. She did her best to make Jack’s first Father’s Day special. She made fried chicken, baking soda biscuits, and chocolate cake.
They spread a blanket on the grass and ate until their stomachs were full. Lucy gnawed on a biscuit and drank milk from a bottle. Carol and Jack lay on the blanket and he played with the notion of taking a long nap in the warm sun. Lucy crawled between them. Jack kept one eye open, watching her. She maneuvered around the blanket on all fours. Each time she got to the edge, he warned her to stop. He knew she wanted to take off and explore the park, but the ground was muddy and he didn’t want her to soil her frilly, pink dress.
Lucy crawled to the corner then circled to face him. Jack figured she was going to try to back off the blanket. Even then, she was always working the angles; always trying to figure out how to get around him. Then she leaned her weight to her hands and rose from her knees to her feet. She grunted and pushed herself upright. She was standing, delighted with herself. She giggled a little girl giggle. Her voice sounded like silver wind chimes tinkling in the wind.
“Good girl,” Jack said. “Come to Daddy.” She had been trying to walk for a month now. Every time she got the courage to raise one of her heavy, white shoes off the ground she wobbled, then fell with a loud thump—right smack on her diapered bottom. This time, Lucy lifted one foot, then another. Then with a burst of speed plopped one foot after the other and ran into his arms. It was, as if she were afraid, that moving slowly would cause her to fall. She ran to him quickly, before she lost her balance.
“Good girl,” he said and hugged her. “Good girl.” He held her tight and nestled his nose in her silky-fine baby hair. She smelled like peach shampoo and talcum powder. The front of her dress was damp with drool and left a wet spot on his shirt. The next day he bragged to his work buddies that his daughter had learned to run before she walked. He was sure she would be an exceptional child.
He always looked back on his first Father’s Day as the best. As the years passed, she found other places worth rushing to. But on that one perfect summer day, the only place in the world worth being was in her Daddy’s arms.
There were many other firsts throughout the years: first tooth, first bike ride, first swim. He thought back to her first day of school. She was supposed to walk home alone after school. There were three blocks between the school and their house and Jack had practiced the route with her every day for a week. Still, he was not sure she would remember the way. She was so young and helpless. What if she got lost? Would she know what to do?
He hid behind the bushes at the schoolyard, worried he might look like a pervert, and waited for her come out of the school. He watched her as she walked across the playground and turned down the street towards their home. He followed; hiding behind cars and trees, making certain she never saw him.
“I’m a big girl now,” she told her mother as she entered the front door. “I go to school and I walked home all by myself. I don’t need any help.” She was so proud of herself and so grown up. Jack never told her he followed her home that day. He knew it was time to start letting go.
But had he let go too much? Too fast? How did this terrible thing happen to his baby girl? Jack had failed her. He had gotten so wrapped up in his own troubles; he hadn’t seen what was happening to her. He had been so busy making money; he hadn’t given her the most important gift a father can give his child—time. His years of church-going and moral living had all been for nothing. His father, the town drunk, was a better man than Jack was. He never let him down the way Jack let Lucy down. It was his fault
“You’re daughter’s a slut.”
Jack tried to shake the feeling there was a ring of truth in the boy’s words. Not his daughter; not his little girl. It wasn’t true.
In the distance, Jack heard the ring of the doorbell. His heart skipped a beat. Maybe it was Bruce Engebretson come to do the right thing after all. Maybe his daughter’s life wouldn’t be ruined. He heard Carol’s bare feet plod across the kitchen floor towards the back door.
“Yooo-hoo! Anybody home?” he heard his mother-in-law’s voice call from the doorway as she entered the house.
“Great,” muttered Jack. “This day just keeps getting worse and worse.” He knew by now she had heard about the fight and was coming to rub his nose in it. He pulled his robe around him and wondered how long he could hide out in the basement. If he had his way, he would stay until she left.
“Come in. Come in,” he heard his wife’s voice call and then the slam of the screen door as it closed behind her.
Of course, the doorbell was not Bruce Engebretson, he chastised himself. The boy’s not coming. Not now. Not ever. He is never going to take responsibility for this baby.
It was the way he said the word that bothered Jack the most. Like the word wasn’t a new tag stuck on her for the first time, but an old label well worn with use.
He looked up at the whiskey decanter. He felt himself falling, and was helpless to stop it. He had no fight left in him. He looked into the mirror and saw his father’s face looking back at him. He picked up the bottle and cracked the seal.
“Just a nip to keep the demons at bay.” He felt the words fall off his own tongue, but in their echo, he heard his father’s voice.
He twisted the cap and put the bottle to his lips. The liquor burned his throat. Jack coughed a quick snort as the fumes passed through his nostrils. It tasted good. He took another long swallow, then put the bottle back on the shelf. He looked at the chair leg and realized he had sanded it to a stub. He tossed it in the trash. He picked up a birdhouse and firmly and deliberately pounded a nail into the loose roof. The hammer made a tank, tank, tank sound as it hit the nail.
Without waiting for an invitation, Anne pushed her way into the house and planted herself at the kitchen counter. She slipped off her coat and made herself comfortable. Anne possessed an air of authority and condescension that always irritated Carol. Her posture was impeccable, she sat up straight, with her back stiff, and shoulders pulled back. She looked over the top of her reading glasses to the disarray in the kitchen. The counter was piled with mixing bowls and beaters. The kitchen sink was filled with dirty glasses and the needed a good scrubbing. Carol sensed her disapproval and instantly felt like a little girl who had misbehaved and was about to get a sound scolding.
“In my day, a wife wouldn’t dream of going to bed with dirty dishes in the sink,” Anne said.
“It’s only a couple of glasses,” Carol explained. “Dirtied after the dinner dishes were done.”
“Still—you never know might drop by. In my day—a wife kept her kitchen spotless—just in case.”
“Well, that was before the invention of the telephone, wasn’t it? These days—a person expects a phone call before a visit,” said Carol with a tinge of sarcasm in her voice.
Anne prattled on, ignoring the dig, “If a woman’s kitchen was a mess, the other wives had a field day. A messy kitchen was the worst sin imaginable!”
“Oh, I’m quite sure it wasn’t the worst sin—” Carol responded mentally comparing the sin of dirty dishes to adultery. “Dirty dishes don’t seem so bad.”
“The only thing worse was to send her husband out of the house with a wrinkled shirt. I remember a woman who sent her husband to work wearing a shirt that looked as though it hadn’t even been laundered. You should have heard the way people talked. You would have thought she’d grown horns and sprouted a tail.”
“You would have thought people had better things to talk about—” Carol wondered why her mother prattled on and on about poor housekeeping and sloppy laundry. She knew Anne’s actions had always provided the town with much livelier fodder. Then she realized, Anne was beating around the bush. She had heard about the fracas at the A&P, and was dancing around the real purpose of her visit.
“The really bad things weren’t discussed, at least, not openly. Little things like dirty kitchens and wrinkled shirts were talked about on the street corners. But more often than not, those little things were signs of bigger problems. A woman who doesn’t tend to her man’s appearance, isn’t tending to his other needs, either.”
“Mother!” said Carol. “People’s personal lives aren’t anyone’s business.”
“Honey. This is a small town. Everyone makes everything their business. That husband with the wrinkled shirt was divorced within a year. I always say, you can tell the state of the marriage by the way a woman keeps her husband, and her kitchen.” Anne grabbed a dishtowel, and wiped the flour from the kitchen counter.
“And I suppose your kitchen was always spotless?”
“My kitchen was always clean. It was my husband that was a mess. People talked about me all the time. They wondered what I did to turn him into such a pitiful a drunk.”
She turned her back to her mother. Carol hated it when she talked about her father. She filled the sink with soapy water and let the glasses soak.
“My… my. It is a little hot in here,” said Anne as she unbuttoned the top two buttons of her sweater.
“I’m comfortable,” said Carol.
“Perhaps, you might open the kitchen window—just a crack. I can barely breathe.”
Carol did as her mother requested. A gust of cold November air pushed its way in through the open window. Carol opened the oven door to check on the cinnamon rolls; the house was filled with the scent of warm bread. “Almost done,” she said.
“They smell delicious,” said Anne. “I tell everyone that you are the best cook in the family.”
“Why, thank you,” said Carol warily. She grew suspicious whenever her mother was nice. She pulled the pan out of the oven and set it on the counter to cool.
“You know what would go perfect with those rolls? A nice hot cup of coffee.”
“We don’t drink coffee,” said Carol. “You know that.” Of all the vices, she had given up to become a Mormon, coffee had been the hardest. Norwegian farm girls are practically weaned on coffee. Sometimes, the scent of a freshly brewed cup of coffee was more temptation than she could stand. Many times, she caught herself wondering, why not? What harm could one cup do? But then she realized it was the Devil, tempting her, and she stood firm. No matter how good the brew, she would not succumb.
“Well, of course, I remember. You must have told me a thousand times. For the life of me I can’t understand why,” Anne rambled on. “I just thought maybe you kept some in the house, for company.” Anne considered it rude not to offer your guests a cup of coffee.
“I can offer you some Postum, if you’d like,” said Carol.
“It’s a hot drink made from barely. It’s all natural, no caffeine. I drink it all the time. It really is quite good.” She waved a cup of the weak gray liquid underneath her mother’s nose. Postum was an instant drink, made from dehydrated crystals. It was a poor substitute for a strong cup of coffee, but it was the best she could do.
Anne wrinkled her nose and frowned. “I’ll pass on the Postum, if you don’t mind.”
“A glass of milk, then?” Carol offered.
“That would be nice.”
Carol took a glass jug from the refrigerator. “Whole milk, fresh from the farm, with the cream on top.”
“Well, at least you haven’t given up dairy products,” her mother said.
“Not yet,” Carol teased. She knew her religion irritated her mother like a tick.
Carol took a bowl from the cupboard and filled it with powdered sugar, added water and mixed it with a noisy beater. She drizzled the glaze over the top of the cinnamon rolls, then let them cool a few minutes longer, knowing her mother’s mouth was watering. Finally, she pulled two rolls loose from the pan, set them on small dessert plates and handed one to her mother.
She opened the refrigerator and, out of habit, started to grab a square of margarine. She quickly stopped herself; knowing her mother would disapprove. She reached to the back of the fridge where she kept the real butter, reserved for Sunday dinners and special occasions, and pulled out a stick.
They cut small slivers of butter and spread them on the soft sides of the cinnamon rolls. Anne smiled approvingly as the butter melted on the roll and dripped down the sides. She tore off a piece of the roll, plopped it in her mouth, and let the taste melt on her tongue. She took a long drink of cold milk. “Delicious,” she said.
Carol let out a sigh of relief. It wasn’t often she could please her mother. Despite their differences, she still needed her approval.
“You know I don’t like to interfere in my children’s lives,” said Anne.
‘Oh no,’ thought Carol. ‘Here it comes—the BIG BUT.’
“You know I try to mind my own business—” Anne continued. “But the whole town is talking about that business at the A&P last night.”
“It was nothing, really,” said Carol “Just a minor scuffle. It was over almost as soon as it started.”
“A scuffle! Humph! That’s not what I heard. The way I heard it—Jack’s lucky he wasn’t arrested for assault and battery.”
“I’m sure whatever people are saying is greatly exaggerated. That kid deserved what he got. If anyone should be arrested, it should be him.”
“Maybe so—but people are talking—”
“Let them talk. It’s not the first time this family has given them something to talk about.”
“They’re saying that boy is never going to marry Lucy. It’s time you and Jack faced the facts and made some decisions.”
“What decisions do you mean?”
“I know it’s difficult, but you have to decide what you’re going to do about Lucy!”
“Who says we have to do anything about Lucy?” Carol grew angry. She knew where this conversation was headed. As a young girl, her mother had warned her, “If you get yourself in trouble—just keep on going. Don’t bring your troubles to my doorstep.” She had hated her mother’s threats. She told her own daughters they always could count on her. Right or wrong, she would always be their mother. She intended to make good on her promise.
“You aren’t going to let her live here—in your house—with her illegitimate child, are you?” Anne looked at Carol sternly.
“This is my home and she can stay here as long as she wants.”
“You’re not being fair to the rest of the family. What about her younger sisters? They’re the ones who will pay for her damaged reputation.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” said Carol her voice growing louder. “It’s not their reputation you’re worried about, it’s yours. Though I can’t imagine why. There can’t be much left of it.”
“Don’t be nasty,” said Anne. “I’m just trying to help.”
“We don’t need your help,” said Carol. “I won’t send my daughter away.”
In the basement, Jack could hear voices raised in anger. He thought maybe he should go up, but then thought better of it. Anne didn’t care for him. His interference wasn’t likely to help.
“So—you’re just going to let her stay here—with her child?”
“Yes. We are.”
“Then you’re going to end up with a yard full of bastards, like the rest of the welfare trash—”
“We aren’t welfare trash.”
“That’s what people will think!”
“I don’t care what people think!” Carol’s face was red.
“There’s a doctor in LaCrosse that can take “care” of it—” Anne pushed on.
“I won’t consider it,” Carol lowered her voice to a whisper. “Abortion is a sin.”
“You could tell people she miscarried,” Anne whispered. “People would forget. In time, this whole ugly business would be forgotten.”
“We won’t consider it. Besides she’s six months along. It’s too late.”
“She is not six months along,” said Anne who had been trying to find a way to suggest that Lucy might not be telling the whole truth. “She’s barely showing.”
“It’s her first child. That’s why she’s not showing, yet.”
“I’ll bet my paycheck she’s not three months gone,” said Anne.
“That’s impossible.” Carol shook her finger in her mother’s face. “She broke up with that boy in May. The baby is due in January.”
“Is that what her doctor says?”
“He says he can’t be sure, but I know my daughter. If she says she’s due in January, then she is!”
“Adoption then,” countered Anne. “Have you considered giving the baby up?”
“No,” said Carol and she began to cry. That her mother still had the ability to bring her to tears made her angry. She wiped the tears from her face and took a deep breath. “We believe the Heavenly Father sends souls to this earth to be tested. If the Good Lord has seen fit to send us another soul to raise, who are we to doubt His wisdom.”
“I might have known this foolishness had something to do with your religion!”
“It is our duty to see this child is raised in accordance to the Gospel of Joseph Smith. We cannot give this child to strangers to be raised in darkness. We have an obligation to show it the light.”
From the basement, Jack heard the words “adoption” and “give the baby away.” He realized things were getting out of hand and he decided it was time to intervene. He hung his hammer on the pegboard, pulled his robe tight around him, and went upstairs. A gust of cold wind blew in through the open kitchen window, but the tension between Carol and her mother was suffocating.
“Morning, Anne,” said Jack to his mother-in-law.
“Morning,” she said curtly and shot him an angry glare. She held him responsible for this religious nonsense. “I’ve been trying to talk some sense into my daughter.”
“I heard,” said Jack. “But we ain’t sending our daughter packing. And we ain’t giving our first grandchild up. You may as well save your breath.” He stood at the kitchen counter between Carol and her mother.
“You don’t care how this affects the rest of the family?” she said and leaned her face into his.
“Not a fig,” he said his breath hot on her face.
“You’ve been drinking!” she gasped.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” said Carol. “Jack doesn’t drink.” Jack turned his face down towards the counter. He had forgotten the stiff shot of whiskey in the basement. His ears turned red with shame.
“You can’t fool me. I was married to a drunk for twenty years. I know the smell of whiskey at breakfast.”
Carol leaned over and sniffed his breath. “My God! Jack! What have you done?”
“Nothing,” he said. “I just had a snort. That’s all. I’m not drunk.”
“The children will be awake soon,” said Carol “They can’t see you like this.” Tears ran down her face. “You promised our children would never see their father drunk, Jack. You promised.”
“I’m sorry,” he said, his face in his hands.
“What he needs is a good, strong cup of coffee,” said Anne.
Carol shot her mother a dirty look.
“That’s right—I forget. Coffee’s against your religion. But apparently not attempted murder—or drinking before breakfast. Or even raising a parcel of bastards. But coffee. . . Now that’s a real sin. I am so glad that you married a religious man…” Anne ranted on.
“Just go home,” said Carol. She handed her coat to her and pushed her out the door. “I can’t deal with you today.”
“And you,” Carol said wagging her finger in Jack’s face. “You go back to bed and sleep it off.” Jack turned and silently left the room. He was disgusted by his actions and had nothing to offer by way of defense. Suddenly, a flash of heat hit Carol. She began to sweat profusely, and had to sit to steady herself. The house was too hot. She rose slowly and walked from room to room, opening every window to let the suffocating heat escape from the house.