The first vase struck the edge of the kitchen counter like a purple firework. Small bits of glass cascaded down to the cold, ceramic tile. Then another one hit a cabinet, nicking the paint and sending shards flying. Jake’s voice seemed to scream out of each jar, each dish, as they soared from the dining room into the kitchen.
I had been on my way into the kitchen to make macaroni and cheese when he threw the first vase. I have to admit I froze for a moment, but after seeing the second jar I ran upstairs to my room, shutting the door as another shattered crystal cracked through the walls.
This was a Bad Night. It made sense, I guess, not every day could be good, nor bad, at least I didn’t think so. I didn’t know what Jake wanted but he wasn’t getting it. My mother’s voice started pleading with him. I leapt onto my bed, lay on my back, and pulled the tips of the pillow over my ears. I stared at the fan whirling overhead, its blades blurring into one another. Their voices were muffled, but the pillow couldn’t block the sharp sound of breaking glass as it cut through the cotton. Then I heard Jake shout, “Just let me go, Mom!”
Before you get the wrong idea, Jake isn’t a nasty person; he just gets really mad sometimes. If you’re wondering why my dad hasn’t stopped him from throwing another plate, it’s because he can’t, and he can’t because he died. I lost him when I was four and Jake was seven. It’s been nine years now, but even when you’re thirteen you can still see the vacuums of space your father should be in: an empty recliner, one less car in the driveway, your mom showing you how to tie a tie instead of him. It’s not something you can just ignore.
It really stinks that he isn’t around, but I’ve come to figure out there are some bright sides to having a dead dad. I know that sounds terrible, and I’m not saying I’m glad my dad is dead, because I’m definitely not. And I’m not saying these bright sides are anything worth bragging about either.
But like I said, there are some “benefits” to having a dead dad. There’s also a lot of bad things, but talking about all those bad things would just upset me and I’m making an effort to focus on things I should be happy about, like my mom, my friend Olivia, my dog Beanie, and the fact that Jake doesn’t break my stuff, but that doesn’t mean I like when he breaks my mom’s stuff; it’s just that that would go on the other side of that list.
One way of figuring out what’s not terrible about having a dead dad is to make a chart. I put mine in a marble, college-ruled notebook, so that you can fit more stuff in as you go along. You have one column where you put all the bad stuff and one side with the good stuff. But don’t write down the bad stuff because there’s a lot and it will only make you feel worse; it’s best to leave it blank. So while the bad side of having a dead dad is pretty obvious and lengthy, the not so bad parts take some thought, but here’s what I’ve come up with:
1. My dad can never yell at me.
2. He can never tell me I’ve disappointed him.
3. He can never hit me.
4. He can never divorce my mom.
5. He can never walk out on us.
6. He can never become a drug addict.
I wondered if Jake had come up with a list like this. I didn’t think he had. He must have been writing the bad parts in his head and once you start that list, it’s hard to stop. The thoughts keep coming like a stampede and it leaves your heart trampled. I would give you an example, but like I said, then everything would go downhill super-fast and it’s already a Bad Night and I don’t want it to get any worse.
Either way, it’s just best not to mess with Jake when he’s like this. I’m not saying it’s okay for him to break stuff and shout at Mom. But he doesn’t do this every day. In fact, he never used to do anything like this at all.
There wasn’t another crash after that last one. I could still hear muffled voices, but they were dying down. The words were unclear and the rhythm slowed. Apologies, I assumed. I hoped. I released the grip of the pillow and my ears caught the swoosh of the side door. No more broken glass tonight. Jake was gone.
The next day I got a text from Jake during lunch, “Hey Cole I need u 2 come straight home after school, k?”
Shoot. I just realized I never told you my name, sorry. That’s rude isn’t it? Well, like the text says, it’s Cole. I’m usually much more polite, like waiting to eat at Thanksgiving until all the food has been passed around, even the mashed potatoes, or giving my seat to an older person before myself. Either way, I like to think I’m a decent guy and if I met you in person I would hold the door open for you and ask how you were doing even if we didn’t know each other’s names.
I considered what his message meant. He must have needed help with something, but I was supposed to hang out with Olivia after school. My phone lit up again, another message from Jake, this one read, “5 minutes max.”
“OK,” I responded. It would only take a few minutes to bike home, help Jake with whatever, like move dressers around in his room or something, and then go to Olivia’s.
Olivia was one of those lucky kids that had a pool and a trampoline at her house. The pool had been closed a month or so ago, but the trampoline was still out and we were working on perfecting how to do a front flip. Only, she could land on her feet while I flopped forward onto my back. It was still fun to fly in the air and feel the bounce mat curve along your spine and cradle you as gravity pulled you down.
After my last class, I hurried to my locker, suffocating in the overpowering scent of Axe and Old Spice cologne-drenched bodies. As I weaved through the stuffed middle school hallway and outside past the other kids, no one stopped to say hi to me, or bye I guess since it was the end of the day and all. I don’t say that to sound like a loser, because I’m not a loser, I’m just kind of nerdy and that gets on some people’s nerves. Besides, I’ll see Olivia later anyway, and we were both kind of nerdy together.
I’ve always been a dork. Back in second grade, we were doing an exercise where we listed off words that ended in “-tion,” so I raised my hand and said, “mummification,” and my teacher paused for a second before she wrote it out in giant letters on the board. I think it was a big deal because there were so many syllables, or maybe because it was about an ancient civilization. Either way, my teacher started having me do extra assignments that I was interested in, like drawing a diagram of a spider’s organ system. Then, the next year, I started being in a Gifted and Talented program where I met Olivia.
Before you go and think I’m a total know-it-all, you should know I don’t know everything. The only reason I knew about mummification was because I had been reading a lot about ancient Egypt, and I only knew what the insides of a spider looked like because I read a book about spiders. I liked to read about lots of different things like reptiles, comic books (never the comics themselves though, just about the canon), and tornadoes. Cool stuff, really.
As I walked home I started listing off all the first 151 Pokémon in order: Bulbasaur, Ivysaur, Venusaur… Which wasn’t to show off, but to make sure I remembered them all correctly. If you can’t tell already, I’m in my head quite a lot, but then again I’m always in my head, and who isn’t? I never met anyone who wasn’t. It’s not possible to think too much either, otherwise your head would just pop like a water balloon, or you’d get institutionalized or something.
As I walked into the door of my house, my Jack Russell, Beanie, raced up to me and shook his tail so hard his whole body jiggled. It was just before 3 p.m., but the family room was still gray like the morning. The drapes, thick and green, hung over the windows, and cracks of light seeped through, brightening the dust and dog hair in the air. I imagined my lungs looking like the lint filter in the dryer, fuzzy and packed with gray and purplish thread. I crouched down to pet Beanie and noticed the brown hairs near his eyes starting to gray.
“What took you so long?” Jake towered over me, standing between me and the kitchen with a clear plastic cup in his hand. His hair was buzzed and a plain, silver chain hung over the cuff of his baggy South Pole shirt. I looked down at my navy blue fleece sweater, now adorned with Beanie’s white fur, and my plain jeans. Right now it’s cool if your jeans are ripped, but in the ‘60s bell bottoms were cool, so I think I’ll leave my pants the way they are.
On the ceiling above Jake like a halo was the crater he made last month when he punched the smoke detector for doing its job. I think he was making grilled cheese. When my mom got home from work he said he was sorry and that he would fix it.
“We get out at 2:45. I had to run to my locker and then bike here.” I set my backpack on the wooden swivel chair by the computer desk. The weight of my books made it twirl, creaking its old joints. One of the books in there was about a future where all the kids were kidnapped and transformed into monsters but some kids weren’t and they could do special things. It was pretty dark but I feel like most future movies and books are. I’m surprised they didn’t try to be
“Ah, okay. Well, I just need you to fill it up to about here,” he said, pointing to a notch on the cup, a little more than halfway up.
He nodded his head behind me towards the bathroom and I looked back to the cup, just like the ones at the doctor’s office.
I was pretty sure Jake had been having some issues at school lately. I knew my mom didn’t like his friends too much and last month he was brought home by the police for spray painting the side of a building by the aquatic center. He should have probably just doodled in a notebook, but maybe the pages were too small.
“You can’t?” I asked, which was maybe intrusive of me, to ask if he could pee for his own urine sample, but it seemed like a fair question. Jake sighed, “Please, Cole, I need you to do this.”
He handed me the cup and I just looked at it and the green lid you had to push in to twist off.
“Um, one sec.”
I went into the bathroom and locked the door, setting the cup by the sink. I started to think of all the ways I could fill the cup without actually peeing in it. I knew that might sound wrong, but this was like cheating on a test—it literally is cheating on a test—except this isn’t my algebra exam, and I’m not sure what the grade is for.
I had seen a movie before where a guy used apple juice to fill a cup, but that was a comedy and this was real life. Besides, the only drinks we ever had in the fridge were skim milk and water from the tap. I checked under the sink but all I could find was purple and blue shampoo. I also would’ve had to heat up whatever I could find and there’s no way Jake wouldn’t have noticed. Even if I could’ve done any of those things, Jake would know I had let him down.
“Uh… how’s it going in there?” Jake asked, his voice muffled against the door. He must have heard the cabinets.
“It’s… going… I didn’t drink much water today so it’s taking a sec.”
I thought about how much I hated myself for doing this, and how much I hated Jake for making me do this, to come home and piss in a cup. I wished he’d just go into my room and smash my GameCube—although I wouldn’t like that either—but that didn’t involve me doing something I knew I shouldn’t be doing. But I knew I couldn’t say no. When you’ve lost someone in your life you do everything you can to hold on to everyone else.
I couldn’t decide what the best way to do it was so I started peeing into the toilet, clutching the cup in my left hand, feeling the increment bumps on my fingertips. I paused, halting the stream, and brought the cup towards me; it filled, warm and bubbly on top in just a few seconds, and I finished in the bowl. “Are you almost done?” Jake’s voice pressed on the door.
“Yeah, just give me one more sec.”
I set the cup by the sink, making sure the outside was dry, and washed my hands. As I opened the door Jake was still standing there. His eyes moved to the cup full and capped.
“Thank you, Cole.”
Jake reached for the cup, held at the top and bottom edges between my thumb and index finger. I know I’ve already cleaned it off but it was still a little wet from the water and I couldn’t be too sure about what each droplet was. He took it. I felt so little and gross in that moment, like a worm baking on the pavement.
“I might need you to do this again next week, if you can. Okay?”
Don’t ever ask me to do that again, I thought. But that wasn’t an option. I wanted to feel like this was worth something, so I asked, “If I’m going to do this, then can I listen to your stereo?”
“In my room?”
He paused, looking down with a momentary scowl.
To be honest I had no intention of ever listening to anything in his room. I wanted to make him feel uncomfortable knowing I might be in his space, touching his things. I wanted him to understand how it felt to be forced to do something you didn’t want to.
“Yeah, yeah,” he said, “that would be okay.”
Except it wasn’t okay. Whenever I went go to the doctor’s and they gave me a cup to pee in I didn’t trade it with anyone else. They didn’t literally say, “only you can pee in this cup” but I thought that’s sort of a given. So while I didn’t know everything about the world yet like how to file my taxes, drive a car, or do any kind of work besides delivering newspapers, I did know that when you were given a cup to pee in it was supposed to be your pee and not your little
brother’s. And if there was something wrong with your own pee then maybe a doctor really should have a look at it. “Thanks again, Cole, I really appreciate it.”
Jake turned and disappeared into his room downstairs in the basement. I headed out the door followed by Beanie. As I shut the gate and pedaled down the driveway he sat and watched me until I vanished out of his view.
One of the best things about being friends with Olivia was that she lived just around the corner. Two corners to be exact, but still, super close. I just had to go right on my street, up two small blocks, take another right, and her house was just a little further down on the left. It was maybe a five minute walk, but with a bike I could be there in less than sixty seconds.
When I got to Olivia’s she was sitting on the front steps, with her blonde bangs swept over to the side. She’d already changed out of her school uniform into jeans and a baggy hoody. See, Olivia went to a private school, but when we were both in elementary school, kids from her school and mine went to the same Gifted and Talented program every Friday. One day at lunch we got to know each other after I asked if she wanted to finish her chicken patty sandwich (she didn’t) and I ate the rest of it in less than fifteen seconds (I really did), and we agreed it was sad that Ophelia drowned herself in Hamlet.
“Hey Cole, what took you so long?” She smiled as she asked, so she wasn’t upset. Normally I would have been there ten minutes ago, it was part of our routine if we’re going to see each other after school.
Oh, nothing, I just had to pee in a cup for Jake.
“Nothing really, I just had to stop at home real quick.” Close enough.
We went through her back gate and into the yard where her kidney-shaped pool was covered by a big blue tarp held in place by concrete blocks. The water on top had grown dark and murky with dead leaves and I saw a frog skid through the muck. We slipped our shoes off and got on the trampoline.
As we jumped, we talked about our school day and the coolest things we got out of class. She learned about how women took over factory work when men went away to fight in World War II. I found out that in an atom, you have positively charged particles (protons), neutral particles (neutrons), and negative ones (electrons), and that the positive and negative attract each other and hold the atom together. I thought about Jake flying around my mom and me, like an electron, getting further away but being pulled back in.
“Hey,” Olivia said as she bounced into the air, then landing on her butt and sitting, “have you ever been to the Thousand Islands?”
“No, why?” I leaned backwards and lay down beside her, staring at the cloud covered sky, breathing in the decay of leaves.
“It’s one of the coolest places in New York. My family and I went when I was little, and I’m hoping we go this summer.”
“What’s so cool about it?” I asked, zipping up my polyester jacket.
“Well there are lots of islands, some are super tiny, with just a tree on it,” she held up her thumb and index finger less than an inch apart, “but some are bigger, and one has a castle on it.”
“A castle? We have castles in New York?”
“Well, not like the really old ones, this one was meant to be a giant house for a family.”
“Well, what happened is this guy bought Heart Island, and he wanted to build a beautiful home for his wife and kids, but during construction his wife died and when the husband found out he stopped all construction on the island and never went back.” She rocked backwards then forwards, springing back up onto her feet. As she jumped my body bounced and tipped from side to side.
“Never.” This time she fell backward but lay there, bouncing up and down and few times before she settled. I lay opposite of her. “It’s like a fairy tale, don’t you think?”
I thought of the different rooms with blank walls like a primed canvas, missing wallpaper and painted murals. I imagined the blank ceilings missing their chandeliers and the cold naked floors without rugs to cover them up. I filled the rooms with velvet armchairs, stained glass lamps, varnished writings desks and tables, a library packed with books in beautiful shiny bindings. I picked every dish, fork, and knife, and filled the drawers with everything I could dream of. A freezer stuffed with all the hams I could ever eat and cupboards stacked with a million boxes of mac and cheese. I pictured the empty bedrooms and put in the biggest, comfiest beds anyone had ever slept in.
“Do you think they’ll ever finish it?” I asked.
“No, and I don’t think they should. It’s not what the man would have wanted. Besides, some things are best incomplete.”
“Olivia!” Her father shouted from the back door. “It’s time for supper.”
“Will I see you tomorrow?” I asked.
Jake hadn’t been home for four days since I peed in the cup for him. I sat in the family room at the center of the braided rug, picking the lint out with my nails as my mother announced to me, “Jake isn’t going to be home for a while, but he’s in a safe place.”
Beanie came over and sat between my outstretched legs and tilted his head up at me. I spotted a few more grays by his eyes and some new ones by his nose. There were was fog in his eyes.
My mother sat on the chaise lounge, still in her work clothes as if she were preparing to give me a formal presentation about Jake’s absence. I could tell she wanted me to say something, anything, but I welcomed the silence. No broken glass.
She pulled a dark wood box out from under her and pulled out a prescription pill bottle, took a few different shaped capsules out, and sipped them down with coffee. She placed the bottle back in the box, shutting it tightly, and placed it back beneath her.
“Where is he?”
She grabbed a pack of cigarettes, Marlboro Golds, unwrapped the thin film of plastic, and began compacting the tobacco, slamming the box against her open palm.
“You’ll see when we visit in a couple weeks. Just know he’s okay.”
Beanie looked to her and back to me. His ears were upright with the corners bent forward, waiting for a prompt, some assurance that it was acceptable to come forward and lick my face.
The cigarette was lit and in a few minutes the cloud has swirled around my mother, Beanie, and myself.
“It’ll be okay, Cole.”