Even though it’s only Thursday, Jack and his family are going to watch a movie tonight, his mother announces when he gets home from school.
“You can have Coke to drink with dinner if you want.” She mixes cold coffee into a bowl of chocolate icing. A freshly baked cake is cooling nearby on the counter.
His little brother, Tommy, is so excited that he spills his apple juice. He thinks the cake and the soda with dinner and the movie on a non-weekend night are all good news.
But Jack knows what they really mean. Particularly when his mother informs them that their father is the one who’s going to choose the film.
“It’s his special night. Like when it’s your birthday.” She’s down on all fours, sponging up Tommy’s drink off the linoleum floor. He nods slowly as if he understands what she’s talking about.
Except it’s not their father’s birthday.
He’s definitely going to pick Finding Nemo, which used to be Jack’s favorite movie until he got too old for it. But Tommy still likes it and he wants his dad to be happy tonight so he decides not to say anything. Besides, he’s the big brother and part of being the big brother is sometimes you do things when you don’t feel like it, his mother keeps reminding him.
Now that he’s in fourth grade, Jack is allowed to walk his little brother all by himself to and from the school bus stop. It’s just at the end of the road, but still he’s the only one his age in the neighborhood who doesn’t have a parent or some adult bringing them in the morning or meeting them later on. Sometimes the other mothers whisper to each other when Jack and Tommy walk past.
“You know whose boys those are, don’t you?” he heard Mrs. Kessel say last week. He didn’t need to hear the response; he already knew what it would be.
Jimmy Winters, who lives across the street, showed everyone at school the article in the paper. 5 to 15 Years for Grand Larceny, the headline said.
Their father never eats breakfast with them anymore, just stays upstairs, waiting until they’ve left. On the way to the school bus in the mornings, Jack glances back at the house, trying to see if maybe his father is watching them from the bedroom, a hand pressed up against the glass, poised to rush out if anything bad happened. But the light reflecting off the windows makes it hard to tell if he’s there or not.
While they eat their after-school snack, his mother looks up from smoothing frosting onto the cake and suggests they go play in the yard.
Whenever she gives him that look, he knows to get Tommy away from her. Because if he doesn’t and Tommy starts pestering her, she screams a tsunami of angry words. Then they both end up crying and his mother sits outside in the yard with a big glass of wine and before you know it, it’s dark and late and she’s forgotten all about dinner. They’ll end up eating cereal in a rush, right before bed, the milk and Honey Nut Cheerios churning around in his stomach while he lies under the covers and it will take a long time to fall asleep.
Once they are outside, Tommy bolts for the tree house their father built for them last summer. It’s made out of wood he either got at the dump or found on the beach. Tommy and Jack helped hammer the nails and attach the ladder rungs on the trunk of the large maple that dominates the yard. Together, they painted it red and black and it was their dad’s idea to put glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling.
“For when you have sleepovers,” he’d explained.
But the only kid who was allowed to come over was Derek Nelson and that was because his family had just moved to the neighborhood and they didn’t really know anything about anybody.
He turned out to be actually kind of all right, and he made up good games. Like pirates, the one they are playing now, where they are in the tree house and there are sharks below in the grass, and they have to steal treasure from the jungle gym, which is actually a passing luxury liner. Usually Tommy likes this game and will stay in the yard until their mother lets them come back in without complaining about being hungry or needing the bathroom or that Jack cheated.
Now Derek isn’t allowed to play with them anymore, and the pirate game doesn’t really work with only two people. Jack gets the rake from the side of the house and makes a big leaf pile for them to jump in. It’s rained most of the week and the leaves are damp and stick to their clothes, their hair. Before they get totally wet, Jack suggests they see who can swing the highest instead. When that gets boring, they search for things they could use for treasure, then bury them in holes at the edge of the yard.
They never play in front of the house anymore. Jimmy Winters made Jack give him the new bike he got for his birthday. He has an older brother in high school who plays football and his friends are always in their driveway shooting hoops or out in the middle of the street playing hockey, so Jack wasn’t taking any chances. He gave him the bike. And the front of the house became off-limits.
It wasn’t just Jimmy Winters and his older brother or the swear words left in sidewalk chalk in their driveway. It was everyone.
Even Jimmy’s mom went after them. They were in the cereal aisle at Super Stop & Shop when it happened. Tommy was hassling their mother to buy Fruity Pebbles. Jack braced himself for the onslaught of a full-fledged Tommy tantrum. Whenever that happened, everyone would stare at them, as if they’ve never in their whole life seen a little kid be an idiot in a store. His mother was explaining yet again that Fruity Pebbles were unhealthy when Mrs. Winters appeared out of nowhere, wheeling her cart straight into theirs. His mother stumbled backwards from the impact.
“You got some balls going out in public! After what your husband did!” She was a large, square-shaped woman and her coat hung over her like a vampire cape.
His mother’s face was pale and glassy and, for a brief moment, it looked like she might even throw up.
“Take Tommy and wait for me by the check-out lines,” she said to Jack so quietly, without even moving her lips.
And for once in his life, Tommy dropped it about the Fruity Pebbles and interlocked his moist, dirty fingers with his older brother’s, leaning into him as they walked towards the cash registers.
Jack tried to find something funny for him to look at, one of those magazines that had pictures of 400 pound babies smoking cigarettes. He could still hear Mrs. Winters shouting at their mother who didn’t seem to be saying anything at all. Tommy covered his ears, shut his eyes tight as he bent over, rocking slightly like he used to in his crib when he was much younger. Jack stood over him looking at the gum, feeling people’s stares, as if they knew Jack and Tommy were connected to the commotion in Aisle 8.
Then boxes were toppling over and the manager was hustling Mrs. Winters out of the store.
“You’re throwing me out?” she was still shouting. “She’s the crook, not me!”
His mother’s face was tight as she wheeled her cart towards her boys and he didn’t even need to be told to take Tommy for a ride on the Bucking Bronco by the rows of shopping carts.
Outside the supermarket, his little brother seemed to be focusing on something off in the distance while he sat on top of the plastic white horse. The parking lot wasn’t as busy as it was on Saturday mornings. Low-slung gray clouds lowered in the distance, announcing an imminent thunderstorm.
As they drove home, Jack could see his mother crying in the rear-view mirror. He played I Spy with Tommy and didn’t argue when he claimed to see something with wings and called it a bald eagle, even though there weren’t any.
It has been dark for almost an hour before their mother calls out into the back yard that dinner is ready. Tommy rushes ahead. Jack props the rake up against the side of the house by the hose and the garbage cans, hesitating for a moment before going in. Lights are on in the nearby houses and he can hear the din of a television, a dog barking. A car pulls into the Winters’ driveway and he rushes for the back door.
His father is at the kitchen table, his face fresh and smooth, and he smells like shaving cream. He grabs Tommy, pulls him onto his lap.
“Lemme go!” Tommy laughs and tries to squirm away, not noticing his father’s grimaced face.
Sometimes, after Jack has gone to bed, his father comes in his room and sits on the edge and he can hear him quietly crying. The first time it happened, Jack sat up and asked him what was wrong and his father got really mad at him. Now he just lies there and pretends to be asleep, the bed moving slightly with the weight of his trembling body.
The whole entire downstairs is saturated with the scent of sautéed garlic and roasted tomatoes. Jack’s stomach growls with hunger. His mother baked a meat lasagna from scratch as well as making the garlic bread herself, instead of the frozen kind they usually have. The lasagna is on top of the stove, still hot, the cheese bubbling.
It’s his mother’s idea to put on pajamas and Tommy helps her spread out a tablecloth on the living room floor like they’re on a picnic.
Jack rifles through the movies in the cupboard next to the TV and finds the Finding Nemo box, but the DVD isn’t in it. Panic starts to form in the back of his throat. What if it’s lost? That will set his mom off. He tries the pile of loose ones scattered on the floor, then the drawers. Finally, he sees it underneath yet another stack on top of the DVD player. He puts it in, turns on the TV and cues it up.
His mother kneels over the food, dishing out the lasagna, putting salad on all the plates except for Tommy’s. He gets four carrot nubs and cut-up apple slices instead. His father leans back against the couch staring straight ahead, blinking hard and swallowing.
A plate of garlic bread is passed around and Jack decides not to look at his dad anymore in case he is actually crying because that will make his stomach hurt and then he won’t be able to eat. And he wonders how long it will be until his mother makes something like this again. 5 to 15 years?
Tommy buries his head in his mother’s lap during the part where the barracuda eats Nemo’s mother. Then he shakes out too much Parmesan cheese so she switches plates with him, carefully scraping her salad onto his plate, wiping away the remnants of the dressing.
The food is so good, Jack has to stop himself from eating it too quickly, trying to linger on each bite to make up for all the nights they haven’t had a real dinner. He dips the garlic bread in the tomato sauce, takes a bite of lasagna, then washes it down with Coke, piles some salad on the garlic bread. He has two more helpings, soaking up all the sauce with the bread, then lies back to let everything settle.
After everyone is finished, they all move onto the couch, leaving the dirty plates and dishes of food in the middle of the floor.
“We can deal with this later,” his mother says.
When it gets to the part in the movie where Nemo finds his dad, they cling to each other, like they’re on a life raft, all crying a little bit. Even Jack.
And then the movie ends.
“Come here boys,” their dad says and they curl up into his lap, his big arms wrapped all the way around them. “Get the camera, Lorraine, please.”
While she’s looking for it, Jack can feel his dad’s chin on top of his head quiver. Trying to ignore his wriggling little brother, he hugs his dad extra tight, taking in everything—the way his skin feels, his smell, the sound of his breathing. The lights are still off and the blue glow of the television filters out over the remains of dinner.
This moment is going to end soon after their mother comes back in the room and takes some pictures, sends them up to bed. Jack tries to freeze it so he can come back to it at a later time. The moment when they are still like this.
Photo by Christopher Schoenbohm