I slowly opened my eyes at the sound of a ghostly electric bass. Soon, a scratchy guitar joined in an echoing accompaniment, bolstered by thunderous drums. When the guitar shifted to a banshee scream, I sat up in my bed and rubbed my eyes. I had been laying in my bed and listening to Nirvana’s Nevermind for the millionth time. I fell asleep during “Something In the Way” and was woken up by the hidden track that follows it. I yawned and stretched while Kurt Cobain screeched unintelligibly.
I swung my legs over the edge of the bed, stood, and walked to my bookshelf. I reached down to the shelf that held my CD player boom box and pressed my finger to the “stop” button. Cobain’s nonsensical yelling halted suddenly. I stood up straight and stretched my arms above my head. I inhaled a deep breath which made me a little dizzy. I put a hand on the bookshelf to steady myself. My stomach grumbled loudly. I realized I had not eaten anything since Trevor gave me the tater tots at lunch. I glanced at my hand to where it had landed on the bookshelf and saw that my fingers had fallen on the black leather spine of large book.
I pulled the book off of the shelf and held it in my hands. The black leather cover was embossed with the title in shiny, gold text:William Shakespeare The Complete Works. Trevor found the book in a used bookstore in Spokane and gave it to me for Christmas. I opened the cover and looked at the words scrawled in black ink on the title page.
“I remember we saw this in a Fur Trap shop window. You told me that the idea of one book containing everything written by Shakespeare was like holding an entire world in your hands. You mean the world to me, so here you go. Merry Christmas! Your friend, Trevor Kinsey.”
I felt another gurgling complaint from my stomach and closed the book. I ran my fingers over the smooth, black leather and returned the book to its shelf. I turned and made my way to the door.
As I passed my full-length mirror, I glanced at my reflection and saw myself out of the corner of my eye. I gave my image a disdainful look and grabbed a gray hoodie off the back of my desk chair. I pulled the sweatshirt over my head and opened my bedroom door.
I was hit in the face by the smells from my mother’s kitchen and the sound of my father’s television. I stood at the sop of the stairs and finished pulling my sweatshirt down. Still groggy from my short nap, I walked carefully down the stairs.
The staircase came down into the living room, which was awash in the sound of loud engines. My father sat in an easy chair, facing the television. The light from a floor lamp reflected off the top of his head, which had almost no hair anymore. From where I stood at the bottom of the stairs I could only see pieces of him: the shiny cap of his bald head, his feet on the recliner’s foot rest, and his hands on the arm rests. His right hand held a remote control and his left hand held a can of Coors Light. I carefully sneaked past the back of my father’s easy chair and crossed the living room. Just past the front door was the kitchen and dining room.
I walked up to the family table and quietly pulled out a chair that faced the kitchen. I sat down and watched my mother. She was peering into the glass window of the oven door. She tapped her foot impatiently and stood up to take one more look at the timer next to the knobs that controlled the temperature of the oven and range.
“The timer says it should stay in there for another five minutes,” my mother said to herself with her hands on her hips. “But it looks done to me.”
“It smells done,” I said.
My mother gasped and turned to look at me.
“Jesus, Nicole. You scared the crap out of me.”
“Sorry mom,” I said.
“How long have you been sitting there?”
“Just a couple minutes.”
“Good, I was just about to call for you to set the table.”
My mother put oven mitts on both hands, opened the oven, and pulled a glass baking dish off of the middle rack. She set the dish on a couple of pot holders that had been strategically placed on the counter next to the range. A small pot sat over a gas jet set to low and steam gently leaked from under the lid. My mother shut the oven and turned it off. She then looked at me and raised her eyebrows.
“Well,” my mother said. “Are you going to set the table or not?”
I slid my chair back and stood up. I walked to the kitchen and opened the silverware drawer. I grabbed three knives, forks, and spoons and put them in my left hand. I walked back to the table and put one of each item in front of the chairs we used when there wasn’t any company. Dad’s chair faced the living room so he could still see the television. My mother’s chair was next and my chair was at the other end so I didn’t block my father’s view. I walked back into the kitchen, grabbed three clean dinner plates and two glasses from the cupboard. I placed the plates on the counter by the glass dish and set the drinking glasses next to the silverware belonging to my mother and me.
“Perfect,” my mother said. “Will you go tell your father that dinner is ready?”
I pursed my lips and let my head fall to my chest.
“Fine,” I said and trudged to the living room.
I walked up to my father’s recliner and noticed that he was sound asleep. His head was tipped back, his mouth forced open by the tilt of his neck. His breath came in and out of his open mouth with a gasping sound and carried with it the smell of cheap beer and smoker’s breath. I tapped his right forearm gently with my index finger. His fingers twitched a little on the rubber buttons of the TV remote. I put my hand on his forearm and shook it a little.
“Dad, dinner is ready,” I said softly.
My dad sat up quickly and lifted the remote like he was going to use it as a bludgeon. Amazingly, he avoided spilling his beer.
“Dinner? What time is it,” My father asked.
“Six thirty,” I said.
“Hmm, the race is almost over. Last one before Talladega.”
“Mom asked me to come get you for dinner.”
My father lifted his left arm and gently shook his beer can. The little bit of beer left in the bottom of the can sloshed quietly. He lifted the can to his mouth, tipped his head back, and drained the can. He handed the empty can to me.
“Could you put a cold one of these on the table for me? I’ll be right there.”
“Sure,” I said and returned to the kitchen.
I walked up to the trash can and dropped the silver beer can into the garbage.
“Oh honey,” My mom said behind me. “We’ve started recycling those, remember?”
I rolled my eyes and retrieved the can from the pile of garbage it landed in.
“Just put it in the sink next to the others.”
I looked to the sink and saw two “Silver Bullet” cans and two cans that used to contain corn. I placed the can next to the other four and went to the fridge. I grabbed a jug of milk, a can of beer, and a bottle of ketchup. I shut the door and returned to the kitchen table. I set the beer can down at my father’s place setting and started pulling out my chair when my mom approached carrying two plates of food. She set one down for my father and the other down for me.
I looked at my plate and was at first disappointed with the slices of meat loaf and the pile of corn. I sniffed the air above my plate and the scent literally made my mouth water. My empty stomach gurgled loud enough for my mom to hear and I was suddenly very hungry. I shoveled corn into my mouth and barely noticed my dad as he pulled his chair out and sat down.
“Slow down, for crying out loud,” my father said as he cracked open his beer. “You’re going to choke or something.”
I sat up and exaggeratedly chewed my bite of food.
“That’s better, smartass.”
My mom came to the table, set her plate down, and took her seat.
“How’s the meatloaf,” she asked.
I realized I had not tried any meatloaf. I cut a slice in half, put one of the halves in my mouth, and closed my eyes while I chewed. The meat was juicy and I could taste the onion soup mix my mom always used.
“Delicious,” I said around my mouthful of meatloaf.
In the time it took my parents to begin eating, I had finished can my plate. I picked up the milk and poured myself a glass. I put the glass to my mouth and drank it down. I put the glass down on the table and caught my breath.
“May I have seconds,” I asked my mom.
“Sure honey, you must be really hungry. I didn’t think you even liked meatloaf.”
I got up from the table, grabbed my plate, and started for the counter when my dad cleared his throat. I turned and looked at him quizzically.
“Are you sure that’s such a good idea,” he asked.
“Am I sure what is a good idea?”
“Are you sure you should have seconds? I mean, you should maybe start watching what you eat.”
I opened my mouth to reply but my mother spoke first.
“Tim, I hardly think she needs to worry about having a little more meatloaf.”
My father sat back and took another drink of his beer before speaking.
“She’s right about the age when you started getting fat, Louanne.”
My mother looked hurt for a second, then sighed and stood up from the table. Her expression morphed from pain to the blank look of a lobotomy patient. She picked up her plate of half-eaten food and carried it to the garbage can. I stared at my father in disbelief while my mother scraped her uneaten food into the trash.
“That was a shitty thing to say,” I said to my father. ”If she was putting on weight her senior year of high school, it was probably because you knocked her up!”
“Don’t use that language with me, missy.”
“What, you can call me and mom fat but I can’t use the word shit?”
“You said it again, do you need me to ground you?”
“Go ahead and ground me, I don’t give a shit,” I said through clenched teeth.
I walked to the counter, grabbed a slice of meatloaf in my hand, and took a big bite.
“You don’t get to talk that way to me and deliberately disobey me in my house. This is my house and that is my food!”
I glared at my father and was about to hurl more angry words at him when I heard a soft noise. I looked to my right to see my mother standing in the corner of the kitchen. She was softly crying and tears ran down her cheek to fall on the laminate counter top.
“Mom,” I said.
She shook her head. She wouldn’t look at me. I looked back at my father. He glowered at me, the muscles on the side of his jaw squirmed while he ground his teeth.
I put the rest of the meatloaf from my hand into my mouth, opened the back door, and stepped out into the cool October air.
“You can’t leave, you’re grounded,” yelled my father from his seat.
I slammed the back door before he could say anything else. The back door led to our back yard. A rusty old swing set took up one corner and an unattached garage took up the other. There was a space between the side of the house and the fence that divided our property from the Kinseys’. I stomped through the weeds that grew in that space and walked out into our front yard. The air was chilly but I was too angry to feel it. From behind me came the sounds of the television at full volume. I didn’t need to turn around and look to know that my father was back in his easy chair and my mother was probably doing the dishes.
I took a deep breath and blew a cloud of water vapor into the air. I looked over to Trevor’s house and saw that his car was still gone. I knew he should be coming home from practice any minute. I walked out to the sidewalk that ran the length of our street, turned left, and walked over to the driveway. I walked across the drive, up the two steps to the porch, and across to the two-person swing that hung in front of the kitchen window.
I sat down on the swing and reflexively reached for the headphones that were usually around my neck. I was disappointed to find I had left my Walkman in my room. My anger was fading and the cool air started to get to me. I pulled my hood up over my head and pulled the sleeves down over my hands. I brought my knees to my chest and locked my arms around them. The swing began to smoothly rock back in forth in the breeze. I sat and listened to the sounds of our neighborhood and waited for Trevor to get home.