“If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it”
— Toni Morrison
The vinyl seat wheezed as my brother and I climbed across the booth, my sister and my other brother took the booth across from us while my father sat in a chair at the end of the table. A heavy silence settled over us. My father picked up his menu.
“Figure out what you want,” My father said in his familiar gruff tone. I dutifully picked up my menu and looked it over before quickly deciding on a burger and shake. The waitress interrupted our hush with her jovial greeting, taking our order and promising quick service.
The rest of the restaurant buzzed with life in contrast to the gloom that followed my family in. No single voice stood out in the din of chatter, clank of plates and the tune of “50 Ways to Leave your Lover” by Paul Simon, which had been playing on repeat since its release on the stations that were popular in Nebraska, coming through the radio. I watched an older man and woman clasp hands across their dingy table and bow their heads above their burger, fries, coleslaw and baked beans saying a prayer before smiling at one another and digging in. Behind them a mom who looked like she didn’t get enough sleep the night before reprimanded her two boys for using their knives as swords while her husband leaned back in his chair and chatted with the guys at the table behind him. A group of waitresses talked behind the counter, sharing an amusing secret that elicited an unexpected bubble of laughter from all of them at the same time.
My father cleared his throat. My eyes found his hardened face set in a dark scowl. I wondered if his expression had always been lined with such cavernous unhappiness, and I was only noticing it just now.
“I just don’t understand what your mom is doing,” Dad said. “Who is she running around with now?”
I kept my gaze low on the chipped white linoleum of the table. My fingers played across the metallic ridges along its edge. I felt the weight of his stare on the top of my head like a physical presence.
“It just isn’t right. Your mom, she doesn’t let me see you, kids, enough. She should be a better role model for you kids,” My father’s disparaging remarks settled around me like a well-worn jacket that I had outgrown of long ago, leaving me constricted and immobile. He held the opinion that my mom was keeping us from him. My father and I didn’t share the same perception of recent events, but I didn’t say as much for fear of agitating him. The truth, as I saw it, was that I had spent more time over the past few days talking to my father, or more accurately, listening to him talk, than I had my whole life up to this point. People said we shared similar facial features, but that is where the likeness ended.
The food arrived. With the process of eating to keep us occupied, we were spared any more of dad’s grievances that had, in short order, become all too familiar. I ate my burger in the uncomfortable tension that lurked around us when we were all together. The danger that we would all unravel into screaming sobbing hysterics sat at the periphery of every interaction.
Our meal ended, my dad paid, and we got into the four-door Ford my sister typically drove. Tonight, my dad used it. Crammed into the back seat with my two younger brothers, I assumed we would be turning toward my mom’s house to be dropped back off. Instead, my dad made a left turn.
“Aren’t you bringing us back home?” I asked.
“I just have to grab something back at my place,” dad responded without any more explanation.
The car made steady progress to the far side of town. Out the window, the lights of Main Street faded to muted house lamps shining out from lone windows on large plots of land. The landscape stretched endlessly in all directions giving the impression of an infinite vastness in the twilight of the evening.
“You know, I just…I just don’t know what your mother is up to,” My father shook his head, spiraling into his same rhetoric. A Salem cigarette flopped up and down with the movement of his lips as his hands stayed on the wheel. He didn’t bother to take it out. I studied the smoke trailing off the cigarette as it was sucked through the crack in the window to dissipate in the chilly evening air.
“I wish she wouldn’t do that to you, dad,” Donna said from the front passenger seat. From my vantage point, sitting behind her, I could only see the wisps of her short blond curls blowing in the wind. Luckily she couldn’t see the scowl on my face at all.
“Mom isn’t doing anything to dad,” I said. Donna turned in her seat to make sure I could see the dirty look my comment elicited.
“I don’t know how you can say that, Connie,” Donna shot back. “You’re living with her. You see all the things she’s doin’!”
“All you know is what dad tells you!” I shouted back.
“What dad says is the truth. You know it too. Don’t you call dad a liar!” Donna’s finger pointed at me in admonition as she waggled it back and forth in my face. I considered grabbing it for a moment but figured it was a losing battle.
“Listen, Connie; I love your mom, you know that. You kids know how much I care for her. I just don’t know what she is doing. She doesn’t let me see you, kids. She isn’t following the agreement, and she’s out running around all over town with that bimbo friend of hers. It just ain’t right. She shouldn’t be doin’ that stuff. She shouldn’t be hurtin’ me like that.”
“It’s okay, daddy,” Donna soothed.
I sighed heavily and resumed my study of the landscape. I tried to tune out my father’s gravelly voice, focusing instead on the steady strum of Johnny Cash’s guitar as he sang about his endless devotion to his wife coming through the eight track. Because you’re mine, I walk the line. Even as a young girl, the song was darkly emblematic of my father’s unhinged devotion to my mother despite evidence of a crumbling facade. He saw my mom as property to be guarded and controlled rather than a person in her own right.