Two days before he got arrested for breaking parole, my father shanghaied me to his apartment for a drunken session of Grand Theft Auto. Tonight was my mother’s graduation from night school, and she’d gone to the Hy-Vee to buy a cake for the little party she was throwing herself: her and me, then Billie and Billie’s boyfriend, who had gone to pick up Pastor Dave who had been spending a whole damn lot of time at our house lately.
Not thirty seconds after my mother drove off, my father pulled into the driveway in a Wrangler with no license plates. You could tell the thing had been spray-painted. He sat there blaring the horn until I jogged outside and leaned in through the window.
“What, you stalk the house now? Wait for Mom to leave?”
“I just need your help quick, moving this desk. You pump iron? It’s a beast.”
“Now? What’s the rush?”
“What do you think the rush is? I’m filing my fucking taxes.”
I got in. He gunned it out of our driveway and kept up the pace with some rolling stops.
“East Washington is quicker,” I said. My father stared at me over the tops of his sunglasses and kept staring until I got the picture and said, “Jesus, Darryl, you keep track of where she shops now, too?” I knuckled my eyes and dug in the glove box for the cigarettes I knew he kept there.
“Don’t. There’s a loaded gun in there.”
I kept digging. The Marb soft pack I found was empty. There was no gun.
“New desk for a new apartment,” said my father, grinning.
“Seriously, we’ve got to hustle.” I explained Mom’s party. “Alright?”
My father did this thing he’d been doing since I was a kid: unfolded his two hands like a book, closed them, then raised one hand to his heart while he kept the other on the imaginary book. But it was his left hand on his heart, and, as he might’ve said, it weren’t no bible, neither.
“If not,” I said, “Mom’ll kill you.”
This was only a slight exaggeration. She’d once thrown a silver turkey roaster at him and when he ducked, it put this long white gouge in the flame-top maple credenza she’d inherited from Grandpa Gene. I found her in the middle of the night with a tumbler of Carlo Rossi in one hand and a chamois in the other, trying to buff it out, and I was like, “Mom. It’s a gouge.”
We crossed the packed gravel of the construction zone on Sherman Avenue, and the springtime wind whipped dust hard inside the car. I rolled my window up.
My father pulled into the BP and parked.
“This is you hustling?” I said.
“Be right back,” he said and disappeared into the convenience store. Like a broken goddamn record, I texted Mom Be right back, too, then I silenced my cell.
My father came out carrying two sixers of tallboys in rings. He set the cans at my feet, cracked one, started the car, and didn’t back out.
“I’ve got to tell you something,” he said. “About your mother.”
“Dad,” I said.
“You think I don’t know? What this looks like? That what you think?” He blew the foam on his beer so it sank back into the mouth of the can. “I don’t expect you to be able to see it just how I can, but I think you should hear this for once in your life, that she ain’t always who she seems. Nothing in no relationship is just one person’s fault, you hear? It ain’t all been about me wanting to be gone or not wanting to see you, and, yeah, I’m not going to say I haven’t dicked the dog sometimes, because that’s what it means to be a man is you admit you’ve made your own bed of mistakes, and you sleep on that soggy mattress every time it rains. But the truth is that when she said to get out, I got out, but, no, that weren’t enough for her, and she swore on her preacher’s prick that once I was gone, she would do her goddamnedest to keep me from seeing you and Billie again, ever, and that’s precisely fucking what she’s done.”
He took off his sunglasses to pinch the bridge of his nose. “That’s just what she’s done,” he said.
In my pocket, my phone buzzed and buzzed until it died. My father wiped his eyes and put his glasses back on.
“Anyway,” he said. A wind gust rocked the car and whistled through the door crack where the weather-stripping had rotted out. Overhead the sky foamed like a boiling pot just after you dump the macaroni in.
His apartment was the upstairs unit in a fourplex with asphalt siding made to look like bricks. The lawn was mostly dirt, full of bright plastic toys, a tricycle overturned.
My father’s apartment was cleaner than I’d expected, and I wondered if this was premeditated, if he’d gone through the house with a bottle of Windex and a rag to prepare for my being here. He threw the beers in the fridge and turned on the television. There was no furniture except the pathetic stuff he’d moved out of our basement a while back.
“Where’s the desk, Darryl?”
He sank into the cat-scratched leather sofa, took up a PlayStation controller, and tossed the second one onto the cushion beside him, where he gestured for me to sit. My father’d bought the video games as incentive for me to come over more often, but whenever I did, the skill with which he slaughtered me at any competition—even, frequently, while working against an awe-inspiring degree of fuckedupness—proved that he’d already spent more time playing than I ever would. On-screen, the game’s logo blazed to life and the familiar theme music chimed.
“Do you have a girl?” my father asked. I was still standing over by the Pabst mirror where the car keys hung on hooks. “Or a couple? Hell, at your age? Better, even. When you get to be an old fart like me, you ain’t got the piss to mark every dumpster in the alley no more.”
“So we’re not doing this desk thing?”
“Sit,” he said, patting the couch. “Have a beer.”
When I didn’t help myself, he cracked one for me and placed it on the coffee table in front of the empty side of the couch.
I sat. We started with a few rounds of Bushido Blade, an old standby, and he kept picking the priestess girl with the spear and disemboweling me over and over until I threw down the controller and he said, “Okay, okay, handicap,” and started playing as the hulking slow guy with the war-hammer. I won a few, and he won a few, and things got to feeling lighter. I brought us each another tallboy. Best of nine became best of eleven, and we went on like that for an hour.
“So who’s your dealer?” my father said.
“I don’t have one.” His guy whirled the war-hammer overhead, then struck. I parried.
“That’s not what I heard,” he said.
“Well, you heard wrong.”
“They sell it over-the-counter at Walgreen’s these days?”
“You should talk,” I said.
“I should talk,” he said. “When I was your age, Friday night, I’d pop two Valium and wander the East Side. I was a made man. Every place I went, someone knew me, someone would buy me a drink. You? What you even doing here?”
His guy jabbed. I parried and riposted my épée straight to his eye socket. His guy sunk to his knees in a blood pool.
“You brought me here.” I threw down the controller. “It’s daytime.” Since I didn’t like the look he was giving me, I peered out the window at the glooming sky. “Besides, I’m underage, I can’t go to the bars yet anyway.”
“Not with that attitude, you can’t.”
Putting a hand to the couch to steady myself, I stood and switched off the PlayStation. My father grunted to his feet and disappeared down the hall. I listened to him piss with the door open as I channel-surfed and found the weather. The whole state was slashed diagonally, from Michigan to Superior, with fizzing pixels of purple and lime. The clouds outside were dark and roiling, and the sky had that greenish color, like an old-school TV with the tint knob jacked.
On his way back to the couch, my father pulled the last can of the second sixer from the fridge by its rings. He turned the PlayStation back on and loaded Grand Theft Auto. It was pretty much my dad’s wet dream to go around carjacking Mustangs and getting in high-speed chases, punching people off mopeds to flee the cops down the alleyway.
I checked my phone. A billion texts from Mom and Billie had piled up but I thumbed through without really reading because what I did read was just what I knew it would be anyway.
In the game, my father was beating a man in the street. He glanced up and saw me on my phone and said, “I told you you had a dealer.”
Right as I turned my ringer back on, the phone surged to life in my hand. I set it on the counter, then picked it up again, then set it back down.
“Fucking talk to her,” my dad said. “I don’t give a shit.”
I picked it up.
“Hello? Yeah yeah. Mom, I know.”
My father yanked the controller by its cord and jolted the PlayStation off the shelf. The TV screen blinked to static. I rolled my eyes and put a finger to my free ear.
“Here’s the thing,” I said. “He’s been drinking a lot already, and they’re saying sleet and freezing rain. So you know, driving? I know, right? In April?”
I said it all just like that, right in front of him.
“Let me talk to her,” he hollered. I turned my back to him since: (A) that was the worst idea ever, and (B) she’d never even talk to him anyway because she was still pissed about the whole scholarship money thing. Plus, that time at the gun range.
“Tell’er I’m ripped,” my father said. “Tell’er I’m passed out. Tell’er I fell and hit my head on the toilet tank and swallowed three teeth and I’m snoozing in a puddle of my own piss.”
For one heartbeat, I wanted it to be true. I wanted to see my own father facedown on the tile, spattered in his own blood. Then, quick as a hailstone through a rotten roof, the guilt set in. The thing was, I still loved him. I knew how much of a fuckup he was. But still. It’s not like you can trade in your dad like a used truck.
I hung up. My dad didn’t look at me, just sat packing his cigarettes over and over on his palm.
“She says that you’re used to drunk driving anyway so we should go right now, before the weather hits.”
“And what do you say, my man?”
I snagged his keys from their hook on the Pabst mirror and jingled them like you would a cat toy.
“Grow some balls,” he said.
“Oh, because this doesn’t take any?”
As I headed out he called behind me, “Is that prick of a preacher going to be there? Take a piss in his coffee for me, will you?”
Halfway down the stairs, I stopped. All around me rang the sudden crescendo of hailstones battering the roof. It was coming down hard.
Downstairs I stood under the awning of the stoop with gems of ice falling in white curtains all around. Already, a quarter-inch had layered itself between the sparse green grass in the lawn, cluttering in the underbelly of the tricycle. The ice fell so fast you could watch the level rise like sand in an hourglass. The coldness in the air was this radiant sort of cold, this glow-against-your-skin cold.. I stuck my hand out into the hail and it belted my flesh with tattoo-gun vibrations.
The screen door creaked open. My father joined me. He put his hand on my shoulder and squeezed and we watched the sky peeling apart from itself and the grass drowning in ice, the white rising so fast that maybe it wasn’t even rising, maybe we were sinking, maybe we were going down into the sinkhole of all this white everything. But what collected in the sidewalk cracks and roof gutters and seemed so heavy and solid today, tomorrow it would melt and be gone.
My father scooped up a handful of the hail and tested some in his mouth like a dip of Skoal. He held open the screen door for me.
“Looks like I’m stuck here with you,” I said.
“Naw,” he said. “It’s fine.” He spat out his chaw and stepped into the blinding curtain of ice, headed for the truck. “Well come on, boy, it ain’t gonna get any easier.”