Ever since I was old enough to walk, I would occasionally sneak out of bed late at night and slowly creep down my steps, past the front door, and then slink down the last couple steps and stop. I would peek around the corner, and then quietly crawl down onto the rough basement carpeting. I would sneak up behind our basement couch where my parents were always sitting at opposite ends like strangers in a waiting room, watching the nightly news.
It was on that very same couch that my siblings and I were asked to fill that gap as the lasting connection between our parents. I was five, my brother Dan was six, and my sister Stephanie was ten. My mother sat all of us down on the creaky old couch, Dan and I on the right and Stephanie on the left. She sat in the middle with her arms extended across the back of the couch and her hand rubbing my head. I could see my father through the glass patio door mowing the lawn in his work clothes. Just black checkered slacks and a short-sleeved white button-down shirt. He would pass once, and then go out of sight. Then he’d pass again, and in another brief minute he would disappear again, each time moving further and further away.
“Kids, your father is going to be leaving us for a long time.” my mother said as she tilted her head down to look at us, her hand still stroking my hair.
“You mean,” I asked. “For like a hundred days?”
“No,” my mother said. “Like forever.”
Soon after that my father disappeared for more than just those brief seconds he did while mowing the grass. However, Dan and I didn’t seem to notice. The hours that my father wasn’t working each day were either spent at a distant bar, somewhere where he was unreachable, or at home, face up on the couch snoring, where he was also unreachable. My mother spent her hours comforting and caring for my newborn sister Tessa, and Stephanie spent her hours locked in her room, where I would later learn that she spent those hours reading.
However, a few weeks later the doorbell rang and my father was standing there, uncomfortable and awkward. He stepped in and my mother cautiously walked down the stairs to hand him a few hangers with flannel shirts and odd colored button-downs. We all stood at the top of the steps, staring down at him, not knowing what to say, or if to say anything at all.
“Hey kids,” my father looked up at us. “Do you wanna go to the fair?”
As we drove in his van to the Westmoreland County fair, I had a feeling that my father couldn’t find anything to say. But neither could we. Stephanie sat in the front seat, her head squished up against the glass, probably dreaming about what conversations she and my father could have about books if he ever read any. Dan and I just sat in the backseat, our heads bobbling from the potholes, listening to AC/DC on the radio, a band that my father listened to religiously. And my father sat driving with his window rolled down a half inch so he could bounce the ashes off the top of his cigarette as it burned further and further down. Every now and then he’d lean forward and pull the cigarette lighter from the front dash and light up another. Sometimes he would reach out and tweak the volume of the radio up or down. Every time he lowered the volume I paused and looked at him for a second, waiting for him to say something. Something to explain where he had gone or why he had disappeared. But instead, I just sat and bobbled my head.
When we arrived at the fair, the scene diverted my attention away from the questions I had for my father. I could smell the fumes of greasy, fried foods. An aroma that my young body craved since the few times I had tried the stuff, for in my house, the only food we ate came from the refrigerator or a can, so such salty delight was considered exotic. The sights and glamour of the place almost made me trip over my velcro-strapped shoes. Children screaming and running in overwhelming ecstasy, babies waltzing along the pavement with ying-yangs or balloons or clowns painted across their chubby cheeks. And then my eyes caught the brute animals trotting around beyond a rink of bleachers. They held people on their backs, and even smaller creatures followed them with a tail wrapped around their trunks.
My father made an unusual effort to bend down beside me and look parallel towards the gigantic creatures.
“Do you like the elephants?” he asked
I remained staring.
“Maybe we can go see them today, ok?” he said.
I mechanically said “Yes,” and shuffled along with him.
Further down the pathway, we came across a booth with a pyramid shaped stack of fish bowls. My father looked down at us.
“Do you kids wanna play?” he asked.
We all stared at him for a second in total surprise and concern. Then we answered with a simultaneous "Yeah." He pulled out his wallet and reached for a giant wad of one dollar bills. He handed us each a couple. As we received the money, our eyes lit up with green. In our home, money was not something that was thrown around so deliberately, for I can still recall my mother sitting at our dining room table with a cup of coins toppled over, counting pennies to buy milk and bread.
We each bought a handful of ping-pong balls and proceeded to make reckless attempts at bouncing them into the water-filled bowls that contained bright purple Betta fish. After all of my attempts had failed, I turned back to my father and asked for more tries. He smiled down at me and pulled another wad of ones from his packed wallet. I was shocked. This was the man who had turned down countless invitations to little league games. The man who once said that our piano lessons were a “waste of money.” The man who had reassuringly said “No,” at any invites to play catch. Who said “No,” at any questions or demands that we ever had. My father said “No,” but this man, this man said “Yes.”
I bounced and bounced dozens and dozens of ping-pong balls at the pyramid. Dan and Stephanie did the same. Their tongues dangled from their mouths, showing that their attention was so focused on the game at hand that all other bodily functions had taken a backseat. Finally, after dozens of attempts, I landed one of the balls in one of the glass bowls. A bald man mumbled something then reached under a table behind the booth and pulled out a plastic bag with a beautiful Betta in it. My enthusiasm was uncontrollable. I nearly tore the bag in half as I grabbed it from his hands. I turned around towards the direct sunlight and held it up in the air so I could see the fish in the forefront. At the sight of its color and beauty, I made plans to put it with another Betta so they could mate and reproduce tiny baby Betta’s. But later on, when I confronted my mother with my plan, she informed me that Betta males and females could not be mixed, that they had to have separate homes. And as I stared through the other side of that single Betta’s home, I could see a short blonde woman strolling towards us.
“Daniel, Michael, Stephanie,” my father quickly said. “Come over here.”
He stood in front of a short blonde woman who had one child standing beside her and another in a wheelchair. As I walked forward towards the strangers, my father stood anxiously with a goofy smile on his face. A smile that was so completely new to me that I couldn’t quite recognize the man behind it.
“Michael, Daniel, Stephanie. This is Michelle,” he said as he turned in the direction of the stubby blonde woman.
“Hi kids,” she said as she stepped out from behind the wheelchair and placed her hands on the shoulders of the other child.
“What’s that you got there honey? Is that a Betta fish?” she asked leaning over the child. Her eyes squinted in the sun as she honed in on the Betta fish that I was holding up in the air for her to see. I could smell the cigarette smoke on her shirt as she came closer.
“Cool,” she said and leaned back with her hands still on the child’s shoulders.
“Oh yeah, and kids. These are my daughters. This is Mandy,” she said as she placed her hand on the handle of the wheelchair. Mandy frightened me at first. She was sick and she sat there, her eyes bulging, her hands tense inside one another, and she rocked forward and back constantly.
“And this is Ashley,” she said placing her hand on the shoulder of a smaller child with thick black hair and freckles underneath her eyes. She looked to be about the same age as me. She glanced at my face and then my beta fish. She had a shivering look in her eye, very uneasy and unpredictable.
We proceeded to walk aimlessly down the gravel paths. Dan and I shuffling shyly behind Stephanie. Ashley walking on one side of Mandy’s wheelchair while her mother pushed. My father on the other side, talking pleasurably to Michelle with a familiar look in his eye and that goofy smile bouncing gingerly with Michelle’s every comment. My siblings and I almost instantly leapt to the conclusion that this was not my father, and that this must be some type of twilight zone where this man with the same black mustache, same shapely gut, and same high-ankle socks who looked like my father, was in fact someone else.
As we approached rides, we were eagerly asked if we wanted to ride. We always indiscriminately agreed to. But I could not concentrate or enjoy these rides. My attention and curiosity were focused on my father’s escaped persona, this Michelle woman, and her family. I didn’t know who they were or where they came from. These questions lingered in my head as I watched my father and Michelle during every ride. Through the twists, turns, and jerks of the carnival machines, I watched my father wrap his arms around Michelle and place kisses on her cheeks. He smiled and she smiled, standing there pretending to watch us while we pummeled through rides. On a ride where you run and slide down a giant inflatable slide, I stopped at the top to look down at them. They were off in their own new life. She swayed in his arms as his chin rested on the top of her blonde head. They were probably both imagining the novelties and experiences ahead of them. Like how I planned to raise my Betta fish, they would make their own family. A new house, my father, a new yard to mow, and her, a new father for her children.
Even as we walked through the farm animals sections they stayed in their own thoughts and words, walking soulfully ahead of us. Her with one hand on the wheelchair and the other comfortably inside my father’s. At the concession stand, he paid for and brought her food to her. He prepared it well too, putting ketchup and mustard on her hot dog perfectly, and he even inserted a straw into her paper Pepsi cup. These were things that my father never did for us or my mother. My mother did everything for us while he watched. She even cooked every dinner at home, despite him being a professional chef. My siblings and I were growing even more concerned, and this concern resonated throughout the rest of the afternoon.
During the car ride home, my father finally resurfaced. He went back to his silence and his stoic look. His window rolled down a half an inch, bouncing the ashes from his cigarette out the window every now and then. Stephanie went back to dreaming with her head smashed up against the glass. And Dan and I remained seated in the back, our heads bobbling once again. Only this time, I had more questioned waiting to be answered every time he reached for the volume knob. Who was this Michelle woman? Why were you wrapping your arms around her? Why aren’t you still living at home? Where had you disappeared to? These questions only ran on and on as I still just bobbled in my youthful oblivion, knowing very well that if I asked any of these, my father would only answer with his second favorite answer, “Don’t worry about it.”
When we reached home, we got out and I just stood there, waiting for my father to get out and come back inside our house where he belonged. But as soon as we got out, he just backed out of the driveway and drove away.
Still hot with concern, Stephanie, Dan, and I went inside to find my mother who we had all missed dearly. I was still confused and I had questions that needed to be answered.
When we got inside, our home was cold and dark. All of the lights had been turned off and the last rays of sunlight had already passed. The living was almost completely dark when we came up the stairs. We called for our mother, but nobody answered. Dan and I looked towards Stephanie for guidance since she was the oldest. She called again but nobody answered. Finally, we went into her room and found her sitting on her bed. The windows were open and a cold breeze came blowing through the white curtains, blowing and holding them up in the air. Balled-up tissues were spread across my mother’s bed like they had just precipitated from the ceiling. She was sitting up with her head pointed down, crying painfully into a tissue. She didn’t even look up at us as we came into her room. Confused and left in the dark, we knew that she was in pain, so we all crawled up to her side.
“He took you to see her, didn’t he?” she muttered between sobs.
“You mean,” I asked. “You mean Michelle?”
“Is that her name?” she asked.
“Yes,” Stephanie answered.
And that’s when I realized what was going on. That maybe my father had moved onto to some other couch with this Michelle woman. Maybe he and Michelle didn’t sit at opposite ends of the couch like strangers. Maybe she sat with his arms tucked around her. And that maybe it was just my mother on her own couch now, with just us kids tucked under her arms. And maybe my father wouldn’t be mowing the grass here anymore, but he would be mowing the grass of some other home, somewhere else. And maybe he lived in that some other home and not here anymore. But that was ok. Because maybe there was only meant to be enough room on our basement couch for four kids and their mother.