Light floating through our kitchen window transforms his fiery red hair to golden, angelic. He’s a good father, our stay-at-home parent, our family cook. He runs his fledgling law practice from our basement. It’s hard to believe that a few months ago he became so enraged by a soggy submarine sandwich that he torpedoed it across the fast-food counter. The bun landed with a thud. Shredded lettuce and bits of onion bounced like a hailstorm. Our daughter was terrified.
He peers into the refrigerator. “Ask our girl what she wants for her condemned meal,” he says, “and will you do the supermarket?” Tomorrow she leaves for two weeks at a sleep-away camp in the Virginia backwoods, where none of us have been. She begged to go, but she’s only nine, and it’s her first long separation from us. I wonder how we will cope.
“Sure,” I say as if shopping for a meal with overtones of death row could be easy. A Saturday afternoon at home is rare for me. For most of this hot, muggy summer of 1976, my office has kept me busy evenings and weekends. I’m out of touch with domesticity. I was never good at it.
“Corn on the cob, please, Mom—and spareribs,” she replies when I find her outdoors. Tomorrow I will miss her delicate, button face. She’s a tiny third grader, and as she bounds toward a cluster of much taller children, all her age, I resist the temptation to scoop her up and take with me on the food hunt. Our family will have time together over dinner tonight. In our garden. The three of us. Daughter. Mother. Father, our master-of-ceremonies. I picture him lighting candles on the table, on the railing, and at the edge of the flower beds.
When I return, the supermarket bounty draws him and our golden retriever into the kitchen. “Whatcha got there?” he asks, diving into the brown paper bag as he pushes the dog’s nose aside.
A gallon of ice cream. Great.
Chocolate sauce. Even better.
He dangles a ten-pound bag of potatoes by its neck. “Exactly right,” he says. “Butter. Grated garlic. Wrapped in foil. Our little girl loves the way they crisp.”
He grins when he finds the silver queen corn.
I have brought home the perfect summer meal. I smile at him.
Not so fast.
He extracts the spareribs from the bag. His face tightens and takes on the color of a stop sign. “You know I don’t like to cook these,” he says.
Did I know that? The ribs were on sale and I bought enough to feed ten. “She asked for them,” I say.
“Sweetie,” he answers back. Sweetie. How did we escalate to our fighting word? His watch-it-buddy meaning is clear—he suspects I planted the idea of ribs in our daughter’s head and believes I’m abusing his willingness to be our family chef. The last time I saw him this color he was hurling that submarine sandwich and our daughter ran out the door.
I offer to make the ribs. “Before you took over the cooking, you liked the way I broiled them, especially with my barbecue sauce,” I say.
Maybe not. Our dog slinks from the kitchen. Our chef, who has never been to summer camp, harrumphs. He has heard my tales of salmon pea wiggle, boiled cabbage, and powdered eggs. He wants our dear child to dream about his cooking while she endures the two weeks of institutional meals he imagines. “I’ll barbecue,” he says. “I don’t need your help.”
I retreat to a yellow canvas chair in the garden. I hope my book will transport me away from tomorrow. The camp sent rules to prevent camper homesickness. Parents should not visit, phone, send food or bad news. Surely our daughter can take care of herself. She instructs me about the importance of breakfast. Recently she pointed out that bananas are not, as I had implied when struggling to meet an office deadline, a green vegetable. Yes, she will be fine.
But what about her parents? The camp brochure contains no bromides for our well-being. That thought drives me into my book. Within a few pages the chef is standing beside me placing slathered spareribs on the grill. Our retriever sniffs the meat. I envy the possibility that tomorrow when counting his people he won’t distinguish between two and three. The chef wipes barbecue sauce off the dog’s nose and says, “I’m taking him for a walk.”
Fiction is a luxury. There are no distractions. Chapters fly. My book, The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough, is not great literature. It doesn’t occur to me that well into the next century I will remember that book or that my husband took time from barbecuing to walk the dog while I read it. Yet decades later, that afternoon remains so vivid that it tumbles out in the present tense. Vivid but likely incomplete. Rarely a moment with him was prosaic. He must have done something endearing that day. He didn’t own barbecue tools. Did he improvise with a weeder and trowel?
I am reading intently when he reappears. No time has passed except on my watch. “Sweetie.” That word. “I told you I was going to walk the dog.”
“You did,” I say.
“God damn it. You were sitting right here.”
“Yes, I was,” I say.
“Why didn’t you take the spareribs off the grill?”
“I didn’t know you wanted me to.”
“For Christ sake, you could show a little initiative. They fucking A burned up.” His rant ricochets off neighboring houses. A lawnmower stops. A garage door across the alley rattles shut.
I check the grill. The spareribs are black and shrunken. Our garden reeks of scorch. No one could believe my astonishment.
“God damn it to Hell!” he shouts. More doors and windows bang.
My heart, aching over our daughter’s impending departure, has no room for his distress. She wanted spareribs. He could have allowed me to cook. He could have asked me to monitor the grill. I am not at fault. Besides, there are solutions. “There are more ribs in the fridge,” I remind him. “It’s not too late to start over. I can make vegetarian chili. We can eat out.”
Sweat rolls down his face. His chest heaves. His mouth moves but his voice doesn’t reach me. My decidedly unreliable eyes see smoke shooting from his angry ears. Usually when his outbursts provoke my sense of humor, his temper fizzles, and the two of us collapse with laughter in each other’s arms. But today when I can’t hold my amusement in, he stomps across the twelve inches that separate us.
I am filled with regret, but my apology squeaks thin.
I flee to the kitchen.
Sounding like a chain saw, he pursues. I have never seen him in such a rage. He gains on me. Without warning he stops in the dining room. I turn. He raises an antique pine chair above his head. The two-inch thick seat was beveled from a single board in the nineteenth century. He slams the chair against the floor.
He holds a half chair in each hand.
I grab my car keys and bolt. I drive several miles to the park and sit on a flat rock in a stream. His anger has been a presence since shortly after we met in 1963. It began with wordless, icy withdrawal following his father’s death. After our marriage it upheaved into loud, inarticulate profanity, and then—at the fast food place—into a tirade that possessed his arms and legs. Now his anger has taken over our home.
I shiver in the August heat. The emptiness of tomorrow which haunted me earlier bleaches dry in the sun. Nothing matters until I notice a far-away street light. It is dark. I have a daughter alone with a father who is crazed.
Speeding home, I wonder why I hadn’t thought of her earlier.
Our front porch is lit. The chair, braced with black metal clamps, stands on the dining table. Father and daughter, heads close together, sit talking in our candle-lit kitchen. She greets me, puts her plate in the dishwasher, and exits the room. Pain deepens his eyes, as if her summer camp will cheat him out of two weeks of fatherhood.
I am shaking and frightened. How will it be for us when she is at camp?
Surprising myself, I stand over him and say, “If you lose your temper again, I will leave you. For good. This is my only warning.” My words are as heavy as suitcases. Yet I fear their bluster. I remember a neighbor, sobbing, as she drove off with her children to an undisclosed destination while her abusive husband was at work. I doubt that I have her strength. I fear that his outbursts and now his breaking things will accelerate. I resolve to become a better mother and wife—a blame-the-victim approach and proven ineffective. Yet it’s the sole defense I can gather. It’s ironic that my office promotes women’s rights and I have no idea how to protect my own.
For a while we are both on our best behavior.
The demands of my office are relentless. In spite of my resolution, one night after our daughter returns from camp I find myself working late again. Father and daughter go out to eat.
“Another restaurant disaster,” she sighs over a family dinner the next evening. “You should have seen the waitress’s high heels.” She describes the woman’s teetering walk, her struggle to keep her tray of drinks level, beer and cola glasses clinking against each other.
“No,” I cry to keep those drinks from falling yesterday.
“My suit got drenched. They didn’t offer pay for dry cleaning.” Victim indignation at being cheated suffuses the air the way it did when he hurled the sandwich.
I know from that debacle that when our child witnesses his temper, she feels she is its victim. My ultimatum of a few week earlier rises in my throat. If he blew up in front of her last night, she and I will have to leave him. “No,” I cry as if I could prevent whatever happened yesterday.
“Mom!” she says in her Earth-to-Mom voice. “Dad didn’t lose his temper.”
“Before the beer hit my lap she said, ‘Dad, don’t!’”
“I trained my Dad,” she tells me when we are alone. She sits straight, her shoulders back. With legs not yet long enough to reach the floor, she looks unimaginably tall.
For six years after that he doesn’t yell. He doesn’t throw or break anything in anger. Maybe his self-restraint is due is due to our daughter’s “training.” Maybe to my ultimatum. Maybe to the orange shame-stain across that chair, which he examines from time to time. The cause doesn’t matter. He has just become a judge.
His entire body seems to vibrate with his smiles as he greets family, friends, and his new colleagues at the reception he gives, pursuant to tradition, at the courthouse following his investiture. I am confident his outbursts belong to the past.
Because he doesn’t trust my cooking, he ordered food from the caterer for another party at home tonight. That party is not only to celebrate him but also our daughter, now fifteen. She leaves tomorrow for high school in Europe, where he was born and lived as a child.
Tonight’s feast stands in bags in a corner. As the reception goes on I remind myself, Remember to take it home. I smile at our guests. I’m happy, but I’m preoccupied, too. I’ll be losing my day-to-day identity as a mother, losing the closeness of our daughter’s affection—she still likes us to tuck her into bed at night. A year separation seems like a long time. I wonder if I can bear it.
I watch my newly-appointed judge talk intently with his brothers on the other side of the room. It doesn’t occur to me to worry about him this coming year. He’ll be consumed by the demands of his job, and he’s enthusiastic about our daughter’s year abroad because she will live with his cousins, get to know his country, and learn his native language.
Toward the end of the reception, court employees carry the leftover food to the kitchen. Including—we notice too late—the meal we’d planned to take home. He and I search for the kitchen while his brothers take our daughter home to let our guests in.
We locate the kitchen at the end of a long basement hallway. The door is locked.
“Is anyone there?” he calls.
He bangs with one fist. Two.
His voice grows louder. He spews God-damn-its. They reverberate down the hall and probably up the stairways.
“Calm down. People will hear you,” I say.
He doesn’t stop.
His behavior is ridiculous. Headlines tickertape past my inner eyes: Judge Breaks into Court Kitchen, Judge Pleads Guilty to Disturbing the Peace. To keep from laughing, I picture the orange swath on the chair he broke.
Six years ago.
The day before our daughter left for two weeks at summer camp.
This time she’s leaving us for a year.
Of course he can’t stop himself.
I wonder if our daughter knows how his heart breaks with pride and sorrow.
I lean close to him. “Dad, don’t,” I whisper.
Gently, as if he were rescuing an injured bird, he puts an arm around me.
Our footsteps blend into the only sound in the empty hall. They carry us far too rapidly toward the days ahead.