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Night Owl by Jenni Dart

Mark drummed his fingers on the wooden table. He had the strong hands of a weekend warrior, coarse and rough. The house was forever in need of attention; always something to fix. The chair beneath him creaked as he shifted forward. He tapped his foot against the table leg. The varnish was chipped and splintered from the dog’s teething days. So many nicks and scratches. His own parents never would’ve tolerated such blatant cracks and imperfections. Under the kitchen sink, behind the green canister of Comet and the box of S.O.S pads, was an unopened can of stain close to the table’s color. But Mark felt no need to repair the table leg; some things were better left untouched.

He watched Rita wipe down the kitchen cabinets. Her nails scraped crust from the handles. Mark sipped from his can of beer and wondered whether he’d survive another round of layoffs at the office. On Friday his boss announced the company cutbacks were going to hit the electrical engineering department hard. Mark’s grip tightened around the can; he knew he’d be the first to go. He tossed back his beer and swallowed hard. All those guys fresh out of college. They put in longer hours and accepted lower salaries. Those young kids didn’t have a family to feed.

Rita turned to face him, “Mark, did you hear me?”

“I’m right here,” Mark answered.

His wife’s hand moved in tight circles along the face of the cabinet. “Whatever you did to the dryer last weekend made it worse. I’m hanging everything to dry on the back clothesline. The weather’s turning colder and I don’t know how much longer I can hang things out there.”

“I’ll take another look.”

Rita straightened her back. “Can’t we just call in a handy man already and be done with it?”

Why would he pay some other guy for something he could do? Mark massaged his temples. There was the mortgage, the health insurance, and other bills. He lifted the can to his lips but it was nearly empty.

Rita tossed the dirty rag into the sink and grabbed a bulky oven mitt. She heaved the heavy lasagne from the oven. “Remember when you tried to fix the stove? Now it’s down to only two working burners.” Rita struggled with the lasagne tray and kicked the oven door shut.

He’d left his tools all over the floor. Mark knew the rest, she didn’t need to finish. He remembered how the kids almost drilled holes into their hands.

Rita wiped her forehead with her slender arm. The oven mitt still covered her hand. “You start a project and I’m the one left to deal with your mess.”

The chair scraped against the floor. Mark stood with his head bowed. He slowly maneuvered his burly frame around Rita. His muscular legs lumbered across the yellow linoleum to the fridge. Nearly twenty years he’d given that company. Day in and day out, keeping his head low, turning in his reports. He pictured the smug look on his boss’s pompous face. He knew that kid had been gunning for him for a while. Now was his chance to finally get rid of Mark.

Mark held the fridge door open with one arm while he leaned into the cool air. He reached past the glass shelf crowded with cartons of milk and orange juice. There was a small plastic bottle of thick pink liquid, one of the kids had an ear infection again. The light from the fridge’s small bulb bounced off the metal tops of the beers. Mark’s breathing steadied as he grabbed another can.

“Would you close that door,” Rita snapped. She stood just next to Mark and waited to get past him. Mark did not close the door. Jesus, his head hurt. She needed to back off and give him a minute. He popped the can open and took a drink. There was nothing like that first sip of cold beer. He was going to take all the time he needed. He slowly tipped his head back. As the beer flowed down his throat the fridge door pushed hard against his arm and he crouched forward and choked. Foamy liquid spewed from his mouth and nostrils onto the floor. Christ, what was she so pissed about? She went too far slamming the fridge door into him.

Mark quickly wiped his chin with the back of his hand and found two of their boys squeezing past the fridge door and into the kitchen. They shoved one another, running by with Rita’s stained aprons tied around their necks as capes.

“God dammit, Mark.” Rita was already on her knees. She soaked up the spilled beer with a towel.

Mark stared at the top of her head. Of course she hadn’t slammed the fridge door into him. How could he have thought such a thing? Rita would never hurt him like that; she was the only one who’d ever taken care of him. Mark spotted a few gray strands along the part of Rita’s thick black hair. Guilt and tenderness welled up within him. Without meaning to, he reached out his hand to touch her. Years ago, after one of their first dates, they stood in the fall breeze outside the movie theater. Wisps of hair had fallen from her ponytail. She smiled as he tucked them behind her ear.

Rita wiped up the last of the beer. A familiar look of disappointment flashed across her face. Mark pulled his hand back and scratched his head. “I’m going to fix up the attic,” he suddenly announced. “We could use the space.” He walked back to the kitchen table and took a long swig before setting the can down.

Rita looked up at Mark, “Another project? What about the dryer?”

Mark sank back into the chair just as Danny trailed into the kitchen behind his older brothers. He wielded a cardboard paper towel tube. Danny tripped on his baggy pajamas, another hand-me-down the boy was too slight to fill. Mark leaned over the side of the chair and scooped up Danny with his large hands just before the boy’s knees hit the ground. Danny toppled into Mark’s lap and hugged him. His older brothers never seemed to have time for him. But that didn’t stop Danny from trying. This kid was special. Mark scooted Danny out of the kitchen. “Go find your brothers, big man.” He finished his beer.

Rita stood. The towel, damp with beer, was bunched up in her hand. She spoke over her shoulder as she moved to the sink. “I don’t care, fix up the attic, have another beer, do what you want.” She rinsed the towel, her voice muffled by the running water. “You always do anyway.”

Mark crushed the empty can in his hand. Anne, their oldest child, stood in the kitchen doorway clutching a copy of Romeo and Juliet. “Mom, can you tell Maggie and Linda to get out of our bedroom? I need to be alone for a few hours. I have a big essay on Shakespeare due next week.” Anne chewed the side of her cheek. She had dark circles under her eyes.

Rita wrapped her arm around Anne and replied, “Of course.”

Anne pulled away sharply. “Good. I need some quiet, I don’t get this stuff and I’m barely passing the class.” Her body swayed side to side as she looked at Mark.

Why was an essay upsetting her so much? If it was math or science maybe he could help, but Shakespeare? He turned away from Anne’s sad eyes. What did she need from him? Mark shook his head. Sometimes he had no idea who his children were. He watched Anne leave the kitchen and wondered, when did she get so tall? She was just five years old when he held the back of her bicycle seat. She gripped the handle bar and peddled her little feet as he ran beside the bike. She didn’t even know he let go. He ran down to the far end of the block and lifted her from the sidewalk when she took a tumble. He’d kissed her scratched hands. She wriggled out of his arms and told him she was ready to try again.

Rita took a drag off her cigarette and tapped her fingernail against her tooth. “I’m worried about her. She’s been very moody lately and her grades are slipping.”

Mark closed his eyes. It would be so easy to get up from the chair. He’d cross the room in just a few quick steps. He’d pull Rita close. He could see her wrapping her arms around his broad shoulders. She’d tilt her head back and look into his eyes. It’d be like the times before they had kids. He’d gently brush the loose strands of hair from her face. He would tell her that he’d take care of everything.

From the opposite side of the kitchen Rita said, “Two bedrooms just aren’t enough for six kids anymore.” She looked at Mark, her eyes hopeful, “I guess you could turn the attic into a bedroom for Anne. I remember how badly I wanted my own room when I was her age.”

“I don’t know how your mom managed on that sleeper sofa all those years.” Rita had told Mark early on about the one bedroom apartment where she grew up in public housing. He sat up straight. “A bedroom just for Anne is a great idea, right?” In his garage he had all the tools and materials he needed. The duct work, drywall and electrical wiring, he’d do it all himself. He stood with his head lifted and shoulders back. “And don’t worry, I promise I’ll be careful with my tools. The kids won’t get hurt. Trust me Rita, I’ve got this.”

She glanced at the crushed beer can left behind on the table then shifted her gaze into Mark’s eyes. Rita walked back to the counter to slice the lasagne and said softly, “I know you want the best for us. Are you going to start after dinner?”

Mark turned and found Danny watching from the doorway. He winked and placed a finger to his lips. Shhh. He’d keep their special pact. The boy raised his hands to his head. His fingers held one eye open as he tried to pinch the other eye closed and wink back at his dad. His hands looked more like binoculars. God, he loved this kid. There was no one else like him. Later, Mark would carry the radio up to the attic and let Danny turn its dial. He’d also find the smaller hammer for the boy to use this time. Danny blew him a kiss before leaving the kitchen.

*

Mark gently closed the screen door behind him as he headed to the garage. The musty odor of motor oil and saw dust always calmed his nerves. The dark space was filled with his treasures, though Rita called it junk. After he built the small wooden porch years ago, all the tools, extra building materials, stains and paints collected dust in that garage. There were other things he could not let go of: the wooden sleigh with rusty blades, the canvas tent and camping equipment from his scout days, the old pigskin tossed long ago with his brother, damaged engine parts, broken lawn mowers, and antique tables and chairs all needing major restoration.

Just off the kitchen there was a dark stained door that hid the stairs to the attic. Mark maneuvered sheets of drywall around Rita as she scrubbed brittle bits of pasta from the bottom of the lasagne pan. The stairway was narrow but Mark easily managed. He made another trip to the garage to collect the old Folgers can full of nails and other tools. Rita placed the dry pan in the cabinet beside the sink as Mark passed again. When he returned to the kitchen it was clean and dark. Rita had turned off the lights before she left. He took two or three beers from the fridge and tucked them into his trouser pockets, slipping another three or four into his tool belt.

In the attic he moved around the small space and lowered his head where the exposed insulation ran along the angled ceiling. After taking his measurements and organizing his tools, he sat on a metal milk crate and had a beer. The soft glow from the crescent moon peeked into the small attic window. Mark stared out at the night sky. It was black and sprinkled with stars. Muffled sounds of classic rock played faintly from the paint covered radio. It seemed a lifetime ago that he’d spotted Rita at the high school mixer. The sounds of Elvis Presley filled the gym. He somehow weaved through the crowd though he didn’t feel his legs move. He’d been drawn across the dance floor by Rita’s sleek black hair and wide smile.

Those early years together, she’d cheer for him as he dribbled the basketball across the home court. She held his hand while he waited for news about his college scholarship. She told him that her dad left when she was just four years old. She wept and he didn’t know what to say. With his hand he had brushed away her tears. He promised he’d take care of her forever.

The attic air was dry and the metal crate felt sharp beneath Mark. He leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees. The can of beer was warm in his hand. He couldn’t stop thinking about the layoffs that loomed at work. How was he going to keep the house, save college tuition for six kids? Mark sipped his beer. At his age it’d be tough to start over at a new company.

The living room walls and bedroom ceilings creaked as the house cooled down. He knew the furnace would soon rumble and kick on. He’d feel the warm air circulate through the vents of the home, keeping them comfortable another night. The kids would’ve just finished brushing their teeth. They’d pull their quilts over their shoulders and rest their heads into soft pillows as they drifted asleep. He knew Rita was making a final round to turn off all the lights. She’d fall asleep again with the lamp on and her book open. He felt the entire house settle around him for another quiet night. It calmed him down knowing they were all safely tucked in bed.

He placed the can of beer on the floor next to him.

Mark picked up a long strip of splintered wood. He sanded the rough edges with a scrap of sandpaper. Its coarse grit was worn down but still had some life to it. His hands moved in rhythmic strokes along the splintered sides until his entire body shuddered. When he was Anne’s age, he’d sneak into his house through the back window, even on school nights. It’d be well past midnight. Mark looked around the empty attic. His parents never caught him. They never even knew he was gone, never bothered to check on him. Mark stopped to blow the sand dust from the top of the beer can before he guzzled it down. He opened another.

He adjusted the long antenna on the radio. The reception faded in and out. He looked around the unfinished space. The shadows cast by the small lamp grew larger and moved closer to him. His pulse quickened. The room was too raw and needed too much from him. Electrical wiring, drywall, trim, paint, maybe even plumbing for a bathroom. His breathing became heavy.

Just beyond the lamp he spotted Danny. The tension in Mark’s shoulders eased. The boy stood on the top stair. His upper body leaned into the attic and his head rested against the door frame. “Hey my night owl” Mark said, “how long have you been standing there?”

Danny smiled and shrugged his shoulders. His blue eyes set on his dad as Mark sprang up from the metal crate. Mark clapped his hands together. “Just in time.” He couldn’t wait much longer. Things had been too quiet up there without Danny. “I need you, got a big project up here.”

Danny’s eyes lit up. He stood taller at the door frame. Mark felt an ache in his heart. How’d he get so lucky to have a boy like Danny? Danny would follow Mark around like his own little brother had all those years ago. Joey would linger at Mark’s bedroom door with eager eyes. Mark pretended not to notice at first. He’d finally ask if Joey was just going to stand there all day. Alright, already, he’d finally say. He’d throw his comic book on the nightstand and wave Joey in. Joey’s wiry body would dive onto Mark’s bed and they’d toss the football. Joey couldn’t grip the ball with one hand so he’d pass it underhanded to Mark.

“Daddy, daddy, you ok?” Danny asked again.

Mark stretched open his arms, “Come here pal, daddy’s better now that you’re here.”

Danny’s bare feet crossed over the rough wood flooring and he tumbled into Mark’s lap. “Ouch, daddy, I got something in my foot.”

Mark gently removed a tiny sliver from the boy’s heel then covered his small toes with his hand. He pretended to gobble each toe as he held Danny close. The boy laughed. Mark handed him a square of sandpaper. He placed his hand over Danny’s. Mark’s large knuckles covered the boy’s chubby fingers as he gently guided Danny’s hand across the wood. “Tonight we are smoothing the rough spots. This work is for strong boys like you.”

Danny’s cough was loose and wet. He wheezed from the dust. Mark cradled Danny in one arm as he slid the window open with his other hand. The air was cool and moist. “Daddy’s here, just take slow deep breaths.” He held Danny’s head. “Son, look into daddy’s eyes, look at me. Everything’s alright. You’re going to be fine, daddy’s got you.” He breathed in tune with his son. “That’s it, my owl, breathe in and out, just like this.”

The boy’s cough subsided. Danny wrapped his arms and legs around Mark and whispered, “I love you daddy.” He lifted his head and wiped his runny nose with his pajama sleeve and asked, “Can I try sanding by myself now?”

Drops of sweat trailed down Mark’s cheek. He knew how to soothe his owl and make that wheezing stop, but it always rattled him to see him struggle. He rubbed Danny’s back and said, “I’m gonna give you a better job, this one’s just for brave boys like you.” Mark showed Danny how to sort the nails into empty margarine tubs.

Mark sat back and popped open another beer. As foam rose over the top of the can and dripped to the floor he looked toward Danny and waited. His owl giggled. He always remembered their little game, the pop, the foam, the giggle. Like clockwork. Danny then went back to work. His tongue peeked out of his mouth and he crinkled his forehead. “How’s this daddy? Is this right?” His words came out faster. “Am I doing a good job?” The sound of the nails clanking against one another grew louder as Danny quickened his pace.

“That’s it my night owl, you’ve got the hang of it.” Mark patted Danny’s head then stepped onto the crate to work on the electrical wiring for the overhead lights. The crate beneath his feet rocked like a small boat on rough seas. Mark tried to steady his balance but the crate knocked against the floor again and again. He flailed his arms in the air. When the crate finally tipped over, he stumbled forward, landing hard on his knees. Mark was on all fours when he saw Danny race to his side.

The boy reached for Mark and stuttered, “Daddy, daddy, please, take my hand.” Danny’s hand shook. “I’m sorry, I should’ve told you the crate was shaking” He started to cry. “It’s all my fault. I should’ve stopped you.”

Mark jumped to his feet. He forced a laugh as he swept both arms outward and called out, “Sssafe.” He then brushed the saw dust from his pants. “See, Daddy’s fine.” He nodded at Danny and waited until Danny nodded back. They sang along with the radio’s staticky beat, “We all live in a yellow submarine….” Danny swayed to the music and Mark sang out. His voice reached every nook of the house.

The next morning Mark sat at the kitchen table. His head ached and he crossed his arms to slow the trembling of his hands. Rita tossed a dish towel over her shoulder and poured him a cup of coffee. She said, “Danny’s fever was high again this morning. His ear infection isn’t getting any better. I know he was up late with you in the attic last night.”

Mark winced, the hot liquid burning his lips. He needed a few more sips of the strong coffee before he could answer. Rita squatted next to Mark and looked up at him. “Mark, believe me, I sure wish I’d had a dad I could hang out with all night.” She placed her hand on his arm. “But you know all that dust up there isn’t good for his asthma.” She stood slowly. “A seven year old needs sleep.”

Mark firmly set the mug down and some coffee spilled over his fingers. Couldn’t she see he’d taken care of Danny? Everything was going to be fine.

Rita wiped off the table and added, “You can’t allow him up there anymore. If you can’t tell him then I will.” She moved away from Mark. “No more late nights with dad.”

She left Mark alone in the kitchen. He forced himself out of the chair and poured himself a second cup of coffee. The attic’s exposed beams, thick cobwebs and dark corners pounded in his head. His eyes burned and he began to sweat. The sunlight shifted through the window above the kitchen sink and now cast a light on Mark. He shaded his eyes then moved away. His footsteps were heavy when he went up the narrow stairway to the attic.

For weeks, Mark retreated to the attic alone. He would spend the day up there plastering over the nails along the drywall. He’d catch himself imagining Danny next to him. Showing Danny how to hold the drywall knife and spread the plaster like peanut butter on toast. Watching the boy’s little arm swerve back and forth along the wall smearing the clumps of plaster. He’d tell his owl he was doing a great job, that he loved him.

He survived the first round of office layoffs, accepting a pay cut instead. Danny’s ear infection finally healed and Rita was still immersed in housework. When the attic was finished, Mark led Rita up the narrow steps.

Rita tugged at his arm and stopped halfway up the stairs. “Don’t forget teacher conferences are coming up next week.”

“You’re gonna have to go without me, busy week ahead at work.” She knew he never went to those conferences or any other parent meetings. His parents never did either and he’d made it through school just fine on his own. Even graduated college with honors.

Mark covered Rita’s eyes with his hand at the top stair.

“Oh Mark!” Sunlight bounced off the yellow walls. “It’s amazing.” She stepped further into the attic, spinning in a circle. “Truly. Incredible work.” She held her hands over her mouth but Mark could still see her bright smile in her eyes. Mark stepped toward Rita. The new carpet felt soft beneath his bare feet. Rita said, “Anne is going to love this. It’s a dream.” Tears formed in Rita’s blue eyes. “She’s a lucky girl. You’re an amazing dad.”

Mark began to reach for her when he heard Anne behind him. “Oh my God, dad.” Her voice was loud and gruff. “Yellow? Really? You couldn’t ask me before you did this?” She stiffened her jaw and crossed her arms tightly.

It was supposed to be a surprise. Danny helped him pick the color. Their very own yellow submarine, Danny sang. But Mark should’ve known that Anne would want a say in this. Mark wanted to get this right. It had to be perfect. He was losing her. She was out with her new high school friends all the time. Those girls wore too much makeup. The boys never came into the house. They’d beep their car horns and Anne would dash out before Mark even knew she had plans. He didn’t know when she’d stopped riding her bike, playing chequers or making daisy chains in the yard. Maybe he couldn’t help her with homework anymore, but this, he thought, this, he could do for her.

Rita rushed over and pulled Anne into the room. “Anne, look at all this gorgeous space. Dad did all this incredible work just for you.”

Anne slowly dropped her hands to her sides. She whispered, “Maybe you could try dark blue?”

Of course. That’d be an easy fix. He’d pick up the paint that afternoon and an extra brush for Danny. He’d have it done by morning, no problem. Everything would work out and Anne would be happy. “Love that color, Anne. It’ll be ready tomorrow.” Mark walked about the space and moved his arms in wide circles. “We’ll have your stuff moved up here in no time. Just tell me where you want your bed, dresser and everything else. It’s going to look great.”

*

Rita stacked the last of the dinner dishes into the cabinet. Mark sat at the table and finished another beer while Rita told him about the school conference with Danny’s teacher.

“Ms. Jones said he’s more withdrawn. He isn’t raising his hand in class anymore and his grades are slipping.”

Mark slouched in the chair. He’d fix this. He’d spend more time shooting baskets outside with Danny.

Rita swept dirt into a small pile on the yellow linoleum. “He sits alone at lunch.” Using an old playing card, she bent down to scrape up the crumbs for the trash. She added, “He spends recess alone in the library.” Mark stared blankly at the clock on the wall. “Mark, he needs you.” The ticking grew louder. Rita’s voice trailed off.

Mark stared at the bits of crumbs and dirt that had collected in the small space beneath the fridge. His eyes drifted over to the loose handle dangling on the silverware drawer. Rita said something about Danny and recess. But Mark just couldn’t shake off the looks of pity from his co-workers at the office that day. His young boss grimaced as he tossed the report back at Mark like someone ridding himself of a dirty shirt.

Rita stubbed out her cigarette. She announced that she was exhausted, and left Mark in the kitchen.

The tv was still on in the empty living room. The white noise was interrupted by the ringing of the front doorbell. Mark didn’t move. The doorbell rang again. Mark remained in his chair and pressed his face into the palm of his hand. His boss had passed the project to the new kid. Mark looked up and stared at the fruit flies circling the basket of bruised peaches on the table. He clenched his jaw. His flushed cheeks burned.

Mark was in the men’s room at the office when he stood before the mirror and scratched his gray stubble. The young guys were heading out with their boss for drinks after work again. They’d talked about the company softball team they started up. In the bathroom mirror, Mark traced his fingers along the deep lines around his eyes. Softball games on Saturdays? Mark had little league to coach, a dryer to fix, a sump pump to replace for chrissakes. Mark moved his arm over the kitchen table and swatted at the fruit flies. His grip on the beer can tightened. It cracked and snapped.

The bell rang again and again. Mark slumped over in the chair and rubbed his eyes. What did Rita mean, Danny was struggling in school? So the kid wanted to spend recess in the library, what did she want him to do about it? He covered his ears, the ringing of the doorbell became an incessant pounding in his head. Everybody wanted something from him.

“Dad, hello, earth to dad?” Anne snapped her fingers in front of Mark’s face. “My friends are at the door, can I go out?”

Mark grabbed her wrist, “Don’t you ever snap your fingers at me again.”

Anne bent forward and twisted her body to ease the pressure of her father’s grip, “Ow dad. Ok, I got it. You can let go now.”

Mark sat upright. He did not recognize the large hand that gripped Anne’s slender wrist. Her delicate fingertips turned red.

“Dad, let go, you’re hurting me!” Mark felt droplets of Anne’s tears fall along his arm. She crumpled to the floor when her wrist was released. Mark stared in horror at his shaking hand. Anne pushed away the tears that trailed down her cheeks. “I’m going out,” she said. “Don’t wait up.”

The slam of the front door made Mark jump in his seat. Oh Anne, what had he done? The hum of the kitchen lights filled his head. Mark scanned the dark oak cabinets that lined the walls all the way to the narrow entrance where Danny stood wide-eyed. Mark doubled over. He’d been caught by the shame that made him feel sick to his stomach.

Mark then felt the soft touch of Danny’s hands on his shoulders. When he raised his head, he saw tears forming in Danny’s eyes. “It’s ok daddy, it’s not your fault. Please don’t be sad, daddy.” His owl’s voice cracked.

Mark buried his face in Danny’s soft cotton pajamas. His thick blond hair was still damp from his bath and he smelled of Dial soap. Mark sat up straight. He patted Danny’s back and forced a smile when he said, “You should get some sleep. Tomorrow we’ll get up early and you can help me paint that fence in the yard.” Danny’s eyes brightened. He kissed Mark’s cheek before he ran off to bed.

Mark slowly pushed his chair from the table. He pressed his hands hard into the armrests and tried to stand but his legs buckled under him. He bent forward then tilted his head when he saw the chipped and damaged table leg beneath the kitchen table. The thought quickly crossed his mind that maybe one day he’d get that can of stain out from under the sink and cover those scars.

Alone at the kitchen table, he opened another beer.

He found himself sitting in the green recliner in the living room. The tv was still on. He didn’t remember how he got there. He’d try to wait up for Anne. He’d tell her he was sorry. He’d ask about her night. Did she have fun with her friends? He couldn’t believe she’d be getting her driver’s license next month already. As his eyelids grew heavier he felt the room begin to spin around him but did not feel the beer spill onto his lap.

*

Anne passed her driving test. She was always coming and going with that new boyfriend of hers. She was hardly ever up in that attic room he’d built her. Even worse, Mark still hadn’t met the boyfriend. Rita wasn’t around much either. She’d leave dinner wrapped in foil in the warm oven before she headed to her new classes at the art center. Mark tried not to give it much thought. After all, he still had his night owl by his side.

With the attic finished Mark began to feel the familiar tug. He’d need another major project around the house to keep him occupied at night. Otherwise, the restlessness and the void would begin to creep back in and he’d return to the safety of his familiar routine. He’d ease into the green recliner and rest his head into the divot that was molded over the years into worn headrest. He’d switch on the tv.

“Shhhh. You’ll wake them all,” Mark quietly warned from his recliner. There was no response from the empty can that clattered as it fell onto the heap of other cans that piled on the hardwood floor next to his chair. Mark closed his eyes and could hear his own breath as the warm beer floated through his head, the familiar relief.

The old recliner no longer reclined but the dark green upholstery safely engulfed him. Mark’s clenched teeth relaxed as he settled into the chair. Years of rocking all six babies in this very spot. Now those were warm nights with his little ones. Sure, they were fussing, but he could always calm them down.

They would stop squirming the moment his large hands carefully cradled their little bellies. He would lay them over his muscular shoulder, pat their little backs and wait patiently for a tiny belch, that release of colic and late-night gas. As they settled into a deep sleep their soft lashes would brush against his cheek, their warm breath whisper against his neck. Where did those years go? Now, he had a boss half his age and more bills than he wanted to think about.

Mark opened his eyes to the familiar pitter-patter of Danny’s tiny feet. At last, his owl was finally coming. On the tv, the credits rolled and signaled the end of Johnny Carson. Mark smiled, “Come on in, your pals Abbott and Costello meet up with Dracula again tonight. Remember it’s just Hollywood, catsup, fake blood and all.”

Danny sank into his usual spot on the sofa next to Mark. The boy reached for the afghan and shook it over himself. His legs kicked at the crocheted edges and he squirmed beneath the blanket until he was swallowed by the bulky cushions of the sofa. He smacked the green throw pillow and fidgeted until he found a place for his head.

“Make yourself a nice nest, Danny,” Mark said. He felt the pressure in his head lighten. His little night owl, keeping him company again for the late-late movie. Always wanted to tell him how much he loved his company. He should say so.

Earlier that day, Mark was in the basement working on the sump pump. The older boys hunched around a card table and their hands fiddled with the small wheels and propellers of model planes. When they told Danny to get lost, Mark handed his owl a wrench and said he had a more important job for him. Danny didn’t leave Mark’s side when Rita called the boys up for lunch.

Mark reached deep into the large box beside the green chair and took out another can. The can opened with a “pop,” foam bubbled over. Mark heard Danny’s familiar giggle. He hadn’t played that game in a while, finishing the attic and all, but his owl always remembered. Mark hardly felt the smooth rush of beer flow down his throat as he chugged another. He shook the empty can in his large hand and grinned at Danny. He belched, went a little too fast with that one. Or maybe the cans were just getting smaller. Mark shrugged his shoulders, didn’t matter. He tossed the can onto the growing pile next to the chair.

Danny told Mark another kid in his class was having a birthday party the next day. He was the only one not invited, again. Mark interrupted, “Hey, how about a bike ride tomorrow, just you and me?” When Danny replied something about the cold weather, Mark pointed at the tv. “See, he’s not really biting her, it’s all pretend and besides the garlic and cross keep Dracula away.”

Mark rummaged around the box: the “pop,” the foam, the boy’s giggle. Mark mumbled and while he felt the weight of his heavy eyelids he could not feel the little dribble of liquid that ran down his chin. He dreamed he was in the alley again with Joey. He unscrewed the top of the old aluminum canteen before he passed it to his little brother. He’d refilled their father’s bottle of gin with water like he learned from his new friends at the junior high. He’d told Joey to take smaller sips when he coughed up the first sharp gulp.

Mark’s eyes shot open. Those goddamn salesmen. They were always trying to trick him into buying something useless. The tv blared as it cut to commercial, “Act now and this brand new ‘78 Chevy can be yours!”

Danny began to talk and talk. He fidgeted on the sofa and picked the hangnail on his thumb. His words spilled out faster and faster. Mark struggled to keep his eyes open. Something about Ms. Jones. Must be talking about his day at school. Mark popped open another can, watched the foam rise and waited for his owl to giggle again. But Danny had kicked the blanket off. He threw the green pillow across the sofa. He said, “Daddy, you’re not listening to me.”

Mark’s head jerked up with a start. “Hey, where’re you going, big guy?”

Danny was standing a few feet from the sofa with his back turned toward Mark. “I’m going to the bathroom.”

Mark called after him, “Hurry back, the good guys are about to catch Dracula.” Jeeze, what was eating him? The kid always liked sneaking out of bed and sitting with him while the others were asleep.

Short bursts of light flashed from the tv into the dark living room. The empty sofa ran along the panelled wall and ended a few feet from the red brick fireplace. Goddamn, when did it get so empty and quiet in here? The tv blared at Mark. What the hell was taking Danny so long? He should get up and knock on that bathroom door, check on him. Mark remained in the recliner. That was ridiculous, let the boy use the bathroom for crying out loud.

Mark stared into the tv as if he could see right through the screen. Old Mrs. Saunders was taking out her trash to the alley when she caught Mark passing the canteen to Joey. She’d known Mark his whole life and said she was surprised at his behavior. His own mother had looked at Mark like he was a stranger. She’d touched her three fingers to her forehead, heart, left then right shoulder, summoning Jesus, Mary and Joseph. How could you, was about all she said to him that entire summer.

Mark’s father said he expected better of him. Stealing from his own father and giving Joey liquor? And what would the neighbors say once Mrs. Saunders started gossipping? A disappointment and an embarrassment, that’s what Mark was.

He opened his eyes when he felt Danny tug his arm. Danny told Mark that he was moaning in his sleep and that maybe they should change the channel. Mark tried to form words from the garbled sounds falling from his mouth. “Don’t worry, Dracula never wins, the good guys are always safe.” Danny shook his head and sank back into the sofa next to Mark.

Mark watched Danny pick at a loose thread along the armrest. Ask him about cub scouts, about Ms. Jones, about his friends. In his head the words were always easier. Another can was popped open and he listened for Danny’s giggle as the foam trailed onto the green recliner.

Mark dug his hand deeper into the box and felt around until he grabbed ahold of one of the last cans. “Bela Lugosi is the most famous Dracula. No, he doesn’t come out in the sunlight, that’s when he sleeps. Remember it’s just Hollywood.”

Danny was saying something again, or was that the tv? It was a higher pitch, it was his owl but he couldn’t make out what his boy wanted. He wanted something. What did he need from him? Mark couldn’t answer.

Mark woke to an icy sting on his cheek. He wiped crusty sleep from his burning eyes. Who turned on all these goddamn lights? His mouth tasted stale and sour.

Anne slapped him again. “Dad, wake up.” She shook his shoulders with both hands. “Please, dad, wake up,” she shouted, “it’s Danny.”

Mark watched Anne’s lips move. He wondered when his daughter had started wearing lipstick. What was she saying? Her words were drowned out by the pounding his head. Danny. What did she mean, Danny? When did she come home? She still had her coat on, did she come home late, again?

Mark looked past the pile of beer cans on the floor. The sofa was empty. Where was Danny? Rita stumbled into the living room pulling on her robe. The other kids were in the corner crying, but Danny, where was Danny?

“Anne, Danny’s inhaler,” Rita motioned toward the kitchen as she lowered to her knees. “Honey, go grab his inhaler from the cabinet.”

Danny was crumpled on the floor next to the sofa. He wheezed and his lips were blue. Rita told Danny to take a deep breath as she pressed the inhaler. Anne huddled the rest of the kids close. Black mascara trailed down her cheeks and her piercing blue eyes glared at Mark.

Rita was on the floor. Her robe hung over one shoulder and beneath it her nightgown was bunched up over her knees. She blew strands of hair from her face as she gently rocked Danny in her arms. Her tears dropped on the top of Danny’s head as she pressed a kiss into his soft hair. Danny’s vacant eyes slowly drifted off to sleep.

*

Months later, Mark stood with his entire family outside the home. Danny slipped his tiny hand into Mark’s. They watched firefighters use axes on the roof to access the attic and put out the flames. Faulty electrical wiring, the fire chief suspected. The front door opened and Mark held his breath while gallons of water rushed out and over the porch, flooding the same lawn where the kids had played flag football that very afternoon.

Rita stood nearby surrounded by the children. Anne held her younger sisters and they cried on her shoulders. The older boys sat on the lawn and picked blades of crabgrass. Rita met Mark’s eyes. Her intense gaze pleaded, she needed him. The kids needed him. Mark looked down and found Danny’s blue eyes urging him to do something, say something. Mark retreated to the blank corner of his mind and looked back at Rita with eyes that were empty.

He bent over and gathered nubs of colored chalk scattered beside the faded hopscotch. What did she need from him? He put the bits of chalk in his pockets and brushed his hands against his pants, releasing pink and blue chalk dust into the air. He’d seen the disappointment in Rita’s eyes just before she corralled the kids into the van, shuttling the kids off to grandma’s, leaving Mark behind.

Later that day, Mark reentered the shell of the home and was struck by the damp odor of charred wood. Alone in the empty house, he swiped his eye before the tear could surface and along with it the looks of confusion, shock and sadness from his family. He gripped the wrist of his right hand and kneaded along his palm and knuckles to ease the pain and stiffness in his joints. The sun was setting. Its last orange and gold rays peeked through the kitchen window, the only light left in the house. Water seeped into his shoes and his wet socks clung to his feet. He stood in a shallow pool of water that covered the yellow linoleum. The ceiling released a slow but steady drip. The water beat on Mark’s head and ran down his face.

He marched heavily through the puddles and cut through the rain falling from the ceiling. That wall would come down, a new bay window there for more light, the kitchen would move to the front of the house, an extra bathroom upstairs. His pace quickened and heart raced as he left the house and entered the garage, untouched by the fire. The familiar smell of motor oil, antique mildew and old sawdust gave him hope.

Rita and the kids stayed with grandma. Mark pitched the ripped tent in the yard and slept on the old cot. He refinanced the mortgage when the home insurance fell short. Christ, a thirty year loan, he’d be lucky if he lived long enough to see it paid off. The gut and rehab took every moment of his spare time after work and on weekends. He subcontracted out much of the work this time. He hired an electrician, a roofer, a plumber. Mark managed the final touches himself, the paint, the wallpaper. The furniture, appliances and bath fixtures eventually all moved back in. A new brown recliner replaced the worn green one.

Everyone returned to the home. Time passed faster than ever. Cabinets and drawers filled with new clutter at a rate that matched the growth of the family. Routines were reestablished as if the entire ordeal of the fire had never happened. Mark’s nights in front of the tv became increasingly more alone. Danny was always out. He’d ride his dirt bike around the neighborhood with friends. At least that’s what he’d tell Mark.

It was two am when Mark thought he heard a sound at the front door. The loose shutter outside the living room window tapped against the house. Another quick hard knock. Wind whistled through the gaps of the warped wooden window frame. He swayed and stumbled as he rose from the recliner and switched off the tv, its screen filled with static. He steadied himself when he opened the door to an officer with Danny in tow. What was Danny doing out? Wasn’t the boy already in bed and asleep?

“We caught your son and a couple of his friends covering a park bench with graffitti.” The officer explained. He handed Mark a can of yellow spray paint and a pack of Benson & Hedges. Mark recognized the paint from the garage and the cigarettes from Rita’s drawer. “I’m not going to issue any citations, just a warning. Destruction of public property, a very serious offense, so the next time -”

Mark waved him off. “Yes, sir. Thank you, Officer.” Mark shut the front door, he’d take it from here. Mark winked at Danny as he entered the house. He’d keep this secret from Rita. But Danny brushed past without even looking at him. Mark called after him, “Hey, the late show’s about to start, how about we watch together?”

Danny turned toward Mark and replied, “Watch tv? That’s all you got for me?”

Mark placed a hand on the wall; the room began to spin. “You’ve always been a good kid, I’m not worried about you.”

“Yeah, well maybe you should be. ”

Mark scratched his head. He responded, “There are some really nice kids playing on your school basketball team this season. You should join. You’ve got the height and can handle the ball really well.”

“Basketball? Really dad? Do you even know who I am?” Danny turned on his heel and left Mark alone in the dark foyer.

Years passed and along with them graduations, weddings, baptisms. The kids returned less frequently to the home. Anne moved out of state with her husband and two small girls. Rita still washed all the hard wood floors throughout the house on her hands and knees. She still vacuumed carpets and dusted rooms that were no longer occupied. She filled the rest of her time with book club, volunteer commitments and friends. Mark knew he’d never survive another layoff and reluctantly took the company’s early retirement package instead. Now he spent most of his waking hours in the recliner.

His night owl, Danny, was the hardest to keep tabs on. Mark couldn’t understand why he didn’t come round much anymore. In and out of rehab, why couldn’t the boy hold down a job? And all those girlfriends. Why were women always leaving him? Why couldn’t he just find one and settle down already?

It was mid afternoon when Mark finally moved out of bed and into the brown recliner. He turned on cable news to begin the daily news feed which would last well into the night and early hours of the morning. The recliner’s fake leather stuck to his neck and arms. “Pop,” foam, then silence.

On the tv, men dressed in navy pinstripe suits spoke over one another and ignored the news anchor. Mark stared at the screen. His foot had fallen asleep and he knocked it against the recliner to stop the tingling. The Senators argued about health care, the economy, or something. It all sounded the same to Mark. The scrolling stream of stock market and financial numbers at the bottom of the tv slowly anesthetized Mark. The familiar sounds of pots and pans clashing in the kitchen brought him to. He tucked the open can behind the chair when he heard Rita’s feet approach.

She handed him a slice of toast on a napkin but Mark set it aside on the small table next to the recliner. “I got a call from Danny this morning.” She stood beside the recliner and bent her head forward. “Danny’s met a new woman and he’s starting a new job next week. Says he wants to make it all work this time.” Without expression, Mark faced the tv though the news report now sounded like a jumble of unfamiliar words to him. Rita sighed then added, “I reminded Danny how much I love him, that I’m proud of him.” She waited.

Mark’s empty gaze remained directed at the tv. The politicians barked at one another. When did tv get so tiring? He missed those late night black and white movies. His grip on the remote control tightened and his finger began to twitch. Rita raised her arms as if lifting a heavy load above her head. She motioned around her. “This has never been enough.”

Mark finally shifted in the recliner. He rubbed his aching elbow then wrist. His arthritis had flared up again.

Rita lowered her arms, slapping them against her thighs. “He needs to hear from you.”

Sounds from the tv filled the silence. Rita finally shook her head and added, “those sagging pantry shelves are just about ready to give.” She wiped her hands on her apron. “I’m going to meet friends for coffee at the senior rec center. Then I’ll stop at the grocery store.”

No, he didn’t need anything.

Rita smacked the green glass ashtray against the side of the trash releasing the cigarette butts and mounds of ash. Everyday she’d wordlessly haul in a case of beer and set it next to the recliner, as she had all those years. Now she tossed a few things into the kitchen junk drawer then left the house without saying goodbye.

Mark reached for the open can hidden behind the chair. He stared into the tv, his head filling with a soft scratchy sound.We all live in a yellow submarine…..” His night owl’s little arm gliding back and forth with plaster along the attic wall. Always wanted to tell him how much he loved those times with him. He missed him. He should say so.

The lump in his throat rose too suddenly and he choked on his sip of warm beer. An unfamiliar wave of nausea followed. The political debate and news ticker made him dizzy. He turned off the tv and his arms shook as he struggled to push himself up from his chair. He poured the remainder of the beer down the kitchen sink and took a few measurements from the pantry. Before he entered the garage, he swallowed hard and pushed that lump further down his throat. His hand shook as he removed the cell phone from his pocket, hesitated, then begged Siri, “call Night Owl.”

 

Jenni Dart Author

Jenni Dart grew up in Chicago, Illinois, and lives with her husband north of the city where she raised her three children. She is grateful to her first teachers, her parents, and the many others inspiring her along the way.

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