I was eight years old the first time my father pawned his wedding ring for drug money.
When the fight started, I was standing heedlessly behind my mother thinking about birds. She was watching my father, dead-steady, her face settled into a familiar mix of anger and resignation. Around us, the living room seemed normal at first glance: dim yellow light over the dining room table, shabby brown couches that were more comfortable than the expensive furniture at other houses I’d been to. But the air was thick with tension as tangible as water, and nothing was okay.
“Why won’t you take your hand out of your pocket?” she asked my father, and her words were steeped in calm but with a sharp underlying edge. Her back was perfectly straight and her chin was thrust forward, as though she were shoring up an immense inner weight.
My father said nothing. Under the dim living room light his arms appeared browner than they really were, his hair darker and thicker. He looked younger, except for his eyes, which were a thousand years old. His left hand was thrust deep into his pocket, his head bowed. With jerky, irritable motions of his right hand, he sorted through the junk strewn across the dining room table. He ignored her, entirely, as though there was no one else in the room.
I watched them both, one to the other, tense in a well-worn way. I was so accustomed to my parents fighting that peace made me uncomfortable. Still, there was something abnormally upsetting about this fight in particular. He had done something worse than usual. Personal. An affront. This was a new level down, I felt it. My stomach was a fist.
My mother said it again.
“Why won’t you take your hand out of your pocket?”
Again he ignored her. His motions on the table grew harsher and more random, purposeless, a vague, forceful shoving of the items collected there – coins, lighters, matchbooks, lifesavers, a dollar store Swiss army knife. His shoulders hunched unevenly, held rigid with the right higher than the left, the guilty hand dug deeply into his pocket.
Invisible, I turned halfway towards the birdcage behind me. It was homemade, a smaller equivalent of chicken wire stapled to a raw wooden frame, and the birds inside were losing their feathers. One of them screamed and attacked his mirror in a frenzy of confused hostility. I found an uneven edge of chicken wire and pressed my fingerprint into the point of it as hard as I could.
With seemingly impossible composure, my mother asked the question a third time, her words worn smooth and soft as stone under water.
“Why won’t you take your hand out of your pocket?”
My father shoved too hard, skittering a lighter over the edge of the table. It landed silently on the carpet.
“Because I don’t want to,” he snapped without looking up. His voice was so tight, so alive with fury, an animal straining at its tether, that I removed my finger from the wire and silently circumvented the couch into the living room. I slumped down into the nicotine-rich cushions, boneless, and watched the two of them. They were three feet apart across the surface of the table but their distance felt endless.
“You pawned your wedding ring, didn’t you?” my mother asked. I looked at her hands. They cupped the decorative wooden knobs on the back of a dining room chair, rhythmically tightening, twisting, releasing. Plain gold wedding band carved with a curving design, identical to his, shifting on her restless finger. Otherwise she was motionless, her face still set in that stone-carved expression of anger and resignation.
My father gave no response. He started shoving things into his other pocket – matches, the knife. On the couch in the long aimless corridors of my mind, I reached as I always did in these moments for darkness and strangeness and pain. It gave me a sort of backwards solace I would never be able to adequately describe. I thought about storms spilling from a clear blue sky, spinning out rainbows sharp and brilliant enough to blind, lightning puncturing the bone cap of my skull like a knife.
“Didn’t you?” my mother asked.
There was a swift and startling burst of motion as my father jerked forward and slammed the palm of his right hand against the table. “It’s none of your fucking business,” he spit at her. My mother did not flinch, but the first fissure of emotion opened in her voice.
“How could it not be my business?” she said. “It’s your wedding ring.”
“I didn’t do that,” he said, clipped, staring down again at the table.
On the couch I thought about the boy down the street, who I had a crush on. I thought about climbing the tree in his front yard and how if I pushed him from the cradle of its branches he would hit the ground and his neck would snap and he would die.
“Then take your hand out of your pocket,” my mother countered.
“It’s none of your fucking business what I do,” he said.
“Why do you do it?” she asked him. “Why do you keep doing this kind of thing to us?”
“I’m not doing anything to you,” he shot back, lifting his small, bloodshot eyes to meet hers, and his voice was harder, harsher, almost a shout.
On the couch, I thought about what dress I wanted to wear in my coffin – the yellow one with the full skirt, a hand-me-down Easter dress now too small but still the nicest thing I owned – and I wanted my koala bear on my chest, under my crossed hands. I thought about the lid closing over me and how I would drink the deep quiet of the ground.
“You’re doing it to all of us,” my mother said. Her voice had also risen in volume, but was plaintive.
“I’m not doing shit to the girls,” he said.
“Yes, you are, you being on drugs affects–”
“I am not on drugs,” he shouted, leaning over the table again, and she shook her head, looked at the ceiling, her hands tight on the dining room chair. It was a joke, his denial. Everyone knew.
“Will you listen to yourself?” she implored. “Will you look at yourself?”
“Kiss my ass,” my father said. He shoved everything on the table into his pocket, haphazardly, and his left hand slipped out unthinking. My mother saw, and I saw, the naked band of white on his fourth finger.
On the couch I thought about cutting my finger and submerging it in the creek next to my grandmother’s house, mating my blood with the current to warp the chemistry of fish, to soak into the roots of trees like poison.
“You did pawn it,” my mother said, flat and defeated. “You pawned your wedding ring for drug money. That’s great.”
“No, fuck you, I didn’t pawn anything,” he said, and his words were laden with disgust and irritation.
On the couch I remembered what my cousin told me about graveyards – that when you pass them you have to hold your breath or the souls will suck into your body. For the first half I always obeyed, my lungs tight and fighting inside me, and then I let the air tumble out and I breathed freely, reckless, tempting the dead.
“Oh, you didn’t? Then where is your ring, exactly?”
My father changed his tactic. “I’ll get it back,” he said. Every word was broken off sharply, splintered like wood. Each letter meant to cut.
“Sure you will,” my mother said.
“Kiss my ass,” he said again.
I thought about ghosts walking through our sleeping house with lidless eyes and distended mouths open so far that the jaws dangled, dislocated, against heart-empty chests. I thought about their bare feet and their cunning, and how they wavered at the end of my bed while I slept thinly. I thought about the dark, still shape I always saw but never quite caught when I brushed my teeth in the front bathroom. Watching. Everywhere behind me corners crawled with unhealthy shadow.
My mother’s hands were loosening against the chair. There was nowhere else to go within this fight. “Why bother getting it back?” she asked bitterly. “It obviously doesn’t mean anything to you.”
“That’s bullshit.” He checked his pockets for cigarettes, preparing to leave.
“It’s all bullshit, isn’t it?” my mother said.
“It’s all fucking bullshit,” he shot back. “Yup. It’s all fucking bullshit.”
On the couch I thought about the times that he did not come back, the nights he was not at home, and the calm that settled over us when we didn’t have to tiptoe. But always lurking behind that, the anxiety and dread in anticipation of his return. Listening for his car. Stiffening and retreating at the rattle of his key in the lock. I thought so much about the phone ringing and what it would be like to learn of a car wreck that way, or an overdose, or a heart attack, or suicide. I thought about that calm settling like dust over everything and cementing into permanence, and the door never slamming again, and the angry ignition of his car dead forever.
“Go,” she said, and moved a weary hand. “Just go,” and she drifted into the kitchen.
My father said nothing as he cut through the living room with his keys in his hand, brushing past me like I was part of the furniture, his hard, red eyes up and focused ahead. He twisted the knob violent enough to break it and kicked the screen door loose from where it stuck in the frame. A stifling finger of Texas night nosed in, the smell of baked concrete letting go of its heat, rich grassy outside musk, the dying cinders of daytime. Then he yanked the door shut so sharply that the impact rattled every window and cracked through the ceiling like a whip. The screen squealed back into place. His car coughed and started.
My eyes drifted to the phone. I thought of his vulnerable body out in the world, the strangeness and danger of everything, lightning, blood, trees, graves, ghosts. All the ways to get hurt. And I hoped.
Chelsea Laine Wells has been published in PANK, Hobart, Knee-Jerk, The Butter, Third Point Press, The Other Stories, wigleaf, and Heavy Feather, among others, and has work forthcoming from Little Fiction. She’s been nominated for Pushcarts and Best of the Nets and subsequently won a 2015 Best of the Net. She is managing and fiction editor for Hypertext Magazine and founding editor of Hypernova Lit, a journal publishing the work of teenagers. Chelsea lives in the Oak Cliff area of Dallas, Texas, and is a high school librarian and creative writing teacher. Find her on Twitter at @chelsea_l_w and at www.chelsealainewells.com.