Gunfire, from the Halo 3 game, echoes off the poster-plastered walls. Mom and Dad sit on matching paisley-printed beanbag chairs, white game controllers melded to their hands—hands moving through the air in an attempt to speed the fighters on the screen.
My fingertips, ragged from biting, run over the cracked cover of the photo album, light beige with gold embossing. It lies on the dining table in front of me. We live in one of those square houses where the kitchen, dining room and living room are the front half of the house and are only separated by an imaginary line.
“Reo,” Dad yells over the noise of the game, “get me a beer.” I stand and sigh— metal folding chair groaning as I slide it back.
“Grab me one, too,” Mom echoes. Out of the corner of my eye, she sets her controller down, picks up a pipe from the coffee table and reaches into the mason jar by her feet for a bud. I cross from dining room to kitchen and pull open the olive green fridge. I grab two Old Milwaukee’s lining the shelves with only a jar of pickles and a nearly empty gallon of milk. The door falls closed as I walk to the living room.
Mom sits back, sinking deeper into the chair. The beans purr as I hand her the beer. Mouth on the end of the pipe, she breathes in hard, holding the lighter into the pot-filled hollow. She closes her eyes and holds her breath a moment. Dad takes it from her as she exhales slow and choppy, little coughs sputtering out. He pulls in a deep drag, and chases it with his cigarette.
I sit back down on the grey metal chair, the cold of it stinging the backs of my thighs. I asked Dad for money to go to the movies with Mel and Ally; of course he didn’t have any. No money, but a fridge full of beer.
I flip open the album; it crackles like an old plastic sac. The first picture is of Mom and Dad before me, I think, each of them holding a plastic cup filled with beer. Dad’s hair was a little shorter then, only coming to his ears. Now it hangs in a series of waves to his shoulders—deep brown almost black, strands of grey staring to highlight it. Mom’s hair was long, the heavy blond of it down to her elbows, so different from the page-boy cut she had to get after she accidentally set some of it on fire.
In the picture Dad’s fingers loop through the strands of her hair. He is kissing her, anchoring the two of them together. The frozen image shows the golden-amber beer sloshing over the rim of the cup, a small space-like drop forever falling to the ground.
I close my eyes and settle my chin into my hand. I turn the page and study the next photo, Mom and Dad standing in the front yard. Their naked bodies wrapped in a ratty beach towel. In the background, a neighbor looks on. I’m sure from her view she could see their exposed asses. I stood in the doorway, five years old watching Uncle Ray snap Polaroids. He chased them through the yard, their towel rippling in the breeze.
When the police showed up, lights on, I blinked my eyes hard. I hoped for them all to disappear, ran to the bathroom, the only room with a lock, and sat there on the cool lid of the off-white toilet. A police officer came and knocked on the door, “Come on sweetie, you can’t stay here by yourself.”
A jagged clip of newspaper sticks out of the back of the album. I flip the pages back and unfold the paper. The caption reads: LOCAL COUPLE WINS BIG AT CASINO. The picture is of Mom and Dad standing behind the plasma T.V. and the X-Box 360 that now sits in the living room. In the picture they wear matching “Jackpot Casino” sweatshirts—light grey with royal purple lettering. They half-smile at each other. Mom’s eyes are closed and Dad is looking more at the T.V. than at mom.
I was twelve when they made that trip to the casino; it was some big Christmas to New Years give-away extravaganza. Mom and Dad said they were just going out for groceries. I sat here at the table in Dad’s old oversized AC-DC t-shirt wrapping their Christmas present. When they walked by saying, “Thirty minutes—we’ll be back,” I put the last piece of tape on the newspaper wrapping. As they left, I placed the gift, funny papers side up, under the construction paper tree I had just duct-taped to the living room wall.
I fell asleep in the brown and orange moon chair waiting for them to come back. When morning came, Christmas morning, I searched the house calling for them. I ran outside—car was still gone. Our neighbor lady eyed me as I turned back to the house.
In the picture Mom and Dad stand in front of a sign for 99¢ buffet. I don’t think they were hungry. I was. There were only saltines, ketchup and a little milk in the kitchen. By the end of the third day, the saltines and milk were gone. On the sixth day, my neighbor lady left Christmas cookies and a plate of hot-dish on the front steps, a grown-up version of ding-dong ditch.
Mom and Dad came home on New Years, plasma T.V. and game system in tow. Dad searched the kitchen for something to eat before he even took his coat off, “Reo, where the fuck is all the food?”
I fold the paper up and slide it into the back of the album.
“Reo, get me and Mom a couple beers.” Dad’s voice is low and soft, like when he starts to feel buzzed.
I reach into the fridge and pull out two silver cans. I grab myself a pickle out of the super-sized jar. The pickle is huge, like the kind you get on a stick at the fair. I walk to the living room sucking the juice off it.
“Hey Babe, look at your daughter, only 14 and already learning to give head.” Dad cracks up at his joke. Mom looks at him as she takes the beers.
She smiles and rolls her eyes. “When I was her age I wasn’t practicing anymore.”
“Yeah, well, you’re a sick bitch.”
I turn and walk to the front door not bothering to grab my shoes. Mom’s cackle-laugh follows me out. The early-afternoon sunlight feels refreshing as I walk to get the mail.
The neighbor lady stares at me while trying to rake her leaves as I pull envelopes from the box. She smiles when I catch her looking. I smile back, look through the envelopes and return to the house. One is stamped: FINAL NOTICE. I set them in front of Dad on the plank-board coffee table.
Back at the dining table, nothing more than a dilapidated card table really, I flip to the next page. Beneath the shiny plastic is a picture of Mom and Dad in a boat. Dad is standing with a hand on the wheel. His face turned toward the camera, a surprised look plastered on it, mouth gaping. Mom is laying face up on the long seat across the back. Her arms rest behind her head, her feet crossed and perched on the ledge of the seat.
I was standing on the shore with Uncle Ray when he took the picture. He had yelled at Dad to watch for the log. Dad threw a beer can at him at the same time the nose of the boat slammed into the log. The silver blur of the can is visible in the corner of the picture.
On the next page is a picture of Mom and Dad standing on the old dining table. Dad’s arm is slung around Mom’s shoulder. She’s wrapped her arm around his waist. Each holds a green beer bottle into the air. Dad looks like he is yelling something at the camera, mouth open, brows pinched.
I spent the night at a friend’s during that party. I came home the next morning to find instead of a table, a pile of broken wood.
I turn the page. The next picture is of Mom curled up on the beanbag chair asleep, or passed out. The golden retriever puppy they had just gotten me for Christmas lay snuggled into the angle of her bent arms.
What I don’t have a picture of, is that puppy dead on the driveway—eyes bugging out of his crushed head after Dad pulled in without looking.
The phone rings, soft over the sound of the game. “Hello?”
The automated personality on the other end tells me “Your account balance is past due, if we do not receive payment within the next week we will be taking legal action against you.” I hang up, familiar with the drill.
I walk to the living room, “Dad, the credit card people called again. They said you need to pay them within a week.”
He stares at the screen, “Get us some beer Reo.”
I turn and sigh as I walk to the kitchen again. The doorbell rings as I grab the cans. I freeze for an instant when I hear mom’s muffled voice at the door.
I turn around, back into the dining room. Mom stands in the doorway wearing a turquoise tube-top and grey sweatpants. I try to look past her to see who is at the door.
“Sure she’s home, come on in.” My breath catches as Paul walks in.
“I just need to get Reo’s notes from Social Studies. I can come back if this is a bad time.” Paul digs his hands into his pockets—muscles in his arms flexing. He shifts his weight from foot to foot, stretching the already tight t-shirt over his pecks and abs. His deep-blue eyes are locked on the ground.
“Just a sec.” I walk out of the room, my face flushed. I nearly run to my bedroom. I rip the notes from my book bag and hurry back to the dining room.
Mom is still standing in the doorway, the door still open. Paul is sitting on the folding chair at the table. He eyes me with a look of pity when I walk into the room. He picks at the skin around his fingernails.
“Here ya go.” I hand him the notes, my whole body shaking.
“I think she’s got a crush on you. Look at her—face all red,” Mom giggles as Paul stands and walks to the door.
“I’ll um, I guess I’ll see you Monday.” And then, notes rolled up in his hand, he’s gone.
“Reo, I just want you to know where the condoms are.” Dad’s arm hangs around my shoulders. The heavy aroma of beer and shrimp ramen coats my skin as he breathes in my face.
“That’s nice, Dad. Let’s get you to bed and you can show me later.” We walk down the hall to the far bedroom where I just laid Mom. I help him onto the bed, Mom is already snoring loudly, her mouth hanging open, arms spread wide. Dad lets himself fall onto the pillow, eyes closed before he lands. I walk out of the bedroom, shutting the door behind me.
I stare at the pack of cigarettes on the coffee table. I pull one out and slide it between my fingers. I tell myself I won’t do it, but already know I will.
I pick up the lighter. The heaviness of the metal surprises me. I put the tip of the cigarette between my lips, like my parents. When I was seven, Dad gave me a lesson how to smoke a joint—must be at least close to the same.
I light the end and pull in a deep breath, sputtering out hacking coughs. I set the cigarette down in the ashtray as a wave of nausea and dizziness wash over me.
I pick the cigarette up and flick the ashes from the end. I look at the wood-patterned linoleum floor, at all the burn marks there; I finger a burn hole in the beanbag chair.
I could burn it down.
The cigarette feels light balanced between fingers—simple.
Ya. I could burn it down.
I walk to the dining table and then return to the living room with the photo album. I sit down at the edge of the coffee table and start pulling apart the album. The pages easily break free of the weak binding.
I make a pile under the table, the pictures, their pot and cigarettes, the bills.
Just light it.
I slide the lighter off the table, pull back the wheel, and hold the flame into the mass on the floor. I hold my breath as it catches—little shoots of golden flame lick the pictures.
Not one of me; not a single one.
The fire, taller now, reaches to the table curving around the edges. I sit on my heels, staring into the bright glow.
Just let it burn, let them burn.
I stand and walk down the hall to the bedroom, pull open the door and peek at them, passed out after a long day of drinking.
I won’t cry.
I am the forgotten child, the sum of their bodies. Even in his drunken sleep, Dad stirs. I think for a second he’ll wake. They’ll smell the smoke and wake. But he only turns onto his side and pulls Mom close to him.
I pull the door open further—tip-toe into the room. The old wood dresser groans as I slide out the top drawer.
Where is it? Where the fuck is it?
I calmly walk out of the room, the house—crouching low under the heavy smoke. I set the camera on the birdbath. With the timer set, I step backwards between it and the house. Sirens approach.
Copyright 2009, Andrew Kopecky. © This work is protected under the U.S. copyright laws. It may not be reproduced, reprinted, reused, or altered without the expressed written permission of the author.
“The Singing of the Violin” is Andrew Kopecky's first published piece of short fiction. He has published online articles on English grammar, language, and English language teaching on ESLFocus.com. He has university degrees in English literature and in linguistics and ESL teaching. Though he has taught English for more than twenty years, his interests are Medieval and 20th Century literature and history. He lives in northern Illinois with his wife and two children.