Authors: Norman Ollestad
ICK CAME HOME
after dark and my mom served my favorite honey chicken. She ate on the couch and Sunny and I ate on the floor and Nick ate in his rocking chair with a jug of wine. I was feeling clever, having told my mom that the scrape on my arm was from falling on my way up the creek. Her easy acceptance of my story, which seemed airtight, made me feisty for some reason. And after dinner, when Nick insisted on watching a news special about Watergate, I had the nerve to protest.
I want to see what sordid facts they’ve picked up over the years, said Nick.
Oh Jesus, said my mom. Do we have to?
Fucking-A right we have to.
I leapt up and turned the channel and looked back at Nick.
Turn it back, Norman, or I’ll play Chi-cow-ski.
It’s Tchaikovsky, said my mom.
Nick’s listless expression made it clear that he was not amused by her correction. His curly hair was standing up off his forehead and combined with his tired dull eyes, it made him look slightly derelict.
Turn it back, he said.
No, I said.
He rocked forward and rose out of the chair in one motion. He took a swig of the wine.
I ran back to Sunny and slid down behind her. Nick moved Sunny over and straddled me, fastening down my shoulders, and Sunny squirmed on her back and licked his arm and my face. Nick forked his fingers like a mad piano player and jabbed my chest.
Dum dum dum dummm, he sang, his wine-breath making me gag, and I turned my head.
His knees pinched my arm skin and his fingers rammed my chestbone and ribs.
Dum dum dum dummm! Chicowski plays until you promise to change the channel, he said.
Mom, I can’t breathe. Tell him to stop!
Nick. He can’t breathe. Stop.
Repeat after me, said Nick, still playing.
I will never defy Nick again.
I will never defy Nick again, I said.
He drew his upper body back and his wrists went limp and he stared off into the distance.
Get off so I can change the channel, I said.
Nick looked down over his nose and his eyes focused far beyond as if some apparition could be seen deep in the rug. I wasn’t going to wait for him to get up and I twisted away.
My shorts slid off my waist and my raspberried hip caught his attention. His eyes flared open.
I quickly pulled up my shorts, avoiding eye contact, and turned the channel to the Watergate special.
There, I said. Should I do the dishes?
Well that’s nice of you, Norman, said my mom.
Then you guys can watch the special, I said.
Nick was still on his knees, arms hanging down, head tilted forward. He didn’t turn or move or speak. All I saw was his back inhaling and exhaling. I went to the kitchen and began soaping the dishes. I could hear Nixon and the other bad guys denying they had anything to do with the break-in. Suddenly Nick’s voice cut through the TV noise—
was the only word that was clear. Then I heard the investigators talking about what was really going on in the White House at the time—the cover-up. Nick didn’t call me into the living room and his voice never cut through the sound of the TV again so I figured I was okay. By the end of the dishes Nixon was giving his Checkers speech and some secret tapes were playing.
Nick lit up a joint and stared at the TV screen with hatred. He took off his shirt. I walked in front of the screen. Watergate Watergate blah blah blah, I said. I’m so sick of Watergate.
Nick blinked as if trying to focus on my foreground image.
You have no fucking idea, he said.
About what? I said.
He rocked out of the chair, suddenly enraged. You know why
of all people need to watch this?
My face was even with his bare stomach. The air in the room had changed. It closed in all around me.
I’m going to bed, I said.
As I turned he grabbed my arm and his fingers dug into my bone.
Ouch! I said. You’re hurting me.
Damn fucking right. Now answer the question.
What’s the question?
of all people need to be watching the downfall of the president of the United States?
I already watched it a couple years ago, I said.
Well you need to watch it again. Do you know why?
No, I said.
Did you hear that, Jan? I bet you don’t know why either.
My mom was putting away the chicken. She walked under the archway between the kitchen and the living room and stopped.
Don’t know what? she said.
Pay fucking attention. That’s the problem. You never pay attention.
My mom put a hand on her hip and looked at Nick. She lifted her eyebrows and sighed. His fingers bore deeper into my bone and the pain made me cry out.
Let go of him, said my mom.
You’d like that, wouldn’t you? But you know why I can’t? he said, seemingly to both of us.
Why? she said, rolling her eyes.
Because if I let him go now he’ll end up like Nixon.
Oh come on, said my mom. What the hell are you going on about?
He’s a liar!
I didn’t see him skateboarding, she said. Did you?
So you believe him?
She looked at me and I tried to warn her with my eyes but I was still cringing from the pain in my arm.
Yes, she said.
Nick ripped down my pants and the waistline tore the scab and fresh blood percolated to the surface of my wound.
What about this? said Nick, pointing at my raspberry.
Oh God, said my mom. Where did you get that?
I wanted to be on her side. I wanted her to win.
I got it when I slipped in the canyon, I said.
Bullshit, said Nick. Look at the blacktop around the edges.
That’s dirt, I said.
Nick rubbed his fingers over the black smudges. Ouch, I said.
Stop that, Nick, said my mom.
He held up his fingers.
It ain’t dirt.
Yes it is, I said.
Nick pointed at the TV. You sound just like Nixon, he said. It comes so naturally.
I recalled Nixon’s voice, cracked and high-pitched during his Checkers speech. Nixon had a fake smile. A warped frown. No one on the beach liked him. My dad grunted and cast him off with the wave of his hand—not even worth talking about.
Then Nick let go of my arm and I ran into the kitchen.
Come back here, he yelled.
Leave him alone, said my mom.
Get your ass back here, said Nick.
I ducked into the bathroom and peed into the toilet. I heard Nick arguing with my mom about me forgetting to take out the trash cans again, for the second week in a row. It was proof, he said, that
Norman believes the world revolves around him
I came out of the bathroom and my mom was face to face with Nick.
You’re overreacting, she said to his perspiring face.
Horseshit, he said and marched past her and into the bathroom and I knew I was busted before he even said it.
He forgot to flush the goddamn toilet again, barked Nick. This is at least the tenth time, Jan.
Nick stepped out of the bathroom and called me over. You need to clean the toilet bowl. That’s the only way you’re going to learn.
My mom stepped between him and me.
Get the fuck out of the way, said Nick, his eyes cutting hard down at my mom. She shook her head, making a stand.
Nick might do any crazy thing, I thought. He had broken our neighbor Wheeler’s ribs one night in our kitchen after a heated political debate.
I skulked into the bathroom.
It always starts when you’re young, Nick said. You lie a little, cheat a little. And then all of a sudden that’s your mentality. That’s who you are.
Nick, said my mom. You used to lie your ass off when you were a kid. That’s why you got kicked out of grammar schools and high schools and military schools. So don’t act like Norman’s got the problem, Nick.
Nick slumped against the door jam like an animal backed into a corner. He was a hairline trigger away from exploding. Don’t do or say anything Mom, I thought to myself.
She swung her hip out to the opposite side.
You think you’re right because you’re drunk and stoned, she said. But you’re wrong.
seemed to prod Nick from deep down, and whatever it unleashed crawled up his neck and his veins popped out and the thing continued into his face turning it purple-red and wound his eyes up like a cartoon character. It wasn’t funny though, and I stopped breathing.
His jaw set and his front teeth sawed together.
I’m the fucking truth, he said, grinding up the words. And you two are fucking lies.
He stared at me, red-faced, veined and perspiring.
I can’t let you grow up to be a liar. A failure. I have to stop it. There must be consequences.
He stepped past me and pulled out a jar of Ajax and a sponge from under the sink and handed them to me.
Scrub the toilet bowl, he said.
I looked at my mom standing in the kitchen with her hand still on her hip. She shook her head, but I was afraid to defy him. I dumped the Ajax into the toilet bowl.
You don’t have to, said my mom.
Your mother doesn’t care about you, Norman, he said. She wants you to be a liar and a failure. Do you understand that? She’s too lazy to stop you.
Shut up, Nick, she said. Norman’s not a liar. You are, Nick. You are!
His body tensed as if jolted by electricity.
You know I’m right, he said.
Nick looked down at me. You know I’m right, he repeated.
He may be drunk and stoned, I thought. He may be crazy. But he was right—I had lied.
I held the sponge and Ajax and my mom looked at me, half eclipsed by Nick’s stomach. She shook her head. It wasn’t clear whether she was signaling for me not to scrub the toilet or whether she was just disgusted with the whole situation, or both.
The hair on his stomach was inches from my face and he smelled like sour milk.
You’ll wake up one day and realize the world does not revolve around you and it will be too late, he said. You’ll be too old to change. You’ll end up bitter and frustrated for the rest of your life. Save yourself, Norman, he said. Because your mother can’t.
My mom scoffed. She either didn’t know or didn’t care that I had lied, and this ambiguity created a void inside me, a space for Nick’s demons to take root.
I began scrubbing.
You don’t have to do that, said my mom.
He knows I’m right, said Nick.
You’re a joke, said my mom.
I kept scrubbing and then I heard Nick’s rocking chair creak. I heard my mom march into the living room and they started yelling at each other. I wished I could yell too—better than just shrinking up like a bug.
He called her a cunt. She said he wouldn’t know what to do with one if it fell in his lap. Then I heard the sound of meat and bone colliding. A second later a dull thump against the floor. I dropped the sponge and ran into the living room.
My mom was on the floor. She held both hands over one eye. She whimpered like a child, curled and fetal. Nick stood over her. He moved his feet like a nervous horse. I got between Nick and my mom.
You’re a bully, I said.
He swallowed and his Adam’s apple rose and fell. He turned and went to the freezer. I kneeled down and asked my mom if she was okay.
I’m fine, Norman. You should go to bed now. Everything will be okay. Don’t worry, she said. I promise.
I didn’t see how things would be okay. I didn’t see how that was possible. She was either lying or didn’t understand what was really going on.
I’m going to run up to Dad’s, I said.
No! she said. Don’t do that, Norman.
Why? He’ll protect us.
If you try to run away I’ll track you down, said Nick. You’ll never make it.
He sounded like an actor in a movie. He came through the archway with ice wrapped in a towel. In that moment he looked
melodramatic and ridiculous to me. Nick handed the wrapped-up ice to my mom. His blood-veined eyes slanted across his face at me. I turned away and saw the sliding glass door and imagined myself escaping out it. I was running up Topanga Canyon to my dad’s house—he would fix everything—but Nick was chasing me on the bridge over the creek and it was dark and his fingers snagged my hair. Feeling myself crash to the ground made my courage wither, exposing something else beneath it, and I stood frozen in the living room, eyeing my escape route, defeated.
In the middle of the night I woke to the cry of a dying animal. I opened my bedroom door and heard my mom moan as if in agony. I stepped toward her room and was about to call out, Are you okay? when she moaned again. It sounded different, as if a note of joy rang out from a frenzy of dark chords, and I realized they were fucking. It dawned on me that their fight had seemed like a show, like they were actors playing parts in a made-up story.
I went back to my bed and thought about how I had lied and about Nick being right and my mom being wrong and about Nick hitting her and how now they were fucking, as if they knew all along that that was how the night was going to end.
ANDRA STOPPED CRYING
. Her hand remained over her face. She is wrong, I thought. My dad is for sure still alive. I have to check on him.
I was facing the wrong way in the chute. I had to turn around. A blinding gust scrabbled over me and I closed my eyes, visualizing how I’d make my 180-degree turn. I remembered how Dad had taught me about ice—you always have to keep an edge—and I replayed the time I slipped on the face of Mount Waterman and he dive-bombed the ice face and scooped me up like a shortstop.
Once you get going, Ollestad, it’s hard to stop.
When the flurry passed I reached my downhill arm uphill and tried to grab the snow next to my uphill shoulder. My fingers closed around a feeble top layer of crust, knuckles scuffing the hard pack below. So I stabbed my fingers into the hard pack. One knuckle deep. Enough.
I compressed like a ski racer making a high-speed turn,
poised on the inside edges of my Vans. Then I unweighted and swiveled my hips 180 degrees, crouching right back into my race pose for stability.
I inched across the chute, slanting the edges of my rubber soles into the crust like I would skis. No steel rail to carve into the hard snow, so I compensated with precise balance. As I crossed into the funnel, a subtle dimple—the threshold between the crust and the intractable ice curtain—I was forced onto my stomach again. I clawed, fingernail to fingernail, across the funnel.
Must be getting close to Dad, I thought, and glanced up from the curtain. A pool of fog clung to him and his curly brown hair appeared. There was some silver in it. Blond surfer hairs, he’d say.
I raked both hands deep into the ice. Spikes of pain weakened my fingers, creeping up my arms. Don’t look down, I told myself. Then I pulled violently to cross the last few feet to my dad. Snap, I lost my grip and went rifling down the curtain instantly.
Out of habit I yelled for my dad. Searched for him above as I descended. I glimpsed his flaccid hand, a pale shape in the mist. It’s not reaching for me.
I twisted like a snake falling down a waterfall, waggling my arms farther out to one side, lunging for anything. I snagged something. My fingers clamped down around it. A spindly evergreen. It bent and I jerked to a stop. I hung on. I got one hand dug into the ice to take pressure off the baby tree, kicked in toe-deep ledges while never letting the other hand unwrap from the needles.
Tears came and I opened my mouth to call for him. Instead I shut my eyes and felt the drops freeze to my cheeks.
I swore at the mountain and at the storm and I cried between outbursts. None of this was helping me—he was still up there drooped over—and my skin stung from the damp cold seeping through my sweater and sneakers. My only option was to try to climb back up by myself.