Mom accidentally dyed her hair purple. It’s almost black, but in the sunlight her whole head is a deep, swirled violet, the same color as the nail polish that she used to paint her toes when I was younger. (I always thought it was tacky, but Mom really loved purple so I never said anything.)
“I-I don’t know what happened,” she says, frantically waving around her arms. “All I did was put in the dye and rinse it out and now my hair looks like flowers.”
“Flowers are pretty,” I reply.
“That’s true. Flowers are pretty. Flowers are pretty.” Mom tells herself this a few times as she looks into a compact mirror. “Is it that noticeable?”
I never know what to say. I want to tell her it looks like a mess, because it really is, but I think she might be upset if I do so I pretend I didn’t hear anything. I’m getting better at doing that lately.
“Charlie?” she repeats.
I can’t pretend I didn't hear that. “Um…” I try to change the subject. “Do you want a Tic Tac?” Mom loves Tic Tacs; she likes to pretend they’re small pills that cure stress. She also says that she once read in a magazine at the doctor’s office that people associate the scents of mint and vanilla with hospitality, so she keeps assortments of breath mints in her handbag that she offers to almost everyone she meets. I don't know if it really is true, but people always seem to love my mother so maybe I should keep Tic Tacs around me more often.
“Yes, please.” She sighs.
I leave the dining room and walk into Mom’s office, which is the only room in our house that isn’t kept tidy. She keeps Tiffany lamps that she finds at yard sales on bookshelves around the room, collecting rings of dust that surround the rim of every lamp. Most of them don’t have lightbulbs inside, but Mom likes them because the stained glass reminds her of church. She’s always wanted to be one of those people that went to mass every week, spending the day in a yellow flowery dress and listening intently as the priest rambles on about “becoming a better person for your family” and “allowing the word of God to enter your home,” but we haven’t attended in years.
I rummage through her purse until I find a tiny clear box of mints and bring them to Mom.
“Thank you, honey.” She breathes in and then out slowly, closing her eyes as she pops a Tic Tac in her mouth. “That’s better. You always know what to do.” I don’t say anything back.
Mom lingers in the dining room for a little while, staring at the floor before going into her office, where she usually reads gardening books. I like to think Mom is happy as she reads. I hope that she imagines our garden is full of orange and pink Coneflowers and a rocking chair on our back porch, where she drinks white wine on late afternoons and hosts dinner parties for her friends on the weekends. I wonder if Mom would’ve done everything she reads about if she weren’t so sad.
Dad steps out of his bedroom and into the dining room, where I’m sitting on a chair with my head sunken. He sleeps in until eleven on Saturdays so he doesn’t wake up when the woman on the news who looks like his fifth grade teacher is on TV. She makes him want to cry. When Dad enters, his jaw is clenched and his hair has already been combed, and he walks timidly, as if the roof would cave into itself if he stepped the wrong way. I used to picture the ceiling falling in to calm me down before bed; it would break one piece at a time, and the tiles would avoid us by an inch, falling perfectly onto the ground and exposing the sky which was black with the night. But I think Dad sees it differently, collapsing onto us and breaking the floor in two like trees do in the disaster movies he used to watch.
“Good morning, Charlie,” he says as he pours himself a glass of water. His voice is quiet and cracking.
He doesn’t say anything else, but drinks the glass right next to the sink and proceeds to pour himself another, then another. (He drinks three in the morning and three at night, with no ice. We don’t even keep ice in the house anymore because it makes Dad’s hands shaky.) Under the fluorescent kitchen lights, I can distinguish his pupils from his irises, which is hard to do because his eyes are dark like coffee. He is so tired, he looks like frosted waters that crack in the summertime.
“Dad,” I start. “I have to stop by the post office tomorrow morning to drop off a package, and Mom won’t be able to come with me because she has yoga class and you’ll be asleep so do you think I could-“
“No.” He says, and his eyes harden. “No, no. You can’t. Just wait for Mom to finish yoga.” He walks out, and hides back in his bedroom.
Dad has it in his head that if anyone drives alone they’ll crash into a gate. He says that driving is unsafe practice, and there is not enough grass in the Omaha suburbs to protect us, so I can’t go anywhere without Mom. When I first began to drive last year, I believed it, too, and I refused to get in the car by myself, but I’m starting to think he’s just making things up. I know I really shouldn’t, because whatever is wrong with Dad is “just something he can’t control.” But I can’t help it. I think he’s a liar.
When I’m with Mom, I usually just let her drive. Mostly because when Mom’s next to me, she tells me she doesn’t know what to do with her hands so she taps on the window and turns the radio on and off, but also because sometimes when I’m in control of the car I think maybe I should crash it into a gate, just to see what Dad will say. Glass would break my skin apart and I could leave a large dent in someone’s iron fence. I don’t tell her that part, though. She will start to think I’m turning into Dad, and I don’t want to make her cry.
I don’t do much the rest of the morning. Later on, when the sun is a little brighter, I go out on our porch. We don’t have chairs so I lie down on the deck and close my eyes. It’s warm outside and I want to lie here forever. If I lived alone, I would. Responsibility wouldn’t exist; I would lay my head on the ground and the sun would keep me safe from the rest of the world. And when it rained, I would sit underneath the small awning on our patio and let the fresh water hit my knees and my feet. I’ve always loved rain the most. When I was twelve, I ran outside every time raindrops started to fall, and I closed my eyes as it trickled down my face. Then Dad started to get nervous, and when it rained he blockaded the doors with stacked-up chairs so I couldn’t get out. One time I got outside anyway, and he followed me outside, crying. We stood there for a few minutes, just looking at each other. After a while, he went back inside, and I didn’t want him to be upset anymore, so I did, too. I hadn’t seen him that broken before. Now he seems to look that way all the time.
Mom makes beef and cabbage for dinner. She says she wants to trace back to her Irish roots. (I don’t know why she bothers. My great-grandfather was born in the United States; our “roots” have been frayed for years.)
“Jimmy, come on and eat your supper!” She sets down both of his plates, one with shredded beef and another with cabbage.
Dad walks in. His eyes are tired and his hand is trembling. “I need to eat. I need to eat.” Mom helps him to the dining table.
“I need to eat.” He repeats. I want to leave. “I need to eat.” Six more times and he’ll start dinner. “I need to eat.” I wonder when Dad started to get worse. When I was young he was strong like iron gates. “I need to eat.” If I walk away, he might not even notice. His face becomes blank when he does this. I could get the keys and- “I need to eat.” I can’t think. “I need to eat.” Just two more. “I need to eat.”
Before Dad can finish, I’m outside and I’m running to the car, which is parked way out front. Mom is calling my name out the door and Dad is screaming. His voice sounds like tires on asphalt and it’s cold outside but I don’t care. I need to leave. I need to leave.
Then I’m driving in the middle of Nebraska with no one sitting next to me. There aren’t any streetlights here and the clouds are so dark that my hands become blank shadows. I don’t know exactly where I am except that it’s way out of town. But it’s okay, because no one is sitting next to me, and I know that here, the grass goes on forever.