It was Mom who started talking about putting ground glass in Dad's food. When she first said it, my little sister Zoe and I thought she was kidding, even though her mumblings continued with a fury as she vacuumed and swabbed the floor of our new house. It was 1972, and we had moved into a small ranch on a piece of property down by the swamp. I was barely into manhood at fifteen and Zoe was a prissy ten. Our neighborhood was a bypass to the Jersey Shore, a fist of small canals and shacks with carports and tiny boats that jutted from pebbled driveways like pointy shoes. Dad had the conceit of any working class visionary who thought he knew the habits of the upper crust. He was convinced that our move to the rural county of Baywood from the smoke stacks and burning oil lamps of Elizabeth would bring us into prime real estate. He bought a small corner plot fringed with cattails and built a long box with a garage and square porch.
Money ran out before the house was finished, but the exterior was simple, and to anyone standing in the street it looked nondescript but completed, and a perfect cover for the chaos within. Our long box had beige shingles and double-hung windows with white shutters, a cinderblock platform with steps leading to the front door, and a small crabapple tree that had a permanent, cottony nest of insects. Dad's job as a toll collector on the parkway fed and clothed us, and Mom's occasional stint as a housecleaner helped to pay the bills, but we walked on raw flooring and stared from our beds at night at the spackled stars of an unpainted sheet rock ceiling.
Violence was an accessory always available to the poor, and we were no exception. When Dad would return from a particularly bad day he greeted Mom with a slap on the rear and then a hard smack on the shoulder if she didn't respond to his advances. He would then slump in his mustard-yellow club chair and mutter obscenities as he watched the news. Later into the evening we heard what sounded like dull thuds and muffled sobs coming from their bedroom. It was the kind of noise that angered and paralyzed me. The splintered door at the end of the hallway held many secrets, but romantic gestures probably weren't among them. Besides, Zoe and I were often reminded of Dad's ill temper, our arms and legs regularly tattooed with small bruises, especially if we balked at one of his schemes or failed to perform our chores to his liking.
Zoe stayed close to Mom in the kitchen, helping with pot-watching and mopping up spills on the indoor-outdoor carpet remnant near the stove. It was my job to polish Dad's shoes and shine his belt buckles. I earned a whack behind my head once when I mentioned that a toll-taker's shoes were the last thing anyone would be looking at. "A uniform earns respect!" he yelled, red-faced. "You know what they did to you in the army if your shoes didn't gleam?" We didn't travel the parkway much, but I imagined that all those rich people who headed to the Shore would hardly pay attention to the fat man in his tight gray uniform behind the glass, fumbling for change and blurting out forced greetings.
We had owned a series of cars that were always about to break down, so long trips were out of the question. These were old sedans with dull paint and dirty upholstery that often sat with their hoods wide open while Dad pulled at wires and knocked on rusted bolts with his wrench. I would hear my name echo in the early hours, sometimes tugging me from sleep, a chant I came to dread—Stephen. Stephen!—and I knew he required my assistance in some emergency repair. If I didn't get up, his punches to my blanketed body ensured a quick exit from my bed. Dad never wanted to, or maybe couldn't, bring the car to a mechanic, so he would call supply places and ask about parts with the confident voice of a professional. He followed with "I'm sending my man down," and would then go himself, returning with his wholesale trophy in a crushed paper bag.
I was not one for fixing things, and had no talent for wielding a hammer or saw, so I was a constant disappointment. I liked to throw small stones at the gulls that gathered in the far reaches of our backyard and were probably hovering, like all of us, for a bounty that would never arrive. I also carved small figures from the driftwood that clogged the weeds, making crudely shaped people that I lined up on my dresser and knocked over with a slingshot. I read, in private, setting up booby-traps to the door to my bedroom, fearful of being discovered. Reading wasn't a manly habit, Dad said, and it didn't require the skill of one's hands. Whenever my assistance with a repair backfired, calling for the help of a paid professional, he would take out his revenge on something—a beloved comic, a secret paperback, even a favorite pair of sneakers. He never considered my penknife or my rank and file of peculiar soldiers that were lined up and waiting to be flung from their posts. Dad had an instinct for knowing how to hurt people, and which possessions he could take to cause the right amount of grief, but he never understood true longing. Or how deeply we all hated him.
The only objects of his own desire, as far as I could tell, were a ring he'd fashioned out of an Algerian coin during his stint as a soldier in World War II, and a nightlight plaque of the Last Supper. He never wore the ring—his fingers were too thick and crooked—but he took it out of his drawer now and then to look it over, the darkened metal folded neatly into a band. I saw him examining his war-time souvenir more than once, with the door to his bedroom open a crack, thinking he was alone. The only time he spoke to me about it was when he asked, in a drunken rage, "What did you ever bring back from battle?" As for the plaque, it hung smack in the middle of the kitchen wall and loomed over every meal.
Outside of the few pictures that were tacked to our poster-board walls, the plaque loomed, day and night, with its eerie yellow glow and frozen frieze of the Apostles, their arms out and heads turned in a snapshot of drama before the final betrayal. Once Mom tried to remove it, saying she was tired of looking at it—we were not given to religious rituals, though Zoe and I had been baptized and went up the rung of sacraments until Confirmation. That's when we had been told that we were on our own when it came to spiritual matters.
"It stays!" Dad yelled when Mom's oven-mitted hand gestured toward Jesus' head during dinner one evening. It had shone as a weak beacon on the wall of his own childhood kitchen, and come hell or high water it would continue to adorn ours.
"It's glued to the bloody wall," Mom complained, whacking at the matted clot of dust that nested behind the plaque. She had never given up, even after years of witnessing the slow decay of our small space, on the idea of redecorating. She had hidden issues of Home and Garden and House Beautiful behind the washing machine, and, after hanging our wash on the line, would stare at their glossy pages filled with tips on brightening small rooms and entertaining with panache, a word she came to love. I would see the top of her head and her heavy shoes, visible above and below the billowing sails of our grey sheets as she was swept up in the world of domestic glamour.
It was during one of these episodes, her thumb marking a page on Victorian recipes, that she mentioned the ground glass. I was walking the scruffy edges of the yard, searching the distance and trying to guess the depth of the water when I heard her say it out loud. Zoe was skipping rope on the perimeter of our collapsed above-ground pool and stopped, one foot poised near the lip of the blue sheath bent under matted grass. As newer homes started springing up with their paved driveways and Adirondack lawn furniture, Dad thought that a pool would be the thing to even the playing field. One winter it froze and its sides just caved in. It remained flattened on the ground in the backyard until overgrowth poked through its lining.
Mom's hostile mutterings continued as she folded the clothes, set the table, rolled tinny curlers around tight wads of her coarse, graying hair. The phrase "ground glass" escaped her lips in between recitals of recipe ingredients over a sputtering frying pan or as she tested lipstick shades in the bathroom mirror, forming a puckered "O" and dabbing a dark red splotch on a tissue. Dad mostly ignored her anyway, and when he started working double shifts, it gave her time to pretend that life could somehow get better, that the three of us—she, Zoe, and me—would persist, thrive with the changing neighborhood, and maybe something untoward, unanticipated would happen at the toll booth. She'd stare out the kitchen window, her "Corner of Heaven," and look past the crabapple and tilted mailbox to the brightly painted angular houses springing up along the canals. She started wearing her apron full-time, even on trips to the supermarket, as if announcing to the world that she was ready to make a decent home elsewhere, anywhere.
Dad returned from his days at work, as usual, crumpled with anger. It was in the early hours when Zoe and I would be getting up for school. He shuffled in, grabbed a beer, and made his way to his mustard-colored throne while we dressed and ran through the kitchen to the garage and out to the street, grateful for the groaning orange school bus that pulled up and away in a puff of black smoke. By the time we came home, he was cocooned in their bedroom, a snoring mound under scratchy woolen covers.
We exchanged fewer and fewer words as the months went on, but Dad developed a gross ritual while he sat and read the paper or watched the early morning news. He let the pinky nail of his left hand grow to almost half an inch, and would dig around the edges of his ear, scratching and digging, probing and scraping, until he unearthed something worth examining. This vile act of grooming haunted my thoughts, and Zoe's face screwed up every time she caught sight of it. Mom was lost in her own world, rearranging family photos on the TV, dreaming, no doubt, of the day his picture would serve as the sole reminder of his presence in our lives. She swept past and around him, humming Disney tunes from Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, probably grateful that he was too tired or indifferent to pay her any attention. She never reacted to how his hand curled and dipped and revealed its waxy prize, so there was no point in bringing it up.
Zoe and I, however, conspired to stop it.
That spring we spent time in the backyard, kicking stones and playing catch, planning how to end his gross ritual. Could we dare approach the sleeping beast and snip off the offending nail? Once Dad lay down, he swelled into an immoveable, snoring mass. Perhaps I could straddle him and hold down his arm while Zoe placed a nail cutter atop his pinky and clamped down on the thick yellowed stub? She winced at the idea.
"I don't want to be anywhere near him or that disgusting nail," she whined. "And what if I don't do it right? I'll stand and watch the door so Mommy doesn't walk in, but you'll have to cut it." From outside we heard Mom mumbling in the kitchen, and the heavy chop of a knife splintering something on a cutting board.
"What if he wakes up?" I asked her, sure now that our conversation meant a partnership. "I might have to keep him pinned so you could finish the job. It wouldn't be worth a beating if we didn't at least come away with a piece of him."
Zoe lowered her eyes. Her long, pale lashes moved in thoughtful rhythm.
"What will you use to snip it?" she asked, now determined for an answer.
"He has a manicure set. I've seen it," I said with confidence. There was a zippered vinyl case on his dresser, placed next to his watch, that held sharp instruments for trimming and shaping dead edges. It was embossed in cracked gold lettering: Veterans of Foreign Wars. In his absence, and in my more adventurous moments, I would case the room, usually looking for cigarettes or matches. Two summers earlier I'd stolen a stale cigar from his night table and puffed away in the backyard, nearly starting a small blaze when I dropped the burning matchstick onto the dry swamp grass. I'd been able to stomp it out before being discovered.
"How do you know he has a nail cutter in there?" Zoe asked cynically.
I thought about the times I heard a "bink" and "chink" coming from the bathroom, but that could have been yet another of his repulsive habits.
"I'll check, but I'm sure that there's a heavy stainless clipper somewhere in the house." Dad liked having hardware scattered in drawers, an odd habit considering he was too ill equipped to make any household repairs. There were clumsy metallic objects to rifle through in every room, creating a noisy search each time you needed a pen or pencil. He liked to make a racket with them while talking on the phone during his car dramas, to add authenticity.
Wherever I would find this cutter, it would have to snap shut like a turtle's jaws to slice through that bullet-shaped, yellowed nail of his.
Dad mostly slept through the days he was off and bounded out of the door at night to greet and direct privileged motorists to their destinations. Mom floated through the house, staring out the kitchen window, attending to her domestic chores, and making extended visits to a hobby store that had just opened in a new shopping center. There were torn pages from a crafts magazine article entitled "The Joys of Making Mosaics" sticking out from under the toaster oven, so I figured she'd found a new avenue of escape that would also distract her attention from the daily preparations of our mission.
On the day of our attack, Zoe and I rehearsed one final time in the hallway outside the bedroom, pantomiming our movements. She'd be more stealth-like, having become practiced at dodging the sputtering pots and pans and dancing around Mom's frenzied gestures in the kitchen, so she would be the first to enter and size up the location of the offending hand in case it was buried under the blankets. Zoe would then lift the covers or gently prod Dad in the right direction for our handiwork. I'd wield the nail clipper, claim the pinky and make the deciding cut when the angle was right. We held a crayon drawing between us, Zoe's artistic rendering, with four possible scenarios—Dad on his back, Dad lying on the right or left side, and Dad face down, arms locked under his pillow. That would be the greatest challenge.
We knew we had to strike as his snoring reached its crescendo. The roar usually lasted a good fifteen minutes; then all bets were off. He would start talking in his sleep, usually fragments of his tollbooth conversations and TV news rantings, and then burst into an abrupt schnorpf! that momentarily roused him. We couldn't take the chance that our presence would wake him and send him lunging for our throats.
When we heard the door latch shut and knew Mom was on her way to craftsville, we did an inventory of our own tools: a long, ragged dishtowel to obscure his view and allow extra time for our escape, should he awaken; one of Zoe's old, dingy stuffed animals (we could toss it on the bed, plying the excuse that we were playing and that our momentum pushed the door open and caused it to land there); and the weapon itself—a rusty toenail clipper with the heft of a small pistol.
Zoe's pink fingers slowly turned the dull brass knob of the bedroom door with the skill of a safe cracker. The door opened into the room, imbalanced on its hinges, and we surveyed the grey walls and windows covered in plastic sheeting. A paint-by-number picture of Iwo Jima was thumbtacked over the double bed that sat straight ahead on the back wall, the tight formation of Marines raising the flag above the mountainous form of Dad's slumbering body. He was wrapped in a coverlet of crocheted squares, each one a symbol honoring a holiday—a clover, a bunny, a pilgrim, a cherub—Mom's one successful creative effort.
Zoe and I kept communication to glances and nods. We put our stash of materials at the foot of the bed, and she crept to the left side, making note of the rise and fall of his body, still one indistinguishable lump in the dead center of the mattress. I took the nail clipper and folded my fingers around it, my heart pulsing with the thought of victory. Zoe tiptoed forward, craning her neck to catch site of his face or at least where his head lay, noted his position, and motioned for me to go around to the other side of the bed.
Dad's face was partially obscured by the blanket, but it tilted in my direction, eyelids opened to fluttering creases and his mouth gaping like a sputtering fish. I listened for the tempo of his breath, the guttural bursts making their way up his throat. His left arm was folded over his chest just below his heart, a failed salute. I saw the pinky, leaning into the ring finger, which leaned into the middle finger that was bent over the pointer, nearly cupping his hand. I weighed the risks of trying to separate them.
Zoe's face peered wide-eyed across the horizon of the bed. I shrugged at her, pointing to Dad's hand. She shrugged back, needing assurance. Just then, the sound of rumbling traffic came welling up from Dad's chest, pushed through his throat and blasted out of his mouth. I fell backward, the nail clipper springing from my grip and bouncing into a fold of the quilt. I balanced myself, but Zoe panicked and rushed to my side, and we both frantically searched the bed while Dad's snoring boomed around us. The cheerful patterns of the quilt camouflaged the clipper, and we moved our hands cautiously over the woolly surface.
We found it, snagged on the threads of a patch near his waist, and we tugged until it pulled up, taking a piece of red wool with it—the tip of a Valentine's Day heart. Zoe and I struggled to claim the nail clipper, the seconds ticking until Dad's furious noises would die down and bring us to the danger zone.
I squeezed hard and released the small silver tongue that, once inverted, would bite down and free the nail from its cuticle. Zoe relented and backed away. Dad's mouth quivered and the snuffling gave way to a string of monotone mutterings. The dreaded schnorpf! would not be far behind—we had to do the deed or abort the mission. I was ready to make a grab for it when his arm flung out, fingers splayed. In clockwork fashion, Zoe quickly took his hand and held the finger as I clamped down on the nail, a clean snip, and we both ran like hell out of the room, closing the door behind us, the final burst of breath hiding the noise of our exit. Zoe's face was flushed and gleaming, her hair raised slightly with the static of excitement. I felt the adrenalin coursing through my veins, surprised and pleased at my own agility. I opened my palm to show her the prize—our trophy and proof of success. I felt like lighting up a cigar.
We barely had time to congratulate each other when we heard Mom coming through the garage. We walked into the kitchen and watched as she entered, smiling broadly and carrying white plastic bags from the hobby store that crunched and crackled as she set them down on the counter.
Zoe and I had made a pact to never mention what we did, and Dad never gave a sign that he knew, though he moved on to using a pencil eraser. He also never noticed the artistic addition to his beloved Last Supper, a translucent yellowed crescent pasted carefully above the head of our Savior. Mom was smitten with her newfound pastime of making mosaics, lovingly piecing together scenes from Grimm's Fairy Tales while singing "When You Wish Upon a Star," and "Whistle While You Work," the bags of crushed glass and ceramic fragments piling up in the basement for whenever the inspiration would hit.
One Sunday night, while humming "Some Day My Prince Will Come," she excitedly called to all of us that dinner was ready. She was wearing a new apron, frilly and blinding white, tied in a big bow in the back. She was trying a new recipe that "took weeks to perfect," and even set the table with an old flowered cloth stitched with gold thread. Her face was pink and glowing, and I must admit, the table really sparkled. Dad sat at his place, unfolding the newspaper and making a snapping sound to show his displeasure. Mom was oddly calm and contented. "Let's pray," she told us, glancing at the frozen scene of Disciples on the wall, "and give thanks for what we are about to receive."
Title graphic: "Clipped" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2014.