At exactly 5:45 pm Father, lunchbox in hand, walked through the door. Supper was ready; the table set. I had ten seconds to determine what mood he was in, and to set my internal robot setting appropriately. Did his gait stomp angrily? Did his feet shuffle in defeat? Did his eyes appear cold and dead? Or was there light in his eyes and a candy bar in his hand, like the days when his boss wasn’t at work?
The stomp, stumble and step alerted me that there was no need to look him in the eye, and in fact it would be more self-sustaining if I didn’t make eye contact at all. I pulled out my chair and sat down, being sure to sit at attention, and focus my eyes at the center of the table.
Johnny had not yet learned the Special Alert System, and although I had tried to explain it to him, he didn’t understand.
“I learned a new joke today,” Johnny started. My eyes bore into his as I tried to warn him to be quiet. He kept talking.
“What kind of cheese do dogs like?”
“I don’t know, what kind?” Mother played along.
“Mutts-arella!” Johnny smiled wide, his eyes gleaming with childlike innocence.
Father clanked his fork onto his plate. “Can I get a little peace and quiet around here? What the hell is wrong with you? You’re an idiot.”
Johnny’s face turned white, with just a splash of red along his cheek, as it someone had physically slapped him. I stiffened my arm, and kept eating dinner as quietly as possible.
After dinner, Father went into the living room to watch TV while we cleared off the table. I opened the pantry door and looked at the chart we kept there and saw it was my turn to wash the dishes. It was Margie’s turn to clear the table and Johnny’s turn to bring the garbage out.
I scraped the food off each dinner plate, soaked it into the soapy water in the dishpan, wiped it with the dishcloth, rinsed it under the faucet, and placed it into the plastic drainer. My dog, Rocky, rested on his bed.
“Why can’t we get new chairs, the ones we have are old junk,” I heard Mother’s voice from the living room.
“I’m not going to buy everything in the world,” Father’s voice thundered.
Mother’s voice went up an octave. “All I want is a nice kitchen set so I’m not embarrassed when we have company over.”
Well since I earn the money, it’s my decision!” Father’s voice boomed, “When you get a job, you can buy whatever the hell you want.”
My body stiffened, but I concentrated on my task: scrape, soak, wipe, rinse, and place.
The stomp of footsteps approached the kitchen. Father appeared, grabbed a chair and hurled it across the room. The chair approached me and landed, missing me by two feet. I stood paralyzed. He yelled an obscenity and picked up a second chair and heaved it. It hit Rocky, who jumped up with a yelp and ran out of the kitchen and down the hall. Father turned, stomped to the back door, opened it, went out, and slammed it shut.
I ran from the kitchen sink, down the hall to find Rocky. He was huddled by the staircase. I saw a small cut on his back and blood seeping through his fur. Another piece of my heart died.
I swore I would never forgive Father for hurting Rocky, either.
Three hours later, Father came back through the door carrying large boxes. Inside were new seats and backs to replace the worn out ones on the kitchen chairs.
Not a word was uttered about the whole incident.