Grownups are so effing stupid. You’d think after all the screaming and fighting, she’d be glad he’s gone. But with four kids, my mom isn’t. I wish she’d walk away from the guy. Pack up and take us to grandma’s, but that will never happen. One of these nights, he’ll swagger back into the house. He won’t apologize or nothin’. He’ll stroll into the kitchen, pull a beer out of the refrigerator, and slug it down as if he owns us.
The “he” is my step-dad, Jerry. Last Friday he’d bellowed, “Enough! I’m done.” It’s Thursday morning, and he hasn’t come back yet. Maybe this time, he’ll stay away for good.
After Jerry crashed out the kitchen door, my mother crumpled against the cabinets. Gradually the quality of her sobs changed. She rose with a frustrated roar and grabbed a wooden spoon out of the tool crock. It was a familiar pattern. When checked she’d search for someone to blame. I saw her eyeing my sister Debra, so I stepped up. I took the stinging whacks to my arms and shoulders before wrestling the spoon away. We faced off, her fingers forming into claws. I widened my stance and crouched, prepared to block the catfight she’d bring. She paused; stunned by the chain I wore around my neck.
“That’s right,” I clutched the dog tags. “I found them.”
Her pupils narrowed to pinpoints, and she spat at me. “You think you know how it was? How things were with your father?” She shoved me as she passed. “You’re nothing but a stupid girl.” I had to smack my arms against the wall to keep my balance. “You ruin everything,” she jeered as she stumbled down the hall towards her bedroom.
My breath chuffed in ragged gulps. Whatever you say, Mom. Your little secret doesn’t honor his memory. It doesn’t matter. I’ll graduate soon, then I’ll be gone too.
I turned to find the twins, Jimmy and Robby, staring at me from behind their bedroom door. They crouched on the floor, turning themselves into little hillocks of boy; arms and legs bent protectively under their soft-shelled backs.
“Come out guys. It’s OK.”
They wrapped themselves around me. My arms hugged their fragile shoulders close.
“Did she hurt you, Marnie?” Robby asked. “It sounded loud.”
“Nah, it didn’t hurt. She’s not that strong.” I lifted my hands to their heads and curled the boys around to face me, rocking them back and forth.
Maybe my mother is right. Maybe I don’t know what it was like living with my dad. I was nine when he died. My memories are spotty. When I was little he’d lift me high in his arms and pretend to bite my neck. He’d growl and judder as I tried to squirm away from his scratchy bristles. He was my sometime hero, my bucking bronco.
My father flew the F-4 Phantom II in Nam. This morning I found the official records locked in an old metal box in the attic. Now I know how he died. On August 1, 1965, as he was lifting off on a reconnaissance mission, his right engine exploded, engulfing the wing in flames. The plane veered left and crashed into the Cam Rahn Bay sea wall. He left me and my pregnant mom behind. She’d married Jerry three months later. Folded inside the hatband of our dad’s dress uniform, was a Dear John letter written nearly two years before Debra was born.
I knocked. Debra warily glanced up as I stepped into the bedroom we shared. A pile of miniature dresses and accessories lay scattered over her bed. She looked me up and down, then tweaked the angle of her Barbie doll’s wide-brimmed hat. “Where’d you get that outfit?”
I looked down at the olive green fatigues I wore, paired with a brown t-shirt and leather combat boots. “I got them at the Army Surplus store. What do you think?”
Hopping off the bed, Debra examined me more closely. “Are these Daddy’s?” She reached up to finger the dog tags clinking against my chest.
I searched her face for any resemblance to my dad. Someday I would have to tell her.
“You want to hold them?”
Nina Fosati loves portraiture and historic clothing. Beguiled, she regularly holds forth on her favorites @NinaFosati. Recent work has or will soon appear in the Disabled Voices Anthology, the Cabinet of Heed, Pen 2 Paper TX, and L’Éphémère Review.