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A year before Kyle will wake up to find his father dead on the couch, his family wins the lottery for $100,000. His parents spend the money on motorcycles, XBOX players, and big screen TVs that are quickly broken and never repaired. Kyle’s already dropped out of high school and the rest of their three sons fled the nest years ago, so what’s the point in saving up?
They manage to blow through the money in a matter of months, and soon Kyle’s mother, Becky, is back to using her elder sons’ social security numbers to open new credit cards, which are maxed out on items from the Home Shopping Network. They never call the police on her; she’s their mother, for God’s sake. The bank repossesses any expensive purchases that haven’t been hidden away, like the boat gathering dust in a marina in Rhode Island. Their house, isolated in the boonies of central Massachusetts, is under foreclosure yet again, and Becky has Kyle lying to the electric company to convince them to turn the power back on (they won’t believe her anymore). She used to coach him when he was little, having him call the different utility companies to say that there was a baby in the house and that’s why they needed water, or heat. I guess there was technically a kid living there, but I don’t know that Kyle was a child anymore, even then.
His parents used to own a daycare for children, but it was shut down because of a disgruntled ex-employee who lied about them having code violations, or so they told Kyle and he tells me. Becky works occasionally at an afterschool program, but Kyle’s father, Tom, spends his days at home on the couch, getting drunk and watching the small TV they’ve placed in front of the broken flat screen. Tom doesn’t work because of his bad knee, but can’t claim disability because of the several DUIs and a court-mandated stint in rehab that have flagged him as an alcoholic, making him ineligible for any unemployment. He’s a troubled, but not ill-intentioned man; quick with a joke, but quicker to drink. Towards the end, he barely leaves the house except to buy booze.
I’m introduced to Kyle through mutual friends, a couple of months before the morning that everything changes; I know nothing about his family, but I start to notice how much he can make me laugh. I notice his toothy, shit-eating grin, and the way he walks with his hands shoved deep in his pockets, shoulders slumped forward and eyes on the ground when he’s not looking back at me. Sometimes, when he forgets to swagger, it looks like he’s trying to disappear. I go to the punk show his parents let him have in their basement, which is still outfitted for the daycare that Becky’s been trying to start up again. We listen to our friends’ bands and play with the kids toys we find, carefully ironic about it all, occasionally moshing on top of those “car city” rugs that line the floor with their cartoon buildings and roads, meant for Hot Wheels and toy trucks. We head-bang and throw our bodies against each other in teenaged exuberance.
I meet Kyle’s father, Tom, for the first and only time that night, as a bunch of us smoke our rebellious cloves on the family’s screened-in porch, shivering in our t-shirts and rubbing our arms to fight off chill of the early-spring breeze. Tom comes out to say hello, teetering in the doorway, and we thank him so much for letting us use the house; he just waves off our gratitude, mumbling something about how good the music is. I can’t really recall his voice in that moment, or his face, though I will later see it many times, in photographs, dreams, and nightmares.
Several weeks after the show in the basement, Kyle’s dad makes him pizza for dinner, like he used to when Kyle was little. Tom’s a decent cook, or at least used to be, which is what inspires Kyle earn his GED and attend culinary school, but nowadays Tom’s usually not sober enough to operate the stove safely. One time, while trying to make hot dogs for Kyle and his friend while they were having a sleepover, Tom almost burnt the house down. But this night, when Kyle gets home from a long shift at the restaurant (he started working at fifteen to help the family out), Tom has dinner waiting for him. Kyle, pleasantly surprised, takes a slice to eat in his room, traipsing upstairs in his non-slip work shoes, past the kitschy decorations that clutter the hallway and say things like “God Bless Our Family and Our Home.” Before he goes, he calls out to his dad, who’s sitting in the living room, “Thanks for the pizza, love you.”
“Love you too, Ky.”
It hasn’t always been easy for them to say this. They used to fight often, when Kyle would pour all the alcohol down the kitchen sink, or the time he grabbed Tom’s drink and smashed it in anger, then watched helplessly from the next room as Tom, unaware of his son’s gaze, picked up some papers soaked with the spilled vodka and squeezed them over his open mouth, tongue quivering for each drop. In the years to come, I will trace the remnants of these fights across Kyle’s hands, their clashes memorialized in pale scars that spider-web across his thick knuckles. But they have come to a kind of truce in recent times, since Kyle’s accepted that his father’s not going to change. They have a shaky respect that could maybe grow into something better, given time. At least, that’s what Kyle hopes. At least they can say “I love you.” At least they do so this night.
The next morning Kyle wakes up late for his class at the culinary institute, which he’s racking up loans to attend. He double-checks the time, cursing; usually his dad can at least be relied upon to wake him up, but apparently not today. He pulls on a pair of jeans lying on the floor of his bedroom and feels his way downstairs, blearily rubbing the sleep from his eyes. He calls out, “Dad?”
Tom’s in his usual spot, lying on that green, faux-leather couch in front of the TV, which switched from infomercials to the morning news a couple of hours ago. The ticker at the bottom of the screen scrolls out mundane headlines and meaningless stock quotes as the news anchors jabber like puppets with bleached smiles. The family’s two dogs, a neurotic Chihuahua mix and a blustery old Golden Retriever, are already awake, snuffling anxiously at Kyle’s knees. “Dad, it’s time to get up.”
Kyle stands in front of the TV, looking down at his father. A short, heavy-set New England man, what hair he has left is mussed from sleeping on the couch, like he does every night. Far from a perfect person, or a perfect father; but Kyle remembers when he was little, riding on the back of his father’s motorcycle, clinging with tiny, frozen fingers to the huge, leather-clad figure in front of him. He remembers the fear, which was quickly replaced by thrilled excitement thanks to the immutable sense of safety that came from being with his father. His dad would keep him safe.
“Jesus, Dad, c’mon,” Kyle mutters as he reaches out and shakes his father’s shoulder.
Tom’s body rocks strangely on the couch. He doesn’t mumble sleepily, or wave Kyle away. He doesn’t sit up and grumble “Shit, what time is it?” His body moves all at once, stiff like a rolling pin, not loose, the way limbs and muscle and fat should move. Kyle feels the first pangs of fear growing in his stomach, fear of something awful and incomprehensible.
“Dad, wake up.” Kyle shakes him again. Nothing. The fear creeps from his gut into his throat, making it hard to breath, to speak.
He notices something about Tom’s arm on the side he’s been sleeping on. It looks wrong, bruised. Blue.
Kyle tells me that things stop making sense then. His memory turns from a continuous stream to pieces of moments, captured in small bursts like explosions from old-fashioned camera flashes. He remembers shaking his father, hard. He remembers screaming at him to get up, then just screaming. The dogs start howling.
At some point Kyle grabs the phone and runs outside, trying to dial 911 with hands slippery from snot and tears. He remembers Tom’s recent trip to the hospital, when they told him he had congestive heart problems from all the drinking. Kyle remembers his father saying how he was so afraid to die. The memory is unbearable and always will be.
The ambulance arrives before his mother does. She was out running morning errands when Kyle called her, barely able to say, “It’s Dad. Come home.” She gets out of her car and collapses in the driveway, into Kyle’s arms, keening like an animal. The dogs won’t let the EMTs near the body. Kyle will relive these moments over and over. The day will never end, and Kyle’s only seventeen.
After Tom dies, I don’t know how to talk to Kyle, but he seems to still want to talk to me; not about his father though, not until later. We chat online, dancing around it all, and I’m completely unaware of how his mother’s unraveling as she has so many times in he and his brothers’ lives. One night she gets drunk and threatens to kill herself, so Kyle calls his next oldest brother, Matt, to come over. They’ve been through this together before, ten years ago, when Matt himself was seventeen, and Kyle was only seven. Becky had run off a couple of days before and called to tell two of her sons that she loved them, but she was never going to see them again. Kyle had picked up the phone, but Matt was the one who had to talk her out of taking her own life. So when she makes the same threat again, ten years later, he has no patience for it and immediately calls the police as Kyle’s afraid to do. She takes off out of the house and they, with the cops’ help, have to chase her through the woods and bring her back.
When Kyle gets home, he looks at himself in the mirror, his brown hair messy with leaves, dirt and sweat. He shaves it all off, because he has to do something. When I see the change in a picture online, I shyly tell him I like it, even though in the picture he looks so tired and worn. I have no idea.
Then comes the night we get drunk in his room, just two friends, swigging wine from a bottle an older friend bought for us. We blast Irish punk and are eventually brave enough to collapse onto the bed together, mouths clashing messily, lips wet and stained red. I sleep in a boy’s arms for the first time. He tells me he’s not ready to date anyone, and I lie and say that’s not what I want. After a month spent watching Star Trek and tangling our bodies together, a month of him surviving and me helping when I can, he asks me to be his girlfriend. These emotions are all new to me, and every emotion is raw for him, but together we can stay above water. I start to see it all though, all of Kyle’s life, and I have to marvel at how he’s kept it together for so long.
The house that Becky fights so hard to keep from foreclosure becomes a shrine to Tom’s memory, and such a manifestation of Becky’s mental instability that I can’t believe Kyle doesn’t see it. Then I realize that these symptoms of illness aren’t new, that they’ve been there all of Kyle’s life. I’ll pull up in my pick-up truck to find Becky working in the garden, pulling up plants, half naked in only a tank top and underwear. She’s always wanted a daughter and tries to treat me as such, having me try on her old clothes that don’t fit her anymore in uncomfortable sessions of dress-up. I play along politely, but can’t shake my gut feeling that there’s something deeply wrong with her. I start to see that their animals, the two dogs and two cats, are often left to fend for themselves, shitting in corners of the house that are never cleaned so the feces remain there for weeks. When the golden retriever, sweet Sir Lancelot, develops a growth on his eyelid, Becky says she can’t afford a veterinarian; so she sterilizes a kitchen knife with peroxide, sits on his chest, and cuts the growth off herself. Somehow Lancelot isn’t blinded, but when Kyle tells me this I nearly vomit and struggle with whether or not to call the ASPCA. I’m no longer uncomfortable, I’m horrified, and Kyle can’t understand why.
I’ve gone from liking Kyle to loving him, but I can’t stand being in that house, being near Becky. I begin to see Tom in my sleep, a face I compose from pictures that haunt every room of the house. One dream feels so real that I’m nearly convinced I’ve seen his ghost, that he silently visited Kyle and I as we slept in Kyle’s bedroom, giving me his blessing and saying he would look out for Kyle, all without words. But there are also nightmares where he hates me, wants me out of his home, wants me dead like him, and I wake up screaming.
I’m forced to bite my tongue as I see more of Kyle’s life, because he still loves his mother and venerates his father’s memory, despite everything; but the more I discover about his life, the more I want to save him somehow. My mother feels the same way, welcoming Kyle into our family. When he realizes that he has to escape his house, his life with his mother, my parents arrange for him to buy a car for only $1 from an elderly family friend who no longer needs it, and we loan him the money to insure it until he gets a job. My mom pushes him to finally get his numerous cavities filled, helping him to find a dentist and make appointments, and my father does his part by gruffly nagging Kyle about his smoking, and driving him to the impound lot when his car gets towed. The kind of things parents are supposed to do.
As Kyle starts planning to move into an apartment with friends, Becky realizes she’s losing him. So the day he’s moving out, she miraculously discovers the letter of amends Tom had written to him from rehab. Kyle didn’t know such a letter existed. Its contents, full of a father’s pride and regrets, destroy him, at least for a little while. His mother clutches him to her, the only other one who truly knows his pain, but Kyle no longer needs her to pick himself up. He had to learn to do without a mother long ago, so we eventually manage to load up my pick-up truck and fly from that house.
I’m still in high school, but I find myself pulled into Kyle’s too-grown-up life as he struggles to live on his own, to learn how to do the adult things his parents never really taught him to do. They taught him to dodge debt collectors and to lie about his (nonexistent) insurance at the ER, not how to budget his meager income or pay his bills on time. He can’t carry it all alone, the grief, the responsibility, and I love him so much now. How can I not help? He’s eighteen now, and I’m still seventeen, but we feel so old.
On the first anniversary of Tom’s death, the whole family goes to Block Island off the coast of Rhode Island, where they used to go for summer vacations. It’s Kyle and I, Becky, two of Kyle’s older brothers, and their wives and kids. Everyone in the family is loud and rambunctious on an average day, but this weekend everyone is tense and trying too hard, making noise to cover up the reason why we’re here: to spread some of Tom’s ashes on the beach. I thank God for Julie, Matt’s wife, who’s only about seven years older than me and has a similar upbringing; it’s a relief to share glances with her as we listen to childhood anecdotes that are far from normal, that are sometimes even more heartbreaking for how laughingly they’re told.
We go for lunch at their old favorite seafood place, and I feel bad for the server before he’s even approached the table. I’ve worked in enough restaurants to recognize that we are one of those pain-in-the-ass problem tables, a large family with multiple kids and picky palates. When the waiter does show up, I try to catch his eye and shoot him a sympathetic smile.
“Hey, how are you guys doing today?” he starts off mechanically, flipping to a new paper in his order book. There’s a chorus of enthusiastic replies from the table. “My name’s Scott and I’ll be your server this afternoon.”
Becky, seated next to me, speaks up. “Scott, I have someone I’d like you to meet!”
And with that, Becky pulls the jar of Tom’s ashes and plops them on the table, right next to the ketchup and mustard. “This is Tom!”
For the first time all day there’s complete silence, then an almost audible smack as everyone’s heads drop into their hands.
“Jesus Christ, Ma!” Kyle’s brother Evan finally moans.
“Oh my god.” Kyle’s voice is muffled by his hands.
Julie and I are wide-eyed, glancing from each other, to poor, poor Scott, to Tom’s earthly remains, sitting on the plastic, checkered table cloth. It’s worse than the time that she gave a vial of Tom’s ashes to each of her sons for Christmas, with no warning, in front of their entire extended family. Kyle and I were headed to a party right after, and I had to carry the ashes in my purse the whole time for safe-keeping.
Scott picks his jaw up off the floor and pulls himself together. “Nice to meet you, Tom. Can I start you guys with anything to drink?”
Becky orders three oyster appetizers for everyone to share, and is shocked when I admit I’ve never tried them. Seafood’s not really my thing. When they arrive she immediately cracks one open for me, peeling out the meat with her fingers and dousing it in butter. I go to take it from her but she’s already reaching for my face, grasping my chin and squeezing my mouth open. She pushes the oyster into my mouth, her buttery fingers sliding against my lips, and I want to pull away but her hand is still grasping my chin. The oyster is slimy on my tongue, like seaweed, and she tilts my head up so it slips to the back of my throat. All I can do is close my eyes and swallow it down.
When we get back to Becky’s house after Block Island, we all get drunk in the living room, like they do for every holiday. In the wee hours of the morning, Kyle and I finally get Becky to her room, and the two of us crawl, tipsy and tired, onto the bottom cot of the bunk bed in his childhood room. His regular bed is now in his new apartment, and it was either the bunk bed or the couch downstairs, the one Tom died on.
Becky’s kept this room exactly the way Kyle left it as a kid, so his nieces and nephews could stay there after he moved into a bigger room down the hall. There are still clouds painted on the room’s ceiling and trains on its walls, forever speeding by as he and I kiss and grope drunkenly, tired but needing the distraction and comfort of each other.
The room spins lazily around us as we lay naked and exhausted, and in the honesty of darkness he begins talking about his father. I finally ask him what Tom would have thought of me. It’s too dark for me to see his face, but his voice breaks as he whispers, “He would have loved you. My pretty, green-eyed, Irish girl. I wish he could have known you. My pretty, green-eyed girl.” Whenever he starts to talk about me, or his father, his words start to sound like lyrics borrowed from songs, as though he’s not sure how to express himself otherwise. I feel his shoulders begin to shake. “Katie, I miss him so much.”
I can almost hear the way his lips pull tight across his teeth, the way his eyes screw shut, his usually goofy face cracking wide with grief. He only breaks like this every so often, but I’ll never forget the kind of pain in his face when he does. I’d never seen that before Kyle. “He’ll never see me get married. He’ll never meet my kids. My children will never know my father.” It’s like he has to say these things out loud despite the fact that it makes them real, or because of it. My palms find his cheeks and I wipe his tears away, but there are more. They beat against the drum-skin of my breastbone as I cradle his head to my chest, and his arms wrap around my waist so tightly I can hardly breathe, so tight I might bruise.
I press my cheek to the top of his head, trying not to cry. I don’t deserve to, but at the same time, I can’t help it. The fact that all of this has happened to the boy who makes me laugh, who kisses me, who wraps me in his sheets with him, the boy who loved me when I never thought someone would, it makes my heart hurt so badly. We are both so young, neither of us know what we’re doing or how to deal with this kind of sadness. The anguish is hot under his skin, with nowhere to go, and we’re just half-children still, lying bare and clinging to each other on this narrow bunk bed, surrounded by kid’s books and toys, artifacts grown unfamiliar.
“A couple of days after… after he died, everyone was in the other room watching some family videos my mom found of when I was a baby. And I was in the other room, and I heard, I heard his voice…” He can barely speak. “I heard him say ‘Kyle’, and just for a second I thought…” He’s crying so hard every inhale is a wretched gasp, and I’m scared he might shatter somehow. I surround him in my long, pale arms, and try to hold together the pieces as best I know how. It’s not much, but it’s all I have.