The house Rune had seen as he exited the forest bore the familiar shape of homes in his subdivision (“a terrible place to come home to when your drunk,” his uncle had wisecracked on his first visit), but he quickly realized he had arrived to the rear of the Florentino house, with its distinctive deck. Only five houses up the street from his home.
Rune plodded through the knee-deep snow between the Florentinos and Morgans. (No, not the Morgans, they’d moved. New family, the oldest child was in third grade — that was all he remembered.) Finding the sidewalks were equally as deep (few homes in their subdivision bothered to shovel past driveway edges), the teen decided the street was a much better option. He nearly had to leap over a snowbank to reach pavement, and his rear leg caught the top of the bank, causing him to stumble but not fall.
He righted himself, and exhaled. For the first time since walking off the front stoop of his home earlier that evening, Rune’s boots were touching solid ground, and he suddenly realized his feet were numb. More irritated than concerned, he began jogging to his family’s house.
Plows from the city had come by this afternoon, leaving a thin stripe of snow on the black pavement, reminding Rune of the inside of an Oreo cookie with its frosting scraped off. As he approached his home, he saw a light turn off on the second floor, his parent’s bedroom. Had his father gone to bed? He had no idea what the time was, but in the driveway of the house he was currently jogging past, he saw two children and an elderly man get into a sedan. It couldn’t be that late, sometime around 10 he guessed. His father must have gone upstairs for something, found it, turned off the light as he left the room. We own stock in the power company?
He sighed with relief as he finally walked onto his family’s driveway. The garage door was still closed, and he did not see any fresh tire tracks that would indicated his mother and brother had come back from hockey. He walked up to the front door, tested the knob — finding it unlocked, he walked in, and heard the television in the living room.
Warmth returned to his body like a good meal. He sat on a bench and tugged off his boots, sensation returning prickly into his toes. Tossing his wool cap and jacket to the floor, he then walked into the living room, and saw his father sitting in his recliner, legs parallel to the floor; a short half-empty glass, containing a solitary half-melted ice cube, rested on a side table to his father’s right.
The senior accountant at the only financial services firm in Bark Bay did not move, and continued staring at the televsion screen; Rune stopped, wondering if his father was actually sleeping. But then, he spoke: “You’re home late.” A statement spiced with more suspicion than accusation.
“I was — ” Rune always stalled when about to lie — “out with some friends. From the fencing team.” Double-J wasn’t a friend, but at least he had been on the team at one point.
“Huh.” His father continued staring at the television; Rune crossed the room quickly, sat on the sofa, at the edge closest to his father. The teen looked at the screen. A basketball game — of all the spectator sports his father watched, Rune knew it to be his least favorite. Refs let the players show off too much, there wasn’t enough discipline in the game, not any more anyway. In the Banks household, it was taken as fact that all spectator sports had been so much better when his father was Rune’s age.
“How was the fencing tournament, this morning?” Wearing a white t-shirt that was five years too tight on him and gray sweatpants, his father raised a glass of bourbon to his lips, his eyes still focused on the television screen.
“It totally sucked.” Rune could be honest with his father in a way he couldn’t with his teammates. “Lost every bout. Most of them weren’t even close.”
“Huh.” His father placed his glass on a side table, eyes still screen-focused.
A moment later, Rune had gathered enough information from the screen to determine they were watching a collegiate basketball game, between two schools with names that didn’t reference a city, state, or region; the teams could have been from anywhere between here and Timbuktu. Assuming his father would be too distracted by this nondescript game to care about his departure, Rune rose from the sofa, took a step toward the dining room — but stopped when his father asked him a question. He looked down at his father, whose eyes were still focused on the television — “What?”
His father frowned, and looked over at his drink. Picking it up, he drank, the ice cube sliding down the glass, now empty of liquid, and slamming into his father’s upper lip. Paul Banks swore, spat at the cube, then lowered the glass onto his stomach. And resumed staring at the television screen. For a moment, Rune thought his father had forgotten about him. But then, he cleared his throat — “What I said was, I don’t know why you even bother.”
His father waved his left hand in Rune’s direction. “This fencing, thing that you do. I mean, I don’t understand why you keep doing it.”
“Because it’s fun.” Rune realized he was speaking from instinct rather than feeling, that he wasn’t so much responding to his father’s question but rather hoping to cut off further questioning. “I really enjoy fencing.”
“Huh.” His father turned his head, looked on his son with eyes too tired to be angry. “You don’t sound like you enjoyed yourself this morning. And most times, you come home from practice Tuesday and shut yourself in your room.”
It’s also the night you start drinking. “I just get a little frustrated, is all. Not having as much success as I used to.”
His father smiled, and seemed barely able to withhold his laughter. He placed his glass back on the side table, and pointed at his son — “This is all I’m saying. What’s the point of putting up with all that frustration? Why don’t you take up, I don’t know, chess or something?”
I suck at chess too. “I’m OK, dad.”
“Huh.” A trumpet’s blare rose from the television screen; Rune’s father turned his attention back to the game.
“You want me to quit fencing?” The words had escaped before Rune had fully considered their wisdom.
“Quit?” Sounding insulted, his father stood up quickly from his recliner, like a prop pulled by exuberant stagehands. “Now why would I try to ruin all this fun you’re having.” Grabbing his glass from the side table, he then moved swiftly into the kitchen.
Rune sat back on the sofa, feeling his father would have more to say and would be angered if his son left. He looked out the bay windows, to the front of their yard, covered in white and gray layers of snow. Sounds from the kitchen, the freezer door opening, hands fumbling in the ice tray, the door closing. Moccasined feet swishing over the tiled kitchen floors. Rune turned his attention back to the meaningless game, waited until his father returned with his refilled glass. The score flashed on the screen; Rune saw an opportunity to engage his father. “Not many points. Bad offense, or good defense?”
“Huh.” Paul Banks sat down, seemingly oblivious to the question just asked of him. Rune focused on the screen again, looking for something that could initiate a conversation — an impressive play, some antic on the sidelines, a player’s bad haircut, anything. Then suddenly, his father’s weary voice: “I just want to see you have some success.”
Rune waved his greasy hair off his forehead as he looked back at his father, whose face had grown soft, thoughtful. “I’m worried about you, Hugh.” Nobody in his family called him Rune. “Your grades are good, but not what they could be — you’re coasting. Only thing you do outside of school, and eating here at home, is that fencing club. And that’s only one day a week.” An ice cube cracked in his drink, fizzed. “I mean, don’t you ever want to get out of this town?”
Rune didn’t know if his father’s question counted as a non-sequitur. Ice cracked again in the glass. “I . . . don’t know — ”
“Bullshit you don’t know.” There was an edge now to Paul Banks’ voice. “Every child in Bark Bay dreams of leaving.”
Rune felt the urge to argue; he knew his friends well enough to realize many would be quite content staying in town. Sure, Double-J already had one foot out the door and The Bird also seemed ready to take wing, but Butch? Rex? They never expressed an interest in getting out. Even Annie, yes, who had not only traveled extensively with her family but also had the brains, skills, and means to go pretty much wherever she wanted, even Annie had never seemed eager to get out of town. Bark Bay is home for me (it hurt him now to remember her words, but her father’s argument forced the memory onto him like a powerful lunge to his four). It’s the place where everything I’ve ever enjoyed exists, everybody I’ve ever loved lives. Rune knew he should cut his father off and tell him he was wrong, but the edge he heard in the middle-aged man’s voice kept him silent.
“You’re still young, Hugh. Your life, it’s like an exam sheet that hasn’t been filled in. There’s no mistakes yet, no wrong answers you wish you could change.”
An idea came to the teen, too inspiring to keep to himself. “So maybe, instead of trying all kinds of stuff and starting to fill in those answers, I should take my time and look at the questions a little longer.”
Paul Banks’ scoffing laugh rippled through his son like an ocean wave powering through a sand castle. “This isn’t some pop quiz” — apparently he’d abandoned the analogy he’d just created — “not something you decide to do, or not do. It’s more like, you’re always being evaluated. Somebody’s always watching you. And at some point, probably when you don’t expect it, they come up to you, and say, here’s how you did. And they give you this little score card, with all the marks filled in — what you did right, what you did wrong. And if you just sit back and try to figure things out, like you’re saying… ”
Paul Banks exhaled, letting his lips vibrate, fbbbbbbt, spittle spraying onto his chin. Rune guessed his father had realized the futility of his absurd analogy. He wanted to tell his father to relax, enjoy watching his game, not to worry. He wanted to say he’d be all right. He wanted to say — something. But found that he couldn’t.
“You do want to be successful, don’t you?” His father’s face looked like a wounded deer’s.
“Of course.” The only safe answer. “But I don’t know what being successful means, just yet.” Oh stupid, stupid, stupid.
“JESUS!” His father’s mercurial face was now twisted with disgusted rage. “Have you HEARD anything I’ve said? Nobody gives a SHIT about your opinion, it don’t MATTER how you define success, it’s something that’s defined FOR YOU!”
Rune looked at the man sitting in his father’s recliner, wearing his father’s t-shirt and sweats, his father’s favorite drinking glass lying on the side table to right of his father’s recliner, filled with the familiar smell of his father’s favorite bourbon, on the rocks. And the teen realized he had to recognize this person as his father, because any other perspective would mean treating this man with pity, contempt, and ridicule.
He opened his mouth to respond, but no words came. He heard laughter from the television; turning to look, he saw a stand-up comic grimacing sardonically, and quickly determined he was seeing a commercial. After a glance at the mantle clock above the screen, 10:44, he turned back to his father, only to see that the older man’s chin had fallen onto his chest, his head rolling off to the right, his eyes closed. As if his sudden outburst had exhausted him.
Waving greasy hair off his brow again, Rune dismissed the idea of going up to his room. From experience, he knew his father’s naps were very uneven, and he could wake suddenly at the slightest noise or movement. The game resumed on the television, and he did his best to watch with interest as his father began snoring softly in the recliner to his left.
As she staggered through the heavy door leading to her home’s kitchen, Jenna Banks jabbed the garage door remote on the wall, causing the garage door to close as noisily as it had just opened. Seeing Chet had already dispensed with his winter clothing, she marvelled at her son’s energy after so many hours of hockey. Well, he had slept on the ride back.
Slipping off her boots, she walked past the kitchen into the living room. The television was on, and her husband was in his recliner, out cold; a typical Saturday night. She sighed, prepared herself for the reaction to come, and spoke — “Paul.” As if responding to a command, her husband’s eyes shot open, and he yelled in surprise. She said it was time for him to get up, go upstairs and into bed; she watched as, without seeming to acknowledge her words, he began to rise deliberately from his chair.
Knowing it would take her husband several minutes to begin walking, she went to the foot of the stairs, and called up to Chet. “Is Hugh home?”
Jenna frowned. “Is his door closed?” Every Banks child complied with the family rule that bedroom doors were to be kept open unless the occupant was there sleeping.
Impatient feet stamped on the carpeted hallway upstairs. Then — “Yeah.” Jenna nodded, as the impatient feet returned to their room.
The father of the house had begun walking towards the stairs, and Jenna stayed out of his somnambulant path. She then went over to the recliner, grabbed the remote, turned off the television. On the side table he had left a glass, smelling of bourbon but now empty except for two nearly dissolved ice cubes; she carried it into the kitchen, dumped the remnant liquid into the sink, and left the glass on the counter. Turning lights off in her wake, Jenna Banks then made her way to the master bedroom on the second floor of her family’s warm, comfortable home.
End of “Gray Metal Faces – February”