by Jill Winsby-Fein
My father is coming to dinner.
Tyler is there at the stove in his silk kimono, charring bread on the flame. It is morning, spring, and the house is disheveled and peaceful. The walls are white in the kitchen but glow yellow. The dust ambulates midair.
He hands me a piece of toast, and returns to make one for himself. I tell him that while he was still in bed, my father called.
“What did he say?”
I chew my toast and examine the drape of the kimono over Tyler’s bony shoulders. It is rose colored and moves like water.
“He just said it’s about time he came to see us.”
He sits with his toast. I put a foot up on his leg.
“But how did it turn into dinner?”
“I said yeah, you’re right, and he said how about tonight and I said okay.”
“But where does dinner come in?”
“That’s just what you do when people come over at night.”
The toast is gone and we both have crumbs on our chins.
“It’s just, I had some things I wanted to do today.”
“Today’s today. Tonight is later.”
He nods as if I have made an interesting point.
“Let’s just get it over with. We’ll have to do it at some point.”
“You’re really selling me.”
I rise and begin slicing more bread. “More toast?”
This morning I woke in the dark and lay still until the room filled with light. I avoid getting up in the dark, disliking the impenetrability of my surroundings, how my everyday sphere transforms into the sinister. Tyler breathed silent beside me. I am a loud open-mouthed sleeper, jerking about, tangling the sheets. Tyler sleeps with total composure on his back, his head turned just toward me, his mouth a soft seam. When first spending the night together, I stayed awake with my eyes and mouth closed until I heard Tyler’s breathing taper. Mornings frightened me, that he would wake before me and catch me in my ugliness. After a time, the fear dissolved and it became laughable, my morning maw.
My father did not call while Tyler was still in bed, not this morning at least. He called a few weeks ago, a different morning while Tyler was still sleeping, but I managed a trick of the mind—that each passing day brought distance rather than advancement, which played no trick on reality. This morning I woke and realized the day itself had arrived. I lay looking up until it was light enough that I could make out the sepia-tinged florets of water damage on the ceiling, the fan with its two missing arms. I turned to Tyler, lovely and stony as the Lady of Shalott, needing him to stave off the day a bit longer.
Gently, I woke him, my hands between his legs, my breath on his cheek. There was a time I wouldn’t have sex in the morning either, the light too stark and unforgiving, the state of mind too fresh—none of the softness of evening. But now it is a regular thing. Or semi-regular, if there were anything regular in our lives. Some mornings we drink coffee and others it is green tea. Sometimes there is work, others there is none. Some days Tyler wears his kimono from dawn till dusk and I change into outfit after outfit as the whim takes me and we have a sweet, blissful time of it. Other days, Tyler lurks about in jeans and a T-shirt and I in yesterday’s clothes, sourness between us.
I didn’t want to taint the sleepy, lustful atmosphere of our bed with the news of my father coming to dinner, and so I kissed Tyler on the shoulder and went to make coffee. Tyler donned his kimono and came in behind me, sliding his arms around me and saying, “Let me take you out tonight. We haven’t gone on a date in forever.”
Which was when I had to tell him that tonight my father is coming.
We tell each other we don’t need to go all out, that that’s not what this is. This is simply my father coming to our house, and we will all be eating together.
“We have to eat dinner anyway,” Tyler points out.
“We need to go to the store anyway,” I add.
“And the house could use a cleaning.”
The deal is Tyler will clean if I go to the store. Usually we do such tasks together, but today it seems wise to divide and conquer.
Tyler is tying one of my bandanas around his head. He looks like Rosie the Riveter and I tell him so, which pleases him.
“You’re just missing one thing,” and I dash into the bathroom to extract from the sea of bottles a tube of lipstick. It is race-car red and I apply it to his lips.
“Pucker.” He does. “Now rub them together.” I lightly air kiss his cherry mouth.
“Gorgeous.” He is beautiful.
My father. We get along okay. Half a year ago, when I moved back to the town I grew up in, where my mother no longer lives but my father has never left, he was one part of the equation.
He had a stroke last year while driving, resulting in a fender bender, a bruised ego, and a week-long hospital stay, and his mortality has since been on his mind and mine.
“Janine, when I’m gone . . .,” he started beginning sentences, post-stroke. “I swear I’ll hang up if you keep doing that,” I said.
My father has a sometimes girlfriend, Karen, but I want to be near should anything happen. But I had moved back for other reasons as well. Tyler was an old friend from childhood, and we had reconnected through social media, then through letters, then through visits, and when being apart became too torturous, we moved in together. Our house is in a cul-de-sac in a rambling development just outside of town: small and poorly-built, the size of a one-bedroom apartment, but quickly we filled it with our many things, our loudness. There are many windows and a porch out front and out back. The woods behind loom like wilderness.
Tyler has never met my father, but he has heard how when the bus dropped me off from school he was always there on the porch in his shirtless, pantsless, post-work state, of his longtime love of smoking indoors, of the time when my friend Kelly was in the car with us, my father driving, me up front, Kelly in the back, when, at a red light, my father spun and barked at her like a rabid dog. The sound was terrifically loud in the enclosed space. She half-cried, half-laughed. It was a joke he played on me sometimes. I forget now why it was funny, but Kelly sure didn’t think it was, and steered clear of him after that. He cuts corners through people’s lawns and pisses in the shrubbery of his own backyard. He makes canned chowder with actual oyster crackers afloat on top. He snores while napping.
“He’s an oddball,” I’d told Tyler.
“Who isn’t?” he returned.
“I think he might be extra weird.”
“In a bad way?”
“Tough to say about your own folks.”
Since moving back I’d gone on my own a few times to have lunch with him near the school where he worked as a counselor—an Italian place in a strip mall that had, in his words, mucho grande ravioli (it’s true, the ravioli are big and plentiful)—and a few times to his house for a front-porch beer and peanuts. The porch is littered, as it has always been, with spent shells and papery casings.
“Bring Tyler along sometime,” he’d always say in parting. “Next time,” I’d say, peanut parts crunching underfoot.
When I return from the store, Tyler is down to his underwear and the bandana, lipstick faded and smeared, a sheen of sweat on his face and torso. The windows are open and the dust is churning. Everything is off the floor and clustered on surfaces as Tyler goes at it with a mop. There is stained linoleum in the kitchen and faux wood in the main area, neither of which look much better after the mop passes them by.
“You know what I was just thinking,” Tyler says in bursts as he mops. I move around him to put the bags on the counter. There’s no space on the counter, so I put them on top of the dirty dishes in the sink.
“I don’t think we’ve ever cleaned this place.” He stops and leans on the mop handle. We both laugh and survey our kingdom.
I reach out and draw a finger through the sheen on Tyler’s chest, a dry trail through the wet. I draw the same finger down my cheek. He goes back to mopping.
I push the groceries into their respective places and start on the dishes. I wipe our crumbs from the table, which after countless mornings of toast or cereal resembles a topographic model of dry terrain. I scrub at the calcified ring in the toilet bowl. I sponge the smattering of Tyler’s clipped hairs from the sink. I take the bath mat outside and shake it. In the bedroom, I stand on the threshold and survey the vortex. I close the door on it.
Tyler is now on to pulling clothes from behind shelves and the crevices of the couch. We open the bedroom door a crack and toss them blindly in. He fluffs pillows. I fold an afghan. Together we arrange the small objects that comprise our combined treasure collection, dispersed on windowsills and the bare spots of shelves.
It is late afternoon as our cleaning comes to a close. I draw Tyler into the shower. He washes my back. I wash his hair. “What’s for dinner?” he asks, soap bearded on his chin.
“Oh shit, I almost forgot about dinner.” We rinse off and get out. I pee while Tyler wipes steam from the mirror to clip at some stray hairs.
My father arrives as I am crushing cornflakes for fried chicken. He is early. Tyler is out back watering the yard in my clothes. Shit. I answer the knocks, which land unsolid on the light screen door, loose in the frame.
“You’re early,” I say, pulling open the door.
“Early bird gets the worm,” he says, unfazed. There is the odd sensation, each time I see him, that he has grown older. For years of my life he remained unchanged. Now his skin spots and cracks like an egg, his weight deserts his limbs and gathers at his belly. There is a sourness to his smell.
“Well, here it is,” I say about the house.
“Incredible.” He follows me into the kitchen. I wonder if there’s a way to warn Tyler, for him to sneak into the house and change before my father sees him. The logistics are daunting, of cinematic proportions, and the suggestion might insult Tyler. Now that I think about it, it was never a subject that came up: dress code for Ed. I shake myself of the fear that has crept fingers around my lowest ribs. My father is progressive, I think. He works with high schoolers. He votes independent, in the national election at least.
“What’s that, honey?” he says, peering into the bowl. “Cornflakes?”
“Cereal for dinner, dad. It’s how the kids are doing it.”
“I’m so out-of-date.”
The sun comes in at a low angle, throwing the shadow of the shades to the walls. The white glows amber. It is my favorite time of day.
“Where’s the boy?” my father asks as he ambles around. I pause only a moment before jerking my head toward the backyard where Tyler is visible, standing stationary, arching the water up and out across the dry grass. From here there is nothing detectably off about his garb.
“What’s he watering the yard for?” I shrug. “We don’t pay for water.”
“We all pay for water, honey,” he says in an expansive way that suggests environmentalism.
“Right.” I crush cornflakes with my hand mashed into a Mason jar. “It makes him happy.”
He goes to the fridge and opens it.
“Got any beer?”
He pulls out a Miller Lite and with his teeth goes at the cap.
“Oh, come on.” I throw a key at him. He opens his beer, and then hits himself in the forehead.
“Janine, your dad’s an idiot.” He leaves through the front door and returns moments later carrying a black liquor store bag. He unsheathes the contents, a large bottle of white wine. “A housewarming gift.”
“You didn’t have to.” I take it with my non-jar hand and deposit it in the fridge. “We do love a wine cooler.”
“What makes a wine a cooler?”
I shrug. “Ice cubes? Some seltzer if you’re feeling fancy?” “I’ll try anything once.”
I de-jar my hand and begin to grind pepper.
“Can I help you with anything? Need me to go chase down a chicken?”
Tyler enters through the back.
“Oh, hi. I didn’t realize you were here already.” From the look on his face I see that the “Ed dress code” has occurred to him also, but now we are trapped. Maybe it’s not noticeable. For Tyler, it is a fairly subdued outfit. I see my father look him up and down. Do I see his gaze linger on the scoop neck of Tyler’s tee, the tight, low-rise jeans? He says nothing. Tyler sticks out his hand. I try to read the interaction, their first impressions of each other, the tenor of the shake as my father meets Tyler’s hand.
“You must be the Tyler everyone keeps talking about.” They are still shaking. “Nice to finally meet you, son. You can call me Ed.” They drop hands.
“You can call me Tyler.” We all sort of laugh. Tyler looks slight next to my father, who, though not a big man, has gained bulk as he has aged. But it seems okay. They seem okay together so far.
I pull the white wine from the fridge. “Wine cooler time?”
“Where’d that come from?” says Tyler.
“Ed brought it.”
My father looks mock offended. “Ed? What happened to Dad?”
“Thanks, Ed. Much appreciated.”
My father waves the thanks away. “I’ve been telling Janine we have to get together. What daughter moves in with some guy and doesn’t even introduce him to her old man?” His voice is making fun, but there’s a dark edge. I ignore it.
“You know how it is when you move, Dad. It just takes a while to get settled.” We all scan around the room to assess the settling. There’s not much to show for it, nothing on the walls and no carefully curated furniture. The evidence of our life is protected snugly behind the door of the bedroom.
“Well, I wouldn’t know much about that. I’ve lived in the same house for thirty years. Same one Janine’s mom and me moved into when we first got married. Thirty years!” he says again, grabbing Tyler by the shoulder and jerking him back and forth. “Can you believe it, son?”
Tyler, gamely, says, “That ain’t nothin’.” I step between them with chilled wine coolers in hand.
“Poor man’s champagne,” my father says.
“Or woman’s,” I add.
Tyler is at the stove laying cornflake chicken in the pan. He does so with gentle speed, somehow managing never to get stuck by the jumping oil. The house is filled with smoke. The fan on the hood hasn’t worked since we moved in.
“Gotta fix that,” my father does not wait long to say.
“We keep telling the landlord. There’s that and the steps to the back porch and the screen door needs a new screen,” I say.
“Well, those are easy fixes. Tyler can probably handle that.” He is sitting at the table with his wine nearly finished. I am in the kitchen cutting slaw. Tyler opens his mouth to speak, but I cut in.
“He can, or I can or whatever, but the point is we shouldn’t have to. It’s on the lease.Landlord handles repairs.”
My dad nods. “Right, right, I’m just saying, it can feel good to do stuff like that sometimes, that’s all.” He smacks himself on the neck with a contrite pat.
“What?” I say, alarmed. He pulls his hand away and examines it.
“Damn mosquito,” he says, searching the air.
“Huh,” says Tyler. “Wonder how that got in here.”
“Maybe through that broken screen,” my father says pointedly.
“Where’s Karen tonight, Dad?”
He is continuing to look about. “Who’s Karen?” he says.
“Ohh Karen.” He settles back into his chair. “To tell you the truth, haven’t seen too much of Karen lately. Think we may be on the” —he mimes a break with his hands and makes a clucking sound— “outs.”
I stop chopping to look at him. He’s impenetrable.
“Oh no, Dad. I’m sorry to hear that.”
He waves this away.
“I always liked Karen.”
My father looks down into the tunnel of his empty glass and there is silence save for the small chaos of the chicken in the pan.
“It’s a different thing to date when you’re old.”
Tyler and I exchange a look and I go over to sit at the table.
“You’re not old, Dad.”
Tyler has extracted the wine from the fridge and a tray of ice. He brings it over to the table and lifts the glass from my father’s hand.
Tyler says softly, “Dating is hard at any age.”
This rouses my father.
“Son, have you ever been my age?”
The small music of ice in the glass, of liquid flowing.
I throw a look to my father with thin lips and widened eyes. He concedes.
“But I do appreciate the sentiment.”
The glass is returned to its place near my father. The sunlight strikes at some inner core and it shines incandescent, neon blonde, sea glass found and lifted to the air.
My father reaches out and grips the glass again.
On the back porch is a folding table with doubtful legs. Through the open window I see Tyler and my father setting out folded paper towels, water glasses, plates, utensils. I hear my father ask Tyler in a low voice, “Are these plates her mother’s?” and then without waiting for a reply calling into the house, “Janine, are these plates your mother’s?”
“Were!” I shout back.
“They were hers, now they’re mine. Ours.” He says something indistinct.
“Is there a problem?” I shout. I hear them both laugh. I go to the back door and stand with a hip out.
“Just mentally steeling myself to eat off these plates again, honey.”
“That’s pleasant, Dad, thank you. We have paper plates if you would prefer.” I turn away, and in my head say, Or a dog bowl.
Together we bring out the heaped platter of chicken, the bowl of slaw, the half-finished bottle of wine, heated baked beans from a can. It is darkening now and I turn on the porch light. Granted by the curve of the cul-de-sac, the view is only of yard and forest. From this vantage the other houses are invisible, and there are no delineations between lawns. It promises to be a muggy evening, and Tyler lights the citronella candles. I imagine our soft flesh is a beacon, an offering placed on the porch for the armies of mosquitos the woods play host to. They call on the wind to one another, indicating our direction, setting forth.
We sit, refresh our glasses, and begin eating.
“How’s work, Dad?”
“I’m a high school counselor,” my dad says to Tyler.
“So I’ve heard—”
“Oh, hold on a second, you’re from here aren’t you? Did you go to Eastern?” A gleam in his eye.
“Me? No, no I didn’t. My family moved here when I was in tenth grade, and I finished high school by myself.”
“Homeschooled. But like, my mom didn’t stay home with me or something. I did the classes myself.”
“Sounds tough,” my father says through a mouthful of chicken.
“Yeah, not everyone’s cup of tea. Saved my life though.”
My father nods thoughtfully. “How so?”
“Just, school can be brutal if you don’t fit in. I mean, you probably know all about that, being a counselor and everything.”
“Sure yeah, I sure do.” He downs the last of his wine. “Some of the things I’ve seen, whew. Such tragedy in lives so young.”
I have tried countless times to imagine students sitting in front of my father, trying to tell him their problems. I went to school in my mother’s district, where she too worked in the schools, but as a receptionist in the elementary office. Not too much danger there. I give silent thanks that Tyler and my father did not encounter each other in high school, certain my father would only have done more damage than good to young Tyler, who wore his sister’s bra under his baggy hoodie.
The conversation has gone on without me, my father recounting a young girl who saw him on a weekly basis last year, whose foster brothers had been “Visiting her in the night, if you catch my drift. Just such fucked up shit. And they go to the school too, of course. So I have to report that, even though she begged me not to—anything was better than people finding out—but it’s a small school in a small town, and somehow the same freakin’ day I called it in, it seemed like everybody knew. And then can you guess what happened, just to top it all off, the cherry on the shit, so-to-speak?” He pauses.
“She’s pregnant,” I say, knowing the way these stories go.
“No,” says Tyler sadly.
“Bingo,” says my father. “Fucking pregnant. Knocked up.” He shakes his head and with vigor slices into his chicken.
“So what happened?” I ask eventually, knowing that’s what he wants, and also recognizing that rising bubble of curiosity these stories always elicit.
“Did she have it?” Tyler participates.
“Last I heard she was having it. I mean, there wasn’t a biological danger there. But she got placed in another home in a different district, so I’m not sure how the whole thing turned out.”
“That must be frustrating,” says Tyler.
“What?” I say.
“Getting invested in these kids’ stories and not always getting to hear how it turns out for them.”
“It’s like watching a movie and having someone shut it off before the ending,” my father says. “Just awful.”
“So it’s entertainment for you?” I ask, having been down this road before.
“Oh come on, Janine, I was joking.” He wasn’t joking. I know he wasn’t.
My father makes a sound at the back of his throat. “Mind if I help myself to more beer?”
We both shake our heads and he pushes his chair back and heads inside. Quickly, I lean in and put my hand to Tyler’s cheek. I look into his face.
“Is this terrible?” I whisper. “Do you hate this?” He puts a hand to my face, too.
“Don’t worry about me,” he says. “I kind of like him. He’s weird. I think he might be the most honest person I’ve ever met.”
“Oh, he’s anything but honest,” I say. Tyler slaps at my forehead. I am stunned for a moment, thinking it punishment.
“Mosquito?” I ask when I realize.
He nods. “Big one.”
Footfalls from inside, and a struggle at the sliding screen door. My father is carrying three beer bottles and a bottle of Evan Williams from the top of the fridge. Tyler jumps up to help him. My father steps back out onto the porch and raises his findings: “Hope you don’t mind.” He is beaming. He stopped smoking years ago, but his teeth are permanently stained. He places it all on the table, and begins checking our water glasses.
“Drink up kids, it’s whiskey time.” Tyler slides the screen door shut and I watch as my father watches him return to the table. He sees I am looking at him, looking at Tyler, and smiles.
“Glass, honey?” I finish my water and hand him my glass. He delivers a glug of whiskey. “Glass, Tyler?” A heavier pour into Tyler’s glass. Into his own glass, my father’s pour is even heartier.
“Planning on driving tonight, are we Dad?” I can’t stop myself. He gives me a look.
“A toast!” he says, and we dutifully raise our glasses. “To you, Janine, and to you, Tyler, and to your new house—”
“Newish,” I inject.
“And to family, and to love in all its infinite forms” —I am sure I see him give Tyler an up and down look— “and . . . to cereal for dinner.”
“Amen,” says Tyler. We cheers for the second time this evening, throw back our glasses and fall back into our chairs. My father grasps a beer.
“Oh damn, forgot the damn opener.” He starts to get up, but I stand.
“I’ll get it.” I leave them, and enter the now dark house. It is like moving through solid matter. In the kitchen I stand with my hands on either side of the sink, wondering at the force of my emotion. I might call it hatred, but that would be unfair. He was never abusive, not a bad father. Something complex and simmering, a polluting seep to my fingers and forehead. Isn’t adulthood supposed to mean you make a world all your own, one they cannot enter? And still I was here, in part, for him. I will get through this night, and then we will go back to our occasional porch sits, and then one day he will have another stroke and I will care for him and then he will die, I think. Someday he will die.
I find the opener and return to the porch. My father is saying to Tyler, leaning back, “You’re not as big as I expected, not as tall.” Both have adopted a lazy intermittent wave of one hand or the other, to keep away the mosquitos.
“What’s this?” I say. There is more whiskey in their cups. I begin opening the beers, hoping to lure my father away from the liquor.
“Just, when I saw Tyler earlier through the window, I thought he was a bigger guy. You know, tall and lanky. But you’re a slight kind of guy. Did you ever wrestle?”
“Yeah, wrestle,” my father put his hands up in the limp waiting stance of a wrestler. “I bet you would make a great wrestler. Good to be little. Puts you in a lesser weight class. Less hurt there. More finesse.”
“You watch a lot of wrestling, do you, Dad?” I ask.
“Oh you know, at the school, I go to the matches. Check in on my students. A lot of pressure on the student athletes. The better the program, the more the pressure.”
“Well,” says Tyler, “sorry to disappoint, but no wrestling for me. I’ve always been on the more . . . artistic spectrum.”
“Mm, artistic, yes, I can see that.” My father now has a beer in one hand and the whiskey in the other. He shifts his legs about and slips off his shoes. He is stretched out in his chair, legs extended to the side toward me. I see how flat his feet have become, the fallen arches, how sparse the hair. There used to be thick black hairs on my father’s toes. “Like trees,” I’d said when I was little.
“Is that what’s going on with the women’s clothes?”
“Dad!” I’m fast, I jump in there, but the words have already been said. His shoulders go up, and both hands with their respective beverages.
“What? Just a question. He doesn’t have to answer if he doesn’t want to.” But he isn’t finished. “I mean the pants I can see, I don’t know, those might be guy pants. I’ve seen these skater boys wearing just some really tight pants. Just really tight. But I think it was kind of a flair before that. So the pants I can see. But the shirt, I mean, that’s a very . . . a very feminine cut. No two ways about it.”
“Alright,” I say. “Alright.”
Tyler’s expression is unreadable. “It’s just how I dress, Ed. That’s it. It’s how I feel most comfortable.”
My father is nodding. “Yes, ok. Interesting.” To me: “See, Janine? This doesn’t have to be a big thing. I can just ask a question, and Tyler can just help me to understand a little bit better.”
I grip my glass, struggling to suppress my rising fury.
“Some things, Dad, are none of your business.” He chuckles in that most fatherly of traditions, his beer resting on his belly, heat in his cheeks.
“Honey, I didn’t mean anything by it. I’ve seen it, I’ve seen it all. Remember the ’70s? I was around for those. Funky times, my daughter.”
Tyler, trying to keep the peace, says, “It’s okay. It’s really okay. I don’t mind.” My father gestures to him, then to me. “He didn’t mind, he didn’t mind!”
Tyler rises and begins gathering dishes. I sit in stony silence, mad at Tyler for failing to change before my father arrived, mad at my father for his old man-ness, his drinking, mad at myself for having such a father and such a boyfriend in the same spot. My father, for lack of something better to do, refills our whiskeys. The mosquitos are in full force now, and we are not only waving, but slapping at ourselves. Tyler takes an armful of plates into the house.
“Maybe we should give Karen a call,” I say, “see what it was about you that made her want to stop seeing you, huh?” My father sits up fast, slamming his beer to the table.
“Janine!” he says in the unmistakable tone that is a father’s trump card. It shatters through my fury and I feel myself begin to quake.
“I’m sorry,” he says softly. “I’m sorry. We were having a nice time, weren’t we? We were all getting along? Let’s go back to that. I didn’t mean to ruin it.”
Tyler comes back out for more dishes. He removes them in silence, not daring to look at either of us, and when he is gone again I say with a tremulous note I cannot control, “What did the doctor say about your drinking, Dad?”
He settles back into his chair again and raises the whiskey to me. “Some things, Janine, are none of your business.” He takes a drink.
“Touché,” I sigh, raising my own glass to him. Except it is, it is my business. I’m his only kid, and if he hurries along the time when I am going to have to pay his bills and wipe his ass, I’m not going to say it wasn’t any of my business. But I hear a voice in my head, a softer, older voice saying, Leave it, Janine. Leave it for another day.
It is totally dark now, but we sit in the pool of porch light. Sitting on the porch is like sitting on the edge of an abyss. Anything could be out there. Like being aboard a ship on a perfectly still sea. I imagine how it would look to view us from the yard—so illuminated, calm, and splayed in our plastic chairs. The sound of crickets and the scrape of our glasses on the table, our sips, the smack of our lips, the swipe of hands across hairlines and the slap of perceived bites.
“Hands up,” Tyler says, raising one of his hands.
“What’s this?” my father asks.
“Mosquitos go for the highest point. Put your hand up and they go there.”
“I think that’s gnats,” I say, rising to move the citronella candles closer.
“I don’t suppose you have any peanuts,” says my father to the table. Tyler and I look at each other, mentally searching cupboards.
“Not that I can think of, no,” says Tyler as I shake my head. We all swat.
My father shrugs. He pulls out a pack of cigarettes and taps them on his knee. They are crumpled and almost empty.
“What the fuck is that?” I ask.
“Janine—” he starts.
“Don’t ‘Janine’ me,” I say. “Since when did you start smoking again?” He pulls one out and places it between his lips. He searches his pockets.
“Shit,” he says, looking around. “You guys don’t happen to have a light, do you?” Tyler picks up the matchbook he used to light the citronella candles and slides it toward my father.
“Tyler!” I say.
“Thanks, son.” I want to reach over and pluck it from his stupid dry lips, plunge the ember into his beer bottle. “Let’s just say it’s been really tough since Karen left.” I shake my head at him. I can’t believe this, after I moved here for him. Did he ever even stop?
The mosquitos are at my neck and my knees and somehow even under my shirt. I smack at myself and jump up and run in place.
“I can’t take these mosquitos. I’m going to bed,” I announce. “Dad, thanks for coming.
Tyler, see you soon.” My father I hardly look at, though I give Tyler a pointed glare as I leave the table.
I enter the dark house and go directly to our dark bedroom. It is consumed by soft mounds. I climb into the bed and nestle among the dusty clothes and papers scattered there. I slow my breath. After a few minutes, Tyler comes in. He undresses quietly, and climbs in beside me. He pushes his nose through my hair.
“Is he gone?” I whisper.
“No,” Tyler whispers back. “I said I thought I should probably go to bed too and he said would I mind if he sat and smoked awhile, tried to sober up. I said sure no problem, take all the time you need, there’s the couch if you want it, but he seemed to just want to sit out there for a little bit.”
“I can’t believe he’s smoking.” I feel Tyler shrug and sigh. Feel his head shake. “It’s fucked up,” he says. “But it’s his life, Janine.”
My heart hurt, a loud hurt that filled the quiet. I was sure Tyler could feel the hurt’s loudness. And then, as if giving voice to my emotion, from deep in the woods came the keening, terrible call I would never become accustomed to, the call of the fox, piercing through the screen window. The first time I heard it as a kid I felt sure some innocent person had befallen a horrible fate in the woods and whatever it was that was making the sound would come for me next. I went to my father’s room where he slept on one side of the bed like a quiet giant. He’d woken promptly and treated my terror with gravity. He listened, his big hand on the back of my neck, and then sighed. “Shh, shh, it’s only a fox,” he’d said. “That’s the fox’s call. It’s nothing to worry about. Nothing at all.” But still, it reached deep into my gut and I wept. He opened his blankets like an envelope and pulled me in, holding me until the fox quieted and finally I slept.
From outside, under the fox’s shriek, we hear my father cough and splutter, then cough some more. He doesn’t stop, and I bolt upright in bed.
“I’ll go,” says Tyler, pushing me back down. “You stay, I’ll go,” and he rises, wrapping the pink kimono around him and exiting the bedroom. The fox call subsides, but the coughing continues, and I hear the sliding door open, then a light thudding, a few more emphatic coughs, and quiet. Tyler does not come back immediately. I rise and pad to just inside the sliding door, peeking out at them. The porch light is off; they are illuminated only by the faint light of the partial moon and the wavering candles. Beyond them, the dark edge of the wood. Sometimes when I wake to go to the bathroom, I look out the window into the dark edge of the wood and think I see a hooded figure skirting the perimeter, glinting blade in hand. Or a limping elderly man possessing great strength and ill will. Or a few teenagers intent on tying me up and raping me into oblivion. My high school gym teacher with the sweating upper lip who too often cornered girls to show them a magic trick, the postman who had caught sight of me in my underwear, the first boyfriend back for revenge—there is a veritable army obscured in those dark trees. In the right light and at the right time of night, they are visible there. But this night, beyond the porch, the darkness is still and anodyne.
I hear my father say to Tyler, “You gotta be careful where you go dressed like that, is all. I just want you to be careful. Not everybody is a nice guy like me.” He places his hand for a moment in a fatherly fashion on Tyler’s forearm.
I hate him then, I really and truly feel hate for him, but I also feel safe, safer than I’ve ever felt, with the three of us here in this house.
Tyler nods and says, “Sure Ed, thanks. Get home safe, okay?”
I run back to bed before he makes it to the door.
Jill Winsby-Fein is from the flatlands of Ohio and Delaware, and now calls the steep valley of Wassaic, NY, home, where she works in arts education. She received her MFA in fiction from Brooklyn College in 2019 and was the recipient of the Lainoff Prize. She has previously been published in Chagrin River Review and Vastarien: A Literary Journal. She is at work on a novel about fear and a short story collection about gardens.