by Kevin Rush
Peter’s eyes flicked open. He stared at the stucco ceiling and the gray tendrils of dust laced amid the white points of its rough surface. He batted his lids again. No reason to panic, he thought, just let it pass. But his heart began to race. There were no sounds from the hall. This episode could, would, pass unnoticed. Still he felt a groan deep in his throat, stressing his tongue and clenched jaw. Heart hammered rib cage. Limbs tingled with the rush of blood, but still wouldn’t move. Finally, a single tear brimmed over his left eye, spilling down to his ear. And release.
Peter rolled onto his side. How long had it been since the last episode? The last few months the paralysis had only come in dreams. Now, back in his parents’ house, the grip was inevitable. Peter forced a breath into his constricted chest, and hauled himself out of bed. Ice had formed on the window frame and, like a mirror, magnified the morning sunlight. Too much, Peter thought, and pulled the curtains taut.
Leaving his bedroom, Peter walked down the bare wooden stairs to the second floor landing. He noticed the neighbor’s roof was completely blanketed by snow. Nothing we can’t dig out of, he thought. Better start shoveling now. Get the car out, at least. That old bomb is your freedom, boy. Not perfect freedom, but enough to survive in a fallen world.
Peter jumped as the door to his parents’ bedroom scraped open. His father, with massive head resting on a fallen chest, cleared his throat. “Sonny, ah,” his face brightened as if by force of will. “We got dumped. Dumped good.”
“I’ll dig us out.”
“Good boy,” he said, as if implying the opposite.
“’Cause I know we gotta… Um, we got that thing.”
His father ran a hand over his disheveled hair to his smooth crown. “Good boy, Sonny.” He approached Peter and peered out the window. “A blanket of snow can cover a multitude of sins,” he mused. “The old neighborhood could pass for that Pennsylvania country club of yours.”
Peter squinted. There was an actual Country Club a hundred yards down the Main Street from the college Peter was now attending. Did his father mean that Peter’s college was a country club? Or that by virtue of being a work-study student at a suburban campus, Peter was now some kind of jet setter?
His father continued to inspect the neighboring rooftops. He had a habit of painstakingly scrutinizing the self-evident which annoyed Peter. Peter saw it as a device, by which his father avoided all introspection. “Yup,” the old man nodded. “We got a White Christmas.”
“If it sticks,” Peter muttered.
“Smile, Sonny,” the old man dared him. “It’ll stick.”
Peter shrugged and his father shuffled off to the bathroom, sealing the door behind him.
“Yeah,” he answered.
“Are you there?”
Peter stepped into his parents’ bedroom. Thick smoke curled. An orange flame melted the hollows of his mother’s cheeks. As she exhaled a plume, Peter instinctively tilted his head backwards. His nose stung.
“You need anything?” he asked her.
“I’ll be getting up.”
She shrugged. “Christmas.” She waved her hand. “I know, I know. It could happen without me.”
“I didn’t say that.”
She stubbed out her cigarette and let the ashtray clatter on the nightstand. “No. No one would actually say it.”
That included Peter’s sisters who for days had listened to a litany of mother’s infirmities, all the time volunteering to assist, but being held at bay by her imperious hand. Finally she had turned her back, allowing them to scramble to complete the decorating, all the time fretting about the disaster that would befall with Caroline and Tara acting on their own. Now that the house was nearly finished, she would rise from her sarcophagus, find wreaths askew and ornaments out of proper sequence, declare the decorations a travesty and dismantle everything. Then with a mixture of manipulative whining and dictatorial badgering, she would force her daughters to stand at attention, holding light cords, fists of manger straw and single strands of tinsel, while she reassembled everything. At the end of the day, she would declare that she had saved Christmas, and retreat to her sick bed.
Peter amused himself with visions of Lady Eve, risen hot from hell to lecture the Virgin Mary on the art of motherhood, while sucking all the redeeming grace out of the Nativity. He found his sisters, Caroline the eldest and Tara the budding teen, sitting in the first floor living room, admiring the tree, and waiting with dread for the morning’s upheaval.
“Hey, brother,” Caroline yawned. “How’s the old bed?”
Tara slurped her coffee. “She won’t let us make cookies. How f—. No, ah, shit, forget it.” She measured her words, speaking broadly but in hushed tones. “How fucked up is that, that we can’t even bake cookies?”
Peter shook his head. “Her kitchen.”
His sisters exchanged looks again. Tara broke open a pack of cigarettes. “I said, Don’t expect college boy to help.”
“I’m shoveling, okay?” Peter said. “Bake your cookies, or don’t bake ‘em. Get your Easy Bake Oven outta the attic. I’m diggin’ the car out. That’s my rum-pa-pa-pum gift to bring, pa-rum-pa-pa-pum.”
His sisters fell silent and Peter walked into the kitchen. Peter’s father rumbled down the back steps, squeezing through the narrow doorway.
“What’s that three inches?” the old man squinted. “Maybe four. Say four.”
“Ha-ha!” A forced laugh. His father shook the kettle and, finding less than enough water, turned to the sink and refilled it. Peter downed a glass of orange juice.
“Better get started.”
His father waved a boney finger. “Don’t do the steps. Or the walk. There’s ice underneath. You’ll just expose the ice.”
The old man placed the kettle on the front burner and twisted the knob. The stove clicked until a blue flame burst forth. “You can never get it all up. What’s left behind ices over. Then you’re liable. See, it’s liability, Sonny. Right now, what we got is an act of God. Slip and fall? It’s an act of God. So sue God! But if we take it upon ourselves to alter the situation, we are responsible for the circumstances we create, which may in fact cause a slip and fall.”
So, the old man had done a half-assed job shoveling the last snow. Too cheap to pay the kids from the projects, and too out of shape to handle it himself, he had taken his failure and turned it into a life strategy. A blanket of snow can hide a multitude of sins.
“I’ll dig the car out,” Peter said.
“Good boy, Sonny.”
Peter put his juice glass in the sink. He stood looking at his father’s back, rounded over his coffee mug and yesterday’s newspaper. It was easier to talk to the back of the head. “Does anyone know?”
“Where we’re going? Our business.”
“Well, you said, It’s our business.” His father raised his massive head and squared his shoulders. “Unless, maybe you feel like you want to strut around the house?”
“Because it’s just a fiction. A fiction of paperwork.”
“So all you’re doing is giving your old man a little breathing room. And it’s costing you nothing. So there’s no cause for you to start feeling your manhood.”
Peter shook his head. “I just don’t want the girls thinking I’m getting more than I should.”
“They don’t think about that.”
Peter lowered his eyes. His sisters had said nothing, but he suspected. When Caroline was a senior in high school considering college, their parents had said they could only help with the cost of room and board. Everything else would have to be made up through financial aid. Caroline had looked at the price tag and decided against college.
When Peter came along, his parents said the same thing. But Peter had applied anyway and was awarded a good aid package with grants and loans to meet his estimated need. The cost to Peter’s parents was within the range they had agreed to pay, but in August, his father had made some aside about “coming up with the money,” which had started Caroline and Tara snickering to each other.
“Does Caroline know we stuck to the same deal?”
His father turned his palms upward. “She should.” He adjusted the newspaper.
Peter straightened his back. He felt a tightness in his shoulders, as if the shoveling had already begun.
* * *