My cards were dismal as they were, but I knew it was all in the kitty. I propped myself up on my feet, still calloused from the barefoot summer although it was the end of November, squatting on the wooden chair, my knees pressed into the dining room table, trying to remember what had been played and what might be in the kitty. It could all be there in the kitty. And I didn’t mind going set because in the end, I always won. Well, usually. It was the law of averages. If you played long enough, betting big always paid off. It was simply a matter of masking your face, watching your opponents and figuring out your best move based on what was concealed.
I glanced around the table. Daddy was clearly also counting in his head, his right hand stroking his Santa Claus beard, which had gotten longer and whiter in the year since Mama died, his cards folded up in his left hand, resting on the belly that looked like it could have an almost full term baby in it, figuring out what could be in the kitty. Meg was reading, her thick glasses beside her. She tended to read while Daddy and I plotted. Sometimes she’d knit but Daddy told her knitting was for Family Reading Hour or watching TV and she should hold her goddamn cards and pay attention to what tricks were being played. I wasn’t sure why the same didn’t apply to reading but logic was never my father’s strongest suit. There hadn’t been much Family Reading Hour since Mama died, anyway. Sometimes Meg just put her head down and slept, but both Daddy and I frowned on that. Reading was occasionally a way for her to mask sleeping. These pinochle sessions could go on for hours – days really, if Daddy was in that mood, the mood for which we had no name. Mania wasn’t part of our vocabulary. Just Daddy – and Judy along with him. We had taken a couple of breaks but we’d pretty much been going two days straight this time. When Daddy was up, I was often up too. Meg struggled to stay with us, exhausted.
Clubs were trump and I had kept pretty good track of everyone’s meld. I was the dealer and Daddy and Meg were playing their counters to each other to get me, but I was way ahead of them. I knew what I was doing when I called trump. But no Jack. It had to be in the kitty. “Meg. Meggy. It’s your turn.” I couldn’t tell if she was deeply engrossed in her book or if she was taking a cat nap. I glanced at the clock. We should be getting Johnny up and ready for school soon, but we had time for me to win this one.
“Oh. Yeah…” She looked at her cards and lifted her left hand to pick a card and then put it back down on the floral vinyl table cloth, unconsciously wiping away some shmutz left over from our many meals. We’d just been piling up the debris of our snacking at the end of the table for the past two days. There were Twinkie wrappers and bits of tin foil, an empty bag of Arnold’s Extra Thin bread that had been full when we’d started, my text book for 7th grade Honors Algebra and Meggy’s banned knitting. Meggy sat in Mama’s spot now, next to the toaster oven on the cart with the big chalk board to her back. There was some word with arrows pointing and other identifiers about the word. I couldn’t tell what language it was in. Too many consonants to be a Romance language. I knew better than to ask. The game would be put on hold and I’d get a two hour lecture on whatever it was that was up there, Johnny would be late to school again and I’d never win this fercockt game.
“Ummmm…” She looked up at me, her eyes a startling blue in her tanned face. Her hair was feathered and fell down over her shoulders. She was wearing a yellow Ms. PacMan nightgown, her legs curled up in front of her. I felt a surge of annoyance. She wasn’t paying attention. I was pretty sure she didn’t know what trump was.
“You’ve gotta follow suit.” I looked pointedly at the trick Daddy had just played.
“Right…” she said, the emphasis on the t, drawing it out as if by doing so she’d know what suit to follow. She searched his meld as if it would jump out at her.
“Meg…” I tried to use my eyes to direct her but she wasn’t getting it.
“Judashala – watch out. You’d get shot in Joe’s bar for that!” He wigged his eyebrows at me in a mock warning. Daddy fancied himself a cowboy since he was raised on a sheep ranch outside of Butte until his teenage years and we frequently were told what would happen in the wilds of Montana in “Joe’s Bar” if caught making an inappropriate move in pinochle.
I rolled my eyes. “Well she’d get shot in Joe’s bar if she didn’t follow suit!”
The phone rang, bringing us abruptly out of Joe's bar and into the reality of Long Island. Daddy pushed at the table and it creaked with him, as though commiserating. It seemed for a moment that he was going to get up and answer it himself, something virtually unheard of. Children were for doing such menial jobs. We all knew it was Bethpage High School. Where Meg hadn’t been for two days already. This was the third. Time had somehow moved forward and it was already 7:45. I sighed and got up, pulling down my Smurfette t-shirt over my panties. In another hour it would be JFK Junior High calling to ask about me.
“Hall’s residence, may I help you?” I used my best grown-up, secretary voice that Daddy had trained us to use on the phone.
A woman with a nasally Long Island accent asked to speak to my father. I asked who was calling. The woman on the other end was not charmed by my grown up ways. “Hon, just put your father on.”
I uncoiled the extra-long cord and handed Daddy the yellow receiver. “High school,” I mouthed. I knew a school secretary voice when I heard one.
Daddy took the phone as though being handed a snake. He sighed deeply before putting his ear to the phone. “This is Dr. Hall,” he said, making his voice deeper. He usually just said it was Mike or Mike Hall – the Dr. bit was thrown in for intimidation factor. “Mmm. Yes. I know she’s been home.” He was nodding. “Of course she’s unwell,” he said with a trace of exasperation in his voice. He didn’t look at us as he lied. He needed to get into the moment – believe the lie. “I’m sure she’ll be fine by Monday.” It must have been Friday. I’d lost track of the days. “Thank you for your concern. I was not cognizant of the protocol for calling in my daughter’s absences.” Daddy sounded every bit the professor of Linguistics he was and every bit the father in charge he wasn’t.
He finally held out the phone for me to hang up, which I did quickly. Daddy rocked at the table in indecision. We were all remembering the same thing, as if we had a group mind, a group memory of shared fear.
A month earlier had been the first time the social workers came. I had told Michelle, one of my few friends at school, that I was going to kill myself . When I didn’t show up for school the next day, she told the guidance counsellor not just about my threat but how she’d noticed when I slept over that I had bruises on my back and ribs. I had changed so quickly in the near dark of her bedroom, I didn’t realize she’d seen.
So the social workers came and we’d sat at this same table while they yelled at Daddy about how dirty the house was and asked me about the bruises. I looked straight at them and told them how I had fallen. As I wove my tale, I could almost remember the fall. I’d been carrying… books. I was at the top of the stairs, in the room Meg and I shared, and I’d slipped and that was how I’d fallen.
The burn on my arm? From cooking. I smiled as I said it, my mind trying to erase Daddy rubbing his cigarette into my arm in the front seat of the station wagon where I was trapped unless I wanted to throw myself out of a moving car. Which I’d considered. Then it would be over. But as I told them my tale of a burning pot and Johnny, only seven, underfoot, it seemed real. Real enough. That was the trick. It had to seem real enough. And I had to believe it.
The two social workers, both very young men wearing white shirts and wide plaid ties, looked around our house in disgust, as though the filth might be contagious and creep onto their pristine shirts. I didn’t know then that they were very young and probably scared of my father, this Santa Claus looking man covered in tattoos, breathing like Darth Vader and furiously angry at me for daring to want to die. They accepted my lies, my crude lies; I was not yet the liar I’d become. They told my father to clean the house, that this was no environment for children. They left quickly, promising a surprise return.
The living room had had boxes in it, as though we were moving somewhere even though we’d been in this house all my life except for a year in Sudan when I was a kid. The boxes had the stuff from Mama’s office at SUNY Stony Brook and some of her clothes. Daddy would start to go through the office stuff and then rush to his bed to hide under the blankets. Meg and I had taken Mama’s clothes and put them in boxes over the summer but Daddy couldn’t bring them to the Good Will. He would stop and touch her clothes, almost unconsciously.
Since that visit we’d moved all the boxes into what most people used as the family room. It had always been a dumping ground/ study of sorts for my parents. The living room was dirty and mismatched but it resembled more of a living room except for the big card table in the middle, making it impossible for anyone to really sit on the two sofas, one blue and the other floral but covered in stains from when it had served as Johnny’s bed for six months.
Johnny now slept with Daddy and not in the Superman bedroom which had hosted live-in Haitian maids until Mama got really sick and they left, taking cleanliness with them. Then Johnny went in there, his old bedroom became Mama and Daddy’s study and Superman curtains and sheets and blankets were bought and never cared for and then after Mama died Johnny’s small bed disappeared, mysteriously to us kids, and we were told to put the dirty sheets on the floral sofa. Johnny almost never slept in there because when he did, he almost always had an accident, and not always pee-pee but ca-ca too. He usually slept with Meg, who was more patient than I with his thrashing around since she slept like the dead anyway. Sleeping with someone else, he never had an accident.
But now on this November morning, Daddy, Meg and I all thought the same thing.
Today would be the day.
We had no way of knowing it, but the call from the school was like a sign from the gods, warning us to get it together. The men in their too white shirts, whiter than anything in our house, would return and all hell would break loose.
What sort of hell we had no idea. No one told Meg and me what could happen, except a vague warning that we could end up with Mama’s relatives in North Carolina. The way Daddy described it, his voice low and horrible, as though he were describing Sauron seeking the One Ring, so I imagined the worst, even though my memories of my cousins and Aunt Pauline from my mother’s shiva were hardly equivalent to the fell beasts of Mordor. But I knew that what was on the outside wasn’t always what was on the inside. Sauron had been beautiful once to achieve his ends. I knew no one really suspected Daddy, a professor who looked like Santa Claus and kept his tattoos covered in public, to be the violent, mercurial man he could sometimes be. He was charming. Handsome if you thought a hippie-ish Santa Claus was handsome, his blue eyes sparkly and his white beard curly and his brown hair pulled back in a ponytail. And if you met him socially, wearing a tie-dye t-shirt and jeans, his tattoos were beautiful and he was quirkily charming. But the truth could come out and we could end up far away, with people who were really strangers to us. As scary as he was, we were devoted to Daddy.
No one had to say to lie.
Daddy never asked me to lie to the men. I just knew to do it. And even so he beat us after they left for the house being such a mess.
“Okay…” Meg was all business suddenly, wide awake. She knew what the trump was now. “Jude, get Johnny dressed and on the bus.”
I glanced at the clock. Fifteen minutes till the bus came.
I rushed off to pull Johnny from his sleep in the big queen size bed, sleeping on Mama’s side, curled like a kitten in the dent she’d made over the eighteen years she’d slept next to my father. I could hear my sister starting to clean up, bustling through the dining room, picking up things. I didn’t hear my father do anything, but I didn’t expect to hear him do anything but give orders.
I sat Johnny on the toilet in the green bathroom while I stripped him naked. He didn’t question my urgency. “Are you making ca-ca?” I asked.
I left him on the toilet and rummaged on the floor of his room, which still held all his clothes and toys. I found fairly clean underwear and jeans but every t-shirt I picked up had a smear of something – peanut butter or chocolate or twinkie – in an obvious spot. I looked hopelessly in the dresser for shirts. Bingo! The t-shirt from The American School in Khartoum, which had started as Meg’s and then became mine and now, threadbare, was Johnny’s was folded in strict military precision, alone in the drawer. All our clothes were folded the same way, in crisp thirds, the way the Army had taught Daddy and how he insisted that we fold. It didn’t matter that the house was filthy or that our clothes were stained beyond cleaning, but our clothes would be folded in thirds, so help him God.
The bus was already pulling up as I rushed Johnny into the open flap of the yellow doors. I was still in my Smurfette t-shirt and had pulled on a pair of jeans of questionable cleanliness but hadn’t put a coat on. The bus driver frowned at me as I stood and waved with the other moms.
Back in the house, Meg and I moved swiftly but without precision. Precision would come later – nights when we knew Daddy was coming home, days when we just got that feeling that social workers were coming, the rare weekends when we’d have guests of my father’s, graduate students, usually, sometimes coming to take us somewhere. It was never clean anyway – we’d hide dirt, sweep it down the stairs to the basement or into the closets. Everything was covered up, hidden under piles of lies and subterfuge so that we could stay with the devil we knew and loved.
Daddy sat at the table, frozen.
In the months and years following, he’d be barking orders and throwing punches as we scurried, if we were stupid enough to do it in front of him, but today he was as still as the statues in the city, with pigeons shitting, tourists leaning, nature howling while the statue remained immoveable. As we took a slightly stained sheet to cover the very stained sofa, I nudged Meg and nodded towards Daddy. She shrugged.
“Don’t you think that’s weird?” I whispered as we tucked the sheet in place.
“He’s been like that since the school called.” She let her hair fall over her face as she spoke, a trick she learned to hide that she was talking.
I had already cut off all my hair to keep Daddy from being able to grab it so I turned my back to the dining room and whispered, “It’s kinda freaking me out.” She shrugged. I didn’t know if that meant that she was also freaked out or that nothing freaked her out about Daddy anymore.
We moved the card table carefully so that nothing would fall off of it, but I kept glancing back at my father, expecting him to yell or tell us to be careful, goddamnit, but he said nothing and remained unmoving. We put it against my mother’s china cabinet. This opened up the living room.
If you could count on anything from Daddy it was inconsistency, but this was strange in the extreme. Meg just puttered around, trying to make the living room look like people used it and handed me a broom and told me to sweep the dining room, by far the dirtiest floor other than the kitchen. I started over by the blackboard, careful not to brush against the strange word or any of the markings, which could mean anything in linguistics, my father’s secret language.
Wrappers had floated from the table to the floor, along with random socks kicked off from feet knocking around under the table while hands and faces remained ladylike above the table, bits of paper from homework or notes or poems and stories Meg and I wrote, scraps of yarn from our knitting, Johnny’s whiffle ball, cat hair, a piece of bone chewed clean from a steak, other grisly bits of food all followed the yellow bristles of the broom to a pile I was making close to the kitchen door, near the garbage can. I hesitated by Daddy’s hulking form, still unmoving.
If I asked him to move, the spell could break and he could wake up furious and violent but if I didn’t ask him to move and the social workers came they would see all the bits of food and the paper plate trapped under Daddy’s chair. I rocked in indecision.
“Daddy?” I spoke softly, as though I were really waking him. His body was rigid. Still holding the broom with my left hand, I put my right on Daddy’s shoulder and rubbed. “Daddy?”
Quickly Daddy grabbed my right arm tightly, his thumb pressing on a healing cigarette burn. I winced and clutched the broom, ready to use it as a weapon. “Judasha?”
Daddy’s blue eyes turned on me, confused and his grip loosened. I pulled my arm away and put both hands on the broom, ready to defend myself. Daddy sitting was almost as tall as I was standing. I knew I had no chance against him except for speed, my only advantage against three hundred pounds of his grief and fury and rage. But I could throw the broom and make him falter, giving me the lead. My mind was already out the back door and into the children’s forest, my usual retreat.
Suddenly he smiled and put his hands on the table. “Whaddya think is in the kitty?”
My hands were shaking on the handle of the broom. Pinochle.
“Jack. Jack of Clubs.”
“You were waiting on that, weren’t you?” He raised his right eyebrow. I raised mine back at him, smiling a little now. This was Daddy. I willed my heart to stop racing and my mind to stay in the dining room and not dart like the scared deer I sometimes was.
He reached, the table creaking with his weight and scooped up the three cards face down on the table and flipped them over one at a time. Queen of Hearts. I knew that would be there. Ace of Hearts. I thought Meg had that. And a Jack of Spades.
It wasn’t in the kitty. Not this time.
Daddy smiled and flipped over his cards. He had the Jack of Clubs. I put my hand on my hip. I would have gone set.
I picked up the broom and swatted at Daddy’s feet, the spell broken entirely and we were us again.
I raised one eyebrow. “You know, you’d be shot in Joe’s bar for that,” I said as I swept up the filth under his feet and chair.