The sunglasses my daughter was wearing couldn’t lie. She stood there, wearing her old night gown, with her blond curls left untidy and dirty, lowering her head as she opened the door. She looked so fragile to me. Somehow I remembered when, as a child, she didn’t qualify for a national science contest and cried in my arms out of anger. As I looked at her now, waking up at noon and bringing her hands over her face, I felt she was once again impotent, only this time I had no words to comfort her. Who would have?
«Yes. You know how he becomes when he drinks.»
«He’s a scum»
«That’s what he is.»
«You want to come in?»
«If you want me to. I’d like to.»
I went in. In the living room, chairs and overturned tables lied everywhere. Bill, my son-in-law, that skunk, was gone. He had left the wake of his rage behind him. The sunglasses my daughter was wearing, her clumsy and innocent movements, could not hide the mark left by the punch. As she went up to her bedroom to fix herself up –although I start to believe that nothing will ever fix her situation–, I remembered the first time I met Bill. I’ve never liked him. The first thing he told me was that he had been unjustly fired from the car factory where he worked, that those were company policies to discriminate Americans and favour the immigrants. That’s why he decided to leave Seattle, travel a bit, look for a job in smaller towns, get away from the liberals, go back to the rural life, but he had no luck.
Bill seemed too eager to justify his layoff. He spent the whole night criticising his colleagues, his bosses, the bus drivers and the Jews. I don’t know why I didn’t tell him that my family was half Jew, that my daughter had that heritage. He criticised even our town, “a useless passageway lost in the stupid Oregon where there was no one left, only lake fishermen, the gruffest, where it was unbelievable that thirty thousand people could live with nothing else to do than go around stinking of fish”. I love this place almost as much as I love my family, but I didn’t say anything. I suppose I decided to let it go, I thought that it was his anger speaking and that it was probably the reason why he was drinking so much. Ten beers would turn any dinner into a small hell. I thought he was going through a hard time, as we all do sometimes. In that moment, little did he know, and little did I know, that they would end up married two weeks later; that they would drink every day, and that, almost certainly in a hangover, Bill would talk my daughter into lending him some money. “Only for a couple of months, until he’ll manage to get back to work. A friend of his has a wood warehouse, he’ll hire him.”, she confessed to me.
But they didn’t hire him, and a few months later they had spent the little money they had. The house was the only thing they had left, this very house, which my wife and I had left to our daughter. And Bill kept blaming others. Her, even me. And he started beating her. My daughter never reported anything to the police. She even got to the point of lying to the officers, saying that she got the bruises she had on her arm by falling down the stairs. My word is worthless without her deposition. I can’t take any legal action against him.
«I don’t know. He went out.»
«Where has he gone?»
«You won’t look for him, will you?»
«Why shouldn’t I?»
«It’s not a good moment. He was rejected from another job and he started drinking again.»
«When has he ever stopped drinking?»
«Dad, I told you we can handle it.»
«Why do you keep intruding in my life!»
«Because I care! Where is Bill?»
«I don’t know, dad! I never know!»
Those words made me want to hit her myself, or to hit myself. To hit. For having no answers. My daughter is not stupid. She is just in love with an idiot. How could she know. I have nothing to say to her. I’ve tried everything I could. I found a job for Bill at the bus station. It was stupid-proof, the only thing he had to do was to count the passengers of every bus, ask for their tickets and bring them to an office for the manager to file. Bill was the only person who could mess it up: he would show up drunk, lose tickets and argue with passengers. Eventually, he got fired when he punched a latino who, according to Bill, did not speak English but had been disrespectful. That night I had to bail him and I made the mistake of leaving him at home with my daughter. I have no idea where he found alcohol, but he got drunk and broke her arm.
That was the first time I wanted to kill Bill. I don’t believe I would be able to kill anyone, but I did think to beat Bill up more times than I can possibly remember. My daughter convinced me not to. She always convinces me. I can’t say no when she cries, I never could. I tried to help them once more, as I realised that we were all part of the problem. We went to family therapy in a community centre. I even brought them to the AA, driving them to the meetings every day to make sure they couldn’t miss it. But they did their best to hide, to run away. They would disappear for two or three days. I never knew where they went. My daughter will never tell me. The idea of the two of them in the woods disgusts me; away from the paths, hiding like animals, drinking in a tree-hole, peeing outside, under the rain, the reflection of the moon on the lake illuminating Bill’s revolting face, his flat nose crushed by the many fights, his dirty hair, his alcoholic breath in my daughter’s face every time he insults her, me, this town, the country.
«Would you like some pancakes, dad?»
«Will you cook?»
«Yes. Only if you want them, of course»
«Sweetie, let me take care of that. You went through a lot yesterday.»
«Do you have honey?»
«In the pantry, second drawer.»
I started making pancakes. My daughter sat at the dining room table, arranging the filthy cloth. She crossed her legs and lit a cigarette, then she realised she didn’t have an ashtray –who knows where it was– and used a glass filled with soda instead. I opened the fridge to look for eggs and realised there was no electricity. It wasn’t worth telling her, she knew already. Luckily enough, the eggs hadn’t gone bad, so I started cooking. My daughter bent her head down, the cigarette slowly burning in her hand. I thought of a poem by Raymond Carver, one of those poems that we don’t learn at school but that half of the country knows anyway, about an ashtray. It says that all stories circle around an ashtray, a man and a woman at its opposing poles: they talk, they move, they remain silent, and at the end something does or does not happen between them. Only, they didn’t even have an ashtray in this house.
«Darling, your pancakes are ready.»
«Thanks dad» she answered, the cigarette now burning her fingers. She let it fall on the floor.
«There wasn’t enough honey, so I used sugar for the dough.»
«They’re good. They’re always good when you make them.»
We ate without talking. Except for Bill and my daughter, this is a very quiet neighbourhood, and there wasn’t one single damn noise in the street, except for the messy singing of birds, which filled our silence a bit and brought some tranquillity. She cut and chewed slowly, very small bites. I stopped eating after ten minutes. I was lost in thought, I don’t know for how long we sat at that table in silence. I thought of Bill, I wished he would reappear to punch him. One time something similar happened, but it was more dramatic. It was a couple of months ago, my daughter was crying, she told me he had been like that for some days, and Bill came in kicking the door, stumbling, insulting his former boss, then her. He didn’t realise I was n the house. I’m sure he would have hit her; I walked in front of him and pushed him on the floor. The coward was dying in terror, I shouted him to stand up, looking for a knife. Bill begged. My daughter passed out. I picked her up and left her in her room. Then, I realised, the bastard had gone. I don’t know what it would have happened if she hadn’t passed out. Regardless, I don’t think I could ever kill anyone.
«Have you visited mum?» she asked when she had swallowed the last bite, lighting up another cigarette and rocking, her legs at her chest, like a child.
«Yes, I went last week. I brought her some lilies, she loved them.»
«I couldn’t go. Well, we were about to go today, Bill and I, but then…»
«It’s just that I really miss her. I feel that everything in my life fell apart after she was gone. Don’t you think?»
«I don’t know what to think right now.»
«She always took care of us, didn’t she? She always made sure that everything was in order, that we were ok. I remember that every night, before going to sleep, she asked me how was my day. It bothered me when I was a teenager, now I miss it very much. I need it.»
«Your mother was a great woman.»
«She really was. Do you think she’s still taking car of us?»
«Of course. How could she stop doing it?»
I felt jealous of my wife. My daughter’s words made me feel useless, as if I had no role in her life. And maybe it was so. Her mother died long before she met Bill and I wonder if things might have been different with her by our side. It’s not worth thinking about it, I know, but sometimes these thoughts haunt me.
After a while, we started chatting about silly things, how nice the weather was this year, and the beginning of the fishing season. Not another word was said about Bill. When the night came, since there was no electricity and we couldn’t watch TV, she asked me to tell her a story. I like to tell stories about other people, not mine, so I reminded her of that afternoon when we went to the county fair with her mother, and she got lost. Although the fair was a safe place, you never know what could happen. Never. We circled around the merry-go-round, her favourite thing, we asked friends and neighbours and we stood anxiously in front of the candyfloss cart she loved so much for a while, but nothing happened. We split up to look for her, I was afraid I would lose her mother, too, but I let her go, constantly looking back. I found them after half an hour: “Sweetie, she was waiting for us in the car, with the stuffed monkey she won at the ring toss”, my wife said, with a big smile. As I saw them like that, I almost cried of joy.
My daughter liked the story a lot; she calmed down, so much so that she curled up in the armchair in the living room when I finished. She took her sunglasses off: the bruise was enormous. I managed to see, or maybe I just imagined, a little blood clot in her eye. She was smiling. “Everything will be all right, dad, you’ll see”, she said. Then she told me some things about the house, to which I paid no attention. I decided to stay, in case Bill, that bastard, came back. I remembered again the story of the fair, I told it once more in a low voice, for myself. Until I fell asleep, with my clothes on, at the dining room table.
When I woke up, I was fraught; I must have had a nightmare. I can’t remember it though, which is good. Even though it’s not summer yet, and it’s quite chilly outside, I think I will go to the porch and look at the moon. I’ve always thought it’s the most beautiful thing in our state. Many of the poems written by Carver were inspired by this moon. The flag of Oregon should have a moon on a lake. Carver. I’ve been reading his work since I was a child, but now that my daughter is with Bill I feel it too close to me. The failure of small lives. I realise she will never be able to end this relationship on her own, that she loves him, and this makes her stupid to the point of being beaten up, and that I am absolutely incapable of doing anything.
We slept a lot. The moon is still bright, but the sky is already pale. Dawn will crack soon. A breeze is blowing. As I step on the porch, the empty street welcomes me; two children are walking, they must be eleven or twelve years old. Children can still walk in this town without worrying that a pervert might show up. Some idiot, like Bill, might be their only problem. They don’t care. They each carry a stack of newspapers and leave one in front of each house. They have an athletic pace, a young pace. They don’t talk to each other, but if they could hold each other, they certainly would. Their faces are calm. Now I understand. They are happy. At this time, the moon is still lightning the street, there is no room for death, ambition, nor love. Happiness. I’ll wake up a little earlier every morning.
Translated by Irene Brighenti