By Rush Eby
Dad used to play poker, and he wasn’t bad, either. He’d play, and he’d win, and sometimes he’d lose, but he always knew when to throw in the cards.
He’d tell me the most important thing in this world was to know when to fold. He’d say to me, “Knowing when to quit is more important than any win, no matter how big.”
Dad would have poker night and I’d sit in the doorway by the dining-room-slash-great-room-slash-kitchen, and I’d watch him and his friends toss pretend-millions into the center of the table in the form of plastic chips. They’d play late, and Momma would read and drink cheap wine in the bedroom-slash-sewing-room-slash the room in which Dad would always yell at himself if he drank too much or not enough. The same room we would leave Dad in when he was sad. Then we’d get ice cream at the Icehouse and I’d get the plain vanilla, while Momma would get her Pall Malls from the discount tobacco outlet next door.
And I used to have asthma, too. The kind of asthma where you’ve got to use an inhaler, and you’ve got to be careful about how fast you run, and everyone knows you’ve got it, so you just add it to your ever-growing tab of middle school offenses. My asthma would be so bad I’d wake up in the night trying to breathe, wrapped up in blankets and sweating, but no matter how much I’d try, it was never enough. If you are what keeps you up at night, then I am night sweats and rasped heaves, childlike terror under the soft light of my glow-in-the-dark stars.
And before Dad left us forever so he could send America’s first rockets to space and do all the other things Momma would tell me he did, Dad would switch on the light in my little corner of the world and carry my wheezing body into the bathroom. And though I’d already be wet with sweat, he’d turn on the shower.
Before Dad went off to hunt great squid for science and turn all the African drinking water into something that won’t kill you, he’d turn the shower on as cold as it goes, and he’d haul my sweaty body into that man-made downpour. He’d sit there in his boxers on the other side of the tub from me, shivering as the water came down on both of us. Momma would stand in the doorway and watch, shaking in that porcelain vat as the cold water sprayed all over him and me. And the shower curtain. And the floor.
Momma would be there, worried with fresh smoke in her eyes, arms folded. And Dad, he’d say, “No one’s punishing you, Roy. We’re just trying to help. No one’s punishing you, Roy.” And Dad’s breath would smell like the green top of the poker table him and his friends always spilled their drinks on. His eyes would be so tired in that cold. And Dad would fold his arms too, and his skin would be modeled and goosed. That sharp chill would turn the scar on his chin and the one above his right eye waxy white. And I’d have to breathe. Cause the water was as cold as it goes, and no one was punishing me, and I just needed to breathe. Not just for me, but for everyone there watching.
It was years before Momma told me where and why Dad had gone. Her always chasing newspaper clippings about narrowly avoided crises, showing me pictures of Dad’s shadow, always in the background with his head down, being the humble man he was. Momma would tell me how he’d love to be home if the world wasn’t always on the brink of ending. She’d say there had to be someone willing to sacrifice their life for something. No matter how much it hurt.
Sometimes Momma would be looking at me like I had something of Dad’s. Sometimes disdaining me for it, I think. Loving me in that backhanded way Mommas can, that irrational, imperfect love. The kind that makes them shield their children in gunfights as if their bodies aren’t just the kind of stuff bullets like to tear through. The type of love that makes a woman think she’s bulletproof, which she is, ninety-nine percent of the time.
Dad left to save the world with peace treaty agreements and high-level state negations, to fight fires in the far West, build railroads in the far East. And he did all this just out of eye’s reach. And I’d smile when Momma lied about why dad disappeared because I knew how much it would hurt her to think she was hurting me.
Me, the bottom of the food chain. Still sitting in that cold shower. Momma’s loving me in a doorway and a bathrobe, and Dad’s holding me like something worth saving. The scars on his face turning hot white electric—for me. Everything else bluing in the sharp freeze of that wet hell. And I’m watching him and Momma with cold worry in my eyes because I think I can see why you might not be so happy smoking Pall Malls, or taking cold showers, or playing with pretend-millions in a double-wide in West Memphis. And I’ve only ever been theirs, and now I’m old enough to know I’m in the way. Like a balloon at a shitty party, scattered on the ground at any given moment, just a bag of breath, if I can catch it.
I was there just like Momma and Dad, every day and even in the night. We didn’t have time to be thankful or happy or gluten-free. We were just surviving, and I was the weakest link, the wettest blanket. And Dad always knew when to throw in the cards.