By W. Peter Collins
With my eyes on the exit, I squirmed on the edge of the bench.
“Sit still. We’ll be done in two minutes.”
“How long is two minutes?”
“That depends on whether you cooperate or not. Here, try these.” Mom dropped a pair of shoes in my lap. Not everything took two minutes, only the things I didn’t like to do: trying on shoes, washing my face and hands, brushing my teeth, homework. Reading books I didn’t care about was the worst. All I could do was stare at the pages as if they were empty, empty like the chair at the other end of the kitchen table. The one Dad used to sit in. He would sit there for hours, writing, filling the pages of his book. Pages I wanted to see but never did. He said he would show me one day, when he was ready. And then he was gone. And the book was too. I finished putting the shoes on and stood up.
“Ok, take these for a spin around the store.”
Mom spun me around, and I started walking down the aisle between the giant shelves. It was like a forest made of shoes.
“Alright, turn around and walk back toward me. I want to see your face while you walk.”
“Why do you want to see my face?”
“Because if the shoes don’t fit, your face will look like you have a mouthful of spinach.”
I groaned and started walking toward her.
“You look fine. These are good shoes. Let’s go.”
We walked up to the counter to pay. There was a TV on the shelf behind the counter. We didn’t have one at our house, but my friends all did. The people on TV always looked so clean and neat. They all had big smiles and talked funny, like they weren’t real.
When we got home, I wandered into the garage looking for Pops.
“Hey, Pops, why do the people on TV look like toys?”
“TV!” The word exploded out of his mouth like they were shot out of a cannon. “You mean the Liar’s Box?”
“The Liar’s Box. What’s that?”
“Beautiful people, telling beautiful lies all damn day. Yessiree, that’s what you get when you watch TV.”
Pops started dancing around the garage, waving his tools in the air.
I still didn’t have an answer, but I knew that if Pops had his own show, I’d watch it. I wandered out the door.
Mom was in the kitchen, leaning against the counter. She took a sip from the little white cup she held with both hands.
“Why don’t we have a TV, Mom?”
She put the cup down and rubbed her eyes. “Your grandfather wouldn’t stand for it,” she said with her eyes still closed.
“Yeah, I know. But what about you? Do you like—”
“No,” she interrupted me, her eyes suddenly open wide. They drifted up and to the left.
“I miss your father.”
“Why? He left us all alone.”
“I know. He was a lousy husband and father, but he was a great storyteller.”
“So isn’t that what TV is, a box full of storytellers?”
“Is that where Dad is?”
“No. If he was, it might be worth watching.” Mom’s mouth stayed open after that last word, like she wanted to keep going but didn’t.
I grabbed the counter and started to swing myself up. She gave me the look before I could get there.
“You know better than that.” Her voice was sharp, like a knife looking for something to cut.
“Why did Dad leave?” I blurted out.
Mom dropped the little white cup. Her left hand twitched. She grabbed it with her right and looked at the kitchen table.
“I remember the last time I saw your father. He was at this table writing. I was cleaning up, and he asked me to listen to him.”
“What did he say?”
“He said, ‘The first line I ever wrote for pleasure was a gift from my father. I was afraid of ghosts when I was a kid, and my dad told me, Don’t let the ghosts get in your way. Put ‘em to work.
I held onto that line for a long time, like a precious gift. Then one day, I realized it wasn’t the gift I was looking for, so I threw it out. Pleasure wasn’t the gift either. It was just another thing to throw out. Actually, I didn’t have to throw it out. One day I woke up, and it just wasn’t there. All I had was an empty page.’”
She finished speaking, and the color in her face drained away. Looking pale, she walked over to the drawer and pulled out a small box with a bunch of papers in it. She took one of them out. “I found this on the kitchen table the day your father disappeared.” She handed it to me. It was a letter.
You asked me this question once.
“Why do you like writing so much, Hank? You never seem to enjoy yourself.”
This is as close as I can get to an answer.
I write because I’m willing to make myself miserable in order to be happy.
Those two words, Love, Hank, in the same sentence, was something I hadn’t heard in forever.
“How do you tell the difference between a storyteller and a liar?”
Mom didn’t answer. She walked over and sat down at the kitchen table. There was a pen and paper there. I swear they weren’t there when I walked in, but there they were. She picked up the pen and snapped it in two. Black ink slid slowly down her fingers onto the paper while she stared at the empty chair across from her.