The Jar

By Jaren Watson

I.FINAL (2).web’m hoofing it home on my birthday, and I can’t stop staring at my face. Half an hour ago the machine spat out my license. Driver’s Ed. finished up two months ago and I’ve been counting the days. It’s official now, I can drive. Or could if I had a car. Soon, I tell myself, it’s going to happen. And it will. There’s three grand wadded in a mason jar in my closet. I keep the jar locked in a small cedar box that I built in junior high shop. Eight months of laying sod and I haven’t spent more than a few hundred bucks. Learned that by watching my old man. What not to do. Money is the slipperiest thing in the world for him. I heard Mom tearing into him about it this morning before I left for school.

But I’m not worried about that now. Another two months, and I’ll be in business. I could get something right away, but I don’t want to spend my time tooling on a junker. Seen the family car busted down too many times to take that route. Even though I’m itching to get behind the wheel, I’m holding out.

I’ve got the license in my fingers. I look a little older, I think. When the lady behind the counter handed it over, I slipped it into my back pocket, but as soon as I got outside I pulled it out again. The clerk’s office in the courthouse handles licenses and registration. We live just better than a mile down the road.

First hour at school, Mrs. Bennett had everyone sing to me. It was a wreck, but nice. It’ll have to do for a celebration until Sunday. Dad said he had to work late and Mom’s stuck in bed again. When she and Dad were into it, you could barely hear her. Even without making out the words, you could tell she was pissed. Everybody says money’s what wrecks marriages. Everybody hit the nail on the head.

I’m about a block from home and I take one last look at the license before shoving it in my pocket. You could say I’m a little disappointed about not having a party on my birthday. But of the two things that I really want, one is riding on my hip, and the other I can just about see on the horizon.

Dad’s car is in the driveway. There’s a dent caving in the rear fender. It was there when he bought the car three years ago. If the dent was on the front of the car, he’d get it fixed. That’s his style, flashy from the front.

When I open the front door, he’s asleep on the couch. An open bag of beef jerky’s in his crotch. The TV is on, some golf tournament, and the sound is muted. I go in the kitchen. Scissor’s backpack is on the table. On the front is sewn a patch in the shape of a skull. She’s fourteen, but she’s three grades behind me. Not because she’s stupid, but because of her birthday. Her real name’s Meredith, but we’ve been calling her Scissor since I was like five. Before that it was Sisser when I was butchering sister. You know how it is. That’s how Mom tells it, I don’t really remember. Scissor’s at the age where she hates everything about the family, or acts like she does, but she’s never minded the name.

Even with Mom’s door open I hardly hear her when she calls to me. I go in there and she’s sitting up in bed, a bunch of pillows behind her back. The blinds are up and sunlight is coming in on her face and the window is open a little. There’s not much of a smell. She’s still in her pajamas. You can barely tell about the bandages. She’s got her arms out. I lean over the bed and hug her. She presses her cheek against mine. I pull away and she pats the bed beside her and I sit.

“How’s my birthday boy?” she asks.

“Pretty good. How are you feeling today?”

“About the same.”

I nod. “I’m sorry.”

I’d give up if I were her. I don’t know how she does it.  She was pregnant three times after Scissor. All three ended way premature in emergency c-section but she and Dad just kept trying, said they felt God had another one to send. None of them made it a day. After the last one, Mom’s belly wouldn’t heal. Ever since I started junior high she’s had a hole straight from her gut to the outside world. It’s called a fistula. Fancy name for a hole.

She did pretty good at first, just kept it wrapped up with gauze. She was in constant pain, but it wasn’t that. It was because every time she got around other people, sooner or later somebody would say something about the smell. No amount of perfume or lotion covered it. Eventually, she got tired of dealing with people. At first we all tried to encourage her, but it didn’t last too long. The worst I ever heard my parents fight was when Dad tried telling her the stink wasn’t that bad. They were in the kitchen, and she looked like she was going to slap him. Instead she yelled, “There’s a reason people shit in the toilet instead of the street, Rex.” They kept at it through the night.

I can remember them fighting before all that happened, but lately that’s all they do. Dad just keeps working longer hours driving a forklift at the warehouse. But he brings home less money, so it starts up again. Mom wants to know where it all goes, and he’s always got an answer.

The other day Scissor said to me, “It’s only a matter of time.” She may be right.

So now Mom keeps herself locked up in the house. Once in awhile, if she’s feeling good, she’ll swing on the back porch in the afternoons and watch the finches in the feeders. Mostly, she totters around, cleaning the house and clipping coupons. Right now, she looks as happy as I’ve seen her in weeks. She asks me if I got my license and when I say yes she makes me show it to her.

“You look so handsome,” she says. “I can’t believe my baby’s sixteen. Which reminds me, your dad wants you to wake him up. He took off early so you guys could go out.”

“Out where?”

She shrugs one shoulder. “He didn’t say. Is there any place special you’d like to go?”

“Not really. Why don’t we just order pizza and do something here?”

Mom smiles, her mouth closed. “I’d like that. I’m not sure it’s the best idea though.”

I shut my eyes and take a deep breath. “Can’t you two pretend to get along for one night? It’s my birthday for God’s sake.” I don’t need to see the look on Mom’s face to know she’s hurt. She can’t take it when it comes from me. Between Dad and Scissor I’m the only one she can talk to. “I’m sorry, Mom. I didn’t mean it.”

She looks out the window. “I know it hasn’t been pleasant lately. But that doesn’t give you the right to talk to me that way.”

I walk out of her room, through the kitchen and don’t stop in the living room where Dad is still asleep. In my bedroom, I dial the combination on my lock and fish out the money jar. In my pocket I’ve got a few bucks change from getting my license, and I stuff this in the jar and lock it back up. Scissor’s got her stereo on and the wail of bagpipes creeps through the walls. Our rooms are right next to each other and before she got on this kick we used to talk for hours before falling asleep. I knock on the wall. She doesn’t answer. I knock louder and the music softens.

Through the wall I say, “Since when do you listen to Scottish music?”

Through the wall I hear, “It’s Celtic, dipshit. Happy birthday.”

I lie down on my bed and stare at the ceiling, which the sunset through the window paints white to purple to black. I slide my thumb back and forth along the edge of the license in my hand. Accompanied by Scissor’s piping, I fall asleep.

When I wake up, my dad is standing in my room. It’s dark outside and the light is off. I hear his breathing. A jangling of keys in his pocket. “What are you doing?” I ask.

“Dude, you were supposed to wake me up.” A couple of months ago, Dad started talking like he was a teenager again. He gets it right about half the time. I’ve asked him to stop more times than I can count.

“Sorry. I was tired.”

“Well, get up and let’s go. Tonight’s the big night. Righto?”

“I guess.” Going out on the town with my Dad tonight is about the last thing I feel like doing, but neither am I up for arguing with him about it, so I get out of bed. “Give me a minute.”

When he goes out, I shut the door and get a few bucks from the jar. I have a suspicion that wherever we end up I’ll be footing the bill. Dad has a way forgetting his wallet.

In the driveway, he tosses me the keys. “You’re up,” he says and opening the passenger side door, gets in the car.

I just stand there. A week ago I was looking through the classifieds at the kitchen table when Dad came up behind me and said, “I hope you aren’t thinking that you’ll be touching my wheels, cheese puff.”

I wasn’t. I know how he is with his things. “I’m not.”

“That’s my boy. Man’s got to earn those things.”

Dad shuts the door. I walk around to the driver’s side. As I fasten my seatbelt, it hits me. “Dad, it’s nighttime.”

“A real sharp one, I’ve raised.”

“Stop. I can’t drive at night for another six months.”

“Give me a break. Let’s roll.”

There’s no arguing with him. “Fine. But you have to talk normal.”

It’s the first time I’ve driven in the dark, and I have trouble at first. I can’t see anything. It looks a lot darker from behind the steering wheel, and I say so. Dad just laughs. We’re four blocks down the road, and I realize I haven’t turned the headlights on. When I turn them on Dad says, “Way to go, dillydo.”

I ignore him and ask, “So where are we going?”

He doesn’t hear me. He’s fiddling with the window, which is stuck. He bumps it a few times with his elbow. It comes unstuck, and he puts his hand out the window. I ask him again where we’re going.

“I was thinking Mr. C’s, get a couple steaks.”

“Mr. C’s, are you sure?” Mr. C’s is the fanciest restaurant in town. I’ve only been there once. It was the best food I ever ate, but I’m worried I don’t have enough money in my wallet to cover the bill.

“Would you rather go to Subway?”

“No, Mr. C’s will be good.”

Inside the restaurant are vines growing all over the place, up the walls, and they’re real, not plastic. It’s like being in a jungle, pretty cool. While Dad’s looking at the menu, I slip my wallet out and check—I’ve only got twenty bucks.

The waiter takes our order, and Dad speaks up before I can say what I want. “We’ll take two of your tenderest filets, please.” I figure, we’ve come this far, we may as well go all the way. When the steaks come they practically fall apart. Mine’s nearly the consistency of chocolate. It’s so good.

We finish eating, and the waiter brings the bill. There’s a hundred dollar bill in Dad’s hand and he slaps it down on the table. He’s smiling. “We don’t need any change,” he says. “It’s my son’s birthday.”

“Really? You should have said so. Don’t go anywhere.”

In just a minute he returns with half a dozen other waiters. He’s carrying a huge piece of chocolate cake, which he places on the table in front of me. It’s mammoth. Then he and the others begin singing in Italian to the tune of “Happy Birthday.” All the people in the restaurant are looking at me. It’s kind of embarrassing, so I just look at the cake. Towards the end of the song Dad joins in the singing. He doesn’t know Italian and is just singing, “la, la, la.”

After the singing waiters leave I say, “Dad, you’re going to have to help me with this.” The piece is large enough for six people, I swear.

Dad shakes his head. “Nope, you’re the birthday boy. You’ve got to tackle that one yourself.”

I try. I don’t even come close. I’ve never had this much chocolate, ever. I’m so full it hurts. But the cake is so good. I’ve got so much sugar and caffeine in me that I’m a little buzzed. “Dad, please. You’ve got to help me.” More than half of the piece remains.

“No. Let’s take it home and you can share it with your mom and Scissor.”

“Good idea.”

“Okay. You ready? Wipe that chocolate off your face.”

I can’t believe it. The meal was fantastic. Best steak. Best cake. And Dad paid for it all. I’m thinking but I really can’t remember the last time I had such a good time with my father.

Back in the car, I start to drive home, but Dad points the other direction so we go that way. “Head for CVS on Third. I’ve got to pick something up.”

So he does have some cash. When we get there he says, “Park along the curb here. Here, come with me. We’ll be quick.”

In a town as small as ours you couldn’t really say there’s a bad part. But if there were, this would be it. The blue white fluorescent lights of CVS are the only bright spots along the road for blocks. There used to be a bunch of stores down here when I was a kid. Most of them have closed. Run-down apartments sit on top of abandoned shoe or electronic stores and about every third window has a sign that says For Lease or For Sale. A Styrofoam cup blows down the sidewalk.  A yellow street lamp flickers, and the wind is blowing.

Next to the CVS is a two-story brick building. Its front door is glass, and it’s rattling on its hinges from the wind. The word satori is written in purple letters across the glass. Dad points to that door. I look through and see a stairway, lighted from the top. “What’s this?” I ask.

“It’s a surprise.”

The door is unlocked and we head up the stairs. There’s a landing at the top. To the left is an apartment. A seam of light shows under the door. To my right is a dark wooden door with the purple letters. Dad knocks strangely on the door with light under it, knocking in a pattern.

I hear footsteps and the door opens. A woman with long brown hair stands in the doorway. Her breasts are nearly spilling out of her top, and I’m instantly stunned, trying without success to look anywhere but there.

“Is this the one,” she says.

Dad says, “He’s the one.”

My confusion about what is happening lasts only for a second before I’m horrified.

“No,” I say. I head for the stairs but Dad stops me with his hand on my shoulder.

“Not so fast, buckaroo.”

“Let me go.” I try to squirm free, but he’s stronger than I am. Always has been though I’m four inches taller. With his hand on my shoulder and the other in the small of my back, he twists me around and walks me into the apartment. It’s a studio, a bed against one wall, a small fridge and table and one chair against another. I don’t see a bathroom. Clothes are heaped at the foot of the bed.

The woman follows us inside. “Rex, I don’t know about this,” she says. “If he doesn’t want to . . .”

“Well, he does,” he says. “He’s just shy.”

She’s got her arms folded across her chest. “He’s just a kid.” She turns to me, “No offense, kid.”

Dad walks to the door. “Yesterday he was a kid. Today’s he’s a man.” He breaks out into a big grin, and he looks like someone I don’t recognize. “I’ll be waiting outside. It shouldn’t take little buddy too long,” he says.

I’m scared of Dad and I’m angry, but I’m more afraid of this. I start after him. “Dad, don’t do this.”

He turns around again. He’s not smiling. He sticks his finger in my chest. “Don’t make a bigger deal out of this than it is. I’m doing this for you.”

“Dad.” My voice cracks.

“You’ll thank me later, trust me.” he says and shuts the door behind him.

I don’t turn around to face the woman. It stinks in here. Like dirty plates left in the sink too long. I hear her move behind me. “I don’t want any trouble,” she says. “Let’s just get it over with.”

I just stand there, facing the door. I wonder if there might be something wrong with me. Maybe I am making too big a deal out of this. I imagine other boys my age, boys from school. It seems like they’d be happy about this, see it as an opportunity. But I don’t see it that way. I’ve been betrayed. More importantly, Mom’s been betrayed. Dad had been lying to all of us. This is where his money has been going. I think of Mom, stuck at home and miserable. Dad’s coming here isn’t why she’s sick, but in this moment, the two are connected. No way am I turning around and facing this woman, this old lady. After a few minutes, she says, “It’s probably been long enough. You don’t tell, I won’t tell.”

In the car on the way home Dad is driving, and the only thing he says to me is “Better keep this our secret. It’d break Mom’s heart to know what her boy was up to tonight. But you don’t need to worry. I won’t say a word.” It is an echo of what she had said, but I shake my head realizing that when my father says it, it means nearly the opposite. For the whole of the drive, my body burns with shame. And then anger at being forced to be shamed.

It’s late when we get home, and everyone’s in bed.

I’ve been crying a lot lately, and tonight the tears come easily. I put my pillow over my head so Scissor can’t hear. How do you live your whole life with someone and still not know them?

In the morning Mom and Dad are into it in the kitchen. She’s waving a bank statement at Dad and talking about being two thousand dollars overdrawn. I don’t want to hear it, and I go outside.

It’s Saturday, the day I normally get the most hours in at work, but I can’t handle it today. I’ll call in tomorrow. I just walk. I’m not headed anywhere. I’m thinking about last night and trying to make sense of everything. I’m aware that I’m both shocked and unamazed. Bewilderment at how Dad could do such a thing is answered by, because it’s Dad. I know what will happen if I tell Mom. Dad and Mom. They’re not a couple—they’re opposing forces.  I feel the weight of both of them, as if on a scale.

I’m still a bit in shock over last night. I can physically feel it, a numbness in my legs and arms, my hands. It was so stupid of Dad to bring me there. Didn’t he realize I would figure out that’s where he’s been spending his money? And it hits me, he wanted me to figure it out. But why? I can’t think of a good reason for his wanting me to know. The effort of walking is doing me good, so I keep going all the way to the end of town and back. There are a lot of people out. It’s a nice day.

It’s dinnertime when I get home and I’m starving, haven’t eaten all day. Scissor walks into her room as soon as I get in the kitchen where Mom is sitting at the table. It’s the first time she’s been out of her room in weeks. She’s got a huge smile on her face. A plate of tacos sits on the table and Mom motions to them. “Scissor made them. They’re good. Sit down, I’ve got the most wonderful news.”

I sit down and start eating. “Where’s Dad?” I ask.

Mom smiles again. “At work. Listen, I know you heard what’s going on this morning.”

“About the money?”

“Yes. I’m sorry you had to hear that. But you’ll never guess what your father did.”

“What did he do?”

“He came home from work at lunch and gave me this.” She lifted an envelope from her lap and opening it, pulled out a wad of cash. “All those extra hours he’s been putting in. There’s enough here to pay the account and have some left over. Isn’t that great?”

A piece of taco shell sticks in my throat. I swallow hard and it scrapes going down. “Just a second.” I go to my room and when I see the shackle of the combination lock unlatched I don’t have to look but look anyway and see the glass of the jar shining smooth and empty. My license is next to the jar where I put it last night. I feel the blood in my head and I’m almost dizzy. I’ve had enough. Dad’s gone too far. I know stealing my money isn’t as bad as what he did last night, but one thing after the other is more than I can take. I feel the weight again. One side slips. Wait, something in the jar. I grab it. Inside is a slip of paper. I take it out. It’s a note from Dad. “I never wanted to hurt your mother. But a man has needs. It’ll be our secret. I know you understand.”

I walk back into the kitchen and look at my mom. She’s sitting there, quietly smoothing out creases in the bills. Her hair is done up in a braid for the first time in I can’t remember how long. She doesn’t see me and I watch her stack the money on the table. My money. She starts to hum something and then she sees me. I open my mouth to tell her, but I stop. She smiles at me and keeps humming and I think, this is what I’ve bought.

 

___

After completing an MFA at University of Arizona, Jaren Watson moved back to Idaho where he was raised and now teaches creative writing and technical communication. Recently, his stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming with Terrain.org, Irreantum, Carve Magazine, and Furrow. Last year he had a piece nominated for a Pushcart Prize and this year he won second place in the twelfth annual Eugene England essay contest.


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