I was in the dining room part of the kitchen doing my math homework at the table when the lights suddenly blinked off. Everything else in the house stopped working too. The numbers on the microwave’s clock disappeared. The fridge stopped making the wheezy noise it usually makes.
Then my mom, over in the living room, started picking on my dad for no good reason. As far as I could tell, he was just sitting on the couch, drinking a beer and watching TV, like he usually does after dinner. “Winding down,” he calls it. Ever since he wrecked his cab, he’s been winding down a lot. But the accident wasn’t his fault, and he’ll get another job soon. He always does. He’s just taking a break for a little while.
Anyway, I couldn’t see either of them because of the lights being off, but I could hear everything they said. There weren’t doors or walls between the downstairs rooms in our row house. The flooring just changed color every ten feet or so. You knew you were out of the kitchen/dining room and into the living room when the fake-brick linoleum stopped and the pale blue carpet started. Then you were out of the living room and into the front room when the blue carpet changed to brown. That was how a lot of row houses were in Baltimore, like tunnels.
So, really, we were all in one long, dark room together when Mom snapped, “Jim! You didn’t pay the power bill again?”
Dad didn’t answer her. He does that sometimes, tunes out, though I can never tell if he’s daydreaming or just pretending not to hear her. She kept going on about how she was “sick of it all.” She said she was too tired to even talk about it anymore, but then she kept talking. She called him selfish. She said he was a child. She went on and on, and none of it made much sense to me. It was just a big list of angry. Her voice got madder and louder until at last she was yelling when she said, “If you can’t handle the bills right now, could you maybe at least handle the dishes?”
Even though it was pitch-black in the room, I squeezed my eyes shut. I laid my head on the table, on my math book.
She stopped yelling and got quiet. Everything was dark and quiet when she said, in a smaller voice, “I’m sorry, Jim,” and “I hate this,” and “I love you, but . . .”
I squeezed my eyes tighter.
Then Mom started crying.
I just sat in the dark dining area with my head on my book. Partly because I absolutely didn’t want to go in there, but also partly because it was so dark I was afraid I’d trip over a chair or something. I just sat, hunched over. I smelled the musty paper of the math book and listened to Mom cry. It was hardly the first time they’d had a fight in front of me, but things didn’t usually get so bad.
After a while, Mom stopped and kind of whispered, “You know, Jim? I could do this . . . just as easily . . . without you.”
There was a pause after that; then Dad said, really, really softly, “Oh . . . could you?”
Mom sucked in a quick breath, like it hurt her, and she said, “Yeah. Easier even.”
Dad sat there, I guess, doing nothing. That was what it sounded like. It sounded like nothing.
Mom took another breath, a slow one this time, and asked, “Did you hear what I said? Did you hear me? Aren’t you going to say anything?”
I opened my eyes. She sounded calm, too calm. Something was really wrong.
Dad, not yelling or crying--because he pretty much never yells or cries--said, “What do you want me to say, Annie?” He sounded grim. He was talking through his teeth. I heard him take a big wet sip of his beer before he said, “You think I like the way things are any better than you?”
She didn’t answer him.
I couldn’t stand it after that. It was totally dark and quiet. I’d never been anywhere so still as that room. It was like I was waiting in the back of a closet, sitting on lumpy shoes. Only there was no door to open, nothing I could do to get out. I’d never listened so carefully to something I didn’t want to hear.
Then two things happened at the same exact time.
The lights came back on.
And upstairs, in his room, my little brother, Lew, started crying.
“Mama?” he was saying. “Daddy?”
I looked over into the living room. With the lights back on, I could see everything clearly again. My parents were just frozen there, like statues. Lew kept crying.
I stood up. I made myself walk. I kept my eyes on my feet. Even so, out of the corner of my eye I could see Mom leaning against the side of the recliner, still wearing her blue scrubs from work, her arms limp and her face all wet. Dad was sitting on the couch, staring past her at the blank TV. He looked sad too, but also, weirdly, he looked a little like he wanted to smile. I guess maybe that was because now everyone knew he had paid the power bill.
I didn’t say anything to either of them, and they didn’t say anything to me. I walked as fast as I could through the living room and headed up the stairs to Lew. Poor kid. He wasn’t even three years old yet. He had no idea what was going on.
When I got upstairs, Lew was in his crib, holding the bars really tight. His face was red, but when he saw me, he stopped crying. I lifted him out. He can climb out himself, but he doesn’t usually do it. We sat on the floor, and I held him and rocked while he sucked his thumb. He smelled like dirty hair and peanut butter. I thought about singing a song but didn’t. Eventually, he fell back asleep in my lap, and I laid him on the floor, because I knew I’d wake him up putting him into his crib. My arms aren’t long enough, so I always have to drop him the last foot, deadweight, and he wakes up. Instead I just covered him with a blanket.
That was near the end of October.
From the Hardcover edition.