Randal didn’t know that it wasn’t normal to wait until your father got home from the bar before you could have dinner.
It wouldn’t be until he was 12 years old, when he spent an evening at his friend’s place — and Randal casually asked when his dad got home from the bar — that he figured it out.
“You mean, work?” his friend asked.
His friend’s dad eventually came home (from work) at around 6. Randal couldn’t remember the last time his own father had ever been home that early.
There was a time limit to this waiting, though, at his own house. At 8 o’clock on the dot, his mom would serve two dishes at the dining room table and Randall’s stomach would knot. It always meant a fight would break out when his dad did finally get home.
(For years, he just assumed the fights were because his dad was late. He was in high school before he really understood what his mom was mad about.)
One such night happened when Randal was 7 years old. He was starving, but he knew better than to let his mother know that. He’d once asked for a snack to tide him over until his dad came home from the bar. His mother promised they’d eat soon, and, even though his father got home by 7:45, the argument that erupted from the table was enough to ruin his appetite.
But that day, at 8:00, his mother set down two plates of food. She stared down the empty placemat as if it had offended her, as if it itself was the reason why there was no dinner plate on top of it. Randal washed his hands and joined his mother and nibbled tentatively. He could only hope that his father wouldn’t come home until after they had finished their food. He just wanted to have enough time to clear his plate and get to his room. That’s all he could hope for, at this point.
At 8:07, he heard the screen door open from behind the closed wooden door. He could hear the attempt at the doorknob and, when the doorknob jiggled but didn’t turn, Randal could hear the jingle of keys. Randal put his fork down the second the front door opened and his father stepped inside.
Randal looked over at his mother, whose lips had puckered tightly into a small dot. She held her fork in one hand and her knife in the other, forearms pressed against the edge of the table. Randal knew this position very well. He knew what would happen next.
As predicted, his mother threw her fork and knife onto the plate, the clattering filling the room with sound. Randal looked over at his father, who had been shimmying off his coat, but had now paused to roll his eyes.
Randal’s mother stood up and turned to face the door.
Randal’s father glanced down at his watch.
“By five whole minutes.”
“I told you, if you’re not home by 8, I start dinner — without you.”
Randal’s father sighed and hung up his coat in the closet.
“Couldn’t even wait 5 minutes, I see,” he replied.
“Oh don’t you start that with me!” Randal’s mother’s voice had first been a tense kind of calm, the kind that could be broken with just a few words. And now, with the pretense shattered, his mother started screeching. “Don’t you dare start that with me!”
“Calm down, calm down,” said Randal’s father. “I’ll just heat my food up in the microwave and join you. No harm, no foul.”
“You are not welcome at the dinner table tonight!” his mother yelled. “If your bar buddies are so important that you can’t get home at a reasonable time, then why don’t you take your plate over to their houses!”
“Bet I’d get a better reception,” his father muttered, losing his footing slightly, placing a hand on the couch to right himself.
“Or, better yet, just stay at the bar and have dinner there! Why bother coming home at all?”
“God, you’re always on my case.” Randal’s father’s voice had not changed in pitch or volume since he came home. Still reserved, almost monotone in his delivery. “And you wonder why I drink.”
“The nerve of you!” she yelled back. “Well I sure hope you enjoyed your liquid dinner, like you enjoy it every single night!”
“Tell me again how many bills you pay in this house,” his father replied, tone still cool. “Or what time you get up in the morning to go to work. How long is your commute, again?”
Randal’s mother stammered for a moment, her face getting redder. She clenched her fists, threw them in the air, and slammed them towards the ground.
“I hate you! I hate you, Roger! I hate you so much!”
Randal’s mother stomped away from his father and down the hall. Randal could hear her footsteps echo off the walls, before hearing her bedroom door slam shut. The act made the whole house shake (or, at least, it felt like it did).
Randal had stayed at the table during everything, looking down at his plate. He wanted to stay small — as small as possible, forgotten by both parents, but especially his mother, in case she felt like using him as a bargaining chip. He looked up and watched his father shuffle over to the kitchen, pull a dish from the cabinets, prepare himself a plate, and join Randal at the table.
“What a nice evening, huh, my boy?” he said with a wink as he sat down. He lightly stabbed at his mashed potatoes before scooping them up with his fork.
Randal could only nod.
“Hey, kiddo, nothing to be frightened about. It’s Daddo, remember?” his father said, tilting his head to get into Randal’s line of site. “The worst is over. Your mom will cool off by the morning.”
Randal nodded again.
His father sighed and prodded at the green beans.
“Your mother, though. Sheesh,” he said, before bringing the green beans to his mouth. With his mouth full, he added: “If I’da known she’d be like this, I never would’ve married her.”
His father took a hard swallow and said: “But then, of course, you wouldn’t be here, now would you? So it’s not all for naught. I guess I’d still marry her, but, y’know, save up for a good divorce lawyer, from that first date onwards. You get what I mean?”
“Are you going to divorce Mom?” Randal asked.
“No, no, kiddo. I’m not divorcing your mom,” his father said. “Not like I’d have the money to, anyway. But could you blame me if I did? I mean, look at your mom. She drives me insane, and not in the good way.”
Randal said nothing. He picked up his fork and slowly jabbed the mashed potatoes, watching the food slide off his fork each time he lifted it up.
“Let that be a lesson for you, kiddo. If a woman drives you crazy in the good way when you’re young, she’ll drive you crazy in the bad way when you’re older.”
“How do women drive you crazy in the good way?” Randal asked.
“Oooh, well, kiddo — that’s for another time. Tell you what.” His father chuckled and began cutting his chicken. “It’s been a long time since your mom drove me crazy in the good way. Or even just…” His father sighed and rested his elbows on the table. “Okay, let it be known that I’ve been a faithful man. I ain’t never once cheated on my wife. Not once. But that’s just lack of opportunity, I’ll tell you that. Tell you what: the second a beautiful woman walks into Murphy’s and allows me to buy her a drink… and it won’t even be my fault. I’m a man. No one would be able to blame me. I haven’t gotten laid in over three years. That’s just inhumane.”
“What’s gotten-laid?” Randal asked.
“Aaah, kiddo. That’s for another time, too. I’m getting a little loose-lipped, as they say. You know that’s how I am sometimes. A few drinks and I’ll tell the whole world my story, which reminds me…” Randal’s father got up from the table, walked to the kitchen, and opened the fridge. He pulled out a beer and made his way back.
“And — you know what? — maybe I do drink a little more than I should. But, can you blame me? I mean, look at your mother. If you had a wife like her, you’d drink, too.” Randal’s father paused and took a swig. “But, look at me, blabbering away again. How was school?”
“Good,” Randal replied. “We had baseball practice.”
“Ah, good to see you’re still at it!” said his father. “Gonna be the next Babe Ruth? Make those millions and let your dad retire early?”
Randal shrugged. He loved baseball, and he daydreamed about being in the major leagues, but at that very moment he couldn’t remember any of the passion he had had for the sport.
“Grades are still good though, right?”
“Good to hear as well. ’Cause, y’know, even if you make it big, you’re nothing without your noggin.” His father tapped his temple. “Your education takes priority. How are your friends?”
“Good, good, good. Second only to your noggin are your friends. You need them in life. Always need your friends.”
His father took another swig before looking at Randal’s plate.
“What, kiddo, not hungry?”
“Well, that’s all right. Ain’t never gonna make you clean your plate. Not like your mom. But put some clingwrap on it, or something. It’ll make a good midnight snack.” With his own plate half-full, his father got up from his seat again. “Probably will do the same, myself.” He brought his plate out to the kitchen. Without pausing to wrap it, his father placed the plate in the fridge and finished his beer.
“Probably gonna be sleeping on the couch tonight, but I ain’t sleeping in my work clothes. Tell you what…” He paused and sighed. “Well, time to face the dragon again.”
Randal stayed at the table as his father disappeared to the other side of the house. He got up only when he could hear his mother’s voice again, a sound like a wounded cat, her words barely decipherable. He stood, picked up his plate, and walked to the kitchen. He scraped the rest of his food into the trash barrel and went outside into the backyard.
Five years later, he would have dinner with Eric, his friend and the team’s pitcher, and Eric’s family – but before that, he would get red in the face after bringing up the bar.
“Your dad’s not a drunk, or nothing, right?” Eric asked as if it were an addendum to his assertion that they were waiting for his dad to come home from work. “Only drunks go to bars.”
“No. I just thought your dad went to the bar, is all.”
“Are you saying my dad is a drunk?”
“No, not at all. Forget I said anything. It’s stupid.” And that night, at a dinner served at 6:30, with Eric and his sisters and his mom and his dad all around the table in the kitchen, Randal could feel a familiar knot in his stomach. And as the evening turned to night, as Eric’s mom and dad and sisters settled around the TV in the family room, Eric’s mom busy knitting, but her feet intimately up on Eric’s dad’s lap — as Randal waited for his mother to pick him up to take him to the apartment she had just moved into (“I’m not moving out; it’s just for nights when we all need some space.”), he knew none of it was normal, and he’d have to wait a little while longer before piecing things back together again.