A squeak and a slam from the driveway made Mama drop her cigarette and turn her head toward the door. “Go to your room, honey,” she told Mason. They had been looking at some magazines together there on the floor. Mason wore a stained gray tee shirt but no pants, and Mama wore the same white shirt that Daddy wore too but his were larger. Neither had sleeves.
It was the middle of the day, and they’d only had lunch a little while earlier. All the fans in the house were on and Mama had opened some windows while Mason had eaten his cookies. His room, though, was dark with its thick blue curtains and busted overhead light. When Mama closed the door and told him to nap, the room became suddenly dark. The toys in his dark room didn’t seem like toys when he was sent there like this. Sometimes, Mama or Daddy or both yelled at him and would throw him in the room and slam the door. Other times Daddy would carry him in and toss him on the bed at night. Most of the time, though, Mama held his hand and they walked really slowly in. She’d sing to him a little. Yesterday she hummed because she had a cigarette. Today, though, no one did anything. He just had to go there and sleep.
But sleep doesn’t just happen like it does for Daddy. Daddy will say something about the shows he watches and will fall asleep while he’s still got his shiny blue can. Mama hates that and always used to yell at him and wake him up. Once, when he woke up, the full can fell right on Mason’s ashy blonde hair and the carpet. That made Ginger yip and yip.
In the few seconds he stood in his dark room, Mason thought about the way Mama had told him to go there. Her voice got sharp and scared. Maybe it wasn’t scared. Maybe it was just scared. Either way, it was never good for Mason. He’d heard it when he made messes or pounded the floor when he was mad. It was sometimes followed by Daddy coming in and giving him a good ol’ whippin’.
He stood in the center of his room and listened to Daddy enter and drop his keys into the smelly tray by the door.
“Why are you home?” Mama asked him. The wind sneaked into the gaps of his windows, making them rattle. He picked up a faded green plastic car and thought about the mintuature people that were supposed to fit inside it. But he was a little Shit and had lost all of them, he remembered. He ran the car along the floor and imagined engine sounds.
“Not now, Christine,” Daddy said.
“What did you just say?” Mama said in that same tone as before.
“Jesus fucking Christ, Christine! I said gimme a minute!”
With the car in his hand, Mason’s whole body jiggled at the sound of another door slamming. He wondered if it was the bathroom door or their bedroom door. It was definitely close-by for sure. Mason looked at his bed and thought about hiding under his blanket. Yesterday, when he’d spit out some candy, Daddy had grabbed him and tossed him meanly on the bed. Then he smacked his face.
They were mad about something again, which was weird because they usually only yelled at night.
Mama’s voice rang out. “If we need to talk, you better not be in there another half hour!”
Daddy yelled something back, but Mason couldn’t make out the words. He did hear Daddy slam the toilet seat and burst through the door. Mason thought about the crack in the wall where the bathroom door handle hits all the time. It’s the shape of a happy face.
“Christine, goddammit! I’m sorry. I had to take a shit. I didn’t know I had to give you a fucking play-by-play.”
“What happened? Why are you home?”
Mason heard one of the open a blue can. “Un-fucking-real,” Daddy snarled.
“What? I don’t get to know?”
“He’s in his room. Napping for about thirty minutes now,” Mama said.
Footsteps thundered toward Mason’s door.
Mama’s voice cam closer. “Don’t you dare go in there right now!” He heard her hand grab the gold handle.
“Why the fuck not?”
“You know it takes me forever to get him to sleep anymore.”
“Jesus.” His father’s feet hovered at the door, creating dark ovals.
Mama’s voice softened a little. “Did you talk to Jerry?”
“I talked to Jerry.”
“What’d he say?”
“He said no, didn’t he.” Mama wasn’t asking a question.
“He didn’t…shit. Yes. But he didn’t want to.”
“What does that mean?” Mama pleaded.
“I mean it kille him, Christine. To have to tell me that.”
“That’s three now, you know. Jimmy, Hank, and now–”
“I fucking know it’s three!” Daddy crushed his can in his hands.
Mama sighed and sat down on the creak in the couch. The shadows just outside Mason’s door drifted away, and he still held the green car.
“Don’t,” she said.
“What? Why not?”
“Get your fucking hands off me!” Mason heard her smack Daddy’s face and squeezed his eyes shut. He stepped backward toward his bed and clutched at the green car.
“Don’t start that shit with me, girl.”
“What are we gonna do? What can we do?”
“It always works out, baby,” Daddy said. Mason opened his eyes, smiled, and slowly eased onto his mattress. This was the part of their fights that he liked. Daddy always was the first to lower his voice and say something nice and sweet-sounding. He always called her “baby” at this point, which made Mason giggle.
She smacked Daddy’s knees, causing him to say, “Oww!”
“I can’t ask my parents, ya know,” Mama said.
She creaked off the couch again. It did that when people sat and when people stood up, but it was only on that one spot.
“He’s not going to let us stay here, Kenny!”
Daddy didn’t react at first. Mason listened as she stormed out of the room.
“Lemme just talk to him,” Daddy’s hollered, once she was in the kitchen. Mama didn’t respond. Drawers banged open and silveware rattled.
Daddy’s boots stomped through the room and toward the kitchen. Mason heard more sounds, but they were too far away to hear exact words.
In his solemn, blackened room, Mason rose from the mattress and stared at the unlit red lamp beside his bed. He pulled the frayed cord, which illuminated a small orb of space that spilled to the floor.
Mason stared at the chipped base of the lamp. One toenail size red flake was clinging to the lamp. A partially ripped train sticker he’d been given at the grocery store hovered above the dangling piece.
Their footsteps returned, but he did not turn off the lamp.
“I can get work, ya know,” Mama said.
“I can too.” Two more blue cans swooshed open.
“I mean, I can go back to the store, like, tomorrow. They always need help. I’ll start at minimum again, but it’s something.”
Somehow, Mason heard Daddy thinking.
“But who’ll be with him all day?”
One of the crushed another can. It was tossed onto the coffee table.
“Well,” Mama said. “Day care’s like $100 for the week. You got that lyin’ around anywhere?”
“Baby, I’m gonna get work.” Both of them huffed in succession. “It’ll take…two weeks for you to get paid. We’re already six weeks behind.”
“Six?” Mama half-yelled.
“Baby, I told you–”
“You told me last night it was three!” Mason pulled his thin pillow over his face.
“Christine! I’m gonna get work!”
“No one’s–” Mama stopped herself.
“No one’s what?” Daddy’s voice boomed.
“Just lemme call Gayle. She’ll probably let me come in Sunday. Those girls always wanted Sunday off, remember?”
Daddy slammed his can on the glass of the coffee table. “But we’re–”
Mama punched Daddy’s arm. It always sounded the same because she always hit him in the same spot. “Are you fucking serious right now, Kenny?” She smacked the couch pillow. “You want it so badly that you’ll let that boy starve so you can get high?”
On Sundays, when no one had a job to go to, Mason’s parents hung out with Ringo’s parents. Ringo was four, and the two of them got along really well. Once they were all in the same place, Mason and Ringo were sent to the bedroom to play so they could play their adult word games. When they were in Ringo’s room, he showed Mason the cigarette butts that he’d found throughout the house and put in a mason jar. Mason tried to explain it was not his jar every time they visited.
When they got really loud and laughy, Mason would look through the peephole and see Mama, Daddy, and Ringo’s parents all sip from the blue shiny cans at the same time. They laughed harder and harder the longer they watched TV, and the room became a little foggy once in a while. The other day, Mason told Daddy that he wanted to be bigger so he could drink from the blue cans and laugh with him. Daddy just shook his head and smirked.
Daddy liked to tell Mason his first word was “Hi!” Once, after Ringo and his parents left, Daddy said, “Can you say, ‘Let’s get high’?” After a fairly clear repetition in front of both of them, Mama laughed too, and Mason became addicted to making them both giggle at the same time.
Mason jarred back to the present when he heard both of them come back to the living room outside his door. “Kenny.”
Mason pictured Mama with her hand on Daddy’s leg. This happened all the time after they yelled. Sometimes, even after a big fight, they would wrestle and giggle. Once in a while Mama screamed louder and louder, and Mason thought she was scared, but then she’d always laugh a little at the end. Last week, Mason begged Daddy to wrestle, and they both began laughing really hard. He screamed in Daddy’s face, and Daddy threw him against the wall.
“Kenny,” Mama said again. “We’re not getting fucking lit anymore, ya know? We gotta quit that shit. Ya know, for now.”
“Shit” was the word Mason remembered saying just before Mama slapped his face harder than ever before.
“Gawd,” Daddy said. “You’re so right.”
Another can swooshed open. “Thing is…the shit’s already paid for, ya know. ‘Member? We used that one money to get it and paid Big Mike last week.”
“Oh, shit, you’re right,” Mama said. “Well…” she let out a small laugh.
It was the same small laugh she made when she had told Mason at lunch time that they would eat, but the refrigerator was empty. It was also the same laugh she made when Mason reported to her that there was no butt paper on the spinny in the bathroom. That day, he had to sit on the toilet until she came back from the store. Daddy couldn’t know she left, though. It was the day she taught him understand Secret.
“Yeah,” Daddy said. “You know Big Mike. He’s probably gonna tap into that stash if we don’t go over there by tonight. Won’t smoke it or nothin’, but he’d take a piece. Fucker.”
A few months earlier, after Ringo’s parents, Daddy, and Mama were done with their blue can game, Mason ran out of Ringo’s romo and called Daddy a Fucker. Daddy shot off the couch toward Mason, kicked one of the big table chairs out of his way, and caught Mason screaming the word relentlessly. Daddy squeezed a handful of hair on the back of his head and pushed his nose into Ginger’s poop on the floor.
“That little shit does that all over my goddam house, and I’m not gonna tolerate this little shit talkin’ to me like that!” Daddy yelled. Even though Mama secretly tried to clean off his nose, there remained a tiny sliver of dogshit just under his nose.
That night Mason picked out a book from a small pile in the corner of his room for Mama to read to him. Daddy had fallen asleep on the couch with a blue can on his belly. She held Mason in her lap and the book remained closed as she sang “I Scream, You Scream, We all scream for ice cream” over and over–each time making Mason smile.
“Do you wanna get some ice cream?” she asked him as Daddy inched toward the threshold and stood there. His belly hung below the stained white tee shirt.
Mason whispered “Yes” in her ear because he was getting tired.
“Okay. I’ll make Daddy go with you sometime.” This perked Mason up a little, and he flipped through several pages.
Daddy said, “You gotta start at the front.”
Mama said, “Kid’s fucking three, Kenny. He just likes the pictures.” Mason found the clown and the guy with the white beard and said “Beard.”
One of them crinkled another can and quickly opened another. “I gotta call Gayle.”
“Good fucking luck.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Mama raised her voice again.
“Phones’re fucking dead.”
There was no answer for Mason to hear. He found the green car and brought it toward his face on the mattress.
“Fuck!” Mama yelled. She threw something, and it hit and broke something glass.
“Jesus!” Daddy yelled. They both creaked off the couch.
“Oh shit,” Mama said softly.
“You fucking broke that frame, goddammit!”
Far from his room, Mason heard Mama again. “Shit! Honey, don’t! You’re going to cut–”
“I told you!” Mama said. Mason pictured her smiling a litte. She did this a lot whenever Daddy got hurt.
“Fuck you, you told me! You fucking did this! Least his picture’s not fucking broken.”
“Broken?” Mama asked.
“Torn. What the fuck. You know what I mean!”
Mama laughed a little more now. “Get some…nevermind. Go turn on the water. Cold. Numbs it.”
“I know, I know,” Daddy said in a faded way.
Mama sat there alone. “Goddammit, girl,” she said. “The one fucking picture you have of him.”
Mason lay in bed and stared at the chipped red paint on his beside lamp.