Dad dropped his hammer and crossed the half-built platform. He seesawed down the tree house rope ladder, abandoning me up top. He’d spent vacation days hammering knotted wood, bending nails. “It doesn’t have to be perfect,” I called to him. “It could look like it belonged to the Lost Boys, built by Peter Pan.” The tree house was to be my hideout, a place where I could climb above his anger, which scared us both.
Dad moved his lawn chair into the shade as I hammered floorboards, trying to show him I could do it myself. I missed nails, pounded fingers.
“Son, I hope you’re having fun.” He raised his bottle of beer.
Mom left three years ago, days before I turned 9. At first, after she left, Dad only drank in the basement. Then he invaded the house, staggering around at all hours. It was my turn to retreat. I locked my bedroom door so he couldn’t enter. Not even when he was sober, not even as the Tooth Fairy after I lost my last tooth.
Dad emptied his beer, tucked his chin, and fell asleep. Shade receded, the sun reflected off his bald head. “This is why she left,” he used to say, rubbing his head. “When she met me I was handsome.” Then we’d laugh, still happy she was gone.
She bit her cheeks. That’s what I remember most about her. She sucked them in and bit so hard red drool spotted her pillow.
“Isn’t that nice for you,” she’d say sharply whenever anything good happened: soccer goals, honor roll, Little League championships.
Her mother died, left her everything, so she packed her bags. On my ninth birthday I drew a full breath to blow out the candles. Mom wasn’t there to stare at me with narrowed eyes.
Our happiness lasted until Dad cashed his sobriety chip and the drinking began. Without her shadow hanging over him, Dad saw everything else that was wrong: mounting bills, awful job. He told me he regretted how fast I was growing. My childhood was another opportunity he was wasting.
Dad slumped over in his lawn chair, his bald head crisping red. I wanted to wake him, and return to how things were before she left, when we were a team united against her. We whispered jokes, shot each other funny faces across the table, huddled in pajamas, TV on mute, bonded in our fear of waking her.
I flipped my hammer, prying nails to tick back time. One by one, I uprooted boards and tossed them. They thudded against the ground. I threw them closer and closer to him. Finally I clocked his kneecap. He dropped his beer bottle. He stood up so fast he knocked over his lawn chair. Then he flew up the ladder to meet me.
He grabbed his hammer, blocked the exit. I faced the edge of the remaining boards and pictured walking the plank, spraining an ankle, shattering a leg. I wanted it to hurt when I landed. He’d see me lying broken on the ground.
Dad caught my shoulder as I bent to leap. His fingertips curled under my collarbone in a way that let me know his strength. Dad never hit me, but he punched walls, threw plates. The first time I saw him angry was after I’d bumped the sugar bowl off the counter with my elbow.
The bowl hit the kitchen mat and bounced. Sugar spilled, but the bowl remained intact. Dad spiked it against the tile, screaming about the mess. Glass and sugar scattered everywhere. Years later, padding around with bare feet, I felt granules sharp and sweet in the grout.
“You’re always running,” he said. We stood closer than we had in months. His blood-shot eyes matched his sunburn. I noticed how sad he looked.
He released me, and I expected him to leave. Instead, he dropped to his knees and turned his hammer to pry nails.
“You used to be handsome.” I slapped his sunburnt head.
His grip bleached his knuckles. I waited for him to hit my toe, my shin, take revenge on my knee. I didn’t run. I knelt next to him, so close our shoulders brushed.