She says it’s a game. He’s asleep, he won’t notice if we take the remote from him and watch YTV. Baseball is boring and he started snoring fifteen minutes ago so it must be safe. So we crawl across the living room, our matching track pants loudly scraping the carpet, and reach the edge of his recliner. On either side of him, like bookends, we peek at each other over the arms of the chair. His breathing remains steady, with a soft snore every couple seconds. My sister smiles, signaling that it’s time to make our move. She reaches up over the arm and wraps her fingers tentatively around that all-important piece of plastic and batteries. I giggle and try to stay quiet as she begins to tug at the remote and it stays snug in Grandfather’s hands. His snoring stops and a smile breaks out on his ancient face. He cracks one eye open and says, “Betcha thought you could pull a fast one on old Gramps, didn’t ya?” and guffaws. His belly rolls and rumbles and my sister and I collapse in a fit of giggles on the carpet. He only makes us watch one more inning before he concedes control of the TV and lets us watch cartoons on his floor model.
Summer days in the house my grandfather built for his wife were spent playing with the horses next door and flinging army men with plastic parachutes, flying shopping bag kites in the brisk Atlantic air, stacking rocks together to form pretend computers and using cinder blocks as mailboxes. My sister and I never went into the shed, we weren’t allowed to play anywhere near the power tools so we’d pretend the shed was home to an evil, child-eating demon. If we so much as caught a glimpse of him, he’d devour our souls in one gulp. Sometimes we even believed it.
“The phone had plastic-covered keys that shone in the late afternoon sunlight. I squinted against it and tried to read the numbers. I had just started learning about numbers and could count from one to ten. On the small television, an episode of Land And Sea about the S.S. Kyle was turned down so low I could barely hear it.”
Jessie takes a breath and her pause goes on long enough for the others gathered in the room to wonder if she would continue speaking.
“We heard him coming up the driveway. Muttering, crashing into things – the drugs he was taking combined with the alcohol he’d drank at the bar had turned him into a mess. He stumbled into the house and lurched past the living room. I turned my attention from counting the numbers of the phone keys to him and called out, ‘Daddy! I love you!’
“He turned back and walked slowly into the living room, smiling but cold and unfriendly. ‘Oh yeah? Well… I don’t love you.’ Blinking, he headed back down the hallway to his room while I stood on the couch and wept with everything I had in me.
“What do you do when your own father tells you he doesn’t love you when you’re four years old? The thought buries itself so far into your head and adds itself to the cacophony of discordant voices inside that you no longer recognize it for what it was – a bad trip and too much to drink.
“So you find yourself wandering dark alleys long after midnight smoking too much and drinking just enough to keep the feelings crushed somewhere underneath your rib cage. For awhile it works out all right and you’re able to keep yourself going with a cocktail of caffeine in the morning and alcohol at night, but eventually the rug under your feet wears out so much it’s threadbare by the time life rips it out from under you. Finding beauty in the world or even a reason to get up at all is too difficult to try.
“Finding love is impossible, because who would want to love somebody unloved by her own father?”
The tears that threaten to spill over are not self-pitying, but burn with a rage that has stoked for twenty-two years. Jessie swallows hard and takes her place in the hard wooden chair. She surveys the room around her as she brings an unlit cigarette to her mouth with shaking hands.
She swore she’d never become a smoker. Not like him. But in group therapy, nobody dares to judge her.
“It’s a butterfly!” Becky held the pickle jar up to the porch light and peered inside. The grub Jess and Charlotte had been looking after all winter had shed its former skin and clung to the lid of the jar, tapping gently as if politely asking to be let out to fly around.
It was the first summer in the house on Neck Road. The winter had been cold and all the lights had gone out so Becky and the girls dragged their mattresses into the living room and shared the heat provided by a creaking and ancient kerosene heater. Jess kept trying to close the window that had been left open for ventilation so Becky had to sit her down and explain that without the window ajar, they would all suffocate and die. That did the trick and Jess satisfied herself by sitting furthest from the window.
Once the frost had melted and the power returned, they had waited out the rest of the winter in relative comfort. Eventually the ground had thawed as well and then Jess had made the tearful discovery of her little grub at the bottom of its jar, nothing more than an empty husk.
The storm door gave a mighty groan when Becky opened it and hustled the girls outside. She bent down to Jess and asked her if she was sure she wanted to set her friend free. “Yes,” the small girl answered resolutely. “Butterflies don’t belong in jars.” So she twisted the lid and opened it, letting the viceroy out of its glass prison. It flew high in the air before circling back to the girls. It circled twice more before taking off into the blue skies of a bright June Newfoundland morning.
Jess would talk nonstop of butterflies for the next couple of years, and even save a couple more from certain frozen deaths more than fifteen years later. Good deeds sometimes come in cycles.
(To be continued.)