Monday, Jan. 27, 1987
I was in a foul mood at dinner that night.
After tearing my hard work apart and making me feel like an idiot about my report on Zadok, Mr. Gilman made me go with him to the office to call Mrs. Cooke. She agreed right away to meet with me after school the next day at the town library, and she seemed to know what was going on before I really explained it.
I imagined Mr. Gilman on the phone with her earlier in the day, pleading the case for his simpleton student who didn’t know what history was or how to write a decent report. She’d probably laughed and clucked sympathetically at my pathetic attempt, agreeing right away to help his poor student get back on the right track.
When I left school, I felt three inches tall.
Mom was in a great mood when I got home. The best I’d seen her in since Christmas. I didn’t want to ruin it, so I fake-smiled my way through my post-school snack and went to my room to sulk until supper.
Solitude didn’t help my situation, though, and by the time Dad got home a little after 6, I was just plain cranky. Dad wasn’t any better than me. He grumbled at Mom and me before going to take his shower, but that was it. Meanwhile, Mom cooked away in the kitchen, humming a cheery tune.
“Dinner’s ready!” she called a few minutes later.
Dad leaned out of the bathroom doorway with shaving cream on half his face.
“Don’t give anyone a chance to get ready,” he snapped.
Mom’s face fell a bit.
“It’s not … it’ll wait ’til you’re finished, hon,” she said. “I was just letting you know.”
I went into the kitchen and plopped down on my chair.
“What’d you make?”
“Shepherd’s pie. With the cream corn like you and Daddy like. And I picked up some fresh rolls from the general store. And I bought a Pepperidge Farm chocolate cake for dessert.”
“Cake? Why? What’s there to celebrate?”
At best, cake was a treat for birthdays and maybe a couple special occasions each year. And it was usually a box cake, not one of the fancy freezer ones.
“It’s just something special. That’s all,” she said, grinning.
Dad came out of the bathroom in his bedtime sweatshirt and sweatpants. He sat in his recliner and turned the TV on.
“Aren’t you going to come in here and eat?” Mom asked.
“I ain’t hungry. I just wanna watch the news and go to sleep.”
“But I made a special supper. I even–”
“Oh Christ,” Dad grumbled. “I’ll come and eat your dinner. Just gimme a second.”
I felt my stomach clench into a ball when Dad snapped at Mom. They hardly ever argued, and it made me even gloomier. As Dad stomped over to the table, I thought of a diversion to take the heat off Mom and put it on me.
“I got my report back today,” I said quietly as I scooped some shepherd’s pie onto my plate. “The one about Zadok.”
“Oh. Already?” Mom asked. “Isn’t that pretty early?”
“Yeah,” I said. “But I didn’t get a grade. Mr. Gilman wants me to do it over. He said I didn’t do it right.”
Dad gave me the hairy eyeball as he took the serving spoon from me.
“What you mean you didn’t do it right? Did it have enough pages?”
“Did you write it in complete sentences and paragraphs?”
“Did you write about the history of Comfort Rock?”
“Weeeeelllll … sort of, I guess. Mr. Gilman thinks I didn’t do a good enough job putting Zadok’s stories into the … what did he say? Contrast? No … con … context! He said the stuff Zadok told me didn’t have context.”
Dad pounded a fist on the table.
“Bruce! Calm down,” Mom said.
He shook his head.
“No. I knew she shouldn’t be talking with that goddamn fool up there. He filled her head with nonsense, and now she’s taking blame for it. I oughta go up there and set him straight on a few things.”
I shook, hearing Dad talk that way. It was so unlike him. I couldn’t understand how a school report could upset him so much. I’d gotten bad grades on other stuff, and he’d always given me a talking to about it, but never anything like that.
Mom put a hand over Dad’s.
“I don’t want you talking that way,” she said. “I’m sure Lauren’s going to take care of the situation and make it better. Right, La La?”
I nodded. I’d forgotten about my rotten mood and hurt feelings and wanted to just make everything better at the supper table.
“Yeah. I’m meeting with some lady tomorrow. Mrs. Cooke. She’s gonna help me figure out how to use my interview with Zadok and make a better report. It’ll be ok. I promise.”
“See, Bruce? It’s fine. Now let’s settle down and have a nice supper, ok?”
Dad shook his head and started to eat. On the third forkful, he looked at Mom.
“Where were you today?”
“Here most of the day,” she said. “Why?”
“Weren’t here when I was.”
“Oh! I was at the store. I have some good news about that.”
“Well, while you were at the store, I was here trying to get some lunch before I drove all the way into St. Albans for a damned gutter cleaner part. You weren’t here, though, so I had to spend money on lunch at McDonald’s.”
“Couldn’t you have made yourself a sandwich? I don’t think you had to go out for lunch.”
He closed his eyes and shook his head again.
“I’ve got enough frickin’ stuff going on around here, I’m not gonna come home and play chef when you should have somethin’ ready for me. And Lauren called from school, and you weren’t here.”
Mom’s eyes were wide, and her face was contorted in confusion.
“It’s not the first time I’ve gone out during the day, Bruce. I don’t understand where this is coming from. I know things are stressful right now, but you’re not acting like yourself.”
“Don’t tell me how to act, Melanie,” Dad said, pointing an accusing finger at Mom.
I felt like I might throw up. Everything was going topsy turvy on me. For the first time in my life, but not the last, I felt like I didn’t know my own father.
Tears welled up in Mom’s eyes, and I could see her fighting to hold them in.
“Bruce, please. I went down to see Walden at the store. With everything going on with the farm, I thought maybe it would be good to see about getting some work, and Lauren told me the store might be hiring someone to help out.”
Dad shot up from his chair, knocking it over backward.
“You ain’t workin’ at the store!” he yelled. “I can provide for my own. You’ve got plenty to occupy you here, and Walden and Wilson can take care of themselves. What in the hell possessed you–”
Mom was crying now. I thought I might die.
“Stop it, Bruce. Please. It’s so hard to see you like this. You haven’t been yourself since Derrick started talking about the buyout. I just want to make things a little easier. It’s just a part time job. Four hours a day, Monday through Friday. Please.”
“What’s a buyout?” I asked before I realized I was saying anything.
“A buy-out is none of your business,” Dad said, sitting back down.
Mom rubbed Dad’s arm gently, like she was trying to calm down an angry cat.
“We may as well tell her, Bruce. She sees the toll this is taking on you. And now it’s out in the open. It’ll just eat at her if we don’t.”
Dad stared off into the distance, chewing a mouthful of shepherd’s pie. He sighed.
“This is a hell of a situation you’ve created,” he mumbled. “Fine. This damn buyout … it’s a … well, someone came to Derrick … to Mr. Rochester, that is, someone from the state. There’s this plan to buy up dairy herds around Vermont to cut down on milk production. Other states, too, I guess. And Mr. Rochester’s lookin’ into this stupid idea, thinkin’ of maybe selling off his cattle.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I expected gravity to give out next.
“But that means …”
“I know, La La,” Mom said. “We both know. It’s a tough, scary time right now.”
“Why didn’t you tell me before?”
“Because you shouldn’t worry about such things,” Dad said. “And neither should your mother. Because when she does, we end up with her getting foolish ideas like workin’ over at the store.”
Mom squeezed her temples.
“Bruce, will you please stop? We can talk about this another time when things are calmer.”
Dad’s fist hit the table again.
“No. We’ll talk about it now since it’s all hanging out in the open anyway. You’re not working at the store, and that’s that.”
Mom stood up this time.
“Bruce. I put up with a lot. I put up with you working yourself to exhaustion. Your getting up at 4 in the morning and coming home at 6 in the evening, maybe even later. The bitching and moaning about every single thing that goes wrong.”
I could’t believe Mom swore. Even more, I couldn’t believe she did it in front of me.
“But I will not,” she continued, “put up with you being my boss. You’re my husband, and I love you, but you don’t own me, and you don’t get to make my decisions for me. We can talk about it and come to an understanding, but you do not and will not tell me what to do.”
Dad glared at the table.
“I do this time.”
“No you don’t,” she said. “If this is the extent of our discussion, then I’ll make the choice myself. I’ll go down to the store first thing in the morning and tell Walden I’m taking the job. I agreed – no, we agreed, Bruce – when Lauren was born … I’d stay home to raise her while you worked, and then when she was old enough, I’d get a job of my own. WE agreed. You and me.
“And now Lauren’s wandering around town, interviewing Zadok, planning the Christmas concert, spending time with friends. She’s old enough to be out of the house unsupervised.”
She paused and looked at Dad, waiting for him to pay attention. He kept his gaze down.
“I think I’ve earned the right to be out of the house sometimes, too.”
Dad didn’t say a word. He stood up, carried his plate over to the sink, and let it drop. I heard the plate shatter as it hit the porcelain basin. Without looking at Mom or me, he went into the living room, put on his barn boots and jacket, and left.
I don’t know how long he spent in the barn that night, and I don’t know if Mom does, either. We both cried ourselves to sleep before he came back in.
I don’t remember if we ever ate that cake.
To be continued …
THE COMFORT ROCK CHRONICLES IS AN ONGOING SERIES OF SHORT STORIES ABOUT A FICTITIOUS VERMONT TOWN, AN AMALGAM OF ALL NORTHWEST VERMONT HAS TO OFFER. COMFORT ROCK HAS BEEN GROWING IN MY HEAD FOR WELL OVER 20 YEARS. I REALLY LIKE THE FOLKS WHO CALL COMFORT ROCK HOME, AND I HOPE YOU DO TOO.