By Alyssa Lindley Kilzer
I don’t know when my Pa took his first drink, but as soon as Grampa died it seemed like the need was on him like a dog fighting, teeth bared at his throat. His eyes got desperate.
I guess I thought the need would fade. I gave him months, and then a year, to get over it. But it just got worse. One day the thought came into my head that it wasn’t even about Grampa anymore. He was just an angry, good-for-nothing drunk, and the old Pa I used to know was gone.
I tried to push that thought out of my mind, but the evidence was there in front of me, everyday. I’d come home from school and he’d already be tanked-up, barely able to stand and sprawled out on the sofa. His bottle caps were building up like fingernail clippings on all the counter-tops and in the corners. There was always more booze in the fridge than food and my sleeping was set to the sounds of Pa talking to himself and yelling at people that weren’t really there. I think he was reliving moments that hadn’t gone how he wanted. He was putting wrong conversations right, telling people what he really thought of them. But one thing was for sure, he was living in the past and dragging me and Ma somewhere in between. Nobody knew what he was talking about, and I think if I had flat-out asked him, he didn’t really know what was going on inside his head, either. Another year passed and he had sunk more and more into his pretend life. There was nothing I could do to get him to notice Ma and me like he used to.
If it had just been that, maybe I could’ve up and left, found a way out of the valley on my own. But starting in ’73, after Pa had been drinking non-stop for two years, he couldn’t go a day without the stuff. He crashed the truck one night and that was a big problem. That truck was his lifeline to the outside world. He had to get booze delivered by his friend in town. Every three weeks he’d bring in a whole bunch of quart size jugs of make-your-own wine and some crates of beer.
But see, Pa was no good at pacing himself. There always came a night before the delivery when was down to his last few beers and it wasn’t enough to keep him under. That’s when he’d go into his rages.
It was like he was angry that we’d woken him from his long, deep sleep. He had fire on his breath and in his eyes. I think, deep down, he was angry at himself because in that moment of half-clarity, he realized how he’d turned his back on his family. The house was a mess, that was probably the first sign. We didn’t know that man and we couldn’t look him in the eye. I’d like to say he was angry at himself, but maybe it really was just the booze drying up from his bones and bringing him back to the world, where he didn’t want to be. Either way, first he took it out on the house, and then on Ma.
He’d start by opening and closing cabinet doors hoping he was going to find a bottle of liquor that had appeared there since the last time he looked. When he didn’t find anything he’d start slamming doors and opening and shutting drawers real hard, shaking them in their frames. He’d kick the wall and shout. Once he even threw a chair, and for weeks it was stuck half-way through the sheet rock in the living room. But every time, as soon as he laid eyes on Ma, and believe me she’d try to hide, he’d start yelling something about her poor white trash family, about how she was a good-for-nothing whore and her getting pregnant was the only reason they got married in the first place. He blamed everything on Ma those nights, and usually he’d start shoving her around by midnight.
He’d gotten real skinny with all the drinking, but he still had rock hard knuckles. I could hear the crack of them, sometimes against the wall and sometimes on Ma’s face, as I lay in bed those nights. I tried to pretend it was just a shouting match I heard, and not a full-out fight. It made me sick to my stomach that it was happening. I was sick with shame that I didn’t do anything about it, and sick with fear because I wasn’t sure what would happen if I went out there in the middle of it. Of course I wanted to do something, but I was scared. I was scared we’d have to run from him and we didn’t have a car or any way to get out of the valley. Neither Ma nor me had any kind of money. He had everything from Grampa dying and we had nothing but that house.
So when Richard gave me the money, it changed things. It was like I was snapped out of a dream and I knew just what I had to do. I knew I had to do it quick or else I might change my mind.
I left Richard’s and walked up the steep road toward my house. I had one hand on the cash in my pocket and as I walked I wondered about how much he had given me, and what I would be coming home to. It was getting near delivery time and Pa would most likely be sitting at the kitchen table nursing one of his last beers, his eyes waking up all over again to the house and the family he had been destroying. I felt that familiar dread turning my stomach like rotten milk and my throat started to hurt, thinking about what he might be saying to Ma right that minute. I stomped my feet into that cold dirt road and didn’t stop once to catch my breath or count the money. I just hoped that it was enough.
I approached the house in the dark. In my head I pictured the shotgun behind the front door. I already knew what the stock would feel like on my shoulder, and it seemed easy. But then as I crossed the front lawn I remembered being a kid playing ball in the yard with Pa. I thought of the first time he took me deer hunting in the valley and taught me how to shoot. All these ghosts were dancing around me—myself when I was younger, and that old Pa that I missed. I stood still, almost touching them, wishing I could be back there with them. I forced myself to face the house. It looked so old and sad like something I didn’t even recognize. That kid and his dad that I remembered, it felt so close to me, a part of me, I could almost hold on to it. But it was all gone because Pa had taken it away. I couldn’t be the person I wanted to be as long as he was around. I felt that deep down and it made me so angry.
“This is my house,” I said out loud. “My house.” My voice sounded strong in the night air and I was so tired of Pa living there and taking every little shred of happiness away from us.
I pushed the front door open and just ahead in the living room was Pa, holding Ma by the shoulders and slamming the back of her head into the floor, over and over again. I hadn’t expected to see that so early in the night but it sure made it easier. I reached with one hand for the shotgun behind the door and clicked the safety off. Pa turned and saw me there, the barrel pointing right at his head. Ma laid her head down on the floor and closed her eyes. Her bottom jaw was hanging off her face like a door off its hinges, the back of her hair all bloody. A piece of her had been knocked loose permanent.
He tried to stand and staggered. He kept one hand on the sofa to steady himself. He got a look in his eye that I’d only ever seen before when hunting deer. It was the look a deer gets when they see the gun and know they’re going to be shot. Their eyes widen and their nostrils flare up and sometimes they don’t even try to run. He was one of those. He didn’t say anything or try to come at me. His pupils got real big and he didn’t move a muscle. One thing is, I wish I could’ve known how drunk he was. Like was he thinking of that time we went deer hunting too, and how he taught me to shoot when I was just six? Was he mad at me or did he want to say sorry, or was he still in that drunk place where I could never be? That’s just one of those things I’ll never know because then I pulled the trigger and his brains blew out.
I’ll never forget the sound, the loudest gunshot I’ve ever heard because it went off inside the house, with nowhere for the sound to carry. It rang in my ears for hours, days. The house wasn’t mine afterwards, like how I thought it would be. His blood sprayed up the wall behind him in a cloud and chunks of his bone mixed in with the dirty old carpet, already beer and piss-stained from him. He fell sideways and his eyes were open, blank. It all went still for a long while before I saw Ma there on the floor, crying, dragging her fingers through his hair.
“You’ve gotta call the police.” Ma said eventually. “He’s dead.”
I called it in myself. I gave the money to her before they took me away.
I’m not sorry that I did it. I don’t think there was anything else I could’ve done.