My mother-in-law’s coworker, Sarah, is on the evening news. A passenger in a nearby car videoed her Toyota Camry swerving back and forth on the highway during last night’s commute. We watch as three cars box the Camry in the left-hand lane and slow it to a stop on the side of the Glenn Highway. The lead vehicle is a big pickup. A guy jumps out. He walks over to the Camry and leans down next to Sarah’s window like a police officer. The whole thing looks and sounds like one of those cop shows. The newscast cuts to a real police officer, warning people not to do this. “These folks were lucky,” he says. “Tactical driving is the job of the police, not the general public.”
My mother-in-law—Vickie—fills us in on the gossip from her end. “She wasn’t there at 9 o’clock this morning, but no one thought much of it because it’s Sarah and Sarah is special. But when the 10 o’clock staff meeting came and went, Michael, my boss, said somebody should go check on her. See if she’s dead or in jail.”
We are all standing in the living room—Vickie, my father-in-law George, my wife, Kay, and me. This is how we watch the news every night—like we have more important things to do, but before we do them, we’re just going to check to see what’s happening in the world and if this Geico commercial is funny.
“I guess it turned out jail,” I say.
“She screwed up big time this time,” says Vickie. “I don’t know if she can keep her job.” Vickie is a senior coordinator for the Anchorage School District’s meal program. Sarah is the nutritionist.
I ask Vickie where exactly Vodka is on the food pyramid.
“She has to drive from one school to another. How’s she going to do that if she has a DUI?” she says.
“Easy,” I say. “Bus pass.”
Kay stares at me. Her eyes tell me, “I put up with you so others don’t have to.” Kay thinks I’m funny—but more in the clinical sense. She doesn’t laugh, but she tells me sometimes, “You’re a funny man.”
“What I want to know…” says George. The TV is bolted to the wall above our fake fireplace. He is closest to it, with his arms folded. “Who bailed her out?”
“I don’t know,” says Vickie. “She’s out now.”
“I wouldn’t bail her out,” he says. “No way. Not for drunk driving.”
Several weeks ago at dinner, George told my wife’s nine-year-old son that if he ever goes to jail, not to waste a quarter calling him. “I will not bail you out,” he told him. “If you are in jail, you are in there for a reason.”
Tonight, my daughter is at her mother’s, and Kay’s boys are at their father’s. With our schedules as they are, this happens every two weeks or so. The house is mildly disorganized, both by messes we have forgotten to tell the kids to clean up—kids-sized socks, scraps of homework, dishes and cups peeking out from under furniture—as well as our own messes which we neglect when there’s nobody to set an example for. We are left only with Vickie and George and some barbecued chicken.
At dinner, I try to make up for my flippancy during the newscast by being academic. “I don’t think you can get fired for a DUI, if you aren’t at work,” I say. “I mean if driving is not part of your job description, what business is it of theirs what you do?”
Vickie doesn’t say anything. She is busy eating. Then I realize I’m missing the point. We are supposed to be harboring the same ill will towards Sarah that she does. She frequently complains about Sarah—how she arrives late and eats food that isn’t hers out of the office refrigerator and parties on the weekends. The problem is I’m kind of rooting for Sarah.
“You know, alcoholism is a disease,” I say.
“She’s already been to rehab once,” says Vickie.
“Maybe she was on her way there,” I say, “swerving while looking at directions.”
“I can guarantee she was not on her way to rehab,” says Vickie.
“You know what the cure for being an alcoholic is?” George says. “Don’t drink.”
Kay gives up on me. She sets her fork and her knife at the edge of her half-eaten plate of food and leaves the table. She’s been annoyed with me since the night before, when she asked me for support, but I gave her advice instead. Her boss asked if she was still planning on taking a vacation she had put in for in October. I told her not to take it so personally. “The question shouldn’t have been asked in the first place,” she told me. “It was on the calendar.”
Part of the rub, I think, is that I don’t have a boss of my own. I was fired from my job eight months ago and my lone contribution to the family income in that time has been my 401(k) minus a hefty tax penalty for early withdrawal. There is no way for Kay to come back at me with my bad behavior at work, at least not currently.
I try to look busy with the kids—driving them to school when we have them, making sure they have lunches and hats and gloves in the winter. There are four of them. They go to separate schools, and are as confused about their schedules as I am. They ask me, “When are you getting a job?”
“I don’t have to get a job,” I say
“Yes, you do,” they say.
“You don’t know this,” I say. “But when you’re at school, I sell your toys on eBay.”
Recently I’ve found myself speaking out of turn and arguing about things I only half believe in. I used to think it was some sort of nervous tick and it might be that too, but I think I do it now mostly to remind everybody, myself included, that I’m still here. At this point, I suppose I’m haunting the house more than actually living in it. I don’t creak over floorboards or send cold chills up people’s spines, instead I annoy in-laws and tease children, and test the patience of my wife. I’m new enough in the house—George and Vickie still go through Kay to talk to me, and I try not to talk to Vickie and George at all, at least not about anything of substance. So I’ve heard no complaints. There have just been awkward silences and sidelong glances, as if they are all saying to each other, “Did you hear that?”
Later that night, Kay and I hear George chanting to himself upstairs, “I wanna be a Power Ranger.” It is a jumble of the cadence call, ”I want to be an Airborne Ranger/Live the life of guts and danger…” and the theme song to the Power Ranger television show.
I suspect he doesn’t even know he’s doing it. Often, when the kids have spent a Saturday morning in front of the TV, George will still be chanting, “SPONGE Bob SQUARE Pants” late into the afternoon while he wrenches on an upturned lawnmower or wraps up a garden hose. I’ve caught him shuffling laundry from the washer to the dryer and singing, “Funky Cold Medina.”
He came up to Alaska to work as machinist on the press at the Anchorage Daily News, and for most of his career was on the graveyard shift. He is retired now, but his internal clock is still wired for work. After Kay and I have sex, we listen to him walk around the upstairs then roll around in an office chair. If it is like any other night, Vickie has kicked him out of their bedroom, and he is watching YouTube videos. Later he will clean the kitchen, mop the floor, and maybe sing to the dog. “Jolly Green Jeffrey…”
The next morning, there are the usual getting up sounds from Vickie. The bathroom fan flutters on. Water pipes shake. She plods back and forth. She has a bad knee that stiffens up at night and leaves her limping in the morning. Her steps have a distinct rhythm, ba-da ba-da. She moves slowly, but faster than anybody else at this hour. Finally, she creaks down the stairs and shouts “Goodbye Honey.” The front door brushes open, then swings shut.
Several minutes later, the front door brushes open again. Vickie shouts: “Somebody broke into the Kia.”
Our house is on Anchorage’s lower hillside, which means we are on the outer edge of the upper hillside where orthodontists and mid-level oil executives live. We have not made it all the way yet, but we are scrappers—at least Kay and her parents are. They bought the house before Kay and I destroyed our previous families. We all have big lawns here, and fences and dogs. Every third or fourth house has some sort of project in the yard—an old muscle car, a half-finished shed, a snowmachine or four-wheeler. But mostly our lawns are mowed, our hedges clipped, our kids’ toys stacked at the edge of the house.
There have been reports of break-ins on NextDoor. It is hard for me to pay too much attention to these. They are mixed in with reports of “Suspicious Activity” (code for people who drive slowly and are not white) and gunfire, which in all likelihood is construction workers using nail guns. One guy reported a pair of antlers stolen out of his backyard. I replied to his post: “Honestly, weren’t they stolen from the caribou first?” Living, here, you get the feeling the Lower Hillside is a place that likes to feel under siege.
The console is up, and the glove box is ajar in Vickie’s Kia Sorrento. The registration and insurance papers are scattered over the passenger seat.
“Are you sure you didn’t leave it like that?” I say.
“Shut up,” says Kay.
We are in the garage. Vickie is dressed for work, but George, Kay, and I are in our pajamas. George and Kay are armed. George with a baseball bat, Kay with a huge Maglite flashlight.
Kay holds the Maglite next to her ear and investigates, first her car and then each of the doors entering into the garage. The beam of light traces the outline of each door then back again. She loves this stuff. Last summer, she threw the tarp off of our gas-powered generator and spent fifteen minutes getting it started for a power outage that lasted forty-five minutes. “No forced entry,” she announces.
“What I want to know,” asks George, “who didn’t lock the door?”
“How do you know no one locked the door?” says Vickie.
“How else did they get in?” says George.
“In all honesty,” I say. “didn’t all of us not lock the door?”
George stares me down and growls. “THE LAST ONE OUT OF THE GARAGE LOCKS THE DOOR.”
Kay grabs my arm. “Go check your car.”
“I’m sure it’s okay,” I say. It’s not that it’s well secured, but I have a theory that if a car is messy enough burglars won’t take the time to bother with it. It goes with a whole belief system I have of what could loosely be called Benign Neglect. When I explained this theory to Kay, she told me, “you are a funny man.”
“Go check your car,” she says.
My car is parked just to the side of the garage. It is a Subaru station wagon—what George calls “The Lesbian Car.” I cup my hands around my eyes and look through the driver’s side window. It’s the same disaster that was there yesterday—wrappers, socks, coffee cups, unopened mail. It looks a lot like the mess left in Vickie’s car by the burglar. I congratulate myself about my theory. I try the door handle and it opens. Even more supporting evidence.
I am taking pleasure in the fact that someone walked around in the garage last night and rifled through stuff. Kay and George like to claim they are on firewatch, by which they mean that nothing happens in the house without them knowing about it. They were both Marines: George a mechanic, Kay an administrator of some sort. She bragged to me once about an accommodation she received for superior spreadsheet use. “Which battle was that in?” I asked. They both belong to Marine Corps Facebook groups, and there is a Marine Corps flag waving outside our house, and Marine Corps bumpers stickers on their vehicles.
When George comes out to check on his pick-up truck. He walks the perimeter in a defensive crouch with the baseball bat cocked in his hand. While he’s out of sight on the other side, I debate whether or not to plink some pieces of gravel off one of his front hub cabs. I don’t—for obvious reasons.
We decide not to call the police. “They’re going to say the same thing as me,” says George. “LOCK THE DOOR.” Vickie continues on to work. Kay and I peel off our clothes and go back to bed.
We spoon each other and run our hands through each other’s pubic hair. We still have 30 minutes until she has to go to work. Our room is filled with pictures—mostly of us. Kissing and making faces at sporting events, at a tattoo studio, where we got tattoos on our honeymoon. Kay got a line of script down her side that read: “Good Morning. I Love You.” This is the call and response that we texted each other from our cubicles when we still worked together. It was her third tattoo and it was the one thing she wanted to do in Las Vegas. My tattoo was also a line of script. It was the equation for the acceleration due to gravity: “32 ft/sec2.” I got it on my shoulder. I was fuzzy on the significance at the time—gravity is constant, I like downhill sports like skiing, my dad was a high school physics teacher—and it has not gotten any clearer since. Kay tells everybody it represents the attraction between us—“constant like gravity,” she says—and I suppose that works.
I didn’t stop Kay when she put up the pictures—but there’s something weird about them. I think of the wall of family pictures at my parents’ house—a cascade from one generation to the next. But these flirty, kind of sexy pictures make things feel out of order. We are the shiny new thing—not our children.
Two years in, Kay has weathered the storm better than I have. She is tactical whereas I am plodding. She jumped ship at the insurance company where we met and (some say) defiled the office culture. I hung on, isolated myself, grew despondent and sloppy, and eventually got fired. She seems at peace with the chaos we put the kids through. They had a rough time at first, crying and asking awkward questions, bewildered in the face of new adults, new siblings, new schedules. I tried to absorb it all, to listen to them, to let them take as much time as they needed—to think it through, also to finish their dinner, and to put on their socks. Kay says kids are resilient. “But they also need boundaries.” She lines them up—her three boys and my daughter—and tells them, “If you guys can’t do it yourself, we’re going to do it by the numbers until you do it right.” And this is the way they learn to set the table and do the laundry and get in the car and brush their teeth.
I worry now about the silence, how routine this new life has become. It doesn’t resemble my childhood at all—living in two homes—the seams between parents visible—contending with weirdness that they can’t quite describe.
My daughter will be here tonight. Her name is Lydia. She is seven and nothing like Kay. She is goofy and messy, and most of all happy—at least I think so. At least I hope so. While Kay’s kids bristle under her drill instructor pose, Lydia still thinks of it as a game, shouting “YES MA’AM,” and throwing sloppy salutes, before reporting for dishwasher duty or toy clean up. She is constitutionally incapable of standing for a posed photograph, but in action—twirling, eyes crossed, high kicking—she is something to behold. This afternoon, she will run home from the bus stop, with school papers in her hands and her backpack flapping behind her, zippers open.
On the one hand, Lydia is the weird kid who tried to wear a wetsuit to school two weeks ago, but on the other, she is my sole point of reference. She is the only thing that feels the least bit stationary to me—this even as she grows out of frilly dresses and into jean jackets and skirts, and professes crushes on half her male classmates. I ask her questions: how do you feel about this, how do you feel about that. But like any seven-year-old, she is at best vague, and more than usual, annoyed. And I feel ashamed that I am a grown man using a seven-year-old to gauge how I should feel about my life and choices, because I can’t do it myself.
When Kay asks me what I’m thinking about—like she does this morning before she gets up to go to work, her body warm against my back, and me itchy for her to be on her way—and I say my usual, “nothing,” I realize, this is what I’m thinking about. This is what I’m always thinking about.
© Matt Reed
[This piece was selected by Valerie O’Riordan. Read Matt’s interview]