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Samurai Sunday was blaring from the formica covered t.v. set. My sister Sheridan and I were trading Karate Kid style kicks. We’d just seen the movie and everything was wax on wax off. We held only flimsy white pillows to protect our bellies from impact. Our over sized t-shirts flew up exposing our neon pink under wear. Which remained unnoticed, at 5 and 6, we were to young to feel modest about such things. Plus my dad had been lounging in his tighty whities all morning.
He’d turned the living room into a huge bed. Bleached white sheets covered the floor, and pillow mountains ebbed and flowed across the starched white river. It all culminated in a throne made out of blankets on the trundle bed. On it he sat and ate Sugar Smacks out of a cement colored margarine tub. When it emptied, he headed through the short dinning room around the small corner, into what I guessed was the kitchen. It was that or the bathroom, but I knew my dad liked to have two margarine bowls full of cereal first thing in the morning.
Sheridan had climbed a pillow mountain, and she leapt off flinging herself into a Bruce Lee 360 through the air. Ever since the flexibility test in PE, Sheridan thought she was some sort of super gymnast. I guess that’s what happens when you hold the record as the most flexible kid in school as a first grader. I couldn’t even reach my toes.
Her black banana curls helicoptered around her honeyed face. Her eyes grew wide with joy like the kids from Willy Wonka when they enter the top secret candy making factory, and a loud “HEEeeeeeeEHaaaaaWWW!” galloped from her mouth. I must have been distracted by the actual Bruce Lee on the television, because I’d moved the pillow just far enough to the right to leave my round belly open as an empty target. Sheridan’s foot wedged under my ribcage, full force, and catapulted me onto the blanket throne.
The wind knocked out of me momentarily and then my body convulsed into the fetal position. My lungs could no longer stand to be without air and they syphoned the oxygen around me into my body making a huge sucking sound. When I breathed it all out a howl of laughter and pain accompanied it. My sister’s laugh topped mine, a bit of concern was quickly taken over by pleasure at her own power. She hopped from leg to leg balancing like she was Ralph Macchio himself. Her Shirley Temple smile grew into a devil’s grin. My teeth shoved past my mouth. I let out the most delicious grown I could muster to prove to Sheridan just how much it hurt. I couldn’t get her attention though. The real pain in my belly was giving in to the burning in my chest at being laughed at. I jumped to my feet.
“I’m telling Dad you kicked me on purpose!” I yelled pointedly, wrapping my arms around my belly and pushing in hard, so hard that I tumbled forward tripping over myself through the dining room and into the kitchen. Grace never was my strong suit.
My mother’s hands were covered in white bubbles as she slid a sponge around the margarin container. I wouldn’t tell her. She didn’t know how to punish us. In fact we had no rules at all, and when ever she tried to yell she’d only break out in a fit of laughter.
This was a job for my dad. When he wanted to scare us he’d put on his prison voice, deep, confident, and a bit maniacal. Sometimes he’d even go so far as to take his leather belt and pull the edges making a crisp snap. That was the dad I needed this Sunday afternoon.
With an immodesty that fit my years I stormed into the bathroom to announce Sheridan’s crime. In a flash of the pink tile, before my dad shut the door back on me, this is what I saw:
My father sitting on the toilet lid, tighty whities still on, a tan rubber cord wrapped around his bulging brown skin. His veins were swollen, especially the one with the needle sticking out of it. His eyes closed as his breath drew his chin up towards the ceiling. On the pink swirled counter just beyond him–tin foil, a spoon, his orange plastic bic lighter and his open black duffel bag on the floor. Hearing the creak of the door, his chin shot down and his eyes flashed quickly, directly into mine, he slammed the door into me pushing me back.
The quick slam left me right in my mother’s glazed view, so I cleared out of the doorway, and stood by the corner of the dinning table where neither my sister or my mom could see. My father would see me though as soon as he opened the door. I squared off with the bathroom, 5 feet away. I tilted my chin up so that my my dad would have to look in my eyes. I was waiting to ask a question.
I’d started to notice in kindergarten, that none of the other parents acted like my dad. They didn’t have 5 different jobs that lasted a few months at a time, they had one and they stayed there. They didn’t disappear for months only to show up with no explanation. Mostly, they never walked out of a door with tender eyes only to come back through it with fevered ones.
I wanted to know what it was, the needle. He was training to be a nurse, so it wasn’t unusual that he had one. What was unusual, was that when I’d cuddle up in his arms to watch t.v. the creases of his elbows were covered in tiny holes, a scarred brown, darker then his skin color.
When he opened the door he had on a pair of khaki work slacks and a crisp white T. The smell of old spice wafted out along side him. He was direct as he approached me and curved around to sit in a hard wooden chair to my left. His look was simple, he wasn’t waiting, but he did seem ready for something.
I thought I’d better ask him about the needle quick. He had a way of talking people out of what they’d seen and I wanted the proof fresh in my mind, the picture of where everything sat on the counter.
“Daddy, what were you doing in there?” I asked. I had a sudden impulse to stop asking questions and pretend I hadn’t seen anything at all.
“Getting ready baby.”
The plainness of his response felt like a trick, my brow bunched up.
“No,no…not that part.” I replied rubbing my right eyebrow which was starting to sting. “The big rubber band around your muscle, and the needle. It was sticking in you.”
He licked his lower lip and bit down on it.
“That’s my medicine baby.” He said smoothing my straight black hair out of my face. The roughness of his hand felt soothing on my cheek, and he left it there when he said. “Daddies sick, and he needs that to feel better.”
My heart twinged like a metal coil was being turned inside it. I didn’t think he was lying, but it sure didn’t feel like he was telling the truth either.
He got up, and walked past me to the trundle bed, where he started folding up his blanket throne. Sheridan ran up to him mouth opened ready to explain herself, but stopped quick when she could see he wasn’t mad, and slid easily back into her ninja moves.
I didn’t know the word heroin then, but I would.