Fiction: The Secrets of Parents

For three days after he was fired, Francis sat in the living room, despondent, watching TV. Then he started playing the game.

Francis? Dinner’s ready.

Jessica put the plates on the table and sat down. Elijah and Helen were already at the table, waiting patiently as they’d been shown. They’d told their children, No matter how humble the table, manners make it noble. And their table was humble, but they’d had it for the full 11 years of their marriage. They’d had it in the small apartment, then the other two, then the house, and then, when things got worse, they’d had it in an apartment again. This apartment.

Honey, are you coming out?

She started eating. Elijah and Helen looked at her as if it were a trick. Jessica put a bite in her mouth.

Mommy?

She tried not to look at the door.

It’s okay tonight, she said.

She tried not to look at the door. The sound of their children eating was big in her ears.

You fight the urge, and you try to do it right. You struggle to command yourself to bring about the result you want. Then a sudden impulse catches you unaware, and you’re doing that thing you don’t want to do. What she didn’t want to do is to stand.

She did this.

And without saying anything, she went to the bedroom. The lights were off, and Francis sat at the end of the bed watching the screen. He moved the game controller in his hand.

Honey? Dinner.

Yeah, he said. Sorry. He hesitated. He made a few more movements on the controller.

Honey?

Yeah. Sorry. Okay. He paused the game and looked up at Jessica, but quickly looked away.

That guy there is the one with the dossier for the hitman, he said. When I kill him, I’ll be able to find out about the guy who’s planning the bombings.

She walked away mid-sentence, and he found her in the other room already sitting in front of a plate of half-eaten food.

Sitting down, he said, It’s a really complicated plot line. I can’t believe how much effort they put in to these things. And the music! he said. There’s better music on this than any movie I’ve ever seen. It’s amazing through headphones.

They’d bought the game system the year before. Designed to tear at all the frustrated youth trapped in an aging generation, and profit from it, it was a new system that could play all the old games — the ones Jessica and Francis had both grown up playing. Every single one. And then there were those games they always wanted to play, and never could. Like always — sitting on the floor at your friend’s house, with the TV glare in your eyes, waiting for your friend to die. And then it happened, and you always seemed to die right away, so that you ended up saying, I’m better than that. That was an accident. Come on, let me go again. That’s the way. You always die quicker at a friend’s house. They’d bought all those games, too, and gorged themselves on a terrible nostalgia. They compared stories, told each other when they’d played each game the first time. They shared half-remembered scraps of information from the tatters of memory. Up up down down left right left right select start. ABBA. They remembered where to find the blue ring, but not the magic sword. And then, after a month, they got bored and tried to play a game in the new style.

I don’t get it, he’d said. It’s too complicated. I can’t figure out how to make him move. They tried to adjust to the new complexity for three days, and then became disgusted and stopped playing. They decided that things should’ve stayed like they were. That for all the reality of the new games, the old games were more fun. They decided that if you grew up on those old games, you’d never adjust to the new ones. Then they had sex, because it was something they still knew how to do.

Francis chewed and gulped. He said nothing. He ate as quickly as possible. When he finished, he got up, took his plate to the sink, and went back into the bedroom. When Jessica checked in an hour later, he was lit by the blue light of the screen, with headphones on.

That night she complained that she wouldn’t be able to sleep in the room if he was just going to stay up playing, and he took the system and attached it to the TV in the living room. After that, she hardly saw him.

He didn’t look for work. He didn’t come to dinner. He didn’t shave. She never saw him shower. He slipped into bed sometime between 2 and 3 a.m., after she was already asleep. One night she woke, and watched him stand for a while in the dark, not looking at her, or at anything. Finally he got in bed.

After two weeks, anxiety clawed inside Jessica. They could survive a while before debt, and they had a lot of good credit, but it’s hard to get out of a hole like that.

Two weeks playing that game, and he was hardly a man. He didn’t talk or eat, and when she reached for his penis in the dark in the night, he didn’t respond. She’d watched him stare at the screen without blinking.

Jesus. A 38-year-old man.

Jesus, she thought. A grown man.

He clenched his jaw and glared at the screen. Onscreen, Francis was shooting someone in the face. Brain matter splattered and blood poured.

Since the children were born, there was so much about her husband she didn’t understand, but this? Shooting at computer-generated bad guys? Solving meaningless riddles? How was she supposed to take this for the pain of a man? How was she supposed to deal with this, when she was raising children, keeping a house and working? It would be better if he got drunk. Stayed drunk a week. It would be better if he punched a hole in the wall or slammed his fist on that old wooden table of theirs. That would make sense. A little violence would be better. Kids can take a little violence.

But this, this wasn’t a man. She couldn’t even look at him. At her husband. At her husband of 11 years.

Day after day he sat in front of the screen. He didn’t say I’ll get a job. He didn’t say Don’t worry. He didn’t say I’ll work something out. He didn’t even say Get the hell out or Leave me the fuck alone. He moved his thumbs. Brain matter on the screen.

In the third week, as she tucked him into bed, Elijah asked, Can I get my own video game? And here she was to answer it. Alone, when they’d decided everything together.

No.

Mom.

No.

She said it calm and even, and she was afraid.

Elijah rolled over in a huff. Jessica smiled. There was a little man in there. She turned off the light, left the door open, and went to Helen’s room to say goodnight.

Elijah was lying on the floor kicking his legs and Helen was next to Jessica on the couch. The TV played, and in the middle of a scene where you were supposed to laugh, and they played a laugh track, Francis yelled in the other room.

It was a word they didn’t say around the children.

Elijah looked at the hallway and then at his mom. Helen looked everywhere, but not at her mom. Jessica tried to keep her eyes in the television. She heard the door down the hall open, and Francis walked into the kitchen behind them. The TV laughed again. Francis opened a cupboard and took out some bread. He took down the jar of peanut butter. Then he got a knife. He took all three back down the hall and shut the door. The whole time they watched him and nobody said anything.

Later, she sat up alone watching TV. There was a show, a drama about firefighters she and Francis had been watching for years. Tonight she watched it and was annoyed by the characters. They all seemed to know they were in a dramatic scene, acting exactly the way you’d expect a person to act. Everybody was so fucking serious. It was like the people who wrote and acted in the show had never had any dramatic moments of their own. Like everything they knew came from other TV shows.

Around 11:00, she walked into the bedroom. Just as she did, he threw the controller down and said his word again.

He put his fingers against his scalp at the hairline. He rubbed lightly at the place where two years ago there had been hair. A digital corpse pumped blood on the screen. It pumped endlessly, in small fountains. Then, without another hesitation, Francis reached down and picked up the controller. Onscreen, the corpse faded away and the same scene was reset. A man stood holding a rifle. Behind him were three-dimensional warehouses and factories. Then the perspective spun around, and the screen showed the man’s back. Onscreen the man was running.

It was exactly the same as she’d seen four hours ago before dinner. The same man running down the same gray road. The same images of urban decay around him. Alleys. Chain-link fences. Dumpsters. Then, if she remembered, the man runs into a cracker factory for a showdown. Apparently he’d been having this showdown for some time.

She stepped into the room behind her husband and tried not to look at the screen. It was hard. The screen was the only thing in the room that moved. Colors and angles jumped around onscreen, and the light danced across the walls. It was hard not to look.

She rested her eyes on her husband’s back.

Her husband didn’t move at all. Just the tiny, almost imperceptible movements of his fingers. Jessica sat on the bed.

She watched him three times through. The same scene, the same life, over and over. At the end of the long road, the same enemy waited for him. Apparently the life was saved before an endboss. The bad guy at the end of the level. That gave a sense of climax to each stage. And apparently he couldn’t get past this stage.

A fear swept into her that this was her husband now. That this is who her husband had decided to be. He’d failed. He’d been beaten and failed, and now he wants to crawl back into the womb. Play little boy and let other people take care of him.

But that was a silly fucking dream for a man with kids.

The screen flashed, and her husband didn’t move, and she wanted to smack his head. She wanted to kick him in the back. She was surprised by her sudden feelings of hate, but as she watched her husband, slumped, unmoving, sitting before the game, she indulged her feelings. A secret fantasy, a secret hate.

Without warning, her husband broke in on her secret loathing, and the violence of his cry pushed her feeling to the edge of the room. He swore again. He smashed the controller into the ground. He swore a third time.

I’m going to need to go to bed, she said.

I can’t beat him. I can’t fucking beat him. I can’t. He keeps pushing me against the beam. I’ve been doing this all fucking day, and I can’t fucking beat him.

Her husband looked down at the game system on the floor. The light was still on. Onscreen the corpse jetted blood.

I need to go to bed, she said.

Fine, he said. You need to fucking go to bed, he said. He reached down and ripped the game out of its wires. The corpse disappeared from the TV, and the screen went blue. You need to fucking go to bed, he said. You don’t give a shit. Why the fuck should you?

He ripped the cords off the TV and carried the system and its wires out of the room. She heard him in the living room. She heard him attaching the system. Then he turned on the game and she heard the music. She fell asleep hearing the music.

The next morning, when she awakened, her husband was asleep on the couch in front of the TV. Jessica got the kids up and ready. And although she was afraid of it, and ready, neither Elijah nor Helen asked about Daddy on the couch.

When she got home, he played at the family TV, so there was nowhere for the family to be. The kids spent a little time in their rooms, but Francis was becoming angry, and Jessica was afraid that anything might set him off. When Elijah came out of his room and tried to sit next to his father on the couch, Jessica walked over.

Hey, wanna go to the park?

Elijah said he wanted to watch Daddy.

I think we should go to the park.

Elijah didn’t want to. Elijah wanted to sit right there. Elijah wanted to sit on the couch.

They had this argument right there next to Francis, and every word her boy said sent fear into her. Every word she spoke. Anything at all could be the thing that set Francis off. She looked at the screen. A man running down the alley.

Come on Elijah.

Shut up!

Elijah and Jessica froze. Francis went back to the game. She reached out. She took Elijah’s hand.

Come on, she said, but didn’t look at Francis.

The kids played in the empty park, and at first Jessica played with them. Then Helen crawled up the complicated playground structure and slid down the slide. She did this over and over. Elijah was on the swings. Jessica walked across the sand and sat down at a bench. At first she watched the movement of her children, two figures of motion in a blank, still scene, then they faded. She didn’t think, she didn’t worry, but the immense stillness around them pressed in and became her emotion. She didn’t plan it, and she didn’t remember it afterward, but as she sat, hypothetical conversations dreamed through her, different and simple fantasies, where anything could be solved with a conversation, a deft phrase, one bold movement. That if you can be brave enough, or smart enough, or even if you can be completely justified for one instant, then you could be right enough to put an end to all complaints.

A breeze blew across her arms and she looked at Elijah, but he was still swinging. Helen had stopped her endless circuit, and now sat at the low point of the wooden bridge between the two platforms. Her legs dangled between the chains, and she was playing with something in her hands. From the bench, she couldn’t make out what it was. The sun was going down, and they would all have to go home. The chill blew across Jessica’s arms again, and she saw her daughter shiver.

Home.

Home.

Before they got there, she knew it would be worse. When they got to the door, she could already hear Francis yelling. She hesitated, just a second, but she hesitated, and she wondered what Elijah would remember from this night. His father? What was going to happen when they were inside? Or her hesitation. Here, right now, as she reached for the doorknob. Probably he wouldn’t remember any of it. It would fade and be forgotten, and be one of the countless secrets of grownups that everybody carries. Like how in a situation like this, she always thought of Elijah, and only sometimes of Helen.

She touched the doorknob and said, Okay guys. I want you to go into your rooms, and I’ll come in a second, okay?

They both said okay, and as she turned the knob, she wondered if she should’ve said anything.

The children did as they were told, walking straight back toward their rooms. When they walked out of the entryway, Francis was screaming. When the children crossed into the living room, the yelling stopped, but then Francis began yelling at them.

Get into your fucking room, he shouted. He shouted other things, too. It was after the kids had disappeared into their bedrooms that she heard it in his voice. She realized he was crying.

Seeing the children had made Francis’s anger worse, and now he picked up the game controller and threw it at the wall. She saw the controller hit the wall, and the mark it made as she walked into the room.

He was a wreck. Crying and yelling. He picked up magazines off the table and threw them across the room. He threw a book at the mark he had made in the wall. He raged, and she was afraid of him. But when she closed her eyes, she could hear the crying, and she wanted to do something for him.

After a minute, he collapsed to his knees and buried his face in the carpet.

Why can’t I beat him? he said.

Why can’t I fucking beat him?

I got so fucking close, God, how many times have I done this? I’ve been doing this for two fucking days.

And then he couldn’t talk anymore. He sobbed.

Jessica stood watching.

She was sick with the violence, and this man, this balding, unemployed man with his face in the carpet like her 8-year-old boy, this man disgusted her. But his crying made her want to go to him. Made her want to touch him and whisper to him. This man was her husband.

But she hesitated. She hesitated, but the kids wouldn’t see. Then she stepped toward him.

When she moved, Francis lifted his head and wiped his face, and she stopped. She watched as he reached forward to pick up the game controller. The corpses on the screen spun and the scene was reset. The man ran down the alley.

She thought about going to him. About touching his neck and his hair.

Francis’s thumbs moved. His eyes reflected crazy light, the TV shimmering in the tears. He didn’t blink and the tears stayed in his eyes.

The man ran down the alley.

He was better. He knew more tricks. It took him longer to die. Jessica didn’t wait. When the man was still running, she turned and walked out of the room. She hid in her bedroom, feeling cold, but then she remembered she’d told them she’d be in in a second. And people weren’t supposed to lie to each other. And it was definitely more than a second. It had to be. It wasn’t a possible thing to do in a second, but that was exaggeration, and the kids understood that by now. The kids understood. But still, they probably wanted her to come and make them feel better. They’re probably standing behind their doors listening to Daddy curse. They probably want me to come in and to have things be normal. They would want that wouldn’t they? That’s what they want. That’s what I would want.

She opened the bedroom door and heard Francis’s silence. She went down the hall to Elijah’s room, then to Helen’s. They all went back to her bedroom and flopped on the bed. They switched on the TV and agreed to take turns deciding what to watch.

They had pizza. They had plain pizza on half with extra cheese and salami on the other side because Mommy wanted something and pepperoni was too spicy.

Well, we have to have something. How about pepperoni?

Too spicy.

And so the matter was settled, because of course they couldn’t get mushrooms.
When the pizza man was at the door, Francis didn’t look away from the screen. Jessica said, We’ll save you a few slices, but Francis didn’t answer. Carrying the pizza back into the bedroom, she wished she’d ordered a Spicy Hawaiian, which is pineapple and jalepeños, because it was Francis’s favorite. The tears fell on the pizza box, but her eyes were dry when she went into the bedroom.

She woke up at midnight. Eleven minutes after. And Francis was screaming. Elijah and Helen were still on the bed, Elijah awake, Helen not, and now Elijah looked at the door.

Yes!

Motherfucker!

Got you, motherfucker.

Jessica got up and quietly opened the door. Francis kept on like this as she walked down the hall. On the screen was another corpse, huge, blood everywhere. The man with the gun was halfway through shooting, and the frame was frozen.

Francis was on his feet, jumping up and down. He was pointing at the screen. He was hysterical. He was screaming. He was insane.

Thought you were a badass.

Thought you were a motherfuckin’ tough guy.

Then Francis saw her. He rushed at her with his hands out, and at the last second, she closed her eyes.

Once, when she was 23, she broke a man’s finger because he grabbed her ass. She took the man’s finger in her hand and pushed back until she heard a snap. Then she let it go. The man didn’t touch her again. But with Francis coming at her, she closed her eyes. If he’d punched her, it would’ve been fine.

Francis’s arms slipped around her waist, and he lifted her in the air. She lost her breath. Then he set her down. She felt dizzy and sick. Francis was talking. He was saying something. He was talking about beating the bad guy. He kissed her eyes.

You make incremental progress, he said. You learn how to do this, and then this, and then this, and you get a little closer each time, until boom, you get that one little extra hit in, and it’s probably luck, but bam! And then the fucker goes down. Then of course you have to save your game.

From there, things improved. He vacated the room when they needed it without arguing, the electricity of violence was gone from the air. At dinner, just at the end of it, Francis even came into the room. He cut a piece of the meatloaf, and put it on a plate. He scooped on some mashed potatoes. He squeezed a fifth of a bottle of ketchup on the plate. It was almost normal, for just a second. She never thought someone squeezing a ketchup bottle could make her cry.

When Jessica went in to bed, there he was, just like in the beginning, staring blankly into the screen. The lights danced around in his eyes, and he didn’t move.

Her muscles moved, the ones over her eyes, as though she were smiling. She crawled into the bed and didn’t ask him to leave.

The next day when she came home, Francis was sitting on the couch. He had shaved and was in jeans and a T-shirt. He turned his head and looked at her.

Hey, he said.

On the television screen was the image of people — actual, physical people, orbiting each other to the sound of laughter.

Hey, she said. She carried her coat into the bedroom, then came back.

You want me to cook dinner tonight? he said.

He looked at her briefly, then back at the TV. His eyes stayed on the shifting forms of light. They stayed there too long. Then they looked at the floor in front of the TV. The game console was gone.

She looked at her husband, and saw a sadness there. There in the way his eyes lingered. In the way he moved. In the way, right now, he didn’t move. And a sense of urgency split open in her stomach. Piercing, breathless, because she knew something huge was happening, was going to happen, did happen, but she didn’t understand what it was. And because she knew she would forget. The way he is leaned forward, and the way that he looks peaceful, it could all slip away and become a secret from them both. But right now it had to be said. Was going to be said. And later they would talk about it and then maybe she would understand, but right now there was this sad look. This avoiding of her eyes.

I beat it, he said.

The voice was sad, but he smiled, just slightly. You’d have to know him to see it.

One month and one day after he began playing the game, he sat there, and he said that. Then he looked at his wife and made the smile bigger, but the eyes grew sadder.

She didn’t say I love you. She said, What do you want for dinner? And he said, We’ll let the kids decide.

Scott Joseph Campbell is a California-born writer whose work has appeared in Gargoyle, SoMa, and Bathtub Gin. He is happily married to a painter, and moves frequently.

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