His father was collapsed on the couch in the living room and his mother was cooking breakfast in the kitchen when Charles came in from the hallway, his hair still wet from his shower. The TV, unwatched, played a Sunday morning church program with sickly-sounding organ music. He narrowed his eyes against the scene, put his head down, and went straight for the coffee.
“I’m making waffles,” his mother said brightly, and Charles bristled with annoyance.
Taking his mug, he sat at the kitchen table and began turning over scraps of the Sunday paper. His mother, working at the counter, asked him about his night out with Robert, where they’d gone, and what time he’d come in. Charles mumbled noncommittal answers. His headache and stomachache had eased somewhat, but the sunlight was too strong, the morning too offensive, for him to attempt to be pleasant. His father spoke up drowsily from the couch.
“Sorry if I woke you, Charley. I wanted to get out there early and, and—” He sneezed into a tissue.
Charles’ father, Dr. David Bell, was tall and slender with a narrow head, dark eyes, and thin lips. His hair was thick and dark, and difficult to brush flat; it grew, he often said, like wild moss. Just now his bare legs were splayed out on the couch, his head propped up on a pillow. Wet tissues littered the rug around him.
“I was hoping to get out there early and beat the pollen, but looks like it beat me. As usual.” He blew his nose. “Oh, man. I am sorry. What a mess.”
“You should’ve taken something before you went out,” said Mary Ellen, his wife, from the kitchen.
“I know, I know. It just makes me so sleepy.” He took two Benadryls as soon as he came in, David explained, and, “Man-oh-man, can I feel it. I’m good for nothing now.”
Charles tightened his lips and kept his eyes on the newspaper. The print was small and blurry, almost undecipherable. He hadn’t worn his glasses to the table because he didn’t like to give his father the satisfaction of seeing him in the eyewear he had prescribed. It was a dumb, pointless protest, but any small act of defiance helped Charles feel as if he were carving out a space for himself—chipping away, as it were, at the stone walls of his prison.
His mother set the places, moving with extra care around Stephen’s empty chair, as though it were still occupied by the ghost of her missing son. She asked Charles to move the newspaper as she laid a plate of waffles, bacon, and eggs in front of him.
David Bell staggered in from the living room, blew his nose once more, and sat down, his eyes red and puffy behind his glasses. “Oh, man. I am wiped,” he said, apologizing again. Mary Ellen made sure everyone had what they needed, took her seat opposite her husband, and then folded her hands to lead the blessing. She thanked God for Charles’ successful graduation from high school, and asked Him to look with favor upon their youngest son as he embarked upon . . .
If only, Charles thought, his eyes down, angrily clutching his knife and fork, if only his parents never said another word in their lives; if only they never sniffed or gestured or smiled or frowned or blinked or moved or did anything at all . . .
“Amen,” his mother said.
“Amen,” his father answered. “Everything looks great, hon’. You want to pass the syrup, Charles?” he said, and Charles, gritting his teeth, passed the syrup.
He knew it was unfair. He knew his dislike of his parents was unreasonable. He could see as well as anybody that they were perfectly decent people. They were unfailingly polite. They didn’t curse or lie or cheat or steal. They kept up the house, they paid their bills on time, and supported their church and community. They took care with their appearances, and tried not to speak ill of anyone. They seemed incapable of violence. Never once in their lives had they raised a hand in anger against either of their sons. If anything, since Stephen’s desertion, they’d become even more deferential towards Charles, patiently suffering all his moods and reluctant to criticize him for anything. Objectively speaking, it was hard to find fault in either of them. They were, anyone would’ve said, lovely people: David and Mary Ellen Bell.
And yet, Charles could not look at them, or be in the same room with them, or even think about them without being gripped by a silent fury. It was like a thick, black poison that swelled through his veins, darkening his thoughts. It frightened him in its potency.
As his mother spoke now about Father Pat and their Sunday plans, his father interrupting occasionally with a sneeze and a sleepy apology, Charles poked at his egg yolks and felt the poison bubbling inside him. Stealing glances around the front rooms, with a perverse, gratifying loathing, he began to tally up all the things he found so offensive about his parents.
He hated, for starters, their orange couch in the living room, with its sunken cushions and its ugly wooden armrests. He hated also his father’s black imitation-leather La-Z-Boy recliner.
He hated the magazine rack next to the recliner, stuffed with his mother’s Family Circle and Catholic Digest magazines, and his father’s Burpee’s Seeds catalogues, and the out-of-date, dog-eared copies of Reader’s Digest and National Geographic that he brought home from his office.
He hated the gold-colored shag carpeting, chosen by his mother because the Broussard family had shag and they just loved it, and reluctantly approved by his father because, well, everyone wanted it.
He hated their Magnavox TV, with its hopeless color imbalance that made every program look like it was taking place underwater. He hated that awful church program playing right now on the TV, with its ghoulish organ music. He hated the thin ivy plant on top of the TV, resting on a pathetic, hand-knit, orange-and-yellow doily his mother had bought at a church fundraiser.
He hated, of course, the studio portrait of his brother and him, ten and six years old, posed in sweaters against a fake wooden wagon wheel, his brother’s hand resting awkwardly on Charles’ left arm as they both strained to impersonate a display of brotherly affection.
He hated the giant wooden fork and spoon hanging on the kitchen wall opposite him, and his mother’s sad attempt at wit in hanging them there.
For as long as he could remember, he’d hated the gold, yellow, and brown linoleum tiles on the kitchen floor. He hated the wood and brass “country inn”-style lamp hanging above the kitchen table. He hated the brown cabinets. He hated all the appliances: the dishwasher, the stove, the range hood with its noisy fan, and the refrigerator with its built-in ice-maker that produced pointy, rib-like racks of plastic-tasting ice. He hated the color of all the appliances, too—a dull, smeary yellow called, in an especially ludicrous instance of advertising branding that only someone as gullible as his mother could fall for, “Harvest Gold.”
He hated the wooden crosses that his mother hung above the doorways in each room, as though to ward away evil spirits.
He hated the Formica bar counter along one side of the kitchen, and the clutter of knick-knacks and leftover junk that accumulated in the corner where the counter met the wall: old calendars, broken pencils, dried-up ink pens, rubber bands, a brown wicker basket in the shape of a rabbit, plastic pill bottles, paper clips, grocery coupons, fingernail files, opened and unopened bills and letters from charity organizations, and a shellacked box with a picture on the lid of Jesus Christ as a shepherd with a crook sitting on a boulder and petting a lamb.
He hated that his mother kept near the sink, where she could always see it, a ceramic statue that he and his brother had given her one Mother’s Day long ago: a fat boy stretching his arms above his head, with the inscription, “I luv you this much!”
He hated all the bicentennial crap that rained down on them from a seemingly endless supply of bicentennial crap in the stratosphere: a red-white-and-blue coffee mug, a red-white-and-blue ashtray, a red-white-and-blue miniature flag (three of these), a red-white-and-blue keychain, a red-white-and-blue candle, a red-white-and-blue comb, a red-white-and-blue dish towel. He hated, by now, anything red, white, and blue.
He hated his father’s calm, soporific voice, mumbling beside him now at the table. He hated the man’s deliberate, slow manner, and the fact that he kept his fingernails well-trimmed and filed because of his close work with his patients.
He hated how his father rearranged his dinnerware when he sat down at the table, lining the utensils up so that they were parallel and evenly spaced on either side of his plate, and positioning his drinking glass squarely in the upper right corner of his placemat.
He couldn’t help but hate his father’s pale hands, his pale face, his pale legs. He hated the thought that his father worked all week in a dimly lit office, rarely stepping out of doors during the day, and had done so for the past twenty-three years of his life.
He hated that he wore the same five suits every week, in rotation, and that on Fridays he liked to wear his “fun suit,” a blue-striped seersucker. He especially hated it when his father wore a bow tie. He hated that he kept peppermints in his pocket, and peppermints in a glass candy dish on the breakfast table, and peppermints in his office, and from time to time would surreptitiously pop one into his mouth so as not to offend anybody with his breath.
He hated that his father had begun watching “The Six Million Dollar Man” on TV on Sunday nights, and exclaiming as he watched, “That’s impossible! No one could do that!”
He hated how his father, when he wasn’t sneezing, was always, always sniffing—two quick, light sniffs at a time, repeated regularly once every minute, like the faint, whispering pulse of a dying heart.
He hated how his mother, in response to his father, had a habit of clearing her throat. Although the sound was soft, barely audible—like the cough of a sick bird—there was nevertheless something stubborn about it, as if his mother, by making this sound, was asserting her presence and position in the household. She made her little bird cough approximately one time for every two sets of sniffs his father made: “Sniff sniff . . . sniff sniff . . . (cough). Sniff sniff . . . sniff sniff . . . (cough).” He hated that this weird, unconscious waltz of sniffs and coughs went on pretty much all the time whenever his parents were together—as in, for instance, right now.
He hated how his mother automatically smiled in response to almost any situation, and how this smile, when she held it too long, began to waver and twitch on the left side. He hated the peculiar wag of her head she made whenever she became flustered or confused, as though she wanted to shake away any complicated thoughts that were crowding her brain.
He hated how her brown hair was shaped unnaturally atop her head. He hated how, when she sat down at the table to eat, she rocked from side to side three times to settle herself in her chair. He hated how her voice cracked when she tried to shout.
He hated the “easy listening” music she listened to on the radio during the day while she did housework. He hated that she did housework.
He hated that she allowed herself only one daytime soap opera, and that this soap opera was “All My Children”—her “guilty pleasure,” she called it.
He hated her charitable nature. He hated her heartfelt concern for poor, dark, unbaptized children in faraway countries. He hated how she only ever wanted what was best for people. He hated that she tried so hard. He hated how much she wanted to be loved and appreciated.
He hated how she had cooked his eggs “just how you like them,” and that they were, undeniably, just how he liked them.
He hated, hated, hated that he was still sitting here with his parents in this sunny breakfast room on the first morning of his so-called adult life, while the chair opposite him was still empty, broadcasting an ever-present reminder of his brother’s successful escape four years ago. And though the waffles were quite good, and though when his father said, sleepily, “Do you want to pass the syrup?,” Charles passed the syrup, and when his mother asked, brightly, “Would you like more coffee?,” Charles answered, “Yes. Thank you. More coffee”—although all of this was happening right now, in his mind he was already throwing his coffee mug to the floor and upending the table; he was picking up his chair and swinging it around the room, knocking all the junk from the walls and smashing out the windows; he was pushing the Harvest Gold refrigerator out the back door and tumbling it down the steps. He was shoving down on the plunger of a detonator box, blasting the whole house and its contents to high heaven, leaving nothing at 2132 Oleander Street but a giant, smoldering, black crater.
He squinted at his parents across the table, amazed that they couldn’t somehow hear the thoughts shouting in his head or the wild rebellion screaming behind his every muttered “Yes,” “No,” “Please,” and “Thank you.”
Or maybe, he thought, they knew exactly how he felt, and it was only their inexhaustible patience and sympathy and sorrow that kept them from confronting him—a possibility that, when he considered it, only enraged Charles all the more.
George Bishop, Jr., has lived and taught in Slovakia, Turkey, Indonesia, Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, India, and Japan. His stories and essays have appeared in The Oxford American, Third Coast, Press, American Writing, and The Turkish Daily News. His first novel, Letter to My Daughter, was published by Ballantine Books in 2010. His second, The Night of the Comet, also with Ballantine, was chosen by Kirkus Reviews as one of the “Best Books of 2013.” George was a contributor to Volume 5 of Packington Review.