Three years ago, I awoke in tears, with a misty memory of a dream demanding all my attention. I got up and went to the computer and wrote down what the little girl in the dream told me:
You are 4 or 5, but the age doesn't really matter, it could be any age. And no-one needed to explain it to you, the silence of the table. Loud metallic collisions of mix-matched silverware against cheap K-Mart plates are the dinner music of your kitchen.
And the words finally spoken. You don't need to know what they mean, the tone is enough. The half chewed mouthful of chicken turns to sand in your mouth. You are frozen, your gaze fixed on the suddenly fascinating landscape of your plate.
Keep eating. Keep eating, don't look up, don't say anything. You risk a glance at your cup of milk, desperately wanting to reach for it. A sip, that's all you need to help swallow down the lump. You must keep eating. But the glass is too full, your hands too shaky. You know if you try, you will spill some.
You push green beans into a neat pile while you work on swallowing. Waiting. Waiting. Soon it will come. Another exhange of words. The tears. Dishes crashing. A chair toppling backwards onto the faded dirty linolium. The pleading. Yelling fading away as the voices move to the back of the house. The slamming door.
You open your mouth to try to breath past the lump in your throat. Eat. Just keep eating. Clean your plate. Be a good girl. Drink the milk, careful now, don't spill any, but do it now before he comes back. Finish all your green beans. Good girls eat their veggies.
Then it comes, the opening of a door, the sound of heavy footsteps up the hall. Time stands still. You forget how to breathe.
He comes into the kitchen, his face twisted and his eyes, so different, like a monster's eyes. Those eyes don't look at you, but at your plate. He hesitates and you waver in an agony of indecision. Should you speak? Smile? Be quiet?
He relieves you of the decision with a curt, "You done?"
He waves at the table. "Clean up this fucking mess."
A moment later the television blares the living room. You scrape the plates as quietly as you can and stack them ever so carefully in the sink, having to go up on tip-toe so you can set them down without any clanking. You upright the fallen chair, push the others back into place and with a paper towel, wipe down the tabletop.
Even then, it isn't over. The sound of the television leaves you not knowing what to do. If you go in the living room, you may be bothering him. If you go to your room, you may be ignoring him. You walk quietly to the doorway between the two rooms, testing the atmosphere.
"All done?" he asks.
He pats the couch. "Come watch the game with me then."
You climb carefully up on the saggy, stained couch cushions. There is a baseball game on. Very dangerous ground. He has tried many times to explain it to you and gets angry when you don't remember.
You sit very still, no jiggling or wiggling, no sir. You are a very good girl. You strain to hear any sound from the back room. After a while he gets up and goes into the kitchen.
That sound. The firm crisp sizzle of a can of Budweiser being popped open. For the rest of your life, you will be able to tell the difference in sound of a soda can versus a beer can being opened.
When he comes back, you take a huge chance. "The guys in the white shirts are the Atlanta Braves, right Daddy?" You had been studying them while he was in the ktichen.
He answers with a grunt and drinks down most of the beer in one swallow. His eyes have that look. That small hard look. You fold your hands together on your lap and wonder what you can do or say.
He yells at the television. All the time it seems. You look over at him during a commercial break. "You should be an umpire, Daddy. You are smarter than all of them."
Maybe if you can make him smile. Maybe if you can find the Daddy who sometimes brings you presents and gives you the best hugs. Maybe.
You words just seem to make him angry. He talks about things you don't understand. The boss. The government. Your mother. He lapses back into silence but he doesn't seem angry anymore, he looks sad.
You rise up on your knees and reach out to give him a hug. "I love you, Daddy." It isn't a betrayal to your mother who lies weeping on her bed behind a closed door. It is an attempt to help her. If you can make him happy, if you can make him smile.
He pushes your little arms away. "Christ, get the fuck offa me. Almost made me spill my beer. Isn't it your bedtime or something?"
And you've failed again. You lay in bed that night, listening to the pop of beer cans, the blare of the television eventually drowned out by closer voices. And you don't have the words for it but the anger and venom and hatred in those voices burns through you. Burns right through the blanket that is over the pillow that is over the hands that are over the ears. Burns right through and damages something in your soul.
That little snippet of a dream went on to become a full length novel. When people ask where I "get my ideas", they don't really believe that I don't find ideas, they find me.