It was 1987. We were at Uncle Frank and Aunt Ruth’s house at Sokoki Falls for Thanksgiving. My mother and Ruth were setting the dining table. Frank was kneeling down at the fireplace in the living room. He was stacking oak logs in the pit. I sat on the sofa next to my father. Carl, my cousin, was lying on the floor playing a video game. The Nintendo console sat in front of the TV, the controller cord stretching across the floor. This was the first holiday the family had celebrated together since Frank’s mother, Rosie, had died from pneumonia that year.
Frank sat on the hearth. He leaned over and rubbed his hand through the thick green shag rug that lay across the living room hardwood floor. Frank had knitted the giant rug a few months ago. He’d also knitted the matching green drapes that hung at an odd angle over the windows.
“Touch it, John,” Frank said. He pointed to the rug. “Go on,” he said. “Touch it.”
My father smiled then grabbed a handful of fabric. He said,” It’s nice.”
“I haven’t had a drink in four months,” he said. He rubbed at the rug like it was a pet dog.
“That’s great,” my mother said from the dining room. “I’m proud of you.”
Frank knelt down next to the fireplace again. He got busy arranging the firewood in the pit. He chucked another log on the grate. He poked at it with a fire iron. Then he poked at the log again. His face, hidden behind a red bushy mustache, had acquired a fleshy glow from too many years of straight whiskey drinking. My parents loathed Frank. He had been a reckless drunk.
Then Rosie died in the summer. Frank was drinking every day at that time. He was even sleeping at his mother’s house in Chester. Everyone thought that this was his way to grieve. But Ruth told my mother that Frank had came home one day with a box of sewing supplies that he’d found in his mother’s closet. He’d told Ruth, “I want to sew,” and that was what he did. He knitted and the more he knitted the more pleasant he became. Months passed and he stopped drinking with no trouble. He told everyone he didn’t need whiskey anymore. It was something.
Frank packed newspaper underneath the grate then lit it with his Zippo.
“I can manage my urges,” Frank said. “I’m in control now.”
“I’m glad,” my father said. The wood began to burn. “That’s wonderful.”
Frank was looking at the fire. He said, “You don’t believe me.” He asked,” Do you?”
“What?” my father said with a nervous huff. “Of course I do.”
“I’ll prove it,” he said. “Carl. Get the bottle of Merlot in the garage.”
When my father smirked, Ruth said, “We only keep the wine for company.”
Carl hurried into the garage and Frank yelled, “Don’t run.”
I watched the fire grow. Not long after, Carl barreled back into the living room. He was holding the Merlot with both hands. He was smiling as he sprinted back into the living room. But then his feet got tangled up in the video game cords lying across the floor. He fell forward. When the bottle hit the hearth, it shattered. The red wine was spattered across the green shag rug.
Frank hurled Carl to the side like a bag of potatoes. After that, he fell to his knees. He frantically inspected the rug. “Get me a towel,” he yelled as he picked up the shards. We were all silent. We watched him scrub at the dark red stains with a small white towel. His face got sweaty, and then he stopped. He pulled on his mustache. “It’s ruined,” he said. “Yeah,” he said.
Frank stood. He was pacing across the floor sniffing the wine-soaked towel. Then he grabbed the Nintendo and said, “God damn you, Carl. God damn you.” He threw the console into the fire pit. There was a rush of blue flames and there was black smoke that rolled out of the fireplace. Everyone started to move around and yell at each other. Ruth opened a window. She fanned out the smoke with a Town & Country magazine. My father took the fire iron and dragged out the video game console. He set the charred and melted Nintendo on the hearth. When the fire alarm sounded, Carl started to cry. This was when Frank went after him.
“No. Please,” Ruth said. “Please, Frankie. Don’t do this. Please don’t . . .”
Frank grabbed Carl by the hair. He had a handful of it, lifting Carl off the floor and dragging him down the dark hallway. His little body was flailing all over the place. Then they disappeared around the corner. After that, a bedroom door slammed shut. Ruth was standing in the kitchen by the stove. She was staring out the window. She was sobbing into her small hands.
Frank came back into the living room. He sat down on the recliner chair.
“Jesus,” my father said. He nodded his head. “Frank,” he said. “Frank I—”
“John,” Frank said. He was rolling his fingertips together. “Shut the fuck up.”
Frank swaggered across the living room, and he glared down at my father. So he sat down. Frank took hold of his shirt collar and when he tossed my father to the floor, my mother screamed. She screamed, “Stop,” but Frank didn’t care. He was pressing my father’s face into one of the wine stains on the shag rug. “John. Get up,” my mother yelled. She began to cry now.
“Frank,” she shouted. She kicked the kitchen table and she yelled, “You asshole. You stop this.”
“Quiet now,” Frank said. He looked at her. He said, “Marge. Be quiet now.”
“John,” my mother said. She kept wiping tears from her eyes.
My father glanced at me. Then he looked at her. He said, “Everything’s okay.”
“No,” she said. “Everything’s not okay. I’m not okay. Charlie’s not okay.”
My father stayed huddled like a confused child on the floor. He kept looking at me. Frank was kneeling down next to him. He held out his fist and he shook it. His knuckles were fat and hairy. I couldn’t move from the sofa. It was hard to breath. It was just so hard for me to breathe.
“You should listen to your wife,” Frank said and laughed. He said, Go on. Get up.”
We left. My father turned off the driveway then pulled the station wagon onto I-89.
It was dark outside now. We crossed an old trestle bridge and drove North to Burlington for a long time and no one talked. Cars passed by and I could see my parents in the flash of the headlight beams. My father was clenching the steering wheel. He was holding onto it with both of hands. My mother was sitting next to him. She kept shaking her head back and forth.
My father rubbed his eye where Frank had slapped him. He heard him mumbled, “Shit.”
He powered on the radio after a while and turned at the dial on the dashboard. He eventually found a local station. He listened to the weather forecast and he drove on. He kept clearing his throat. Then he turned off the radio. It was quiet again. It wasn’t until another car passed that I got a good look at him. I saw the swollen eye. It was red. His eye was fat and red.
I said, “You should have hit Uncle Frank.” I crossed my arms. I said, “You—”
“What do you know? You’re just a damn kid, Charlie,” he said.
“You didn’t do anything. You just laid there,” I said. “You did nothing.”
“He’s good at doing nothing,” my mother snipped.
My father slammed his hand down on the steering wheel. He said, “Fuck.”
“John?” my mother said. “John? Are you crying?”
“I did the right thing,” he said. He hit the steering wheel with his hand again.
“Alright,” my mother said. She sat back in her seat.
“I was protecting this family. Do you understand?” he yelled.
“Yes,” my mother said. She puckered her face. “We understand.”
“Charlie?” my father said. “Hey. Charlie? Answer me.”
My mother craned her neck to look around the front seat and stared at me harshly and I saw a desperate pleading in her teary eyes. I turned my head away and I gazed out the side window. I kept my arms crossed. I refused to look at her. That was when she said, “Charlie. Tell your father you understand. Tell him. Just tell him that you understand. Please tell him so we—”
“Marge,” he said. “Now damn it. Don’t do that. Don’t tell him how—”
I said, “Yes,” as I leered out the car window. I said, “I understand. I understand.”
“See,” my mother said. “Your son understands. He understands,” she said.
I was gazing out the window at the empty crop fields and all the dead weeds that covered them. I made believe I was out there in that cold. I made believe I was standing out there in all that mud and in all those dead thistle weeds. I made believe that I was out there and not in here.