THE MAN WHO SLEPT AT THE VIDEO STORE
A Story of My Father
No one ever beat me at the breathalyzer game.
That morning, with tar nipping at my sneakers as I ran down the street, Dad invited us to play, and I unleashed a roar. Ready for another victory. We’d gone plenty of rounds by then and I always won. Especially because Dad’s grown-up mouthwash would break the machine, which disqualified him automatically.
I slid across the seat with my best friend at my heels, our hands smacking each other as we wrestled for the breathalyzer. When my friend failed yet again, I clocked in on my first try.
Dad turned the keys and exhaust rumbled out the back. “Good girl.” He patted my head.
I loved that summer. The first and only time of my life Dad had a driver’s permit.
The car had finally cooled when we pulled into the parking lot of the video store. Inside, long rows of DVDs and VHSes spanned the store, featuring more movies than I figured anyone ever could have the time to watch. Though Dad and I put up a valiant effort.
By the time we walked to the middle of the store, Dad slowed.
“I’m so sleepy, honey.” He yawned and arched his back. His eyes almost looked swollen shut.
Dad pressed his hands together, settled them against his cheek, and sank down to the ground with the grace of a sleepy ballerina. He curled up in the fetal position in the middle of the new release aisle and fell asleep. Instantly.
My stomach tightened.
I glanced to my friend for help, but she was sprinting to the shelter of the game section, ready to pretend she didn’t know the grown man napping on the ground in public.
What was he doing? What should I do?
So I shook him and whisper-yelled. “Wake up, Dad! People can see you.”
His words slurred. “Just a minute… honey…”
Wait. Baby Brother. I’d forgotten about him.
I spun in a circle, calling his name in a whisper so I didn’t draw too much attention, hot blood thrumming in my eardrums. There he was. Two aisles down, giggling, throwing videos in an arc above his head. Naked. Only his puffy diaper covering him. No shirt. No pants. Not even any socks.
My mind flashed back to the car ride. We’d brought him naked. Why didn’t I realize that?
I rushed for Baby Brother and picked him up. “No! Not cool.” A little strange to correct him with Dad snoring on the floor, but I couldn’t let Baby Brother grow up to act like that.
Inside of me something pinched, a deep-down place I had no name for. A pinch that zapped pain throughout my body. I didn’t want Baby Brother to grow up to be like Dad…
A young couple ambled toward us, hand-in-hand, special smiles on their faces, like the ones on TV when people loved each other.
Silence snapped over them. They froze, staring at Dad. Then, their wide eyes turned to me.
I whipped a movie cover in front of my face. My skin burned like their look set me on fire. Nothing to see. Just a ten year old and her naked brother browsing for a movie. The grown up napping on the ground? Never seen him. Movies sprawled at our feet? Not ours. Ha. No, not ours! We came here alone. Totally alone. Totally normal.
The girl covered her mouth with a slender hand. Perfect red nails. Perfect waterfall of blond hair splashing over her shoulders. The kind of perfect I’d probably never be. Because this wasn’t how a person became her.
She stepped over Dad, her pretty face stifling a smile. Her boyfriend followed and they left us, peering back over their shoulders. Peering at the weird family.
Gritting my teeth, I sprinted to Dad and shook him. “Get up! Now! You’re freaking me out!”
He snuggled against his hands.
And then everything changed.
Her eyes. The first thing I saw. Eyes that flushed hope into my heart. Resolute, brave, concerned eyes.
“Mom!” I ducked down, as if I could hide, and ran to her, Baby Brother clutched in my arms.
My friend materialized, watching, still at a distance.
Mom stomped to Dad. Whack. She slapped him on the back. “Get up right now! I saw you swerving all over the road. You could have gotten our kids killed. Get up!”
Dad groaned and shoved her hands away.
Mom loomed over him. The flames of her fury commanded the entire store. Maybe people missed the 6’2 man sleeping on the floor. But they could not miss her, the mom who’d come to the rescue. No one dared speak or come closer. The people, wherever they were, seemed to have melted into the walls, waiting to see how this would end.
Voice as cold as ice, Mom rendered her judgement. “Fine. I’ll let them call the cops on you and haul your ass to jail.”
Mom yanked me away and my friend caught up with us. Her smaller hand gripped mine.
“What will happen to Dad?” I twisted to see him. “We can’t leave him. Wait!”
“He’s safe. Don’t talk about it when we pass these people. Just run to my car. Race your friend. Run.” Mom hung back with Baby Brother while we took a few tentative steps forward and then broke out into a full sprint.
I won, of course, being a whole year and a half older and proudly long-legged like Dad. I might have even gloated if I didn’t feel so bad my friend had to be around for this. She didn’t complain about losing this time. She let me have my victory. As the exhilaration from racing faded, we gave each other a smile, and though we said nothing, we knew. Knew what we didn’t know how to say. Knew in the warmth of our bellies we had each other. We’d always been like that. Like my soul ended where hers began.
She laughed with me the whole way home.
“Mom.” I twisted my pointer finger some time after Dad returned home. “I won’t play the breathalyzer game anymore.”
Her eyes rounded. “What game?”
And I didn’t. I never played any of Dad’s secret games again. Not in middle school when he swallowed the bottle of pills. Or in high school when he asked me not to tell anyone I’d caught him drinking again.
Not at twenty-four when I knelt at his grave as everyone walked away, alone at last with his little square box of ashes carved at Grandpa’s feet. He’d never wanted to be cremated but I’d never wanted to wake Baby Brother in the night to tell him Dad died.
I didn’t play his games even as I remembered my promise to bury him with pain pills if he overdosed. As I laid a rose upon the soft mound of dirt. As the twisting in that deep-down place shriveled and ruptured and hollowed out that piece of me. His piece of me.
I’d meant my promise, young enough, angry enough, to miss it was just another game we’d play.
So the man who slept at the video store rested in ashes at his father’s feet and I drove home with my husband in a car that could start without a breathalyzer.