There were eight candles on my birthday cake the year my sledgehammer mother shattered us like we were blown glass. I remember it specifically because when the ninth candle flickered at the last minute, I thought, with the force of gale force winds, oh, extra candle for good luck, please don’t go out on me.
If I hadn’t had more important things to wish for, I’d have asked for a decent cake – Grandma Jean was infamous for too-dry-cake-with-pieces-of-eggshell-and-skimpy-icing— but I got what I expected and I ate a big piece anyway.
Afterwards, Grandpa Samuel – who, as a general rule, hardly ever spoke, called me over in a rough voice, like bags of rocks being dumped on a metal tray.
“Katy,” he said. “Come on over and learn to play bones.”
He stacked them, my grandpa, lined the dominoes up on a tv tray that barely balanced on its four rickety legs. He split them into piles. Ivory mountains, to my little eyes.
After explaining the rules in his no-nonsense way, we set about playing. I had lined up a two with a two, a five with a five and a pair of ones when the phone rang in the kitchen.
He grunted. “Ring, ring, constant ringing. Mary Kay. Avon. March of Friggen Dimes. Christ on a cracker, your grandmother will listen to anyone.” He laughed, sputtering coughs punctuating his sentences. “Bet they got her picture up in those telemarketer places. Sucker of the year.”
From the kitchen, Grandma Jean shrieked, and not in a I just hit the lotto way either. It was a very bone freezing, heart halting, even Grandpa went pale kinda way.
“Jean?” His voice was like tiptoeing through a houseful of sleep.
I almost stood but Grandpa put his dry, wrinkled hand on my arm. With his other hand, he held up a crooked index finger. Wait.
And then she was in the doorway, leaning with the phone clutched to her chest. A tight fist. Her face hanging like limp dishrags. “Rayna.”
The way she said my mother’s name sliced through me until I felt like I was bleeding out all over the threadbare brown carpet. I couldn’t take my eyes off her pale knuckles, the way her fingers wrapped around the phone like it was squeezing the life from it. Strangling.
Grandpa had somehow moved across the room, was leading Grandma Jean to a chair. He wasn’t grumbling about selfish or what the hell or any of the other things he normally said when my mom came up in a conversation. He saw something in Grandma’s face that shut him up.
Nothing shut him up.
I grabbed a stack of dominoes in my fist and crawled behind the couch. I’d spent hours playing make believe back here; sometimes I even built a blanket fort. A hideout. It was my favorite place whenever Mom was here too. When the adults were fighting, it was my out-of-the-way place. I wished I had a blanket fort now.
Leaning against the couch back, I stacked my dominoes. Click clack click. Measured the weight of them in my palm.
She was probably at someone’s house, drunk and couldn’t drive. Maybe there’d been a fight, police called on her. Maybe she ran away again, another cross-country trip to escape from life. Drunk driving, I bet. That’s serious, right? I have heard lots of adults whispering that about some of the uncles before.
Not serious enough for the way Grandma Jean had been bent at the waist, that phone choked in her grasp.
Maybe it was Dad. Sometimes he showed up out of nowhere. They’d fight like crazy. He’d leave. Maybe it was that.
Stick. Stack. Click. Clack. Dominoes in a pile. Click clack. A row.
“Jail.” Grandma Jean whispered.
The dots on the dominoes blurred and wavered but I couldn’t look away from them.
The word hung in the air.
It had to be drunk driving. Even a fight wouldn’t be that bad. Not jail. Not my mom. She was always doing bad stuff, but not jail bad.
“Murder.” Grandma Jean dropped the word softly, like it was a silk scarf floating to the ground. But it was heavy. It plummeted. It landed with a heavy thud.
Grandpa sucked in a loud breath in that wet, rickety way he had. I lined up four more dominoes, all the tops sixes. I didn’t think about how sad grandpa probably looked right then with his big water eyes. I didn’t listen to Grandma’s tears. I stood the dominoes side by side, far enough to keep them from falling if they tried to lean on each other.
“Manslaughter, most likely.” she said.
I didn’t know what that meant, but from the way her voiced croaked and her breaths sounded all fast, I knew it couldn’t get worse than this.
“How?” Grandpa asked. I peeked up from the row of dominoes lined up on the floor like soldiers. My gaze danced across the water splotches on the ceiling.
“At the clubhouse.” Grandma sighed deeply like she’d tightened her parachute pack and was ready to leap. “It was Jimmy.”
And with that, the dominoes fell. Collapsed. The shaky ground they’d barely stood on gone. Nothing solid now. No chance at staying upright.
The air sucked out of my head. Everything I looked at was all wobbly.
My father was dead.
And dominoes? I never did learn.