I sat on the stairs while my father pinned my mother’s wrists to the bed to stop her from slapping him. He had a store-bought card for some anniversary that he “had had all along,” but she wasn’t buying it. I remember there was a dartboard he got because he smoked a certain number of cigarettes. In the aquarium downstairs there was a fish called the ghost fish. It had a single fin under its body that undulated and propelled it where it needed to go. It spent most of its time hiding in the hollowed-out half coconut my dad sunk. Underneath the tank there was a flashlight Drew left so I could look at the snails whenever I wanted to, not just when they accidentally got sucked up whenever Dad cleaned the tank. The snails were tiny and numerous, dotting the glass under the aquarium’s rock bedding like chickenpox. We never bought them; they must have hitched a ride somewhere, somehow. Each of them so tiny, but they had these shells that fractaled into multicolored singularities, and the light of the flashlight glinted off where the spirals ended so you could never be sure just how far they went.
On the TV there was a story about Steve Fossett sailing away in a balloon, and I remember considering how unfair it was that these snails were born as snails, unable to float over drifting cumulonimbus, to see the way the clouds absorb the sun and turn it into something it’s not. There was an empty twenty-four pack of MGD in the kitchen, empties either crushed to wafers or waiting for me to kick them. My father spaced them out: one for each hour, if an hour was ten minutes.
One of the things to do was play N64 with Drew, to turn up the volume till the yelling went away. Drew wagered it’d take till 26. I said at least 32. The background music of Doom 64 at 36 was enough to erase the fight. I asked Drew what I won and he insisted it was just a friendly wager. Nothing at stake.
The numbers I was supposed to dial if Mom really started screaming were 9-1-1, but if I wanted information it’d be 4-1-1. So would I call 411 to find out if aliens are real? It doesn’t work like that, Drew said. What if I wanted to learn Spanish? 411? Nope, again, that’s not how it works. So I’d call them whenever Dad leaves and we don’t know where he’s gone to, when he’s coming back? But Drew didn’t answer that one.
The thing was that Dad wouldn’t leave without his shoes, so Drew would stuff them in the fridge, next to the government cheese. The government cheese was pale and flaky but the shoes were not. The shoes were holy and worn.
Dad swayed in the light coming through the window, where there were tiny planets of dust orbiting some force we could not see. Dad was smoking for a tent. The month before he was smoking for a cooler. Month before that it was for a collector’s mug. Nowadays he’s smoking for a polyp, but these were simpler times.
The people on the TV were arguing over whether Steve would be found this time, as he was lost. I thought of how he could be lost to himself but not us, and vice versa.
Dad found the shoes next to the government cheese, and there were a few people crying. One of those people was Drew, and we had an unspoken pact that if he cried, I cried.
Mom tried to stop Dad in the driveway, but he was practiced. He left her kicking up gravel behind him, sparks trailing down the street from where he scraped car after parked car. When he was gone and the gravel dust was all that was left, Drew took me inside to watch the snails and Mom cooked us up some pizza puffs, a cigarette dangling from her bottom lip. On the TV, the people were still talking about Steve Fossett. They still didn’t know if and when he’d turn up again.