THURSDAY: Family Portrait

BY BRETT McATEER

Copyright is held by the author.

THE LETTER on the table in the front hall was addressed to Ford. It was from a medical examiner’s office in Texas. Ford folded the letter in half, pushed it into his jacket pocket and went out to his car.

He stopped at the end of the long driveway to let the garbage truck go by and looked back up at his house. Inside, the screaming and door-slamming would have started. It didn’t seem to bother his family, starting every day by trying to hurt one another. He tried to be out the door before anyone could target him.

The garbage truck wheezed to a stop behind him. In his mirror, Ford watched the driver jump down, snatch a green bag with one hand, swing it into the open side of the truck and hop back up into the cab. It was like a dance routine; like Gene Kelly on the tenement steps. He felt an urge to talk with the garbage collector but he didn’t know what to call the man and he couldn’t think of what to say. Something about Gene Kelly? He backed out of the driveway and into the street, wondering if anybody knew their garbage collector by name.

***

Ford had learned early on that it was best to keep to himself. He had seen how things could go wrong when people said the wrong thing.

His mother had said, “Couldn’t we watch something else this afternoon?” and his father had said she could watch anything she pleased, pushed himself out of his chair and without looking at her or at Ford, went out the front door and never came back.

Ford couldn’t make sense of it. He couldn’t make a connection between his mother’s question and his father leaving. But he knew that something was going wrong from the way the dinner conversations had changed in the days leading up to his father’s departure.

“You could stay in tonight,” his mother had said, her head bowed over the simple plate of meat and potatoes his father preferred.

“You could have stayed in,” his father had said, without looking up.

“I made a mistake. People make mistakes.”

“You could have stayed in,” his father repeated, cutting her off.

The three of them had always been together at dinner and Ford had always been happy to answer his father’s questions. How was your day? What did you learn? Kiss anybody? Then, one night, it was different. His father asked none of the regular questions. His mother asked them instead, but that wasn’t right. Ford couldn’t figure it out. He hoped that if he just waited, things would go back to normal but the next night was the same so Ford tried to fix it. He asked his father how his day had been and what he had learned. His mother forced a laugh. His father said he had things to do and left the table.

On the third night, while his mother was in the kitchen, Ford asked his father if everything was going to be okay. His father shook his head. His mother came out of the kitchen with their plates. His father looked at her, then at Ford, pushed himself back from the table and left the table again. And the next day, he left the house.

Ford knew there must have been a bad mistake made for his father to leave like that, but he wasn’t sure who had made it. He wished he had kept to himself.

***

Ford always arrived for work earlier and stayed later than any one else and avoided contact with anyone while he was there. When someone stopped at his door to say hello, Ford would keep his eyes on his computer and raise one hand to signal that he was too busy to be interrupted. People learned to leave him alone.

He had chosen a career in software because it was comfortable. He liked being alone with a clicking keyboard and a glowing monitor. But he was never passionate about it. He wasn’t passionate about changing how the world does business or improving the user experience or even about making a lot of money. He wasn’t passionate about anything. He just wanted to be comfortable, and in control.

In high school and college, he would sit for nights on end writing code. He sometimes felt like he was right inside the orderly world of the programs he wrote, guiding the ones and zeroes through their problems, encouraging them to create new information, controlling everything.

His wife had studied computer science because that’s where the money was. They met when she and Ford were paired on a project in their junior year. He wrote flawless code, but her contributions always crashed. Ford could find the bugs in her work in minutes and she would pull her chair so close to his he wanted to leave and she would tell him he had a special gift for seeing the small mistakes that can destroy something beautiful.

After graduating, Ford took a job in quality assurance, finding and fixing the bugs that destroyed other programmers’ projects. She followed him to the same company and started by bringing coffee to his cubicle.

“Brought you this,” she would say, and then leave him without waiting for a response.

In the office cafeteria, on what she later called their first official date, she assured him that he was going to be very successful because people would pay him well for his gift. She also told him that she understood his need to keep to himself.

“You just keep doing what you do and I’ll take care of the rest,” she said. Ford had thought it was just a quick lunch.

When they were dating, his wife liked to talk about her comprehensive vision of their future together. She said she didn’t have mere dreams for them, she had milestones and goals — the number of kids, the number of rooms in the house they would own, what people would think of them. Ford felt like she was including him in a family of strangers.

He couldn’t remember asking her to marry him. She brought it up and when he did not resist, she went to work, coding it all, including the computer-shaped cake that their wedding guests called clever.

He kept to himself while his wife raised first one, then two girls, reminding him frequently that she was doing it all by herself, but when he tried to help, she would tell him to focus on his work and whisk the girls away. When he became a manager, they celebrated with an ice cream cake that looked like a laptop. While his wife cleaned up and put the girls to bed, Ford went down to the computer in his basement office. When he was promoted to director, his wife threw a dinner party where Ford overheard her telling the neighbours that she had developed her family like a software project.

***

After his father left, Ford and his mother struggled. She sold their bungalow and moved the two of them into a nearby apartment. She had decided that they should stay in the same neighbourhood and Ford should stay in the same school.

“Let’s just keep things normal,” she said.

Ford would rather have gone to a different school in a different neighbourhood where nobody knew him or his family’s mistake, but his mother never asked him.

Sometimes when they sat together watching television and a commercial came on, his mother would reach for his hand and start to say something about how hard it was to be a single parent but when the commercial ended, she would stop, leaving whatever she was trying to say hanging there between them.

***

Ford flipped on his indicator and checked his mirror for a chance to merge into the exit lane, but he was distracted by his own face looking back at him. He thought he looked like he was trying to get someone’s attention. He stared into his own eyes until a honk from the car beside him broke the spell and he had to jerk the steering wheel to avoid an accident.

***

His father sent just enough money every month to cover the rent and food. Ford thought they had what they needed, but his mother said that was never what she wanted. She wanted more. She declared herself a home decorating consultant and went out to consult every night of the week, leaving Ford alone to microwave dinners that he ate in front of his computer. On one of those evenings, his father called.

“Making out okay?” his father asked.

“Sure,” said Ford.

“Your Mom?”

“Sure. Fine, mostly,” said Ford.

“That’s good,” said his father, pausing. “I think we should do something together. I’d like to, I mean.”

They went to a Chinese restaurant the next night.

“I guess I don’t know what you like to eat anymore,” said his father.

“This is okay,” said Ford.

Ford kept to himself and they ate in silence. When they got back to the apartment building, just as Ford was opening the car door, his father said, “I didn’t know what to say to you then, son.”
Ford looked down at his hands.

“Anyway, I’m moving. Far away. I wanted to tell you in person.”

A few weeks later a letter arrived from Texas. The letter was addressed to Ford but he let his mother read it out loud. It described a new job and a new house and a new wife.

“Nice for him,” she said. She tossed the letter on top of the fridge where it lay for a week before it disappeared.

***

A few days before his high school graduation, Ford overheard his mother whispering into the phone.

“Don’t you dare,” she said.

When his father showed up at the ceremony with his new wife, his mother made sure they didn’t get close to Ford. A week later, another letter arrived. It contained a note saying congratulations and sorry he hadn’t been able to shake Ford’s hand, and a cheque. Ford left it on top of the fridge.

***

He sat motionless behind the wheel, staring across the lawn at the mirrored glass walls of the squat office building where he spent so much time. A vision of the garbage collector came into his mind. He let it play over and over. Others started arriving for work. One slapped the trunk of his car, startling Ford. He checked his mirror and found himself looking into his own eyes again.

“What is his name?”

He had asked it out loud, but his voice was detached, like it was coming from somewhere else. He watched his employees stop at the front door to chat. One of them raised her hand to point toward his car and Ford’s mind replaced the scene with a family portrait on the front steps of his house. He stands beside his wife who stands beside the girls, the four of them arranged by height, like nesting dolls. He is squinting in the portrait, as if trying to make out who is taking the picture.

***

When his mother took the job with the design firm, she celebrated by moving out of their apartment and into a condo with a lake view. It was near the firm’s office and close to Ford’s college but she made it clear that the condo belonged to her though he was welcome to stay until he graduated. Ford found himself living in his future wife’s apartment instead.

“I know it’s been hard sometimes and I’m so proud of the way you have managed and now . . . is she a nice girl?” asked his mother. They were eating take-out chicken off new china plates.

“It’s just a small place,” said Ford. “Can I leave some of my stuff here for a while?”

“In the basement, honey,” said his mother. “My locker is empty.”

***

The morning sun cleared the top of his office building and hit his windshield. The brightness made him blink, erasing the family portrait. He watched the reflection of a single cloud ripple across the side of the building and slide off the end. He pulled himself forward in his seat, pressing his chest into the steering wheel, and twisted his neck to look up into the sky. It was clear and blue.

He settled back into his seat, turned the key in the ignition, and backed out of his spot.

***

When his mother had her first seizure the doctor offered a statistical possibility that she might beat the odds with aggressive treatment but surgery was not an option, he said.

Her mind started to veer right away. She lost her job with the interior design firm when she declared that she could not work with anybody taller than herself.

“Why should I” she had said to Ford. “How does that possibly help anyone?”

Ford helped her sell the condo and moved her into a studio apartment which he visited one Saturday morning to find she had been up all night spray-painting everything white: walls, doors, windows, everything. The emptied cans were lined up neatly on the counter in the kitchen nook. She was spraying the last of the carpet, shuffling backward a step at a time toward the door where Ford stood.

“Almost done,” she said. “I don’t know why I didn’t get to it sooner.”

Ford and his wife moved the girls into a shared bedroom and he brought his mother home, until the wandering started. One morning as he was pouring coffee, before anyone else was up, the police came to the door. His mother had appeared in a neighbor’s kitchen, demanding airfare for Iceland.

He found her a bed in an extended care facility and visited when he could, though she no longer knew who he was. At the end, he sat by her bedside with a computer on his lap while she vanished into the sheets of the hospice bed.

***

Ford coasted to a stop behind an empty garbage can and rolled down his window. He sat there with his foot on the brake, one hand on the steering wheel, the other on the letter in his pocket, staring at the house down the street. His house. Their house. He pictured himself walking in, stuffing some clothes in a bag and walking out again, throwing the bag into the back seat of the car and leaving. Then he wondered how he would choose those clothes. His wife had chosen everything he wore. He realized that he had no memory of choosing to buy the house, either.

Children appeared at the doors of the other houses on the street, wobbling under the weight of their backpacks. Mothers tucked their hair behind their ears and leaned over to kiss the children goodbye. He watched his own daughters shove and shoulder each other down the driveway to the curb where the bus would stop. His wife stepped out of their front door, her arms crossed under the cardigan thrown over her shoulders. She yelled at the girls and waved at the neighbours and then she looked straight at Ford’s car.

The school bus roared past his open window and startled him. His foot slipped off the brake and the car lurched forward, knocking the empty garbage can into the street. He stomped on the brake pedal and looked up. The bus had stopped to let his daughters on, blocking his view of his house. When the bus pulled away, his wife was still standing on the front steps, staring in his direction.

Ford put the car in reverse and looked into his mirror. The garbage truck was back, making its way up the other side of the street. It lunged from driveway to driveway, the dancing garbage collector swooping down to rescue each green bag and swing it to safety.

3 comments

  1. Walter Giersbach

    I found “Family Portrait” enjoyable and the characters came alive with a minimum of description, but the time jumps made it uneven and difficult to pin things down. Wishing it were in a chronological order, or that the transitions were explained better.

  2. JAN

    Of course you’re entitled to your opinion, Walter.
    But be warned — don’t read “Stone Angel” that magnificent Canadian classic by Margaret Laurence, the time shifts could put you over the edge.

Post a comment

You may use the following HTML:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>