The Hard Years by Emma Pattee


Emma Pattee has a BFA in Creative Writing from Emerson College. She has been published in Word Riot and been awarded the Davey Marlin-Jones Choice Award. She currently lives in Portland, Oregon.

When Janey comes home, she brings the rain with her. Daniel and I are outside on the back porch after dinner. We are rocking each other on the wooden swing when the skies open up, and I can feel the rain sliding from my head down my neck and into my shirt. Daniel starts to laugh and carries me like a bride into the house, shoving open the sliding glass door with his forearm.

“Another rainy day in August,” Danny says once we’re dried off. I am heating up oil in the big pot to make popcorn and he is on his knees in front of the fireplace.

The sound of the doorbell takes me by surprise. Ever since we moved out into the backwoods, our guests are few and far between. Our house sits on the edge of Naqasabut Lake, which is so far from the city even the tourists stick to themselves. The only sign that we are not alone out here are the dots of light surrounding the lake: the windows of vacation homes.

Danny starts to rise to his feet.

“I’ve got it,” he says, and I can feel the edge in his voice, that old argument about how I won’t allow a gun in the house, about how he would have no way to protect us, if it came to that.

“It’s probably a tourist with a flat tire,” I say. Danny’s the kind of man who worries about me answering the door to a stranger, or running out of gas on a back road. He is the kind of man who stocks water bottles and rain ponchos and flares in the back of my car while I’m inside hunting for my keys.

But this time he’s still getting to his feet and I’m faster, already untying my apron strings and wiping my damp hair back from my forehead. I’m young enough still to run for the door.

 Janey is wet on our doorstep. When I open the door, she stumbles in to the foyer, dragging a Barney suitcase behind her. His purple face is dotted with raindrops. I bought that suitcase for her, the first time I took her to meet her grandparents. The first time I ran away from Daniel.

“You don’t have any other luggage?” I ask her, aware somewhere in my brain that there are other questions I should be asking, like why is she here, and how did she get all the way from Texas, and why didn’t she call first. Not that I mind, but it’s the kind of thing that the mother I should be would be asking.

“It’s my favorite,” she says, “and I was rushing.” It’s then that I see it. Dark and beautiful, like someone gently smudged purple paint across her cheek.

“Look at you,” I say and cup her bruised cheek in the palm of my hand.

“You should see the other guy,” she says.

“Danny, look who’s here,” I say, but of course she’s already run out to the living room and I can hear him yell out in surprise. He will not be pleased about the bruise.

We haven’t seen Janey in eight months, since her wedding. She calls me on the weekends now and we catch up. I try to remember our last call, and if she said anything that could have been a warning sign—something about Todd’s long hours at the hospital and issues with their plumbing. I am ashamed now that I can’t remember anything specific, that I wasn’t paying full attention. Instead, I was down on my knees in the garden, picking the slugs off the roses. Sometimes when she calls, I tune her words out, just enjoying the steady murmur of her voice, like a heartbeat.

Daniel and Janey come into the kitchen and I put the kettle on for tea. I am ashamed to say that there is a part of me that wishes she hadn’t come home with this. Daniel and I have such a thin peace. Peace like a butterfly’s wings that would be crippled by the oil of human hands.

Daniel makes an excuse, some murmur about setting up the guest room and checking the tire pressure on Janey’s Honda, and we let him go too easily, both of us used to protecting him.

I turn the pan back on and let the oil heat up again. Tell me what happened, I say, even though I know it doesn’t matter, that all fights are a version of the same fight.

They were fighting about him working too much, not being able to take off any time for vacations or long walks, the kind of thing they used to do.

“I told him that I was disappointed that I married him,” she says.

 I say nothing, doing my best not to calculate how much of our retirement we had handed over to her wedding. At the grocery store now, I always make sure to buy generic cans of vegetables, and cereal in giant bags from the bottom shelf. Some days, when I’m unloading the cart onto the conveyor belt, I can’t help but think of that organza lace veil, the one she said she couldn’t get married without.

“After he hit me,” Janey says, “I picked up the phone to call the police, but then I realized that he might lose his job. So I just told him to calm down because he was crying so loud and our neighbors have a newborn baby and can barely get enough sleep as is.”

.  .  .

Todd was nice enough. Hard working. His parents had come from Korea on a boat. Todd was training to be a neurosurgeon and when Janey started getting serious about him, I was relieved. She would never know poverty, never have to work if she didn’t want to. God knows Danny and I have known enough of it.

The popcorn is just beginning to pop. How I love that sound—the thrum of hot kernels against the roof of the pan. It’s time to melt the butter. From the kitchen window, I can see Daniel in the rain, kneeling by the front tire of Janey’s car. Even in the dark, I can make out the muscles of his back, his biceps the size of the wood pieces stacked by the fireplace. I don’t even need to have my eyes open, I know his body so well that I could draw it, the way the rain is evaporating into the heat of his shoulders, the wet cotton slick on his skin.

“I couldn’t go to work like this,” Janey is saying. I pour the hot popcorn into a paper bag and fold the sides over. The butter is crackling on the stove, spitting up onto my arms. I melted the whole stick. I’m not young anymore, what do I care about portions of butter?

I don’t ask why she didn’t just call in sick. I know the mother I wish I were would say things like you poor thing and I can’t believe he hurt you. But I have learned from Janey that her tears are always half pain and half water.

I slowly pour the butter into the bag and sprinkle salt on top. I taste one kernel and lick the butter from my fingers.

“It means something, right? It means something about our marriage.”

It’s strange to hear her use those words: our marriage. I can’t think of Janey having a marriage. Even on her wedding day, it all felt so circus-like, so affected. Todd’s parents don’t speak English and did not smile or cry, but they bowed over and over to Daniel and me. Should I have talked her out of Todd? Should I have said something wise and subtle—about cross-cultural families, or divorce rates among young doctors?

“I don’t know,” I tell her. Because I don’t know. He was good looking, and had a medical degree. He smiled whenever she made a joke, and I liked that. But the rest of it, the recipe for a marriage, the sign of future happiness, I just don’t know.

Daniel comes back inside and we eat the popcorn in front of the fire. Janey is between us, with her head near my shoulder and her feet slid under Daniel’s legs. He has determined that her tire pressure is perfect and worthy of his daughter, and is now happily munching popcorn, trying not to look straight on at Janey. Now that I am used to seeing my daughter’s face with a bruise on it, I am glad she came home. I imagine that we won’t get to see her alone many more times in our lives. She won’t stay. The next visits will be with Todd. And then children. Daniel and I will be older then, and a burden. Everything is so fleeting.

We sit there in silence until the fire has died. I can tell that nobody wants to break the moment, but it is getting late so I take Janey to bed, and tuck the blankets around the edges of her body like she is only five years old again.

Daniel is on the phone when I come out of the guest room. He has pulled the spiral cord from the kitchen and all the way through the living room so he can stand and look out the back door at our yard. Or not have his conversation overheard.

“…And I’m telling you, it’s none of your business.” He is tapping his forehead against the glass of our sliding door. Something about that jerky, rough bang bang bang reminds me of another time, another Daniel. I try to remember the last place I saw the bottle of Jim Beam. Behind the oatmeal in the corner cabinet. I will check it before I go to sleep.

“Because it’s not your fucking business!” he bursts out, with a hand motion like he’s caught in a traffic jam.

“Who is it?” I mouth, but he shakes his head. I already know.

Danny releases his hands wide, and then clenches them back into fists and offers the phone to me.

Todd is weeping. I imagine him in their home—I have not visited yet, but I have seen pictures. A doctor’s home. When I visit, I know I will feel out of place, and have to ask them to show me how to use their fancy coffee maker. I take a deep breath and tell Todd that it’s very late but we can talk more tomorrow.

“Now drink a glass of water,” I say, gentler than I should be. “And get some sleep.” I hang up the phone and find Daniel watching the empty fireplace. I sit on his lap and drape my arms around his shoulders. My face fits into his neck like a puzzle piece.

“She’s never going back to him,” he says, and I can feel the rumble of his words in my belly. “I won’t let her.” I can’t help but smile at his determination. As if he could change the way the world is.

“What?” he holds me back so he can see my face. “I’m serious.” But I can’t help it. I have this image of him sitting on Janey’s Barney suitcase, with his arms crossed, stubbornly refusing to let her leave. I’m laughing now, trying to muffle the sound into the crook of his shoulder. He used to sit on the side of the freeway for hours, trying to convince a five-year-old Janey to wear her seatbelt.

“Remember when you and Janey would fight about her seatbelt?” I ask through my laughs.

“Stop laughing,” he tells me. “Our daughter has a bruise on her face and you’re laughing?”

“Daniel,” I say. A warning. Be careful now, I want to tell him. Let’s let the past stay in the past.

“I’m serious, goddammit.” His voice is getting louder. “What kind of man does that?”

That does the trick. I stop laughing. After a moment I move off his lap, back to my side of the couch. He meant Todd. He meant Janey. I know this.

It has taken me years to learn that sometimes the truth doesn’t open the door between two people but serves only as a bludgeoning tool. It smashes inside our hearts and then there is everything we’ve been holding close, out in the open to be prodded and poked, diagnosed.

I know that I should reach out to him, the top of his hand, his cheek. We are almost one body now, after all these years, and I can see that he is waiting for my touch. This will be his signal that we have moved back on to steady ground. I can’t give him this. Because he is right. Nobody should be allowed.

We lie in bed not touching for the first time since we moved into this house two years ago. I imagine him holding me, around me, his rough chin in my hair. This is a trick that I learned on the few nights we’ve spent apart.

But tonight something is nagging in my head. A window left open to the rain? A phone call I’ve forgotten to make? A bill that was due today? The front door is locked. I checked it. The mortgage is paid, for this month at least. The stove is off. The heat is broken, but it’s only August. I have time to fix it before the winter sets in.

Daniel is sleeping, his cheeks have gone slack and I can hear the air wobbling out of his mouth when he breathes. I start to lean forward, close the gap, smell his hair, kiss his forehead. The whiskey. I remember now. I forgot to check the location of the whiskey.

I don’t move it on a schedule, just when life feels shaky. I have learned that you have to walk a fine line between careful and obsessed. The first is a preventative; the second is a prayer for disaster.

But tonight, it is time to move it. It’s been months since I checked it but I remember exactly where it is. Behind the grains on the top shelf, but lying flat, so you would have to remove every single jar to find it. I keep it in the house for baking, and other reasons. A test perhaps. A signal.

I clear the cabinet then reach back with my hand as far as I can until I hit the wooden back. I check the sides, then the back again. There is nothing there.

Thirty-five years ago, Daniel came home from the bar and beat me into the hospital. The bar was called O’Malley’s, and every hour was happy hour. Daniel climbed the stairs to our apartment with slow thump thump steps.

“Are you drunk, again?” I asked him that night when he appeared in the doorway to our bedroom.

“You’re a fucking whore,” he said, calm and quiet, and shut the door behind him.

.  .  .

A friend from the bar had seen me hugging a man I worked with outside the restaurant the night before. He had told Daniel, and they had decided, in that concise, certain way that drunks have, that I was having an affair.

I have that night in pieces of memory, like a little box of special things a child has collected. I remember seeing blood smeared on his knuckles. Some nights, that image comes to my mind and I look down, as if the stain of my blood will still be there, on his hands. On the strong hands of the man I love.

I remember hearing myself beg and knowing our neighbors could hear it too.

I remember the very end, when we lay in silence on the floor. Before the hospital. Before the long separation. The whole apartment was so still, and I could hear the heaves of him crying. I lay there, and wondered how many days I could call in sick before I lost my job.

They told him I was contagious and could not have visitors, so he sat in the waiting room for five days. I would not have traded places with him. I would not have lasted those five days in the waiting room. I would have shot myself.

Tonight, he is still asleep when I get back to the bedroom, and I sniff him so closely that I’m afraid the sound of my breath will wake him. He smells of nothing different than yesterday, and the day before. That thick apple body smell. But I’ve been fooled before. It used to be that the smell of whiskey was so often on him, it was hard to tell if he was drunk or still recovering from days ago.

He is drunk. It explains everything—why he ducked out of the kitchen when Janey and I were talking, and why he got so angry at Todd. He’s not himself anymore, I can’t forget that.

I sink down into my bed and watch him from the periphery of my sight. I must stay awake now. I must prepare myself for what might happen.

I can’t leave here. Him. I could get in the car and I could drive somewhere, but I wouldn’t be going anywhere. We are like this now, some strange four-legged, one-brained beast from a freak show. I wear our marriage like the only dress I own, burlap and dirty but still, something I made myself. And then one day, I look down and I’ve forgotten how to take it off, I can’t remember the feel of my own naked skin. There is no place in the world for me but right here.

But this is no way to live, and I know that now. I am fully awake still, and tensed on the mattress. I keep the knife in between the pages of a book that I couldn’t finish. I can find it in the dark. Many nights, I just touch the handle like a prayer before I fall asleep. I do this now, put the pad of my finger on the wooden handle and run it back and forth. It is a knife to gut fish. I found it in a box of things Daniel was giving away.

Daniel stirs beside me and hoists himself up to a sitting position. My whole body freezes, arm still caught in the open mouth of the drawer. He doesn’t notice though and walks down the hallway toward the bathroom. I debate following him in order to figure out where he’s hiding the whiskey bottle, but it’s better that he thinks I’m asleep. Besides, if there’s anything left of the bottle now, it’ll be empty by morning. Even as I hear his footsteps in the hallway returning, I’m pulling the knife out of the drawer and tucking it under the blankets. Even as I’m telling myself just to call his name out, just to speak to him, I’m flicking the knife blade against my fingers, testing its sharpness.

There is another voice in my head now. A calm old woman. She tells me that this has gone on long enough. His shuffling footsteps stop at the doorway. I know he’s watching me. He steps closer.

Why did I think the drinking was done? Didn’t they warn me about this—all the therapists and AA brochures? He’s at the side of the bed now, looking down at me. I tell myself: if he reaches for you, use the knife. Use it fast and hard, don’t think about it. You owe him nothing.

So when I feel his fingers soft on my cheek, I let my arm fly out like it’s been waiting to do for forty years. When it sinks into something, I feel nothing but relief. I can hear his surprise. He is so startled that he flings my hand away and I end up cutting my own knuckles. I can feel the wetness of the blood in between my fingers. I’m smiling now.

“I know you’re drunk,” I say. “I know you drank the whiskey.”

“What?” He faces me in the dark. My husband. My drunk husband.

“The bottle that I keep hidden. It’s gone.”

“It’s in the oven,” Daniel says. “The whiskey is in the bottom drawer of the oven.” He kneels down on the floor, carefully, like he’s trying to calm a wild animal.

Bullshit, I tell him. He is wrong. He’s making excuses. We’ve done all of this before. None of his tricks can fool me.

But I already know it’s true—I moved it after we had a fight about money, or Thanksgiving, or me forgetting to lock the front door.

“I thought you were going to hurt me,” I tell him and almost laugh at how absurd that sounds. My husband, who can recite the Latin names of trees and likes to talk in silly voices to chipmunks when we walk in the forest. “I had to protect myself.”

“That knife is too small,” he says in a flat voice. I can see tears rolling through the wrinkles on his face.

A year after Daniel left rehab, I came home and found him sitting on the couch with a shotgun barrel in his mouth. Please help me, he said. I can’t live with it. I told him that I wouldn’t pull the trigger for him because I owed him nothing. I remember that I went into the kitchen and started to unload groceries. I was shaking, sobbing, putting away cans of soup into the dishwasher, bread into the silverware drawer. Waiting for that sound.

Tonight, when he stands up and walks to the door, I cannot stop him. I cannot try. I owe him nothing.

When I wake up, Daniel is still gone. There are smears of blood from my hand on the sheets. He has left me, I think dully and wrap my finger with gauze. My little knife is still lying on the floor. I slide it with my toe underneath the bed.

Janey is making herself breakfast. Bagel in the toaster, jam on the counter, just like when she was six. Where have the past twenty years gone? She says he left an hour ago in the truck. Maybe he’s gone into town, I say to reassure her. She makes some acknowledging sound and I realize that it’s me I’m reassuring. Has he gone now for good?

“Mom?” Janey is standing over me with a bagel in one hand and a butter knife in the other. “I asked what happened to your hand.” I had forgotten about my hand, and now it starts to throb in response to my focus. I tell her that I accidentally cut it on a knife I keep in my bedside table.

“You keep a knife in your bedside table?”

“For murderers. You know, rapists.”

“At Naqasabut Lake? I just don’t see it, Mom.” She is smiling like she wants my approval, and I smile back to let her know that this is nothing to worry about—just a silly mistake, a foolish old lady wounded by her own safeguard.

I tell her I will make banana muffins, her favorite. I try to steady my voice. To focus on the things in front of me—kitchen counter, measuring cup, dish towel—but I am stuck in last night. We sit in silence while the muffins bake. I look anywhere but at the bruise on her face. I listen for the quiet rumble of his truck coming onto the dirt path off the main road, but I hear nothing.

Danny always was a drinker. He used to come home from work every Friday, stumbling up the steps and struggling to fit the key in the lock. I would just leave the door open for him, to make it easier. God, how I loved it then—the sharp whiskey bite of his mouth, the way he’d press me up against the kitchen counter like he’d been dying to taste me. The crazy things he told me when he was drunk—diamonds and vacations and twin boys who would both be astronauts—I believed them.

Then the drinking got worse. We were living in Syracuse and Daniel got laid off from his job as an electrician. I was working as a rich woman’s nanny and waitressing on the side to keep us afloat.

Those were the hard years, but everything changes if you stay long enough. Daniel found other work, temporary at first, and then a better job than before and health benefits besides. We moved from Syracuse to Providence, bought a little house on a hill with a sloping backyard and a birdbath.

It took him seven years after that night to quit drinking. Seven years of rehab centers and basement groups. Of me letting him move home, and then kicking him back out. Driving around town in the middle of the night searching for the one drunk that belonged to me.

After breakfast, I take Janey out to see the roses. I show her the trestle that Daniel made for me, and the way one of the bushes was mismarked at the seed store because it has grown roses the strangest color of violet. “I don’t want to be alone, Mom,” she says while we pluck the thorns from the stems of my incandescent purple roses.

“Has Dad ever hit you?” she asks nervously. I am reminded of when she was younger and she and her friends used to gather around the kitchen table while I made dinner and ask me questions they were too excited to hold in, but too embarrassed to say. They would want to know about how old I was when I lost my virginity, and whom it was with, and if it hurt. It’s the best hurt in the world, I told them then, not because it was true for me, but because I wanted it to be true for them.

But I am sixty-three. What do I have to give anymore but the whole truth? So I tell her yes, and watch her face change and know she did not want to hear the answer.

Later, Janey falls asleep with her head in my lap. The house is quiet now. I imagine Daniel at O’Neil’s Liquor, buying a fifth of Jim Beam, and heading out to the privacy of his truck cab. Daniel parked on a BLM road, hidden by the cover of the trees, wiping clean a shotgun he bought from a pawnshop. Or maybe he’s had the gun all along.

I stare out at the lake; the water is settling for nighttime, the dusk of evening heavy on the surface. Even if Daniel never comes home, I will not change the locks. I will keep his name on the mailbox. Janey will not stay. She is headed back to Texas already in her mind. Even though the bruise is still deep and dark on her face, I cannot stop her from going. We cannot stay away from our hearts too long, or we become listless paper-doll people.

I am woken by the sound of the front door creaking open. It is dark out now. We have slept past dinnertime. All around the lake, the vacation homes are lit up like Christmas lights, blinking at me through the darkness.

He is standing in the living room, with his back to me, stacking three suitcases from biggest to smallest. He is coming to get his clothes. I have seen everything from this man, but never has he left me. It was always me leaving, me kicking him out, me packing suitcases that never got rolled past the door.

But when he turns and sees me, he smiles like the first time we met, when he was just a fish boy at the meat market where I was buying dinner with my mother.

“What are those for?” Janey asks from the patio doorway behind me.

“You need a new suitcase,” Daniel says, and I can see that he’s proud of himself, to have gone out and bought this for her, to make her safe in the world in the only way he has left. I leave him and Janey and go into the kitchen to prepare dinner. When I start to cry, I bend my head over the stove so the tears make little oil splashes in the frying pan. I steady myself on the sides of the stove.

“Are you crying?” Daniel asks from behind me in the way that people who have known each other forever can ask and answer the question in the same breath. He slides an arm around my belly and twirls me around.

“I bought you something too,” he says. He has a plastic bag hanging from his hand and he pulls a hunting knife from it and places it on the counter. It is as long as my forearm, and the packaging says: light enough to carry, strong enough to skin a deer. That’s the Johnson guarantee.

“If I can sleep with you tonight,” he says, “I’ll show you how to use it.”           

And he picks me up laughing and holds me to him, with my feet on tiptoes on the ground. My god, I love this man, I think, and watch the tear spots blossom on his shirt. Over his shoulder, I can see all the hard years blinking in the distance like the lights in the vacation homes on the lake. They’re behind us now.