by Jay King
The mind can play games.
The Man in the Pantry
Sometimes things are worse than we imagine.
"Mom," Gregory said, "there's a man in the pantry. His eyes are all red, and he wants to know where Dad is."
My mother was already near hysteria because my father hadn't come home from work yet and hadn't called. He probably got drunk when he left work and was killed in an accident on the interstate or pinned in the wreckage and horribly disfigured, she thought.
And now, a strange man lurked in the pantry and he wanted to know where my father was.
My father said that prison had changed him and that everything would be different-- that he was different, but my mother refused to believe it. The slightest misstep on my father's part unleashed from my mother a torrent of accusations which lasted through dinner and continued after Gregory and I went to bed. She called him a bum and a backslider, but since he had been released from prison, he hadn't raised his voice to my mother. Not once.
Our family life suffered regular tumult for as long as I could remember. Once, our car was torched after my father lost a card game and reneged on the bet. After that, we moved across town. There, he became involved with rough looking characters who sported large tattoos on their forearms and drove old, beat-up luxury automobiles. They came to the house at all hours demanding money from my father.
Eventually, we moved to a new neighborhood on De Salvo Street to get away from them. Our new place was a white shotgun house near the river, in an older part of town. The intricate gingerbread wood trim bedecked the front porch, and a black wrought-iron fence surrounded the small yard. The neighborhood reflected the same level of poverty as the other ones we lived in, but the architecture drew my mother to the house immediately, even though the exterior paint had peeled to reveal naked boards of cypress. She said that it reminded her of a drawing of a house she had seen on the cover of an old romance novel years before.
The owner asked for more rent than my father could afford, so my mother took in sewing and laundry to augment my father's always-too-small paycheck. All was well for a few months until one morning we found our dog hanging from a tree in the back yard, strangled with a length of clothesline. Then, one Sunday morning, Gregory spotted smoke coming from the rear passenger seats of the car. There was nothing that we could do but watch the flames consume the car while we waited for the fire truck to arrive.
Shortly afterward, the guys who set fire to our cars framed my father for burglarizing a pawnshop. My father took the advice of the public defender and pleaded guilty in the belief that he would receive a suspended sentence. Instead, the court sent him to a year in prison without parole. Gregory and I were in fourth and fifth grade then. My mother couldn't forget that year, and Gregory couldn't forgive either my mother or my father for the hardship and uncertainty of those twelve months.
When the state released my father, he promised us that things would be different. He would finish high school at night. Maybe he could study for an embalmer's license, he said.
When we finally moved away from the city, my father had just gotten a job with a company my mother had never heard of working a position for which she said he was not qualified. It seemed impossible that our lot in life had truly improved, but the evidence was there: a new couch and a television set with a real rabbit ears antenna instead of a bent coat hanger covered with aluminum foil.
That year our material lives improved by exactly one leap and one bound.
My mother was disappointed that my father rented a place out in the woods of Utica. He said that it was a tradeoff: a long drive to work in exchange for cheap rent in a big, two-story, black-shuttered, white Cape Cod.
Besides, he argued, trouble could not find him out there.
My mother bore the isolation and loneliness of Utica with the same silent bitterness with which she bore every other disappointment in her marriage to my father. She walked us the half mile to the school bus stop every morning and for the rest of the day she sat alone in the drafty old house whose sole furnishings consisted of a lawn chair, three beds, the new couch and the tv, and a refrigerator that came with the kitchen.
"Oh, my God," my mother said, putting her knuckle to her mouth, swallowing a cry of deep terror. She pushed Gregory and me through the front door and we ran to the end of the driveway.
I watched my mother's face while she played the horror of the man in the pantry over and over in her mind. We stood in the crushed gray gravel and faced the house, expecting the man in the pantry to burst through the front door but he never did.
An unusually cool breeze blew from the woods behind the house and stirred the overgrown, dead grass on the lawn. After an hour or so, my father drove up in the noisy old Dodge my mother's brother had given us.
"My God, Phil. Where were you? There's someone in the pantry and he's looking for you. He's going to kill you. Don't go in there. Let's just leave," she pleaded. My mother collapsed onto the jagged gravel and cried; although I couldn't see, I knew that she had cut her knees in the fall. "Where were you?" she cried.
My father put her in the car, and she grappled him and begged him not to leave her.
"It's alright, Janey," he assured her. "He's probably a neighbor. It's nothing."
The smell of Chinese take-out filled the car. It was Friday and Dad had cashed his paycheck and bought dinner at Lee Chong's. A small stream of red sweet-and-sour sauce dripped from the white take-out bag onto the gray vinyl car seat.
"Where is he, Gregory?" my father asked cautiously, gripping a rusty tire iron.
"He's in the pantry, Dad. He's bleeding. He has a knife and he said that he owes you something." Gregory broke open a fortune cookie, then threw the pithy prediction through the car window unread.
My father's face grew ashen. I had never seen him scared before.
It was dusk and the house was dark. We watched from the car as the light in each room flashed on and remained on, indicating that my father had secured it.
When the porch light shone, my father emerged from the house, motioning for us to come in. Whomever Gregory had met in the pantry left the house through the back door unseen.
We ate dinner without conversation. My mother sobbed loudly, crumpled onto the backrest of the couch, her head buried in her arm. When all of the food was gone, Gregory and I went to bed. We didn't want to hear the gush of my mother's boiling geyser of angry accusations.
Gregory and I lay in our beds in the dark, pretending not to hear my mother's shouts. The moon illuminated the room with a sickly, pale light; the shadows of the windowpane hung upon the wall like the bars of a jail cell. I heard the sheets rustle as my brother sat up in his bed.
"Hey dumb ass," Gregory hissed.
"What?" I whispered back. I usually didn't answer to the terrible things he called me, but I was so relieved that the man in the pantry was gone that I responded anyway.
"Were you scared?" he asked.
"Yeah," I said. "I was real scared." I didn't ask how Gregory felt. He rarely said or did anything to betray his emotions.
He lay down and rolled onto his side away from me. I lay on my back with my arms behind my head, staring at the wall, watching the awful faces swirl in the grain of the knotty pine paneling.
"Watch what happens the next time Dad comes home late," he said and pulled the covers to his chin.