By James Sullivan
The kids call him Smash Dad when it happens. “Smash Dad, Smash Dad!” chant six-year-old Kevin and Kylie, voices still almost indistinguishably high- pitched. “Ha ha ha.” Robert forces a smile, squinting to repel the enemy light. I can only imagine the gouging pains and gushing nausea he describes because, while we both like to drink, only he gets these hangovers.
He’s never belligerent or weepy when he drinks. At the worst, he’s increasingly amorous, which is no trouble for me once the kids are in bed. We have a grand time, sampling this and that, lots of reds from Sonoma especially. Sometimes, even knowing what it does to him, he’ll indulge in some Californian IPAs: “Gonna let the gorilla hammer me,” he says, releasing the hop aroma. It’s one of the things that maintains the continuity of our university romance as we’ve entered the house-and-kids phase. I remember him carrying my vodka-smashed body like a bundle of loose logs after a post-exam party, performing Matrix bends to protect my head from cabinets and doorknobs. At parties a couple times a year where I choose to over-indulge, I like to relive that old marriage of tenderness and danger by making myself his unwieldy patient, the only one he takes home from the hospital. Later we sip Pedialyte in bed, and I tease him about his least favorite Beatles song (and my favorite physician, “Doctor Robert”) until our new life demands we get up and fix twin breakfasts.
But even his hangovers are atypical, never the balled-up-in-agony, stay-in- bed-all-day kind. It’s more like someone has gently popped loose his brain case, as if opening up the back of a watch, then swirled a paintbrush around in gray matter, dabbed a little of the juices over here, mixed in some tannins and grape skins, and adjusted the dial on the left, producing a new arrangement of my husband’s faculties. Picture George Martin, alcohol surgeon with a slapstick sense of humor. Parts and labor $20, rebate if you recycle the bottles.
Me, the worst I lose is some REM sleep. But Smash Dad, my remixed Robert, better a Bob in this state, he goes haywire. The man lumbers like a Sixties Toho robot (MechaDad is one of my names for this character), neck stiff and limbs clumsy like a 50-meter city destroyer. He inadvertently thumps and elbows into cupboards and door frames and hunts for the jar of pickles, cheeses and mustards and cartons of eggs spilling to the floor as he fumbles: “I know they’re in here, but they’re not in here!” I sense in these moments anger at the end of a long road of banal frustration. Like a hemorrhaged eyeball on a dopily grinning face.
“They’re right here, Smash Dad!” Kevin slides his thin body through his father’s mechanical parts—flickers of child labor in some alarm clock factory— and plucks the fresh jar of pickles free.
“Hand them carefully now,” Smash Dad says, stepping gingerly about the fallen groceries, knowing (probably) he’s just as liable to drop them in this state, his name prophesying shattered glass and a vinegary kitchen for days.
But Smash Dad is a good sport. He indulges us.
The kids like to test his diminished acuity with flash cards. They have amassed a set of one hundred fifty-one crayon illustrations on index cards of everything from the Eiffel Tower to the popillia japonica, which, as Kylie explains after Smash Dad incorrectly guesses her Japanese beetle is an ice cream truck, “cause trouble with their skeleton eyes-ing.” They take Smash Dad’s lethargy as an opportunity to scan Wikipedia for facts to cram into his brain. As in, there you go, Smash Dad, now you know string theory!
When the kids aren’t looking, I play my own games with Smash Dad, who, only when hungover, has no sexual desire. I’ll lie next to him in bed and slide loose a juicy thigh from the covers and coo, “Come on. Smash, Dad. Smash.” His frustrated moaning, so like grinding old gears, brings the kids running: “Smash Dad is rusty again! Get the oil!” Soon they return bearing the oil to treat his rust: lime Gatorade, poured into bottles they use to feed him like a baby, dribbling down his chin.
Sometimes I’m convinced he enjoys the little tortures we inflict on him. Or that he does this to prove to himself he can keep some black familial dog in check. Mental image: Smash Dad smiling nervously as his aggressive hound snarls at a passing lady and her poodle. The tugging leash boa-constricts Smash Dad’s soft hands to pulp. Like around this Christmas when a little too much Cognac in his hot chocolate had Smash Dad making a yuletide appearance. Kevin and Kylie had converted our good cooking pots into drums and were putting in hard hours rehearsing their take on “Little Drummer Boy.” Just for a moment, when Kevin was singing particularly discordantly—and particularly close to Robert’s thumping temples—Robert asked him, “Could you play that shit somewhere else?” Kevin jolted back at the tone of his voice. He was not used to his father ever getting angry with him, especially just for playing noisily. “Honey,” I told him, “give your father a little break, okay?” And Robert’s face went cold. I hadn’t thought it was a big deal. Why shouldn’t he growl a bit when Kevin was being so obnoxious? I only wished I had stepped in on his behalf sooner. But Robert looked as if he had sinned against himself. And I’d wonder later if he’d tightened his control over the black dog then, trained it to heel and shake. But could a person really hold so much back?
Afterward, he’d bought Kevin a new video game—and one for Kylie, too, and then he’d bought me tickets to Paul McCartney because who would re- member his momentary lapse after hearing “Michelle” live?
Maybe his sensitivity came from things that happened growing up. Plenty of people had alcoholic parents who’d snap at them, push them around. Or just let loose with some acid remark that eats through them until the moment they decide the comment was true all along and collapse, dead. But this is the one subject he doesn’t address. Insists there’s just nothing there. And it’s true, his parents have never given me reason to wonder. His mom is a little resentful to- ward me, but that’s because of how she treasures her boy. But still: when he re- sponds to this self-inflicted suffering with Zen expressions melted over his face, he reminds me of a sweating, underpaid wage worker inside Mickey Mouse’s fuzzy skin. About when I start picturing Steamboat Robbie in black and white is when I’ll find him slumped on the arm of a couch (kids prodding his ribs and pulling his fingers until they pop as they sing, “Smash Dad’s out of juice / Smash Dad’s out of juice!”) and bring him a Coca-Cola and hold a cool rag to his head and hum to him in the darkened room—“Take the A Train,” our favorite. And though I miss half the notes, and though the twins’ contrapuntal cacophony must stab in his skull and tempt that black dog’s slobbery fangs, he smiles.
For two months I take my drinks alone. I cast the grapes of Sonora Valley to the sewers a case per week, as if once I’d emptied it all, some debt would be paid, and our lives would return to normal. Purple-stained corks scatter around me like spent shells from a shadow war. My non-robotic body remains blissfully free of hang- overs, though sometimes I wish I’d get brain-scrambled like Robert always did. Just to get everything—everything—off my mind. Meanwhile, I know he’s back at the house, abstaining for his immune system. I understand why he has to stay away from us—six feet is not enough when you’re under one roof, not that we could stick to it anyway, and we don’t understand what we’re dealing with. He’d even proposed his staying in a hotel while we lived in our home without him! I’d insisted the kids and I stay with his mother Alice, find a way to get along. But now I’m not sure that even being at home comforts him much. I wonder how he’s passing his hours there, but I realize before long that there’s not enough bandwidth—physical or mental—for much more than fitful sleep and unsavored meals.
At first, we talked nightly. About the fear. The uncertainty. The endlessly convoluted red tape crossing every path and PPE supply insufficiencies and in- surance reimbursement cuts smuggled by lobbyists into relief bills, the hours clawing away at sleep and rest and the shortage of space even to keep the bod- ies let alone the patients and so often the absence of any clear method to help people who are suffering so badly, coughing, straining for breath, and then the patient who, on hearing his diagnosis, hanged himself in his room. I tried after that to steer away from shop talk. Part selfishly. Partly because, I admit, I don’t know how to talk with him about something that seems to have no upside. I just don’t want to create an endless loop of despair. Every couple has a weak point they must protect, and that’s ours: we need his optimism, or we might pull each other down.
Despair finds us anyway in a moment of celebration: the twins turn seven. Seven-year-olds will accept canceled roller skating at the arcade (last year’s out- ing), and they can accept that maybe we shouldn’t even go sledding on the hill behind their school because we don’t know who will be there and don’t know so much else and even the fact that we decide it’s better not to let Ash, their mutual best friend and third Musketeer, inside the house when Ash drops off a gift—because of Grandma Alice. We have her pass it from her gloved hands to mine before I wipe its shimmering wrapping paper with Clorox towelettes. They can accept all of that. What’s harder is accepting their father on a tablet screen, face glitched into jagged Zoom pixels.
“But I want to see Dad,” Kevin says. “You said we could see Dad.”
“Here he is, honey,” I tell him between sips. “See? Dad.” I hold the tablet to my chest like it’s an old photograph and maybe so I don’t have to look at his puffy face, darkened eyes. “Show him the TikTok dance you learned.”
“Mom, I want to play with him.”
“Fine. Kylie, you hold this and play with your brother. You be Dad now.”
“Can you turn him up?” Grandma Alice asks.
“Now Kevin, you be a good little boy,” Kylie booms low and gravelly behind the tablet. “Bring me the gorilla drink.”
“Hey, I don’t like this gorilla talk,” Robert crackles from the tablet speakers. Grandma is straining to catch it. “Where’d you hear that?”
“Careful, don’t drop my son.”
“I’m okay, Grandma!” Kylie says, roles getting all confused. “Now where are my gorillas.”
“Mom this is dumb. I just want to play WWE with Dad.”
“I don’t feel like it anyway,” Kylie says, dropping the dad role. “You never tag me in.”
“Kevin, we can play another day. Kylie, can you give me back to Mom? I need to talk to her.”
“What’s the matter?” My better judgment sinks deeper into the sea of Sauvignon. “Too cool to wrestle your mom?”
“What are you talking about?” Kevin says. “Sit down before you spill, Mom.” Maybe he takes it as his turn to play the father.
“Dear, he’s right,” Alice says. She’s always needled me with criticisms. That protectiveness—maybe even possessiveness—with which mothers can some- times treat their sons once they join another family. “Take that glass to the kitchen. You are tipsy.”
“My gorilla has arrived!” Kylie announces, putting the tablet into its stand on the counter, and as soon as my glass is down, I get her in a headlock, noogy- ing her skull gently to inflict a controlled agony.
“You’ll never be international featherweight champion at this rate!”
“Kevin! Ow! Tag!”
“Oh, be careful of my fridge,” Alice says.
“Honey, what are you doing?” Robert Zooms at us. “You don’t have to go this far.”
“Ahaha, this one can’t beat me alone. Maybe I’ll give her the piledriver!”
“No!” Kylie shrieks. “Kevin, help!”
“This is dumb,” Kevin says. “You can’t do it right.”
“I’ll just pop her little head off then, a little twist here—oh I can feel her neck loosening!”
“Kevin, tag in!”
“I can’t understand these games,” Alice says. “Try not to break anything or any of the kids—we can’t just waltz into the hospital, you know.”
“That’s right,” Robert says. “Honey, maybe you shouldn’t—”
Kevin gives me an overhead slam—he only reaches my shoulder blades—but I sell the move and reel in agony, releasing Kylie. They pummel me with a tag team flurry of little twin fists until I’m on the ground and they’ve jointly pinned me.
“Where’s the ref?” Kevin says, looking to Grandma Alice who has slipped into a cup of tea where viruses and strange daughters-in-law and screaming kids and sons on strange screens with tinny voices can’t reach.
“One, two,” the father says in a cheery voice that doesn’t seem entirely to convince even his kids, “three.” And I’m defeated to save the party.
We burn off the sugar-high from sheet cake and powdered-juice mix. We also embody a picture of life without Robert, how we would move on. No way out of the bind: either we pout and whine, or we find a way to make it fun without him, where the three of us can take turns playing his role and stretch ourselves over the space he’s left, like sealing off a room to keep danger out. His face on the tablet, glass and wires and miles separating us, is bloodless gray.
We locate a small factory that sells us a box of their N95 masks, but he’s asleep when I stop by the house, so I just leave them on the counter and step quietly out of my home. From groceries dropped in the trunk to words of love between husband and wife, it was all “no contact.”
Kevin fights his mask. While epidemiologists on the TV warn against touching one’s face, he’s slipping fingers under his to scratch his nose, ad- just this edge or that, or bunch it up into a symbolic gag as if he were some free speech protester. Kylie is easier to manage in this regard, as she’s grown fond of the coverings that she helps grandma make in the living room, experimenting with new fabrics and patterns and ear loops to maximize comfort. The only trouble is how long she can delay us on any outing as she chooses from among a floor full of crinkled patches of cloth before choos- ing, inevitably, houndstooth. With their masks on they look like inverted luchadores, all exposed but their mouths and noses. Deprived of most outdoor activities, they take to practicing high-flying maneuvers, shout- ing words like “Libre!” and “El Santo!” and “Mysterio!” free of context. Kylie requests chimichangas for dinner one night after a particularly intense training session (“Máscara contra máscara!”), but unsure of whether to encourage them, I order a “no contact” pizza instead. They eat with masks strapped on foreheads, slumping over their eyes so they look like blind taste-testers assessing the flavor profile of Pizza Hut cheese. Somehow, we end up with more leftovers than usual.
I ask Robert about the twins and their luchador antics and what to do—both in the ring and about the masks. Do I let them play with them? How often should I be washing them? How safe is it really performing a German suplex on your brother? I can’t see his reaction—he hasn’t wanted to FaceTime because his eyes are tired, he says, and the tightly-strapped PPE have etched indentations into his skin—but he is silent. My jokes haven’t landed, and my concerns seem lost in some muck he’s soaking in. Social distance begins to literalize, no longer merely a physical alienation but now emotional. It’s airborne, hovering in the vibrations caught by our phones’ receivers.
“Honey, are you there?” I ask, and something goes wrong—I think—in the connection. A low gurgle rasps through the tiny speaker, loud, sharp enough that it might poke my eardrum, but it couldn’t do that as only sound, which is the rational thought chased away by a low, hostile growl.
The signal cuts. Call ended 15:34. Did I hang up? Did he?
The screen lights back up and trembles in my palm: he’s calling right back. He was having trouble hearing me, so he’d hung up. What was I just saying? he asks. Sorry, he says, his head is just scrambled, and he can’t remember what we were talking about. And I’m tired too, and this is one of those moments when you lose the will to repeat yourself to your partner, and then the implication of that floats down upon you, gripping tightly on your shoulder to announce its presence.
Kylie, in practicing a new finisher technique she calls the “No Contact Atomic Drop,” scrapes Kevin’s head on a bedpost. Kevin chokes back tears while his sister carries him on her back to me, begging me not to tell Dad, which surprises me—he’s no strict disciplinarian, is he? Or has she, like the rest of us, taken to trying to shield her father from stressors, as he’s shielding us from so much? We’re all holding something back. Masked and bound, restrained and leashing simultaneously.
Kylie and I treat the red stripe on Kevin’s head together, cleaning with soap and water that make him cringe and then melt in relief. I show Kylie how to fit the bandage with a dab of Neosporin, and then we run Kevin through their pile of flash cards. He moans through the answers and stumbles only briefly over the yellow-shafted flicker, which Kylie has sketched in colored pencil, its bright red patch mirroring Kevin, who seems to be just fine, if a little shaken at his sister’s powerful wrestling style.
Then they quiz me. Up pops a scope of some kind. What is it? “Steffascope, Mom!” Next a building I’m sure I know from some European scene, although— and this is Kevin’s work—the colors have been creatively reimagined as bright pink and green. Is it the Tomb of Sol-dad Inconnu? “Mom, it’s the Lark do Tree- umph!” It doesn’t take long before our flubbed pronunciations and exhaustion lead to a sort of cryptophasic mother-and-her-twins infantile babble as they tease me with things I can no longer recall. We end up napping in a tangle of twinning arms and legs and grandmother-scented blankets and cushions.
But scent has been, for weeks, virtually all we’ve had of grandmother. Alice has taken to her room as if it were a bunker. I keep checking the rolls of tape in her drawers, eyeballing the amount left on the spools, just to see if she’s trying to seal the door up, keep particles out. CNN drones from her room when she emerges for meals, and it’s a never-ending chant of terrors that, creaking forth from her bedroom door, wakes me from the exhausted pile of our family. “What was all the commotion earlier?” she asks, easing herself onto a chair. The twins, at the sound of an irritated voice, slither to life like animated skele- tons, rising a bone at a time, and rattle off toward the bedroom where they’ve set up their Nintendo Switch. There a game contains a menagerie of animals bartering and building homes in a world where the only viruses are digital—and firewalled by competent programmers.
“Just some roughhousing,” I say. “I took care of it.” I’m still rubbing sleep from my eyes, but I can tell she’s observing me peripherally. The whole world needs places to fix blame. And me too.
“Did Kevin . . . ”
“Kevin took a little bump,” I say. “I took care of him.”
“Did you now?” she says, and I face her. She stands in an angle of last sunlight, rubbing her eyes and looking, really for the first time I’ve noticed, old enough for her age. Tired. Not even energy enough to wear an expression of contempt. She looks only sad. “I’m sorry,” she says. “I think I’m worried about Robert. And I’ve got to put the worry somewhere.” Voices murmur from the bedroom. I picture their space linked to mine, linked to Robert’s, and then connected to his mother’s all by those pneumatic bank tubes. We shoot all kinds of fears and suppressed traumas back and forth free of context for the other generation to receive, interpret, remodel, and send back. We load the capsules up with overflowing handfuls of Tootsie Frooties (Kylie hogs the blue raspberry ones via threat of German suplex) and hope the sweetness makes the rest go down. Intergenerational inheritance properly social distanced—the Way of Tomorrow.
“Have you heard anything? I mean, other than what he tells me.”
“I’m not even sure how I’d talk to him. These phones and Zooms. Can I use my land line?”
Why not send him a slice of your pound cake via the tubes? I almost say. “I’m sure he’d be happy if you did.”
It’s that hour when the light retreats from the day. If anyone were inclined, we might stand up and flick on a light. Instead the blue washes away from us, and rising dark guards our expressions. Which is good because, maybe we’re both aware, this is probably an hour Robert might be available. One of us could call. But we’re tired of the updates. Unsure of how to dance around the sub- jects of patient deaths and viral loads. He’s lost track somewhere of how much he ought to be telling us—talking in nightmare detail about the experience of drowning, trapped in a maze of plastic dividers, in one’s own fluids, coughing at an endless reservoir. How to be there for him? We can’t, literally. Increasingly, we can’t emotionally. I can’t even feign ignorance of cell phones to shirk the duty. But we have this darkened hour in which to hide from each other.
I stand. Not for the lights but for a glass.
“Wouldn’t you pour me one,” she says, as if deciding last second to speak up.
“I didn’t think you indulged.”
“I’ve never had a taste for it. Not like you two,” she says, and then stops the digression before it can begin, somehow detecting my irritation even in this dimmed room. “What I mean is, I suppose it’s a waste, living here, and never appreciating all the work that goes in.”
I bring our glasses around. When I hand hers over, I’m careful not to let our fingers come in contact—germophobia cranked to ten? fear of touch?—but also careful not to be too careful because she can handle a glass, after all, dear. And maybe hoping this is a chance for us, I almost go for a “cheers” but rethink it. Missed the shot. She takes a long while sniffing timidly at the rim of the glass before finally tasting it, recoiling slightly, and going in for another, longer sip.
We say nothing. This kind of pause makes me anxious. So used to filling si- lence with cell phone streams of information—what’s trending? Who’s in trou- ble today? What are they saying about who online? What are the latest case and death totals?—I find it hard to bear breaks in stimulation. Wine glass in one hand, cell in the other. Modern, anesthetized. But here we are in a frozen analog moment. Grandma Alice is in her element, tech-free. The smacking sound at the end of each sip is like the drip of water torture until I can’t take it anymore.
“Did Robert ever get, you know,” I say, having suddenly stepped into terri- tory I’d been eyeing from the outside, as if some kind of peeping Tom. I don’t even know how to ask the question, or what the question really is except that I don’t know that corner of my husband’s mind, and the world is threatening to pry open whatever’s inside. “Did he ever get angry as a boy?”
Smack smack smack.
“Angry?” comes Alice’s voice from the gray shape of her.
I drain my glass and then sit stupidly looking into the glass as if the shadow might condense into another mouthful. My mouth grows incredibly sticky with tannins. I want to get up for more, but I worry what she’ll think, and I’ve also just opened this line of discussion.
“I mean, you know how good-natured he always is,” I say. She turns my way a bit. Her hand moves against her drink producing one of those pale glassy notes. “I just sometimes get the feeling he’s . . . I don’t know, holding something back. A part of himself he’s afraid of. It’s probably in my head.”
With a quickness that jolts me, Alice rises, slips behind me, and lifts my empty glass from my hand.
“This is sad,” she says, and I soon hear the glug of refills from the kitchen behind me. I’ve never known Alice to have even one drink, let alone serve her- self a second at my pace. “Here you are,” she says, easing the weighty second dip into my hand.
“We’d better one of us keep our heads on,” I say, gesturing toward the other room where the twins are still managing their animal town.
I coat my mouth in more of Sonoma’s finest. This would be the point in a normal evening—an evening from before all the trouble started—when Robert would start getting lovey, both of us flush warm and forgetful. That’s the side of him I have to myself. Instead of relaxed, though, I’m anxious. Instead of calm and safe, I’m vulnerable. Exposed somehow. Like a room of colleagues is laughing at a joke about me, one I haven’t quite gotten yet. What sides of Robert does Alice hold within? A whirl of dizziness hits, and not knowing what else to do I take a long gulp to let the volume of liquid pull me down. I feel like I am sinking, alone.
“It’s probably just in my head,” I say again, mostly to myself. As if the words were protection.
“Well, Robbie . . . I must admit when he was younger, when he was coming up, there were times . . . ” A shaking of stiff, white curls. “It’s the age.”
That’s all Alice says. She slips into a nap after two and a half more sips. Amidst the clacking of buttons, Kevin and Kylie’s gleeful voices rise. I peek in on them quickly after re-filling my glass. They’re dressing a dog character in a top hat and an argyle vest. His eyelids sag, and his tongue hangs. Poor boy. If only we could see our attributes so clearly, pick our faces. Assemble a house- hold of idealized creatures all to our own specifications. But it’s not so easy. We can’t always see the characters we’re building in each other.
I return to Alice, who is asleep. I swallow my fresh glassful in a quiet toast to Robert and pour in the rest of the bottle. What Alice has on the end of her leash, what salivating mutt, what glass-pounding silverback, what secret inner creature within my husband, I can only imagine. Her snores might be the rumble of a history untold, perhaps forgotten. Or just waiting to surface.
When we’re home, finally home, Robert’s waiting awkwardly, body stiff in the middle of the entryway. He stumbles forward slightly, as if learning to balance again after decades on a shelf. His arm rises robotically in greeting, eyes scanning the room, darting for signals and reactions. Like this is the first human moment he can remember, and he barely recalls.
“Smash Dad!” Kylie says, and Kevin agrees. “It’s Smash Dad.”
I’d had my first major hangover the morning after my brief chat with Grandma Alice. I’d lumbered around the house, heels thumping in the kitchen and den—“You walk like an ape,” Alice grumbled over coffee, and I threw my head back in laughter, if only in gratitude for her candor—smiling like a moron at the kids to hide the pain behind my teeth. Later I’d called Robert and com- plained and cried and said what I could and that we needed to see him. He gave it some thought and told me: wait two weeks.
How he pulled strings, what ultimatum he issued at the hospital, I’m not sure. But he took those two weeks off to quarantine for us—plus, negative in- fection status assured, a three-day weekend. Three days before he’d have to go back to the hours in the ICU that threatened to break his body and spirit. Three days when maybe we could wrestle and laugh and drink and stumble achingly in ways our kids will grow up and realize they will never speak of because, from the outside, you can’t see it as love.
My mechanical man creaks and stutters forward, sparks flying from the creased metal that strains into expression, a steely smile. The kids run to him and bind his legs and I barely know it before I’ve run to him too, and he gathers us up in his cold, bionic arms, grabs tight, squeezing, and I feel he just might crush us, summoning his last reserve of strength.
James Sullivan is the author of Harboring, a novelette available July 2023 from ELJ Editions. His stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Cimarron Review, The Normal School, Third Coast, Fourth Genre, Phoebe, and Fourteen Hills among others. In 2022, he was a finalist for the Tobias Wolff Award for Fiction. Connect with him on twitter @jfsullivan4th