When we were younger, we told time by our favorite television shows. An episode of Hey Arnold: fifteen minutes. Rugrats, Rocket Power, Doug: all just under a half hour. On weekdays we’d wake up one episode early to watch Otto and Reggie Rocket before school while our mother, dressed in her pink flower bathrobe, made us breakfast in the kitchen. Mornings were always so easy with just the three of us, you having already left for work. Still in our pajamas, we’d sprawl out on the blue-carpeted living room floor and eat Lucky Charms or a bagel and cream cheese while mom hummed nearby, her short blonde hair tied back with a scrunchie, cutting two turkey sandwiches into special shapes or writing secret notes that would make us smile during lunch at school. We’d watch an episode’s end and wait for the theme song to introduce another, hoping to squeeze as much time in before we’d have to scramble to get dressed, grab our lunch boxes—one purple, the other dark blue—and sprint to avoid missing the bus. We’d catapult ourselves through the mudroom you’d built onto our garage and wonder what time you had driven off in your big silver pickup-truck, our last name emblazoned on the side, to go build back decks or redo someone’s kitchen. You were always already gone when we woke up.
At night, after the four of us had eaten dinner and our mother washed and put away the dishes, we’d beg to watch Tommy Pickles before bed—just one more show, just one more. We’d get down on our knees, clasp our hands together and squeeze our eyes shut and pray to you, our father, for just thirty more minutes. You’d stand there, towering above us with your thumbs hooked in your Levi’s pockets, and look down at our bowed heads, one bowl-cut, one shaggy-banged, begging at your feet. For a minute, maybe two, you’d squint your eyes and scrunch your face, tilt your head from side to side and stretch out one long nooooo, that fooled us into thinking we’d lost. Our hands would fall to our sides, our heads dropping down, and we’d look to the floor in defeat before you’d walk past our mother to the fridge, reach for the bottom shelf and, with your head still inside, acquiesce: all right, but just one. It happened this way most nights, you letting us stay up a little later than usual, but only after we’d prayed long enough for you to feel your power over us.
In the kitchen, as we ran hot water over our spoons, grabbed a tub of Breyer’s cookie dough ice cream from the freezer, and scooped more than we were supposed to into our bowls, we’d steal glances at you sitting in the room next to us: your dark blue eyes focused on the television screen; your thick, German mustache wet with a mixture of sweat and booze; a ratty, sweat-yellowed t-shirt that had seen too many hot days working on rooftops in the sun’s heat. Your belly, swollen with years of Milwaukee’s Best, would rise and fall with each breath that passed through your big, sun-burned nose. We’d watch from a distance, far enough from your beer-soaked breath so that it couldn’t fill our smaller, paler noses with the smell that was you, and we’d wonder how a man never thirsted for anything but “the Best.” Sometimes our mother would sneak up behind us, squeeze our sides with her thin, bony fingers until we squealed, and whisper that there were sprinkles hidden in the pantry. We could smell her vanilla lotion as she bent to tell us goodnight, kissed our foreheads and disappeared upstairs. Watching her go, we’d shake rainbows over our bowls while asking ourselves questions that we’d never ask you. How many do you think he’ll let us watch tonight? How many before he falls asleep? How many drinks has he had so far? You were the type of man who always changed your mind so suddenly and without warning. Some days we’d ask you to take us to get black raspberry milkshakes at Eddie’s downtown, your favorite, and you’d tell us to go get our shoes on. By the time we came back dressed and dancing on our tip toes, you’d be grabbing a can from the fridge and making your way out front towards the lake: It’s too hot, you’d tell us. Or maybe, the boats need to be pulled in before dinner. Something always came up. So on nights when you’d tell us we could stay up for another show, maybe only because it meant you didn’t have to do anything, we were too happy to question your reasoning.
Ready to make our way back into the living room where you sat waiting in the fading denim armchair that matched the fading denim couch, we held our bowls of ice cream up above our heads like trophies, and, sloppy-socked and screeching in anticipation for another half hour with you, we’d slide across the kitchen’s wooden floors until we hit the living room carpet. We’d leap off the threshold and plop into our regular spots on either end of the couch and, quickly settling in, we’d sneak a glance at you and then at each other. Do you think he saw us sliding? we wondered silently, Did you see him almost smile?
Back then, we would do anything to make you smile, which, we learned after enough episodes of Rugrats, came easier after you’d gotten up two, three times for one more can of Milwaukee’s Best. We loved watching with you, loved it even more when we could look over and see you watching with us. We loved when you’d get another, loved it even when you’d ask us to get one for you before we slid back into the living room on our socks, because another beer meant another episode spent in your company. Eventually it became so constant you didn’t even need to ask anymore; you’d just shake the empty can like a servant’s bell, and another would quickly replace it. Each night we learned to pause, replace, resume to get thirty more minutes. We’d make sure you never went without, because we were too afraid to find out what things your hands might search for if they weren’t filled with cans. A plate, a wife’s arm, a china bowl. We knew how thin the line we teetered on was by giving you more, fueling your impending mood swings, but we also knew an empty hand was often worse than the alternative.
We chose to keep running to the kitchen, keep opening the refrigerator door and bringing you can after can because it helped keep you happy a little longer. And when you were happy, so were we, sitting cross-legged on the denim couch past our bedtimes, balancing our green plastic bowls and their melting cookie dough ice cream in our laps. Sometimes a spoonful too big and it’d drip down our chins like the white wax that fell from candle wicks we’d pray to on Sunday mornings in church. We’d look at each other and our messy little faces, giggle, wipe away the drops with the backs of our hands before you could see. Sometimes, you’d doze off during one of our shows and we’d lean forward on the couch, reach for the duct-taped remote control, and quietly press its fading rewind button to turn back time. We’d re-watch the same episode twice, sometimes three times, desperately clinging on to these moments. Holding onto these peaceful nights, when the house was quiet save for the voices of our favorite characters, the only anger coming from cartoons that could never actually hurt us. We were happy to sit in the same room, even with your closed eyes and your snoring, even when both started to come one episode, then two, too early. We were happy even when you would snort and jolt back awake, check your watch, and groggily tell us to get upstairs, did we have any idea what time it was? Oops! we’d yell in unison, tossing our empty bowls onto the table in front of us and pretending we had no idea. But we were three Hey Arnold’s past ten o’clock, of course we knew. Still, we’d pretend, because we had already re-started this episode twice while your eyes were closed, and we were afraid to see what might start playing if we pushed you too far.
After all the nights when you’d get home two or three shows later than usual from work, we learned to be afraid. Our mother, frantically dancing between stovetop burners, would tell us to turn off the television, wash our hands, help her set the table for dinner; four plates, four napkins, four glasses of milk. We were always already sitting at the dining room table, telling each other about what we did at school that day or laughing easily at our mother’s jokes, while Delilah played on the radio. Four place settings and one empty chair waiting; a pot of potatoes and corned beef, maybe a tray of kielbasa and sauerkraut, always a basket of bread sat before us in the center of a lace table runner. Four glasses of milk poured and sweating, only three to be drunk, and we’d smile when at last you’d stumble home to us. Coming in the side door attached to the mudroom with your work coat half-zipped and your boots loosely tied, you’d throw the door shut behind you. Not angrily, but loudly enough to let us know you were home and hungry. We’d never ask why you were late; maybe we already knew or maybe we were just happy enough to have you back. You’d make your way into the dining room, as we clasped our hands a little tighter under the table, and you’d stop at the fridge on your way before falling heavily into your seat. Thy kingdom come, we’d unclasp our hands and reach for our daily bread.
One night, you were almost three episodes of the Rugrats later than usual, so our mother started to sweep the kitchen floor, preload the dishwasher, fold the still-warm laundry until you arrived. We sat at the table and played rock paper scissors to keep ourselves busy. We were tired, we were famished, we were tempted by the food before us. You entered through the side door, no different than any other night, but you slammed it with more than your usual strength that night. You called to our mother, spoke with her in hushed tones between the counter and the island of our kitchen as if we weren’t there at all. We didn’t know whether or not to keep looking, or if we should pretend to not know what was going on, so went back to rock paper scissors. Your voice, yours only, grew louder behind us as we played on. We kept pretending not to notice until a plate, or was it was a wine glass, shattered on the floor. We turned around to see you standing above her, your large arms flanking her tiny body as she shrank beneath you. Another dish against the wall. She begged your forgiveness. A china bowl.
The only show we watched that night was you. There was no way for us to press fast forward, no way to skip past it, this, our least favorite episode. We could only watch as it played on, and so we did. And so the volume grew louder and louder, so loud that we covered over ears with our hands to try to keep out the noise, and we squeezed our eyes shut over plates empty and waiting to be filled with mashed potatoes and steak, and we screamed out our prayers to ourselves at a table set for four, and while our hell kept coming, our prayers unanswered, I opened my eyes to see my brother’s head had fallen to his plate, mouth agape, tears streaming from his eyes, begging our father to stop, stop. I stared. Confused. This boy, my brother. Bewildered, broken, but still asking to be saved by the man towering over our mother. I knew then that he was asking the wrong questions. Ones that would never be answered. That night I began praying to a new god.
When we were younger, our clock was an oversized, pewter gray television set that towered over our small bodies in a blue-carpeted living room with fading denim furniture, and time was told by the hands of cartoon characters. We’d spend hours each day pressing pause on our duct-taped remote control, rewind ourselves back to moments that weren’t filled with broken plates, milk glasses untouched, a trash can brimming with empty cans of Milwaukee’s Best. We’d skip past scenes we didn’t care for, pause time and hold ourselves in nights of staying up past our bedtimes with plastic bowls of melting cookie dough ice cream, when the house was filled with voices that never yelled louder than we wanted them to. If we could, we would re-watch all the episodes when our father, hallowed be thy name, could stop after two or three drinks.
It’s been years since we’ve last watched one of these shows. We moved out of our childhood home, away from blue-carpeting living room floors and a fading denim couch stained with ice cream. We moved out of that town, out of that decade, and started watching new shows on new television sets with new company. We’ve stopped pressing rewind, pause, fast-forward on duct-taped remote controls because we’ve learned how to keep watching episodes even if they’re not our favorite. We don’t watch with each other these days because we live half a country apart and, maybe, we might not like the same shows anymore. Instead, we call each other every so often, send texts on birthdays or holidays from our different states. We update each other on our lives: your job with the state and mine with a school; things that are true and concrete and anything but cartoon characters. And after fifteen, maybe thirty minutes have passed, and the conversation begins to slow, one of us will say we have to run an errand, start making dinner, walk the dog, and we’ll say our goodbyes. We’ll hang up our phones, see each other’s names still lit up on our screens, and we’ll watch the call fade away until our home screens come into view, where a digital clock with numbers, not cartoon characters, tells us what time it is.