The Dad was Drinking

The dad was drinking but only the dad knew about it so, in the middle of the night, when the kid’s cough became loud and unnerving, resembling a seal’s bark, it was only normal for the mom to ask the dad to take the kid out for a drive.

“With the window open a bit. To let her breathe the cold air.” The mom was suddenly overcome by a sneeze. Her head recoiled with the force of it. She wiped her nose with a ball of crumpled tissue in her fist. Her eyelids looked heavy, had for a few days, and her nostrils and lips were chapped. “Info-Santé said you jack the heat. And cover her with blankets. I’d do it, but—” The mom stopped as another sneeze struck. She shrugged her shoulders, wiped at her nose again, and sniffed loudly.

The dad pretended to have to go to the bathroom and left the mom to dress the kid in her snowsuit. He sat on the toilet seat and put his face in his hands and thought about the kid’s small hands and how difficult it was to get them inside mittens, and he fell asleep.

The dad woke to tapping on his shoulder. “Come on,” the mom said. “She’s ready now.”

The dad had been a dad for nearly eighteen months. After the kid was born, he learned how to change a diaper and how to warm a bottle and how to sit the kid on his lap, support her gently by the chin, and pat her on the back until she burped. He learned the secret to solving the puzzle of buttons on a onesie was to always begin with the very bottom snap, down along the foot. He learned to leave new bottles of gin in the trunk of his car until the mom was asleep. He learned to alleviate his hangovers – with varying success – with Sausage McMuffins, medium black coffees, and short naps in the car before work.

What the dad liked to do at night while the mom and the kid slept upstairs was drink gin and Sprite on the couch with the lights out and watch art house movies on his laptop with his headphones on. The dad was a quiet and undemanding drunk.

The kid was sitting on the floor in front of the vestibule doorway, looking inflated and immobile in her snowsuit. She coughed her terrible seal bark and cried a little and barked again. The mom crouched down beside the kid and stroked her head while speaking quiet and comforting words. The dad stepped around them elegantly and put on his jacket and gloves. “You better wear a tuque,” the mom said. “It’s going to be cold in the car.” The dad pretended this was all perfectly comprehensible.

He opened the front door to blowing snow. The snow appeared, somehow, to be falling upward. For an astonished moment, the dad observed the scene. Then he surmised it was only the wind whipping snow up from where it had collected on the front porch. “It’s just the wind,” he told the mom in a serious manner. “It’s just whipping snow up from the porch.”

“Okay, um, thanks for the weather update.” The mom laughed a little at her own joke. The dad took the mom’s laughter as a cue to laugh, too. Then the mom coughed and the dad stopped laughing.

Outside, he slogged through the snow from the front door to the driveway, not really lifting his feet at all. He started the car and blasted the heat. The mom opened the back door and deposited the kid into the car seat. “Thank you for making that path,” she sang. The dad understood she was talking to him and he understood the juvenile intonation was for the kid’s benefit but he had no idea what the mom was talking about.

Once the kid was strapped in, the mom closed the back door and backed away. The dad put the car into reverse. The mom jumped up and down and waved her arms like she was signalling to an airplane overhead. The dad put the car into park again. The mom approached the dad’s window. “You have to open her window a bit!” She mimed rolling down a car window manually. “She has to breathe the cold air. To open her airway.” Her voice was muffled on the other side of the glass. The dad saluted and cracked open the kid’s window with a button on the driver’s side control panel.

As he drove away from the house, the dad summoned all of his powers of concentration. Still he gunned the gas pedal and, in an attempt to compensate, hit the brakes too hard. His stomach cramped. He felt a sweat form on his brow. He glanced back at the house. The mom was still in the driveway, waving goodbye. Tentatively, the dad tried the gas pedal again. He found the right pressure, and he was off. He tapped gently at the brake as he approached a stop sign. The snowy streets were deserted but he was careful to make a full stop and, at the same time, not to stop for a suspiciously long time. It was a delicate balance.

The kid coughed in the back seat. The dad tilted the rearview mirror and looked at her. Only her little eyes, nose and mouth were visible amid the bundle of tuque, scarf and blankets the mom had made. They drove beneath a street lamp and the car’s interior was briefly illuminated. In that moment, the kid’s eyes met the dad’s in the mirror and the dad thought he saw the kid smile a little. When they passed under the next lamp the dad said, “Peekaboo.” The kid laughed but it sounded like a seal bark and the dad didn’t do anything special at the street lamp after that.

The dad felt hungry. He drove toward the strip mall. He wanted Sweet Chili Heat Doritos. The digital clock on the car radio read 2:57. “Please let the depanneur be open,” the dad thought. “Let it be open and I’ll never drink again.” He pulled into the parking lot and carefully coasted to a stop. The lights inside the depanneur were dim. He could just make out the potato chip display and the magazine rack. He’d known all along the depanneur would be closed but he felt like he’d tried anyway.

The strip mall was in the upper part of town. The parking lot stretched to the edge of a hill that overlooked the autoroute. The dad aimed the car toward the end of the parking lot and the tall snowbanks built up over the winter by the snowplows. He drove to a V-shaped opening between two snowbanks and stopped, facing the gap. He put the car into park, leaving the engine running. Just to be sure, he looked at the shifter and said, “You are in park.” A smile formed on his lips. He jabbed one finger into the centre of his chest. “And you,” he said, “are intoxicated.”

The dad stared through the windshield, the wipers sweeping intermittently. The skyline of Montreal made up a small section of the distant horizon. The buildings downtown, shimmering with electric light, looked about as tall as the dad’s forefinger. Domed St. Joseph’s Oratory, nestled on the slope of Mount Royal to the right of the city centre, could be blotted out – if he closed one eye – by his thumb. He thought what a fun thing hiding buildings behind his thumb would be in the spring, with the weather warmer, and the kid a little older.

The dad woke to tapping on the driver’s side window. It was the mom, bundled up, clutching herself out in the cold of the parking lot, illuminated by the headlights of her own car. The dad’s car’s engine was still running, the heat still blasting, and the clock read 4:02. He unlocked the doors with a button on the driver’s side control panel while attempting to do the math in his head. The mom climbed into the back seat next to the kid. Intuitively, the dad knew it had been at least an hour but he couldn’t keep the numbers straight enough to get an accurate measure. In the rearview mirror he watched the mom fuss with the blankets and the scarf. She put her ear near the kid’s face. “Oh,” the mom said. “Her breathing’s much better.” The dad felt the mom’s hand on his head. She was patting it. “Nice job. You’re such a good dad.”

Mark Paterson is the author of the short story collections A Finely Tuned Apathy Machine and Other People’s Showers. His story “Something Important and Delicate” won the 2010 3Macs carte blanche Prize. “The Dad was Drinking” is part of a project in progress, a collection of connected short stories about the suburbs called Dreamers and Misfits of Montclair.