Volume 26, Number 4

Dead Time

Mike Bates


The tension at the dinner table is stifling, what with the husband brooding as usual over everything he believes is wrong with his life. Supper screams with the silence of flatware scrapping the dishes and the sound of our lives passing with the tick of the clock hanging on the wall.

I feel our son look at me as I’m moving the Del Monte peas from one part of the plate to the other and then at the husband when I fail to sidetrack him.

“Dad?” he says.

I look up at the husband, and he’s chewing the meatloaf as if he can’t be bothered to give a damn if it doesn’t reinforce his acute sense of persecution. Seconds tick by on that clock on the wall—a lifetime when I think of the opportunities that close to us with each tick, and I have to wonder what I ever saw in the man.

My Eagle Scout, that’s what I used to call the man when we started dating in high school. The small-town charm I found so alluring when we were younger, the swagger, the confidence in the American dream, the conviction that God rewards the faithful, it was just the thing for a girl who had no greater ambition in life than to get married and start a family. Jesus, football and the Pledge of Allegiance, that’s all we thought we needed back then—when he didn’t have his hands in my knickers, that is.

Of course, that was before—before the condom broke, before I had to quit high school to spare the other students the indignity of sharing a classroom with a pregnant girl, before the nuptials were presented as the only option left to us, before the realization that yesterday was the best our lives would ever be.

And I haven’t even seen my thirtieth birthday yet.

He’s never been more ugly to me than he is at this moment. His hair slicked back in the picture of middle-class respectability, his brow furrowed with middle American virtue, his jaw set against what he perceives as an onslaught against his mid-century values, he’s the very picture of selfishness, resentment and entitlement right now.

“Your son just addressed you,” I say.

No need to ask him what he thinks of me, not with the look he gives me. I’d be the noose around his neck. I’d be the ball and chain around his ankle. I’d be the whining little gold-digger who doesn’t earn enough money with her job at the Walmart to make it worth his while. All the things I’ve heard him say before in one of our many unguarded moments, and I reckon he might be correct, the part about the gold-digger anyway, if I thought I had someplace better to be.

I look around at the kitchen of our “charming little rambler.” That’s what the realtor called it when we signed our lives away. It wasn’t much at the time, but it was a start—our start. Nobody told us we were carrying on the fine American tradition of spending beyond our means to fuel the consumer economy, and we never suspected the house might be the beginning of the end instead of a start.

The black-and-white checkerboard pattern of the linoleum I found so smart when we purchased the place, it’s worn thin. The lacquer I put on the whitewashed cabinets has flaked and chipped. The Formica on the counters is scratched and stained, and the yellow paint on the walls faded.

But the air in this old house is rich with the aroma of life, our life, for better or worse, and those little imperfections in the surfaces of our marriage, the scuffed linoleum, the chipped cabinets and the stained Formica, we made those. I’ve pitched in just as much as he has to make it work, truth be told, more if I’m being fair with myself.

Then there is the boy to think about.

“What’s a union?” I hear him ask the husband.

Thank the Lord for Fox News, that’s all I have to say. They’re masters at deflecting the anger of men like the husband from the real cause of their angst, jobs that have been sucked dry of meaning, wages that have failed to keep up with inflation and a government that has all but forgotten we even exist. Honestly, I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t have their help redirecting his rage some nights.

“Thugs. Greedy, blood-sucking thugs.”

It’s all Obama’s fault you’re stuck in a go-nowhere life, they tell him, or it’s Nancy Pelosi’s, or Harry Reid’s. It’s because of the blacks and Hispanics you’re stuck in a dead-end job, or women, or the gays. It’s all because of those progressive policies that your life is a shambles, even as they equate progressive values like equality and fairness and justice with the bogeymen: socialism, communism or fascism, depending upon the season.

“They’re employees,” I say, “like your father, who get together to talk to their employers.”

Tonight, it was teacher’s unions, or so I gathered listening to the talking heads as the husband watched the television in the next room. Some governor somewhere—Madison, Wisconsin, I think—proposes to outlaw collective bargaining for teachers in the state, and union representatives from around the country gathered at the Capitol to occupy the State House. “Thugs,” I overheard the husband grumble as he ambled in for supper, our son in tow, and I knew at that moment that unions have been permanently linked in his mind with every indignity he’s ever suffered.

“What do you mean they get together?”

“They meet to talk about things at work that concern them.”

“Like what?”

“Like how much they get paid. Or how much they work. About other things, like promotions and vacations and stuff.”

“The union on the news you were watching, Dad?

“Teachers,” the husband replies.

“What did they want?”

“How the hell should I know?”

“More money, honey,” I respond.

“What’s wrong with that?” the boy asks, still looking at his dad.

“They don’t deserve it, that’s what.”


He’s growing up fast, the boy. You can see it every day, in the little things, like the posters he hangs on the walls of his bedroom or the way he looks at himself in the mirror each morning, mussing his hair this way and that before running off for school.

As if the questions he’s started to ask aren’t enough.

“I hear you saying it all of the time. That you’re not paid what you’re worth.”

He’s bright, much brighter than we’d been at his age. Maybe it’s the Google or those teachers the husband calls thugs, but he is too smart just to accept the word of the old man when it doesn’t add up.

“That’s different,” the husband says.

He hasn’t been a bad father, the husband. He’s teaching the boy all of the usual stuff. Problem is it’s the same thing his father taught him and his father’s father before that, about strength and courage and honor. God knows how far back those lessons go—all the way to Adam I suppose. It hurts me sometimes, for the boy’s sake if not the husband’s, to think that his father may be missing the best days of his youth on account of outdated notions of male respectability.

“How come?” the boy asks.

“They’re just teachers,” the husband replies.


“They’re lazy, that’s how come.”

“Mrs. Boyd isn’t lazy.” Mrs. Boyd is his sixth-grade teacher. “She’s there every morning before all of us. She teaches all day, and she leaves after we all leave.”

I shake my head at the husband and give him that “you’ve just stepped in it” look he used to laugh at before he learned to hate it.

“That’s not what he means, son,” I say. “We all know Mrs. Boyd isn’t lazy.”

“But they,” the husband starts, then hesitates for an instant. “They work for us. We’re their boss, your mom and me.”

“You have a boss. Everyone does. How is that different?”

The husband frowns, and I’m afraid he’s going to fall back onto one of those talking points he’s tried to foist onto me whenever I’ve given him the impression I’m the slightest bit interested. “We can’t have our public servants holding the taxpayer hostage for more money,” he’ll say in that pompous way of his, like he’s some kind of Charles Krauthammer or something.

I don’t like to contradict the husband, certainly not in front of his son, but I can’t have him feeding him all the crap hears on the television, not when we’re working so hard to see boy educated. If it comes down to a choice between the husband’s pride and the teachers working every day to help my boy claw his way out of the circumstances of his birth, I’ll take those teachers every time.

“Honey,” I interrupt. “Your father has had a hard day. We’ll talk about it later.”

“Because it just isn’t done,” the husband says, ignoring my effort to spare him the embarrassment.

“But you say it all of the time, dad. I’ve heard you. You can walk out any darn time you want.”

There’s the rub, right there. The husband can’t walk out any time he wants, not if he wants to keep his job. Impotence, that’s what he’s been reduced to, the kind that comes from being expendable in somebody else’s plans. Nobody cares about us as long as the people at the top keep raking in their millions.

He knows it. He knows I know it. And he’s afraid his son is going to figure it out soon.

I see the effort he puts into swallowing his pride, his breathless silence, the effort he’s putting into controlling his expression, the tremor of a callused hand balled into a fist upon the table. It’s the first time I’ve felt pity for the man in a good long time, and that’s saying something.

“You’ll understand when you grow up,” the husband says, and he brings that fist down with a thump on the table top and a rattle of the flatware and dishes, then pushes away from the table to let us know that the conversation, and supper, for that matter, is over.

We just sit there, the boy and me, our heads down, afraid to tempt his temper.

“What, Mom?” the boy whispers after the husband leaves the kitchen for the security of his recliner and the television. “What will I understand when I grow up?”

What can I say? What would the husband say is more like it. That it’s a difficult world out there? That there is only so much to go around? That anything anybody else succeeds in securing for himself is something that is lost to you forever?


Sure, it’s difficult out there, if what’s going on right here in this household is any indication. I’d sooner believe that we’re all in this mess together. Remember the Golden Rule, as my mother used to tell me.

But I know that’s not what the husband would say, and I don’t want him to accuse me of filling his son’s head with strange ideas.

I feel the boy’s intensity mounting as the seconds on that clock tick away, second-by-relentless-second. Time slows under his gaze until the interval between each tick of the second hand stretches into eternity. The husband, this house, the boy, all of the decisions I’ve ever made in my life—or neglected to make might be more like it, come crashing down on me in that instant.


None of those decisions were exactly right at the time, even if none of them turned out to be exactly wrong either.

“What will I learn?”

They all led me to this moment, as unpleasant as it feels, and I can’t for the life of me think of anywhere else I ought to be.

“When I grow up?”

I stand to clear the table, and I lean over to kiss him on the top of his head before I take his plate. He pulls away, not much, but enough for a mother to recognize, and I hear the second hand on that clock begin to tick faster again.

It isn’t the future I would have chosen for myself when I was his age, but it’s the only one I have.

“That nothing in this life is as simple as they appear when we’re young,” I say, “no matter how much we’d like them to be.”

* * *


I make cars for a living. That’s a bit of a stretch, I’ll admit. The truth is I’m a machinist, and I make forms for new car parts.

The old man got me that job right out of high school. I was supposed to go to college; the first in the family, he was always proud of saying, but when I got my girlfriend pregnant our senior year, we both decided, the old man and me, that college would have to wait.

Anyway, the foreman called the crew together today at the end of the shift. Another memo had come down from corporate, he says, and we’re supposed to cut costs, something about foreign competition, but we all know it has more to do with earnings per share. I’ve been letting this place suck the life out me for long enough now to know there are only two ways to do that in short run, and neither of them bodes well for any of us. Our wages haven’t increased since Reagan was President, back when the old man was bouncing me on his knee, and we’re already running at peak efficiency.

Somebody mentioned the International Association of Machinists, only half in jest, I’m afraid. Mention the union in this company and it’s likely to get you the bum’s rush right out the door if you’re not careful. Corporate catches wind of it, and they’ll just move the line to a “right to work” state.

When anyone throws that “right to work” nonsense at you, it means the right to work at the discretion of the empty suits idling away over in the plush comfort of corporate headquarters. I’ll tell you this straight away, there ain’t no right to work, not in “right to work” states.

It’s a long way of saying I’ve already got a lot on my mind when I get into the pickup for the drive home to our two-bit rambler in the suburbs. The tires are bald, and I haven’t changed the oil now for going on two years. The worst of it is the air-conditioner hasn’t worked for weeks now, and it’s an hour through the heat and filth of rush hour to a house the wife says needs a new roof and a new coat of paint between reminding me the windows need washing, and I haven’t mowed the lawn for over a week.

Forgive me if I’m not in the mood to listen to the wife tell me about her day, unless it’s to tell me she just inherited a million bucks or something. We’ve had that conversation before, and it always leads to the same point, all the things I haven’t gotten around to around the house. I’d just as soon not talk if it means having that discussion again.

So shoot me.

I throw the truck keys on the Formica, track the shop grime on my work boots across the linoleum, and leave prints from my unwashed hands on the Frigidaire. And then I make a beeline to the living room and the comfort of my recliner with the can of Bud Light I packed in the ice box this very morning to spend a few well-earned minutes with The Five or in the No Spin Zone or the Kelly File or with Hannity.

Those folks at Fox and friends talk like journeymen machinists with all of their bluff and bluster, and they seem to be speaking directly to me, to my sense of affliction. They might as well be on the shop floor with us each day, because they’re saying the same things we are. I can’t tell you whether they’re saying what we’re saying because it’s truth, or we’re saying what we’re saying because they’re saying it, but it’s entertainment, in language even a machinist can understand, and it doesn’t hurt either that Megyn Kelly has the good looks of a Maxim pin-up girl.

This week, wouldn’t you know it, they’re talking about Wisconsin teachers, aka public-employee unions if you want to be precise, and I’m sitting there watching union representatives from around the country occupy the Wisconsin state house when it hits me—if we can’t organize down at the shop, why is it these teachers think they can in our schools?

I realize teachers have to go to university and everything—not just talk about it until they knock up their high school sweetheart, and they have to pass certification examinations that make our monthly safety certifications look like child’s play.

I’m even thinking there’s probably a little bit of the market mechanics at work, you know, supply and demand and all shit that talking heads at Fox are so quick to defend when the issue is corporate regulation. The difference, some analyst or another appearing with Sean O’Kelly or whoever says, is that teachers are “public” employees, and they have a gun to our heads, yours and mine, Mr. and Mrs. John Q. Public.

Well, no shit, I say to myself. It’s what every union does. They equalize the power between labor and management, and if it’s not a management gun to the head of labor, it’s a labor gun to the head of management. The best thing you can hope for is a little good old-fashioned compromise, the kind that has become a dirty word in some circles nowadays.

But then the analyst explains that unions tend to vote Democrat, and we can’t have government employees shifting the balance of power in state capitols because everyone knows that Democrats just want to spend everybody’s hard-earned money to give special interests like teachers free stuff.

So there you have it, I suppose, the exception to the laws of free enterprise the folks at Fox have placed upon a pedestal. You lose your right to assemble—or even talk about assembling in my case, where management seems to hold all of the cards—when management is us.

Problem is, I must have vented some of my own frustrations there in front of the television, and my son was right there beside me to hear it. In fact I’m almost certain of it, because the boy asks me about it over supper. There I am, chewing the meatloaf the wife is able to scrape together from the leftovers in the Frigidaire to the sound of that clock the wife insisted upon hanging on the wall when the boy looks at me and asks, “Dad, what’s a union?”

I hate that bloody clock. I know the wife put it up there to remind me of all the stuff she’s asked me to do that I never manage to get done. I guess she thought it’s supposed to put a sense of urgency in my day, like there isn’t enough urgency there already. Some nights, it’s all I can do to block it all out, and tonight I was doing a damn fine job of it until the boy puts me on the spot.

Suffice it to say the wife embarrassed me in front of the boy when all I wanted to do was bask in the familiarity of my own misery, and then the boy demonstrates that he’s smarter than his old man, and he does it using my own words against me, no less, when he reminds me he’s heard me say, countless times I suspect, I’m paid what I’m worth.

Talk about trampling all over my inflated sense of persecution, and the kid’s only in fifth grade. Now I understand what the wife means when she says boy’s gonna put us both to shame some day.

I realize there is more to the question than what I think I’m worth, if that analyst who says public employees are different is correct. But I don’t know if I believe him, not when so many of us are ready to take up arms against the government to begin with. And if I don’t believe it, I’m not going to try to convince the boy to believe it.

Who’s to say it doesn’t come down to that question, anyway, the one I asked myself in front of the television: if I can’t do it, what makes them think they can? And the boy has already seen right through that one.

I sneer at the wife when all she was doing was trying to help me, and I really don’t show the boy the respect his question deserves. To make matters worse, I get angry, seriously angry, when the boy paints me into a corner with my own words. It’s pretty obvious by the time I pound my fist and push myself away from the table refuge of my recliner and the television that I’ve driven another stake into those relationships, the kind the good pastor down at the Bible church has tried to tell me leaves a hole unless you go back to patch things up.

Sometimes I wish the pastor would stick to matters of faith; you know, the great moral issues of our time, like gay marriage, abortion, contraception, stuff that’s going to bring down the wrath of God if I’m hearing them right, and leave the politics of the way a man treats his wife and son other out of religion. But I gotta admit it, he has me dead to right on that one.

It’s odd how quickly self-righteous anger can turn to embarrassment, and then to full-out regret after you’ve had a moment to think about it. My temper has a half-life of about five minutes these days before the remorse sets in. I’ve screwed up—again, I realize, and I can’t even bring myself to take an interest in Megyn Kelly’s lovely blue eyes.

I don’t like that man I was there in the kitchen: not his selfishness, not the way he allows it to erupt into irritation without the least bit of self-awareness, and not the resentment he sees in his wife and son after he lashes out at them in anger.

That isn’t the way I was raised; at least I don’t think it was. The old man was respectful of my mother, and he was always happy to impart upon me what he called the facts of life whenever fitting. Sure, he had some firm ideas about strength and honor and independence, and he looked upon matters of right and wrong as black and white.

A man puts in an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay, he was fond of saying. A man doesn’t question betters. A man doesn’t expect anything he can’t earn for himself. A man puts God, country and family first. And hidden in there somewhere, I suppose, were some unspoken rules about the duties of wives and children, like the wife’s role is to love, honor and obey her husband, and children should be seen and not heard.

Maybe that’s my problem. Those rules the old man lived by don’t apply anymore in this world I inherited.

Lord knows I don’t get an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work. I don’t even know who my betters are. Management is removed somewhere, sequestered from the working stiffs in that mystical place called the corporate headquarters, and don’t even get me started about the shareholders. A man’s gotta demand everything he can get these days, if he expects to get what he thinks he’s worth.

And while I can agree it’s still important to respect God, country and family, maybe the wife’s role is to kick her husband in the ass now and again, if she’s serious about loving and honoring him, and a child should expect to be treated like a grownup when he or she shows the inclination.

All of a sudden everything is starting to make sense again, like I might be able get through this with another beer or two. It’s something I’ve noticed happens after I screw up, whether it’s at work or home. I go from anger to embarrassment to regret and remorse in short order, sort of like the stages of grief, until I reach that magical place the smart people call acceptance. I figure I’ll just manage better next time around without the need to make amends.

I’m almost convinced the whole episode will pass with a little good behavior on my part when I notice that lovely Megyn Kelly has the head of the Wisconsin teachers’ union on her show, and she’s pressing him in that husky voice of hers to defend teachers who phone in sick to go demonstrate at the State Souse.

Everyone abuses sick leave—literally everyone. I do it from time to time, and while you won’t find me at the State House demonstrating unfair treatment, it wouldn’t be all that unusual to find me at my favorite fishing hole or something. I can’t do it a lot, mind you, not when every Tom, Dick or Harry who has ever knocked up his girlfriend right out of high school would be happy to do same thing I do for a living.

But Kelly points out that these teachers are doing it on the public dime, as if anticipating my objection, and I know from the words she’s chosen that what she really means is progressives are undermining those tried-and-true conservative values of austerity and trickle-down that have made America great. She wants to know if the union condones the behavior, then alleges that the guest is evading the question when he tells her teachers are doing as their consciences dictate.

It’s pretty clear by now what the boys are going to be talking about at the shop tomorrow, but I can’t get over the feeling that the two of them are talking past each other, the lovely Megyn Kelly and her guest. Megyn Kelly wants the guest to acknowledge that the teachers should be fired—and the union brought up on racketeering charges if I’ve got my legal training from the television show Law & Order correct—and the union president seems to be suggesting that the union president all the way down to those teachers assembling at the state house are not oblivious to the risk.

That’s when it hits me.

Those teachers know exactly what they’re doing. I mean they phoned in sick, didn’t they, rather than just walk off the job and risk a day’s pay? They have to know that the loss of a job would not be without hardship. And still they demonstrate about what they believe is unjust treatment knowing full well the risk.

There has to be some calculation somewhere in their thinking applicable to my situation at the shop, like they realize they’re not going to die if they’re fired, or they’ll be better off with an opportunity to start over if they’re fired, or they’ll get along just fine with the love and support of friends and family. After all, that’s all that really matters, isn’t it, the love and support of friends and family?

I stand, and smooth out the wrinkles in my shirt and trousers, and walk back into the kitchen. The boy doesn’t bother to look up from his supper, but who can blame him. The wife is bent over the sink. I can tell from her posture that she’s upset, and I have to wonder if it’s not too late already.

* * *


My mom told me once that I am perceptive. I didn’t know what she meant, but it was right after I asked her if she was mad at my dad.

When you’re perceptive, I guess, you just see things other people don’t, like that shadow in the corner of my bedroom my parents keep telling me isn’t real. I can tell when my mom and dad are fighting, even when they tell me they’re not.

It is something I’ve been able to do since one of my very first memories. My dad was leaving the house, and I noticed my mom didn’t kiss him at the front door, like I guess she used to. When I asked her why, my dad told me he wouldn’t be coming home anymore. I cried until he called my mom to tell her he would be coming home again after all.

My mom makes it easy. Her voice gets cross. Her face looks mean. She sighs or grumbles or curses, and she does her chores louder than usual, like she wants you to know she’s not happy.

My dad is different. He never gets mad, unless my mom gets mad at him. He just says something like it’s her time of the month, to be mad, I guess, and then he goes into the living room and turns on the television.

Tonight, I’m doing my homework at the kitchen table when I hear my dad get home from work. He trips over the garbage can when he gets out of his pickup, and he curses when he drops his keys on the garage floor. I look up at my mom, and she has one of those mean looks on her face. She tells me to take my homework and skedaddle off to the living room before my dad comes in, and I know then that we were in for it.

It always makes me sick when they’re fighting. It’s hard to breathe, like when that girl who chases me around at recess, Etta Eager, tackles me and sits on my chest. The back of my throat gets dry, and I can’t swallow. All I can think of is that time my dad said he was not going to come home anymore, and I worry that it’s going to happen again.

Usually I pray to Jesus to make them get along and promise that I’ll stop lying and cursing and start paying attention at Sunday school and everything if he’ll just make them get along. But sometimes their fights go on for days. I can’t do my homework. I don’t want to go out and play with my friends. All I can do is tiptoe around the house looking for signs that Jesus has heard my prayers.

I guess I’m happy when I didn’t hear any shouting, but then I realize I didn’t hear anything, not shouting or talking. My dad walks into the living room right after I do, and he’s holding a can of beer. He kind of winks at me and ruffles my hair when he sits down in his recliner and turns on the television, and I know it was one of those times he says little boys are to be seen and not heard.

I don’t like the news. The people are always shouting at each other, and I try not to watch it because it makes me sad. They remind me of my mom and dad the way they fight with one another. Black people are looking for ways to hurt white people, they say. This group of people they call happy are persecuting Christians. Mexicans are trying to take over the country. There’s a war against Jesus. All Arabs are terrorists. Liberals are killing babies. Obama is coming to take everyone’s gun away.

And if you disagree, you hate America.

Anyways, I hear my dad grumbling about something. When I look up at him, he is leaning forward in his recliner and squinting at the television like there is somebody on the news that he knows or something.

There are bunch of people gathered together around an ugly building. They look like firemen and policemen, and some of them have hard hats like my dad wears at work. It looks like it’s hot where they are, and they’re doing a cheer together, to stay cool, I guess.

So I pay attention to see why my dad is so interested. I hear the newsman say something about teachers and something he called unions. Then I hear the newsman say something about a governor somewhere in a place called Wisconsin, I think, and another thing he calls collective bargaining. I don’t know what it all means except that teachers want something, and the Governor doesn’t want to give it to them.

That’s when my mom calls in that supper is ready, and my dad mumbles the word “thugs” or something like that.

Now, I know what a thug is. It’s what my dad calls the black people. I asked him why once. He said black people are always demanding things that are earned. And when I asked him what things blacks demand, he said respect and equality.

I don’t think my teacher Mrs. Boyd is a thug. She can’t be. She isn’t black. And she doesn’t take what isn’t hers. She works really hard all day to teach us the stuff she knows about math and English and history, stuff my mom says I will need to know when I grow up to be big and important.

I realize Mrs. Boyd is old and everything, older than my mom and dad. She wears Sunday clothes to school and funny sneakers, and sometimes I smell her wearing the kind perfume my mom tells my dad is for old people. But she’s the one who always stops that girl, Etta Eagar, from sitting on my chest.

One day when my mom sent me to school without my lunch money, Mrs. Boyd gave me a dollar and half for lunch after the fat cafeteria lady said I couldn’t eat.

So it can’t be the teachers my dad called thugs. It has to be the thing called unions or maybe the thing called collective bargaining. I want to ask him, but supper is already on the table.

My dad and mom make us all eat supper together at the kitchen table. My dad always says the prayer. It’s usually the same prayer every night, about the food we are about to share and the blessings we have, and then he passes around the plates.

Tonight it seems like my mom isn’t listening while my dad says the prayer. Her head isn’t bowed. Her hands aren’t folded. Her eyes are blinking. She is staring at the clock on the wall. At the end of the prayer, when she’s supposed to say amen, she just shakes her head, like she just had a shiver or something.

Nobody is talking over supper, not like we usually do, about school or the shop or the things my mom sees at Walmart. My mom is picking at her food, and my dad is, I don’t know, just chewing, I guess. They aren’t even looking at each other. The only noise in the kitchen is the sound of the clock.

Usually, I like that sound. That sound reminds me of the times I’ve spent alone with my mom in the kitchen, doing my homework while she prepares supper. She’s usually happy when we’re alone together, and I feel safe and warm and protected when I hear it, like nothing from the outside can disturb us.

I asked my mom about it one day, why the clock makes me feel that way. She called it something like “association.” She said it’s like the old blanket I used to carry around with me. I don’t remember a blanket, but she said I took it with me everywhere I went until it got so dirty and torn that she had to throw it away.

I asked her if she had the same “association”—with the clock, I mean. She looked up at the clock, and I couldn’t tell if she was smiling or frowning. She told me she used to, a long time ago, when she spent time in the kitchen with her mom. I asked her if she does still, and all she could say was sometimes.

Now the clock sounds wicked to me. Each tick is louder than the one before it. It feels like a bomb is going to go off in the kitchen, like they do on the cartoons when the clock strikes zero.

I look at my mom again. She doesn’t notice me, so I look at my dad. He is still chewing on his food. His mouth is open, and I can see the meatloaf, peas and scalloped potatoes all mixed up red, yellow, and green in his mouth.

Somebody has to say something, and I still want to know what a union is. If they aren’t going to do it, it has to be me. I have to get them talking somehow, and everything will be okay. I just know it.

I ask my dad what a union is, and mom answers that they’re a group of people who get together to ask their bosses for things, like more money. At least they’re talking, and now I know it could have been that thing the newsman called a union that my dad called thugs, if they are asking for more money they didn’t earn.

Then my dad tells me that the union on the television is teachers. They’re lazy, he says every one of them, and all of a sudden I am confused again.

Mrs. Boyd isn’t lazy. She works hard to teach us something new every day. I like her lessons on history, especially the ones about American history. My favorite part of her class is when she reads a chapter from the book each week, Where the Red Fern Grows. I want to have two coonhounds some day, just like Billy in the book.

But my dad says teachers work for us. They can’t ask for more money he tells me because “it just isn’t right,” he says in that voice he uses when you’re not supposed to ask him why.

I’ve heard my dad talk about his bosses before when he’s fed up. He calls them empty suits. He says they’re useless and lazy, just like he called the teachers and that they don’t pay him what he’s worth.

I’m starting to think that must be what all bosses do. They don’t pay the people who work for them what they’re worth if those teachers want what my dad wants. Everybody wants the same thing, and it shouldn’t matter who your boss is. If they don’t pay you enough, you should be able to ask for more.

My dad doesn’t think I can tell when he’s mad, but I can. I know he tries to hide it, but I’ve seen it happen too many times when he’s mad at my mom. His face goes blank, and his ears get red, and sometimes his cheeks. When he’s really mad, he balls his hands up into fists, and I can see them shake.

Tonight, he brings one of his fists down on the table and tells me I’ll understand when grow up. Then he gets up from the table and heads into the living room like he does when my mom is mad at him, to sit in his recliner and watch the television.

I don’t ask him any more questions. I don’t want to. It is my fault that he it angry. My questions didn’t help with my mom and dad either, and I don’t want to make things worse.

They still aren’t talking, my mom and my dad, except for one cross word my mom had for my dad, something like your son is talking to you, while my dad was still chewing his food. They were using me to talk to each other like they always do when they’re made at each other and think I don’t know that they’re fighting.

After my dad is gone, I asked my mom, “What will I know when I grow up?” She isn’t any more helpful than my dad was. She is quiet at first, just like my dad. Then she tells me things aren’t always as simple as we’d like them to be when we’re young and starts to do the dishes.

That’s it? That’s what I’ll understand when I grow up? Things aren’t as simple as we’d like them to be when we’re younger. She might as well have told me I’m too young to understand because she says so.

I stay at the kitchen table for several minutes listening to the sound of that clock. All I can think is things must be really confusing when you’re a grownup. You act like you can’t stand the husband or your wife you tell yourself you love. You’re willing to hurt the children you tell yourself are your responsibility to raise to act like you can’t stand the husband or wife you tell yourself you love. You turn children over to teachers you tell yourself are too lazy to ask for more money. And you can’t even explain to your children what they won’t understand until they’re grown up.

None of it makes any sense.

I don’t how long I sit worrying, but my dad walks back into the kitchen after a while. I don’t look at him, but I hear him ask my mom to sit down next to me. He says he had something to get off his chest, and I think we’re going to have the shouting now.

My mom doesn’t want to, or that’s the way it seems. My dad has to walk over to the sink where my mom is standing and lead her by the hand back to the kitchen table and pulls out her chair so she can sit down.

I look at him, then. I can see he isn’t angry anymore. His ears aren’t red anymore, and his eyes are kind of sad, like they after the Lions lose.

My dad moves a chair next to my mom. He sits down and takes her hand. Then he looked at both of us, first my mom and then me. My mom still doesn’t look at him, and I see him squeeze her hand. She looks up, and there are tears in her eyes.

“I love you,” he says.