Silent Understanding – Montgomery Carlo
October 12, 2023
Jolene applied her lipstick and eyeshadow in the mirror. No detail too small as this was her first date in some time. She spritzed herself with perfume and performed the final touches on her drug-store-dyed blonde hair before walking into the living room where Jimmy and Tim were watching cartoons.
The boys found it strange since she never went out but took advantage of Simpsons reruns over the monotonous dinners they would usually share. Typically, Jolene would prattle on about her day and go into painstaking detail about her nebulous job at the Federal Reserve that the boys would never understand. “How do I look?” she asked the pre-pubescent boys who contorted their necks to see the TV that she was standing in front of. “You look nice,” the boys responded with the enthusiasm of a dead squirrel. She left $20 on the counter for pizza and told them to be good as she strut out the door to meet Bob.
Bob arrived 30 minutes late to dinner. They dined at the Charlie Brown’s Steakhouse on the side of Route 22. He ordered his steak medium well and doused the $60 sirloin in A1 sauce. Jolene sipped her Bordeaux in silence, moving the romaine across her plate with her fork waiting for Bob to start the conversation. “You look nice,” Bob said with his mouth full of mashed potatoes. Jolene blushed and ordered another drink. Bob chewed his steak like cud, his swollen fingers wrapped around his glass of Blue Label that he drank like beer, using his necktie to wipe his mouth. Jolene paid their bill and invited him to come home with her.
They arrived back at Jolene’s modest house late in the evening to find the boys playing Mario Kart. Tim’s eyes were bloodshot from the screen, it was hours past his bedtime and in his cola-fueled animated state he barely registered the door open. Jimmy, on the other hand, looked up and in the late-night hours saw their father standing at the door with his hand around their mother’s waist.
“Boys, I would like to introduce you to Bob,” Jolene said in the way that mothers do when they want to solicit a particular response. Jimmy rubbed his eyes and saw he was mistaken: his father’s name was Bob, his father had a thick mustache, his father even had the same bald head, but the man in front of him was very much not Jimmy’s father. Bob looked as if their father was a tall candle melted halfway down with the excess candle wax all pooled into his gut. They both responded “Hi Bob,” with the same enthusiasm they gave Jolene hours before. Jimmy and Tim retired to their bedroom while the adults drank more wine and whispered on the couch. Jolene loudly shushed Bob as they marched up the stairs to the bedroom.
Jimmy entered the kitchen the following morning to find Bob eating the last of their breakfast cereal in his underwear. Without his glasses on Bob had a faint lazy eye. Seeing this half naked homunculus of his father squelched his appetite. The box of Apple Jax was empty anyway.
“Mooom, why is he still here?” Jimmy shouted upstairs.
“That’s no way to talk to our guests,” Jolene said as she entered the kitchen.
“What’s the matter, buddy?” Bob asked with a yellow-toothed smile.
“Ugh,” Jimmy responded as Jolene sat on Bob’s lap and kissed his bald head.
Bob and Jolene continued to see each other for the next few months. When she returned home from work she would stare at the telephone, manifesting his call. She would even abandon her meatloaf mid bite whenever the phone would ring. When he did not call, she would lecture the boys about manners and how to treat a woman, holding them captive until she ran out of steam or wine; it was always until she ran out of wine. Jimmy and Tim’s eyes would glaze over whenever Jolene would prattle on about her day in painstaking detail, especially when Bob was the subject. They met working together at the branch in East Rutherford, New Jersey: Jolene worked in the bowels of the building where sunlight was replaced for flickering fluorescent bulbs. Bob worked on an upper floor doing something that warrants a corner office. Jimmy and Tim in their sleep, could recite the story of how they met.
In November, Jolene announced that Bob had just purchased a house in rural Pennsylvania and they were going to spend the weekend there—multiple weekends. Jolene had sequestered her 10- and 7-year-olds to be Bob’s worker bees—playdates, birthday parties, sports practices be damned. Jolene was going to incorporate Bob into the children’s lives whether they liked it or not.
The boys haggled Jolene into buying a 24 pack of AA batteries so they could at least bring their Gameboys. The four of them arrived at a house in absolute disrepair: tarp covering holes in the walls, smashed windows, and rickety stairs. Jolene had stars in her eyes since she had such a fondness for fixer uppers. The unfurnished house was colder inside than the unforgiving November winds outside. With no heat or electricity, it was like camping in a haunted house, except the ghost haunting it was playing grab-ass with your mom. Jimmy and Tim did not take their coats off for the 72 hours they were stuck there. In an effort to try and bond with the boys, Bob bought a single plain pizza for them to eat while he took their mom out to dinner. They slept in sleeping bags that were too small, laid out on the hardwood floor littered with nail heads that had worked their way out of the floorboards. Their fingers were too cold to play their video games.
The scent of morning dew and mildew wafted throughout the house. Bob’s lawnmower-snore ripped through the walls at 5 AM, startling all of the bugs and vermin taking refuge inside. After a breakfast of cold pizza, he laid out a set of tools in front of Jimmy and Tim, dividing up the work they were going to do that day. The only real labor they had ever done was wash the dishes and take out the trash. Tim was tasked to rip up the carpet on the second floor. After two hours, he passed out from the smell of ancient cat piss that had absorbed into the carpet foam. Jimmy was responsible for retiling the bathrooms. Jolene hovered over his shoulder ready to snap if he broke a square or if the grout did not leap from the centerfold of Architectural Digest. Bob, in his typical manager fashion, supervised it all. He put his sausage fingers on their shoulders, fish lips to their ears, while he condescendingly explained the right way to perform the task, without lending a hand. As a reward for their work, Bob fished out a badminton set from the basement for the boys to play with; it was 32 degrees outside and only an hour of daylight left. “Shuttlecock,” the boys would snicker at each other.
This repeated every other weekend for the preceding months. Their respite was seeing their father Bob, who also insisted on talking about the other Bob: What does he look like? Is it serious? How much money does he make? etc. In retaliation, their father started flirting with Jimmy’s teachers and the mothers of his classmates. Jolene would ream him out over the phone for this on a frequent basis. The TV was never loud enough to drown Bob out.
Jolene’s demeanor began to change: her ever sought-after phone calls with Bob became more intense with fights breaking out more often. Bob took advantage of Jolene’s willingness to come to the house on weekends and no longer took her out on weeknight dates. “I have to drive 2 hours to see a man who lives 30 minutes away,” she would lament at the dinner table. She fluctuated between wallowing and rage—yelling at Tim for water marks on the silverware to then cry about how she was failing to raise them. Jimmy began forging his mom’s signature on their assignments and permission slips when Jolene would get too drunk and pass out on the couch with HGTV playing in the background. Jimmy and Tim had a silent understanding: they were too young to remember life with their mother and father together, only Jolene’s tortured neuroticism. Her panged diatribes about a faceless boss were replaced with anguish about Bob which Jimmy and Tim found excruciating, but she was their mother.
The new nuclear family packed the car. They were off to Pennsylvania again with half of a hardware store littering the trunk and backseat. The car ride was long and Bob made it longer by singing along to the car radio and remarking every time the radio signal went static. He always made the two-hour trek feel like four.
The boys played video games in the dark while Jolene and Bob were having dinner downstairs. Suddenly, a fight broke out at the table and they began screaming at each other. Jimmy peeked his head out at the top of the staircase to see them standing across the candlelit dinner table pointing and shouting words he did not understand. Jolene slept on the cold hard floor with them that evening away from Bob.
Burnt butter wafted its way up through the cracks in the floor on Saturday morning. Bob tried to fix breakfast for Jolene as an apology but resulted in ruining the rest of the eggs. Either to save face or to offshore his anger at Jolene, he was particularly harsh on Jimmy and Tim that day. He made them lay down the new hardwood floor. He watched them like a hawk ready to dig his talons into them for any small mistake. As Jimmy was grabbing the next floorboard, he scraped it against the wall leaving a mark. Bob grabbed him by the shirt and shouted in his face. “What if I came to your house and fucked up your walls!?”
“I wish you’d never come to my house!” Jimmy shouted, slamming the wood plank on the floor.
“You little shit,” Bob said, close enough to get hot spit on Jimmy’s forehead.
“Knock it off!” Jolene shouted. “Bob get your hands off my son! And Jimmy, I ought to bury your precious Gameboy for scratching Bob’s walls!”
Tim tried to shrink himself to hide from the shouting and gripped his Gameboy in his pocket to protect it. Bob let go of Jimmy and Jolene stormed off to the other room. The boys resumed their work but Tim was shaken. As he grabbed the next floorboard, he fumbled the plank and scraped the wall. Bob erupted. He picked Tim up and threw the seven-year-old into Jimmy, knocking them both to the floor. Tim hid behind Jimmy, wailing.
“Stop being a fucking baby,” Bob said to Tim, his eyebrows sharp as horns and his lazy eye even further off focus.
“Get away from us!” Jimmy shouted at Bob while holding his brother.
Jolene re-entered the room and grabbed the boys by the collars of their jackets and tossed them outside into the cold. The boys shivered listening to Jolene and Bob yell twice as loud as the night before while Jimmy tried to calm Tim down. As the fighting raged on, Jimmy and Tim locked eyes and came to another silent understanding. The dinner bell rang and the four of them ate without saying a word. Bob stuffed his face: slurping his spaghetti, getting sauce all over his shirt, and gnawed on sausage with his fat fingers. Jolene finished her third glass of wine and excused herself to go take a shower, leaving Bob alone with the boys. The air at the table was putrid as Tim was afraid of Bob and Jimmy had no appetite from the grotesque way he ate his food. Eventually, Bob noticed and told them to leave and “run to mommy.” The boys shuffled off upstairs to their sleeping bags. Jimmy kept his head at the top of the stairs, an ever-present eye on Bob.
Bob shut off the sink and began trudging up the stairs. He yelled to Jolene, “Save some room for me in there,” as he unbuttoned his marinara-stained shirt. At the top of the stairs Jimmy and Tim emerged from both of the banisters, startling Bob. Together, they shoved with all their might and sent Bob flying down. His fat body smashed through the rotten wood steps as he barreled down, shaking the house. Jolene ran out of the bathroom naked and soaking wet to find Jimmy and Tim looking back at her at the top of where the stairs used to be. She reached for her sons and saw Bob’s contorted body below. She pulled them tight against her wet skin as they all watched the pool of blood around Bob’s head spread.