“Guns and Opera” from STORIES WRITTEN AFTER EIGHT by Kathryn Merrifield

            One
day he took me into the den.  It was a
Fall day when I returned home from school, cheerful.  Entering through the side gate I walked into
the kitchen and through the double door. 
The top half was always open and it took me time to remember that it was
not French but it was Dutch.  They were
double Dutch doors.  The breeze came into
the kitchen that way.  I left my backpack
on the first chair as I did each day that I returned home from school.   I went out to the deck to greet John and
then back in the kitchen where I began asking questions.  I yelled, “Where’s Mom?  When is she going to be home?”  Then, I went to the refrigerator and opened
the freezer.  Pralines and cream there…
            John
stared at me from the patio table deck under the oak tree with that look he had
of a rabid Bassett Hound.  Irritated with
my cheerfulness, walked into the kitchen and lead me into the family room,
pointed to his opera records standing upright in the cabinet custom built for
the collection.  They were below the
locked gun case with the glass front.  It
had a gold lock where a small key could open the cast.  The rifles were visible through the glass.
            Standing
in front of the gun case he said, “I have a project for you.”
            A
baritone bellowed out some melody in Italian. 
John spoke five languages. Father could not speak Italian, but John knew
Greek, Spanish, French, and German.  And,
Italian. English too.  Suddenly even his
intentions were cruel.  Uncontrollable,
but he could understand the words.
            I
looked up at him.  Mom had told me that
this man would replace my own father. 
You have to call him Daddy,” she told me on their wedding day.
            Standing
there, John held my shoulder with nervous rage and said, “I want you to
alphabetize my opera records.”  His
eyebrows furrowed and his hand clenched my shoulder more tightly, not to the
point that it hurt but so that it conveyed authority.  We were unruly children in need of discipline
and he would see to that.  He stared at
me, his eyes fierce.  That was the look
that he must have learned from his days in the Korean war.  He was one of the men who flew the missile
planes, Mother said.  She was so proud.  I stood looking at the hundreds of record
spines and he ordered me to organize and organize. When I argued his grip
tightened and I shrunk under the pressure. 
I did.  I contemplated the
significance of opera and why he would like it so much.  So emotive and full of life yet so tragic and
morose.  Pavoraotti was one of his
favorite, and of the “P’s,” he was the only one. Thirty three.  He looked like the man on some counts
especially just being baggy in the face.
            Six
months passed since he stopped drinking. 
John replaced liquor with ice cream – usually vanilla or pralines and
cream placed on the bottom shelf of the freezer.  He hated me, I thought, because I would
always dig into the ice cream carton without asking or without using a
bowl.  I would eat out the caramel and pralines
and leave the vanilla ice cream.  It must
have made several people in the house angry but I never fessed up.  The opera records were punishment.  The project took me two hours and fifty-six
minutes.
            He
worked at Coldwell Banker downtown and was out of the house but six o’clock in
the morning.  They chose not to live
together before they were married which was a good thing being that Mother
probably would have figured out that he was too much of a bastard if she lived
with him before they were married.  As a
child with a keen perception and intuition, I sensed that he was showing more
of himself. There were two sides to his personality.  One of those sides was the generous side.
John was staying over sometime before they were married.  He lay on the bed below the rose window
painting that Mother created in a class that she took before she returned to
work full time.  It was a bunch of yellow
roses set against a stained glass window. John lay there, and hearing me
shuffle down the hall toward my room, he asked me into the room. 
            “Evelyn,
come here,” he said.  “You’re home from
school early.”
            I
entered the room slowly.  He lay on his
bed in a Hane’s t-shirt and dress slacks. 
His shoes were at the side of the bed and jacket over a chair back,
neatly.
            “We
had an inservice day today,” I said.  “So
we got to come home early.”
            “You
have homework to do?” he asked.  Propped
up with the yellow shams covering the pillow – ,he appeared to have just woken
up from a nap.  His words were slow.
            “I
have to draw a picture of my family. 
Mrs. Samuels wants us to draw a picture and it’s due next week,” I said.
            “Sit
down, Evelyn,” he said, gently taking my arm. 
I sat down and took the backpack off, letting it fall to the ground.
            “You
going to paint it?” he asked, smiling, his eyes heavy.
            “We’re
supposed to use pens or colored pencils.”
            “What
are you going to use?” he asked, rubbing my arm up and down.  Tentative, I thought of the records, the grip
of his hand on my shoulder.  Ease had
come over him – a sense of contentment.
            “I
don’t have colored pencils but, I want to do it in colored pencils,” I said.
            “Do
you want me to get you some colored pencils?” he asked, eager to please.  His slurring was more pronounced, I noticed,
as he continued talking.
            “Yes,”
I replied, excited.
            “I’ll
get you some tomorrow,” he said.  “Can
you wait until then?”
            “Yeah,”
I replied, standing up from the bed.  “I
can make a sketch and start with the colors tomorrow.”
            “You’re
a good girl, Evelyn,” he said.  “You’re a
good girl.  Good girl,” he mumbled.  His eyes shut and I left the room.
            I
heard Mother start crying when she got home and he started yelling.  
            The project got an A even though it was done
in crayon.