Social Security sends us checks every month to say sorry about our mom. A thousand sorries for me and a thousand sorries for Vivian, and we accept them all.
Today and every day, our father cries. He used to be normal. He used to take me and my sister and our beautiful mother into the forest where we would collect kindling and play in the trees. He used to drive the minivan and say, “Hi Hungry, I’m Dad.” Then our beautiful mother took the minivan away one night, and now, he only cries.
The sudden darkness puts a pause on our father’s steady weeping. I can’t see Vivian, but I feel her grab my wrist and pull me to our room, the two of us stumbling and knocking over the still-warm lamps that crowd every surface. Our father begins to move around in his room for what feels like the first time in our whole lives. I think about our minivan, which I haven’t thought about in a long time: It was white and looked like a snail. Vivian slams the door to our room and I still see hardly anything, because the streetlight that usually shines through our window has gone out. Our father’s voice whimpers from the hallway. “Girls?”
Vivian puts her face against the door. “What do you want, Dad?”
Our father doesn’t respond. He is walking through the house, shuffling his bare feet on our clean floor, knocking into things. “Girls?” We hear sniffles and the jingle of pull chains as he tries to find a working lamp. Vivian is motionless and angry.
“He should never come out of his room,” she says to the door.
“He’s just confused and dehydrated,” I tell her.
“If the checks weren’t written out to him, we would start a fire in this house and drive away,” Vivian says. I put a sad, hurt look on my face to show I don’t agree, but she doesn’t move and it’s too dark to see anything, anyway. I lie down in bed and she stays where she is. In the morning, our father has gone back to crying in his room.
The next power outage is scheduled to begin on the night of the recital and go on for three days. The rich parents of Vivian’s dancer friends call the city and demand that the power stay on for the duration of the show. Vivian drives us to the high school hours beforehand, and the city is uproarious. Inexplicable traffic fills the streets, parents lug bags of canned food into their trunks while babies scream in their car seats. Vivian is buzzing with energy and stares at me from the driver’s seat. I look back at her and feel how the panic from outside seeps into the car and washes over us, exciting us.
She says to me, “Why don’t we throw a party tonight, Louise?”
“We have lots to celebrate,” I say.
“The dance show, the power outage, our checks came in the mail today. We have everything,” Vivian says. She places her hand on her heart to congratulate herself.
The high school parking lot has been turned into an emergency charging and refrigeration center, so we park on the street and Vivian goes inside, where she and the other dancers will slide stretchy fabric over their bodies and rub creams into their hair and draw lines on their faces. I sit on the curb and watch the traffic ooze past. The minivans have changed since when we had one; none of them look like snails anymore.
When the doors open, I tell all the students in the audience about our party. I tell them, “My sister and I are throwing a party the likes of which this high school has never seen.”
My friends, the sophomores, tell everyone else, and soon juniors and seniors are coming to me for the address and offering to buy beer with their fake IDs. They will have to leave the show and rush to the liquor store before the lights go out. They ask me, “Where do you live? Are your parents out of town? Do they know?”
“Yes,” I say to them all. The parents who have come to the show are wearing long coats and have their eyes glued to the programs.
Vivian’s solo is the last piece in the recital, and when she comes onstage, she reminds me of our lamps at home because she glows steadily and makes me feel safe. Her leotard is made of black glitter and her face is made of angels. She smiles and everyone sighs from her perfection. She jetés across center stage and we can see that she’s immune to gravity. She twirls and her arms and neck are smooth, sculpted. The audience belongs to her; she owns us. She finishes bathed in a spotlight with her arms in the air and one leg extended in front of her, and the audience gushes with admiration and disbelief.
Then there is a shutting noise, and the auditorium is completely dark. Everyone begins to yell and scream: the parents in long coats, the younger siblings, the students who will soon attend our power outage party. Vivian is on the stage screaming loudest of them all: “I HOPE IT NEVER COMES BACK.” The gyrating clump of bodies guides me to the exit.
The streets are dark and empty when we speed home ahead of our guests. At home, we dig blindly through drawers and closets full of things we never touch, things from a meaningless past time when our beautiful mother used to pour us each a glass of milk and our father did things besides cry. We retrieve plastic cups, beeswax candles, tablecloths, flashlights. In the back of the freezer, there’s a half-full package of batteries. We turn on the flashlights and place them upright around the house so that long shadows stretch into corners and over the ceiling. We toss dusty streamers over the mess of lamps on the counters and dining table. We dash from room to room, sharing our discoveries and complimenting each other’s handiwork. Our father cries and cries. When our friends arrive in several small mobs of candlelight and headlamp beams, our house is a shadowy den of draped paper and miscellaneous décor. Everyone shouts, “We don’t need the electricity!” and no one hears what our father is doing in his room.
Vivian is still glowing from her performance, and all the light from the candles and flashlights falls on her lovingly. Our friends and acquaintances from school flock to her, grasping her hands and petting her hair. They say to me, “You’re Vivian’s sister? That’s so special for you.” Vivian is grinning and talking fast, her eyes darting between the murky faces that crowd around her in the dark. She sips her drink, sets it down between a plastic lamp and a metal one, wrings her hands, picks up her drink again. She stands far away from the hallway that leads to the bedrooms and casts annoyed glances in the direction of our father’s door, which cannot be seen with all the lights out.
Her leotard is made of black glitter and her face is made of angels.
Vivian’s friends are seniors who stand in a circle and yell about the power outage. The ones wearing headlamps angle their faces downward so that they don’t blind the ones across from them, and others have their hands wrapped around tall candles with thick drops of wax hardening on their fingers. In the dark crowdedness of our living room, they look like aliens mid-ritual. “All the ice cream melted,” says one. “This feels like the apocalypse, man,” says another. I drink from a can of beer to make myself less shy.
“You have such a beautiful home,” a senior named Rodney tells me. “Did you know my grandma lives on the seventeenth floor of her apartment? She won’t make it to church this Sunday, I guess.”
“Shut up, Rodney,” says Abraham from the lacrosse team. Abraham is the mean one. He clutches a can of malt liquor and has a patchy beard and a big, chunky headlamp sticking out from his forehead. He takes long strides from person to person in our home, saying abrasive words and jostling our lamps. He keeps saying, “Who’s crying? Do you guys hear that blubbering?” I can hear it—our father’s cries have grown more frantic, and his gasps and groans permeate the living room in gentle waves.
Vivian says, “We got this lamp at Target. We got this lamp at Walmart. We got this lamp at the antique store; it’s trash.”
“I can’t believe your parents are okay with this,” a long-necked dancer says.
“They’re losers,” says Vivian. I catch glimpses of her face and she looks ghoulish and worried. Abraham says again, “Do you guys hear that? Someone’s crying like a bitch in here.”
“Oh, my gosh, Abraham,” says the long-necked dancer.
Our father’s sobs have become noticeable above the din of the party. Conversations die down as harsh headlamp beams fall down the hallway. The plain brown of his bedroom door is illuminated. Vivian and I watch as Abraham stomps down the hallway followed by his lacrosse teammates, who are much shorter than him, and the long-necked dancer. Abraham presses his ear to the door and concentrates like he’s listening for a heartbeat. “Shouldn’t we stop him?” I say to Vivian.
Vivian isn’t listening to me. She pushes past Abraham’s petite friends and stands next to Abraham, moving her body with the perfect control and quiet anger she is so good at. She unlocks the door. “Stop crying,” she says. As always, the crying continues. Vivian opens the door. “STOP CRYING,” she repeats into the pitch black room, and she and her friends flood into it.
I peer between the bodies that push their way into our father’s room, slowly filling it with light from the hallway. I haven’t looked at my father in months. We see the matted shag carpeting littered with rags and washcloths. We see the rickety wooden chair and our father hunched over in it, his face shiny and wet and bright red. His eyes glisten in the white and yellow light that ravages his face, erasing shadows and making the tears glitter as they roll down his cheeks. His head falls back, and he moans, unaware of the bodies surrounding him. With his eyes blinking open and shut, our father says, “Girls? Girls?”
Our friends are muttering: “What’s wrong with that man?” I stare at my sister instead of him. She is standing beside our father with her arms pressed firmly to her sides, the muscles tense and sinewy. “What is wrong with him?,” our friends repeat. I wait in desperation for my sister to answer them. She looks down at our father with a sneer on her face, standing back where the lights don’t shine on her. Tomorrow she will lock him in his room again, but for a moment, Vivian wants him gawked at and humiliated, and so he is. She says, “I have no idea what’s wrong with him. Everyone, get a good look. You’ll never see anything like this again.”