Vatican wanted to play Taboo. He always wants to play Taboo, even though we have every card memorized so we know what the word is within two seconds of his describing it. But Vatican hates games where he has to write, arrange cards, move pieces, or use strategy. Vatican isn’t much good at games, partly because he’s a poor loser and violently competitive, and partly because he’s a foot tall, round and soft like a blob, (he objects strongly to being called ‘blobby’) and his two stubby legs have to double for arms because he hasn’t got any. His third eye distracts him because he’s always seeing more than we do. Also, he’s bright orange. But that doesn’t affect his game playing as far as I know.
“Vatican,” I said, “We have played Taboo every night for the past three nights and I know every word. We all do.”
“How about a trivia game?” Jackie suggested, “You don’t have to write or use a board.” It sounded innocent, but it wasn’t. Jackie is nine years old and knows more trivia than both our parents put together and probably all the other adults in our neighborhood. Vatican and I are convinced he must study the cards in his room at night, but neither of us has ever caught him at it. We both gave him a look, my two eyes and Vatican’s three giving him a deluxe glare we developed specially for this sort of situation.
“What?” He said, then crossed his arms and pouted as well. It was my turn to suggest something, but I didn’t want to face similar treatment, and besides, I didn’t have a particular game to suggest. I like card games, Hearts and Spades and Pinochle, but Vatican hates them, Jackie doesn’t get them, and you need four people anyway.
It was our fourth day of no school. At first Vatican had been delighted to have us home, watching online lessons with him, but already we were wearing a little thin. Vatican didn’t go to school; our parents being unsure of what would happen to him. Our neighborhood was used to him, but some of the kids at school came from farther away.
We sat around on the living room floor. Mom was in the kitchen, absently making dinner while listening to her favorite podcast, where some smooth-talking Australian man was asking an actress how she prepared her favorite meal, shrimp and grits.
Jackie’s arms were wrapped around his knees while he gazed up at the jumbled collection of board games, puzzles, and zip lock bags of lonely checkers, pawns, and various pegs and marbles separated from their families, all stuffed in the game crate.
“What are grits?” Jackie asked, fixing his eyes on Life, a game we all hated because when we played it for the first time, we thought you had to land on Payday to get any money, and the bank loans were depleted and we’d all gone broke long before reaching retirement. Who cares about retirement anyway? We didn’t play Life much.
“A sort of cereal,” I said.
“Gross,” Vatican said.
Dad came out of his office, which until three days ago had been the pantry. Mom had moved a desk in among the canned goods, and he worked at his computer under a shelf of canned beets, brownie mixes, Jell-O boxes, and cornmeal and almond flour packages, sugar, beans, and vegetable oil around his feet.
“I feel protected anyhow,” he said.
Our Dad was a good man, and a smart one. He had geometry in his fingers and trigonometry hovering around his temples. Sometimes his glasses seemed crowded with ancient history, and literature tumbled out through his beard. His heart was full of pure religion. However, he was uncertain when it came to children. He never seemed to know quite what to make of us, or even what we were, though oddly enough he understood Vatican the best. When we were being loud, laughing or fighting, or simply talking all at once, he would smile in a bewildered way, and say, “Well. Well, goodness gracious.” When we asked a question, he was usually thinking of something else, some deep problem no doubt, and he would usually just smile at us and say, “Quite so. Yes, I agree with you.” And he’d look at us as if we were so intelligent, we didn’t want to admit we were asking for information, and didn’t repeat the question.
He worked at many things. He was a substitute professor at the college two hours away, an accountant and consultant for several companies, as well as writing for multiple magazines of math, science, and history. He was well-equipped to work from home; which surprised us, because he was almost never home.
He came out of the pantry, as I said, dusting off his shirt as if the residue of canned vegetables clung to him. He kissed our mother, who laughed and then shushed him as if he’d been the one laughing, so she wouldn’t miss any of the podcast.
Dad looked at the three of us sitting on the living room, idleness hanging heavy in the air, on the verge of boredom, which was, for us, the verge of disaster.
“Oh,” he said. “Oh my.” He looked at our mother, and seemed to be trying to guess what she was making for dinner. So far, she’d put some canned corn on the stove and had a package of thawing chicken breasts in the sink. Now she was messing around with some lettuce that had seen better days.
Dad walked over to Mom’s phone. He picked it up and looked and looked at it, then hit the pause button.
“Hey,” Mom said, “What gives?” At this the three of us sat up straighter, Dad rarely interrupted anything, especially not Mom.
Mom is our mother. She cooks and cleans and teaches Vatican and supervises Jackie and my learning, and shops and buys ice-cream on Saturdays and somehow keeps Dad alive, as well as having about two hundred hobbies including juggling small stuffed penguins, growing succulents in the house and a garden in the yard, and playing the guitar. But in her heart, I think she would like to be a novelist. Often, we catch her writing rapidly in old school notebooks in which only the first few pages got used. She’s always embarrassed when we ask her to let us read what she’s written; she shakes her head and sits on the notebook, crossing her arms in the exact way Jackie does when he’s being stubborn or pouting.
“She’s writing a book,” Vatican says, nodding knowingly. “Probably it’s about me.”
“You?” I say, “why about you?”
“I would make a good book,” he says, shrugging, at least I think he shrugs. It’s hard to tell because he doesn’t really have shoulders.
“Come here, Natasha, Vatican, and Jackie,” Dad said. He always calls us by our names, never just, “Come here, kids.”
“We’re going to help Mom make dinner, and then we’ll all play something together,” he said, making a glorious attempt at being brisk and firm. “How about Phase Ten?” I was surprised he knew the names of any games. I couldn’t remember him ever playing games with us.
“But Phase Ten uses cards!” Vatican protested.
“You can sit on my lap,” Mom said. Vatican could maneuver his feet like hands with more control when he was secured on a lap.
“But then you’ll see my cards,” he complained, but quieter now. He too was interested in the idea of our parents playing this us.
“I’ll do my absolute best not to,” Mom said, “And if I do, I won’t use the knowledge to my advantage. We can turn off all the lights and use candles,” she went on, growing excited. “That’s what we used to do when I was a kid and the electricity went out.”
“Grand idea,” Dad said.
We set about to get dinner. Dad cut open the bag of chicken and dumped it out on a baking tray, covered it in barbecue sauce, and put it in the oven while I chopped a tomato for the salad. (I think Mom just wanted something for me to do, because we never had tomato in our salad.) Vatican sat on the table with Jackie standing beside him, taking turns reading the sparse instructions on the back of a brownie mix to Mom, who mixed it up, and if she was following the instructions a little ahead of when they were read, Jackie and Vatican didn’t notice.
“Now.” Dad said, when all was done and we were waiting for the chicken to bake. Mom brought dusty green candles out from somewhere, and Dad got matches while Jackie brought the Phase Ten cards. Vatican was still sitting on the table, his soft body quivering like it does when he’s excited.
Jackie dealt the cards while Mom lit the candles and I ran around turning out all the lights. It wasn’t dark out yet, so I closed the curtains. Now our familiar house was a dim, flickering world of uncertainty. If there’s a question about whether a tree falling in a forest makes a sound if there’s no one to hear it, there should also be a question about whether something is really there if you can’t see it. Even if you know it’s there, as soon as the lights go out, how can you be sure?
At the table, everyone’s faces flickered with yellow light. Things are more uncertain in candlelight, but also warmer and prettier. Dad looked wise and mysterious with his beard, dark brows and glasses, while Mom looked younger, like a little girl. Jackie looked scared, and Vatican, who is usually a cute little guy, looked fearsome.
“Well,” Dad said, shuffling his cards, “I’m not certain I remember how to play, but I’m sure you all can show me.”
That was the thing about Dad; we might have resented that our brilliant father spent so little time with us, but we adored him too much. One of our reasons was this. How, with all his tremendous intellect, he was still clueless, eager to be taught, even by his own kids. Another was how, when it really counted, he knew exactly what to do.
The night Vatican came I was barely four years old, and Jackie was a chubby baby eight months old. We were walking home from the playground. Our father happened to be with us instead of Mom, and the three of us were walking up the street together, when we noticed a crowd forming in Mrs. Gilman’s yard. People were talking loudly and several ladies screamed. Dad brought us to the edge of the group, then pushed his way through everyone to see what had happened. He expected to find someone who’d been hurt, or a dead animal. Instead, there was Vatican. The crowd parted for my father, sensing a certain authority perhaps, and I went forward to stand behind him.
Vatican was sitting in a little bush, his tiny orange body seemed to be stuck to the leaves, his feet were curled up into fists he’d been using to wipe his wide eyes. He looked up at my father with his three eyes full of tears. His eyes were brown. My mother and Jackie have brown eyes. And he sniffled. I’m not sure how, since he doesn’t exactly have a nose, but he definitely sniffled.
“Call the police,” someone said.
“How about the government?” Said someone else, probably Mrs. Gilman, already a little proud that it was her yard. My father turned to them; Jackie tucked under his arm. He looked at them, then bent down and picked up Vatican, tucking him firmly under his other arm. “You can send the police to my house,” he said, and walked up the street, with me hurrying along behind. When your dad does things like that, you don’t mind if he isn’t always paying attention to questions or challenging you to games of chess. It’s enough to be related to him.
Jackie fanned out a perfect run on the table, throwing his last card on the discard pile. We all groaned.
“It’s not fair; I’m never going to get past a set of four, run of four,” Vatican said, throwing down his cards so they scattered.
“I agree it’s frustrating,” Dad said. He was still on phase one, two sets of three.
“Something smells,” I said. “I think the chicken might be burning.”
“Didn’t you set a timer?” Mom asked, jumping up and nearly dropping Vatican on the floor.
“Alas, I did not.” Dad pulled on his beard and tried to look sorry and winked at me.
“Well,” Mom said, pulling out the tray, “I think only the barbeque sauce is burnt, so we can try scraping it off.”
When Dad brought Vatican home that night, Mom met him in the living room and said, “Good heavens!” Dad looked at her a moment, then handed him to her, and she didn’t say anything more. Not then, anyway.
We ate by candlelight as well, maybe so we couldn’t see how burnt the chicken really was. But it tasted alright.
“I think we should just declare me the winner of Phase Ten,” Jackie said, “and play a trivia game.”
“No,” said Vatican.
“Anyway,” Mom said, “I’m setting a timer on the brownies.”
“Good,” Dad said, “Maybe by the time they’re done I’ll have crushed Jackie’s phases.”
Mom cleared the plates and the green candles burned steadily now, set down deep inside their walls of wax. Vatican kicked at his water glass, eager to get on with the game and brownies. Jackie stared into the flames of the candles, his lips moving faintly. I was certain he was reciting obscure dates to himself.
“You know, Natasha,” Dad said, suddenly looking at me and catching a clump of my hair in his large hand, “I think it’s rather nice being made to stay at home.”