Dad plugs in the white noise machine to help us sleep. It’s Aunt Jenny’s idea. She says we’re used to silence and that nothing is silent here. When I ask what white noise is, she says it’s like the absence of sound.
I don’t understand how noise can be silence, no matter what color it is.
Aunt Jenny says I’m overthinking it.
When the grown-ups go out, Grandma stays behind with us. We order Chinese take-out and she says we’re like real city people now. Eileen doesn’t like Chinese, so she eats a peanut butter sandwich instead. The bread is different from the kind we have at home and when the sides of her mouth pinch together I can tell she doesn’t like that either.
To cheer her up, we have ice cream before bed. The icy part on the top of the gallon is freezer burn, Grandma says, and she scrapes it off with a knife before filling up our bowls. “Don’t tell your father,” she warns us, but she’s not serious. On the drive up, Dad and Grandma and I sang the “I scream for ice cream” song until our voices got raspy.
On the floor of Aunt Jenny’s bedroom, I unroll my sleeping bag. Eileen is already asleep beside me, and the white noise hums in tune with her breath. But me, I’m waiting up for Dad and Aunt Jenny. I can’t sleep until I know they haven’t gotten in a car crash coming back from Uncle Dave’s. Car crashes are my second-worst fear, after spiders.
Uncle Dave lives in a different part of the city, Dad says. He has tattoos, and once when I was younger Mom and Dad made me tell him what I’d learned in school about not smoking. Once, I saw him alone in Grandma’s kitchen, drinking vanilla extract straight from the bottle.
But that was a long time ago now.
The bedroom door is open, but I sneak to the window anyway and watch the intersection outside. Back home, our backyard has oak trees and poison ivy. Here, beneath the streetlights, there is only cement.
When the front door creaks open, I slide back into bed and close my eyes. My favorite thing to do is hear my family together. The way Dad and Aunt Jenny crack up over jokes. The way Grandma’s Kentucky accent sneaks back in when they talk about the old days.
But this time is different. I turn onto my side and listen.
“What do you mean he didn’t take it?” Grandma says.
“He didn’t open the door.”
“He didn’t open the door for his own family?”
“He doesn’t give a fuck about our family, Mom.” I flinch. Dad doesn’t talk like that with me.
“Jesus Christ,” says Aunt Jenny, “you don’t have to put it like that.”
“How should I put it, then? We went out into the goddamn ghetto to—”
“The ghetto? Well, that’s a little bit culturally insensitive, don’t you—”
“—give the screw-up some fucking baked goods from his mother and he didn’t even open the door for us—”
“—think? He’s embarrassed, that’s all.”
“Not too embarrassed to take the money.”
“Because he needs it. He’s not stupid.”
“Quiet. The kids.” I’m chewing my cuticles.
“That’s our boy,” Dad says, “smart as a whip. Thirty years old, living off hand-outs from—”
“How did he look? When he took the check.”
“Don’t you listen? I said we had to slide that shit under the door.”
“Mom’s just concerned—”
“We’re all concerned. Always concerned. You know why he didn’t take the food? Because he’s feeding off our fucking concern—”
I lie still.
“Remember last time?” Quieter.
“That was different.”
“He totaled Mom’s car.”
“He needed help.”
“He destroyed everything.”
“Listen. When my daughter invites him to her school play—”
“—and he tells her no to her face—”
“Don’t you see it, Tom?”
“This is Dad’s fault, not Davy’s. It’s Dad who fucked it up. When—”
“Wait!” Silence. Something I don’t understand and then, “I won’t hear any more of this. I won’t. And I sure as hell won’t hear your father’s name in this house.”
I’ve never heard Grandma yell before, and I can tell she’s not used to it either. Her voice is shrill.
There is more talking but I don’t want to listen. I’m not cold anymore; my blood feels like hot chocolate inside my veins. I imagine Dad standing there, in Aunt Jenny’s dining room, snorting mucus back into his nose. And Grandma, yelling.
I don’t want to know about Uncle Dave. I don’t want to know why he crashed Grandma’s car, or why he didn’t come see me in The Music Man, or why he drank vanilla extract straight out of the bottle. I don’t want to know what Grandpa did.
When Dad comes in to check on Eileen and me, my eyelids are relaxed and my breath is steady. In, out. Slower. In, out. Softer. In, out. I can feel his face close up against mine, watching me, making sure I’ve been sleeping. I try to keep my expression blank.
Once I’m sure that he’s gone, I crawl out of bed again and go to the window. Beneath the streetlights, there are cracks in the pavement.
I listen to the white noise.
Hannah White graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a BA in European history. She is currently an incoming MFA student at Temple University and the 2014-2015 Kelly Writers House Junior Fellow. Her work has appeared in Word Riot, The Sensible Nonsense Project, Cleaver Magazine, Gadfly Online, Penn Review, Rainy Day, Thickjam, Apiary Online, and The MFA Years, among others. Follow her on Twitter at @hannahleewhite, where she posts daily Pop Culture PSAs as well as your average self-deprecating snark.