Memoir

Porcelain Jesus

Daddy’s holding a shotgun in one hand and a half-empty bottle of vodka in the other, the red label worn and cracked and peeling around the edges. His cigarette slowly burns a hole in the gray carpet at his feet. Smoke floats up all around him, waves, and disappears into the dim light of the den—a room that was first my brother’s bedroom, then mine, then my older sister’s when she moved back home with the baby. Daddy made it a den when my sister moved out the second time. He said he needed a space of his own and Mama agreed; she didn’t want to see any more deer heads mounted on her living room walls anyway. All stuffed critters had been regulated to the small den at the back of the house, where Daddy gladly posed and positioned them alongside his rifles and bows and arrows and framed pictures of bald eagles. He striped the room with a wilderness-themed border that reminded him of the Tennessee hills that surrounded our house. He fashioned a lamp from antlers and hoofs and a table from a piece of driftwood, and commenced to sit in that den, night after night, drinking himself into oblivion.

Tonight is no different.

When I step into the doorway, I can feel the deer watching me. Mama stands in front of the television, arms folded. She turns to me and rolls her eyes.

“What’s with the gun, Daddy?” I ease in slowly. Daddy’s like a deer himself—easily startled and quick to react. I’m not surprised to see him with a gun, if you’re wondering. He likes guns; likes to hold them against sweaty temples and threaten to pull the trigger; likes to lock his family out of their own home while he hides in the woods, cracking and cocking his shotgun. But when he’s drunk, he really likes guns. He’s a member of the NRA, you know.

“Well, I’ve decided I’m going to kill myself, Jo.” He hangs his head dramatically. His sad, blue eyes are vacant and tell me he won’t remember most of this tomorrow. He’s too self-absorbed to kill himself, by the way. I’m pretty sure he’s bluffing.

Mama snorts and shakes her head.

“Oh,” I say softly. I sit on the edge of the sofa and watch Mama. She throws her hip out to one side and fixes her mouth into a sideways line, and I think that means the current event isn’t that serious; she looks annoyed more than anything. These drunken rants of Daddy’s occur several times a week now. “The carpet’s on fire,” I finally say.

“Fuck you, smartass.” Daddy points toward me with the near-empty bottle as he bends to retrieve the cigarette from the rug and smashes it into an overfilled glass ashtray. “You want me to die, just like your mother. I bet you’d just love it if I wasn’t around.”

“Well,” I say, “if you’re going to keep doing this kind of crap, then, yeah, I’d kind of rather you not be around. But that doesn’t mean I want you to kill yourself.”

“Goddamn you. You’re such a smartass. Just like your mother.” Daddy looks through me when he talks. I might as well be one of his beloved stuffed deer heads hanging above the sofa, inanimate, lifeless.

I know he doesn’t really mean to talk to me that way. I’m pretty sure I know he loves me. I pretend he hasn’t hurt my feelings and bend down to pick up a porcelain figurine of Jesus Christ that has fallen from a shelf. One of Jesus’s hands is missing. I trace his nub with my thumb and scan the floor for the missing hand.

“Don’t talk to her like that,” Mama says. She’s tired of dealing with the old man. I reckon she’ll leave him about the time I go off to college. Daddy’s drunken antics once incited feelings of concern and tenderness in Mama, but now they only fuel her apathy toward him. Mama steps closer to Daddy. “That’s your daughter you’re talking to.”

This is when Daddy pretends to cry. Well, he cries, but it’s not sincere. He’s great at pretending to be sincere, as if he really is sorry that he cursed at me, as if he really does care that he’s destroying our family. Personally, I think crying makes him feel a bit more authentic. And in the spirit of Fred Sanford, Daddy staggers backward dramatically and says, “Just pull the trigger. Put me out of my misery. Do yourselves a favor.” He extends the handle of the gun toward Mama and me and, honestly, for a split second, I imagine how it would feel to stab the gun into his chest and pull the trigger. I’ve thought a lot about killing him over the years. He’s so drunk most of the time, I’m pretty sure I can make it look like an accident. When I think about killing Daddy, a peaceful feeling washes over me, but I never allow myself to entertain these thoughts for longer than few minutes, since I always end up feeling guilty. That’s Mama’s fault for taking me to church three times a week. Otherwise, I’d probably have already shot him or poisoned him or smothered him in his sleep. I shake thoughts of guilt and guns from my head and continue to look for Jesus’s hand.

Daddy staggers and stumbles around the den. “Well, I wish one of y’all would kill me because I don’t want to be here with you assholes anymore.” He takes a too-large gulp of vodka and spits it into the air. “That’s how I feel. Like spit. Like nothing. Y’all make me feel like nothing!” He wobbles some more, nearly knocks over that driftwood table that stands beside his sacred recliner.

“Shit, Daddy, you are so dramatic.” I wrinkle my nose at him, search the floor for the missing piece of Jesus, and quietly ask the real Jesus to forgive me for thinking about killing Daddy. And for saying shit.

“Watch your mouth, Joanna Lee.” Mama takes the figurine from me and finds the missing hand on the floor underneath the sofa. She holds the porcelain Jesus in front of Daddy’s face. “Look at what you did! You broke it. He sees all of this, you know? He knows how you really are.” She shakes Jesus in the air above her head. It cannot be said that Mama isn’t capable of theatrics herself.

“Give that to me.” Daddy lurches toward her.

“No. I’m going to fix Him and put Him away somewhere. You shouldn’t have this in here anyway.” Mama hides the figurine behind her back, like an older sibling keeping a toy away from a pesky little brother.

I laugh. I can’t help it. I think to myself, this should be on film. I should save up my money and film this shit and send it someplace. I think, briefly, about where I could hide cameras around the house. But suddenly, in unpredictable, deer-like fashion, Daddy turns and fires the shotgun through the screen door, into the steep hillside behind our house, and my laughter dries up and sticks to the inside of my mouth like pieces of silver confetti. I can’t breathe or move or scream. Everything has stopped. Sure, Daddy likes guns, but he never actually shoots them unless he’s hunting. Even Mama is thrown off her game, and in one sweeping motion Daddy drops the bottle of vodka and the gun and lunges for Mama, but she won’t let go of the statue. “Give me the goddamn Jesus!” he yells.

I watch them struggle for a moment, still surprised that Daddy fired the gun, the boom from the shot still ringing in my head. Then, without thinking, I begin to pull on the figurine, too. “Just let me have it. I’ll fix it.”

The three of us struggle to take hold of Jesus. We twist and contort ourselves on the floor of the den. Daddy curses Mama, Porcelain Jesus, Real Jesus, and me.

“Fuck both of y’all. It’s my Jesus.” His breath smells smoky and bitter, and I wonder when was the last time he and my Mama kissed. I can’t imagine it.

“Daddy, you can’t say fuck and Jesus in the same sentence,” I say, still tugging on the broken figurine.

“Joanna Lee! You know better than to say that word.” Mama gives me a stern look and uses her free hand to push against Daddy’s face.

Somehow I successfully yank the figure from their hands, but I lose my balance and fall backward into the hallway and against the wall. Mama and Daddy stare at me slumped outside the doorway. At first, I feel something like victory or resolution, but then I realize my hand is bleeding. I must have cut myself on Jesus’s porcelain nub.

“Oh, shit, darlin’.” Daddy simulates sobriety (and sincerity) as he leans down to help me up.

Mama moves in front of Daddy and tries to pull me to my feet. “Leave her alone. This is all your fault anyway.”

The two of them nudge around each other, trying to be the first to help me to my feet.

“I don’t need any help.” I stand up on my own and head down the hallway.

At the kitchen sink, I watch my blood mix pink with cold water and trickle down the drain. I listen to them bicker over who is more at fault for my injury, but soon enough the argument forgets me and turns back to money, petty jealously, and lies from the past. I wash the blood off Jesus, dry Him with a dishtowel, and place the figurine and detached hand on the kitchen table. I search the junk drawer for Super Glue, but I can’t find any. I examine the porcelain figure, and blink away tears as I look into Jesus’s white eyes, run my finger across the broken arm where a hand should be.

Down the hall, voices rise and fall, the TV roars, a door slams. All around me, the house settles and creaks in the night. It’s late, I think. I have a math test tomorrow morning. I hesitate for a minute, then climb the stairs to my bedroom, leaving Jesus alone on the kitchen table.

Joanna Grisham lives in Lexington, KY and teaches English comp and creative writing courses at two nearby universities. Her work has appeared in Reunion: The Dallas Review and is forthcoming from MAYDAY Magazine.