by Gary Sprague
Through the vent hole I heard Linda tell Mom she was pregnant. Linda cried, and before long Mom was crying too. I was lying upstairs in bed, still as midnight, wearing only shorts, perspiring so heavily my sheets were damp. My head hung over the side, sweat dripping off my hair to the floor below with a light splat. Linda told Mom who the father was—more bawling. The thought of frumpy Linda bumping privates with Wilber Snow made me smile. Hard to believe anyone would sleep with either of them. I heard Mom gently tell my sister not to worry; they would take care of it. A few moments later Linda’s heavy footsteps started up the creaky stairs.
I had my mp3 player at the ready. I slid the headphones on and closed my eyes. I’d been eavesdropping my whole life; after thirteen years, I knew all the tricks. Linda paused at the top of the stairs, standing outside my door—I could feel her watching me. She called me an asshole. I kept my eyes closed, bobbed my head to the quiet music. Only after hearing her bedroom door close did I sit up and remove the headphones.
Mom exhaled deeply below; rank cigarette smoke floated up through the vent. Whenever she was stressed, Mom sat at the kitchen table and smoked. Sunday mornings Dad would cook eggs and bacon, the warm aroma softly surrounding me until I’d wake up salivating. But when Mom smoked, it was like living inside an ashtray. The stench hovered for hours in my stagnant room. I grabbed an old magazine off my nightstand and placed it gently over the vent.
Our old house had no heat upstairs—that’s what the vent holes were for. Holes were cut into the floor, allowing the heat from below to rise up and heat our bedrooms. The holes had black metal grates with a flap that could be closed in the summer, keeping the hot air from rising up. Let me tell you, it sounds good in theory, but it works like crap. Winters were cold enough to frost the bedroom windows, and summers Linda and I baked like crescent rolls.
I loved that vent, though. Nearly every conversation took place in the kitchen. Nobody ever told me anything directly, because I was the youngest. Eavesdropping was my only form of family communication. Dad was always annoyed because I spent too much time in my room. He wanted me playing ball or riding my bike, not reading in my room. I only know this because I heard it through the vent. I don’t think Linda heard much through her vent. It was above the living room, and nothing much ever happened in there. Sometimes on the weekend Dad would sit in his ratty green recliner, watching baseball. Maybe she heard him drinking beer and scratching his balls.
I must have fallen asleep, because next thing I knew Mom shook my leg and told me to come down for dinner. I was drenched in sweat. I splashed water in my face to cool down, then joined the family at the table. Dad apparently wasn’t told about the pregnancy, because between ravenous bites he rambled on about shingles and nails and whatever else a roofer talks about. Mom listened attentively, smiling and asking questions. I never knew if she really enjoyed his stories or just feigned interest, but she made the old man feel good about his lousy job. I always thought Mom made a good wife. Linda looked sad, eyes puffy, like she’d been crying, but she always looked like that. I wanted to say something to Dad about the pregnancy—call him gramps or something subtle like that—but then I would be in trouble. Funny how it works that way.
After dinner Dad leaned back in his chair, rubbing his thick belly. Dad rarely wore a shirt at the table, and ketchup hung from a few gray chest hairs. He took one last swig of beer, crushed the can, tossed it in the trash. Looking at my mother, he smiled and said, “I’ve got some good news. We finally have the money to do some repairs to the house. That means new carpeting.”
Carpeting. My father’s main goal in life. Our house was hardwood everywhere except the bathroom. Most of it was so scratched and warped it wasn‘t fit to be used as kindling. I kind of liked it.
“I’m having the living room and bedrooms carpeted,” he was saying. “And in the kitchen, tile. Can you believe it? I‘m having heat run upstairs, too. We‘ll cover those vents and get you kids some heat and some privacy. No more icicles hanging off the window sill. Isn‘t that exciting?”
Linda didn’t look that excited. Her wet eyes were rain clouds preparing to burst. Mom and Dad chatted happily, in their own world as usual. There was no point in saying anything; I was a painting on the wall, to be seen and not heard. I thought about what Dad said. I didn’t need privacy; if I did, I just covered the vent with a book. What would I do now? My information highway was being shut down. Linda left the table just as the waterworks began flowing down her fat cheeks. I followed soon after. Mom and Dad didn’t notice.
In a couple months the house was remodeled. Dad wasn’t disappointed; our beat-up hardwood was replaced by warm, thick, tan carpet. I thought the old guy was going to burst into tears when it was finished. He actually may have—I have no way of knowing. Linda never got fat, or at least any fatter than she was, so I now understand what Mom meant about taking care of the pregnancy. Me, I started going outside a lot, playing baseball, riding my bike. There’s no point staying inside with a bunch of strangers.
The idea for this story came from my teenage years. A friend lived in a house similar to that in the story—no heat upstairs, vent holes for heat, windows iced over in the winter. Stories of this length are so concise that the reader is forced to use his/her imagination. With minimal room for description, readers must create their own details. I remember the details of the house I wrote about—the design, the smells—but every person reading the story will finish with a different image. Good fiction is all about imagination, and imagination is why the movie is never as good as the book.
Gary Sprague lives in Maine with his wife and two sons. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in the Raleigh Review, The Linnet’s Wings, and Spilling Ink Review.