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The Tyrant

Issue 117, Summer 2022

"Family Dinner," 2021, oil on canvas, by Mark Milroy. Courtesy the artist

There were seven coming to dinner, but my husband had me set eight places, just in case his father bumbled through the door and demanded to be served. “The tyrant” was how he referred to him, and although it was a Shakespearean and ill-defined word, slippery and archaic and meaningless, it really did describe his father like no other. My father-in-law was a fat psychologist who always wore a thick western belt embedded with tiny silver snakes. He was from Indiana, and he took any opportunity to bring this up in conversation, despite the fact that Hoosiers were often regarded as a nuisance in Louisville. He was prone to holding grudges (he hadn’t spoken to his middle son for almost five years, the reason for which was unclear but apparently involved art theft), and he often had outbursts of anger during which he spewed obscenities, insulted waiters, and eventually sped off drunk on his motorcycle. 

For these general reasons, my father-in-law was not invited to our house for dinner. My husband was the one who proposed the tyrant-ban, though we both knew it was futile, given that the tyrant made himself present at most family events regardless of invitation. I was thirteen weeks pregnant, and the purpose of the gathering was to announce the news to my husband’s family. 

My husband cupped his hand around my stomach. “How’s little Robbie?”

I brushed his hand away and laughed. “We are not calling him that.”

He frowned. “Robert Jr. is a perfectly good name.”

“I’m not calling my husband and my child by the same name,” I said. “That’s weird. That’s like, Freudian.”

“Alright, alright,” he said. “What are our other options? Sitka, Kodiak, Denali? What about the gender-neutral Ketchikan?”

We had gone to Alaska for our honeymoon the year before, where we’d taken a cruise ship, eaten caviar, worn puffy coats, and stopped at every major port. We saw red shuttered roofs, pounding rain, zealous sled dogs racing over glaciers, salmon running backward up rivers. My husband was still disappointed that we hadn’t seen a bear in the wild. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that when we were in Mendenhall Glacier Park, walking above a metal catwalk, I had looked down and, through the slats, seen a grizzly cub marching through with a fish in his mouth. Tourists wandered around me, oblivious. I said nothing to anyone, not even my husband, who was busy taking photos of the basin with his long camera lens. 

“If it’s twins, we could name them after your grandparents,” he said. “Fergus and Clodagh.”

I had been raised in a suburb of Boston by my Irish grandparents, who still had accents and owned a literal Irish pub. I had moved away for college and lived away from them since, but when I closed my eyes, I could picture them wiping down the mahogany bar counter, shopping for leeks in the produce aisle, laughing at the same episodes of Seinfeld they always did. I missed them constantly, but it was less that I needed them now and more that my heart ached with gratitude for them and all they’d sacrificed for me. It was the kind of gratitude you cannot experience until you’re grown. 

“How much time do I have?” I said, taking the salad from the fridge, where its raspberry glaze had set. 

“Ten minutes,” he said, looking at his phone. “Rosalyn is bringing her meatloaf.”

The thought of meatloaf made my stomach twist, bile rising in my throat. I knelt over the sink and stared at the water marks on the faucet.

I felt my husband’s hands on my shoulders. “Don’t worry. We can cut it into tiny pieces and push it around our plates for an hour.”

We’d agreed to keep the dinner reserved for close family only, which still meant that five people were coming: Theo, my eldest brother-in-law, his wife Rosalyn, and their son Spencer; Lucky, the second eldest and the alleged art thief, was bound to show up in his red pickup truck with a bottle of tequila, and he was supposedly bringing his new girlfriend who we hadn’t met, a woman named Siobhan. 

My husband and his two brothers were all from different mothers. Still, they bore a streak of intense resemblance: the sharp widow’s peak of their foreheads, the electric blue-green eyes. 

One year before I’d met my husband, his mother had died after a long and arduous battle with breast cancer. He was Alice’s only child, and there were photographs of her everywhere in the house. The one that sat on the entry table showed Alice giving a thumbs-up on an Appalachian hiking trail, bald as a monk. Around her neck was a long, thin golden necklace with an indistinguishable charm on it, and it made her gaunt collarbones pop. Each day when I walked in, I felt her beautiful eyes presiding over the entire family, watching me.

Alice was someone who everyone spoke about fervently, but I never brought her up myself. She was too important. I felt like an imposter for having never known her. She’d been close with every member of the family, the benevolent stepmother to my in-laws, and they all revered her. My husband spoke of his mother with a tenderness so pure it was almost alien to me. I felt that the power of this sort of love was outside of myself, something I could never harness. “She would have loved you,” he told me on several occasions, and I carried those words deep in my heart, though I often felt undeserving of such a sentiment. 

He hadn’t spoken to his middle son for almost five years, the reason for which was unclear but apparently involved art theft.

Everyone had loved Alice, it seemed. Rosalyn had put it plainly one evening last summer when we lay by the pool, drinking a bitter red wine. 

“Sometimes people die, and everyone talks about how good of a person they were,” she told me, thumbing the St. Christopher pendant she wore around her neck. “And everyone has, like, total amnesia and forgets all the bad things about them. But honestly, Alice really was that good of a person.”

“That makes sense, because Robert has a strong sense of morality that I think he learned as a child,” I said. 

Robert had been a philosophy major when we were at Vanderbilt together, and now he was an assistant to a prominent civil rights lawyer downtown. His duties, from what I could tell, mostly revolved around speaking intensely on the phone about moral propensities, concepts of right and wrong in the context of a particular case. 

Rosalyn snorted and rolled over onto her stomach, carefully propping herself up on her elbows. She’d gotten her breasts surgically enhanced recently, because the boob job she’d gotten at eighteen had inexplicably exploded, necessitating another boob job with more modern technology. “Well, he certainly didn’t learn it from his dad.” 

Secretly, I was somewhat disappointed that my father-in-law wouldn’t be here tonight. His dramatic flair was unpredictable, but it was seamless and ever-present. When he was with us, we always sat on the edge of our seats, and we often had complex discussions about the human brain, the universe at large, before the ultimate chaos ensued. It was Lucky who had coined the tyrant’s nickname. The two were similar in their charm, but also their volatility, and they could not be in the same room without catastrophe. 

“Really?” I’d asked my husband, when he said he wasn’t inviting his father. “It’s not that I don’t like Lucky, but you’d want him there instead of your father?”

He winced. “We don’t know how the tyrant will react in a group setting,” he said. 

“I thought you said he always wanted you to have children. I mean, he’s already a grandfather.” (Rosalyn and Theo’s son Spencer was now ten years old and, for reasons inexplicable, had begun expressing desires to go to dental school.) 

“Well, he might get emotional, thinking of my mom and all.”

My father-in-law becoming emotional was not uncommon. He often gave drunken speeches to the family during which bulbous tears rolled down his cheeks. After my husband’s acceptance into law school, his father had stood on a chair at a restaurant in Little Italy with the entire dining room looking on and proclaimed, in his thick desert of a voice, that we were “in the presence of someone who is going to be the greatest lawyer in the Bluegrass State.” He held out his glass—it was a chalice, really, because he’d asked the wait staff to bring him a goblet—and gave a toast to “Reason, Truth, and Beauty, and the never-ending fight against the Devil, who opposes such things.” When the wait staff came to ask him to get down, he shattered the goblet on the floor, and rather than being kicked out, he somehow spent the rest of the night writing large checks and sobbing at the table while one of us comforted him with our hand on the back of his great neck. 

Standing there in the kitchen, holding the platter of battered clam linguini, I thought of brains. Specifically, the game we played as children on Halloween, where we were blindfolded and had to touch different foods, then were told they were different body parts. Peeled grapes, eyeballs, that sort of thing. I began to get nauseous again. 

“I’m not sure about all of this,” I said. 

My husband cocked his head. “All of what?”

“It’s too soon,” I said.

He took the linguini from me, set it on the counter, and put his hands in mine. “Honey. I thought we agreed.” 

“What if something happens?” I said. “It’s not too late, you know. Something could still happen in the second trimester. And it would be way, way worse.” 

“Even if you don’t tell them, they’re going to notice,” he said. “People in my family have always carried heavy babies. When I was born, I was nine pounds.” 

“What about my family?” I was beginning to feel childish, like a crying spell was coming on. Since about week four, I’d begun drawing a bath each morning when my husband left for work, sinking below the hot water and crying for no discernable reason. 

He looked puzzled. “What about them?”

My grandparents were my only family. Compared to my husband’s family, where dinners seemed to either end in heartfelt discussions about the human experience or threats about restraining orders, dinners with them were mild and almost boring. They usually just shoveled chili on top of tortilla chips and served it to us on paper plates. I planned on telling them about my pregnancy by calling them on their landline the next week, and I could already hear the Oh, sweetheart

My husband had his hands on my belly again. “I don’t want you to be stressed about this,” he said. He’d recently read that stress could affect a baby in utero, something that all women have probably known since the dawn of time, and the fact stressed him out. “But I do think it’s time to tell them. That’s why we’re doing all this, you know? They’re going to want to support us through the rest of our journey, and we’ll need that.”

I imagined more days lounging by the pool with Rosalyn and her massive boobs, my stomach bloated as a basketball, lying on my back listening to her discuss the ways Spencer had ruined her body. “Twenty-six stitches,” she had said, lowering her high-waisted bikini. “It hurt like a bitch, and they had already given me the painkillers. Theo won’t even look at me anymore.”

We heard the sound of car doors slamming, a child whining, people shuffling up the front walkway. 

“That’ll be Theo and them,” my husband said. He gave me a nervous kiss on the cheek. “Don’t worry, okay? It’s going to go well. Everyone is here for you.”

I looked around quickly for final touches and was devastated to see that my husband hadn’t put any knives out with the silverware. What kind of person forgets to set knives? It seemed like a major character flaw, something fate would use to doom him in the end.

“But I don’t want them to be,” I said.

He looked confused. “You don’t have to go through all this alone.”

“But I don’t think I want anyone to know,” I said. “I don’t want people to know that my vagina is going to expand to the width of a watermelon, or that I’m constantly pissing my pants, just a little bit. I don’t even want you to know that. Please just let me keep this.” I was now on the verge of tears, and my husband looked bewildered. “I just want to keep one thing for myself.” 

He gave me a look. And I knew what that look meant: It’s too late. They already knew. Then the doorbell rang. I opened the knife drawer and pulled out a handful. I briefly considered sticking one handle between each finger and pretending to have scissor-hands when I greeted my husband’s family, but then decided against it. No matter how hard you pretended, your in-laws were never your real family. You could never quite be truly goofy. You could never be in on their inside jokes. 

It was Lucky who had coined the tyrant’s nickname. The two were similar in their charm, but also their volatility, and they could not be in the same room without catastrophe.

Rosalyn was wearing a sundress that featured lemons and Theo a plaid button-down, and the pair looked horribly mismatched, like two teenagers going to the school dance who hadn’t coordinated outfits. She carried the meatloaf under her arm the way one would a laundry basket, her big lips pursed in a grin (she’d gotten fillers recently), and Spencer stood awkwardly behind her, absorbed in the screen of a device. 

“Darling,” Rosalyn said, leaning up to hug me. She teetered on cork-wedge heels. “How are you?”

“Grand,” I said, which was not a word I usually said but seemed to fit Rosalyn’s vibe. She had the power of shifting the vibe in the room.

Theo and my husband hugged and clapped each other’s backs, and then Robert and I were leading the two into the living room holding the bottle of red wine they’d brought with them. It was an inescapable trap they’d set. I was sent to the kitchen to find a corkscrew, and internally I was panicking. They would see that I refused a glass of wine, and then they would pounce. 

I returned with the corkscrew and decided to make conversation about the wine to distract from my not-drinking. “Where did you get this?”

Theo smiled, and I saw the smile of my husband, that familiar flash of blue. “We brought it back from Spain.”

“Oh, how was Spain?” I’d seen photos of them on Facebook standing in front of the Sagrada Familia and the Spanish countryside. Rosalyn smiled without teeth, pouting her large lips, and Theo looked like he was going to blink from the flash. They had their arms wrapped around Spencer, who stood comfortably between them.

“It’s such a beautiful place,” Rosalyn said. “You want a glass, Lily?”

I felt everyone’s eyes on me for the half-second I hesitated. “No, but maybe later, though.” 

While Spencer made himself comfortable on the couch, Theo and Robert headed to the kitchen, where they settled into passionate debate on the Spanish siesta. “But it’s just adult naptime,” Theo said. I stood there in the foyer watching. I was always jealous of my husband with his brothers—I was an only child. When I told my husband this on our second date, he looked so sorry for me that I realized he might be sadder than I was about it. 

“Psst,” Rosalyn whispered to me. She was standing behind the glass doors in the backyard. Her smoky eye makeup had smeared around the edges, making her look raccoon-like. She waved at me. I slid the door open and joined her outside, where the setting sun was making the pool glow like an egg yolk. 

“What’s wrong?” I asked her.

“It’s over,” she said. “Me and Theo. I’m going to divorce him, probably.” 

“What?” I said, a little too loudly. 

“He doesn’t know yet. No one does. So, don’t tell Robert.” 

“What happened?” 

“I found messages on the family computer. He’s been talking to another woman. Saying, like, intimate things.” She raised a hand to her forehead. “I’m about to lose my mind. Do you still have your emergency cigarettes out here?” 

“Yeah,” I said. She picked up a black porous stone and found the squished packet of Marlboros beneath. It was a lava rock, an engagement gift from my father-in-law, who had found it and brought it back from Hawaii. I’d always heard it was bad luck to bring lava rock out of the islands, but I said nothing. I never smoked anymore (I’d made a promise to Robert), so it was mostly Rosalyn who used them, as she seemed to be in a state of emergency more often.

She took a slow inhale of the cigarette, then closed her eyes and exhaled, as if she were a movie star. “I haven’t even told you the worst part.” 

“What is it?” 

“It wasn’t just sexy messages,” she said. “He shared things with this woman. He told her about Alice. He sent something like, the best person I ever knew died young of cancer, and since then it’s been hard for me to trust fate. Until I met you.” 

“That doesn’t sound like Theo,” I said. The potential infidelity did, actually, but not the saccharine message. Theo had a detached and simple demeanor. As we spoke, he was in the kitchen, eating carrots with a fork for some reason. 

“To bring up Alice like that.” She stubbed the cigarette out on the lava rock, then searched in her purse for breath mints. “It means they must be close. This must have been going on for a while. I’m just going to make it through tonight, and then I’ll talk to him. But I am barely hanging on, Lily, you know?”

I nodded, then put my hand to my belly without thinking. 

“It’s his father. That’s the reason he acts like this. He gets it all from his father.” She popped a breath mint in and shook her head, and I could tell she was trying not to cry. 

I often wondered how Alice and my father-in-law had met. Was it along some forlorn, treacherous hiking trail in the mountains? At some honky-tonk where they sat drinking bourbon? If Alice was such a great person, what did she see in him—someone to fix? Or had he been someone good, back then? My father-in-law had charisma, but over the years it seemed to have become clouded by old age and poor judgment. Surely as a young man he was attractive, with swift green eyes that cut to the heart of a person and a keen sense of adventure, traits my husband himself had but often attempted to suppress. Even now, the man had been married three times, and he rode a motorcycle at the age of sixty-five, so a certain degree of mystery surrounded him. 

“Robert isn’t like their father,” Rosalyn said, wiping delicately at the corner of her eyes. “He’s different, isn’t he? I can tell by the way he talks about you. He’s so…dedicated.”

“He is,” I said. It was strange to acknowledge out loud. I had always equated familial dedication with a quietness like the one my grandparents had shown me. I had always equated familial dedication with a quietness like the one my grandparents had shown me. They were private people, so although we loved each other immensely, we rarely spoke about our feelings, instead preferring small gestures and meaningful nods. But Robert and his family were boisterous and expressive with their emotions. It was one of the reasons I knew he’d be a good parent. 

She took my hands and squeezed them. “Enough about me. I can’t believe I’m making this night about me. I’m just so happy for you both.” 

I closed my eyes. “Does everyone already know?” 

“Yeah. Robert let it slip to Theo last week. He tried to play it off, but he was too excited. I mean, we all are.” 

“I’m excited, too. But I’m nervous. I’m trying to prepare, but I feel like there’s so much I don’t know, and I can’t prepare for that.” 

“Oh, you have to just wing it. It was like that with Spencer.” She laughed, then looked terrified. “God, this will be hard on him.” 

I gave her a tight hug. I smelled her perfume, the strange chemical scent of a shopping mall. “It’ll be okay,” I said. “We’ll figure it out. For now, let’s just eat.” 

Even now, the man had been married three times, and he rode a motorcycle at the age of sixty-five, so a certain degree of mystery surrounded him.

Since we’d been outside, Lucky had arrived with Siobhan. He wore a button-down and carried a bottle of bourbon, his hair slicked back with pomade. On his arms were freshly inked tattoos covered in plastic wrap He introduced us to Siobhan, a tiny blonde with a pronounced bottom lip. 

“You like bourbon, don’t you, Lily?” he asked, showing me the bottle. 

“Oh, I don’t know,” I said. 

“Alright, enough,” Rosalyn interrupted, and she suddenly bore an ecstatic grin. “Lily is pregnant.” 

A short silence was followed by exclamation. Even though everyone had been in on the secret, once it was out in the open, they rejoiced as if it were new to them. Lucky shouted, “Yes!” and put his fist in the air, Theo whooped the way one would at a baseball game, and Rosalyn jumped up and down so excitedly that a splash of red wine marred her lemon dress.

“Wasn’t I supposed to tell everyone?” I asked her in faux annoyance as I helped her clean the spot on her dress. 

“We gave you so many chances,” Rosalyn said. “Besides, aren’t you relieved?” 

I laughed. “Well, yes.” 

“What do you think about having a cousin?” Robert asked Spencer, who had risen from the couch and put down his video game.

He shrugged and smiled, revealing a row of braces. “I already knew.” 

Robert, Lucky, and Theo all took shots in celebration. Siobhan asked me where in Ireland my grandparents were from, and as we talked about our ancestry, I thought of warning her. Did she know what she was getting herself into by dating Lucky? But the smile on her face when he was near told me she was ready for anything. It was the same way I must have looked when I’d first met Robert. 

I thought of something my husband had said weeks ago: that babies make everyone happy, because they remind us that we can always start again. A summer rainstorm was clouding outdoors, but inside the house, things felt like light. 

And even when we saw the inevitable silhouette of my father-in-law, the tyrant, standing in the doorway like an outlaw entering a bar, the light did not fade. His big gut hung over his leather belt, and his mustache was curled. I braced myself for a drunken bellowing outburst at not being invited, a physical fight over what the tyrant acted like was a lost Picasso, some kind of terrifying revelation, but instead he came in and feebly took off his hat. He looked old, all of a sudden, the silver of his hair and leather of his face apparent. 

“My boy,” he said to my husband as we all looked on. “Your brother called. I hear you’re having a child. And God, I wish—” he brought his large fingertips to his eyes, which had begun to leak—“that your mother was here to see this. But I’m here. I’m here.” 

We served him the clam linguine, and all ate around the table, comforting him as he sobbed and told the birth story of each of his boys. “We called Theo ‘Thumper’ when he was in the womb,” he said. “Lucky was born with his hands balled in fists, like he was ready to fight. And Robert, your mother nearly had you on I-65. But I told her to hang on, and she did.” This last anecdote surprised me; Robert had told me his father wasn’t there for his birth. I was grateful for the tyrant’s appearance, no matter how theatrical it was.

As they all were getting their coats and dishes covered in Saran Wrap, saying their goodbyes, the tyrant pulled me toward him. He enveloped me in a hug, delicate and careful not to press my stomach. Tears were in his eyes again. I knew that the photograph of Alice that sat in the entryway, with her toothy smile and thin thumb pointed upward, watched him the same way it watched me.

“We’ll take care of you, you know,” he said, in a voice that was barely audible to anyone else. I felt the tickle of his mustache on my ear. “You and the child. No matter what happens. I know you don’t need all of this. I know you don’t need it, because I don’t, either. But this is what people do, isn’t it? We take care of each other.” 

Then he pressed a necklace into my hand. It was the same one Alice wore in the photo. At the end of the thin chain was a golden coin etched with the image of a bear, walking sideways as if it were in motion. 

“It’s yours,” he said in a louder voice, and everyone turned their heads to witness his bravado. “But whatever you do, keep it away from Lucky.” 

Kaylie Saidin

Kaylie Saidin is a writer from California. Her work has appeared in Prairie Schooner, New Orleans Review, Los Angeles Review, Nashville Review, Fourteen Hills, and elsewhere. She’s a graduate of the MFA program at UNC Wilmington.