How to Dispose of a Toxic Father-in-Law

"Pushed Buttons," a short story by David Hartley

How to Dispose of a Toxic Father-in-Law

Pushed Buttons

Liz put her father-in-law in the lift, pushed the button, and watched as he was taken away.

Liz, not thinking, carried her father-in-law down the stairs, through the hall, into the living room, where the lift was waiting, placed him inside, pushed the button, and watched as he was taken away.

Liz lifted her father-in-law from his chair to put him in his bed when he spat in her ear, called her a wretch and shrieked with laughter, so she carried him out of his room, down the stairs, through the hallway, where he swiped a portrait of her girls off the wall, into the living room, where the lift waited in the chimney breast, paused as the doors swished open, strode inside, placed her father-in-law in the centre with the greatest of care, pushed the down button, stepped back out, and watched as he was taken away.

Liz, with wretch stuffing her ear like Playdoh, released the locks of her mind and let it do what it most desired; picturing the lift in pin-sharp precision with those sleek chrome doors, the mirrored walls, the sparkling floor and the downward arrow of its button, with the soft chime of its arrival, the swish of the doors opening, the near-silence of their closing, and that great feeling of the endless depth below as the cabin swept down carrying whatever she felt the need to offer: that burnt lasagna, those boxes of wine, the dead mobile phones, a flat tire, the neighbor’s cat, her test results, and, now, her father-in-law, who she carried from his room, down the stairs, through the hall, past the family pictures, into the living room, before putting him inside the lift, pushing the button, stepping out, and watching as he was taken away.

Liz, the wretch, thought mostly of two things as she carried her father-in-law from his room to the lift: the sleek, slick, decadent elevator itself, in all the granular detail she needed to make it appear, and her plan: to tell Matt that after a brief but bitter argument she had finally triumphed and his father had agreed to be put into The Crescent where the nurses would take so much better care of him, and would understand him, and wouldn’t have eons of toxic history with him, and she’d seized the moment of his relenting, rung the home, got lucky with a spare bed, and had him carted off and settled him in within the space of a single afternoon, knowing full well that Matt would never, ever, ever get around to actually visiting his father, especially if she pledged to do all the visiting herself, while actually spending the time watching Marvel movies at the Plaza and/or volunteering at the food bank with Cathy, where their flirting might actually be able to start taking its promised course, and she was just about to recognize all that as the desperate fantasy it was when her father-in-law whacked the portrait of Bex and Faye off the wall cracking the glass and warping the frame, so her visions redoubled and popped into Technicolor, and when she rounded the corner and entered the living room the lift had never looked so fucking glorious, like the kind you’d expect in a Monte Carlo casino, and as she watched the doors close and snip away her father-in-law’s face, she had a quick but fabulous vision of herself and Cathy, dolled up to the nines, rolling Baccarat dice, getting giddy on cocktails and shagging each other senseless on a water bed in a hotel in Monaco, and that delirious new nonsense gave her face the tiny but vicious smile she was wearing as the cabin sank down and took her father-in-law with it.  

Liz, feeling wretched, was tapped and drained by the gob of octogenarian spittle that dashed like come into her ear canal, the little spermatozoan words burrowing at her auditory nerve and ripping their way into her mind, where they met with a knotted egg which opened like a lift, took in the bullet of spit, absorbed it, tasted it, measured and judged it, before plummeting down through the membranes of her body, to the meat of her heart, the pit of her belly, and the molten slag at the soles of her feet, which, in turn, were energized into stomping out of the bedroom, down the stairs, through the hall, into the living room, into the lift, where she set her father-in-law onto the sparkling floor as he made one last desperate grab at her, hands snapping, catching hold of her locket, yanking it off and then pulling the prize to his chest, and she was so lost in her Niagara of fantasies that the nerves of her neck failed to transmit their loss to her brain, and, oblivious, she pushed the button, stepped out, smiled as the doors closed, watched her father-in-law get taken away, wondered for half a glimmer of a microsecond why he too was smiling, before realizing, half an hour later, while stripping his bed and preparing her lies, that her neck was now bare and the locket was gone. The realization shatters her knees and sends her to the floor, and her mind runs frantic trying to create a vision of the lift being sent back up, even if that means it brings him back, but when she thinks she’s done it, struggling to her feet and down the stairs again to the living room, she is faced instead with the chimney breast and its floral wallpaper, its faded wedding picture, its landscape print of Paris, and nothing else.

Liz would think of her mum at such times. She would say, if anyone got the chance to ask, that a red mist would descend and her mind would switch to automatic, and she would think of nothing but the lift. But in truth, her mum was always there. Two very specific moments would appear showing her mum’s polar extremes; opposite moods each as forbidding as the other. First, she would think of the moment her mum found out that Liz was pregnant when the screamed threat of the lift became a sudden reality. Liz was dragged down the steps of the cellar and shown the far wall, in which a lift had appeared where there had been no lift before. It had a rickety grill gate across the cabin and the inside was lit by a dull bulb. Her mum threw open the gate and hissed: is this what you want Elizabeth? Is this what you want from life? while she brought her daughter right to the threshold and waited for an answer that Liz was too scared to give. But Liz was not sent away. Her mum pulled Liz’s Nokia from her apron and threw that in instead, the thing skittering into the corner and losing a slither of screen in the process. Down it went while Liz watched and, months later, at Christmas, when she was showing and everyone was warm and no one minded, she got a new phone off her dad and a glanced apology from her mum, and things were more or less OK again. But the second moment, which came to Liz this time as she carried her father-in-law from the ninth to the eighth step of the stairs, was seven months after the first when Bex was a slumbering newborn in her arms. Mum gave Liz the locket and said life rarely gives easy answers, Lizzie, especially to people like us. The gold was pressed into her palm and the fine chain draped between her fingers. Hold tight and don’t let go, her mum said, before giving Bex such a look as if to say; why have you bothered? Don’t you realize where you’ve ended up? And when Bex and her sister are swiped off the hallway wall by her father-in-law, Liz had one final clear micro-thought which flashed in like subliminal advertising: this is my final moment, my ultimate, because Bex is the age I was, not pregnant but quite active, and when she gets home from college, before she understands that her grandfather is gone, I will give her the locket on its fine gold chain delivered with a much warmer and more heartfelt message, and I will tell her that the lift is hers to use however she wants, and she should be careful, and cool-headed, and calm and considered, but that sometimes she’ll feel wretched and heartless and twisted, she’ll feel like a bitch, a hag, a whore, like a worthless flea, like a failure and a nobody and an unlovable maggot, but that’s just how life is, it has no easy answers, no template, no formula, and sometimes it’s totally fine to grasp that locket and wish for something pin-sharp and clear.

Liz carried her father-in-law from his chair to his bed, tucked him in, wiped her ear, said goodnight, John, closed the door, and walked away.

More Like This

It’s Up to a 105-Year-Old South Korean Matriarch to Break a Family Curse

Jimin Han turns her family history of the Korean war into a ghost story in "The Apology"

Aug 10 - Kim Liao

7 Novels About Family Curses

Renée Branum, author of "Defenestrate," recommends stories about myths and beliefs inherited from each generation

Jan 31 - Renée Branum

Is “The Hearing Trumpet” a First-Person Story About What It’s Like to Die?

Leonora Carrington's surrealist classic gave me a new way to understand my grandmother's final days

May 13 - Eliya O. Smith
Thank You!