The following story is a slight modification (names and a few small details have been changed in the interest of making it readable) of actual events that took place in my childhood. Fortunately for my brothers, my parents divorced when I was nine, or they might not be alive today.
Mary sits cross-legged on her fold-away bed in the only bedroom of their small, white, wood-framed house. She adjusts her nightgown and pulls her long brown hair into a tangled pony tail. It’s almost time for school, her first day in the new school, and the first day of her new life. But what should she wear? What do nine-year-old girls wear to school in this town? She has a few minutes to think while she waits for her alarm to go off.
Across the room lay her two younger brothers, fast asleep on their bunks. Joey occupies the top. It’s his right. He’s the oldest. Kevin, with this thumb tucked securely in his mouth, is curled into a ball on the bottom. He doesn’t mind. At six years old, he’s content just to have a warm bed and a safe place to sleep. The past several years have made him a nervous wreck, but things are quiet now.
At six in the morning, cigarette smoke and coffee aromas fill the air. Karen paces their kitchenette, the floors creaking beneath her, as she waitsfor her children to awaken and prepare for their new day. She has never had to work, not a dayin her life. But today she’ll start a new job as a waitress at the Crispy Fish Shack. They’re on their own now, and their livelihood rests on her weary shoulders. She should be looking forward to this new beginning, but she worries about her babies, as mothers often do. Will she make enough money to feed her children, to buy them new clothes, to make sure they’re cared for after school? Can she finally protect them? She takes a sip from her coffee cup and draws a ragged breath from her Salem Menthol.
Mary’s alarm clock reaches six fifteen and howls for attention. She quickly flicks the off switch, but not in time to keep it from stirring her brothers from sleep.
“Turn that thing off, Mare!” grumbles Joey. “I’m trying to sleep!”
“It’s time to get up, anyways,” she retorts smugly. She climbs out of bed and heads for the only bathroom in the house, a small room with a narrow closet, and no door to separate the two rooms. She opens the sliding wooden closet door and digs through a basket of wrinkled clothes, searching for just the right pair of jeans, the perfect coordinating top, and a matching pair of socks. The two closest matching socks will do, since no-one will see them under her wrinkled jeans. She then takes a moment to relieve her bladder. While she relaxes, her mind returns to the explosion of events that happened just last Saturday, three whole days ago.
She remembers hearing the telephone ring in the kitchen. It used to be in the living room, on the wall, by the sofa. She never heard the commotion of that night, or any reasons why the phone had been ripped from the wall, but now there’s a jagged hole covered by a paint-by-number puppy she gave to her daddy last month. Her mom answers the phone.
“Mark Keller, please.”
“He’s not home. This is Karen. Who’s calling?”
“This is Deputy Patterson with the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department. I have Mr. Keller’s girlfriend here at the Redwing Motel. She’s been assaulted.”
The phone drops to the floor and without blinking, without saying a word, without thinking of the three young children left in her charge, she walks emotionless out the back door, down the three concrete steps and around to the driveway, where she climbs into her white Bonneville convertible and squeals out of sight.
Mary shoots Joey a worried look, then Kevin. Thinking on her feet, which is what she does best in times of high tension, she breaks out the cereal bowls, the spoons, the Frosted Flakes and the half empty gallon of whole milk.
Thirty minutes later, Mark pulls his blue Ford pickup with the rusted tailgate into the drive. Within seconds the Bonneville pulls in behind and comes to a screeching halt, almost hitting Mark. Yelling ensues.
Familiar with the mounting tension and not wanting them to be in the line of fire, Mary quickly gathers her brothers and retreats to her bedroom. Her brothers safely tucked away from any threat of their dad’s anger, she carefully returns to the kitchen where she witnesses a tornado of flying objects being hurled out the back door onto the pavement; clothes, shoes, bowling ball, and daddy’s brand new, metallic red motorcycle helmet, the one he bought just last week. Mark picks up his things and heaves them into the back of his truck. In shock and disbelief, Mary hears herself screaming. It was odd for her to hear her own voice wailing in terror this time. It’s usually her brothers’ screams that deafen her ears.
“Daddy, daddy, what’s going on?” she cries, tears pouring down her smudged, rosy, round cheeks.
“Get back in the house, Mary! Go back inside!”
“Daddy, take me with you! Daddy, don’t go!”
Within moments her daddy was gone and her heart shattered. She’d always been daddy’s little girl, his perfect angel. She had to be. She had witnessed what he’d done to her brothers when they’d messed up. He has never laid a finger on her, except that one time when she was six months old, and she can’t even remember that. Her mom told her that she had to leave to the store one afternoon, and when she returned twenty minutes later, she saw a handprint on the side of Mary’s face.
“But daddy said I fell against the side of my crib,” she reasons.
Her daddy wasn’t as kind to her brothers. Was he jealous of the attention Karen lavished on them? Was it because this was how his own father had raised him, with a heavy hand and a wire coat hanger?
“Daddy drinks a lot, but that’s just what daddies do,” she rationalizes to herself.
The next couple of days were a blur for Mary. Her mom spent most of her time frantically packing up their belongings, running errands while her children were left to look after themselves, and making mumbled phone calls behind closed doors. What was going on? Whatever it was, Mary didn’t like it. Not one little bit.
Young Kevin spent most of his time perched quietly on the living room floor, his eyes glued to re-runs of Roadrunner, Bugs Bunny and Mighty Mouse, while his mother whirled around and over him as she prepared for their move. He liked Mighty Mouse. Yes, he was little, but he was sure strong!
“I bet Mighty Mouse won’t let daddy punch him in the face! I bet Mighty Mouse would punch him right in the nose,” he bravely thought. His daddy hates weakness; maybe because he was weak when he was a boy. His own father had to toughen him up. Maybe that’s what his daddy is doing, toughening up his boys. His daddy hates thumb-sucking little sissies, too. The tabasco-sauce-on-the-thumb trick didn’t work. Neither did the hot stove. All daddy had left to do to break him ofhis thumb-sucking was to catch him in the act, when he was asleep, then knock his thumb out of his mouth with hisfist. That ought to do it!
Joey sat next to Kevin, cautiously enjoying a bowl of Cheerios on the new, light brown carpet, being very careful not to spill or let one single crumb of rolled oat cereal escape from his bowl or spoon. It should be okay to eat on the new carpet now that daddy’s gone, shouldn’t it? He won’t get caught this time, will he? Last time he got caught, daddy blistered his legs and back with a wire coat hanger, while Mary hid in her room, where she heard the terrified screams of her defenseless little brother.
“That’s what daddies do to bad boys who spill their cereal on the new carpet,” she thought to herself, hands over hear ears, silently justifying his brutal actions.
Mary finishes relieving herself in the bathroom. Noticing the fusion of early morning sunrise colors peeking through the cracked, paint-chipped pane of the small window above the toilet, she hurries herself along.
The boys are already slurping down their oatmeal in hurried fashion at the diner-style table situated in a corner of the front room designated as the “kitchen.” Mom sips down the last drops of coffee from her ceramic mug, the green one with “Kiss me, I’m Irish” printed on the side, and fires up another Salem. There is calmness in the air, newness, a freedom they have never felt.
Licking the last morsels of oatmeal from his bowl, Kevin looks up at his mommy with great big chocolaty-brown eyes and asks, “Mommy? Do we have to say ‘May I be excused?’”
With tenderness and understanding she answers, “No, sweetheart, not anymore.”