This is Chapter 3 of my new novel, a work of Young Adult, Mature Subject, Fiction. Young readers should be particularly advised that this chapter is harsh. Chapters 1 and 2 are published here also at www.toniaalengould.com. I’m uncertain how many chapters I will publish here on this blog. Your feedback is welcomed and appreciated, and please kindly note that this is only fairly edited to this point.
Please forgive errant commas or semi-colons. My focus is on writing at this juncture.
Meet My Daddy
Last night, when the house was quiet and nothin’ was keeping the room lit but for the dime store digital alarm clock Mama got me and Bartlett for Christmas last year; my sister broke the night’s calm by shifting her weight and turning over in her bed to face me in mine. “Barley, you awake?” she whispered. Not waitin’ long enough for me to answer she continued, “It’s real late and daddy ain’t home yet. When he gets in, I don’t want you to make one single, solitary sound in here, no matter what happens. Ya hear me?” Bartlett pleaded. I shivered and pulled the covers tighter over my body and used the top of them to wipe the tears that already began to roll as big as quarters down my cheek and said, “Uh huh, I hear you,” I said, knowing she was right and that the shit was about to hit the fan. I tried to muster a voice inside me big and loud, but what came out of my mouth squeaked like one of them kangaroo mice that we occasionally caught meekly pokin’ their heads out of our paneled wood walls, disappearin’ as quickly as they came, here and gone again, just like my tears now. My whole body began to tremble and shake and my feet were so cold, it felt like I had popsicles for toes.
Bartlett rose up out of her bed lookin’ like a ghost or something, loomin’ over me like that in her cotton white nightgown; her face was nothin’ but a shadow in the darkness, and for a second, I thought I was dreaming or having a nightmare or somethin’. I pinched myself sharply and only when I felt the pain was I certain she was real and not a figment of my own imagination. Finally, she sat down on the edge of my bed. “Sit up for a second,” she said, as she pulled back the covers and tugged at my arms, effortlessly bringing me up next to her. I couldn’t make out her face in the darkness, although her white cotton nightgown seemed to illuminate the whole bedroom. She stroked my long, dark hair and whispered in my ear. I know she could feel me tremblin’ beside her, and even though sometimes I hated her, I was grateful for my sister’s warmth tonight. “Shhh,” she said. “Maybe it won’t be so bad this time. Give me a hug and try to go on back to sleep now and remember that no matter what happens, you stay in this here bed and don’t get outta it for anything, until Kingdom come if you have to, or at least until I say so” she said, as she pulled me tighter in next to her body. I hugged her limply, like something had sucked the bones out of me and I was nothing but a gob of dangling, cold skin, but it weren’t for but a second, before she got up and paced across the room to check on Graham, who was sleeping soundly in his own bed. I knew Bartlett would be by his side, stifling him, muzzling his mouth if she had to, if things got all out ugly. So I just laid there—cold and limp, a lifeless, waiting, trembling, hoping and praying mass of a person. If you’ve never had the experience, waiting for something bad to happen feels like all the oxygen has been snatched-up outta the air, your throat and lips feel awful dry, you can’t hardly swallow your own spit for the lump in your throat won’t let it go down nice and easy. Shoot it’s as if the Earth collapsed and shattered to giants chunks of rubble right next to you, pinning you in and leaving you breathless. Yes. Waiting feels like somethin’ as big and looming and enormous as that.
Another hour or so must’ve passed as we laid there in silence before the headlights from daddy’s ’59 Impala finally ricocheted off the walls and reflected from the mirror that sat on top of our dresser. The light was so bright, it was blinding, and it felt like Lord Jesus had come to take us home. I could hear the tires spitting-up gravel from the driveway and the pistons rumble and fade away into the darkness once Daddy turned off the ignition. Moments pass and he finally gets out of the car, slamming the door forcibly as he exits. Then the thud, thud, thud of his feet comin’ up the porch steps, tromping the whole way. Suddenly, I became consumed by each and every sound my father was making, each noise was a siren, a warning call that rang loud and true and into the stillness of the night. It was almost more than I could bear, waitin’ for my Daddy to find his keys and enter the trailer. I wasn’t breathin’, but I wasn’t holding my breath neither, it’s like I had my foot stomped on and was punched in the belly all at the same time. Rattle, Rattle, rattle; he fumbled with the doorknob, turned it, and then finally fell into the kitchen which was right outside our bedroom. He was strugglin’ to find the light switch; I could hear him grasping at the walls, groping the wood paneling, and scraping the dinette chairs across the floor as he clumsily made his way to the light switch across the small kitchen.
From where I was layin’, I could see the dark shadow of his body through the crack in our bedroom door. I screeched a bit when he finally found and turned on the lights in the kitchen. It scared the bejesus outta of me, since I had become particularly fixated on all the sounds he was making, but mostly due to the suspense of it all. Bartlett shushed me again, but fortunately Daddy hadn’t heard me. Bartlett was right, it was best to pretend I was asleep, but I couldn’t help but watch through that small opening in our bedroom door.
I wanted to roll over in my bed and face Bartlett, but it was too darn late, I had to lay still, or I might’ve caught Daddy’s attention, so I watched as he tried to navigate hisself around the kitchen. Daddy has knocked over a chair, and I watch as he stumbled and fell forward, trying to pick it up. When he finally brought the chair upright, he heaved his body into and lit himself up a Marlboro, and thankfully the whole trailer fell quiet again. We can hear Mama as she slowly eases herself up out of her bed through the paper thin walls leading to the bedroom next to ours. The rickety old box springs from the cast iron bed Mama and Daddy got from a flea market, is the only thing to break the silence. “No Mama,” I prayed. “Please don’t get up. Let him be. Don’t go in there,” I prayed. But I knew God wasn’t listening to Barley Sullivan tonight, because I watched as Mama drowsily entered the kitchen, wiping the sleep out of her reddened eyes. I could see that Mama had been crying, and guessed prob’ly she had cried the whole night long. The stench of the alcohol on Daddy’s breath, and what smells like a somewhat familiar perfume now permeates the air throughout the entire trailer. Mama is ten shades of mad because Daddy has been out so late. She glances around the kitchen in disbelief. “Earl, it looks like a God-damned circus ran through here,” she says as she stoops to pick up an errant chair up off the floor. Mama’s right. It was a circus in there and unbeknownst to her; she just stepped into the lion’s lair. Like I’ve said before, Mama don’t have too much common sense.
“You think ya can just saunter on in here, any old time ya God-damned want, drunker than a skunk and smellin’ like June’s cheap-ass perfume all the time? I’m getting pretty fuckin’ sick and tired of it, Earl!” she yells. “If my brother John gets a hold of you, he’s gonna kill you for runnin’ around with her like that. What? You think I don’t know? I’m not as stupid as you think I am,” my Mama laughs. The argument ensues, both of them screaming back and forth at one another, but some of what they are talkin’ about makes absolutely no sense to me—like what does Aunt June have to do with any of this, anyway? It’s all over my head stuff I don’t come to understand, and Daddy is so belligerent, I can’t make right or wrong of what he is saying at all. Their voices rise another octave, and the neighbor’s dog, George, begins to bark and that beckons other dogs in the trailer park to wake and come alive with their unrelenting barking, too. Daddy’s voice suddenly shifts to a dangerous tone, and I can feel it in my gut; it’s too late, there’s no undoing what’s Mama’s done. She has incensed my father.
Despite Bartlett’s admonishment, I sit up on the side of my bed, my legs dangling, holding on tightly to the stuffed monkey I got from that time I got put in the hospital when my appendix almost burst. Doctor Cooper gave him to me. I loved that stuffed monkey because he reminded me of a special time. For two weeks, while I was in the hospital, I got to eat all the ice cream I ever wanted, there weren’t any televisions on blaring loudly twenty-four-hours a day, and Daddy and Mama weren’t there fighting about things I just didn’t understand, like they were doing tonight. Hell, Mama and Daddy barely even came to see me when I was in the hospital back when I was only just nine-years-old, and oddly enough, I was okay with that. Those two weeks were the first time in my life I had ever experienced what silence was. I could think there in the hospital. I wasn’t all wound-up like a toy and scared all the time. In fact, it felt like I had boarded a plane, and landed in some faraway perfect place. For a kid like me, growing up in a trailer park, staying in a hospital feels something like staying at one of those fine resorts I read about in one of those magazines Jeannie Bell had down in her parlor shop in town.
Bartlett breaks me away from my reverie and whispered loudly again, “Lie back down and pretend that you’re asleep! If Daddy sees you, he’ll up and come on in here and whoop us both. Do it now!” But I don’t listen to Bartlett. My body feels possessed by someone much bigger and braver than me. Instead, I continue to rock myself gently back and forth, trying to will away the feuding coming from the other room. Daddy is cursing something fierce, and then I hear him push a chair out of his way as he crosses over to Mama where I can’t see them anymore. I knew better, and despite all of Bartlett’s warnings, I got up and tip-toed myself across the floor to the door and stepped quietly over to the other side of it to peer through the crack to see where my Mama and Daddy are standing on the other side of the kitchen. Daddy’s already got her pressed right up against the wall, his arm pinned across her throat and he is yellin’ directly into her face. He’s so mad, I can see little droplets of spittle flying into the air as he screams at her. And then, before I can digest what I am seeing, I watch in outright horror as Daddy leans over and picks up one of those fallen chairs and busts it right across my Mama’s head. She falters and falls hard to the ground, moaning in anguish; her body is now a lifeless heap strewn clear across the floor in a pink, cotton-candy-colored, terry-cloth robe. With a grumble underneath his breath, my Daddy steps over her body, like she’s nothing more than the day’s trash, and stumbles into their bedroom. I watch him hoist his fully-clothed body onto that old bed, the sheer weight of him causes those box springs to creak and whine again, and almost immediately, the sound of his snoring breaks the dead quiet silence of daybreak. The morning light is already filtering in through the windows, casting an eerie light on my poor mother, splayed out on the floor, all out of kilter like that in her pink robe.
Mama was lying perfectly still on the floor, and I was almost certain she was dead. A thin, red trickle of blood oozed from a wide, deep gash on her forehead. I was cryin’, but my sobs were coming from some subterranean part of myself I hadn’t felt before. Even if I wanted to, I could not project any noise; I had learnt early on in life to stifle my emotions and to filter my own pain. My stomach was heaving in and out while a steady train of new tears rolled down my face. It took every ounce of my courage to walk over to my Mama to see if she was breathing fire or was dead cold. Just as I crossed over the kitchen and came to her side, my mother looked up at me, and it scared me somethin’ fierce to see her bloodied face staring up at me like that. She was surprised to see me and immediately placed her right index finger next to her lips and mouthed the word “Shhhhh!” I leaned over her and gave her my hand, which she gratefully took, and I helped her up off the cold, hard linoleum tiles. Without saying a word, she led me back to my room where Bartlett stood cryin’ at the door, holding Graham in her arms; he was almost too big for her carry. He was holding on to her for dear life just like an ape’s baby. Although he was already seven-years-old, and too big too hold, his arms were draped across her neck and his face was buried deep in her bosom. I knew Bartlett hadn’t let him see anything that went on in the kitchen. “Go on back in there now, you three. Ain’t nothin’ more to see out here tonight,” Mama said as she motioned us back into our bedroom. “I’m ok,” she said, “It ain’t nothin’ more than a little bump on the head and a little blood. Y’all go back to sleep, and stay good and quiet in here, you hear me?” she whispered. Mama led me back into our room, where she tucked me into bed, checked on Graham, who rolled over immediately and went back to sleep, and then looked thankfully towards Bartlett. Then with some degree of dignity, she straightened her back and walked out of our room and out into the kitchen.
The door to our room was left cracked open again and I watched as she lit herself a cigarette, inhaling the smoke deeply into her lungs where she savored it a moment until she finally exhaled, and then she sat down at the dinette table, drew her feet up onto the chair and rested her head on her knees, her body trembling from head-to-toe as she silently watered her lap with her tears. I wanted to go to her again, but I knew if I did, she would retaliate on me just to prove she was still strong and in charge, like she had done so many times before after a beating from Daddy, so I just laid there and saw her arms heave up and down as she cried, watching as the early morning light cleansed and clarified the kitchen, hoping for a new and brighter day.