~children & dark angels~
Winter 1960 – 1961
The cold November wind blew through the holes in my jeans and placed its icy lips on my fingers. My ears felt like icicle twins giggling freeze in my brain. These minor discomforts were in no mean way able to compromise my happiness of spirit. A wheel came off the wobbly old Radio Flyer wagon I was dragging along behind me. I whistled Jingle Bells and dug deep in my coat pocket until I found the bent nail I knew was there. I turned the wagon on its side and pushed the errant wheel back over the end of the axle. I had a feeling when I found that old nail and, sure enough, it was just the right size to fit in the hole on the end of the axle to keep the wobbly wheel from falling off. I pushed it through, bent it a little bit so it wouldn’t fall out, then righted the wagon and was once more on my way.
Today I had a date with the soldier lady at the Salvation Army Store. She had been putting back broken toys for me since summertime. I had three shiny quarters in my pocket and dearly hoped that would be enough to buy each and every one of my brothers and sisters something special. This promised to be the best Christmas yet. Momma had filled out a state form when she picked up the family’s monthly allotment of commodities and hoped to get a ten dollar gift certificate for each of her children. She could redeem the certificates at a store downtown in exchange for gifts. They had no cash value so each child was sure to receive a new toy or two. Momma would have preferred to buy us clothes and Daddy would probably want whiskey or tools. I was very appreciative of the fact that the certificates were redeemable, if Momma got them, only for the purchase of toys.
I opened the door to the store and a bell hanging from the top hinge jingled loudly. The lady came from the back, smiled warmly and opened her arms in a gesture of greeting, told me to come on in. The wagon squeaked loudly as I pulled it through the crowded and cramped aisle. I was the only customer in the store, the only other person in the building besides the manager lady. She spoke to me as I followed her through the store, told me the wall to wall merchandise was an expression of folks’ generosity during the winter and holiday season. Each item was there because someone with a big heart had found it within themselves to give to others. There was a picnic table in the back room and the lady told me to go ahead and take a seat. She fixed me up with hot chocolate and some sugar cookies. She smiled more than most adults I’d met. I liked that.
“You can call me Joe,” she said. Just then the bell on the door rang out. She gave me a reassuring pat on the shoulder on her way out of the room. “You make yourself at home. I’ll go see to this customer, then you and I will get down to business.”
I had never met a woman named Joe before. It seemed a bit strange to me that she had a man’s name but she sure was a nice person. When she finished with the customer, Joe returned and poured herself a cup of hot chocolate. Seemed to me she was one of those rare adults it was easy to be quiet and relaxed with. We sipped our hot chocolate and ate cookies in a comfortable shared silence. When we were finished with our snack, Joe led me to a storage area in the back room. She schooched a big ol’ box away from the wall, pushed it out into an open area on the floor.
“Well, here they are,” she said, “I chose toys I thought you might be able to fix and that our handymen had set aside. Everything in this box is broken, mind you. You’ll probably have to use parts of one to fix another.”
I pointed proudly to my Radio Flyer. “Just like I did with the wagon.”
“A wonderful job. Yes, just like that! You’ll be a busy boy for the next month, just like one of Santa’s elves.”
“I’m sorry, Ma’am…uh, Joe,” I mumbled. “That’s a whole bunch o’ toys and I only got seventy five cents saved up from summer work. There’s no way I can afford all this stuff.”
“Hmmm.” Joe tapped a thoughtful finger on her chin and said, “Tell you what, you come by here when you can for the rest of the week. I’ll have you sweep the floor and empty waste baskets, straighten merchandise, odd jobs and tasks like that. There’s a lot to do around here and I’ll never be able to get it all done by myself. At the end of the week, you give me the seventy five cents and you can take the box of toys home with you.”
“I don’t know,” I replied. “I got one more day of school before Thanksgiving break and sometimes I have to watch my brothers and sisters.”
“You’re a busy young man,” Joe allowed, “and I can see you take your responsibilities seriously. I won’t take no for an answer,” she said finally. “How ‘bout you sweep and do chores for me now while you’re here? That way you can take the toys home with you when you leave.”
“Wow!” I cried, embarrassed and red-faced in my excitement, “That’d be great! I’ll run home and ask Momma if it’s okay!”
“You’re welcome to use the phone here to call her,” Joe offered.
“We don’t have a phone at home,” I mumbled, “But it ain’t far. Is it okay if I leave my wagon here?”
Some folks acted all weird, like we were aliens or something, when they found out we didn’t have a phone. Joe just said, “You run along. I’ll watch your wagon for you while you’re gone. It’s safe with me.”
There were magic moments when I was a boy, pockets of fleet wings, safe and powerful in their unique offering. All I had to do is believe with blind faith in their existence. I hit the sidewalk running, closed my eyes tight, ran faster and faster until my feet were pumping air, lighter than a kite. I was a winged creature flying home and soon to its nest.
I figured the magic moments were probably daydreams paid for in crash landings, worth it still to a boy who believed he could fly. Momma kept the front door locked so I went around to the back. I turned the knob, threw the door open and barged into the room, eyes alert for Momma, eager to tell her my exciting news. And there she was… laying on the couch naked. And Daddy was on top of her. He was naked too. My feet began to walk backwards toward the door while my eyes refused to disengage from the fuzzy flesh tones of my naked parents.
“You wait outside,” Momma called from the couch, “I’ll be out in a minute.”
I went out to wait in the tiny dirt yard. Needless to say, I wasn’t looking forward to whatever it was she’d have to say. She joined me pretty quick. Momma put an arm around my shoulders and asked me to sit down next to her on the back steps.
“Tommy, I thought you were going to the Salvation Army to look at toys.”
“I was,” I said, “I mean I did and…where’s all the kids?”
“I laid them down for a nap,” Momma explained. “Linda went to sleep on our bed, so Daddy and I…”
“I know,” I said quickly.
“There is nothing wrong with what we were doing, Tommy,” Momma said.
“No, naps are good for you,” I agreed hastily.
“All right buster,” Momma chided gently, “Maybe we’ll talk about this later.” She hugged me and shivered. “It’s cold out here, don’t you think?” Momma didn’t abide the cold well.
“I ain’t,” I said with renewed enthusiasm now that they weren’t going to talk about ‘that’. “I ran all the way back home and wasn’t a bit cold.”
“So I see,” Momma said. “Where’s your wagon? I was sure I’d hear that squeaky old thing long before I saw you in the flesh.”
“Joe’s takin’ care of it for me,” I replied. “See, if I sweep and empty the trash and stuff, she’s gonna let me have this whole big ol’ box of broken toys for seventy five cents. I can fix ‘em up Momma, I know I can.”
Momma put her arms around me, held me close, kissed my ear.
“Slow down a little bit, Tommy. First of all, who is Joe?”
“She’s the soldier lady,” I answered excitedly. “She was grouchy at me this summer when she caught me lookin’ in the window all the time but now me ‘n her are good friends.”
“An army lady named Joe,” Momma smiled. “You still haven’t told me why you came home so soon and in such a rush.”
“Sorry. See, it’s like this,” I explained, “Joe’s gonna let me do some, what she calls odd jobs around the store. I just hurried home to see if it’s okay with you if I stay awhile and work.”
“Where are you going to keep these toys until Christmas so the kids don’t see them?” Momma asked.
That question stopped me dead in my tracks. I had been so busy figuring out how to get the toys, I hadn’t thought about a secret place to hide my surprises while I worked on them.
“I don’t know, Momma. I have to be able to get to ‘em but I don’t want the kids t’ see ‘em ‘til Christmas.”
“I’ll make a place in mine and Daddy’s closet,” Momma offered. “We might even be able to rig you up a lamp in there. That way you can do your fixin’ and nobody will know.”
I could hardly believe what I was hearing and doubted Momma would be able to talk Daddy into it. My siblings and I were not allowed in Momma and Daddy’s room unless we were beckoned to go in there and rub baby Linda’s back or bounce her on the bed.
“I’d like that,” I said finally. “It would be just perfect.”
“It’s a good thing you’re doing,” Momma said. “You can do odd jobs for your soldier lady until seven. Don’t forget, you have school tomorrow.”
My unexpected good fortune pushed Momma and Daddy’s naked bodies to the back of my mind. They would visit me many times later. I hugged Momma and gave her a kiss.
“Thank-you! I’ll be back by seven!”
True to her word, Joe had me sweep and clean and empty the trash. It was a reward in itself to toil in the service of such a good person. My final chore, and with Joe’s help, was to lift the carton full of toys onto my wagon and sweep out the out the corner where it had been stored. Joe had a hot plate hooked up in the back room. She fixed us grilled cheese sandwiches while I browsed through the box of toys.
“Let’s eat.” she said, “I’ll bet you’ve worked up an appetite.”
“I can always eat,” I replied. “Thanks.”
“No, thank you,” Joe said. “You did a fine job. This place was a mess. Now I’m ready for the holidays, thanks to you, my friend.”
I felt the heat rise to my face in a bright red blush when Joe called me her friend. It just felt too good.
“It’s fun cleaning and looking at all this neat stuff.” I told her, “Doesn’t feel like work at all.”
“I suppose by now you’ve noticed there’s nothing in that box but toys,” Joe remarked.
“That’s right,” I agreed, a big smile on my face. “Tractors and trucks for my brother Jackie, Lincoln logs, Tonka toys, blocks and dolls for Phillip and my three sisters.”
“There’s nothing in there for your parents,” Joe observed. “What do they like?”
I felt bad for a moment for not having thought of gifts for Momma and Daddy.
“I gotta think,” I said.
“Finish your sandwich,” Joe said, “I have to lock up. When you’re through eating, we’ll have a look around, you ‘n me. I’ll just bet something will catch your eye.”
After she locked the front door, Joe walked with me through the store. I had never been the only customer in a closed store. I wondered at all the used merchandise and the donations it represented. There must be a lot of rich people in the world and this place was proof that some of them were pretty nice folks. We came upon a section of books and that reminded me of Daddy.
“My Daddy reads cowboy books. He really likes the ones by that French guy.”
Joe sorted through boxes and shelves filled with nothing but books, books and more books.
“Here are a couple by Louis La’mour. Is that the author you were thinking of?”
“Yeah,” I replied, “but he has that one there. I remember the cowboy on the cover.”
Joe dug some more and came up with a couple I didn’t think Daddy had read.
“How about your mom,” she asked, “What does she like?”
I glanced around the room until a puzzle caught my attention.
“She likes puzzles and scarfs.”
Joe helped me pick out a thousand piece puzzle. When finished it would be a beautiful mountain scene. Momma and I could put it together and glue it to some cardboard and hang it on the wall. We had done that before. The last thing I picked out was a dark blue scarf. It felt soft like I imagined silk would.
“That will look nice with Momma’s brown chocolate eyes,” I said.
“There,” Joe said, “Now all we gotta do is settle up.”
“Oh yeah,” I laughed and handed her my three quarters.
“One more thing, then you can go home, Sir,” Joe said. “I have to get the name and address of anyone who works for me so I can fill out my employment forms.”
I felt like a big shot, getting my name on the employment rolls and everything. I gave her the information and she wrote it down on a form.
Joe helped me wiggle the wobbly, top-heavy wagon through the store.
“Take this,” she said. “This isn’t payment for the work you performed. It is a gift from me to you.” She handed me a wooden box. It was full of paints and brushes and decals, tacks and small nails, all the things and more than I would need to fix those toys up so they looked better than new. I hugged her tight, an impulse reaction which embarrassed us both and set the wooden box on top of the toys.
Once outside, I made sure the box was balanced on the wagon and started down the sidewalk with my happy load wobbling along behind me.
Joe stood in the doorway of the store watching me.
“Are you okay with that?” She sounded worried.
“I’m fine and thanks!” I called back as I slowed down to negotiate a crack in the sidewalk.
“You come back and keep me company sometime,” she called after me. She went back into the store before I could answer.
I got an ache in the bottom of myself at times like this just thinking about all the nice people I left behind. Moving every couple of months, with Daddy’s drinking and all the problems associated with it, I never had time to gather those people up and keep them close. Guess I missed the opportunity to say goodbye, a separate sadness, come to think of it.
As I neared the back door, Momma heard the squeaking wagon and, for my part, I waited until the back door opened. Momma stood there with a smile and a glow on her face the likes of which I hadn’t seen for quite some time. Daddy came past her and lifted the box all by himself. He could see right into the top of it. I sure was glad I had the foresight to hide Daddy and Momma’s gifts in the middle of the box. Daddy winked at me.
“You got your work cut out for you, Kiddo!”
Adults are confusing critters to contemplate, I thought to myself. And not just my parents, most adults I had truck with in my life could be fighting like cats and dogs one day and naked on the couch the next. When it came to Momma and Daddy, your best bet was to just be thankful for the good days and run for cover the rest of the time. Well, this was one of those good days and I was thankful. Daddy set the box in the corner of the closet and showed me how to operate the on/off switch on a trouble light he had hung from a hanger on the clothes rod. I would be able to close the door and work away. No one would know where I was or what I was doing when I was in there. They left me alone for a moment to get my bearings. When I came out, Daddy and Momma were standing together with an arm around one another. I felt as if something was wrong with me because for some reason it just made me feel like crying.
I thanked my parents, then went to see what my brothers and sisters were up to. They had been told to stay in the bedroom while Daddy carried in the box. As so often happened in our lives, when I was the happiest, my brother Jackie was the most miserable.
“They made us stay cooped up in here while they were doin’ it,” he complained.
“They just wanted everybody to have a nap,” I shot back.
“You’re a liar, Tommy,” Jackie accused, “You even came in an’ caught ‘em in the act. I heard ‘em talkin’ about it. Daddy saw the door open a little bit an’ snuck over here an’ conked me in the head with it.”
There was a dent and scratch in Jerry’s forehead.
“You shouldn’t o’ been listenin’ to ‘em all sneaky like,” I said.
“Me?” Jackie cried indignantly, “You go in an’ catch ‘em doin’ it an’ you’re some kin’ o’ hero. I’m standin’ by the door an’ I near get my head knocked off!”
“Hey Lily!” I decided to play with and tickle my little sister to escape from Jackie. He was seriously messing with my good mood. My six-year-old brother, Phillip, piled on top of me and it wasn’t very long before Jackie joined in. I was the oldest kid in the family, even including all the cousins, and everyone would always pile on and try to hold me down. We wrestled and rolled around on an old blanket on the floor and Jackie got in a couple of licks, forgot all about the bump on his head.
It was a tricky business, fixing those toys. When Momma and Daddy were gone, I would negotiate with Jackie to take everyone out back to play if it was warm enough. If not, I’d do my best to talk him into tending to and entertaining them in the house. We struck a deal whereby I would allow Jackie equal time to roam the neighborhood. The Christmas toys were about the only true secret I ever kept from my brother. To my knowledge, nobody but Momma and Daddy and Joe ever knew about me and the box of Salvation Army toys.
Speaking of Joe, the day before Thanksgiving a wonderful thing happened. A nice old Grandma and Grandpa couple knocked on the door. They told Momma they had a gift for Tommy and his family from Joe and the Salvation Army. They brought in a humungous basket with a big ol’ turkey and all the stuff that went with it. There was hard candy and fudge, lots o’ really good stuff to eat, the likes of which I had never seen before. It was like the grocery bags Jackie stole from ladies at the store, only better. We didn’t have to hide this food. Momma was suspicious of the couple and the basket until she found out these nice people weren’t going to read the bible to her or ask her to join them in prayer, none of that religious stuff. She claimed to have made her own peace with God and refused to listen to preachers and bible readers. Daddy wasn’t home so Momma and us kids got everything put away and chomped down a good part of the goodies before he showed up.
That night, when Momma put the turkey in the oven, I was allowed to stay up and keep her company. She was in a thoughtful and quiet mood. There were tears in her eyes but I was fairly sure, this time at least, they were happy ones. Daddy came home and he didn’t like it much that people had come while he was gone and left food at the house. He was always suspicious of what he called ‘handouts’. He wasn’t too drunk, though, and didn’t let his negative feelings ruin our high spirits.
The next day we ate like kings and queens. The sun was out so Daddy had to go finish a roof. He almost took me with him but changed his mind at the last minute. I did my best not to let it show how relieved I was. Momma put the turkey and the rest of the food out on the table. She took a good portion out for Daddy’s part and some white meat for work sandwiches, then told everyone to have at it. And have at it, we did. That turkey was a bare bones skeleton when we were finished with it.
This particular Thanksgiving stands out in my heart and mind as one of those rare occasions, a day when Jackie didn’t get plinked, slapped, or sent to a corner a single time. He tried to fight it but from all appearances, just for a little bit, he was happy. Momma sat back rubbing the top of her belly. The baby was due sometime within the coming month. Phillip, Lily and Linda had mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie all over their faces. They were a sight to see.
“I wish we had a camera,” Momma said wistfully.
I brought her a cup of coffee and a piece of pumpkin pie. She had those tears in her eyes again.
“This is how it should always be, Tommy,” she whispered. “It is a wonderful holiday, thanks to you and your friend Joe. You’re a good boy.”
We were in bed that night when Daddy got home but I woke up when I heard him clunking around. Our happy Thanksgiving time had gone to bed with us. I knew it was over when I heard Momma crying and Daddy calling her names. I put my hands over my ears and thought about the knife under the stove and Daddy’s naked back when he was doin’ it to Momma. That would be a perfect time to get him. I considered getting another knife and having Jackie help me but pushed the thought away. I wasn’t sure what Daddy would do to me for sticking him with a knife. He would beat Jackie to within an inch of his life just for thinking about it. I was sure of that.
The dim remembrance of the time I had been poised to do the deed, the night of knife and spaghetti, changed me in a forever way. I learned to totally slip out of myself and, like Momma said one time, just go away. It was a scary process because I didn’t have any control over it. It was like when I attacked the fat boy who was torturing the cat. I wasn’t myself. A monster climbed inside my brain and looked out through my eyes. It was bound and damned determined to protect Momma and my brothers and sisters. Whatever the monster was, it had come to watch over them through me and only me. This Thanksgiving night, like so many others, somewhere beneath the screaming voice of my father, the monster just took me away.
A strange thing happened the day after Thanksgiving. A big truck parked outside on the sidewalk. A man got out of it and knocked on the door. Momma and Daddy were both working, so I answered.
“Your parents home, kid?” he asked.
“They’re at work,” I replied.
“I’m from A & A Glass,” he said. “Your landlord, Mister Garcia, has sent me out to fix the front window.”
I agreed to move the couch back from the wall, which was easy to do because the cushions were still busy being used as beds. The house faced north and across the busy expanse of 29th Avenue stood the mammoth hunched beast, Freeland Elementary. I had never considered the plywood covering the broken window hole a barrier, not in any conscious sense anyway. Watching as the men removed it, I realized that was exactly what it had been to me. We didn’t own curtains and the blanket was in use in the bedroom. There was no escaping it, now the beast could watch through this window eye into our lives. My brothers and sisters must have felt it too. They all came and stood next to and behind me. They stared through the clear glass as the man and his helper gathered their tools, got into the big truck and drove away. I watched the exhaust from the truck form its own cloud and hover in the air. Lily grabbed my hand.
“I cold, Timmy.”
Peter and Linda chorused, “Me too!”
“We ain’ safe no more. We ain’ never safe no more.”
“You guys all go back to the bedroom,” I said, “I’m gonna light the stove.”
“You ain’ supposed to touch it,” Jackie reminded me.
“Just go,” I replied impatiently, “I’m tired of arguing with you about everything.”
Jackie was correct in his warning. I had been told explicitly by Momma and Daddy both to stay away from the brown monster. Lighting it was tricky. I was aware of that, having watched my parents light it dozens of times. They always made us kids go in the bedroom and close the door just in case it blew up. I got a straw from the broom and lit it at the cook stove. Then I turned the knob on the heater and poked the straw in through its small round hole. Just as would usually happen to Momma and Daddy, the straw went out when I pushed the pilot button. I returned to the cook stove and lit the straw again. When I poked its flame through the hole this time, the brown stove blew up in my face. It usually did that too but I had never been in the same room as the concussion.
My brothers and sisters came out of the bedroom and just stood there looking at me like I was a zoo exhibit or something. Jackie pointed to his face and back to mine then started laughing. Phillip grinned and Linda said, “You look funny, Tommy.”
I slugged Jackie in the arm on the way to the bathroom. Looking in the cracked mirror above the sink, I was distressed and amazed to see my face had turned light gray and my eyebrows and eyelashes were gone. Both my ears were ringing loudly. The fine blonde hair on both arms was singed and curly. When I touched the burnt hairs they fell off leaving my forearms smooth and hairless like my face.
“Boy, are you gonna be in trouble,” Jackie observed when I returned to the kitchen.
I ignored his comment, went into the living room and took hold of one end of the couch.
“Come on, Jackie. Help me put this thing back.”
“Tommy, are you blowed up?” Lily asked me.
“No, I’m not,” I replied. “And you guys stay away from the stove. Just like Momma always says, ‘It’s hot!’”
“You are too blowed up and maybe about to get died.” Phillip just had to add his two cents worth.
“Just shut up and help Jackie bring the cushions and blanket in,” I said. “You guys can all sit on the couch and warm up while I find us something to eat.”
“How come he’s allays the boss o’ us?” Phillip asked Jackie.
Jackie mumbled something in reply as they went to do my bidding. I got some commodities out, rice and tomato paste this time. There was no meat in the house but Momma had taught me to boil and fluff rice, then add one can each of tomato paste and water. Throw it all together, add a little salt and pepper and Voila!, you had Spanish Rice.
My fingers kept going to my face to feel the skin where my eyebrows and eyelashes were supposed to be. I was upset about having them burned off and, on top of that, afraid I’d be in deep trouble when my parents got home. There was nowhere and no way to hide this situation. One look at my hairless face and I would be found out. I expected Momma to be home first or I would never have tried to light the stove in the first place. She would understand about the window men and the cold outside air getting in. Daddy, on the other hand, might or might not, depending largely on his mood and state of sobriety. These thoughts ran over and over in my mind, always looping back to, ‘Will they grow back?’
I had watched a television movie about a boy whose hair turned green. I was haunted for weeks after I saw it and would swear mine was changing to green every time I looked in the mirror. This eyebrow and eyelash thing was hopping around in my mind the same way. I didn’t want to be the boy with no eyebrows or eyelashes. If Daddy was in a bad mood, it didn’t matter. I would just be the dead kid with no hair on his face.
When Momma got home, she was upset that I had turned on the stove. After the scare of lighting it, I hadn’t attempted to adjust it and it was very hot in the row-house. She turned the heat down and continued to scold me about it. She finally settled down and admitted she was scared and just plain relieved that I was alive and hadn’t blown myself up. I was, of course, never to touch the stove again. When I asked her about my eyebrows and eyelashes, she took a closer look at me and broke into laughter. When she got control of her giggles, she held a hand on the top and bottom of her belly and told me it would take a while but she imagined they would grow back. Daddy got home after everyone had gone to bed. He was so drunk he probably didn’t know if he had eyebrows and eyelashes himself. He set his quart of schnapps and a jug of ice water by the bed and fell over sideways.
A couple of days after the window was put in, just like Momma said would happen, a man came and put an eviction notice on the front door. We went to school and the neighborhood children had something other than our lack of lunches and ragged clothes to poke fun at us about. Now we were the family soon to be put out on the street. Having been there many times before and knowing what was coming didn’t help much. I wanted to fight the taunting children but the fear of Daddy’s belt kept me in line. My brothers and I had been duly warned: if we got into any more trouble in school, our fault or not, there would be hell to pay. Daddy had enough problems of his own. He didn’t need us to pile on any more.
Momma went to court on the eviction notice and offered her paycheck, eighty four dollars from the Dog House Bar and Grille, to keep us from being thrown out on the street. The judge was openly sympathetic toward this extremely pregnant woman and her six rag-a-tag children. We stood with her before the judge, her four stair-steps, Tommy, Jackie, Phillip, and Lily. Momma held Linda and Cheryl snuggled into my arms. The judge smooth-talked the landlord into accepting Momma’s check. Mister Garcia was very clear on one point though. He would have full payment, including back rent, by the thirty-first of December or out the door we went. Momma knew it would take a miracle to meet these conditions. She leaned against the marble walls of the City and County Building after the hearing and smiled wearily at me. Her victories were hard fought and small, the epitome of survival, living life one day, one moment at a time. She was only five foot one. Tall in my eyes, I suspected her belly was rounder now than she was tall.
“Tommy,” she said, “people like us have to be satisfied to claim our small victories. That man will have us out but not before we celebrate our Tommy Family Christmas and I see this baby born.” She closed her eyes and the peaceful smile remained on her beautiful face. “God bless that judge.”
Momma continued to work but was being pressured by her boss to take off work before the baby was born. She said he was afraid it was going to be born in his bar. It was a cold and icy winter so Daddy couldn’t have been working anyway but he kept himself so drunk he couldn’t see straight. He spent a lot of time at the Dog House and would hustle Momma for her tips while she was working. She complained to me that Daddy was spending her money faster than she could earn it and this was another reason her boss wanted her to take off. The event of her pregnancy and Daddy’s extreme drunkenness were just plain bad for business. Momma was back to stealing whatever was left on the plates in the bar restaurant so we had something to eat. She and I worked together on this as always. If Daddy drove her home from work, she would hide the garbage in her coat and slip it to me. I would scrape off the ashes and egg shells before feeding it to my brothers and sisters. We couldn’t heat it up if Daddy was home and coherent. He wouldn’t have his kids eating, by God, garbage.
A couple of days before Christmas, Daddy cut back on his drinking. On Christmas Eve I snuck out of the bedroom after my brothers and sisters had all gone to sleep. Momma helped me drag the big box into the living room. I had painted and fixed toys for everyone, then wrapped them in newspaper and tied them with string. All except Jackie’s. I had straightened the axles on a big semi truck and a red farm tractor. I arranged these on the outer edge all by themselves so Jackie would see them the moment he came out of the bedroom. Momma had the gifts from the Santa Claus Shop. She had stood in the cold and snow for four hours one day to redeem her certificates. She was disappointed with what she picked out because she was so far back in line that everything was picked over by the time she had her chance to choose. I hugged her, told her it didn’t matter. Those gifts had been wrapped at the Santa Claus Shop so they had real festive wrapping paper around them and ribbons and bows.
There was no Christmas tree and no colored lights, not so much as a candle lighting the room. I felt a tear slide down my cheek as I stood back to look at the pile of gifts in front of the couch. They were bathed in an arc of light from the street through the new glass of the window whose blanket curtain was in use in the bedroom covering my brothers and sisters. The couch without cushions as a backdrop to the display of presents was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen, a hard-earned wish come true. Momma patted me on the back. There were tears in her eyes and she seemed too choked up to speak. She squeezed my arm and walked in to the kitchen to finish her coffee with Daddy.
I returned to bed and waited for the lights to go out in the kitchen. When I was sure Momma and Daddy had gone to bed, I got their gifts out of the coat closet where I had them hidden and placed them on the floor with the rest. I was making my way quietly back to the bedroom when I heard a noise at the front door. It was after ten o’clock and I couldn’t imagine who it could be. I peeked out the window and whispered her name under my breath.
She had left a small Christmas tree on the porch. It was decorated with bulbs and candy canes. And there next to it was another humungous basket of goodies and food just like the one the nice couple brought us on Thanksgiving. Best of all were two smoked hams. Momma wouldn’t have to cook. I took the tree in and arranged the presents around it. It was then I noticed a gaily wrapped package poking out of the food basket. It was about the size of a shoe box and had a tag on it that read: For Tommy from a friend, Merry Christmas. The light outside the iced-up window shined into the room and divided itself around the little tree in slices of sparkles all its own. I hugged the gift to my chest and thought to myself, ‘We’re gonna have a bright Christmas morning just like everyone else this year.’ My Christmas angel has a name.”
Christmas morning was everything I thought it would be and more. Jackie held his tractor and truck in his lap. He rocked them back and forth and tears ran down his cheeks. The package from Joe had two model cars in it, a forty Ford pickup like Daddy’s except it was a hotrod and a fifty-seven Chevy.
Daddy was too sick to be upset about Joe’s ‘handouts’. Going on the wagon was getting harder and harder on him. He shook really bad all over and the whites of his eyes turned yellow. Jackie and I helped Momma set the table and once again, thanks to Joe and the Salvation Army, we ate like royalty. Daddy wasn’t interested in food.
Five days later Momma’s water broke. Daddy took her to the hospital. She was in labor and, rather than wait in the waiting room, Daddy went to the Dog House to tell everyone and celebrate. I was bad worried but just had to wait.
The Christmas food had run out and so had commodities since it was the end of the month. Jackie came home from his roaming and called me into the bedroom away from the other kids. He closed the door and leaned against it, a big fat smile on his face.
“Guess what I got?” he taunted.
“I don’t care, Jackie,” I said. “Aren’t you worried about Momma?”
“Lookie here!” Jackie pulled a fifty dollar bill out of his pocket and waved it in front of my face.
He had my attention now.
“Where’d you get that?”
“Mean lady in the groc’ry store,” Jackie said in a singsong voice.
“How?” I asked, dumbfounded.
“Same ol’ way,” Jackie said. “She starts whuppin’ the ol’ man in the store an’ he goes after her, jus’ kissin’ ‘er butt an’ I walk off with ‘er purse!”
“Ah Jackie, I moaned, “You are gonna get in serious trouble one o’ these days.”
“Not me!” he insisted. “What would ya like for supper, brother?”
“You can’t go back to that store,” I said.
“I ain’ stupid,” Jackie replied. “I’ll go to the Safeway over on Fed’ral instead.”
I shook my head doubtfully. “They ain’t gonna let a l’il skinny kid like you spend a fifty dollar bill!”
“That’s why I’ll use this!” Jackie grinned. He took a twenty dollar bill from his other pocket and waved it around above his head.
“Oh Jackie, where’s her purse?” I asked.
“I toldja, I ain’ stupid,” Jackie quipped, “I’m gettin’ tired o’ messin’ ‘round’ wit’ you. You want somethin’ or not?”
“Okay, okay.” I gave up, felt myself salivating at the idea of real food, “That canned stew, four cans and Royal Crown Cola and…”
“I know, I know, Spanish peanuts,” Jackie interrupted.
He went out the door and I had that feeling, that awful feeling in my guts, that one day he wouldn’t return. It would be just like this and I would never see him again. He did come back, though. We stashed our goodies and hid the stew cans so Phillip wouldn’t see them. He was so hungry, he probably wouldn’t have noticed if he ate out of one of them directly. We were all that hungry and, thanks to our robber brother, we supped on what we imagined to be rich folks’ stew for supper, eating quickly, dreading that moment, that last bite moment, when the food would be just a memory.
In late December 1960, we were evicted, moved out by the sheriff. Daddy had come home sometime after the kids and I went to bed. He had gone back to bed this morning after visiting Momma at Denver General. I didn’t want to wake him up but, when I heard a knock on the door and saw a man with a gun and badge standing on the front porch, I went into Daddy’s bedroom to tell him the police were outside. He must have been sleeping lightly for once because he wasn’t startled and got straight out of bed.
Daddy knew a man who knew a man who knew a man. Since he was home, the sheriff allowed Daddy the time to gather our belongings and wrap them in blankets. I helped and we tossed them in the back of Daddy’s truck. I found some boxes in neighbors’ trash cans in the alley. I put all our Christmas toys in them. Jackie and I set the boxes in the truck. The radios and dishes fit in another box. The furniture, what there was of it, had belonged to the prior tenants. Daddy said we didn’t need it where we were going. The sheriff’s men had it out on the curb in short time. When they tried to lift the dresser thing, it wouldn’t budge. They opened it and saw hundreds of liquor and beer bottles filled with water. Their eyes found Daddy’s face and his eyes found mine. Daddy shook his head sadly but no one said a word.
“We were playing bar,” I muttered in explanation.
I nudged Jackie with an elbow and the two of us emptied the bottles and carried them out back to the trash. Liquor bottles, to my knowledge, have never been worthy of redemption. It’s one of those little things in life that just, plain and simple, feels right and makes sense.
The first man previous Daddy knew, got us set up in a ‘tenement house’. I had no idea what that meant but was soon to find out. It was crowded and uncomfortable, not easy to manage, but Daddy stuffed all six of his teeth-chattering cold children into the cab of his old Ford pickup. We didn’t have far to go as it turned out. Our new place of dwelling was only seven blocks away at 29th Avenue and Wyandot Street.
Daddy parked the truck behind a dark and forbidding, austere stone behemoth of a building. I hadn’t noticed the place before while Momma and I were out gathering cigarette butts. We never ventured east of Zuni Street and buildings like this awful edifice were one of the reasons, that and the derelicts who lived in them. It was difficult to imagine my family sinking any lower than the row-house with the plywood window. I was ten years old and still had a lot to learn about the process of losing and sinking.
Daddy picked up Linda. She snuggled into his shoulder and stuffed a thumb in her mouth. I hoisted Lily up onto my hip and Jackie carried Carol. Phillip was the caboose of our sorry little train. There was no rear entrance to the building so Daddy led us down a path through the hard dirt yard. Broken glass and other trash played their bit parts along with the stench of garbage to give the place the breath and appearance of a dumpsite. Up the eight steps to the stone front porch we went. A broken screen door hung by its bottom hinge, squeaked and wobbled a chilly winter dance.
The hallways were as filthy as the yard, their walls decorated with fine art genitalia. Whatever sex education we lacked was offered to us now each and every time we climbed up and down the creaking wood of those inner sanctum tenement steps.
“Don’t look at that shit,” Daddy admonished offhandedly.
As we rounded the second story landing, close on Daddy’s heels, a small brown girl lifted her dirty skirt and hiked up a leg to provide access for a tall black boy. He mounted her standing. His lips spoke to my eyes.
“Mind yer own business, white boy!” I hurried to catch up with Daddy. Glancing back, I saw Jackie and Phillip scurry past the fornication in progress.
We marched all the way to the top of the building, which was the fourth floor. There was no light in the stairwells so it was a dark climb with just a bit of light on the landings which each had a small window reflecting the hiss and roar of interstate traffic. Our unit was at the end of the hall, number seven whose door faced north. Daddy set Linda down and his shaking hands fumbled for the key. He finally found it but as soon as he touched the door, it swung open quite on its squeaking own. We peered into a dark room, furnished with a broken down bed just inside the door and a closet with its door missing. What light there was, came from a bare bulb in the kitchen which was just to the right of the door. A tall young man appeared from the gloom of the bedroom and gave us all a scare.
“Hi, my name is Thurman. Sometimes my mom lets me come over here to take a nap. I guess I won’t no more now you’re here.” He squeezed past Daddy and disappeared down the hall.
“Okay, this is it,” Daddy said. “Phillip, keep an eye on your sisters. Tommy and Jackie, c’mon. Let’s get our stuff carried on in here.”
The humpers were still humping but this time I didn’t look and certainly didn’t establish eye contact with the black boy. I hurried fast around that corner.
“Hey, get out o’ there!” Daddy yelled as we made their way around the side of the building.
A bunch of kids clutching armloads of our belongings jumped from the back of his truck and ran down the alley. The first thing Daddy checked was his tools. They seemed to be all there. The blankets with clothes in them hadn’t been taken either. Jackie’s tractor was gone and the two models I had put together. The thieves were children and had obviously gone for toys first.
“Grab the blankets and clothes,” Daddy ordered, “I’ll get my tools.”
Jackie and I would have preferred to guard the truck to protect the last of our toys but knew better than to even suggest such a thing except to each other. Daddy struggled with three buckets of tools and it was all we could do to carry the blankets containing our family’s clothes. As we had been many times before, we were ants once more. When we came down for the last load, all that was left of our Christmas toys were some building blocks and a couple of dolls.
On that final trip to the truck, Daddy gestured to the writing and crude sexual acts depicted on the walls and reminded us once more, “You guys just ignore that shit, okay?”
Jackie and I nodded our heads. We couldn’t wait to read those messages top to bottom, every single one. The tall black boy was leaning against the wall smoking a cigarette when we passed him. He snorted, blew smoke through his nose, and smirked at us. The brown girl was nowhere to be seen.
When I opened the cupboards in the kitchen, what looked like millions of cockroaches scurried every which way. I stepped on one that spilled out on the floor and was repulsed by the cracking sound of its breaking and dying.
“We’ll get spray,” Daddy said as I stood back watching them run over the top of each other in layers three or four deep. “Just open all the doors, the ones under the sink too. The light will make them go away.”
Daddy knew his cockroaches. It took a few minutes but the light made them go away. I imagined them thick in the walls and ceiling, crawling under my feet in the floor above the people downstairs. I looked out the big kitchen window at the cars speeding to and fro on the Valley Highway and the fancy Travel Lodge Motel right next door. The cold winter air made everything look old and dirty. I still didn’t know if the new baby was a brother or sister. I felt bad when I thought of Momma having to climb those filthy stairs with her brand new baby. As much as I dreaded her coming to this place, I missed her terribly and was sure this or any other place would not be a home without her.
Daddy took Jackie and me on a tour of the fourth floor. There was a single toilet our family would share with eight other tenants. It stood by itself, soiled and stinking of urine in a tiny room down the hall from number seven. We would have to do our bathing somewhere else or get another galvanized tub as there was no shower or bathtub.
“Don’t you worry,” Daddy said, “I might see if I can find us a big tub like that one we had in Montana; that would work just fine. We wouldn’t even have to heat the water here. There’s hot water in the kitchen.”
I cringed at the mention of being bathed in a tub like when I was a little kid. Daddy told me Thurmon’s mom was a friend of his and, if we had any problems when he and Momma weren’t home, we were to go to her for help. He also instructed each of us to carry our own toilet paper to the bathroom and warned us not to leave the roll there. Someone would steal it. The door to the apartment didn’t latch or lock so I was told to keep a chair under the knob. Daddy gave us a wink, his bunch of children, just this side of being orphans.
“The good news is, you guys won’t have to change schools. Freeland is only seven blocks from here.”
I was terribly glad to hear that. My enemies were well established there.
Daddy left to visit Momma and I snooped around our new home with my brothers and sisters. We wondered where we were to sleep since there was just the old broken down bed and the kitchen. There wasn’t so much as a dresser drawer for the new baby. Where would Momma keep it? Cheryl was almost eleven months old and crawling all over the place. Momma had been trying to potty train her for over a month and with little luck. She didn’t want two babies in diapers at the same time. It was too much work and there were only four diapers. Our curious snooping did teach us where cockroaches were sure to be found. The creepy answer to that question was: everywhere.
I opened a drawer in the kitchen with the intent to put away the silverware. Movement caught my eye and I was sure hI had found yet more cockroaches. When I bent to look closer, I found myself staring, eye to eye, into the face of a little gray mouse. Its nose twitched but it didn’t seem afraid. I put my hand in the drawer and let it follow the mouse to the deepest corner. It washed its little paws nervously, then rested them on my finger and climbed into my palm when I wiggled and slid my fingers underneath it. I found an old shoe box and put some rags in it so the little creature could make itself a mouse bed. A jar lid filled with water and a tiny bit of commodity cheese and he was all set.
Finding the mouse had the effect of diminishing the threat the cockroaches represented. As small as it was, it erased much of the intimidation of the move from my consciousness. I needed reassurance and the mouse provided it in its way. I scratched it behind its tiny round ears. I named it Itsy because it was so small. My brothers and sisters oohed and aahed when I showed Itsy to them, all except Jackie.
“Daddy’ll never let you keep that li’l mouse,” he said. “He don’ like critters aroun’ the house. You know better ‘n thinkin’ you can keep that mouse.”
I grinned at Jackie and told him he sounded like a poet. Jackie threw a pout, went and stood at the kitchen window, looking out.
“I wanna go out there,” he said.
“No way,” I told him. “No telling when Daddy will be back. We’re supposed to be puttin’ everything away. If you’re gone when he gets back, we’ll both be in trouble. You gotta remember, Momma ain’t here to help us if we get in trouble with Daddy.”
Jackie spread his skinny arms.
“Ev’rything Tommy? We ain’ got no ev’rything. Jus’ lemme go out. I’ll bring ya back somethin’ good.”
I hated myself for it but the prospect of something good to eat was just too good to pass on.
“You come right back, Jackie,” I admonished, “I don’t want Daddy mad at us when Momma’s not here.”
“I’m gone,” Jackie said and out the door he went. I imagined the tall black boy downstairs beating him up. I was always creating crazy scenarios in my mind but Jackie did pretty well for himself out amongst the people.
A few hours later, Jackie returned in the grips of an angry man from the motel next door. He banged on the door and, just as I moved the chair, he pushed Jackie ahead of himself into the room.
“Where are your parents?” he demanded.
“They’re out for a while,” I replied.
“I’ll wait!” he said angrily. “This little asshole was stealing pop bottles from our machine next door.” He sat in the door chair for a few minutes and let his eyes roam through the room. “My God,” he said. “How can you people live like this?”
I didn’t answer but grinned disarmingly at him as a native cockroach climbed up and sat on top of his shiny tan shoe with tassels on it. The man noticed the cockroach and jumped up like his pants were on fire. He turned in circles and stomped all over the place.
“I can’t stay here in this filth!” he said more to himself than to anyone else. “You promise me to keep this little thief locked up in here and tell your parents when they get home, okay?”
“I will,” I promised.
“I want him punished,” the man added.
“Don’t worry, mister, he will be,” I promised one more time.
The man left, shaking his head and cursing under his breath. I got down on my hands and knees and searched for the cockroach. For some reason, it was important to me that it got away. I deeply needed to believe it did. There was no evidence of it to be found where the angry man had stepped. Maybe it climbed onto his trousers and went home with him. I smiled to himself at the thought. Wherever it went that dreary morning, our angel was a cockroach.
My next act is a thing I was immediately sorry for and ashamed of and will be for the rest of my life. Jackie stood before me, arms akimbo, a cocky look on his face. I drew the belt through the loops of my jeans, cloth on leather, leather on cloth, one loop at a time.
“You know the drill,” I said to Jackie, my voice that of a father’s son.
Jackie’s face fell as his little boy cockiness abandoned him. I watched a ghost of fear and disbelief crawl across his eyes.
“No Tommy, no,” he whispered.
I doubled the belt up and snapped it in his face as I had seen Daddy do, as Uncle Jack had done to me.
“You coulda got us both in trouble,” I accused. “You’re supposed to be finding pop bottles, not stealing them. What if Daddy woulda come home and found that creep sitting by the door? What, huh? Now assume the position or I’ll put you there myself!”
Time seemed to move slower and surreal where Jackie and I existed as brothers but this was no imaginary nightmare dream. It was the breath we took and the beasts we had become. I lay leather to those freckle butt cheeks. My voice howled, demanded that Jackie rise when he fell to the floor under the onslaught of my attack.
“I didn’t tell you to lay down. Get up! Get up so I can whip you some more”!
Jackie gave to me of an instant what he had never given up to our father. He cried out in pain at the one deeper sadness, where the belt reached, out of Daddy’s hand and into my own. There were tears in his eyes before the first lash bit into his flesh. They were separate rivers, twice flowing, before I was through.
Daddy brought Momma home with a babe in her arms. There was a new brother, Nicholas, named after Daddy’s’s roofing boss in Montana. Nicholas wasn’t given a middle name. Momma and Daddy were running out of gas. There was a dark purple scar, what Momma called a birth mark, that covered half his tiny face. It seemed appropriate that those come later should be marked some way, born into a family where nothing was or ever would be right. His face bore reminder our curse of days.
How the misery of those cold winter days flowed together. No food. Daddy drunk and passed out on the crooked bed, his arm hanging to the floor, hand around a bottle of death. No food. The new baby crying out its fresh complaint. No food. Momma grabbing Cheryl when she had ‘an accident’ and holding her naked and squirming body out the kitchen window, forty feet from the ground.
“If you don’t start saying ‘potty’ when you have to go, I’m going to drop you out the window!”
Cheryl had what appeared to be a permanent round ring on the outside of her chubby butt cheeks from spending so much time sitting on the pee pot. No food. She was a gentle child and never made much noise. She and Lily were my favorite sisters.
Thurmon came to drink coffee and visit one day. He and Daddy were having a conservation about him becoming Daddy’s apprentice roofer once the weather warmed up. I was sitting on the floor across the room playing with Itsy. I had taught the mouse to walk up my fingers and give me a kiss just like GreatGrandma Webber’s parakeet, Sweety. Thurmon left the table and his coffee. He stood, wide-eyed and slack-jawed, watching me.
“Wow,” he said in his dumb way, “I ain’t never seed a mouse can do tricks like that. Can I try ‘im?”
I was fearful and reluctant to say no to an adult but Thurmon wasn’t exactly an adult, that is if brains have anything to do with it.
“You better not,” I replied as kindly and carefully as possible. “I’m the only one he lets hold him.”
“Aw c’mon, Tommy,” he begged. “I’ll be careful, I promise. I ain’t never holded a teensy l’il mouse afore.”
“Let ‘im hold the damn thing,” Daddy said from the table. “It’s just a mouse for Christ’s sake.”
I stood up obediently and placed Itsy in Thurmon’s outstretched palm.
“There ya go. Please be careful with him. You can pet him if you want.”
Thurmon ran a finger over Itsy’s back.
“Oh, Itsy’s soft but his bones are in there.”
“Uh… yeah,” I said. “He likes you, Thurmon. Can I have him back now?”
“Jus’ a minute,” Thurmon said. He turned toward the table where Daddy was sitting and spoke to him.
“I’m gonna do that finger trick stuff like Tommy was doin’ and the l’il mouse’ll kiss me jus’ like it did Tommy.”
As I came around behind him, Thurmon put out a finger and Itsy reached with his paws and took hold of it. Thurmon grinned stupidly and moved his palm from under Itsy’s body. Itsy struggled for a split second in an attempt to gain purchase on Thurmon’s finger with his back feet, then fell to the floor. I knelt down to pick him up, to save him, but Itsy was already dead.
“Did I killeded him?” Thurmon asked. “I’m sorry if I killeded him, Tommy.”
“I’m sorry,” Daddy said. “It’s only a mouse, Kiddo. You can catch another one. Thurmon, come on over here and have another cup of coffee. Don’t try to talk to Tommy right now.”
I swore to himself that, if I were a man, I would throw both of them out the window. Charlie was only a lizard, Sweety was only a bird. The cat was only a cat. They were only men and less than that.
Jackie and I went outside, conducted a boy funeral, and buried Itsy under a bush. His coffin was a match box.
“That’s why I kill stuff ‘stead ‘o catchin’ ‘em,” Jackie said, “Grownups jus’ suffer ev’rything, then kill ‘t slow.”
I created a rhyming litany, a dirge, and named it ‘Itsy’s Song’, then recited it over his grave:
I was a mouse
living in my mouse house
and I was afraid
of games big people played
February tenth, nineteen sixty-one, the day of Itsy’s death, began just as explained above. After awhile, Daddy was passed out across the bed. Momma and us kids were in the kitchen trying to keep quiet, not that a bomb exploding would have awakened him. You never knew with Daddy and we weren’t taking any chances.
It was cemetery quiet until the door to our unit crashed inward with such force that the chair under the knob broke in half and landed against the wall opposite. Thurmon had returned. He stood in the doorway like a ghost thing. His skin was gray and black except for its eye and mouth holes.
“We is on fire,” he said. “I come…” He fell forward and lay still as death on the floor. A wicked billowing of smoke belched from the hallway into the room in his aftermath. Momma moved his feet aside and I closed the door to protect us from the writhing death snake dark cloud.
When I was in Montana in the third grade, I met my first girlfriend, Jackie. We had both aced our spelling tests. The school we attended stood three stories tall and had an interior fire escape that was constructed of fifty five gallon drums welded together in a wide spiral. Those who got a hundred percent on their Friday spelling tests were rewarded by being allowed to go up to the third floor and slide down and around, through the metal tube. They would be spit into the school yard and free to go home or stand on the corner, as Jackie and I did, swinging a length of precious golden chain, her necklace, between us. While awaiting their turn, the teachers would keep students occupied by lecturing on fire safety, what to do and not to do. Now I had a chance to test their wisdom.
The first thing I did was splash a pan of cold water in Thurmon’s face. He jumped up from the floor and ran into the kitchen. Without so much as a word, he opened the kitchen window, climbed out onto its sill, and leaped into the void. I peered down and saw Thurmon spread out on the ground where he landed. There were many people in the yard, frantic, shouting, and milling about. They went rushing to Thurmon’s aid.
My sisters were crying and Phillip’s eyes were so big, I thought they might just pop out of his head. Momma was shaking Daddy, urging him to get up, yelling in his face that the building was on fire. He replied to her pleas by cursing and swatting her away. I plugged the sink with a rag and turned the hot and cold water on full blast.
“Jackie, get me towels, blankets, clothes, anything!” I barked. Jackie brought me blankets and towels and I piled them in the sink under the running water. “Here, you guys,” I said to my siblings, “Take these wet rags and hold them over your mouths. Try to breathe through them. If your eyes are burning, wipe them out with the rags.”
The door opened with a whoosh! and smoke filled the room again before Momma managed to get up from the bed and slam it shut. She stood with her back braced against it and cried at the top of her lungs, “Tom, for God’s sake, wake up and help me!”
Daddy tumbled from the bed, blinking his eyes. He held his hands up in a defensive posture.
“What the hell?!?”
There were flames licking up from the floor of the closet. Daddy got up and pulled the bed over to block the door. He shoved Momma into the kitchen. He saw what I had done with the rags and the water pouring from the sink. All seven of us children were bunched up in a corner by the refrigerator. I was weeping and holding the new baby, urging all to hold the wet rags to their faces.
“Good, Tommy, good!” Daddy said. “Hold on son, I’ll get us out of here!”
Momma had gone to the window and Daddy joined her there. He yelled to the crowd of people gathered below to go and get the ladders from his truck.
“We already did!” a man yelled back. “They’re using them on the other side of the building. Hang in there! The fire department is on the way! They’re bringing a ladder truck!”
Smoke fingers were crawling up from the bottom of the walls, eerie hands reaching accompanied by the sound of timbers screeching.
“We gotta get out o’ here before the floor caves in,” Daddy said to Momma. “I’ll carry Lily, she’s the heaviest.” He touched Momma’s arm. “You get Linda.” He knelt down in front of Jackie and me. “Okay, guys, we gotta work together. Tommy, you carry Cheryl. Jackie, you get the baby.” He reached out and drew Phillip toward him. “Phillip, you get in between me and your Momma. Listen to me, everyone; here’s what we’re gonna do. I’ll go out the door first, then Phillip in between me and Momma. Jackie, you’re next and Tommy, you’re last. You guys hold on tight to those little ones! We’ll each grab hold of the one in front of us and we’ll go real slow. Do you understand? We can do this, I know we can. Don’t let go, no matter what happens. We have to try to get to the other side where the ladders are or down the stairs. I want everybody to holler real loud and stay in one spot if we get separated. We can do this but we have to stick together. Okay, let’s go!”
Our fear was a palpable thing. We were all weeping and chewing on the filthy wet rags as if they were a conduit to life itself. Each of us gripped the clothing of the one in line ahead of us and held on for dear life. Daddy moved the bed and the door creaked open by itself. Smoke poured in and we shuffled out, sad little train of humanity. We passed the community toilet in the hallway and, just as we did, the commode fell through the floor. A great gush of heat gasped from the hole where it had been. Daddy was yelling for everyone to hold on but the roar of the inferno was swallowing his voice.
It felt like forever and that we never would, but we finally reached the door to the stairs and the hallway that would take us to the other side of the tenement. Daddy did a head count with his hand. The smoke was so thick, I could barely see Cheryl who was clinging tightly to my body.
“I’m gonna try to open that door!” Daddy yelled in my face, “You and your Momma have to hold everyone back against the wall!” Daddy wrapped a wet rag around his hand and opened the door to the junction between hall and stair. The door was blown off of its hinges and into his body. “Back! Back!” he yelled as he fought to block the blazing door.
Mercy was the door that would not latch or lock. I was the caboose that turned the little human train around and led the way back to the door’s wide open hole of light. Daddy let loose of the stair door and intense heat licked us in the tail. It is a miracle that we made it back to the apartment, each and every last one of us. I ran into the kitchen and threw soaked blankets from the sink to the floor. All the cockroaches in the world had risen to the top of the building and were inches thick on the floor. Smoke filled the apartment and drew through the kitchen window like a chimney. Daddy took a chair from and braced it under the door knob in the bedroom. I wept openly as I forced my brothers’ and sisters’ faces into the soaked and teeming mass of bugs and cloth on the smoking linoleum.
The floor of the bedroom died with a screeching moan and the crooked bed slid through the hungry mouth of oblivion, into the black smoking hole of the closet. Down, down, forever down.
“Stay there!” Daddy screamed as Lily and Linda fought to rise and escape the frenzied dance of the cockroaches. “Come here, Carroll and Tommy!”
Momma was holding the baby, a dishrag pushed into his tiny mouth, as I followed her to where Daddy was standing by the window. The hallway door creaked and formed a letter C as it was forced to embrace the chair holding it pinned in its middle. Smoke rolled in licking gasps from every gap around it.
“We have to get out of here now,” Daddy said. “The fire department is not gonna make it in time to help us.”
A loud whoomph! from the other room and a fresh blast of awful heat served to verify his statement. The building was being devoured by flames from the bottom up.
“I’m gonna jump,” Daddy said matter-of-factly to both of us. “I want you to drop everyone out the window to me. Start with the baby and work your way up by size. If I break an arm or a leg, it will be from catching one of you but I will, by God, catch every one of you, I swear.” He pulled Momma close, just inches from his face. He looked into her eyes. “Carroll, I know you’re afraid of heights. We can do this. Promise me you’ll jump when the kids are all out.”
Momma handed the baby to me. She hugged and kissed my father.
“We do what we have to do, Tom. I love you, now go!”
This is the image of my parents I will always hold in that deep down place inside me where one keeps such things.
Daddy turned from her and climbed into the window opening. He yelled at the people on the ground to clear the deck. He smiled at Momma and me and said, “I’ll see you downstairs!” With that, he let himself down to the bottom of the window, hung from the outside sill and simply let go. I heard the excited screams and cheers of the crowd that had gathered on the ground when Daddy landed. Behind me, the raging beast roared its intent to devour us. Momma and me looked out the window and saw Daddy standing on the ground. He waved his hands frantically for us to begin dropping children out the window.
I had taken charge of Nicholas. I handed him off to Momma. She kissed his tiny scarred face, then held his body out the window as far as she could reach and dropped him. Daddy caught the baby and the crowd cheered. He handed Nicholas off to a man standing by, then waved his arms again. And so it went, one by one, we dropped those most precious to us into the arms of our fallen angel. Finally it was just Momma and me left in the smoking room. I wanted her to go first because I was afraid she wouldn’t jump if left by herself. I pointed out to her that I was almost eleven years old and weighed more than her already. What if Daddy broke his arms catching me. What then?
“Tommy go!” she ordered softly and kissed my face. It was more difficult for me by far to leave Momma by herself in that burning building than to drop forty feet into the waiting arms of Daddy. In the end I stopped arguing with her and just went. My Daddy was a journeyman roofer. He knew how to catch things when they were dropped. I pushed the standby man away when he held his arms out after Daddy caught me. I stood a few feet from my father’s side, stood witness as he caught the only woman he would ever love. He may have never learned how to love her right but he caught her and caught her well.
The Red Cross hustled each of us into waiting ambulances where we were warmed up and checked out by a doctor. All eight of us, lost, the found, came out without so much as a scratch. Other than Cheryl, who screeched all the way down, not a whisper was heard from any of us as we commended ourselves into Daddy’s arms. That little baby girl never had another ‘potty accident’. She knew without a doubt that Momma had finally kept her word.
Daddy was taken to the hospital for x-rays. They kept him because his feet were broken in several places. That night Momma, me and the kids, stayed with some nice Red Cross people and got to see ourselves on the television news. The highlight of the show was a lengthy interview with the hero of the day, the man Daddy had handed us off to as he caught us one by one. The man just said, like any good citizen, he had done the right thing by his fellow man. He cited faith and divine intervention as a testament to not having so much as a stone bruise after eight people were dropped forty feet from hell into his arms.
I opened my mouth to protest and Momma touched a finger to my lips.
“Don’t even say it, Tommy. People like us have to claim our small victories. Only we know what they are and the rest of the world be damned.”
The Red Cross arranged for the rental of a three bedroom house for us. It was located near 32nd Avenue and Meade Street in North Denver. The deposit and first month’s rent were paid. Other charitable organizations came forward and supplied clothing and food for the victims of the fire. Momma helped me, Jackie, and Phillip make beds on the floor in one of the bedrooms. There were plenty of blankets for once because of the generosity of donors. She set herself up with Lily, Linda, Cheryl, and the baby. The third bedroom, hers and Daddy’s would be empty until he was released from the hospital. The Salvation Army promised to have used furniture delivered later in the week. I wondered wistfully about Joe.
Momma rode the bus to visit Daddy at Denver General Hospital the next day.
“He’ll be okay,” she reported to us when she returned home.
She told me later that Daddy’s broken feet, arches and ankles, were the least of his problems. He was suffering from alcohol withdrawal, something she called the D.T.’s. The doctors were running tests and were fairly sure he had Yellow Jaundice. They were worried about his liver and his single kidney. Later that night, after my siblings had gone to sleep, Momma put her arms around me and whispered, “Don’t you worry. Hopefully, this is the wakeup call your Daddy needed to hear. That terrible place we were living in, the fire, all of it has brought us to where we are now. We have food and clothes, a nice warm house, all these wonderful people helping us. You’re ten-years-old, Tommy. Go to bed now; dream the dreams of a boy.”
I joined my brothers, crawled in between Jackie and Phillip and closed my eyes.
“Psst,” Jackie sounded. His hand found mine under the covers and pressed four squares of Hershey’s chocolate into my palm. I savored the taste of the candy melting between my tongue and the roof of my mouth, certain I should heed Momma’s advice, be upbeat and hopeful, try to just be a kid. I touched my forehead and felt the dampness of Momma’s tears. Daddy wasn’t home. The Country Western radio was playing, Patsy Cline singing, “I go out walkin’ after midnight.” I slipped away into the storm, its wing and a prayer, Momma’s Rain.
©artwork & words conceived by & property of
Tom (WordWulf) Sterner©