chapter two: ~momma's rain~

WordWulfStarred Page By WordWulf, 11th Apr 2014 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
Posted in Wikinut>Family>Domestic Violence & Abuse

~the snake is a train & the snake is long~a thousand miles long~it gobbles us up~carries us like eggs in its belly~denver to saint louis~too far the monster~& a new monster appears~

~steal sevens~

~when love comes crawling~
~a child is born~
~reality of years~
~& the babe is torn~

Denver, Colorado
Winter, 1957

The house was dark and quiet. A thick layer of ice hung like dead skin on the window of the walk-in porch landing where I lay huddled on a tattered and worn World War Two army cot. I was fully dressed, had worn my coat to bed against the chill night blowing in around the edges of windows in need of sealing. The porch was situated off the back yard and was the rear entry to the house. It was a small square of space halfway between the upstairs kitchen and basement rooms.

I lay there shivering, listening to the adults talk while they sat at the kitchen table drinking coffee and smoking. Uncle Jack was partial to Jackie, his namesake. He was asking Daddy to lighten up on the boy. At supper, earlier in the evening, Jackie had gagged when he tried to eat his peas; Jackie and I both hated peas. I mixed mine with mashed potatoes and managed to get them down. Jackie had flat refused to try anything to manage the eating of his peas. He had been punished many times for his gagging refusals to eat them. I wondered if maybe he was pushing his luck, assuming that Uncle Jack would stick up for him.

Anyway, Daddy had cuffed Jackie up side his head a couple of times and Uncle Jack didn’t like it. They were discussing the incident and arguing heatedly. That made me nervous because it was likely Jackie would be severely punished at some later date due to this discussion. Daddy didn’t like anyone telling him what to do or how to raise his kids. Uncle Jack thought he was helping Jackie but he wasn’t. Their conversation finally settled down and became the more comfortable drone of adult voices in the night. I dozed off to the sound of some country western singer wailing about a woman wandering around the hills in a long black veil.

I awoke a bit later when the house was dark and quiet, just what I had been waiting for. Uncle Jack didn’t leave the radio on all night like Daddy. I had a deep appreciation for the smooth darkness and the night ticking of the kitchen clock. I lay there on the back porch in my space between worlds. It was unusual for me to have much alone time. Knowing all in the family were safe, I relaxed for a while and spent my between-sleep moments thinking about the past few weeks.

When we arrived in Colorado, Aunt Pat, Daddy’s half-sister, talked Uncle Jack, her husband, into allowing Daddy and his brood to live with them for a while. They agreed that the Sterners could stay with them until Daddy got on his feet, which might take some time since Daddy was a roofer by trade and it was the dead of winter. Jobs were scarce and roofers were at the mercy of the weather. One good thing for the family was, Uncle Jack didn’t allow alcohol in his house at that time (he was on the wagon) so Daddy was doing his best to stay sober.

We he were enrolled in school and I got to ride the school bus with one of my favorite cousins, Patty Jean. She was a couple of months younger than me. We were in the same third grade class. She wore eye glasses to help her see and was able to relate to me what the teacher wrote on the blackboard. On the ride home in the school bus, she filled me in on any assignment I might have missed or misunderstood. I received better grades than I ever had and didn’t have to try to remember everything the teacher said. Patty Jean was a nice girl, one of the prettiest females I had ever seen. She reminded me a bit of a certain girl I left in Montana.

Uncle Jack was a mechanic at the Wonder Bread Bakery. He worked steady and rented this big old house, the first one I had ever been in with two separate living levels. There was always lots of food in the refrigerator. I was sure Uncle Jack and Aunt Pat were rich because they kept four or five loaves of bread stacked up on top of the big old ice box. It amazed me that anyone could afford to live so extravagantly.

Thinking about the bread brought me back to the moment. I slipped from under the covers and sat up. The cot creaked noisily and I froze in place. I sat there still and quiet, until I could hear the ticking of the clock in the kitchen. I began to count the ticks, tapping out a rhythm with my fingers. A hundred ticks later and I stood slowly, hands out from my sides as if I needed them there for balance, silently willing the cot to be quiet.

I tiptoed up the seven steps in my stocking feet, peered cautiously into the sleeping kitchen. It was eerily lit by the face of the clock and bluish shafts of light from the street lamps outside. Aunt Pat was a cleanliness freak. She kept plastic covers on the furniture. Her kitchen was all sharp and gleaming edges. I felt the house watching me, a stranger in its midst. I took the last step up and stood outlined in the doorway. Nothing moved and neither did I. The sound of my breathing was a roar I wished to silence. How did Jackie do this, I wondered.

The refrigerator was a giant white monster standing just to the left of the door. My back against the smooth wall, I shuffled sideways until I stood in front of it. My hands trembled as I walked them up the side, to the top of the big metal box. A low rumble issued from inside it and I shuddered with fear. I felt as if it was a night watcher, a monster machine installed to keep food cold and gobble up thieves and trespassers. The rumble settled itself into a steady hum and I realized it was the motor of the thing, a sound I hadn’t noticed in the daylight hours.

I took a deep breath to settle myself down and, with a halting resolve, let my hands do their hungry raccoon business on top of the refrigerator. They found the open half loaf of bread in front and moved it aside. When I felt the next loaf, a full one, I untwisted the wire tie. Though the heel was my favorite part, I shuffled past it and the first half dozen slices. After pulling two from the middle of the loaf, I fluffed the bread back in place, retied the wire and placed the half loaf back in front of the others.

This done, I worked my way slowly across the kitchen, thankful for the cover of darkness but wishing I could see better. Uncle Jack took sugar in his coffee so there was always a big bowl of it on the table and a spoon ready for him to use. I laid the two slices of bread down side by side on the table. They stared balefully at me, large blank accusing eyes, white holes in the dark room. I had never stolen before but then I had never been this close to sugar bread. My raccoon hands were unable to find the spoon so I held up the bowl and tilted it toward my body. Sugar sifted over the edge and piled itself up on the bread eyes.

From the corner of my eye I glimpsed a shadow shape. All at once I was unable to hear the tick-tick of the clock or the now-comforting hum of the refrigerator. My heart beat, thumpity-thump, like a bass drum. It thundered in my ears, erased all other sound with its pumping of fear through my brain. Terror owned each of my senses and, in its monster grip, my love for sugar bread was forgotten. I knew what the blind know and never mind how. All doubt aside, there was someone in the kitchen with me.

Fear owned me as I summoned up the courage to turn from the table and face whatever was behind me. I struggled to turn around and, just as I did, a shape hovered over me. I was assaulted by its tobacco breath. Terrified, I felt a scream in the very pit of myself. Before it made its way out, a strong hairy hand planted itself firmly over my mouth and another clamped like a vice onto the back of my neck. I was dragged backward through the kitchen and thump, thump, thumped down the stairs. I had been physically punished by Momma and Daddy but this was something very different. Momma and Daddy loved me; the thing that had me now hated me. That awful message flowed into me from the unforgiving grip of its claws, the spittle of its breath on my face.

“I got you, Little Jesus! I figured it was you sneakin’ around and gettin’ into the bread!” Uncle Jack pushed my face into the cot and growled into my ear, “I’m gonna take my hand from your mouth, you slobbery little bastard. You so much as squeak and I’ll tear off your fuckin’ head and shit down your neck! Do you understand?”

I nodded my head in the iron grip of my uncle’s hands. Uncle Jack let go of me, turned me over onto my back and pinned me to the bed with the weight of his body. I inhaled a ragged breath, a half sob, and stared into the monster face a fraction of an inch from my own. The eyes in the face were darker than the night. They glowed menacingly in the hatchet of Uncle Jack’s face. Hate lived there and nothing else. He wiped the hand with my saliva on the front of my coat and glared at me in disgust. His voice was a feral snarl, dripping with the promise of pending violence. “It’s all about you with your Mom and Pop, ain’t it boy? Well, I got somethin’ else for ya. Mebbe a l’il bit what your brother gets all the time. You ain’t a pimple on his ass, boy.”

He put his hands around my throat and squeezed slowly. Unable to breathe, the weight of his body pinning me down, I glared back into his dark face with a growing hatred of my own. Uncle Jack laughed low and mean, released the pressure on my throat then slapped me lightly on both cheeks. “Go to sleep, Little Jesus. Steal from me again, cross me in any way, your ass is mine.” He got up and left the room without another word.

I pulled myself up and huddled against the wall in the corner of the creaking cot. I tucked my feet under me and felt my body trembling violently. Cold sweat swarmed over me. It started in the bare toes peeking from the holes in my socks and crept across my body to the end of each standing hair. Ice is cold but fear, that lone province of low dread, is frigid beyond any material liquid dimension. My eyes would not close in sleep. They were afraid, in fact, to blink. I was trapped in the cage of Uncle Jack and Aunt Pat’s house. If I told my parents, trouble with no end would begin. Where would my family and I go? What would we do? I drifted into an eerie and fearful half-sleep, alienated in a bare and square world, halfway up the stairs and halfway down.

The next morning I was awakened by the voices of Momma and Daddy arguing in Uncle Jack’s basement. “You can’t fool me!” Momma accused in a forced whisper. “You may be able to fool everyone else but I can tell when you’ve been drinking. I’m so sick of this. When are you going to grow up? We have four kids to raise and you...”

The sound of her voice was interrupted by a sharp slap, Daddy’s hand on Momma's face, then the desolate sound of her low stifled sobbing. My troubles washed away in the agony of Momma’s tears.

“Tommy! What are you doing all crumpled up in that corner?” Aunt Pat grabbed hold of my ear and my head followed her up the stairs. “You shouldn’t be listening to your parents fight!” she scolded. “You’re such a damned little sneak!”

She plunked me down in a chair at the table where my brothers, Jackie and Phillip, were seated along with cousins, Patty Jean, Sharon, and Johnny.

“We get our lazy asses up of a morning in this house, Mister Fauntleroy,” Uncle Jack voiced from across the table. He stood there, tall and threatening, arms akimbo, head cocked at an accusing and challenging angle. What does he want from me, I wondered. “We havin’ sugar bread with our cereal this mornin’, Tommy boy!” A lopsided grin broke the steel of his face as he taunted me. “You like the sugar bread ‘Mister I stay in bed while everybody else gets up and ready for work and school’? C’mon, answer me, boy!”

Anger and humiliation boiled deep inside me. I forced my head up and stared into Uncle Jack’s leering face. Hunger gnawed at my middle, voiced itself in a rumbling growl from the pit of my stomach. A terrible heat rushed through my body, so intense I could feel my ears burning on the sides of my head. I was acutely aware that talking back to adults always came to no good. Still, “I don’t want nothin’,” I heard my stupid voice say.

Uncle Jack’s face turned red and his hands balled up into threatening fists. His eyes bored into my face and I glared back, refusing to back down. Uncle Jack relaxed with obvious effort. A calculated grin crawled onto his thin two-sided face.

“The thief is a liar,” he announced. “You don’t insult me at my own table. Not now, not ever, boy! Get yer ass down stairs and change those filthy rags you’re wearin’. I don’ like pigs in my house. I’ve made an exception in your case.” He flipped his hand in a gesture of dismissal and snorted.

“Kid don’t have a lick o’ sense,” he said to Aunt Pat as I vacated my chair and departed the kitchen.

“What’s the matter, Tommy? Don’t you feel good?” I was hunched up on the cot again. Momma came up the stairs, put her arm around my shoulders. I responded to her with sullen silence. She touched my face with her free hand, captured one of the hot tears rolling down my cheek. She lifted it to her mouth and touched it to her sweet lips. I watched as the tip of her tongue came out to carry it away. A faraway look came into her moist eyes. The imprint of Daddy’s hand lay upon the perfect skin of her cheek. I couldn’t find the words to say it but knew she was lost and I was probably the only one with a ghost of a chance to save her.

Baby Lily began to cry from the basement and Daddy yelled, “Carroll!”

“Do you want to stay home from school today?” Momma asked me.

I shook my head stubbornly, unable to speak past the lump in my throat. Fear and anger were playing tag in my mind, tearing at my heart but the notion of staying home alone with Aunt Pat while Daddy took Momma to work was beyond consideration. I had always been aware that Uncle Jack and Aunt Pat didn’t care for me. There was that deep nagging voice; it was trying to tell me that something about me was responsible for my brother’s problems with our own parents. My aunt and uncle loved Jackie and hated me. It was as simple as that and not simple at all. Tired and restless from the previous night, I didn’t feel like going to school but it was the proverbial lesser of evils.

“Carroll! Get your ass back down here!” Daddy’s voice thundered up the stairs. Momma kissed my cheek, tousled my hair, and went resignedly down the seven steps to tend to Daddy and Baby Lily.

“Daddy said no lunch for you,” Patty Jean reported as she and I slid into our seats on the school bus. Her eyes floated behind the fish bowls of her thick glasses. They were kind and sparkled with a conspiratorial glint. “I packed a extra san’wich an’ some chips in my lunch,” she said excitedly. “Everyone was so mad at you they didn’t even notice. I even snuck some choc’late chip cookies.”

“You shouldn’t have done that, Patty Jean,” I admonished her. “If Uncle Jack catches you, you’ll get a whippin’ sure. He’s got it in for me and wouldn’t like you taking my side.”

“I know my way around him,” Patty Jean grinned. “He’s not as bad as you think.” Her face turned grim. “He doesn’t like you very much though, does he? You shouldn’t o’ talked back t’ him. He gets mean when people do that, ‘specially kids.”

“I didn’t talk back to him,” I said softly.

Patty Jean slipped her extra food into the hanging pocket of my old baggy coat. “It’s how you act,” she whispered, “like you’re not afraid of him.” She squeezed my hand. “Be careful, Tommy. I don’t have to be afraid of him but you do.”

The bus bumped and grumbled to a stop in the dirt parking lot of the school. Patty Jean and I filed down the aisle and out the door.

“You shoulda tol’ me you wanted some sugar bread last night. You’re not a very good stealer.” Jackie popped up in front of me, red hair going every which way, the uneven splotches of freckles on his face giving him a mottled and ornery appearance. “I coulda got ya better stuff for lunch ‘n Patty Jean got.”

I glared at him. “You better not tell anybody about that.”

“I ain’t no snitch,” Jackie grinned, “But ya better let me help ya. You ‘n Patty Jean are gonna get caught, sure.”

“Leave me alone,” I warned him. “I hate Uncle Jack.”

“I hate Daddy!” Jackie returned and danced away when I took a half-hearted poke at him. The bell rang and I hid my face behind my hand as I shoved one of Patty Jean’s purloined cookies into my mouth.

Late that morning, just before lunch, I was summoned to the office. Patty Jean smiled at me and twiddled her fingers in the air, giving me a girlish good-bye as I left the room. To my surprise, Momma was standing next to the big counter in the office. She seemed nervous and on edge. She gave me a quick hug then said, “Why don’t you take Lily and Phillip out to the playground while I sign you and Jackie out?”

Following the nod of her head, I saw four-year-old Phillip and Lily, who had just turned three, sitting on the long wooden bench across from the counter. They were kicking their feet happily and favored me with beaming smiles. Both children were wearing their best clothes which gave me pause to wonder what was afoot. Momma didn’t take out the good clothes unless a church bus was picking us up or maybe Grandma Webster was coming over for a visit.

“C’mon, you guys,” I said in my best big brother voice. I lifted Lily over my head and onto my shoulders. I held her legs with an arm across my chest and led Phillip along with my free hand. “What’s goin’ on?” I asked Phillip when we reached the playground.

Phillip scrunched up his face. “I don’ know nothin’. I’m jus’ a l’il kid.”

I had the merry-go-round spinning, the little ones merrily giggling, when Jackie joined us in the school yard. He stood to one side while I gave the circular monster a half-hearted push every second or third round. Jackie kicked at a rock buried in the sand. “She’s signin’ us out,” he said morosely.

“She has to for us to get out of class in the middle of the day, you dummy,” I explained needlessly.

~union station~

“No, I mean for good,” Jackie mumbled. “I heard ‘er tellin’ the lady we won’t be back. She’s takin’ us somewhere.”

“You’re crazy,” I said as I snatched at the twirling bars of the merry-go-round to slow it down.

“No! Make it go faster, Tommy!” Phillip cried.

“Fasser! Fasser!” Lily chimed in her musical little girl voice.

I stepped closer to Jackie, spoke in a voice only he could hear.

“I wish you were right. Uncle Jack doesn’t like me. I think he wants to kill me or something. If I tell Momma or Daddy, it’ll just cause trouble for all of us. I wish we didn’t have to go back there.”

“You’re stupid!” Jackie said with sudden vehemence. “Uncle Jack is my fav’rite person in the whole wide world!”

“Tommy, get your brothers. Let’s go now.” Momma was lifting Lily from the merry-go-round as Phillip skittered toward the center of the wobbly disc.

“I ain’t goin’!” he cried defiantly. “I wanna play! Tommy’s pushin’ us. We’re havin’ fun.”

“I’ll get ‘im!” Jackie abandoned his kicking stone and headed for his younger brother.

“Oh, no, you don’t!” Momma held Lily on her hip and clamped Jackie’s scrawny neck with her free hand. He stopped in his tracks and turned red in the face. “Tommy, you get Phillip. Jackie, help me with these bags.”

My mouth dropped open as I chased a giggling Phillip across the iron deck of the merry-go-round. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Jackie struggling with a bulging green plastic suitcase. Its broken zipper hung down and it was lashed together with the tattered remnants of an old housecoat belt. Jackie must be right, I thought. There were two more bags at Momma's feet. I wondered how she’d managed to carry all three.

“Phillip!” she spat, with iron in her voice, “Go to your brother and I mean right now!”

Phillip kicked at me with the foot I had just managed to grab and I resisted the urge to give him a mean pinch. He came willingly enough after Momma's admonition. She was dead serious and none of her children would cross her when she was like that. We had been taught better. I had a thousand questions but they were soon forgotten as I began the trek to the bus stop with Momma and my younger siblings. No climber of Everest ever struggled harder or toiled more laboriously than this flea-bitten troupe of near-defeated life warriors.

We were overburdened ants, dropping our loads, circling and picking them up again. We cried out and thrashed against the glass wall of our fragile existence, urged, pleaded with, and threatened one another until we were seated on the pinnacle of our mountain, a dilapidated wooden bus bench. It would be hours before we began to deal with the splinters in our butts. Lily fell asleep on the bench, her head resting on Momma’s lap. All three of us boys were quiet, too tired for banter, and confused by Momma’s strange and unusual behavior.

Some of my fondest memories of Momma are from when I was very young and our rides on the city bus. Momma and I were children together then, I a blonde-haired raggedy blue-eyed boy and Momma, a flaxen-haired brown-eyed Virgo lady, beautiful young virgin with her half-blind Taurean man child. Fat ladies made us laugh and googly-eyed men gave up their seats to Momma. They stole glances down, then looked away to avoid the deep and knowing truth in her eyes. She was mine then, giggly girl, mine to keep and all to myself.

This bus ride was couldn’t have been more different, Jackie quiet and sulking, Phillip and Lily determined to stand on the seat and engage any fellow passengers within reach. Momma was self-possessed and didn’t seem aware of their behavior. Then there were the bags full of our lives, shoved halfway under the seat, an impediment to all who passed by in the aisle. Worse than the rude stares of fellow passengers were the questions in my seven-year-old mind. Where was Daddy? Where were we going?

Patty Jean’s good-bye fingers waved a friendly farewell in my memory. I snuffled involuntarily, realizing I never quite got a chance to say a proper good-bye to the ladies in my life, pretty girls with golden chains and reassuring hands to squeeze. One day they were there and the next, then erased before I had a chance to explain my going. How could I when I couldn’t even explain it to myself.

The bus rolled through downtown Denver, stopping here and there to dispense bits of its human cargo, picking up others, emptying never. Certain nervous fat ladies and bug-eyed men passed by, causing Momma and me to exchange winsome glances. Smiles tickled and teased our lips but true mirth was held at bay by the mystery of circumstance. Our bus rides had always been to somewhere. This one was to some, ‘where’? I gazed at Momma, trusting her but intimidated by her secretiveness and discomfited by my fear of the unknown.

Momma gave me a reassuring smile and nod as she pulled the cord above and behind her. We would disembark at the next stop. A truly nice man came to our rescue in this event. He seemed neither patronizing nor seeking a quick inadvertent bump and grope. He was large and attractive and had all three bags in hand before Momma could shush him away. She took Phillip in hand and I perched Lily on my young shoulders. Jackie trailed behind, morose and uncommunicative.

Many years later, the boy inside me would remember the man who helped the ants. His eyes did not pity us. They did not hunger for the fields of mother. He set the bags down, touched the brim of his hat, and was gone from our lives forever. It was my first experience, in living memory anyway, with what I have come to think of as a gentle man. I have known very few since and, sorry to say, have not always been one myself when I knew better and that I should have.

Wherever we were, appeared to be the place to be. Most of the passengers on the bus got off with us and immediately joined the fast moving throng of pedestrian traffic. Momma and her four children were a tiny ragged island, adrift and rootless in a sea of mad indifference. Momma grabbed the big bag while Jackie and I struggled with the others. Lily rode my shoulders and Phillip clung to Jackie who kept trying to bat him away.

The letters on the building were so huge even I could make them out with only a slight squint of my eyes, Union Station. Jackie loved trains and the shift in his mood was a palpable thing. As was mine. Jackie brightened and hefted his bag with renewed vigor, eyes alert and seeking the metal monsters he dreamed of. I became apprehensive. Train station... bags... we were going away... really far... away. This was no simple bus ride across the city to stay with other relatives. And what about Daddy?

“Tommy! Over here!” Without realizing it, my mind churning and in turmoil, I had passed through the giant doors, into the cavernous hall of the station. Momma stood a few yards away, in front of row after row of dark stained wooden pews. The place thrummed with activity, the general crowd noise layered over with male voices in monotones announcing the comings and goings of streaking tubes of iron. We were in the belly of a manmade canyon of echoes.

I followed Jackie to Momma and she instructed us to set our bags in front of the empty pew she had chosen as our landing site. Who was this woman, I wondered. I saw a bit of the giggling bus rider in her tense excitement, a smidgen of the downtrodden abused housewife in a furtive glance behind, a woman of new resolve as she seated us, her four stair steps, all in a row. She spread her arms in a gesture suggesting we all have a seat. “We’re going to have an adventure,” she said breathlessly. “We’re taking the train from here to my home town, Saint Louis, Missouri.”

She scanned our faces, beginning at the bottom of the stair. Lily fidgeted and Phillip wiggled his nose. Jackie stared at the floor then her eyes found mine. I swallowed the lump in my throat and with it all the questions haunting me that I could never ask in front of the others. I love you, Momma,” I croaked.

“Me too, Momma. I wuv you,” Lily chirped.

Then Momma was on her knees, hugging us all together. She ended with her head on my shoulder, a deep breath and a single gasping sob. She squeezed me too hard and it hurt. I wanted it to last forever. “Keep them here,” she whispered. She laid a hand on my cheek then disappeared into the throng of humanity surrounding us.

Jackie’s eyes were wide and brown, chocolate drops in his thin freckled face. “We’re gonna ride on a real train,” he breathed in an awestricken voice. “All the way to another world.”

“Saint Louis, Missouri, the place where Momma was born, is not another world,” I stated matter-of-factly, the oldest and wisest, keeper of such family memorabilia. “Her sister and brother and mother live there.”

Lily folded her arms in a stubborn posture and pooched out her bottom lip. “I’m Daddy’s punkin,” she proclaimed, “An’ I ain’t gonna leave him here.”

“Daddy rides me on his horsey foot.” Phillip attempted to one-up her.

“Shut up!” Jackie cried out. “We’re gonna ride a train all the way away from Daddy. He ain’t goin’!”

I elbowed Jackie in the ribs to shut him up and tried not to think about Daddy. Still I wondered deep down inside, hoped Daddy was sober and planning to drive his truck to Missouri to meet us and make a new start.

Momma returned and announced we were all going to have something to eat in a real restaurant. The train would leave in an hour and a half so we had plenty of time. The restaurant was just outside in an old dining car. We had twenty-five cent hamburgers and nickel cokes. It was my first meal of the day. A full stomach did wonders to improve my attitude. I managed a smile and a chin tickle for Phillip and Lily.

Jackie whispered in my ear and, doing his bidding, I asked Momma if we could go have a look at the trains. “Just you two big boys,” she replied then added with a wink for her two youngest children, “Phillip and Lily and I are going to find some ice cream cones.”

“Yeah,” Phillip said importantly, “We’re havin’ ice cream. You go see the stupid trains.”

Jackie and I walked across the station to a large floor-to-ceiling window where a few adults had paused to stare through the glass. They were obviously fascinated with the view but no one, me included, felt anywhere near the elation Jackie experienced while watching trains standing and snaking slowly through the yard.

Jackie and I stood looking through the large, viewing plate glass window into another world. “That’s a passenger train; they’re for people.” Jackie pointed toward a silver tube-like affair with a large streamlined headlight on the front. “I’m gonna drive trains and tractors and big fat trucks when I grow up,” he mumbled half to himself.

I stared at the criss-cross mess of tracks, lone cars, and bib-overalled men, a gilt circus of iron tonnage and soot-grimed faces, wise clowns with toothy grins and occult knowledge of fire and steel. How will we ever come back, I wondered, as if the mode of transportation precluded the event of return and backward step. “We’re just going for a visit,” I said to Jackie in a small hopeful voice.

“I can’t believe we’re gonna ride on a train,” Jackie replied. Rapt and awestruck by the immensity of our pending trip, he refused to entertain any thought of returning.

We brothers stood shoulder to shoulder, peering through the same window. Our thoughts and emotions couldn’t have been farther apart. I was fearful of the trip, especially the obvious fact that we were leaving Daddy behind. Jackie couldn’t wait to be on the other side of the glass and boarding a train to new places away from Daddy. We were brothers born separate, forced together to survive and leaning apart at odd angles.

Momma came and gathered us up. We struggled out onto the platform with our bags of belongings. A black porter came to our rescue and helped us to our seats. I marveled at the man’s English accent, his gentlemanly ways. Though I had seen them on television, I had never met an actual person who spoke with a foreign accent. The man instructed us in the use of wood panels that dropped down so we could use them as desks to color in books he gave us along with eight crayons we got to keep for themselves. There were pictures of magnificent trains in the books and the men who worked on them along with short descriptions of what each type of car was named and what it was used for. We were in a standard passenger car, seated in a large wooden booth.

Jackie and I sat on one side of the booth, Momma, Phillip, and Lily on the other. I let Jackie have the seat by the window. Kneeling in the booth, we were tall enough to view the passing scenery. After the smokestacks and skyline of Denver, the landscape flattened out considerably. I watched faint images of grassland, an occasional copse of trees, dots I supposed were cows, through the superimposed window image of Jackie’s face. That is mainly what I saw in the glass, large brown eyes in a scrawny little boy’s old face, hungry for the going and me with knots in my stomach and the fear we would never return.

After a while, we were all busy with our coloring books and crayons. There was plenty of room in the booth, even with all four wooden trays folded down so we could color and have a place for snacks. Jackie drew a death face and a pile of bones on the front of a fierce and powerful looking locomotive. I put my hand in the pocket of my too big coat and fondled the sandwich Patty Jean had made for me, imagining my fingers touching where hers might have been then drifted off to sleep singing a little song I was making up as the train roared down the tracks. “Clickety-clack, clickety-clack, I’m goin’ down to the station, gonna catch myself that lonesome train, clickety-clack, clickety-clack.”

Lily had fallen asleep in Momma’s arms and Phillip was passed out with his head in my lap. Jackie alone kept a silent vigil, his face pressed against the window, counting stars and wondering how the train could move so fast and the sky stay still. He was half asleep, mesmerized, when Momma awoke and gently brought her brood to wakefulness. She touched our faces, one by one. “Wake up, guys; we’re almost there. Jackie, move away from that window.”

Phillip and Lily were cranky but perked up a bit when the porter reminded them they were allowed to take the color books and crayons with them when they got off the train. He carried the bags and Momma whispered to me that she should tip him but couldn’t afford to.

Never you mind, ma’am,” he said with a smile, having overhead her. He bowed graciously and left them on the platform.

There was a bus standing at the curb. Momma checked a note in her purse against the number posted on the bus, nodded at us to climb aboard. The bags weren’t any lighter but, now that each of us knew which we were responsible for, moving from here to there was easier. We climbed the four metal steps and sat on a long seat facing the aisle. In a very short time Momma pulled the cord and we climbed off the bus. We were just outside downtown Saint Louis when we landed on the sidewalk. Momma took us to a nearby park and sat on a bench with us.

“I have to go see a lady about some things,” she said wearily, “You all stay here with Tommy and behave yourselves. I won’t be long.”

I sat in the park with the little ones and Jackie, watching Momma make her way across the street. She had never appeared so small to me, so much like a little girl. There was a fine mist of rain falling. She seemed to disappear into the brick wall of the imposing building across the street. I wasn’t alarmed. My eyesight was only good to about three feet so I was accustomed to people and things disappearing into thin air.

Saint Louis appeared cleaner to me than Denver and warmer but so far I had only seen it from the park. It appeared very green, not much like winter but the fine misty rain might have fooled me. Before long, Momma returned like a happy vapor and proceeded to regale us with good news. “We have our own garden level room with a private bath and hot plate. They don’t usually accept children but are going to make an exception and give us a try for a week or so.” She favored us with her most winning and hopeful smile. “Be very quiet and respect the other guests. This is a rooming house for adults so we will be eating with them. In a few days, if everything works out, I’ll get a job and things will be better for us. We’ll get a place all our own.”

I longed to ask about Daddy but the presence of my siblings and the welt on Momma's cheek precluded any such discussion. We arose from the park bench and repeated the laborious task of transporting our meager belongings from the park to our new home. Momma was afraid. I was acutely aware of that and the fact that she was hiding behind a beautiful blustering glow. She stood tall, all five-feet-one-inch of her, and led the charge of her tiny army.

The Proprietress of the Saint Louis Arms (Mrs. Snodgrass) was a large-boned behemoth of a woman. She wore a flower-print apron over her clothes and had a fine layer of long hair on her lower face. She looked like Ma Kettle to me. She favored each of us with a fuzzy kiss which all save Lily attempted to avoid.

“Ah, boys!” she said in dismissal at our reluctance, letting Momma know it was no big deal. She knew all about kids. Lily hopped willingly into her arms and peppered her fuzzy face with little girl kisses. She immediately became the darling of the Saint Louis Arms.

That night, after settling into our comfy garden level, basement with windows room, we had the house special, Mulligan stew. There were six male adults present at dinner plus Momma and Mrs. Snodgrass. No one said anything when Jackie and I set the big slippery onion slices on our saucers and proceeded to wolf down the stew. We asked politely for and received seconds and thirds and homemade bread with grape jelly. To top all of that off there was chocolate cake for dessert. I had never eaten so much in my life. It was a wonderful experience.

~lonesome train~

After supper we went to watch Betty Boop and Gun Smoke in the Television Room with the adults. Mrs. Snodgrass gave us each a small bag of popcorn. It was just like the movies. Later I helped Momma make the couch down into a bed. I laid down with my siblings, warm and comfortable. Weary from travel, with full bellies full, we went to sleep like a pile of contented kittens.

The bathroom in the small apartment was equipped with a shower, the first I had ever seen, having been bathed all my life in a large galvanized tub. I wondered where the hot water came from. Momma had always heated it up, pan by pan, to prepare bath water for us. Here, it just came out of the faucet ready to go all by itself. Jackie and I each took showers by ourselves the next morning then presented our freshly scrubbed faces to Momma at the breakfast table. The other tenants had all gone to work so we enjoyed a meal by ourselves, except for the presence of the proprietress (a euphemism Mrs. Snodgrass had made up herself). She kept an assortment of cold cereal on hand, single servings in quaint tiny boxes. We felt like big shots as we each selected and prepared a meal of our own choosing. There was also orange juice and toast cooked in eggs, then smothered with syrup or jelly. Momma sipped her coffee and clucked over us like a happy brood hen. Mrs. Snodgrass hugged her and plucked a tear from her eye.

Mrs. Snodgrass had a big baby buggy she let us use. She called it a pram. Momma walked with us across the street to the park and I pushed Lily back and forth on the sidewalk while Jackie and Phillip slithered up and down the trees in the park pretending they were snakes. Momma went back to the room and returned later with a picnic lunch. She spread a blanket on the grass and we proceeded to have ourselves a picnic, another activity we had never enjoyed before. I wondered about Daddy constantly and enjoyed the calm serenity of a full stomach with a bit of reluctance. I felt guilty about feeling good and enjoying our activities.

The next three busy days went by in a flash. We spent very little time in our room at Saint Louis Arms. Momma took us to have dinner with Uncle Steve and Aunt Ella at his club (Aunt Ella was Momma’s sister). They had a son my age named Stevie. He was kind of prissy and I didn’t take much of a liking to him. I stayed one night at their house and decided I didn’t care much for Aunt Ella either. They had a real bath tub, with running water and everything. As with so much else in Saint Louis, I had never seen a bathtub. Before bedtime Aunt Ella ran me a bath. She laid out a set of Stevie’s pajamas for me, another first. I had never worn pajamas. I marveled at these people and their rich lifestyles. They had no idea what a privilege it was to bathe in water that didn’t have to be heated on the stove and shared with siblings.

I proceeded to bathe and when finished, as instructed, called out to Aunt Ella. I assumed she wanted to inspect my ears or make sure I cleaned up the bathtub after myself. She came bustling into the bathroom and said, “Stand up, Nephew.”

I sat tight in the tub, a funny feeling in my stomach, and snuck the wash rag over my privates. Her eyes were riveted there and I was uncomfortable under her gaze.

“Don’t do that,” she squeaked. “Now come on and stand up. I’m not going to hurt you. Little boys never wash there like they should.” She grabbed me under the arms and lifted me up. I closed his eyes tight and felt my face burn when she tore the wash rag from my hands, lathered, pushed, pulled, and tweaked. She gave my pecker an affectionate little caress. “Now that wasn’t so bad, was it? You can rinse and dry off now. Don’t worry about the mess. I’ll clean it up later.” She left and I slouched into the tub. I slid under the water, wished I could stay submerged and never have to leave the room. No one had ever touched me there before.

Aunt Ella and Uncle Steve told me I was to sleep in Stevie’s room with him. After the bath experience I figured these people were just plain weird, not to be trusted, and flatly refused. Aunt Ella gave me a pillow and blanket and pointed to the couch in the living room. “Sleep there then. We would never force you to do anything against your wishes in this house.”

I laid on the couch in the darkness when everyone had gone to bed, not afraid like at Uncle Jack’s but apart in an alien environment, separated. The night lasted a thousand years.

Momma and the kids showed up next morning with Grandma Ada (Momma's mother) and her boyfriend, Jim. Grandma Ada oohed and aahed over the big boy, me, she hadn’t seen since he was a teeny baby. She was a short woman with a big bust. She hugged me and pushed my face into her large pillowy bosom.

“Do you want to stay and play with Stevie? You two should really get to know each other.” Aunt Ella batted her skinny eyes at me.

“I’m going with Momma,” I replied without hesitation.

We stayed for a couple of days with Grandma Ada and Jim. They lived on a hill and had real chickens. These were watched over by a rooster named Red. The thing about Red was that he was bad dog mean. I didn’t know birds could be mean. This wouldn’t have mattered so much except the outhouse was situated on the far side of the back yard and located in the chicken enclosure. Red perched on the fence and made low growling noises deep in his throat. I didn’t know birds could growl either. He stood on one leg and stretch a threatening talon in my general direction then switched legs and repeated the procedure. Once I was halfway across the pen, Red launched himself from his perch and came at me like a demon possessed.

This being the case, I wound up trapped in the outhouse for three hours the final day of our stay at Grandma Ada’s. I hollered and yelled until I was hoarse but no one heard me. Every time I peeked the door open, Red screeched like a banshee and renewed his assault. I was sure I was about to be killed by this crazy chicken. Yes, I was doomed to be slain in an outhouse by a bird gone mad. I looked fearfully down the dark hole and wondered about spider creatures. If the chicken didn’t get me, they probably would.

It felt like I had been in trapped in there for a week when, with great relief, I heard Jim calling my name. Jim was a large, quiet and unassuming man, the type who can watch children from his chair and not make them nervous. I tried to yell back but my voice refused to cooperate. It was all yelled out. I resorted to desperate measures and opened the door. Red assaulted it with such fury that it slammed shut in my face.

“Hang tight, kid,” I heard Jim call out. “Let me take care of the rooster then you can come on out.”

I sat down on the toilet seat, then jumped up like my pants were on fire, all the spiders of an afternoon’s busy imagining creeping from that dank hole to bite me on the butt. I stared down, my back against the door and almost fell out when Jim opened it. He laid a reassuring hand on my shoulder. “It’s okay now. You go on inside and wash your face and hands.”

I looked around warily then made my way across the enclosure, jumping skittishly when the hens scooted out of my way.

“You chicken o’ chickens!” Jackie teased when I closed the gate. I chased him down and gave him a fair to meddlin’ noogie.

That night before dinner Grandma Ada said a short prayer. She thanked the Good Lord for her beautiful daughter and grandchildren from Colorado and for the bountiful feast they were about to enjoy. Everyone said amen and dug into an old fashioned chicken dinner.

“Momma,” Jackie raised his hand. “May I be ‘scused to go potty?”

“You should have gone before dinner,” Momma admonished, “But go on. Hurry up or your food will get cold.”

“Watch out for Red!” I blurted out, visions of the two hundred pound rooster from hell overriding my table manners.

Jim reached across the table and touched my arm. “Don’t worry boy,” he said softly, “That ornery rooster won’t be bothering anyone anymore. He’s our main dinner guest.”

I looked into George’s mellow eyes then at his big peaceful hands, finally at his own half-finished plate. Grandma Ada giggled and Momma said, “Shh,” with a nod of her head toward Phillip and Lily. I felt my gorge rising, then gulped and forced myself to swallow. Jim offered me a knowing, man to man look as he handed me a glass of orange juice. My spirit has been infused, impacted ever since by the anger of Red and the strong silent vengeance of Jim’s gentle hands.

Later that evening, after Jim drove us home, Mrs. Snodgrass brought Momma good news. She had spoken to a friend, a fellow proprietress, who owned a restaurant. The lady had offered Momma a job waitressing if she could start work tomorrow morning. Momma agreed immediately and her face was aglow with new hope. I missed Daddy terribly and, with a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach, realized a job for Momma meant we might be in Missouri to stay. I held these feelings in. Momma's face was no longer swollen. She seemed really happy. There were none of her anguished cries in the night. She looked wistful, bereft at times, but she was coping and so I must. My brothers’ and sister’s bellies were full like never before and we were around people who cared for us, hard-working people who didn’t seem to drink that much alcohol. They didn’t love Momma and me and the others like Daddy did, nobody ever could, but they knew how to take care of their own. Daddy couldn’t even take care of himself.

Just before bed an unbelievable thing occurred. Uncle Jack showed up. Momma ran and hugged him then broke away when she felt my eyes upon them. She smoothed her dress down with nervous hands. I thought about school, how on Friday afternoons there would be a fallout drill so everyone knew what to do when the Russians attacked. Children were taught to huddle under their desks with heads held between their knees. I felt like doing that now but it would do no good. The bomb had already been dropped on my life. The Russians were here and there was nowhere to hide.

“Uncle Jack is going to look in on you guys, sit with you once in a while when I’m at work,” Momma announced. “He and I are going to go out for a bite to eat right now. Tommy, you keep an eye on everyone while I’m gone. If anything happens, wake Mrs. Snodgrass.” She gave me a warm hug whose embrace I ignored. I felt as if someone had knocked the wind out of me and had nothing to hug back with. Momma held me out at arm’s length, gave me a stern look. “Behave, Tommy. Believe me, you'll understand all of this someday.” Boy, was she wrong about that.

Uncle Jack lifted Jackie from his lap where they were sitting on the couch bed. “There’s my little man,” he said in his deep man’s voice. He tickled Phillip and Lily, put his arm proprietarily around Momma, and out the door they went. I stood on the couch and peeked out the curtain. Uncle Jack embraced Momma before opening the car door. I squinted my eyes hard, the better to make out their fuzzy shapes in the dark, then closed them. Uncle Jack’s hand was on Momma’s behind. It was there and then they were gone.

I wanted to beat Jackie up because he was so happy, his mood in direct contrast to my own. The whole running-away-from-Daddy thing had just begun to make some sense to me. Momma was being brave, taking a chance for her children, leaving Daddy and his drinking behind even though they all loved him. What was Uncle Jack doing here, I wondered fearfully. What was his hand doing on Momma's butt. Lily crawled into my lap. “I tired, Tommy.”

I made the couch down into a bed and laid down with Lily in my arms. Jackie and Phillip were coloring, sitting in chairs at a small table by the bathroom door. I knew I should put them to bed but my mind refused to focus on anything but the unexpected arrival of Uncle Jack. I patted Lily’s back, my body a live wire, sick and with a deep foreboding at this unfortunate turn of events. Fear crawled into my blood. I hated myself for that. I rocked my sister back and forth and willed myself not to weep. Lily popped her thumb in her mouth and I drifted off to sleep with her.

Momma returned early the next morning and rushed in to take a shower. She came out of the bathroom already dressed and chain smoking Pall Malls. She sat down with a cup of coffee, glanced over and, noticing I was awake and watchful, motioned with her finger for me to join her. She looks happier than ever, I thought as I sat down across the table from her. But I sensed a sharp edge, a rift I could already define in genitally involved men and women. I would come to believe it involves the dynamic of compromise, when one decides to give up what they consider a lesser good for the greater condition of the whole. It usually means sacrifice and not of the one making the lofty decision, although that is not how they see it. In parent/child relationships, in my experience at the time anyway, the child was always the one called on to sacrifice or to serve as sacrifice. The mentality is one which I now lovingly if not laughingly refer to as genital intelligence.

Momma took a long drag on her Pall Mall and studied my face. The little girl woman from the park and bus rides was long gone. I needed to be Humphrey Bogart to deal with this dame. “You shouldn’t pout, Tommy,” she said softly.

“I ain’t poutin,” I replied sullenly.

“Your Uncle Jack will be around for a while. You might as well get used to the idea,” she informed me. “Don’t fight with him. I don’t know how long we’ll be here or what’s going to happen. We’ll just wait and see. I want you to be happy for me.”

“I don’t like him and he doesn’t like me,” I said flatly. “He’s a mean man.”

Momma shook her head and stood up. She mashed her cigarette out in the ashtray with a violent hectic twist. “You behave yourself. Be sure everyone is up for breakfast. I have to go to work. I’ll see you tonight.”

She bent to kiss me and I turned my head. I made a wooden post of my body, immune to her embrace, a tactic I have repeated hundreds of times throughout my life with women. She stamped her foot. “Damn it, Tommy! I understand your loyalty to your father but I just… I just want us to be happy!” She crossed the room and went out the door.

I rushed to the window and watched her hurry down the sidewalk. Smoke rose around her long chestnut hair as she made her way, the most beautiful steam engine I had ever seen. I hated myself for having refused her hugs and kisses.

“She’s a whore.” Jackie lay at my feet on the couch, a smirk on his face.

“What did you say?” I asked him.

“I said our Momma's a whore,” Jackie repeated, his face bunched up like a shriveled prune.

I fell on him and raised both fists above his head, poised to give him a good clubbing.

“Tommy, don’t you hurt my Jackie!” Lily’s voice interrupted me.

Mrs. Snodgrass knocked on the door and twittered, “Breakfast in ten minutes, kids.”

I pinched Jackie’s skinny cheeks between my fingers. “Don’t you ever call her that again!” I spat into his face. I let him up then and Jackie helped me get Phillip and Lily dressed. We went out to the breakfast room and Mrs. Snodgrass fussed over us like we were her own children. Lily sat on her lap and earned us all a chocolate pudding with her little girl kisses.

Time always passed by slow when Momma was away. The room seemed to shrink and Lily, usually an agreeable child, began to get fussy. Phillip was teasing Jackie about his freckles. I had to warn Jackie several times to keep his hands to himself and Phillip to leave Jackie alone. None of them would help me make the bed or clean the room and I didn’t feel up to fighting with them about it. They were too young anyway. I got it all done then proceeded to feel sorry for myself. I loved my brothers and Lily but sometimes wished all I had to worry about was me. These maudlin thoughts always left me with pangs of guilt.

Just before noon the door opened and I found himself face to face with Uncle Jack. “Momma isn’t here,” I said, my eyes boring into his face.

Uncle Jack’s jaw set and he took a step toward me. With a violent shake of his head, he sidestepped me and lifted Jackie from the couch. “How’s the boy?” he asked, real pleasure and concern in his voice. He surely did think the world of Jackie.

“I’m good,” replied Jackie happily.

“I’m taking you guys out for a picnic,” Uncle Jack announced. “The sun’s out and it’s too warm to be cooped up inside.”

“We don’t wanna go on a picnic,” I said as forcefully as my courage would allow. What attempted to be a brave voice came out more as a squeak. Children weren’t allowed to speak to grownups unless they were spoken to first. This was totally new territory for me but I felt like I needed to try to take charge. Uncle Jack’s head turned slowly as I continued speaking. “Momma told us to stay here and behave ourselves and that’s just what we’re gonna do.”

“I do, Tommy!” Lily interjected. “I like picnics a lot!”

“Me too!” Phillip agreed enthusiastically.

Jackie stuck out his chin: “I’m goin’ with Uncle Jack.”

Uncle Jack set Jackie down on the floor, patted him affectionately on the bottom. He knelt down on one knee in front of me, his nose a half inch away from mine. He smelled of tobacco and his eyes looked like those of an eagle I had seen in a book, feral and wild, uncompromising. “I had breakfast with your Ma at work,” he growled. “She knows all about the picnic, not that I owe you an explanation, Little Jesus.” He plinked my nose with a stiff finger. I flinched but didn’t back down. Uncle Jack shrugged his shoulders and grinned sarcastically. “Stay home if you like, that suits me fine. The rest of us are going.”

“Momma woulda told me,” I said weakly.

“Momma woulda told me,” Uncle Jack repeated in a simulated whine.

“I want Tommy!” Lily insisted, arms folded and held up high.

~after midnight~

“I ain’t goin’ ‘less Tommy goes,” Phillip agreed.

Uncle Jack glared at me. “I’ll go,” I said reluctantly, “I have to keep an eye on my brothers and Lily. But I ain’t hungry.”

Uncle Jack bumped his forehead into mine, Crack!, then jumped to his feet. He was fast and strong.

“Come on, Jackie,” he said cheerfully. “You lead the way. Tommy, grab everyone’s coats and meet us outside at the car.

I stood quiet, feet rooted to the floor. My head ached and my eyes felt like they had crossed when Uncle Jack’s head smashed into mine. They didn’t want to pop back in place. Jackie, Phillip, and Lily filed by in a blur and I choked back a sob. I refused to allow Uncle Jack’s cruelty to make me cry. Crying never did any good anyhow. I gathered the coats and once-used picnic blanket, reflecting in my young mind on how simple pleasurable events like picnics could be tainted and ruined by evil.

Uncle Jack was chatting up Mrs. Snodgrass when I passed by the Common Room. She was red faced and flustered. I could tell Uncle Jack had won her over. I went outside where Jackie had loaded Phillip and Lily into the pram. They were laughing gaily as he wiggled it back and forth, bouncing them down the sidewalk. It must be me, I thought. No one else seems to pick up on the bad waves that rolled off Uncle Jack like early morning spring fog. He hates me, I worried, I better be careful.

Uncle Jack came out of the building and loaded the pram into the trunk of his shiny car. Jackie, Phillip, and Lily sat up front. I chose to sit in the back seat by myself.

“Come on, Jackie,” Uncle Jack laughed when he got in, “You can sit on my lap and steer.”

Lily clapped her hands excitedly. “Jackie’s gonna drive!”

“Tommy drives Daddy,” Phillip sulked in a monotone, “Jackie drives Uncle Jack. Nobody drives poor ol’ Phillip.”

We went to a drive-in where Uncle Jack bought hamburgers, cokes and fries. He drove us to a different park than the one across from Saint Louis Arms to eat.

“What if Momma...” I began.

“Shut up, Little Lord Fauntleroy!” Uncle Jack ordered in a low growl. “Just eat your lunch and shut your fuckin’ mouth. If I want anything from you, I’ll just holler shit and you can slide in on the first shovel.”

I took the food from him and sat by a tree while the rest of them gathered on the blanket spread out on the grass. The smell of fresh fries reminded me I was hungry. I might have eaten in spite of Uncle Jack if I hadn’t put my hand in my coat pocket. There was Patty Jean’s sandwich and sitting a dozen steps away with Jackie on his lap was her father. This was all wrong. I closed my eyes and bit my bottom lip until I tasted the warm blood that was the bottom of me and all that mattered.

“Gimme that!” Uncle Jack kicked my foot and took the bag of food from me. He carried it over and handed it to Jackie. “Here, help yourself. It’s not good enough for His Highness.”

Jackie made short work of my lunch. It was amazing how much he could eat and still his ribs stuck out like a skeleton. Momma said he must have a tape worm. Phillip and Lily played on the swings and I closed his eyes once more, went away to that peaceful place of startlingly clear darkness. Sometime later Phillip and Lily pounced on me. I wrestled with them a bit and gave them piggyback rides around the tree.

When we returned home, Uncle Jack parked the car on the far side of the park by Saint Louis Arms. He got out and took the pram from the trunk. “Jackie,” he called, “Give your brother and sister a ride in the buggy. Tommy and I are going to have a little talk.” He looked into the back seat where I sat in silence. “Get out,” he ordered.

A klaxon warning of fear went off in my head. All my instincts told me to run but where would I go? What would I tell Momma? How would I find my way back in this strange city if I ran away? When I got out of the car Uncle Jack caught me by the shoulder. “Come along, young man,” he said firmly.

He kept a firm grip on my arm while we crossed the park and didn’t relax it until we entered the Saint Louis Arms. The usually bright and busy building was as quiet and dark as a tomb. “Mrs. Snodgrass is out grocery shopping,” Uncle Jack said in a smooth controlled voice. “We have the place all to ourselves, just right for a little man to man talk.”

I shuddered when we passed the empty Common Room then entered my family’s private quarters. Uncle Jack gave me a shove from behind when we were inside. I stumbled across the room, took a deep breath, and turned to face him.

“You should have run,” a voice screamed into my mind. I didn’t know any better then and have spent my entire life never having the good sense to just run away. “Sit down!” Uncle Jack ordered as I stumbled into the small table by the bathroom. We color here, I thought stupidly. I took a seat and stared down at my hands against the dark wood.

“By God, you look at me when I’m speaking to you!” Uncle Jack’s voice thundered from the other side of the table. I looked up and he slapped me lightly across the face. I flinched and Uncle Jack chuckled, a low menacing sound. “Scared, Little Jesus? Don’t worry, I wouldn’t mark your pretty blue-eyed face. I’m not stupid, you know.”

He stood up and paced around a bit, then leaned over me, hands palm down on the table. “Listen, I’ll make a deal with you,” he said softly. His hands clenched into hard fists until the veins stood out on his forearms. “Fuck that!” he growled savagely. “I’m gonna be with your Ma. You fuck with me anymore and I’ll rip off your fuckin’ head!”

I felt my body trembling, fear, rage, and helplessness playing an insane game of freeze tag, hide and seek, with the thundering pulse of my heart setting the tempo. Uncle Jack’s angry man fists grabbed my face. His stinking man sweat fell and ran next to my tears. I sobbed and glared defiantly into the face of my tormentor.

“Get that arrogant look off your face, you little bastard!” Uncle Jack screeched as he banged the back of my head against the wall. My eyes popped again like they had earlier in the day. I struggled to focus and stared into his glittering eyes of feral madness. “Who the fuck do you think you are?” he demanded. “Get your ass into the bathroom!” He kicked the chair from under me and I landed on my butt. I scooched backwards through the door. Uncle Jack picked up the chair and put it back by the table.

When I passed through the doorway, I realized for the first time there was no window in the small room. Uncle Jack was a large-framed man and his bulk blocked the light from the other side of the doorway. He came in and pulled the door shut then switched on the light. “Get up and take off your clothes,” he ordered, his voice once again soft and controlled.

I blinked my eyes dumbly and backed as far away as I was able in the small cramped room. Uncle Jack took a single stride forward and reached down, grabbed a fistful of my shirt, and lifted me with one hand from the floor. He held me up close, face to face, breath to breath. “I should kill you, you little prick. I tried to talk to you, Little Jesus,” he crooned, “But oh no, you insolent little bastard... oh no. I knew it would come to this.” He squeezed my face with his free hand until I thought my jaw would break. “Take off your clothes or I’ll tear off your fuckin’ skin.”

He set me down almost gently and I disrobed. My mind had already begun to disengage. There is no way out of this. It’s like when Daddy’s beating Mommy or whipping Jackie, I thought. There is only one place I can go...

“Hang your clothes over the shower curtain,” Uncle Jack ordered, “Then turn around and face the mirror. Hold onto the sink with both hands.” I did as I was told, then felt Uncle Jack’s fingers slide under the waistband of my underwear. “Forgot your undies, pretty boy!” he hissed as he jerked them down and under my feet, almost causing me to lose my balance.

Many years later, as a grown man with children of my own, the sound of belt leather sliding over cloth still fills me with anxiety. Mine is the taste of fear that rises quickly to rage; I am ready to fight for my life and kill if need be. The man, me, removes his own belt loop by loop to avoid the sound. Uncle Jack pushed his body against mine and shoved my face into the mirror. My nose flattened out; my eyelashes brushed the glass.

“I know you like to pretend you’re blind, Little Jesus. I want you to keep those eyes wide open. Watch real close while I wipe that look off your face. We’ll be together for a long time, you ‘n me. Might as well start with a clean slate. That’s why I’m taking what’s owed me.”

I’m going to die, I thought. What will he do to Phillip and Lily? He loves Jackie ... and Momma too, I guess. He probably won’t hurt them. What did the church man say? Such are the sins ...

From the other side of the wall, I heard the country western radio. I will always remember Patsy Cline singing, “I go out walkin’ after midnight out in the moonlight just hopin’ you will be somewhere out walkin’ after midnight, searchin’ for me-e-e.” Following her voice, listening to her words, helped allay my fear. Music will haunt me the rest of my life. The belt cracked across my back and I felt my knees wobble. Just as I recovered, I was lashed again and again.

“That’s for Jackie!” Uncle Jack screeched. The face, the face, the Tommy in the glass, remained the same. The blows rained down. I weathered the storm. My hands, splashed with blood, clutched the sink bowl, resolved to the pain in the mirror and the fuzzy madman behind, whipping and whipping, screaming epithets. Well I went away, not understanding, never understanding what was expected of me, to change the look on my face, the blood of my spirit, what? Tears rolled down my face but I refused to cry out. I just went away. “I got to see a weepin’ willow weepin’ on his pillow. I wonder is he weepin’ for me-e-e.”

Uncle Jack continued his onslaught. “That’s for the sugar bread, you fuckin’ thief! That’s for your face, you little fuck! You’ll eat that fuckin’ sneer before I’m through! Bleed, you little cocksucker, die!”

When it was over, cleaning the blood from the mirror, floor and walls was a mercy in itself. “You clean everything up real good, Little Jesus,” Uncle Jack ordered. He grabbed a fistful of my hair, shoved his face into mine until our noses touched. You breathe a word o’ this to anybody ‘n you’ll wish you were dead, hear me?”

He released me and slapped my face lightly, a little whipping, back and forth. “Me ‘n the kids are gonna pick your Ma up from work. You be sure this is all cleaned up when we get back.” The belt slid into the loopholes of his Levis one at a time, that sound. He winked at me, grinned with his hatchet face, chucked me under the chin then the monster left the room.

The mindless task of erasing evidence of the incident held the reality of immediate, recent, and impending terror at bay for me. I used toilet paper to wipe off the parts of my back I could reach then decided to take a shower. The welts criss-crossed each other and bled on the edges and corners where they overlapped. The water burned but that was a good feeling, a purging of the fear and pain. I felt anger return and used it to push my fear away then felt myself falling into a pit of unrequited anguish. When tears threatened I banged my head on the shower stall, using pain to push them back. Had I been broken, I wondered. I just didn’t know. If I was a man would I know? ‘What you gonna do when the shit house goes up in flames,’ I had heard one of Daddy’s whiskey bar friends say. Someone had certainly just set fire to mine.

By the time Uncle Jack returned with Momma and the kids, I was dressed and everything was cleaned up. Mrs. Snodgrass had invited Uncle Jack for supper so he joined her boarders and Momma and us kids at the dinner table, one big happy family. Jackie was peppier than I had ever seen him. Momma was aglow, huddled in the shade of her new man, the security of her job, the chance for a fresh start.

As Uncle Jack plowed through four helpings (how Mrs. Snodgrass loved a hungry man), he cast a number of sidelong glances in my direction. I ignored him and everyone else at the table, picked listlessly at my food. I felt ill in body and spirit, was unconcerned with the events of table.

“Never tell.” I felt the words on my lips, the mantra of all forever/never children. Telling only makes matters worse and hurts other people. It doesn’t help anyone or do any good. It gives adults further excuse to punish.

Momma was watching me out of the corner of her eye. She got up all of a sudden and was beside me at the table. She held her hand against my forehead. “My God, you’re burning up! I could tell you weren’t feeling well. You’re just not acting like yourself, Tommy. What’s wrong?” she cried.

Mrs. Snodgrass brought a cool wet towel from the kitchen. Both women ignored my repeated, “I’m all rights,” as the boarders hastily finished their meals and drifted warily away. I was sick all right but felt like it was mostly on the inside, past the physical, down deep where real sickness resides. I wished they would leave me be so this trouble would just go away.

“Let’s get you up and into the room where you can lay down, honey,” Momma insisted.

She scooted my chair out then stopped abruptly. Mrs. Snodgrass, in the process of cleaning off the table, stopped and with a woman’s intuition, asked, “What’s wrong, Carroll?”

“It’s blood,” Momma replied in a lost voice, “All over the back of his shirt. Tommy, what happened to you?”

I wanted to scream, Help me! But instead I mumbled, “Nothin’ Momma. Don’t worry. Leave me alone.”

“That boy ain’t right,” Mrs. Snodgrass observed as she came to join Momma.

“Take off your shirt,” Momma ordered, “Right now!” as I hesitated and stalled. She grabbed the bottom of the garment and lifted it over my head. An indefinable sound issued from her, inhuman and significant to that place of soul pain, too deep inside for bandages or the soothing balm of kind words, the plaintive wail of a mother lion over the body of her wounded and dying cub. The audio tone of her wound haunts me to this day. Her hands fluttered over my back like wisps of butterfly wings. Her keening wail subsided to a strangled whisper and she glared at Uncle Jack, “Why, you son-of-a-bitch, why?”

Uncle Jack stood up, angry and defensive. “I can explain...”

Several of the boarders had returned to the Common Room, drawn by Momma's distressed cries. Hard working men, day laborers and street toughs, their eyes settled on Uncle Jack.

“Get that man out of here,” Mrs. Snodgrass ordered tersely.

“Back off!” Uncle Jack warned as he put on his brown leather bomber jacket, “I’m leaving.” He stared at me, defeat and hate in his eyes. “You win, Little Jesus,” he said softly. “A wasted trip, I knew you’d get me.”

“No! Take me with you!” Jackie wailed plaintively when Uncle Jack headed for the door.

Jackie scrambled out of his chair and Mrs. Snodgrass snatched him up before he could run to Uncle Jack. She held him protectively against her ample bosom with one arm. She pointed to the door with the other.

“Get out and don’t you dare come back!” she said to Uncle Jack with barely controlled anger.

“I’m sorry, Jackie,” he groaned and there was true sorrow in his voice. “Back off!” he barked at the boarders who were still confused and unsure what was happening. They moved aside and he made his way through them. He looked over his shoulder at Jackie, tears in his eyes, shook his head, opened the door and was gone.

“What did he do to you?” Momma demanded of me. I refused to tell her and haven’t to this day. I’m not sure what was done to me. Beatings are beatings. They blend into one another. You put them behind you and move on. If you don’t, you get stuck. Do that a couple of times and you no longer exist.

The night slipped away. Phillip and Lily were asleep and Momma went out for a walk in the rain. I was thinking of ‘After Midnight’, wondering if Uncle Jack was out walking and what if he met Momma.

“You made him leave!” Jackie accused in the dark. “You never gave him a chance!”

“I love you, Jackie,” I sighed and as brothers we faded softly into the hard night.

Momma walked and cried herself silly in the cold Missouri rain. Raised in a Catholic Orphanage, she had begun to forget how to pray.
©2014 graphic artwork music & words
conceived by & property of
tom (WordWulf) sterner 2014©
~also available at Amazon ~


1958, Alcoholism, Art, Colorado, Denver, Family, Free, Memoirs, Missouri, Mommas Rain, Mothers, Novelist, Parenting, Philosophy, Photography, Poetry, Poverty, Saint Louis, Sons, Survival, Tom Wordwulf Sterner, Violence, Wikinut, Writer

Meet the author

author avatar WordWulf
I write novels, poetry, songs,nonsense & lies. Sometimes truth sneaks in when I ain't lookin'.

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