~momma’s rain~ ~chapter five~ ~children in a crossfire~ ~part one~ ~we were like that~

WordWulf By WordWulf, 21st Apr 2014 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
Posted in Wikinut>Family>Domestic Violence & Abuse

~I remember the poor man laughing~the fat lady singing~a blind man dancing~a one-legged woman playing violin~the kid in the tenement with the dirty eye~shot by a bb gun~pupil dripping away~good & bad~we were like that~we are like that~

~we were like that~

Summer, 1960
Denver, Colorado

The clapboard houses on the south side of West 29th Avenue sat a few yards off the street and a couple of feet lower than the sidewalk. They had been chopped up and pasted back together as a four in a row quadra-plex and were advertised as ‘Garden Level Living’. The unit at the end with strips of plywood nailed over its broken front room window was to be our new home. Peeking through the slats of Daddy’s ladder rack, it appeared to me as if our new living quarters were the business end of a shabbily kept Cyclops snake.

It never took long for us to move because we didn’t have much and, in this case, the sheriff had gathered it all and set it in a pile on the curb. Daddy was proud of the fact that he could load his family and the all of his possessions in his truck and hit the road on a moment’s notice. Daddy and Momma took Phillip and the girls into the house. Daddy was busy hooking up the radio and Momma was starting a pot of coffee. Jackie and I went to check out the dirt back yard and the alley behind the house.

We had grown up with a fairly good understanding of minorities because that is what we amounted to in the places we lived. Most of the neighborhoods of our experience were composed of Hispanic and Black people, which made us the poor white minority in a minority area. As children we weren’t conscious of this, of course. The everyday breath of our lives demanded an awareness of necessities such as foraging for food and knowing when to keep our mouths shut. The answer to both those questions of survival was the same. Always eat when you can and keep your mouth shut unless you’re spoken to. Everything else, elections, holidays, murders and parades, occurred in a foggy space just outside our day-to-day existence. Survival begins at home.

“Look at ‘em,” Jackie said, gesturing to the yard full of brown children. “They hate us.”

I buddy-punched him on his scrawny shoulder. “They don’t even know us, Jackie.”

“Oh yeah, they know us,” he insisted.

His statement spooked me a bit. It felt like just as Jackie said it, a yard full of dark brown eyes took us in, standing as we were on the back step of our unit, new boys to the neighborhood, white boys at that. I took a deep breath and walked out into the yard. The only thing there, besides the kids, was an empty clothesline and an old incinerator. The incinerator belched a pale cloud of smoke, filled the air with that acrid “I’m wet but I wanna get started again” fire smell. The alley was filthy. Winds and time had pasted trash to the bottoms of the fences separating each tiny square of four-plex yards. The construction redo hadn’t reached the alley and backsides of the development. Interstate 25 was just around the corner. Speer Boulevard intersected 29th Avenue and ramped onto the interstate a half mile away.

Two of the brown boys moved closer to Jackie. He had remained behind on the step and was now glaring across the yard at me. Jackie reached out and pushed the larger of the two, who was bigger than him and me both.

“Hey!” the boy exclaimed and returned Jackie’s push with a little shove of his own.

I ducked under the clothesline and insinuated myself between them. I managed to do this without touching either one of them.

“We gotta go in now,” I said to Jackie as I stepped past and pulled him in through the back door of our new home.

Momma and Daddy had been sullen and were ignoring each other while they gathered their belongings and children from the curb in front of the house on Garfield Street. Now they were sitting at the kitchen table drinking coffee and smoking Pall Malls. I had stood witness to this all my life. Just when I thought everything had reached a point of no return, they’d start getting along and behave as if nothing had happened. So I was relieved at once and on guard lest this be one of their short-lived fluffy moments.

Daddy rose from the table and ruffled my hair. “All right you guys, let’s get that truck unloaded!”

The brown kids ran off at the sight of an adult and Daddy backed the truck right through the yard up to the back door. He was a good backer upper. I grabbed an armful of clothes, all I could carry. I hoped the wind and weather had blown all the bugs away. “You better carry something,” I said to Jackie.

“Not yet,” Jackie argued. “What if I grab the wrong stuff? Better wait ‘til Daddy tells me what he wants me to do.”

I shook my head and went into the house. Jackie was standing on the step, looking into the back of the truck when Daddy came around. He plinked Jackie on the head with his finger. “Don’t stand there like a dumb shit! Grab something and carry it in like your brother. You’re the laziest assed kid I’ve ever seen!”

We got the truck unloaded quickly then Momma took us on a tour of the house. There were two bedrooms, which meant us kids would have our own room. That was a real plus in my opinion. It meant privacy and, ultimately, somewhere to escape to when my parents were fighting. The kitchen was big and the bathroom was right off it, between the two bedrooms. There was even a bathtub! The front room was large and the people who lived there before had left a big ol’ TV set behind. It was as wide as a refrigerator, twice as heavy, and almost as tall. Daddy was handy and, if he could get it tuned in and stay sober, everyone could eat popcorn and watch ‘The Rifleman’ and ‘Have Gun, Will Travel’.

There was a huge heating stove set in the open arch between the front room and kitchen. It was painted brown but was all black in front, like someone had set fire to it or maybe it had blown up.

“Don’t touch that!” Momma warned all of us. She turned her attention specifically to the little ones, Phillip, Lily, and Linda. “Hot!” she said, meaningfully, “Don’t touch! No-no!” They looked at her like she was crazy and put their hands behind their backs.

The bedroom for us kids already had a mattress in it, another gift from the former tenants. It was a big thing and, lacking framework, was planted in the middle of the linoleum covered floor. Momma pinched Linda’s cheek affectionately.

“You can’t fall off of that, Sweety.”

Linda hopped into Momma's arms and smooched her on the cheek. Daddy prodded Jackie with a stiff finger.

“Why don’t you go in and straighten the living room while Tommy and I see if we can get that stove in the kitchen fired up and make some popcorn?”

Jackie went to do as he was told and I followed Daddy into the kitchen, ready to help with the task at hand. Daddy squeezed my arm.

“Well, Son, do you know where the lard and popcorn are in this mess?”

“They’re in that box with the commodity stuff,” I replied as I began to dig through a box by the kitchen cupboards. “Here they are!”

Daddy had located a frying pan and lid and was striking his lighter in an attempt to light the kitchen stove. He finally found a book of matches and lit the pilot light. Two of the four burners would ignite when he turned their knobs but the other two wouldn’t take fire from the pilot light.

“Careful with this kitchen stove!” Daddy called out to Momma. “Two of the burners don’t light with the pilot and that could be dangerous if you forget and leave them on.”

I turned my head and squinted my eyes, wondering where Momma had got off to.

Daddy clapped his hands and said, “Gimme some grease!” I found an old fork and Daddy scooped some lard into the pan then poured in some popcorn. His hands were shaking and the blue was bright in his bloodshot eyes. “Take ‘er over,” he said to me, “Shake it when it starts to pop. Grab ‘er with a rag so you don’t burn your hands when it starts poppin’. You know the drill. I’ll go and see if I can rustle up some salt and a paper bag to put the popcorn in.”

So here we are, I mused while I shook the pan back and forth over the fire, moved into the street by the sheriff in the morning and enjoying one of those rare and perfect evenings the same day. When the popcorn was done, we all piled into our new living room. Momma hung a heavy blanket over the window so the light between the cracks and joints in the plywood couldn’t get in.

“Remind me to take this down and use it for the kids when we put them to bed,” she said to Daddy. “We’ll put that old blanket your Ma gave us to some good use day and night.”

Daddy got the TV going by taking the back panel off and pulling the tubes out one by one. He cleaned them with a damp rag and put them back in. It sputtered a bit and took a long time to warm up but he had electronic snow and that hissing sound pretty quick, pretty damned quick in his estimation. He tuned it in by using the foil from the package of Pall Malls in his pocket and a couple of clothes hangers hooked to the ends of the rabbit ears. He sat down and put an arm around Momma. She was holding Linda in her lap and patting Cheryl’s back with her foot. Jackie and I had carried Cheryl’s dresser drawer baby bed in. She was laying in it on her stomach, making cooing sounds. The first program we saw was a half hour installment of “The Three Stooges.” Daddy wasn’t excited about that. He preferred westerns but Curly, Moe, and Larry were the only thing on. Jackie and I couldn’t believe our good luck.

There was some tension when it was time for Momma to make dinner. Daddy wanted spaghetti and there wasn’t any hamburger. Momma told him not to worry, that she had a can of commodity meat left. Daddy thought she meant Spam and that made him angry. But she had a can of the roast beef type of commodity meat and, even though it isn’t made for spaghetti, it tasted pretty good. Daddy pouted a bit but Momma surprised him with some chicken gizzards she found in the fridge. He was happy after that and munched gizzards while watching “Wanted Dead or Alive” with Steve McQueen.

Us kids got to stay up until nine o’clock (eight o’ clock was our usual bedtime). When we did go to bed, we were arranged in a system of short legs to long legs. Phillip and Lily slept at one end and Jackie and I at the other. Linda slept wherever she wanted, which was usually with Momma and Daddy. Cheryl was the only one who slept by herself because no one else would fit in the drawer.

We were all het up that night, what with getting moved out by the sheriff then moving into a brand new place with a TV and all. Phillip got things started once we were sent to bed by tickling Jackie’s toes. Jackie giggled a bit at first then told Phillip to leave his toes alone. I ordered them both to be quiet and stop bouncing around so Lily and I could go to sleep. Jackie rose up in bed and yelled at Phillip to stop it just as Daddy poked his head into the room.

“I should have known it was you!” he said as he bent over and slapped Jackie openhanded on top of his head. “If I hear so much as a peep out of any of you guys,” he warned, “I’m gonna come back in here and give all three of you boys a good spanking!”

Just as he turned to leave, Phillip said, “Peep”.

Daddy turned around and looked me in the eye. “Who said that, Tommy?”

I put on my best ‘What are you talking about’ face and shrugged my shoulders.

Daddy smacked Jackie again and poked me in the chest with a stiff finger. “You had better stop covering for him. You aren’t doing him or yourself any favors.”

When Daddy left, Jackie whispered to me, “I’m gonna kill Phillip.”

The answer on the tip of my tongue was, ‘Wait ‘til we get him alone and I’ll help ya!” What I actually said was, “Shut up, Jackie! It ain’t Phillip’s fault you’re always in trouble.”

“Soon as Uncle Jack gets rid o’ Aunt Pat he’s gonna come and get me,” was Jackie’s retort.

The next morning Daddy told me to hurry and eat my oatmeal (I hate oatmeal, always have). He informed me that Momma would fix me a sandwich because I was going to work with him. I had been keeping him company and helping on roofs since I was four years old.

“You only have a couple of months until you start school,” Daddy reminded me. “Who knows? You might even earn a couple o’ bucks.”

The roof Daddy was finishing up was a three story steep in old East Denver where rich people lived. My main job would be picking up shingle scraps from the ground all around the house in the yard. First thing, though, Daddy had to shingle a little cupola on the front of the house. He had a lot of fun teaching me that word then told me I could just call it a dinger, which was anything that was hard to reach or difficult to cut around.

My immediate task was to get a few shingles at a time from the garage where they were stored then climb the ladder and hand them to Daddy one at a time while he spider-crawled around the dinger and gave it a new roof.

On one of my trips into the garage for shingles, I noticed a cardboard flap taped to the home owner’s vertical tool board. In bold black letters it said: OPEN IN CASE OF FIRE. I was fascinated by and deathly afraid of fire, interested in any new information concerning it that I might glean in my boyhood travels. To tell the truth, I was just plain ten-year-old boy curious about what was printed under that flap.

The problem I faced was this: the number one rule when working on people’s homes was NEVER touch their personal property. I made a couple more trips and tried some tricks, like fanning the thing by opening and closing the door rapidly. Finally, my curiosity got the best of me. I was fairly sure the people weren’t home and had just delivered six shingles to Daddy. I flipped the flap up with my thumb and read what was printed underneath: NOT NOW STUPID ... IN CASE OF FIRE!!!

I began laughing deep in my belly, turned red from the giggles. I was laughing so hard I was afraid someone would hear me and find out I’d been snooping. This thought brought on the guilt. I felt the tops of my ears burning, took a deep breath. I composed myself, grabbed a handful of shingles, and headed for the ladder. Halfway up, I got to thinking about the sign, lost my concentration, and began to giggle again.

The ladder was extended out to its full twenty-eight feet and had quite a bow to it. I lost my equilibrium, clamped the shingles between my body and the ladder then threw my arms around the side rails. The ladder flipped over and I found myself hanging off the side toward the house. I was so scared I forgot all about the fire warning sign.

“Tommy, are you all right?” Daddy called down. He couldn’t see me because I was on the inside of the ladder.

“I’m stuck!” I replied, in a fearful squeaky voice, “The ladder flipped.”

Daddy’s head peeked past the gutter above me and he called down, “Hold on tight. I’m gonna push the ladder out from the gutter and walk it around from up here. Don’t try to save those shingles, just let ‘em fall to the ground.”

Letting go of the shingles made it much easier to hold on to the swaying ladder. As they fell into a pile on the ground, I thought, ‘I sure hope we have extras’. Daddy’s voice interrupted my thoughts.

“Tommy, when you feel me twist the ladder, just lean your weight that way. The ladder should flop back on its own. All you have to do is hold on tight and go with it. Whatever you do, don’t let go. Ready? Here we go!”

I hung on tight and did as I was told. The ladder yawed for a moment, then flip! And I was on the outside where I belonged.

“Go on down now,” Daddy said, relief evident in his voice.

I climbed down and began picking up the pile of messed up shingles I had dropped.

“Leave ‘em,” Daddy said, “Come on over and sit in the shade with me for a minute.”

For once I would much rather be cleaning up messes. I went over and sat next to Daddy. I was in for it now.

“What the hell was that all about?” Daddy asked, “Were you trying to carry too much? You know what I’ve always told you about that. Never lift more than you can handle.”

I shook my head and stood up. I was unable to hold back my mirth and the smile on my face as I gestured for Daddy to follow me.

“What the hell?” Daddy repeated as he rounded the corner behind me and entered the garage. I went and sat on the pile of new shingles stacked in the garage and pointed at the sign hanging over the work bench. Daddy lifted the flap and started chuckling. By the time he made his way to the stack of shingles, he was laughing so hard he missed them when he went to sit down and landed on his butt on the concrete. Our giggling stopped for a split second then we both lost it. It stands as one of the best laughing fits I have ever had.

Inquiries: wordwulf@gmail.com
©2014 graphic artwork music & words
conceived by & property of
tom (WordWulf) sterner 2014©

~chapter one~
~chapter two~
~chapter three~
~chapter four~
~I’m Bound to Ride Again~ 141


1958, 1959, Alcoholism, Art, Colorado, Denver, Family, Free, Memoirs, Missouri, Mommas Rain, Money, Mothers, Novelist, Parenting, Philosophy, Photography, Poetry, Poverty, Religion, 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'.

Share this page

moderator Mark Gordon Brown moderated this page.
If you have any complaints about this content, please let us know


Add a comment
Can't login?