I asked Mom once how she met my dad. I don’t know why. Maybe I needed to know what my folks were like when they were younger, a bit more real. Maybe I needed to know there was love there once. Love like the kind you read about in books, see in the movies. I should have known better, but I asked anyway.
She was twenty-nine years old, tending tables out at this place in Steven’s Pass, Washington called The Squirrel’s Hole. Already, she was the mother of six: three dead, two girls and a boy.
Dad was short, bald and forty. Mom said he acted like the only reason he didn’t tear the sky down was because he didn’t want to. “But he was charming too,” she said. “You had to like him. You couldn’t help it.”
They spoke of things, of kids and infidelities; they smoked their cigarettes and drank their drinks. One day Dad asked Mom out for a ride in the mountains.
When I think about it, I can see them riding in Dad’s blue and white Plymouth, blowing smoke through the windows, watching the trees blur past. They came to a place up in the Cascades. Snow hung from the ridgeline and trees. Evergreens added depth to the glare. Gnarled oaks and bone-white, tiger striped birches pulled the wind from the sky, held it for spring.
They stopped and he kissed her and it was nice because she liked the feel of his whiskers against her neck, his business man hands, soft on the ribs, cupping a breast but she was the mother of six and he was forty, with kids of his own. It was 1969 and the middle of Little America. He wouldn’t stop. He wouldn’t stop and she hit him. He hit back. When he was done he helped Mom get dressed and drove her home. He walked her to the door and kissed her good night. A couple of days later, he came into The Squirrel’s Hole with some roses, said he was sorry. Would she forgive him? Mom took the roses, figured she earned them, and hid in the kitchen. She had nothing to say.
When he found out that Mom was pregnant, Dad offered to marry her, but Mom wouldn’t have him on a bet.
Done with Dad for the time being, Mom married her first husband’s brother. He was a Navy man and Mom followed him to Okinawa after I was born.
The earliest picture I’ve seen of myself is the passport Mom got for us. I was only a baby, smaller than I ever remember being. There was a certain sadness, a wariness, an expectation of failure under the blank looks and tentative smiles.
I guess we spent near a year in Okinawa, because Mom’s husband abandoned us. Mom worked and got us all back to the States. Somehow, she tracked her husband down and had his girlfriend baby-sit while they went off to sign the divorce papers.
Mom said that Dad found us in Wenatchee, walking on the sidewalk. She said he stopped his car in the middle of the street. He ran through traffic and grabbed me. It scared the hell out of her. She said he cried and everything. I didn’t believe her. Dad never cried.
One of my sisters told me that Dad was fun at first, that he’d get down on the floor and play. He wrestled and tickled and laughed. Sometimes he would take the whole family out to the lakes and picnic in the shade, letting us swim while he and Mom sat together in the rocky sand watching.
But then he took to his fists.
I don’t remember much about my folks being married. What I do remember is the noise, the sound of flesh on flesh, of bruises rising, of bones breaking. Violence is its own language, vague and confusing, but a language all the same. Just because I hit you, does not necessarily mean I don’t like you, that I don’t love you. Screaming does not mean that I don’t want you around.
It was the middle of the night. I sat on the stairs in the darkness made dim from the lamp in the living room. Dad sat in his chair by the front door reading a book when Mom walked out of the bedroom, stark naked.
“You coming to bed?” she asked.
“I’m not tired,” said Dad.
“It’s late,” said Mom.
“I’m a grown man, Nadine,” he said.
He shut his book.
“I was just saying,” she said.
“You’re always just saying.”
He grabbed her wrist; he snapped her around and out the front door and locked it behind her. Mom pounded the door, yelling and screaming. Dad just sat in his chair again, reading his book, acting like nothing was happening at all. He was good at that, acting like he was the only one in the room. It was like none of us really existed unless he decided we did.
“Let me in,” Mom yelled through the door. “The cops are going to come. There’s going to be trouble.”
After what seemed like forever, Dad reached out and unlocked the door without ever getting out of his chair, or even taking his eyes off his book. It was like he was trying to teach Mom something. He trained his dogs with the same smug detachment. Mom came in slowly. She walked past Dad and slammed the book right in his face. It was just smack and on she went.
Blood splattered all over the book and the front of Dad’s shirt. Moving so fast I could barely watch him, Dad jumped up out of his chair and threw the book. It flew flat, like a Frisbee and caught Mom in the back of the head. She fell against the wall, but she couldn’t catch herself and ended up with her face pressed down into the corner on the floor.
Dad charged her, spit and blood swinging in a long, thin line from his chin, the coffee table held up over his shoulder. Animal noises rolled off him and he swung the table like it was a stick. The first blow landed across Mom’s shoulders and the back of her head. Again and there was blood. I remember thinking that she was dead and still I couldn’t even twitch. Dad sucked all the movement out of the room and made it all his own.
He swung again, but this time he hit the wall. The table exploded into splinters and chunks. Dropping the shattered legs, he stood there panting and staring down at Mom for a second. Kneeling down beside her, he laid his hand on her shoulder, gently, as if he was afraid of hurting her. He called her name a few times, but Mom didn’t move.
“Baby,” Dad called. “Come on, baby.”
He lay down on the floor next to her, stroking her hair for a long time before she finally groaned and started fighting again. Dad just pulled her up and hugged her like she was a kid.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
They were still sitting there like that, Mom moaning and crying, and Dad saying he was sorry when I went back up to bed. Next morning, both Dad and Mom slept in. Most of the blood had been washed up and the table pieces were all gone, but there was a big hole in the wall and little red spots along the floor if you got close and looked real hard.
I asked Mom why she went back, why she stayed. She kind of smiled and rubbed at her lips for a second. “I loved him, Bill,” she said. “I guess I still do, for all that he’s a shithead.”
It’s not that my father was a monster. He wasn’t even an interesting man. He was a shit head and a saint, a hero, a coward and a drunk. He was a scholar, a soldier and a singer too. He was my father. I believed that every dad did the things he did, that every word he said came from the mouths of every man with sons.
When he was drinking, he told stories of mud and diarrhea and finding guys weeks dead in the jungle, bloated until their skins split and their innards spilled out on the ground for the ants and the monkeys to eat. Someone put him up for a Bronze Star. He told me that the only regret he had about the Army was having to remember crawling out of someplace in Korea and finding a grove of trees with babies nailed to the trunks with old bayonets.
Sometimes, you could see the rage coming in his eyes, the way he stood, how he yelled. Sometimes, it just came down out of the sky, took you right off your feet. All you could do was hold your head, wonder what happened, when it would stop.
The snow was melting but it’s cold and blue. High clouds stretched across the sky, frayed threads. Hard winds grabbed my face and rubbed it raw along the jaw and nose; it ran away with my breath. My feet sank into the playground. Mud pushed up through the snow in sticky brown patches that coated my shoes and dried on my jeans, a hard crust, peeling off in chunks and clumps. I tried to slide on the packed sidewalk snow a couple of times, but the concrete stuck out in too many places. It grabbed my feet and tripped me up. I didn’t fall, but I dropped my books once. Wet spots soaked through the cover of one and ruined the first couple of pages.
Dad was home when I came in, leaning forward in his chair, elbows on his knees. He scrubbed at his face with his hands like he was too tired or something. He lit a cigarette and watched the news. He didn’t say anything but I could see the rage there waiting to burst out. I didn’t know what was wrong or if he was going to do anything. Still, it was best to keep one eye on him and wait. For a long time he just sat and smoked and stared at the television.
My brothers were in the bedroom, bitching back and forth. Mom had told them to clean and they didn’t like it. Frank stomped and snorted through his nose. He sat on the floor with his arms crossed. Benny started to yell because Frank wouldn’t work. They didn’t know that Dad was home. I tried to tell them, but they didn’t listen, so I went back out to the living room and waited.
It only took a second. I didn’t even watch when Dad came up out of his chair and started for the room with long, hard steps. Mom followed him, called his name. The doorknob made a hole in the plaster wall when he blasted it open with the palm of his hand. The crack of his voice echoed a bit, tinny, rattled the posters taped to the walls.
Dad’s voice snapped. He said my brothers had best knock the whining off.
“Bunch of fucking ingrates,” he said. Mom starts to say something. Stops. Starts again. Changes her mind and stands there looking worried.
Frank started to say something but Dad wouldn’t listen. Frank whined. Whining really pissed Dad off.
“Ben,” Mom said. Dad grabbed Frank’s shoulders and jerked him upright, slamming him down on his feet. Frank stumbled a bit. Dad said Frank had best plant his fucking feet and listen.
“Do you have a problem?” Dad was right in Frank’s face, one finger stabbing right at his eyes. Frank was scared now and started to cry. Dad threw his arms up. “What’re you crying for?” Dad said. “No one’s hurting you.”
Benny tried to say he’ll clean the room, that he’ll do it alone. Dad kept going after Frank and Mom flinched, but she didn’t do anything
“Jesus Christ!” said Dad.
It was quiet for a second, the scary quiet of Dad thinking of reasons to keep his fists to himself, but then he said the boys had ten minutes.
Mom said Dad’s name again. Dad got right in her face and screamed: “TEN MINUTES!” He said.
The skin over Mom’s knuckles goes white and she backs up against the wall. Dad grabbed her by the elbow and walked her to the kitchen, told her to leave good enough alone, told her she needed to finish supper.
So Mom went back to work on dinner. She slammed knives around and slopped the water from the sink on the counter when she washed the carrots. After a bit, Dad came in and asked her what her problem was. Mom told him to go to hell.
She didn’t see him coming. She skinned carrots and potatoes like she didn’t know what Dad was going to do. Dad grabbed her shoulder and spun her around with one hand. He backhanded her with the other. Just once. But Mom’s head snapped hard about. It sounded like wood cracking.
Blood and snot ran down from Mom’s chin; a thin line hung to her chest and spread in a glossy spot clear down to her belly. One eye swelled to a black and purple slit. Part of her teeth flew out to the floor by the coffee table, the plastic cracked and shiny with spit. It ruined her face, made her mouth a raw puncture wound.
Dad stomped and snarled. He yelled through his teeth and threw things. His arms flew in pinwheels. He broke a lamp by the door. The bulb popped and flashed and no one noticed. Mom followed Dad around, pecked at him; she pinched pieces of his shirt with her fingertips.
“Stop,” she said. “Please stop.”
All I could do was stand there. It all went too fast. There was nothing I could do. I didn’t even notice when the tears started or when my sister came out of her room and grabbed my arm. She pulled me across the room and pushed me out to stand on the front porch. Now she went back to get the boys. They were in their room. She brought them out, held on to their arms so tight she left bruises around their wrists.
Somehow Mom’s fingers got hold of Dad’s shirtsleeve. He twisted and swung. Mom took it right in the chest, a hollow sound. I could nearly hear the bruise rising.
My sister jumped on Dad’s back, but it didn’t do any good. It just pissed him off. He reached back over his shoulder and tossed her through the air right into the coffee table.
After that, everything kind of petered out. Dad settled down and Mom came to the door and held it open for us. She said we need to go to our room, that dinner would be ready soon. I asked if she was okay. She patted my head and said to stay in our room until she came for us. I didn’t want to, but I went. Sometimes, the best you could do was nothing.
Every morning of every day, for every year I remembered knowing my dad, he got up; he shit; he showered; he shaved. He sat at the kitchen table reading the newspaper with his coffee, smoking his Lucky Strikes. He worked hard. At lunch, he took work with him to the bar, worked over his drinks. When he ran out of work, he came home and sat in front of the television watching the news: JimmyCarter running against GeraldFord.
“Fucking Democrats.” Dad said.
Come suppertime, Mom did the cooking. Benny and I were too little to work with heat, but we set the table. And then we ate. Dad talked of work or politics or asked about school. Benny and I sometimes kicked at each other under the table and made up new words for the food, called the sugar booger and laughed until Dad snapped at us about being uncouth and made us leave the table. Food was a privilege.
“Not for savages,” Dad said.
Sometimes Dad would come in and sing songs to my brothers and me while we lay in bed. He sang songs like “Blow the Man Down,” “DannyBoy” and “Darlin’ Billy.” I always thought Dad made that song just for me. Sometimes he told us stories. He told us once about how the Indians were chasing him and his brother; to get away they dug the entire ColumbiaRiver Basin. They peed in it to get the river going.
I believed him. I was only a kid.