The back door slammed as I finished my homework. Howie’s home. “Here we go again,” I thought, stuffing my books and notebook into my backpack, I knew better than to even venture out of my room. After putting my books in my bag, I grabbed my flashlight, backpack and Walkman then shoved it all in the closet, preparing for a long night ahead.
Of course, as luck would have it, I had to pee. I quietly stepped out and slowly opened the door, hoping he couldn’t hear the creaking hinge for their yelling in the kitchen. With my heart pounding against my ribs, I swore he could hear me, but I moved as quietly as possible towards the bathroom door, careful of where I stepped on the old creaky floorboards that always tattled on me. If I could just get to and from the bathroom without him seeing me, I’d be okay.
“I told you before, I don’t like this crap,” he hollered from the kitchen. “Why in the hell do you buy shit I don’t want to eat? As if you don’t know any better?”
I unzipped my pants and sat on the toilet, hoping to pee fast before he realized I was home. “5-4-3-2-1,” was the countdown in my head as they argued. Whack! Thud! He knocked her down onto the kitchen floor. My heart was in my throat. You’d think after all these years I would have been used to it, but I could never get used to what he did to either of us. Not bothering to flush the toilet, I zipped up and rushed out, hoping to get to my closet in time. I was only a step away from my bedroom door when he saw me.
“Get over here,” he growled, making me stop in my tracks. I knew that I had to either make a break for the closet and get behind its locked door before he caught me or not move at all. Not certain if I had a chance tonight, I kept my ground.
My legs trembled as I turned and fearfully moved towards him, wary of my distance if I was far enough away to prevent his hand from cracking me against the face or grabbing up a fistful of my long hair. We never had money to get me a haircut.
“What is that fucking mess out in the kitchen?” he asked, as his yellowed face scowled. Howie’s bushy unkempt eyebrows came close to the grimy gray hair that fell into his face because Ethel didn’t cut it right the last time.
“Um, I did the dishes, but I’ll clean it again if you want me to.”
“Damn straight I want you to. Get on with it.”
As I walked past him, his filthy large hand reached out for my hair at the nape of my neck, grabbing me and yanking my back against his front. He craned my neck back so that he could see into my eyes and his yellowed teeth and beer and cigarette laden breath assaulted me with the spittle that landed on my cheek when he barked at me.
“Get it done then get your shower. I don’t want any excuses out of you tonight.”
He tossed me away and let go of my hair at the last moment, pulling some strands out with it.
Ethel stood at the sink, pouring herself some Wild Irish Rose in a jelly glass. I found the frozen pizza mess that she made, and I got to clean up. He hates that crap, and she knows better. She lit a cigarette, and I wanted a drag off it, but I didn’t dare. It was better they didn’t know that I stole cigarettes from their cartons. Ethel’s Kools I could handle all right, but Howie’s Camels made me want to barf. When I’m desperate, I’ll steal one of his and spend the next day coughing. I washed the dishes in the sink, stained brown from the rust in the water. Howie would never fix anything and the hot water heater made the water brown. No clothes ever stayed white or bright in our house; everything was stained like someone opened the washer lid and poured in a pot of coffee.
As I cleaned the counters and listened to her diatribe, Ethel said nothing of consequence to me as she waved the cigarette around, getting dramatic, which would only lead to the two of us getting beat tonight. Her long hair, tied back in a ponytail at her necks’ nape, hung in grimy lengths peppered with gray in its dull brown, except on the top where it was darker from the oil. She didn’t bother to wash it but once a week. Its tips brushed across the worn seat of her baggy jeans that made her pear-shaped body appear even wider. As she leaned against the counter her gut protruded farther out than usual, making me think that old Ethel’s liver must have been acting up from her latest bender.
“Your father thinks I should spend all day doing for him. Who in the hell do you think you are, hiding away in your room when there are chores to be done?”
Without arguing with her, I thought to myself, ‘I did three loads of laundry, I washed the carpeting in the bathroom from where you puked this morning, and I did the dishes. What more do I have to do?’
Ethel continued bitching at me. I was used to it and let it go in one ear and out the other because she wasn’t worth my time or effort. It didn’t matter to her that I was her daughter. Ethel never protected me from him. She could pretend that she didn’t know what Howie had done to me every night since Billy left home, but truth be told, she didn’t want to do a thing about what he did to me. I tap-danced around him when he got into his vile moods and challenged hers for entertainment, I told myself. It wasn’t as if I was exactly popular and had friends to hang out with. Life was just easier alone than to share my secrets with anyone. Not like anyone cared.
As she took another draught off the cigarette that I still longed for a drag from, Ethel said, “I want the dusting done before you go to bed tonight.”
By forcing me to dust the furniture before bed, I knew that I was just elected to be their referee, and I would have to stay out there to watch their battle and deal with Howie when he got out of hand. Even though I referee, I couldn’t end the fight with the count of ten or the blow of a whistle. No, I became their punching bag when they had enough of hitting each other. Occasionally substituted for a medicine ball, I could be tossed about from parent to parent, maliciously thrown as a weapon to injure the other with no concern for the ball itself if I remained in the room. With the dust cloth and spray in hand, I got right to work, wiping down what little furniture we had left. Mostly from the Salvation Army or whatever people had thrown out to the road, it either stank of booze, cigarettes, dog piss or was covered in cigarette burns and beer bottle rings. As I dried off my hands and reached for the generic dusting spray from beneath the moldy sink, I listened to the two of them fight over the television, the newspaper, and how many beers he had since he walked through the door. With a piece of Howie’s threadbare wife-beater T-shirt in hand, I entered the living room, knowing that although I wasn’t involved in this squabble, I was still subject to quiz and failure to provide the correct answers could get me another beating.
Before I could even spray the coffee table top, Howie ordered, “Get me a beer, girl.”
Without a word, I left the room, and before my hand could even warm the cool neck of the bottle, I twisted the top off the beer and brought it to him. That flamed the fire as the two started in on it right then and there.
“See? Even the girl knows how not to get beat. You ought to learn from her since your sorry ass can’t seem to figure that out.” As fast as I could, I sprayed and wiped the coffee table, the television stand and the end table near Howie’s broken recliner that didn’t even lift up completely anymore.
Within minutes, they went from sitting in front of the television watching a rerun of Cheers to blows and swearing. It was my fault for fetching him the beer.
Ethel grabbed me after he hit her the first time, and then it was my turn to take it. Take it, just take it, and don’t fight her. When she tosses you down, run, run, run. She shook me, grabbed my hair and yanked hard on it.
“Who in the fuck do you think you are? What are you, his whore?”
“No, Mama, no,” I pleaded as I tried to break free from her.
“Get out of my sight. I don’t want to see your ugly face until tomorrow,” she said, tossing me down onto the floor. I fell hard, hitting my knee on the cast iron heating grate on the floor. The ripped skin leaked blood through the new hole in the knees of my jeans. As fast as I could, I rushed to my room and got into my closet, locking the door from the inside. I reached for the flashlight that I hid under the pillow in the back of the closet and shined the light on my knee. Infuriated that it had ripped a hole in my last pair of jeans that didn’t have a hole in them, I held a Kleenex on my wound and felt the closet shake and heard even more sheetrock fall between the slats of the walls as he threw her against the living room wall.
Every night there came a time when no matter what I did, it was pointless to protect her. Besides, what was the use? She didn’t care what he did to me, so why should I care what he did to her? I had no choice but to protect myself, because contrary to their beliefs, I did matter. I reached for my Walkman, put the headphones over my ears, and pressed play. Just press play and shut them out. The opening chords to “Sound Off,” Heartbeat’s first album, rang in my ears, but I could still hear them on the other side of the door. Blasting the volume all the way up to ten, I shut off the flashlight and pressed my eyes tighter together as I attempted to shut out the rest of my world. I’d sleep in my jeans that night, with the tape blaring in my ears; locked in the closet with the music blocking out the reality. On the other side of that door was the only way I ever slept safely or soundly if at all.
A couple hours later, after I had flipped the tape over three times, I heard them go at it as the lead-in to the tape muddled by, then the opening chords blared into my ears at full blast. The music and the darkness shut them out of my temporary reprieve from reality.
I knew every beat, chord, lyric, and rest of every song. My ears anticipated when Alex Corwynn took a breath between lines of the verses; I knew the chords Paul Lenci played on the keyboard and when they were mixed; I knew when Mitch Miller would play a riff and could always hear Andy Blake’s bass round out the sound as Nick Grant’s drums kept the beat.
Heartbeat was my favorite band, and any time I had babysitting money it went to a new magazine or a Heartbeat single or tape. My Heartbeat tapes, my Walkman and anything else I cherished, I kept in my backpack, knowing better than to leave them at the house while I was at school. My hands knew how to flip the tape and press play without waking me as my subconscious alerted them to do it. Howie’s pounding on the closet door was the only thing that woke me that night. I shut off the tape and shoved the Walkman and headphones deep into my backpack, concealing my treasures with the pillow so Howie wouldn’t find and destroy them again.
“Girl, you get your sorry ass out here, right now!”
“Go away, Howie!”
“I said, get out here.”
“No, go away.”
“You either get your ass out here, or I’m getting the ax and tearing this door down then shredding you with it.”
He would too. Quickly, I unlocked the door and opened it. His grimy work shirt was off and he wore a tan stained undershirt half-tucked in the trousers that stank of grease, whiskey, beer, and God only know what else.
I looked at my bedroom door and saw that it was shut and locked. Ethel was probably passed out somewhere.
“Either you strip, or I’m ripping those clothes off you.”
Clothes weren’t something I had much of. Actually, I only had three outfits for school and the kids teased me about my lack of wardrobe and that it was from the Salvation Army and not the mall. I unbuttoned the dull blue oxford shirt, which had been Billy’s Sunday shirt for when we would rarely attend Mass. When he ran away from home, he left it behind, so it became mine. Not to piss off Howie anymore, I undid my jeans and dropped them. With my eyes on the floor, I shamefully stepped out of them and left them in a heap.
Howie reached about me for the bra clasp and undid it in one motion. “You’re blooming awfully nice there, girl,” he said, groping one breast. His hands were dirty from the mill; he stank of booze, sweat, and cigarettes.
“Another year and I’ll take you down to the Tom Cat. You’ll bring in some nice change like those girls there do. Put your hands on the bed.”
“No, please, please Howie, don’t—“
He took his belt off first. I heard him undo his fly also, but the whirl of that belt through the belt loops made my knees tremble, as I knew what was to come.
“You’re getting beat first for locking yourself in there when I told you to get your ass in the shower. Now put your hands on the bed, or I’ll beat you until you bleed.”
For my own protection, I put my hands on the bed and waited for my whipping. I did as he said, and my breasts hung down and bounced about as he cracked the belt across my flesh. He wasn’t halfway done when I tilted my head so that I could see my closet door, surrounded by wallpaper that had blue flowers on it thirty years ago. Now yellowed from cigarette smoke, it had separated and fell in parts about the door. What molding was left was cracked and falling away.
I stared at the old crystal doorknob on the closet door while he beat me with his belt. If I could focus on it hard enough, I wouldn’t feel the pain of this beating but imagined being safe in there, locked behind its door with the opening chords of “Sound Off” in my head. Do—dooo—dooo da da doot doo doo. I’d remember nothing else.
The next morning, I ached when I sat up in bed. My clothes were bunched on the floor, and I stank of him. Not just the booze and the cigarettes, but I was wet, sopping wet between my legs and on my sheets. As I stood up, I saw the blood on the bed sheet. Just a strip of it, not a puddle, so I knew it wasn’t my time. In the mirror’s reflection, I saw my backside covered in purpling welts and near my seat was a scab from where he had sliced me open. Wasn’t the first time, ‘Probably wouldn’t be the last,’ I thought as I grabbed up my clothes.
I skipped school that day. The house was quiet with them passed out, so I washed up in the bathroom and found Ethel’s carton of Kools that she stashed in the linen closet. I stole a pack and slid them and a book of matches from the jar in the kitchen into my pocket then got my backpack and Walkman from the closet. I took the lunch I had made for myself after last night’s dinner, grabbed a can of soda, and took off out of there.
Fearful of cops and social workers watching for truant kids, I wouldn’t walk to school or on the sidewalks. No, I’d climb the hill behind the house that led to the woods then I’d walk west until I came to my cave. Just me, Heartbeat, and a pack of Kools would hide in the cave until school was out.
Maybe I’d write in my journal, but I doubted. If I could just forget this place and imagine myself anywhere but here, somewhere exotic, lying on a tropical island with Alex Corwynn. Oh yes, lying with him on the beach, rubbing lotion on my back. Maybe today, I’d write him another letter. Maybe this one he’d actually read.