And Yet She Cried The Day He Died

IMG_0838My earliest recollection of my dad came when I was four or five and he had come home from working as a second shift foas foreman at a drop forge plant.  He was sitting at the kitchen table eating poached eggs and dry toast, washing it down with a boiler maker.  “The Twins” as he would refer to them with great affection were my dad’s undoing; he would drink when manic, especially near the end of an episode, when his aching bitterness and resigned sarcasm hinted at a common premonition: he would soon retreat to his basement work shop for days on end tortured by his emotional evolution, and his inescapable march down the steep stairs of depression.  He must’ve been in the throes of mania  when convention insisted they marry upon discovery that his rakish bullying on the back seat of his Packard on a rural road outside Thorp not only massacred her wide-eyed naiveté but abolished any hope of extricating herself from beneath the clammy, sour-smelling, incoherent beast.  Her surrender of modesty produced more than forty-five minutes of vintage 1955 passion.

They found themselves in a stone-cold courthouse in Green Bay with a couple of bar friends to witness.  My mother clutched a small handful of wildflowers they bought from a farmer’s road stand that morning.  My mother was a beauty queen back in 1955, with full, red lips, wavy, blond hair that fell over her shoulders, and bright, anxious blue eyes.  She stood looking at my father, the barrel-chested, dark-haired, first-generation Norwegian she met less than one month before.  I’m certain that neither one of them intended for the wedding to be the result of a quickie in the back of a sedan on a country road, but in 1955 it was more important to uphold convention than it was to be in love.  No one ever questioned their motives in getting married, instead hoping and wishing them the best of luck in the new life together. They never won the prize of a 1960’s nuclear family, a foursome driving a new sedan, owning a new house in a new sub-division, boys going to the standard public school, belonging to a crisp, new Catholic church, it just never happened.  It never worked out and eventually corroded beyond what was once recognizable as a relationship, and turned physical, my father opting for punches and slaps instead of hugs and kisses. I want to believe that it was hard for both of them, especially my mom, of course, but also my dad, landing punches onto the delicate face; the face of a woman that once he had found so attractive that he invited her to share his rumble seat.  I want to believe that neither of them was a monster, that neither of them hated the other, that maybe, in the beginning they held the same blind, young hope that life would work itself out.

It started with a cymbal crash, or it might’ve been a car accident, or even the frying pan falling out of my mother’s hand as she scrubbed the caked egg.  But it struck with velocity, as though it had been tossed, no, more like it had been thrown, aimed at the floor, or better, the cupboard, for it never made its mark, instead falling short and striking the edge of the table and finally the floor.  My eyes shot open and I listened only to hear the sirens race toward the accident, but the suburb was four-thirty quiet, and the only sharp wheeze I heard bumped first against my door, then slid slowly down to the floor, her form eclipsing the bright kitchen light. As though the car she was driving careened out of control and struck some child in a cross walk I heard her whisper some apology and asked him to think about me.  I slipped out from my bed and crawled over to the rag rug, and put my face to the door.  His voice was a distant gush of slurs and profanity, italicized by the growling.  She stayed there, mashed against my door, her long, painted fingers clutching the same rag rug on which I sat and which had slid half-under the door, clutching, as though her whole life was that simple rag rug.

Suddenly the door thumped with a low, heavy sound, like dropping a melon on the table.  I dropped to the floor and pressed my face into the colorful coils, and saw his black, steel-toed Oxford’s sparkle in the bright overhead light.  I saw the swift shadow, perhaps a bird and heard that same heavy thud, and watched as crimson rain sprinkled the linoleum.  The color spotted the vinyl floor slowly, as though it were being restrained somehow, pulled in, withheld, and swallowed. It was quiet for a moment, the shiny black Oxford’s rolling as though they were standing on the deck of a heaving ship, the scarlet rain drops preceded by a sniffle.  Through the whole time I had held my breath until I exhaled with a small sob.  My mother’s face grew enormous as I saw her eyes and bloodied nose drop to the floor, pressing herself to the door.  Her hand waved him off saying, “Ssh, he’s awake, he’s been listening. . .”  Her bright blue eyes caught mine and we looked at each other for a moment.  As I began to move towards her, to . . . I don’t know what, help her . . . again I saw that fluttering shadow, except this time it was no shadow, but a black, heavy steel-toed Oxford, and it landed its iron nose at the back of her head and crushed her face into the crack at the bottom of the door.  Her eyes didn’t close, but opened further as though she were releasing any blind hope and I moved quickly away from the door and crawled under the bed.  I heard his heavy steps move off and watched as the kitchen light was turned out.

It was months before I could sleep in my bed, often crawling under it once she turned out the lamp and closed the door.  I suppose the worst part though was for her: For me to see her like that, in a position of no hope, no dreams, just the flat end of a hand or the blunt toe of a shoe.


One thought on “And Yet She Cried The Day He Died

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