Children in Passing
I don’t like country western music
Momma and Daddy rolled their boy child’s lifeless body into a blanket. Daddy reared back and kicked the package a couple of times. It didn’t offer much resistance. Six-year-old Jackie weighed less than forty pounds and was just over three feet tall. Daddy’s foot almost went through him.
“Stop kicking it!” Momma pled. “We have to find a bridge to throw it off.”
“I’m whippin’ the l’il bastard’s ass one more time!” Daddy insisted, “L’il sumbitch thinks he can steal my lunch bread and get away with it. I’ll show ‘im!”
Jackie scrunched his eyes shut. His nose and cheeks were numb with cold, his face wedged in the corner, icy walls indifferent to his plight. Daddy had stuck him there hours ago, daring him to move, daring him to breathe. Daddy dared Jackie to even think. Jackie, lying little bastard he was, promised after each punch and slap from Daddy’s hand that he would never steal the family’s bread again. He would not move, he would not breathe, he would not think.
Jackie wiggled his nose, cringed inside, hoped no one noticed; he moved. His ribs hurt where Daddy kicked him when he fell down when Daddy hit him. They hurt so he breathed in shallow halting gasps of breath, cringed inside, hoped no one noticed; he breathed. Yes, he was a lying little bastard. He stood in the corners of this house, naked half the time and cold, imagined a plethora of scenarios of death, his own death at Daddy and Momma’s hands. The bridge was long and tall. Through a hole in the blanket, Jackie saw its steel girders high above, stabbing through clouds, wrapped in sunlight. They tossed him over the rail, Momma and Daddy, and walked arm-in-arm away. Lying little bastard that he was, he wasn’t dead. His broken body tumbled through the air, stones, muddy water rushing, weeds awaiting it. He scrunched his eyes shut, cringed inside, hoped no one noticed; he thought.
We lived in a cold little house, full of shadow and dark windows. Daddy was drunk there and Momma was crying. I loved my father and hated him for making Momma’s life miserable. Momma loved him too. I bit my lip and held my breath then went where I was forbidden to go. The door, usually stuck tight, opened easily. I took this as a good sign, darkness would accept me today. I slipped inside and eased the door closed, knowing my eyes would never adjust to the total pitch black but waiting anyway, standing on that top rickety step as soft things with sharp teeth scurried below.
A creature with many feathery legs lit on my forearm, skittered across the fine blonde hairs on the face of my skin, its movement lighter than breath. A terrified voice screamed inside me but no sound issued forth. I rubbed my arm on that spot, felt the tiny arc of weight the traveler of darkness made as it swung from a pendulum web it had launched from my skin.
“God’s creatures, never smite them walking, only if on your flesh or if they bite, then smite them and smite them well,” I muttered under my breath, repeating one of Grandma Webster’s lessons.
The odor in that place was darker than ink. I breathed in deep and took the first step down. What damp embrace the womb of that room promised. It was warm in its earthen reek of soil, timelessness and rotted root, kind to those that crawled and climbed, huddled in its midst. My boy hands grasped the wobbling plank at the side of the staircase. Its nails creaked in their steel-worm wooden homes when I leaned in and tested it with my full weight.
Feet hanging loose and free, I searched with a naked toe through the broken top of my shoe for the first of the climbing holes we’d made, me and my brother, Jackie. There and there, solid earth; I let loose the plank, felt my legs falling first then dropped to the earthen face of the floor. With my back to the wall, I finally let the tears come, hot and salty, forging watery paths down the dusty planes of my cheeks.
I was ashamed of my tears, knew I would be before they began but was unable to hold them back. This wasn’t my first experience with shame, I’d had many. It felt the same, humiliation and guilt. Seven years old, with two younger brothers and a baby sister of two, I was aware I needed to be brave. Crying would only make things worse; there was seldom a reward for tears. I hugged my legs up close to my chest then sobbed and sucked it in, a choking sound.
I held my breath when my ears picked up some sound outside myself. Squeak-squeak, squeak. I exhaled, a gasp, an audible sigh. I could hear the voice of Jackie in my head, my best brother and only friend, a year younger than myself, taunting me. I was older but Jackie knew things, uncomfortable things I would like to argue away, but couldn’t. I felt a smile tug at my lips as Jackie’s voice spoke in my head. “They’re doin’ it, Tommy. Long as they’re doin’ it, they won’t be botherin’ us. We’re safe now.”
I covered my ears with my hands, rocked back and forth in the dirt as the cadence of the squeaking increased. Dust drifted down from the floorboards above my head, a blessing of sorts from mother to son. I stood and brushed myself off, knowing she would seek me out after the squeaking. The climb holes were easy enough to find in the now not-so-dark. I poked my toes into them up until I could grab hold of the old plank with my hands.
I winced as a sliver of wood went in under the nail of my right index finger and broke off, embedding itself there. I took a deep breath, found the top climb holes with my toes and swung a foot up to the step. Thin shafts of light splashed their way from the kitchen through the top and bottom edges of the door. I found the knob with my throbbing hand, twisted and gave the door a slight nudge with my shoulder. It refused to budge. Now it was stuck.
I gritted my teeth and fought back the urge to cry out. Just as I was ready to give it another try, the door opened slowly and I almost fell into the kitchen. Momma stood there, a stern look on her face. She took a step back, hands on her hips.
“Tommy, you come out of there. How many times have I told you?” She paused then lifted her thin arms, summoned me to her. “You’ve been crying.”
Relief flooded over me and I fell into her embrace. The top of my head just reached her chin and I nestled in, wishing for time to stop, no words. Just hold me on the mercy of your sweet breast. Those were Grandma Webster’s words about Jesus but I thought of Momma when they came to mind.
She pushed me gently away. “What were you doing down there? If your dad ever catches you...”
I held up my throbbing finger. “It hurts.”
She took it between her hands and raised it toward her face. I giggled when her eyes crossed.
“What?” she demanded with mock sternness.
“Your eyes,” I replied. “They got all crossed up.”
She held my finger tightly with one hand and plucked deftly at the splinter with the other. Before I knew it, she’d kissed my injured fingertip and was pumping water, washing it off in the kitchen basin. “Now, what were those tears about?”
I held up my wounded hand. “It hurt real bad,” I explained.
“Don’t lie to me, Tommy,” she scolded. “You know you’re no good at it.”
I turned red and peeked down at my toes wiggling through the top of my shoe. “Why’d he have to whip Jackie so hard?”
Momma stood up straight, arms akimbo. “Your brother got what he deserved. He was caught sneaking into the bread. He ate the last two slices. What am I going to put in your Daddy’s lunch tomorrow? It’s cold on the roof and he needs food to keep himself going. We’re broke and he doesn’t get paid until the roof’s finished.”
“That’s why I was crying,” I said stubbornly, remembering the crack of the belt on Jackie’s bare skin while he bent over and held his ankles, trying not to fall over or cry, Daddy’s boots if and when he did.
Momma shook her head, frustrated. “I’m your mother; I don’t intend to stand around arguing with you about your brother. I’m going to lay down and have a nap. I have to go to work in a couple of hours. You keep an eye on your brothers and little Lily. Wake me up at six.” She went back into the bedroom with Daddy.
I left the tiny kitchen and went to the cramped living room, which served as day room and bedroom for Jackie, Phillip, Lily, and myself. We three boys slept on a convertible couch. Lily had a makeshift bed in an old dresser drawer. She was asleep and Phillip was sprawled out on the sofa. Jackie stood slumped in the corner where he’d been placed for further punishment. I decided to take a short nap myself. I laid down on the floor so as not to disturb Phillip. I bit down on my finger to alleviate the throbbing then put my arm under my head and sang myself to sleep. “I was born one mornin’ when the sun didn’t shine.” Sixteen Tons was my favorite song. It was playing on the country western radio.
At five-thirty I awoke and put a fire on low under the old tin metal coffee pot. I went back and sat on the end of the sofa, laid my hand on top of Jackie’s head. His carrot-red hair stuck out between my splayed fingers.
“Sorry he spanked you so hard,” I whispered. Jackie groaned and pressed his small thin face into the hard scratchy corner of the wall. His hands bunched up into fists and he pressed them into the corner, causing his shoulder blades to stick out. He looked like a broken bird to me, a plucked chicken, too skinny for anyone to consider eating.
A few minutes before six o’clock I went to my parents’ bedroom and entered quietly. I liked to watch them sleep, faces moving, eyes twitching. Asleep, they were faces I didn’t know. They were safe faces. I liked them better that way. I reached and touched Momma lightly on the shoulder. “No,” she mumbled, “No.”
Daddy’s eyes popped open. “Tommy, what the hell are you doing?”
The radio in the bedroom was playing country western. Daddy had two radios, one on the kitchen table and one next to his and Momma’s bed. There were three if you counted the one in his old truck. The radios in the house were on twenty-four hours a day, always tuned to a country western station. The one in the truck was only on when the truck was running. That gave me something to think about, whether the radio was off when the truck was off. The ones in the house were on whether my parents were home or not. Kids weren’t allowed to touch radios. “Wakin’ Momma,” I replied. “It’s just about six.”
Daddy rubbed a strong weather-beaten hand across his bleary eyes. “Shit! You go on, Tommy. I’ll get ‘er up.”
I left the room as Daddy began to shake Momma’s arm. I had always gotten on well with Momma but waking her or simply being around her when she woke up were experiences I wouldn’t wish on anyone. She was not nice then. She needed to be left alone. One hour up, maybe a bit more then she became her almost agreeable self.
So, I left them to it and went to play with my little sister, Lily, who had just turned two. She was a cutie, the first girl after three boys. Daddy called her Punkin. I tickled her and she giggled. I laughed with her until I felt Jackie glaring at us. Jackie treated me poorly whenever he got punished. It seemed to me that he felt as if it was somehow my fault or like Jackie was receiving whippings on my behalf. I couldn’t figure it out. Jackie took the bread and ate it; I didn’t. Maybe he just needed to be angry at somebody who wasn’t likely to hurt him.
All Jackie could do is look at me mean and stare at me accusingly since I was bigger and a lot stronger than he was. Momma told me a story about when I was a year and a half old (I’m fourteen months older than Jackie). She caught me sneaking into the room when Jackie was drinking his bottle. I took the top off the bottle and guzzled down all of his milk. I screwed the lid back on so no one would know I’d done it. Catching me copping Jackie’s food explained part of the problem with his thinness but Momma resented him anyway. No matter what she did, Jackie had always been unhappy and undernourished.
I heard the volume of the radio go up and the familiar clink of glass as Momma filled her and Daddy’s coffee cups. Smoke drifted through the wide arch between the living room and kitchen when they lit their Pall Malls. Daddy came into the room and plinked Jackie in the head with his finger. “Get your ass standing up straight. You don’t need to slouch around all day like a ninny.”
I felt bad for Jackie as he cringed and shook with fear. The more fear he exhibited, the madder Daddy got.
“Turn around and come here,” Daddy ordered.
Phillip was still sleeping, one leg hanging off the couch. As Jackie rounded the corner, his eyes riveted fearfully on Daddy’s hands, he bumped into Phillip’s leg. Phillip moaned, rolled over, fell off the couch, and began to cry. Daddy beckoned to Jackie with his finger. “Come here, asshole. Maybe I’ll knock you down on the floor; we’ll see how you like it.”
Jackie stood by the side of the sofa trembling. “No Daddy, please no.” I saw a dark stain running down the front of his trousers, hoped Daddy wouldn’t notice. Many times, when Jackie was in trouble, he messed himself which would only exacerbate his circumstances. Other times, when he wasn’t in trouble, he messed himself which started trouble anew.
“Tom,” Momma called from the kitchen, “Come on now. We have to get going or I’ll be late for work.”
Daddy pointed a stiff finger at me. “You put that little asshole in the corner and don’t let him out until I come home, understand?”
I nodded my head. “Yes, Daddy.” I glanced at Jackie, who stepped obediently toward the corner. Daddy gave me an approving wink and left the room.
Momma came in, picked Lily up and kissed her chubby cheek. She glanced at us boys. “You guys behave yourselves and no going outside. Keep the door locked. Daddy will be right back to fix you something to eat. Lily’s other diaper is soaking in the toilet. Rinse it out and hang it by the stove, Tommy. If she needs changed before it’s dry, go ahead and use a dishtowel instead of a diaper. There’s one hanging from the oven handle on the stove.” She set Lily on the couch, gave me a reassuring smile, and hurried away.
The front door slammed shut. We heard the sound of Daddy’s old truck starting up and pulling away from the curb. Jackie turned around, stared imploringly at me. “Let me out of the corner.”
Tears brimmed up in my eyes. I bit down on my sore finger to stop them. “I can’t, Jackie. He’ll find out then we’ll all be in trouble.”
“How’s he gonna find out?” Jackie challenged. “Who’s gonna tell?”
Phillip sat on the edge of the couch. “I will,” he said, a cruel grin on his little-boy face. “I’ll tell ‘cause you took the bread an’ got me in trouble. It’s all your fault. You knocked me off the couch when I was sleepin’.”
Jackie took a step from the corner, threatened Phillip with a raised fist. “I’ll pound your face, you little brat! You ate half!”
I set myself between them, pulled Jackie’s arms behind his back and forced him to return to the corner. I gave his head a good bump against the wall for good measure. “Stay there! Don’t be picking on smaller kids!”
“Yeah!” Phillip agreed smugly. “You’re a stealer, Jackie. You’re bad!”
Lily began to wail. She was hungry and upset by all the commotion. I picked her up and she stuffed a thumb in her mouth. She snuggled against my chest and closed her eyes, sucking contentedly.
Daddy didn’t come home after taking Momma to work. We were hungry and there was nothing in the house to eat. I pumped some water at the sink and we sipped at it but water is a poor substitute for food. Lily and Phillip cried and Jackie moaned and groaned then finally slid down the wall and rested in a bony pile.
I roamed around the confines of the shack, despairing for a crumb but, as on many previous occasions, there were none. The night was long and the radio was singing. My siblings asleep, I went into the kitchen and sat at the table. I rested my head on my arms, ignored the growling motor in my stomach and drifted into a troubled slumber. A few hours later I heard a rattling at the door. I stepped quietly across the room and peeked out the window. It was Momma come home from work. Just as I unlocked and opened the door, a car pulled away. It was soon lost in its’ own steamy exhaust in the freezing winter night.
“Where’s Daddy?” Momma asked upon entering the house.
“He never came back,” I replied, “I been worried.”
Momma kissed me on the forehead and handed me a heavy paper bag. It was greasy wet, close to falling apart. “Never mind your Daddy for now,” she said, “Thank God for the Big Boy.”
Big Boy was the restaurant where Momma worked as a waitress. She wasn’t allowed to take food home but she cleaned up the tables she waited on and dumped leftovers from the plates into a bag she kept hidden in the kitchen. On nights when Alvin, the cook, brought her home she could sneak the bag out past the owner. The next trick was getting it past Daddy; he didn’t approve of his family eating garbage.
Momma touched my face with her cold hands and kissed me again. She glanced at the clock radio wailing country western, Marty Robbins all dressed up for the dance. “Twelve thirty,” she murmured, “He’s probably at the bar. That gives us ‘til two to eat. You start sorting and fixing. I’ll get the kids.”
I set the bag on the table and opened it. Though it was full of rotting salad, coffee grounds, and cigarette butts, all I noticed was the smell of food and best of all, meat! I grabbed a piece of chicken fried steak and wolfed it down, coffee grounds, cigarette ashes and all. I had never tasted better food. Momma came back into the kitchen and smiled at me when I wiped my face on my shirt- sleeve.
“They look so peaceful, I decided to let them sleep while we get everything ready,” she whispered. “Tonight we’ll have a feast. I see you found some of the steak. It was the Big Boy special today. There’s lots of it in there.”
We worked together to scrape cigarette ashes, egg yolk, coffee grounds, and soggy napkin off the meat and began to warm it in a pan on the old stove. Experts at this, we even managed to salvage some mashed potatoes and corn on the cob from the bottom of the bag. The cigarette butts went in Momma's apron pocket to be worked on later. We didn’t have to wake the younger children as it turned out. Phillip and Lily came stumbling into the kitchen, their noses following the aroma of food cooking even before their eyes were ready to open. Momma smiled. “Go get Jackie,” she said.
Jackie was standing up straight and stiff, nose stuffed into the corner. He flinched when I touched his arm. “Come on, Jackie,” I whispered excitedly, “Momma brought some really good stuff home from work for us to eat.”
Jackie turned his head from the corner; eyes big and round, he stared at me. His mouth formed one word. “Daddy?”
I tugged at his shirt-sleeve. “Come on, Daddy’s not home yet. You better hurry up!”
“Wait!” Jackie pleaded. “Is she... Is she in a good mood?”
“The best,” I replied impatiently, “Now come on.”
© 2017 graphic artwork music & words
conceived by & property of
tom (WordWulf) sterner 2017 ©