If you mean, shit say it. Dig holes, plant ‘em deep. It is unamerikan to fail, to apply for a permit to speak, to dream, to die, too broke to buy. Tomorrow’s graveyard markers will not mention the indigent, not so much as a Hitlerian list. You lived in the body of an elephant, fed on its carcass for years, trapping crows to chase lions.
For life is a fiction, birth a sad truth, death a just reward. Still, children smile.
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 the 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, much like times before and since forever. 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 never 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 only 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 as 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 just 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 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 and 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 he was a year and a half old (I’m fourteen months older than Jackie). She caught me sneaking into the room when Jackie was being fed. I took the top off his 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 a previous occasion, 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.”
© 2018 graphic artwork music & words
conceived by and property of
Tom (WordWulf) Sterner 2018 ©
Boys Gone Missing
Jackie shielded his eyes from the light when we entered the kitchen. We ate and ate, then sat around burping and smiling like contented chipmunks.
Suddenly Momma pinched and held her nose. “Jackie!” she accused, “You have peed and shit yourself!”
“It’s when he was scared, Momma,” I interjected. “Before you ‘n Daddy left.”
Jackie’s eyes were wide, like an animal caught in the headlight beams of a car. Phillip was smirking at him, amused at his fear.
“Get out of my sight!” Momma ordered. “You’re disgusting. Scared is no excuse; we all get scared but don’t go around shitting ourselves.” She turned to me. “You’d better stop making excuses for him. You’re not really helping and you only run the risk of getting yourself in trouble.”
As Jackie was leaving the room, there was a loud bang on the door.
“Oh my God!” Momma cried, “He’s home. Tommy, get the bag; shove everything in it. I’ll try to keep him busy. You just...”
Glass shattered and the door caved in. Daddy’s voice interrupted, “Lock me outa my own goddam house!”
“Daddy!” Lily called excitedly.
He staggered into the room, narrowing his eyes against the light. Shingle granules glistened on his jeans. He wore a small brimmed hat tilted over to the left side. Six feet tall, lithe of body, he was not a big man but certainly seemed so to his children as most fathers do, especially when he was angry or drunk, especially when he was both. He wanted to be a kind man but was nothing close to it when he had been drinking. On this occasion, he had been drinking quite heavily all-night long. “C’mere Punkin’,” he slurred. Lily ran forward and hopped into his arms.
“Wassa matter?” He held Momma with an evil grin. “What I bring home ain’ good ‘nough? Your boyfrien’ Arnie been fuckin’ you in the garbage then you bring it home to feed my kids, huh? Here, Tommy. Hol’ this baby girl for me.”
I extended my arms and Lily tumbled happily into them. Daddy took a step toward Momma, backhanded her to the floor. It wasn’t the first time I hated my father. Iwas seven and a half years old. Maybe it was the first time I realized I would probably have to kill him someday. And, the most painful part of that realization, that I would love him when I did the deed. Stay down, a voice in my head begged Momma as she knelt where she had fallen. If you get up... She struggled to her feet and Daddy slapped her down again. I carried Phillip and Lily from the room, around the corner from our fallen and bleeding mother.
“So!” Daddy’s voice trailed after us. “Where’s that dirty little shit?” He staggered to Jackie’s corner, plinked him in the head with his finger. “Leas’ this l’il bastard stayed where I tol’ ‘im for once.”
Jackie was trembling awfully; I could hear his teeth rattling, his skinny knees knocking together.
“Tom,” Momma laid a hand on Daddy’s shoulder. “Come to bed now, Honey. Come on... please.” Her tongue flicked at blood flowing from the corner of her mouth. Momma was beautiful and wore her fear well. She was very brave. I was afraid for her.
Daddy plinked Jackie again. “Don’ relax, you l’il bastard; we gon’ pick this up tomorrow.”
He followed Momma through the kitchen, into the bedroom. The door slammed, followed by several slaps, screams, and thudding sounds. I rocked my little sister in her dresser drawer until the bed springs in Momma and Daddy’s room began to squeak. Jackie was right; now we were safe for a bit.
Jackie turned, fixed me with a stare from the dark hollow holes of his eyes. Phillip and Lily were sound asleep. Jackie’s eyes bored into me; I was sad and ashamed, too confused to wonder why. I escaped Jackie’s accusing eyes for once, slipped away into a restless sleep, my hand rubbing Lily’s back.
Morning came unexpectedly, dripping with new peril. “Where are your brothers?” Daddy was shaking me roughly awake. I blinked up into his demanding face. Momma was standing behind him, one eye black and closed. Her lips were swollen, cracked, and dripping blood.
I sputtered and looked around the room in confusion. Ten minutes later I was across the street in the park with Momma. The lilac tunnels of summer were closed, their bare branches locked, intertwined and reaching, hands empty. The sky was slate gray, a vast condemning face looking down, a mirror of the futility of our search. I shivered, felt my eyes tear up when I realized my brothers must be out here somewhere and that the world was an awful big somewhere. I closed my eyes then opened them quickly because Jackie’s eyes were in my head. They had told me the night before that they would be leaving; I felt it was my fault my brothers were gone. The terrible realization that I should have known that which it was impossible to know gnawed at my senses.
Momma and I followed the two small sets of footprints in the fresh snow, across the street and into the park, down to the round empty swimming pool. A friend of mine had taught Jackie and me to ride a bicycle in that swimming pool in the autumn when it was emptied out. I felt tears coming when I remembered Jackie spiraling in toward the center and crashing every time he mounted the bicycle.
I stooped down to pick up a cigarette butt from the snow. I already had a pocketful of them. Gathering cigarette butts from gutters and sidewalks was natural for me, an old habit from my first memories. Momma and I took the butts home where I’d help her empty the papers and grind the tobacco together then she would roll them into smoking sticks for herself and Daddy.
“Never mind that!” Momma said tersely. She was crying, the wind had begun to blow. Tears were frozen on her battered face. The footprints meandered around the swimming pool and out of the park on the other side. The sidewalks had been shoveled there, leaving us nowhere to follow. We went home and found Daddy sitting in the dark little kitchen next to the old stove. Lily was playing happily in his lap. He had a cold beer in one hand, a Pall Mall in the other.
Momma choked back a sob. “We followed their footprints through the park,” she stated softly, treading carefully, “It’s awfully cold out there. A child could freeze to death.”
Daddy snorted and shook his head. “Don’t be so dramatic, Carroll. It’s only been a couple of hours since we got up. If we don’t hear somethin’, say by noon, we’ll call the police. We both know it’s just Jackie pullin’ his usual shit, draggin’ his little brother along to cover his ass.”
“But they may have been gone half the night,” Momma protested.
“Don’t think so,” Daddy replied in a calm and matter-of-fact tone, then to me, “When did you go to sleep, Tommy?”
“After you,” I replied, “I was rocking Lily then went to sleep on the floor. Jackie was in the corner and Phillip was asleep on the couch.”
Momma paced back and forth a bit, then, “I’m going to the corner store. Maybe they’ve been there. Can I have a dime for the phone?”
Daddy set his beer down. “I’m not made of money, woman.”
“I... I gave you my tips last night,” she stammered. “There were dimes and nickels.”
Daddy set Lily on the floor where she began to roll empty beer cans around. “Choo choo... choo choo. Lily make train. Choo choo.”
Daddy leaned back in his chair, reached deep in his pocket. I was fearful of the look on his face. Nothing good ever happened when he looked like that. He threw a handful of change in Momma's general direction. “I make more money by accident than you do on purpose, you stupid bitch. Take your nickels and go call the cops. That’s all you wanna do anyway.”
With a wary eye on Daddy, I scrambled to help her pick up the change. Momma and I hurried out the door and down to the corner phone booth. Momma began to cry. She held me close while she spoke to the police dispatcher.
When we got home, Daddy offered Momma a weather report. According to him, the wind had blown the clouds away so it was warmer. He was going to pick up his helper, a man he called Dee-Dot, and try to finish the roof he’d been working on. He gathered his tools and left. I worried about my brothers while keeping an eye on Lily. Momma fussed about, hugged herself a lot, touched me and Lily with shaking hands, straightened the house.
A little while later, two policemen came to visit. They asked Momma a gazillion questions. Much to my surprise, one of them took me out to the police cruiser by myself while the other one stayed inside with Momma.
“Do your mother and father ever hit you and/or your brothers and sisters?” the man asked me.
To which I lied, “No Sir.”
“What happened to your Momma's face?”
To which he lied, “I don’t know, sir.”
“Are you afraid of us?”
To which I answered truthfully, and with relief, “Yes, awfully, sir.”
“Are you afraid of your parents?”
To which I lied emphatically, “No Sir!”
And so on; I was seven years old. I knew better than to cooperate with the police.
They stayed for what felt like forever and, before leaving, promised Momma they would broadcast a story about her two missing boys on the television news. The only picture she had to give them was of Phillip after he drowned in the irrigation ditch the year before. He fell in the ditch that ran behind the motel we were living in. A crazy man who lived by himself in a run-down house the other side of the ditch saw Phillip’s cowboy boots go floating by. Crazy as he was, he figured there might be a little boy inside them so he jumped into the ditch, pulled Phillip out and saved his life. Phillip looked cute in the newspaper photograph, sitting in a hospital crib. The police sent a lady out later who penciled out a fairly good likeness of Jackie from Momma's description.
The Sterner family didn’t have a TV, so we didn’t see Jackie and Phillip on the Billings News. Daddy saw it though, on a television at the bar. He was upset over the broadcast, since the newsman said police had yet to interview the father; a statement which, in Daddy’s opinion, implied that he was under suspicion. If Phillip wasn’t missing along with Jackie, I would have been suspicious too. Daddy seemed to favor his youngest son as much as he despised Jackie. He would never do anything to hurt Phillip.
To say simply that I feared for Jackie is somehow making light of that emotion, the frail breath of our lives in general. Fear was a tangible aspect of our day-to-day existence: fear the police would throw Daddy in jail when he was drunk, fear they’d let him out when they did, fear he’d hurt Momma. Most times fear would even dispel the rampant rumble of our ever-present hunger, fear that Daddy had killed Jackie.
The next day Daddy had to go the police station for an interview. A nice lady came by with commodities for us. Momma fixed Cream of Wheat for breakfast, Spam for lunch. For once I had no appetite. Momma stayed home from work and I didn’t go to school. She was so fidgety and nervous; she kept crunching up the cigarette butts. Her hands were shaking so bad, she wrecked the cigarettes in the roller machine. She’d put the mess down and hug me, again and again. “You’re my big strong boy, Tommy, my big strong boy. You’ll never run away from your Momma, will you?”
Daddy came home in a terrible mood. It was fairly warm, so he sent me outside to play with Lily. The tiny house we lived in was situated on the edge of a packed-dirt courtyard along with a half-dozen other one-bedroom rentals. There were lots of toddlers and Lily, being an agreeable and sweet child, joined right in and began to play with them.
I sat in the dirt yard watching Lily play. I got to thinking about a girl I liked at school. She wore glasses and was real smart. My eyesight was terrible so I was unable to make out assignments written on the blackboard. She whispered to me whatever was written there. That was a real-life saver to me because teachers became exasperated real quick, after moving me from desk to desk to the front of the class, when I told them I still couldn’t read what was written on the blackboard. Some of them accused me of angling for attention because no one could be that blind. The last thing in the world I wanted was the attention of any adult and especially an adult in a position of authority.
Once in a while after school the girl and I met on the corner of the block. She’d take off a gold necklace she wore. We swung it round and round between us while we talked. On Fridays, students who aced their spelling test were rewarded by being allowed to slide down the fire escape at school. This was fun and exciting because the school was four stories high. The fire escape was a spiral tube constructed of fifty-five gallon oil drums and situated, top to bottom, into the inner workings of the brick structure. I was a very good speller and so was my friend. Fridays were extra special to us. She was my very first crush. Her name was Jackie.
That night, the second night Jackie and Phillip were gone, Lily and I were sent to bed at eight o’ clock. Momma hung a blanket across the archway between the dayroom and kitchen. I snuggled up with Lily on the couch and listened to the hushed tones of my parents talking. I couldn’t distinguish the words over the music from the country western clock radio. There was a frantic urgency in the gist of their conversation and, terrible for a child, that feeling when parents are afraid of circumstances set in motion over which they have no control.
The next morning, we were awakened by police at the door. An officer handed Daddy an official looking paper. He stepped through the door as he asked if it was okay to do so. He told Daddy to turn the radio off so they could talk without it in the background. Daddy did as the man asked but country western music could be faintly heard from his and Momma’s bedroom. I could tell Daddy was upset. He didn’t like anyone telling him to turn off his radio but he didn’t say anything to the policeman. The police were mean serious and all business.
There were six of them this time. They looked big and threatening in the tiny house. One of them even had to bend over to keep from bumping his head when he passed through the arch into the room where us children slept. Lily and I sat in a corner while two policemen lifted the couch and shined their lights underneath it. The big one shook his head. “Cockroaches.”
His partner lifted mine and Lily’s cover from the couch then dropped it disdainfully. “Infested with bedbugs,” he said as he cast us a sympathetic glance. His sympathy was lost on me; I was embarrassed and afraid, too worried about my brothers to care much about bugs and policemen.
“Hey, Sarge.” a man’s voice called from the kitchen, “Come check this out.” I was surprised when the smaller policeman answered the call. I was sure the big one would be the boss. Lily wiggled in my lap and tried to follow the man. I held her tight, tickled her to make her laugh and keep her busy.
“Tommy, come here,” Momma called out.
I stood and hoisted Lily up onto my hip. She was a chunky girl. It took a lot of courage to lift the edge of the blanket and pass from the security of the day room into the tiny kitchen packed with grownups, but I managed the task. Lily was my shield.
The policemen had opened the door to the dirt room basement and were huddled around the doorway. A couple of them pointed their long powerful flashlights down into the gloomy space. “So, you say you’ve never been down there,” Sarge said to Daddy.
Daddy sat at the kitchen table, one leg crossed over the other, drinking coffee and chain smoking Pall Malls.
“Nothing down there but dirt,” he replied, “I was gonna store shingles and tools down there, but the steps are broken; it’s not worth the trouble to fix them.”
“How ‘bout the kids?” the policeman pressed, “Do they go down there to play?”
“No way!” Daddy said indignantly, “There’s bugs and stuff down there. It’s not safe. I wouldn’t let my kids go where I wouldn’t go myself.”
“Someone’s been down there, Sarge,” one of the policemen interrupted.
“Tommy,” Momma said, with a flat edge to her voice.
“It was me,” I croaked, “I climbed down there yesterday.” I could feel my ears hot and burning red.
“Damn it, Tommy!” Daddy scolded, “I told you...”
“That’s enough!” Sarge leveled a warning glare at Daddy then turned to the other policemen. “Bentley, get those shovels out of the trunk of the car.” His gaze returned to Daddy. “You’re a roofer?”
“I’m a roofer,” Daddy replied, defeat evident in his voice.
“You wouldn’t happen to have a ladder that would fit through this door, would you?” Sarge asked.
“Tommy,” Daddy said, by way of reply, “Go get the chicken ladder off my truck.”
A chicken ladder is a handmade wooden ladder that roofers use to climb up the face of steep roofs from a plank scaffold. I left the room, relieved to go outside, elated to have something to do. The cold Montana air felt great in my lungs as I squinted my eyes to shield them from the sun. There were police cars blocking the courtyard. A few men from the neighborhood were huddled off to one side smoking cigarettes and staring at the house. I felt naked and uncomfortable under their gaze. I ignored them as best I could while I twisted the shingle wrapper wires holding the chicken ladder to the rack of the truck. Once I got it loose, I pushed it toward the rear of Daddy’s truck.
“I got it, kid.” I was startled, jerked and banged my head on the ladder rack at the unexpected sound of a voice. The big cop grinned and patted me on the head.
“Sorry kid, thought you knew I was behind you.” He picked up the heavy two-by-four ladder like it was light as a toothpick and carried it into the house.
Once inside, he poked the ladder through the doorway off the kitchen and down into the dirt. Someone had rigged a hundred-watt trouble-light to better see. Spiders skittered across the broken shelves of the old root cellar.
“Got anything to say before we go down there?” Sarge asked Daddy.
Daddy stood up and put on his hat. “Yeah, I got a roof to put on.”
“Sit down!” Sarge growled. “You’re not going anywhere until I say so.”
Daddy sat down but kept his hat on. Two policemen set their heavy belts with guns, night sticks, and flashlights in the corner by the stove. They tossed their hats on top of the pile, threw shovels into the hole, and followed them down. They worked in twos, digging sideways and down, until late afternoon.
The kitchen floor was crusted with dirt and mud, the air close with the heat and the palpable tension of too many bodies in too small a space. Sarge ordered the men from the hole and sat down wearily across the table from Daddy. “Where are they?” he whispered in exasperation.
Before that day, I had never seen Daddy cry. He took a handkerchief from the back pocket of his trousers, blew his nose loudly. He looked imploringly at the policeman. “God as my witness, sometimes I’m not much of a husband or father but, I would never hurt my children. Please go and find my little boys.”
by Martha A. Cheves, Author of Stir, Laugh, Repeat
“I was four-years-old in 1935. My mother took my twin brother and me to a mountain park in Colorado Springs for our birthday. It was July 31st, a hot and sultry summer day in Colorado. We rode ponies round and round the pony pole, my brother and me. I’ll never forget the flies, deer flies I think. They were huge and aggressive. They bit. After lunch Mother told me to go into the outhouse to go potty. I didn’t really have to go but would not consider speaking back to Mother ever, not in any way. She closed the door and I waited. When I tried to leave the shack with the dark stinky hole and light shooting through cracks in the wall, I discovered I was locked in. I began to cry. I never saw Mother again. I’ll never forget the flies, deer flies I think. They were huge and aggressive. They bit.” ‘This is the first story my uncle told me when I found him. That was in 1982 when I was nineteen-years-old. I was abandoned at Denver General Hospital in 1963 when I was born. My Mother put me up for adoption. She felt her eighth child should have a better chance in life then the seven before. Odd, but fitting, that I would find my uncle first when I came of age and went searching for my real family. He and I are the cull, those cut from the herd and left to forage on their own.’
It’s the winter of 1957 in Billings Montana. At seven years old, Tommy is the oldest child in the Sterner family. At this time he has two younger brothers and a two year old sister. But more will come bringing the number of children in his family to seven, all before he reaches the age of twelve. Tommy’s dad is a roofer, a job that is dictated by the weather. He’s also an alcoholic and a mean one at that. Tommy’s brother Jackie as well as his mother can vouch for that. Almost daily Jackie will do something that his dad doesn’t like leading to a beating with the belt and standing in the corner. And heaven forbid if he comes home drunk, looking for a fight. That's when Tommy's mother gets the bad end of his fist and boot.
Tommy’s mother, Carroll, is the glue that keeps the family together. She does everything she can to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table. His dad, on the other hand, will blow every penny he can get his hands on to keep him in alcohol. The kids can go hungry and the landlord can evict them, as long as he has his drinking money. And that’s exactly what happened more often than not. They are constantly without food and being removed from their "living space" by the sheriff at the request of the owner.
Reading Momma’s Rain filled me with many feelings, most from my own childhood. When I was in elementary school there were kids that I feel sure fit in with the life lead by Tommy and his family. And just as it happened when Tommy went to school, we kept our distance from these kids. We never gave thought to the possibility that these kids were possibly being beaten at home, that they might be hungry, and not just hungry for food but also for a kind word and a little friendship. We never gave much thought that they might be smart, even smarter than we were. After all they had to be to survive what they went through daily.
Author Tom Sterner has written a book that will break the hearts of every reader. It will also wake the reader up to the injustice most of us seem to perform not only as children but also as adults. It’s made me see the man or woman on the street with a different eye. One with even more compassion for them and their challenge to survive. I recommend that you not only read Momma’s Rain but that you also teach the lessons learned to the kids and grandkids in your life.
Now I wait impatiently to read the continuation – Momma’s Fire. It can only get better for these kids, I hope.