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I dialed Steve and left a voicemail. Disappointed, I dropped the phone on the bed and fell into a deep sleep. The camera rolled. I not only acted out the script but I narrated the talking points of the cinemascope footage.
My sister and I were standing in a pizza parlor in Brentwood, New York. The contours of Janie’s face changed. My older sibling’s lips quivered and tears flushed my eyes as we kissed Daddy goodbye. This would be the last time I would physically hold my father. Thirty years later, I buried the man closed-casket never seeing his face.
The man was very handsome. Wavy-dark brown hair framed his coffee-colored eyes. He was short in stature but very muscular. The decorated World War II veteran guarded this area of his life never to disclose the ghastly details of the Battle of the Bulge. His unit was nicknamed Hell’s Kitchen. He scouted the enemy.
Daddy’s conflict did not end when he came back to the states. His struggle with addiction was a daily skirmish. Knowing early on that beer bottles created disorder and chaos in our family, my heart yelled out in desperation. “Daddy it doesn’t have to be this way! You could make it better.” Reality check - the man was now homeless.
Leaving the restaurant, I glanced back and a tidal wave of emotion emerged from my inner sanctum. There he sat, perched on a wooden chair, yet his mind was in a far-off land. The half-grin dittoed the Mona Lisa. His eyes were glassy, hazed from alcohol consumption. No one heard my silent plea for help. If I were good enough, Daddy would put the bottle down but I wasn’t good enough. Daddy loved his beer more than Janie or I. His happiness was in that bottle.
Mom had two children to support. The woman wasn’t prepared to feed and clothe a grown man every time he’d fall off the bandwagon. Alcoholic Anonymous is a journey to a better life, providing one seeks a better life. There comes a time when sanity takes precedent over pride. After thirteen years of treading water, divorce was the only sane option. Mom took control of our destinies.
On the back of the rickety Schwinn, which Janie named Horse, I clung to my sister’s frail body as she pedaled us home. The light drizzle gently dampened my clothing and hid the liquescent sadness and anger skirting over my cherub cheeks. By the age of six, the pragmatism of the real world debunked my storybook outlook.
We passed our former residence on Lukens Avenue. I thought for sure Daddy would change. I was wrong. The vacant homestead stood desolate with haunting vines nudging to cover the windows. Tall grass eerily waved in the afternoon breeze. A few months ago during early summer, pink and red roses flourished marketing their fragrant perfume. Morning Glories proudly embraced the front entrance trellis. In our vegetable garden, the corn stalks stood to applaud the sunshine. Birds sang harmonious chants from the treetops. Life was beautiful.
As a family, we spent time at the beach and fishing at Shinnecock. I played paper-dolls with Daddy in the gazebo. In the evenings, we strolled the sidewalk into town. Honeysuckle scented the balmy evening air. I basked in pure enchantment.
But - in the back of my mind, I was waiting. Most children anticipate with excitement their birthdays or Christmas. I was counting the minutes knowing my bright-red balloon would burst and things would go back to normal. Lukens Avenue was the last straw. Mom gave my father one more chance to make things right. Will Daddy walk the line; the lyrics to Johnny Cash’s hit song or will he go back to the booze. Que Sera, Sera – Whatever Will Be, Will Be sang Doris Day. Life’s lesson, some things don’t change.
Reruns of my formative years flashed-back into a Vincent Price mini-horror movie. These relinquishing illustrations molest my sleep. Yards of intertwined distress unravel as I relive my irreparable past. Clarity ignites total recollection.
Darkened days of drunken stupor surfaced and the demon cunningly, sheepishly unveiled itself. Without Mom’s consent, Double Trouble’s kittens were drowned one-by-one in the barrel we used for trash. Janie and I heard their little cries before they died. They were stuffed in a pillowcase and dunked. We buried them.
Daddy locked me in the dirt cellar. How long did I remain in the dungeon? I don’t know. How many times was I forced into this earthen tomb? I don’t know. I recall streaks of sunlight filtering through the termite-eaten planks of the wooden-slatted door. I was petrified, but didn’t shed a tear. My enclosure harbored a musty odor. Ornamental elves sat on the shelf hovering over me. It brought back memories of the brownies. Accepting my plight, I sat on the earth and asked my Guardian Angel to watch over me. Mom always said there was an angel to protect me when she wasn’t around.
The hideous abuse of a child is unfathomable for some but it is primetime reality for those who survive. Do we really subsist? Where was Mom when my world began to crumble? Why didn’t I tell her? Well, it wasn’t so bad. I took a nap and I knew by evening Daddy would be better. When it was over, we would play paper-dolls, again and I would be Daddy’s little girl. This didn’t happen.
Show time continued and we passed Belle’s house, which was right across the street from our former Lukens Avenue bungalow. The Victorian two-story was picturesque. Oak trees depicting wooden soldiers guarded her long drive to the main house. They circled the dwelling hosting shade to all four corners.
I call her Belle because she was Belle Starr at the amusement park, Dodge City. Janie spent her days working in Belle’s barn just to ride Silver, Belle’s majestic horse. Biologically Janie was ten; emotionally she was old enough to vote.
Miss Starr’s home was eccentric. The front parlor glowed with polished-mahogany antiques. Burgundy velvet with gold tasseled trim entombed each floor-to-ceiling window. Her home was a replica of Gone with the Wind. Belle’s persona matched her living quarters. She was immovable, unconventional, and austere. The woman veiled her compassionate nature but under the cloak of no-nonsense, she enjoyed our company. Belle’s and Janie’s adoration for equus caballus sealed their friendship. My sister spent many hours at the stable away from home.
Several days a week Belle rode Silver at Dodge City reenacting the Old West. This was the hot spot of amusement parks in its time. The paying public applauded her equestrian skills and the woman could act the part of the famous horse thief, Myra Maybelle Shirley Reed Starr. The park retired fifty-years ago and is still cross-referenced in my historic timeline. Mom has pictures of me in full gear flaunting a cowboy hat, corduroy vest, and a gun in my holster. Janie wore blue jeans and a plaid shirt.
Voyaging a mile down Lukens, there was one home that stood out. Pansies were in bloom and their smiling faces made me giddy easing my grief. Squirrels scurried furiously on the green-manicured lawn looking for nibbles to store. I swore I would have a home one day and I would grow joy. Pansies would pop-up everywhere.
Turning on to Crooked Hill Road, I saw the bar Daddy frequented. In the morning, Daddy and I drove Mom to work. Leaving the hospital grounds, we went directly to the pub. Daddy was my babysitter. Sometimes he worked nights at Campbell’s Bakery. I played table shuffleboard, sliding the weighted pucks through the sawdust while he drank. Not a cup of Joe - beer.
Bored, I sat in the booth watching the hands on the clock tick away, waiting to go home to play with paper-dolls. The only communication I had was an occasional grin from another drunk seated at the bar.
Janie was lucky; she started a new school year. Hours went by without food or water. The bartender would look over and hold up a bag of peanuts or chips. I politely declined the offer. Daddy didn’t have enough money to pay for my indulgence. When my father wasn’t looking, the mustached man would place the goodies on my table. People watched but no one stepped in to stop the abuse of a child. Did little girls belong in the bar? I learned early on to accept the unacceptable. This catastrophic pattern of behavior ruined most of my adulthood.
Watching the next scene, we left the pub. Kneeling on the seat behind the steering wheel, Daddy told me to drive. He would work the pedals and I would guide us home. Starting the engine, he pressed the gas. Unable to move the wheel, we hit a tree. The chrome bumper sustained a scratch but the event traumatized my psyche. Was Daddy trying to kill us?
My last episode with Daddy was the most perilous. We took a short excursion to Islip. The parking lot overlooked the bay. Ten foot of concrete divided the manmade from the natural elements. I thought we were going fishing, our favorite pastime. We weren’t there to fish. A strange look captured his countenance as he raced the car engine. It wasn’t his usual drunk smirk. Clutching the edge of the seat with my hands and closing my eyes, I spoke.
“Daddy, please stop. You’re scaring me.”
Opening my eyes, the fleshly ductwork went into action and alligators sprang from my face. Was this another suicide attempt or did he enjoy the look of fear in a child’s face? He revved the motor, again and pretended we would careen into the water. I quickly imagined we would sink to the bottom and Mommy would never see me again. A vehicle pulled in and we drove off.
Daddy went on a bender. When I say bender, I’m not talking about a day drunk. With Daddy, it was a week or months. Without a babysitter, Mom enrolled me in Mrs. Tobett’s daycare. I couldn’t enter first grade because I didn’t go to kindergarten. I couldn’t go to kindergarten because it was half-day, the same bureaucratic red tape as Bellport. I wasn’t old enough to stay by myself.
Again, Mom fought the system. Again, this principal would not allow me to sit and read in the library before or after class. He believed women should be home tending children. Mom would have enjoyed his version of motherhood but this was not an option for a single-parent household. The principal would not bend the rules for a woman who was working to keep a roof over her children’s heads and food in their bellies. This is why women’s lib came about.
Mrs. Tobett’s house was three-blocks away. Monday through Friday, Mom and I walked to the daycare. Mom didn’t drive. We crossed the railroad tracks and a small shed about six-feet from the iron rails looked as if it would topple over with one strong huff-and-puff from the wolf. Mom and I huffed-and-puffed at the wooden eyesore. Black-eyed Susan's and daisies still danced in the warm Indian summer wind. These whimsical distractions did not change my frame of mind.
The closer we stepped toward the daycare, the more my stomach hurt. When I couldn’t take much more, I boohooed. Mom was broken-hearted, teary-eyed, and I could see the toll of stress on her face. She didn’t want to leave me but this proud Irish woman would not accept welfare.
Enormous pine trees outlined Mrs. Tobett’s property maximizing its dismal existence. Sunny days instantly turned overcast. Mrs. Tobett was a tall, thin, elderly woman who never cracked a smile. Her daughter assisted with the tasks of running the enterprise. There were at least a dozen critters rummaging about the toys, most of them were three-years younger than I was. The home appeared to be harmless but for me it was hellish with a capital-H. As a child, I fragmented the events in order to accept the circumstances. Adulthood, I sorted and arranged the pieces, trying to understand the screen shots that kept replaying in my nightmares. There was no plot, only settings.
Sitting on a dusty-overstuffed chair alone in the bedroom, I wept hearing the children playing outside. Changing scenes, behind a closed door I was huddled on the floor, clothes hung above my head. The next flashback - Mrs. Tobett pressed the hoof of a plastic-toy horse into my forehead. These were my punishments for being a bad girl. Many times I was not given lunch because I didn’t share a book, my book. To avoid her reprimands, I refrained from talking and playing.
I watched the children swing and slide anxiously longing for my turn, a turn that never came to an unhappy little girl. When I get home, I can tell Dopey all about Mrs. Tobett; he will make me feel better. My friend always cheers me up. He pushes me on my swing.
By winter, we moved to Fifth Avenue another section of Brentwood. The evil didn’t stop. Janie and I are still pedaling home. Fifth Avenue is two more turns down the road.