The Story, part three

Not long after he came home Dad told us of the plan to buy a new house. He returned during the dwindling days of summer. Dianne had left before his arrival, escaping to Stan’s house in Wheeling to await the start of the fall semester. She was behind one year.

In the following weeks he was the very best my dad could be.

It was terrifying.

I knew that it wouldn’t last; when it ended it would be bad. As bad, or likely worse, than it had ever been.

It was also exciting.

Dad could be fun. When he was on he was all-the-way-on. He was energy for all in his presence.

Even then I intuited that the ladies, young and old, liked him. A lot. During neighborhood social gatherings they would gather around, with girlish tones to their voices, twittering and chirping. He was also a man’s man; the garage was often the site of late night card games. Many nights I watched him and other officers play softball for the summer league. His sense of humor carried every game, win or lose. I was proud to be his daughter.

People loved him.

They just didn’t know him.

He and mom had already made an offer on the house. It was his job to hook me and my sister, taking us on a grand tour, making us feel like our opinions would make or break the deal.

My sister was starting junior high in the fall and the new home was much closer to her school. I would be a freshman at the high school located just across the street and wouldn’t have a two-mile five a.m. hike for swim practice.

The house was more modern than our old bungalow. It had two bathrooms and a finished basement that didn’t fill with storm water from city drains that overflowed during the summer monsoons.

“The perfect place for a ping-pong table,” he noted. It was not a coincidence I loved ping-pong.

It had a large den in the back, leaving the formal room to the front of the house, common in small Detroit communities. These spaces, just inside the front door, were infrequently, if ever, used and often the furniture was encased in stiff plastic. In the past they were reserved for Fuller Brush salesmen and Avon ladies; later, Tupperware parties. Children understood they were not to enter through the front.

The kitchen had a breakfast nook; with a separate dining area in the den. This was fancy and I knew my mother, who was known for decorating and entertaining, must have loved it. The counters and appliances were avocado green, so very stylish in 1976.

The den included a large brick fireplace and a sliding door to the back yard.

“Not much of a yard to rake, and think of Christmas with that fireplace.”

I was sold.

I don’t know what to do,” she said. “He said he would shoot us all.”

I felt overwhelmed and wished Dianne was home to deal with this. I didn’t know what to say to get my mom to listen; she and I didn’t have these conversations.

“Well,” I started. “Do you believe him?”

“I don’t know, I just don’t know.” She looked helpless and defeated.

“Um, mom, I believe him.”

“He says things like that.”

News to me.

“But what if he means it this time? I really think we should go.” I wanted to scream at her to get packed, NOW.

“Where would we go?”

“Can’t we go to grandma’s?” I suggested.

“And just leave everything? Our house, the schools; I can’t just leave my job, we wouldn’t have any money.”

“Yeah mom. It would be better than being dead.”

She shook her head. “I don’t know, I have to think. I have to figure things out.”

And that’s how we left it.

I was awakened to loud voices outside my door. The first words I heard were my father’s: slurred and harsh. Then my mother’s, imploring him to please quiet down, the kids are sleeping.

More of his words. This time I heard, “Bitch.” It came out like a spit, full of fury.

I knew I had to act. Fighting through my fear I got out of bed and opened my door. He was in a t-shirt and briefs; my mom was in a slip. He was standing close to her with his face inches from her face.

“Stop it!” I barked. “Stop talking to her like that!” I looked directly at him, willing myself to hold my gaze. They were both startled.

He backed away, walking into the bathroom and standing in front of the mirror. Now he had tears in his eyes.

“See what you’re doing? You’re turning my children against me.” He was loud but not yelling. My mother was silent.

“No she’s not, dad, you are. You’re scaring me.”

He was now sobbing.

She guided me into my bedroom and partially closed the door. I sat on my bed while we waited until the bathroom and hall were dark.

After we heard him walk to the den she motioned for me to slide over on the bed. She got in and we whispered in the dark.

“Mom, what do you think he’s going to do?” I was thinking of the chair in the den where he kept his weapons and objects like his flashlight and billy club.

“I don’t know. I think you surprised him. He may just go to sleep.”

“But mom, what if he doesn’t? Shouldn’t we try to sneak out? We can wait until he’s sleeping and take the car.” We would have to drive across town to our old neighborhood to stay with friends.

“I left my keys on the hook in the basement.”

I was dumbfounded. After our talk earlier in the evening I was convinced of the urgency to act. And then she left her car keys in the basement. This was one of the first times in my life I saw my mother as a person and not infallible.

This was also one of the first times I was called on to be a problem solver.

“Okay, I have an idea. I’ll go out to the kitchen and act like I’m getting a glass of water. After I turn on the tap I’ll say, ‘dad’, and if he answers I’ll leave the tap on and go to the den. Then you go downstairs to get the keys. The water should block out any sounds.”

“What if he doesn’t answer you?”

“I’ll go to the den to see if he’s asleep. If he is you can still get the keys.”

I slid down to the end of the bed and stood, turning to face her.

“So follow me to the kitchen and wait until I go in the den” I instructed. “If I don’t come back right away that means you have time to get the keys.”

I took a deep breath and began the short walk from my bedroom to the kitchen.