“The Night My Mom Was Going To Burn Down the House” Book Excerpt: When We Were At Your Mercy

We had moved into the farmhouse in the spring. We’d lived throughout the house during the summer where opening windows could generate a substantial cross-breeze to cool the room. When the temperature dropped, our family began the process of slowly moving into our basement to utilize a wood stove.

One fall day, David, pulled at my arm in panic.

“Come now, Mama and Dad are outside, and they’re fighting again. This time is very scary. They are hitting each other.”

I knew they had been fighting. I had watched them fight for years in loud words. This time, I watched from the large windows of the living room, balanced against partially rusted iron coils of an old heat register. Since their fights usually ended without anyone getting hurt, I was hesitant to get involved.

But, David was right. This time was very scary. So, I ran, following my brother outside, down the wooden porch stairs and onto the circular gravel cul-de-sac where my parents were throwing punches at each other.

“Stop it!”

First, I yelled it. Then, I screamed it. It went unheard. As the fighting escalated, and Mama scratched long thin bloody lines in Dad’s face and on his arm, my dad grabbed my mama around her neck and tightened his grip.

I screamed again,

“What are you doing?”

Without thinking, I jumped onto his back and began pounding, holding on by wrapping my legs around his waist. Then, David with all of his eight-year-old might started kicking his legs at my dad’s calves. Dad let Mama go, and she ran up the quarter mile dirt driveway past the grove of trees on her right, and the row of bushes that separated our land from the neighbors on the left. She was heading toward Highway 63.

What had been a hot, sticky late August day was cooling into a chilly night as the sun lowered.

“Everybody in the house, now,”

my father commanded. He was breathing heavily, and his blue eyes were red, but the boom of his authority was evident.

“Your mother is very sick right now, and we are not safe.”

Not safe. That didn’t sound right. Mama hadn’t been herself. She hadn’t been one of her happy selves. She was depressed and making horrible remarks. What was there about my mama that could be unsafe?

We followed my father back into the house, saying nothing. Both my brother, John, a toddler, and Aimi, an infant, [pronounced eye-me] were crying inside. John was crying because he had crawled his way into the corner of the living room where the fireplace had once been and onto the shiny white decorated rocks that remained after the unit was removed. His little knees were reddened with scratches clearly seen as he sat with his diapered bottom on the sharply pointed rocks.

Five-month-old Aimi was wailing in my parent’s bedroom in her crib for any number of reasons; she was wet, hungry, and hadn’t seen a caretaker in at least fifteen minutes. I scooped up John first, and placed him on my left hip; already a natural baby-carrying curve was well-formed on my ten-year-old form.

Grabbing Aimi next, I carried both babies into the middle of the ancient brown and orange shag carpet that covered the living room. There was no furniture except for a wooden rocking chair. Leaving them briefly, I walked around the house rounding up baby-changing supplies and yelling up to my two other brothers to come downstairs for a family meeting.

“I don’t know what is going on, but this is different than usual. They were really trying to hurt each other.”

Nearly six-year-old Samuel had played on the wooden floor of his otherwise barren room during all the commotion. Rather than concentrating on the problem at hand, he kept saying,

“I’m hungry.”

I rolled my eyes in frustration and commanded David to watch them while I went outside to one of the three gardens I had helped to plant in late April and throughout May. I cut some cantaloupe and a few tomatoes. As a treat, I planned to use two ears of popcorn dried in the kitchen. After cutting up the fruit and veggie, giving a juicy piece to each sibling, I turned on the hot plate to prepare for popcorn making.

Dad came into the kitchen. With no curtains on any of the large windows, it was easy to see the sky had darkened past twilight. Only slender strips of remaining light were visible to the West. He pointed outside and said,

“It will soon by dark, and I want you to know that your mother is very dangerous right now. She may try to burn this house down.”

Then, he disappeared toward the basement.

We were all stunned into silence. “She wouldn’t do that,” I thought. But I wasn’t sure. I turned off the hot plate, took my fruit and tomato to my siblings and then let them down.

“I’m sorry guys, there isn’t going to be any popcorn.”

Samuel began to cry. They all had sticky wet fingers and dirty faces.

From the living room, there were three doorways, one was open and led to the kitchen. The others both had thick wooden doors. One heavy, brown door opened to the staircase that led upstairs. The final door led to another large room. This room off of the living room looked like it was permanently under construction. To the left of the doorway, my parents’ slept at the feet of my sister’s crib on military-issue sleeping bags my father had kept since his days in the service.

To the right of their bedroom doorway, sat an old, deep bathtub, the kind with four feet. There was also a small sink and a toilet. It’s hard to say who designed this farmhouse, but they didn’t seem to have put a bathroom in.

“We need to talk, gang. Come on, let’s go get cleaned up.”

I steered our group toward my parents’ room/everyone’s bathroom. I helped each child to wash their hands and face, then sat everyone down in a huddle. Even the babies were silent. Everyone seemed to know that there was trouble.

“Dad says that Mama is coming back here, and she is in one of her moods. I think it is best if we all stay together, so everyone is sleeping in my room upstairs.”

Once again, I shuffled our group in herd fashion, this time through the heavy door and up the stairs, steering everyone into my bedroom. On hot summer days, Mama always opened all of the curtain-less windows in each of the four upstairs bedrooms to try to get a breeze. As the night air had chilled, each of the rooms had become cold enough to make us shiver.

I walked around shutting windows with great difficulty. Each needed to have candle wax rubbed along the wooden tracks to make opening and closing the wooden frames a smoother process. As it was, the windows heaved and stuck, requiring many attempts to get them fully closed. One window wouldn’t budge, so I jumped up to grab the top and pulled with all of my strength. I dangled from the window with my feet in the air trying to use all of my body weight, and still it did not move. That one would have to stay open.

Gathering all of the sleeping bags from my brothers’ rooms along with a couple of toys, I sat down again with my siblings in the bedroom, settling them in for bedtime.

I slept in fits and starts, jolted awake with the images of flames in my dreams. In time, my fear overcame the ability to sleep. A bit of light began to change the hue of the night sky. I just couldn’t wait until sunrise. I shook first David and then Samuel awake.

“We have to move someplace safer. If something happens to this house, we can’t be stuck upstairs,”

I whispered. “We have to carry Aimi and John downstairs.” Luckily, they were too tired to question what I meant by the house being in danger.

David helped me by picking up Aimi, and I grabbed little John. We walked to the foot of the stairs, where I started to open the big brown door into the living room. Overcome with fear, I sat down on the last step instead and asked the boys to sit down behind me. We huddled there as a group on the stairs, most kids falling back to sleep, for what seemed like hours. I kept my ear pressed to the door listening for signs of my mother’s return, hoping that she would not want to burn down the house.

Then, it came. A soft tapping on the window. Frozen for a moment, I pushed aside the boys who were resting against me. Slowly rising, so as not to wake Aimi sleeping on my lap, I turned the metal doorknob and peeked outside.

There was my mama, her face pressed against the window, trying to signal to me to unlock the front door. I hesitated before walking to the door, turning open the deadbolt, and letting her in. But, she didn’t want to come in. She took Aimi from my arms and hissed,

“Get me the car keys.”

Outside, my mama walked around the house to the back where our family’s two-door gold Chevy Impala was parked. I walked through the house, grabbing the keys from the nail in the kitchen and bounded down the four steps that went to the back door.

Behind me were the steps to the basement where my father was sleeping. It was always cooler in the cellar, and he could also smoke his Camel unfiltered cigarettes in the deepest corner of the second basement room where we stored our pickles after canning. He could close the door, and enjoy the puffs without getting too much of the smoke into the rest of the house.

I tried to open the locks quietly and then the metal screen door that had no screen. But, it creaked loudly, and my dad called out to me.

“What’s going on?”

“Nothing,” I called back tensely.

I ran out to my mother’s side at the driver’s door, and she fumbled with the keys while I held Aimi. Just as she had fastened Aimi into the child seat, and got the car started, my dad flew through the door. He ran after the car, pounding on the doors, then the trunk, until she drove too quickly for him to keep up.

Turning to me he said,

“Well, I hope you are happy. Now, you are going to have to walk into town to do your paper route.”

Realizing he was right, I began to panic. It was already past the time in the morning that I needed to start delivery of the Des Moines Register. In my two years on the job, I had done my share of oversleeping. Customers had complained about late papers before. I couldn’t afford more trouble. And the family could not afford to lose my income. It was all we were taking in.

I quickly dressed, grabbed my large canvas paper carrier bag, and began running the two miles into town.

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