Chapters 1 & 2 – “No!” and “A Blow of Another Kind”

“No!”
Mom’s tortured knocks on the door and simultaneous screams lift and pull me mechanically from the bathtub. The knocking comes from way, way up, at the top of the door. Maybe she has her arm over her head. Her knuckles rap and she shrieks, “Go get the Bolts! Go get the Bolts!” Whatever it is, she is alarmed to a frantic degree and I spring from the tub.
Judy scurries with me. Why is she calling for our neighbors, the Bolts? Wrapped in towels, we open the door, and step out into the urgency of Mom’s calls. With our first steps, something jars us to a stop. We look down to see our feet, our toes beneath us, curling up from the deep puddle of blood pooled on the brown speckled linoleum floor. It is the warmth of the blood that is striking, spilling over our wiggling toes.
I swing my head to see the commotion in the living room. To my left is the picture that becomes ingrained in my head for the next twenty-one years, the most significant picture of my life. My mother is crouching on the hearth of the fireplace, almost in a ball, her head feeble and her body shaking. Her face is turned so I can only see one eye that I later describe as a “scared little bunny rabbit’s” eye. It is bulging upward, fastened on the back of my nine-year old sister, Mary, who is standing in front of my mother, locked in a face-off with my father.
My father, panting, with the stiffest of arms wrapped around a long shotgun, with a maniacal look in his eye, is agitated, motioning his arms forcefully to his right while he roars at Mary, “Get out of the way! I’m going to kill your mother, you kids are going to an orphanage, and I’m going to jail for ten years!” He has already shot Mom once. She is squatting behind Mary, bleeding profusely.
Mary stands before him, her body stretched out, leaning forward, her chin jutting upward, three inches from the barrel of the shotgun. Her eyes are squinting, glaring straight into his. With her meanest might, she snarls, “No!”
He swerves the gun again to his right in a quick and forceful motion, “Get out of the way! I’m going to kill your mother, you kids are going to an orphanage, and I’m going to jail for ten years!”
From her same stance, same squinted eyes, same snarl, she gives another resounding “No!” with her chin jutting upward, holding steady, her eyes never leaving his.
“Get out of the way! I’m going to kill your mother, you kids are going to an orphanage, and I’m going to jail for ten years!” he roars down the barrel of the gun.
With one leg outstretched behind her, the other bent, slanting herself upward, her adrenaline is pumping. Her lungs are heaving, panting with breaths, her mouth is closed, and air is shooting from her nostrils. Mary does not move, except to sling this one word, once again, “No!”
“Get out of the way!” Using the exact same words he has each time, “I’m going to kill your mother, you kids are going to an orphanage, and I’m going to jail for ten years!”
It does not end. It is exactly the same, over and over. In the exact same angry, grizzly-gorilla stance, motioning the gun in a half moon circle to his right, he screams these exact same words of murderous intent.
Mary’s defiant “No!” is exactly the same. The same stance, foot behind her, the same chin jutting up the barrel of the gun, the same three inches away, her same fierce eyes, trying to match his grizzly tone. Digging from the deepest parts of her little body, she shouts the same word, the only word she has.
Judy and I have stepped from the hallway into the living room, and are standing on the edge of the dining room. Judy is in front now, but she is turned, facing me. I am facing the three of them. I am watching all of this. Judy is watching me. Like a mirror of me, the two of us are facing each other with crinkled up, red faces, screaming with all our individual might. I can see her eyes, though her lids are wavering with her screams. She is staring straight into my eyes. I see her. I see her terror. I am looking back and forth, at this horrific picture of a violence I cannot comprehend, and then into Judy’s green eyes. Wisps of blond hair are around her forehead, like mine, I am sure, so I can see my own wisps in her reflection.
There is no change in what is happening. My father makes the same motions, with his firm and fierce arms. He is eager to kill. Mary yells the same “NO!” straight up the barrel of the gun.
I do not know it then but a miracle is happening. I am watching a terrifying event, but I am also looking into Judy’s eyes. Her face is moving but her eyes are not. They are crystal green. Her face is crinkled, but her eyes are not; they are steady. Her scream is shattering, but her eyes are still. She is wide-eyed now, frantic, as am I, but her eyes never leave mine. I do not know it then, but I am grounded in her eyes. Although her eyes are confirmation of my terror, when I look down into them I begin to see a peacefulness. Her eyes say, “Yes, this is happening! Here – see it in my eyes?” And I can. But I see something else. I know exactly what is happening before me. I am in present time. I cannot get away from this savage act. There is no pull to take me away, only the crystal clear mixture of calm and fear I see in her eyes. I am her. The picture of who she is, what I see, becomes who I am, how I see myself looking in those moments – in terror, but at deep peace at the same time. We know we are shaken to the core by what is happening, but there is something in her eyes, some place that is pulling me in and toward it, telling me this, what I am seeing in front of me, is not all there is. My mouth is open, I am screaming with her; my face is red and wrinkly, too. It must be, we are the exact same picture, reflecting back to each other what the other is seeing. She is my mirror.
“Get out of the way! I’m going to kill your mother, you kids are going to an orphanage, and I’m going to jail for ten years!”
“No!”
They repeat this dialogue fifty times. It is the length of time that will have the largest impact on me. Standing and screaming at the top of my lungs puts a stress on my body I cannot imagine, but the same space of time gives me the opportunity to see clearly that I can make a deliberate choice about where I want to be in these moments. I can be here with the violence, or I can stay grounded in Judy’s eyes.
“Get out of the way! I’m going to kill your mother, you kids are going to an orphanage, and I’m going to jail for ten years!”
“No!”
I would say it was mechanical and rote, if it were not for the fury and murderousness of his eyes. His stance, his demonic state is anything but robotic. He is growling.
“Get out of the way! I’m going to kill your mother, you kids are going to an orphanage, and I’m going to jail for ten years!”
“No!”
Judy and I are still screaming, clenching our towels, our fists are rubbing each other’s. Our eyes are connected. I’m glancing to my left, at this scene. My mother never changes either. She is whimpering; her eyes are bugged and bulging. His arms never lose their stiffness. His determination does not wane.
Then another miracle happens.
Mary changes her words. She is now exhausted, no longer forceful, as she says, “Daddy, look what you’ve done! I used to love you, but now I hate you! Look what you’ve done to my mommy. Look what you’ve done! I hate you. Look what you’ve done to my mommy. Daddy, I used to love you. Now I don’t love you anymore.”
Her eyes are softer and she is questioning. She does not say it, but her tone is “Do you see what you have done?”
There is a break in the tension that has held this scene together, a break in the maniac holding the gun. The glazed look is suddenly gone. His tight arms slacken, his elbows bend. There is an awareness that comes over him; he cocks his head to one side and he looks into Mary’s eyes as she speaks. It is the moment of a miracle. Her eyes have not left his. She is giving him time to realize what he has done.
The magnitude sets in. How can it not? There is blood splattered everywhere. His wife is faintly shivering yet rigid and stiff, her eyes are wide open with alarm. Judy and I, who have been screaming non-stop, are now choking on our withering screams, our thick tongues. He squats and drops the gun. I hear it clank.
It would be years before I realized the third miracle that happened in this moment. In the deepest core of my being, this scene crystallized for me an utter faith that, if a little girl could bring down a maniac, any conflict could be resolved. Simpler than could ever be imagined, the most difficult of situations could be resolved with the right words and tone.
My mother is quaking. Her eyes are still bugged. It is the saddest picture I have seen. He goes to my mother and immediately begins wrapping his arms around her. He is picking her up but her legs are bent and wobbly and she is shivering. He is half carrying her; she is half walking. Her bugged eyes dart around. I want her to look at me, but she does not.
He walks her around to the kitchen, past where Judy and I have been standing in the dining room. He leans Mom’s right side onto the refrigerator. She is standing now, her body leaning on the refrigerator. He is frantically on the phone. The phone is attached to the wall, but has a long cord so that he can reach my mother. He calls his father. I hear him say, “I just shot Frannie.” He hangs up. He calls the police. “I just shot my wife. Come get me.”
While he is on the phone, Judy and I are in the same place we have always been, our feet planted on the floor of the dining room, only having moved slightly as my father passed by from the living room to the dining room, and into the kitchen with our mother. I am watching my mother lean on the refrigerator; I am aware of her breath. Her right arm is shredded like stretched chicken skin, a dangling rope hanging behind her; her right hand is attached to the end of these shredded pieces of roped skin. It is lying lifeless on the floor in front of Judy and me. I am staring at it. It is still. Her hand is dead.
While my father is on the phone, I am listening to my mother breathe as I take in this new scene. Then I do not hear her; I do not see her moving. She is still standing, barely, but her body is now slumped and still, her head now more a part of her shoulders. My father is reaching one arm out to hold her up, but I know now she is dead, like her hand, her body is lifeless. Her air is gone.
Then, like a little puff of fairy dust, her head pops away from the refrigerator, a fraction of a fraction of an inch, to the left. It is the most minute of movements, but not to a little girl who is watching for the slightest of any movement, knowing the stillness means certain death for her mommy. She has come back to life! Mom would later tell me in that moment she remembered her two thirteen year-old twin sons needed two number two pencils to take a test the next morning so they could get into the local Catholic high school.
My father is off the phone and wondering what to do. He lowers her to the floor in front of the stove. He realizes she is bleeding profusely. She is a nurse and she speaks to him. She is telling him to get towels, to apply pressure to the bleeding. She knows she has lost too much blood. He runs. He comes back with sheets. He is squatting now and I see him wind up her arm like a garden hose. He then presses the whole bundle of skin to her right side, where her arm is supposed to be, where the blood is coming from. He is wrapping the sheets around her and pressing them to her. I see her try to reach around with her left arm to apply pressure, but her attempt is weak and there is little strength in her. They are half lying, half sitting on the floor now, his arms around her. My dad is calmer. My mother is breathing in short crying huffs, trying to sit up, but her head slumps and she is swaying backwards as if she will fall. He holds her, rocks her.
We know it is a life or death situation. They are not aware of us, but we three girls are still standing in the dining room, and have been inching our way closer to watch the struggle to save her life.
There is a commotion at the front door. People are entering. Things begin to happen fast.
It is the police. My father reluctantly leaves Mom as they pull him away. They handcuff him from behind and walk him out the front door. His body is upright, and he is glancing behind him toward the people who have now gathered around my mom. The once white sheets are now masses of dark red.
Two men lift my mom, holding her up as if to take small baby steps. Her red corduroy house robe hangs, draping her in tatters. It looks like a Halloween costume that is cut for a hobo or scarecrow to wear, only this has not been cut. The gun has done this on its own, blowing it to bits, and I am immediately embarrassed for my mom that people are seeing her skin, her bra, her underwear.
Men in uniforms are flooding in and out of the doorway now, and medical personnel are on either side of Mom, walking her out to the ambulance. I see her hang her head. The feeling I get in this moment is that she is ashamed that her husband has shot her. Maybe she is just weak or has any of a hundred thoughts in her mind at this time, but the image of her head hanging down, as if not wanting to be seen, stays with me for many years, as if this, being shot and having police here, is something to be ashamed of.
I am back in my bedroom now. I am binding up a sock and leaning down to roll it up my foot when a policeman opens the door wider and says to us girls, “Put your clothes on. Everything is going to be okay.” I will never forget the gentle tone of his voice. It was piercingly kind, but at the same time, I remember being embarrassed that our bedroom, with the clothes piled high atop the dressers, was a mess.
Having thoughts of being embarrassed about my mother’s nakedness and about my room being messy in front of strangers always comforted me later. It informed me that even in the middle of this out-of-the-norm event, I must have still been a little bit normal. These were the very real flashes of thought running through the mind of a seven-year old in the midst of chaos.
A Blow of Another Kind
Soon we three girls are reunited with our three brothers at a neighbor’s house, the Gentry’s, where they have gathered after fleeing our house. I am sitting on the couch while everyone is scurrying about. There is clamor, talk, movement – the house is abuzz. Surprisingly, I feel safe. My brothers are there. Anywhere my brothers and sisters are is where I want to be. But the strangest feeling comes over me. Even though I am acutely aware of how secure I feel being here with my siblings, in a familiar house, I have a foreboding feeling I cannot shake. No matter how I try to convince myself I am safe and the worst is over, I know it is not.
How I knew, I cannot say, but if I had been asked by someone what I was thinking while I sat there on the couch at the Gentrys, I would have been able to say, “Something terrible is about to happen.” As if it already hadn’t!
Something terrible was coming.
Sure enough, soon my grandparents, our father’s parents, are there to take the three of us girls to their home, six miles down the highway, and a thousand miles from this feeling of safety. The boys are old enough to remain with the neighbors. If only we are able to choose, we will surely pick staying with our brothers. Where we belong.
My memory of my life becomes crystal clear on this night and every day forward. I begin to remember the details of my life in living, vivid color, down to the exact words spoken, a dialogue I can script. But, although I remember the drive to my grandparents’ house, I cannot remember the words said. Mary does. We three girls are crying in the back seat, while my grandparents in the front seat, hiss, “Stop crying!” I think my terribly foreboding feeling must be consuming me during this drive.
We are in their house. We three girls are sitting in the dark on the couch in the living room. Mary is between Judy and me, with her arms around us. I can feel her warmth, her love, her tenderness and worry, her still-panicked sense of urgency to protect us. She is shaking along with us. We are one entity as we quiver. Straight ahead is the long, living room, so dark I cannot see the other side; no lights are on. It is the blackness I stare into. To the right, the dining room is darkened, too, only there is a light shining into it from the archway door of the kitchen. This light is shining directly onto the ornate carvings of the mahogany buffet table on the left wall of the dining room.
Through the kitchen door, I see my relatives. My grandparents must be seated at the kitchen table, but I cannot see them because my aunts and uncles are standing around them, leaning over, listening to all that is being said at the table. It is the exact same stance I’ve seen many times, when these relatives play pinochle. I only hear mumbles, I do not know what is being said, and much time goes by. We little ones are shaking, whimpering. No one has come to us, no one has touched us, no one has hugged us, no one has cooed soothing words to us. We are in the very dark room. Mary is working hard to soothe us while the shock is setting into our nine, seven, and five year old bodies. I can see our six legs stretched out and dangling over the edge of the couch. We still have dried blood on us.
I am in shock and waiting.
Although not the worst to come, what happens next changes my life forever. My Uncle George, standing behind my grandparents who are seated at the dining room table, all at once, throws his head back, laughing wildly at something that is said.
Now that I am grown, I do realize that in times of enormous stress or sad events like funerals and wakes, when enough time goes by, adults begin to talk about things other than the crisis at hand. This fact I do not know as a seven-year old who has just seen my mother blown to tatters, bleeding on the floor, being carried away. I am still reeling from the pictures in my head. None of this – about adults gathering – do I know.
I only know that the moment I witness my uncle’s head go back and hear his uproarious laughter, I turn to stare at the ornate carvings on the middle drawer of the buffet table. In this moment I say to myself, “I will never respect an adult just because that person is older than I am.”
I feel an inkling of the rock I am to become.
It is time for us girls to go to bed. The relatives are gone now. Not one of them stepped into the darkened room where we sat on the couch. They came in the back door and went out the back door. I am confounded by this and, filling with venom, I begin to feel the poison of hate creep through my veins. I am running the water in the bright lights of the bathroom that separates my grandparents’ bedroom from the guest bedroom where my sisters and I will sleep. I can see the water running down the drain as I wash myself. We three girls crawl into the bed, lying side by side. Maybe we doze off to sleep.
And then it happens.
What I see next will be a picture that haunts me for years to come. It will be years before I speak to Mary about this. When I do, I find she remembers seeing exactly what I see in these next moments.
Sometime, in the deep, dark dead of night I look up to see a black figure, silhouetted in black, walking toward me through the bedroom doorframe. It is black on black, but I see it vividly. There is not a sound in the night. It is my father. He walks into the guest bedroom and crawls into bed with the three of us girls. I freeze, scared my breathing will be heard. I remain frozen, not moving an inch for the rest of the night.
I do not know what jail is or what “being let out on bail” is. I do not know any of this. All I know is the dark figure coming toward me is the angry man who has hurt my mommy.
He has been let out on bail. And where does one go when he is bailed out of jail after shooting his wife? I guess one goes to his parents’ home. That is what my father has done.
Mary is lying on the side of the bed closest to the door; I am lying in the middle. Judy is next to the wall, fast asleep. I do not know Mary is awake, I only learn this later. She, too, has become a frozen statue as my father lays his body down next to hers and falls asleep.
I do not sleep that night. I lie in complete horror. If I know fear, it is here we met. This is the night we become intimate. We are together in an endless standoff with each other. I cannot sleep or it will leap into me and keep me. As it is, its grip has me, but I do not know how much of me it has. I only know my life depends on my staying awake.
Sleeping soundly, my father does not wake. He does not molest us; he does not touch us inappropriately in any way, on this night – or any other. But if molestation is a violation of one’s body, this incident in my bed caused me to relate to all others who have been encroached upon by a violator.
As ferocious as Mary had been earlier this evening, her body is now spent. There is nothing left in her with which to protest. I’d watched her become a wet noodle and turn back into herself after my father put down the gun. Anyway, how would two little girls know they had the right to sit up in bed and scream, “Get out! Get out!” loudly enough for people to come running and chase my dad and his crazy thinking away?
In these fear-sick hours of the night, while I wrestled with how utterly wrong this was, I lost the ability to protect myself. I would fail miserably at becoming appropriately angry for the next two decades. If my father did not know enough to protect us, or my grandparents did not know enough to protect us from him, how was I ever to learn how wrong this was? It only felt wrong. In the long hours that passed that night, I came to surrender a piece of myself to this wrong and helpless feeling – and in the exhaustion of it all, my victimhood was sealed.
My father left the next morning. There was talk of what to do with us.
Turns out, the police had asked my mother while she was on the operating table what she wanted to do – did she want to prosecute? This, they say, is something that should not be asked of a victim on the very night she is victimized. It would be many years before laws passed to protect the victim, relieving her of the responsibility to make decisions in a state of shock. Having come “back to life” to care for her children, my mother’s first thoughts were of us. “Let him out so he can make money and feed the children.”
He was let out, but he would never make money, and with that, he would never again have the privilege of feeding his children.
From the time my father was handcuffed at the house, taken away to jail for a few hours, and released the same night, was the only time he was incarcerated for this crime.
My father went to a mental hospital in town for one month. For the next five years he lived in Los Angeles, then Boston. He never sent child support, although we did get cards for birthdays with dollar bills inside. For the most part, he was out of our lives for good. At least physically.

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