THE WINTER OF MY DISCONTENT - NAOMI JOHNSON
Ma had to pick the coldest day of the year for us to leave. Icicles hung like giant spears from the eaves and the mercury hovered at the zero mark that morning. And with the promise of a blizzard yet, according to the radio. Still, her mind was made up and she packed what clothes would fit in a cracked-vinyl two-suiter.
“Your pa won't be home until late,” she promised. “We'll be long gone by then. We'll catch the bus down at Mahoney's store. I got enough money to get us at least to Beckley, and Aunt Roxie will help us from there.”
Whatever had final broke loose in Ma, after what was for me a lifetime of witnessing her take Pa's beatings and abuse, was a mystery. Yes, he had slapped her around the night before but it wasn't no worse and some easier than it had been a hundred times before. All I know is that they had fought like they always did, the two of 'em hitting and screaming at each other, and her threatening to leave like she always did, and at some point he said something about me. I didn't catch anything but my name and he didn't say anymore, but she stopped fighting and was real quiet for the rest of the evening. Pa was most quiet, too, keeping his bleary gaze fixed on the bottle and its vanishing contents. I wish I could recall what he said but a long time ago I learned how to keep my head down in a book and drown out their voices when they carried on like that.
But her being silent, that was different. That caught my attention.
Reckon it caught his, too, because there we were the next morning, just out the door and here he came back up the dirt drive, walking fast, eyes up and head down to dodge the wind and the snow that was just beginning to fall. His breath was blowing all steamy-like, quick and puffy like the C&O.
“Where the hell you think you're going, Mavis? You think you're leaving me? Goddammit!”
And that quick he knocked the little suitcase out of Ma's hand, yanked hard on her other arm and she cried out. Then it was like an episode of 'Cops.' One-Baker-One, domestic disturbance, see the woman. She started to scream and claw at him. He pushed back, cussing a blue streak, and before I could get myself at a safe distance I found myself pressed tight between her and the door, eye-level with her shoulder blades. He whopped her with his fist and her head snapped back but Ma being Ma, she was flailing right back at him. I was trying to squeeze out from behind her and get away. It was stupid to stand too close when they were like this.
Then I saw him reach a big old paw up and wrench off one of those icicles hanging there. Thirty inches long, if I had to guess, and ice thick as Pa's wrist at the place where he broke it from the eave. He two-handed it, for a better grip I suppose, and whaled at her, catching her across the head above her ear. I heard a wet smack and she stopped yelling. She slumped away from me, dropping right at his feet. He let go the icicle, kicking and cussing at her. She didn't move and neither did I, her all pressed to the cold ground and me feeling more pinned to the door than when she had pinned me there. He didn't move no more, either, frozen as that icicle.
Nothing moved, except for tiny pellets of frozen white being whipped by a razor-sharp wind as it rode down the holler.
“You killed her,” I said. My mouth felt all cottony, but the words came out okay.
Now how could I know that? She laid face down, and hadn't I seen her like that at least once a month, every month, as far back as I could recall? But I knew she was dead. I had felt her spirit fly away from me, from him, scissoring away on the wind. I did. I don't know how else to explain it, but I knew she'd final cut free of him for good and all. I also knew it wasn't any use doing what he was doing then: Turning her over and crying and begging and praying to God to bring her back, wake her up, he'd be different, he would.
Sure he would.
“She ain't coming back,” I said, louder so he could hear me over his moaning and grieving. “You killed her.”
Like he needed to be told twice, I guess, 'cause he stopped the noise, straightened up, dragged out a dirty hanky from his back pocket and said, 'Get your ass back in the house, boy.' His eyes were red, not just from crying but from drink, too. The tears had frozen that quick on his cheeks and somehow he didn't look like he'd real wept real tears at all but kind of phony, like movie makeup or something. Somehow that seemed right to me. Real tears would have been all wrong on him.
I went back inside and took off my coat. Went to the sink, rinsed a cup and drank some water. I noticed my hands shook but I do think that was from the cold. Then I went to the front window and pulled back the blanket so I could see what he was up to.
He walked back down the packed-dirt drive toward the hard road. I guessed he'd hid the truck when he left that morning and sat there just waiting for Ma to come outside. In a few minutes, he drove the truck right up to the front of the house. He sat behind the wheel for a long time. I couldn't see his face. Maybe he was trying to find the nerve to do whatever he was going to do.
Maybe he was just taking time to get warm again. But final he climbed out, opened the passenger side door, picked up Ma and hefted her in the cab. It was an awkward business, and that's all I have to say about that. Then he grabbed up the two-suiter that had skittered away when he struck her. I wondered how that crappy little case had kept from flying open and strewing clothes everywhere. He tossed the case on top of her, took his own place at the wheel, and slow pulled up the hill behind the house, going towards the ridge. I had a pretty good idea where he was taking her and how long it was gonna take him.
I went back to the sink and got some more water and I noticed my hands weren't shaking no more. That pleased me. I thought about calling the sheriff, thought about how that would go and how it might end. Then I picked up the phone and called my best friend, Brett. Brett's parents were way cool, they let him do just about anything he pleased. I counted on that more than once.
“Hey, dude,” I said, “what are you doing?” Be casual. There is nothing wrong.
“Oh, dude, you gotta come over! My dad and I are playing Guitar Hero and he is so lame!” Everything excited Brett, but nothing excited him like Guitar Hero.
Play it cool. No, no, play it cold. Like an icicle. “Man, I'd love to, 'cause, you know my folks are fighting again. But they said on the radio that we'd have a blizzard starting this evening and Ma doesn't want me to be out in that. Two feet of snow by morning they're saying.” I paused, waited.
“I know, I heard, but -- well, you can spend the night, can't you? Why not? And if it gets real bad you could spend the whole weekend because you know there isn't going to be any school tomorrow. Ask your Mom, dude, we could have a great time!”
“Okay, I will, but she's in a pretty bad mood. Hold on a minute.”
I put the phone down and walked around the room, tried to talk in a normal tone then alternate with some mumbling like a real conversation might sound. Banged some pots around and yelled once then picked up the phone again.
“Brett? She said okay, but I gotta take my homework with me. And plus, there's some stuff she wants me to do here first and Dad's too drunk to drive this morning so it'll take me a while, okay?”
“See ya when I see ya. But hurry, man, Dad is making Weezer sound good.”
I hung up and went into my room. From the window in there, I could look up the hill but I didn't see the truck, so I went into their bedroom and started looking. Found a bottle of Mad Dog almost right off, hid in an old support stocking that had belonged to Grandma. The stocking was in a small wood casket that had once had fancy chocolates in it. Ma won it in a raffle over at the Jesus First Church. She loved that little box, don't ask me why. It had a picture painted on it, she said it was the Road to Emmaus.
But Mad Dog wasn't what I was after. I found it under a floor register, disguised by a big clump of dirty socks. Everclear. “High test,” Pa called it. I sampled it once, and once was enough for me. I heard his drinking buddy, Travis Marcum, say that a man could drink less and get drunk faster on that stuff than anything that had ever been put in a bottle. Illegal in about a dozen states, too, so it must be potent. Whatever worked fast, that's all I cared about. I'd've used Drano if I thought Dad would drink it.
I heard the truck coming back down the hill -- too soon! -- and I scrambled toward the kitchen. He came in, the cold air haloing him, and did what he almost always did, went straight to the fridge and looked for a beer. We were out, so he closed the fridge and sat down at the table. And there was the Everclear, smack in the middle of the table. He gave me a weird look.
“I thought -- it's cold out. I thought you'd want something to warm you up.” And damned if I didn't duck my head, just like she always did, always half-expecting him to throw a glass or a bottle or a fist. And then he looked away from me and sat and stared. Practically stared a hole in that bottle. He was silent so long that I jumped when he finally spoke. I was afraid he would want to know how I came to find the stuff.
“Are you fucking stupid?” I held my breath, let it out quick when he added, “Get me a goddamn glass.”
And for the next two hours he drank steady. Guess he wanted to be drunk enough to forget what he'd just done. I just wanted him to be drunk enough to forget where he was.
When I left home around two o'clock that afternoon, I carried a plastic shopping bag with my geography book and my notebook in it, along with a change of clothes and my toothbrush. I was bundled up warm enough to please even Ma. It was three and a half miles to Brett's house and I had to walk bent over against the wind. The blizzard was moving in faster than the weatherman had predicted and I don't mind saying it was a rough walk. There was already five inches on the ground and it was full dark when I rang the doorbell with a hand that had gone numb.
Brett's mom took one look at me, did the 'you poor boy, what were you thinking' routine that all moms do, all the while she bustled around chafing my hands, making hot chocolate and telling Brett to get me some dry clothes to put on. She fed us all some vegetable soup, made from stuff she'd canned last fall. Brett and his dad had tired of Guitar Hero so we ended up playing board games to please Brett's mom. She loved Clue so we played that and Scene It. They have a big old-fashioned fireplace, and Mr. Chambers made a fire while Brett and I made popcorn. Then we all laid around in front of the fire and swapped ghost stories. It was probably the best night of my life.
I guess it was around midnight when Brett and I climbed into the sack. Mr. Chambers went upstairs with us, and he said the temperature had dropped to 14 below. We could hear the wind, a high-pitched squeal rounding the corners of the house, but when we looked outside there was nothing to see but snow being blown in all directions. Brett and I decided to just sleep in the sweats we were wearing, and I had turned onto my side and closed my eyes when I felt a tug at my shoulder.
“Hey, dude, was everything okay with your folks when you left?” Brett knew all about my mom and dad. Like I said, we were best friends. I'd have been embarrassed for anyone else to know, but Brett is totally cool.
I rolled over to face him in the dark. Brett was cool all right, but he was not ready for all this. Maybe someday, but not today. But I hated lying to him all the same.
“I think my mom is leaving. She had her little suitcase packed.” I picked at the hem of the pillow case. It smelled so clean.
“Oh, man. That's bad. You -- are you going to stay with your dad? I thought you hated him?”
“Mom wants to take me, but I think -- things just ain't working out that way. I'll meet up with her sometime, though.” Time to change the subject. “How much snow you think we got so far?” I murmured.
Brett pulled himself up on his elbows and peered out the window. “Hard to see anything. But the way it's been coming down there's gotta be at least a foot already.” He settled back down again.
“So what did your dad say about her leaving? Didn't he try to stop her or nothing?”
My last memory of Pa was the way I stretched him out in the driveway. Out, period. He had give a little drunken snore, like a sleeping hog, as the snow began to erase his outline. I felt sleepy now, too, and yawned, a real jawbreaker. I couldn't resist a smile though.
“He didn't say a word, dude. How could he? When I left he was out cold.”
BIO: Naomi Johnson is a retired financial analyst with an unused degree in Criminology. She lives in Columbus, Ohio, and this is her first crime story.
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