I remember playing my own little games on the pile of clothes, and watching the sun and sky dance and play through the giant back window that a 1972 Ford Pinto possesses.
“Pigs!” I think I said. “No, those are sheep,” Mom might have said. It didn’t matter. I remember feeling free and relieved.
Uncle Terry rented a wing of an old plantation in West Virginia called Willow Wall. I remember it being a huge old scary place, but I always felt safe around Uncle Terry. He was big and happy, bearded. I cowered behind his giant calf while he played tennis with a lost bat in a great room.
Mom rented a little house. We had a black dog named Sooner who ate our shoes. We had a milk man who always gave me a little carton of chocolate milk. Once, when I was hiding in mom’s closet I watched them in bed together. I liked him.
My dad came to visit for my third birthday. He gave me a guitar. I remember wishing that he would go away.
I got a new bike for my fourth birthday. It was red with chrome handlebars and a sparkly banana seat. Dad set the training wheels flat on the ground at first. When he raised them up a notch I learned balance. When he took them off and gave me a shove down the sidewalk I learned freedom.
“Just go around the block.” he said. “Don’t cross any streets!” I might have made it around the block a dozen times before I met other kids on bikes.
I was five when I got a watch. “Make sure you come home for dinner,” Mom said, “6 o’ clock!”
A watch on a five year old is as about as useful as a eunuch with a condom. I was late often.
“You’re late again!” said Dad. “Don’t you look at your watch?” “Sorry.” I must have said. “What were you doing?” “Just playing.” Or something like that.
What we were really doing was exploring an old broke-down Victorian a quarter mile away. I remember crawling through the broken window in the kitchen door. Too scared to venture upstairs, our crew left the way we came, but a little faster.
Dad held a spindle in his hand at the table. It was from a staircase I knew. “Don’t you ever go in that house again.” And I never did.
The next time I was late for dinner he accused me of going back to the house. He dragged me into the bedroom, pulled my pants off and whipped me with his belt.
That day I swore to myself that when I was big enough, and strong enough, I was going to beat my dad, for me, and my mom.
Walking home from school that day was just like the day before. I spent the half mile walk daydreaming as eight year olds do, but when I turned into the gate to the apartment building it was different.
In the yard a neighbor who babysat us looked at me and said, “You need to go upstairs. Your father’s waiting for you.” I thought this was strange because I always got home before Dad. I walked up the three flights to our apartment.
Mom’s third suicide attempt was the closest.
This wasn’t watching her being brought down the stairs on a stretcher on her way to get her stomach pumped, or like the time my dad and his “buddies” coaxed her off the roof of the last apartment building we got kicked out of.
I was led through the room full of strangers and family to my dad in a chair.
“Your mom jumped off the porch today, Will. She’s in the hospital.” My dad said with a big hug. I stiffened.
That’s all I remember about that day except that my brother was okay after spending hours screaming in his crib.
While mom was “recovering” in hospitals both physical and mental, it was made clear to me what my new responsibilities were. “Will, when I come home………..” “These dishes………” “That laundry……” “Watch your brother so he doesn’t………” These things I did the best I could because failure to do so was a scary prospect
Sticking his needles in the wall when I found them is what I did at sixteen.
I had a girlfriend who was eighteen. She drove a light blue Camaro, and it carried me away from the ants in the cereal and the dog shit on the floor. From my dad. Not so for my brother. I left him behind.
On a September morning I readied myself for school. I had my books in my right hand as I stepped past my dad on the living room floor.
As I reached the front door of our second story flat, I hear, “Will, that guitar is mine! That amp is mine!”
Pure rage came out of my mouth. “You can shove that guitar up your ass!”
I slammed the door. With my back to a flight of concrete stairs, I heard the familiar sound. The stomping that shook the house.
My dad burst through.
I think I punched him in the face before my books hit the landing. I’m not sure. But I do know that I just kept hitting him as fast as I could. Uppercuts when he tried to cover.
Finally my dad raised his head and said, “Look what you’re doing to your father!”
I remember looking into his eyes and seeing blood drip from his mouth.
I picked up my books, walked down the stairs, and went to school. I spent the first hour picking little blood spots off my forearms and feeling sick.
The walk home was a long one. My dad met me a block from home with a pat on the back. “Wow, where’d you learn to fight like that? I’m not gonna mess with you man! “ He was high. I went to my room.
Soon after my dad lost custody of us. My brother, as smart as he is, just stopped going to school. It’s funny how, back then, anyway, a kid could show up to school with filthy clothes, malnourished and bruised, and nothing would be said. Rampant truancy though, had to be addressed.
I think I was twenty-one when I got the call from my dad. “HIV positive,” he said.
I went to visit him a few times. We went to a coffee house near where he was staying. I remember thinking that he was the best I’d ever known him to be. Never trusting.
When I heard that he was in the hospital, and getting worse, I made plans to go visit him.
I never did. I guess I just kept putting it off.
My grandmother called one morning and told me that my dad had died. She gave me all the information about the service, when and where.
I walked to the casket with my brother, confident that I could handle this.
When I saw my dad, my knees buckled and I screamed like an infant who’d been pinched. Like my soul itself had been shattered. My brother held me up.
In the car ride to the cemetery, my grandfather said to me, “You gotta be tough, Will! You need to be tough!”
I still play guitar.
Will O. Wall