It was a shivery March morning and our Kansas home was drafty as could be. The house was large and very old, and I loved it. There was a grandiose staircase that came right down the center of it and dumped you into the parlor. Our house had a parlor! Unlike the tiny apartments and trailers we had called home before this, it had room to play and loads of history and character. I loved that staircase and the parlor, despite that they were both dilapidated; it made me feel like stepping into an old movie. I used to imagine it was shiny and pristine and I’d practice the “So Long, Farewell” scene from The Sound of Music on it. My favorite part to play was Gretel when she sings “The sun… has gone… to bed & so must I-I.” I used to sit and imagine its history, the different families who lived here, the parties and gatherings they must’ve had, the love and heartbreak the walls had witnessed over the years. I liked to believe that we were the house’s favorite family though: Mom, Tony, Krystal, Hope, Hannah, and me. It was a nice little fantasy.
We were nearing the end of our first and only winter there. Tony had only been back for a little while. He left and came back a lot during the couple of years they were married.
Wrapped in a blanket, I quietly moved through the hall and down the stairs to about halfway. I stopped and sat down; they were fighting. I think it’s about money again. They were always arguing and raising their voices. Sometimes Tony got so loud and angry, it scared me. I always tried to stay nearby so I could listen in case Mom needed my help.
I heard the pitter patter of little feet coming down the stairs behind me. Hope, with her head of little curls all disheveled, wearing one of Mom’s old red t-shirts that fell down around her ankles. She was still rubbing her eyes, but they were wide with concern, even at two years old. She must’ve heard the fighting too. I opened my arms with the blanket spread wide and she climbed onto my lap. I wrapped myself and my blanket tight around her, pulling up the sock that was slipping off her tiny foot.
Things got quiet. I heard Mom crying and then Tony move towards her. A few moments pass in silence before I hear Hannah whimpering in stereo, from both up the stairs behind us and on the monitor in the kitchen. I listen closely to hear Mom’s feet moving out of the kitchen towards the parlor. I jump up, Hope in my arms, and pretend we are just making our way down the stairs. “Good Morning, Momma,” I say. Hope looks up at her with her big dark brown eyeballs and Mom leans in to kiss us each on the cheek before hurrying past in the direction of her other crying baby.
We all carry on about our day as if nothing has happened. Mom made oatmeal while Krystal & I got ourselves and Hope and Hannah bathed, dressed, hair done, & ready for the day. It was a Saturday which meant we didn’t have any school and church didn’t start until 7pm.
Mom handed Krystal the booklet of stamps we used to get our food and Krystal cringed. She hated that booklet. Sometimes when we went shopping with Mom, she would volunteer to take Hope and Hannah out to the car and get them buckled in just so she wouldn’t have to stand in line while Mom paid with the food stamps. She was so embarrassed by it; I was too, so was Mom and we knew it; but for some reason it always hit Krystal the hardest. This day, though, she’d have to get over it. Mom needed her to ride her bike across the street to get some groceries or we wouldn’t have food for dinner. Reluctantly, she accepted Mom’s list and the detested booklet and walked out the back door. I felt bad for her.
Tony wasn’t in the house much that day. He came in and out but never stayed in for long. I preferred it that way anyhow. He made me uncomfortable and I hated the way Mom’s mood changed when he was around.
Before I put Hannah down for her nap, her diaper needed changed. Halfway through I realized we were completely out of diapers. Mom sighed with exasperation at the news. Her face was one of hopelessness. I thought at any moment her green eyes would start flooding with tears. Instead, she took a deep breath, went into the bathroom and retrieved a small ratty hunter green bath towel. She helped me wrap it up around Hannah’s bum. We bunched the loose ends together on one side of Hannah’s itsy bitsy hip and tied it up with a rubber band. I gave Hannah her bottle and sang her to sleep all the while silently pleading with her not to pee while I was holding her.
Mom was in the kitchen cutting out a broad piece of cardboard from a box. The end of winter meant the beginning of spring and that meant more and more rain. We had been using cardboard to keep the frigid wind out of our van where the driver’s side window was broken out. I was happy the weather was warming up so we wouldn’t freeze on the way to church anymore, but Mom was worried about the rain sogging the cardboard and having to replace it day after day.
I shuffled past her to go out the door to play in the yard. I was gifted with a robust imagination and loved making up stories about different places and characters, turning the backyard into an entirely different country or dimension through my youthful limitless mind. This particular day, our backyard was a desolate island. The stoop leading to the house was my boat anchored to the shore. My dad had installed a tetherball pole for us in the middle of the yard that past fall. I imagined it to be a wildly tall tree with no branches anywhere but the very top. On the island, I discovered new animals and flowers I had never seen before. I came up on a small wood hut (the run down detached garage behind our house). I saw a light on and my curiosity peaked. I thought up a whole family of island castaways I’d find inside and befriend, maybe even rescue them using my little anchored boat. I pressed gently on the door and it slowly creaked open. Instead of a pretend family of castaways I found Tony, holding a can of 7up to his face. When he saw me he turned red, “What the hell are you doing in here?! Get Out.” I was paralyzed with confusion. He yelled even louder, “GET OUT!” I took off towards the house.
I had no idea why he was so mad. I didn’t know what I caught him doing, but I knew I caught him doing something. During dinner, he gave me threatening glares across the table. No one else seemed to notice.
The next morning, I woke up before everyone as I usually did. I went back to the garage to investigate. It was musty and dark and had a strange unfamiliar smell. Scared to touch anything, I just stood at the doorway glancing all around looking for something suspicious. His half crumpled 7up can was sitting on top the garbage can lid. When I picked it up, I saw tiny holes had been cut into it on one side. I clumsily bumped the lid and it spilled off the garbage can. Inside, there was a whole pile of soda cans crumpled up the same as this one. We didn’t drink soda. We couldn’t afford to spend our money on such frivolous things. Then I noticed each can was like the one I was holding, with little holes inside and charcoal like coloring on edges of some. I pushed them around with my hands and felt something plastic amidst the aluminum. Picking up one of the cans, I tugged on the plastic stuck inside of it. A sandwich baggy came out. At first I thought it was full of oregano or basil because it kind of resembled some of the dry spices my mom cooked with. I opened the baggy and the smell was even stronger then. That’s when I realized this was a drug. I dropped it immediately. Still holding the 7up can in my other hand, I ran inside to tell Mom.
She kicked him out again. I eavesdropped on her talking to a friend from church who she called to come over, “Our van is falling apart, we are going to be evicted soon, we don’t have hot water, and he is spending money on drugs.” She was at her wits end. I knew we wouldn’t be living in the big house much longer. I began the ritual of detaching myself.
Tony eventually repented to Mom, to God, and swore he had changed his ways. She let him come back. I hadn’t liked him before but I certainly knew better than to even consider trusting him now. For the rest of my life, I’d remember him as the deadbeat who bought drugs when my little sisters didn’t have formula or diapers. I didn’t want him there. I didn’t want him with Mom. Even if he really was sorry, I didn’t want to see him happy; I wanted to see him suffer. I was nine and I was experiencing malevolence for the first and, unfortunately, not the last time.