At 3 AM my father staggered up the steps, opened my door. The light of the 100 watt bare bulb on the hallway ceiling flooded into my room, and I squinted and blinked as he sat down heavily on the bed, and jostled me. “Listen, Johnny. Listen to me. I love ya. I really love ya, honest to God. I’m sorry about everything, you know? I’m really, really, really sorry that things have to be this way. Honest to god. I mean it. I love ya.”
He expected me to answer, and if I didn’t, well, I knew he’d get mad. Really mad. So I said, “I love you too, dad.” But telling him that made my guts tighten, because…well, because he was in effect forcing me to say something I didn’t mean. A lie. I didn’t love him when he was slurring his words, stinking of booze, too many cigaretes, and acrid undearm sweat. When he was sober he never bothered to say he loved me, he just kept shooting me those cutting, evil glares when I said or did what he thought was the wrong thing. I didn’t like that, and I also didn’t like seeing and smelling his puke in the bathtub when he was too drunk to hit the toilet. I didn’t like his weeping, his wallowing in drunken melodrama, all swept up in an oceanic tide of self-pity.
Actually weeping then, he repeated what he’d just said, word for word, as if I were either stupid or deaf. And of course I had to repeat what I’d said in response. I knew his tears were just from the booze, not for real, and I resented being forced to go along with him, saying what he wanted to hear.
The next Saturday I was determined to avoid all that. At three in the morning, when I was awakened by the sound of his fumbling with his key in the front door, and him and Alec talking in the kitchen, I quickly slid out of bed and crawled underneath.
What will those two drunks do and say when they see I’ve disappeared? I felt a tingling, and I could hear and feel my heart beating rapidly.
My father pushed my door open, and I saw his long shadow on the floor.
I held my breath. He came to the bed, and pulled away the covers. In that motion, he lost his balance, and I heard the springs creak violently as he fell on the mattress, and then rolled off and hit the floor. I hoped he wouldn’t see me there in the darkness under the bed, up against the wall. He groaned. Then slowly got up, walked over to the closet and looked in.
“Johnny! Where the fuck ARE you?”
He left my room and went into his bedroom, and then into Alex’s.
“Johnny! Come out. NOW.”
I remained motionless.
Alex came slowly up the stairs.
“Johnny is missing,” my father slurred.
“Huh? What the fuck are you talkin’ about?”
“He’s GONE, goddamnit.”
They went down the stairs, and like good little boys switched off that garish hallway ceiling light. There was muted, muffled conversation between them in the kitchen, and then a long, long silence. Had they both gone out again? Had they passed out in the living room? I waited a while longer, and then crawled back into bed, and fell asleep.
I awoke with my left arm in my father’s steel grip, and felt the sharp sting of his belt whipping my ass, one whistling snap after another, over and over again, and I squinted from the excruciating pain and from the too-bright light in my eyes from that bare bulb in the ceiling of the hallway. He punctuated his frenzied, drunken whips of his belt with his shouting.
“God-damn you!” SNAP! “Where the fuck have you been?” SNAP! “Answer me, goddamn you!” SNAP!
There is no precise onomatopoeia for the sound of a belt cutting into the flesh of a child. No accurate words for a sudden blinding light at three thirty in the morning, or the lightning strike of pain each drunken whip of a belt elicits. My father was literally crazed with anger and hatred, which I found inexplicable. I’d thought when he finally saw I wasn’t really missing, he’d say, “Jesus, Johnny! You really had me going for a while! I’m so glad you’re still alive!”
But no, he was furiously whipping me, shouting in rage, and I closed my eyes tight, until he finally stopped. No surprise that single episode was burned permanently into my psyche. Even decades later as an adult, I’d still suddenly awake before dawn wet with sweat, breathing rapidly, and my heart pounding. Not a run-of-the mill nightmare, just another echoing replay of my father’s rage.
An evil drunken demon is going to kill you right now, and there’s nothing you can do about it!
Now, Alex might have talked him out of it that night, but Alex always held himself at a distance from his hot-tempered younger brother. I guess he thought he had no right getting in between a father and his son. But then a few days later Alex told their sister Jane about the criss-crossing of red-ridged welts on the kid’s ass. I guess he felt guilty for not having done anything to stop it.
Jane went ballistic.
I could imagine first-born, steel-eyed, Bossy Boots Janey chewing my father out, saying it was a crime the way you two go out and get drunk all the time, fucking bar whores and doing god knows what else. That’s no way to raise a kid. What’s wrong with you, anyway? When are you gonna grow up? And if Caroline next door finds out what you did to Johnny, why, she’ll call the cops. And your son will end up a ward of the court, or even get sent to live with Betty. Is that what you want?
You know the answer to that, Chet. So goddamnit bring him here. Not tomorrow or the next day, but now. He’ll live with me, Howard and our kids, even though we really can’t afford it. You’ll pitch in for food and clothing expenses. Got it? You’re lucky they haven’t thrown you in jail for the way you act. And if Betty ever finds out you’ve been whipping him and leaving him alone while you go out all night and get drunk, you’ll really be screwed.
Maybe Jane said all that to him, maybe she didn’t, I don’t know. But my father told me to pack my stuff, and silently drove me out to Bellmont Avenue to her house, and I moved in to my new home.