We kill everybody, my dear. Some with bullets, some with words,and everybody with our deeds. We drive people into their graves, and neither see it nor feel it.
- Maxim Gorky, Enemies
Another morning hung over greeted Dan and his head throbbed. Mercifully, Bill had already made the coffee and Dan took three Advil's with it. His eyes looked bloodshot and his face was white. Bill couldn't help but comment. "You look like shit, man."
"Thanks. Feel like shit, too." Dan admitted. He put four slices of bread into the toaster and grabbed the cinnamon from the spice rack. An inspiration had just hit him, and he spread butter on the toast, sprinkled it with the cinnamon and cut each slice into four thin pieces. Chulkie called them ladyfingers and he handed a plate to Bill.
"These are really good." Bill said after inhaling the first one.
"Yeah, Chulkie always used to make these in the morning before breakfast, sort of like an appetizer. And they always seemed to hit the spot." Dan offered. "I thought perhaps we could use a little bit of her magic right now."
"So, what's the deal then. Clean out the house this morning?" Bill asked?
"Yup. As soon as my head starts cooperating. It really shouldn't take too long. I just need to box up what I want to ship home to California. And that will just be photos, personal effects, mementos, and maybe a couple of pieces of furniture. I don't really need anything, but I'd like to have a few of her things around the house that remind me of her. It's not like I could forget Chulkie, but to me objects have always worked as a memory inducer. I can look at anything in my house and tell you a story about it, from where and when I got it to the person it's from or what incident it was used in during my life. As a result, I'm waaaay to attached to a lot of my stuff and it's also why I have so much stuff. I have a hard time separating the physical thing from its emotional meaning. I also think the predictability of inanimate objects made them very comforting for me as a boy when the animate one kept letting me down. And, of course, let's not forget how I can overanalyze anything to death. That's a talent." Dan said, laughing at himself.
"So why do you think you do that?" Bill wondered aloud.
"Who are you, my shrink?" Dan countered.
"No, it's not really any mystery. Nothing in the house was safe from my stepfather's wrath. Leave something out when he was pissed off, and it would be broken or gone by morning. So many favorite toys went missing that I grew very attached to whatever was left. Once, I committed the sin of reading at the dinner table and Rick grabbed the book from my hand and tore it in two. When I was older, I parked my car on Christmas Eve in the back alley in a place that was always used as a parking space. For some reason, on that night and in that state of mind, Rick took a propane tank and smashed both the front and back windows of the car, leaving the tank lying in the back seat with shattered glass everywhere."
"These were not rare occasions, sadly, they were everyday occurrences. My mom had these china dolls she just loved. Frankly, they were dreadful, but she loved them. They were delicate women with, no pun intended, porcelain features: thin arms and petite legs. But what she loved about them were the ball gowns they wore; elaborate dresses in bright colors and patterns. They cost about twelve dollars each, a princely sum then. Rick routinely smashed some or all of them around the house. They would then be replaced the next day either by my mother not wanting to have Rick face responsibility for his actions or sometimes by Rick himself, feeling guilty and contrite."
"When Rick and my mom first got married, Rick used to stay up late watching movies, a habit he never really broke. My mom would leave for work at eleven at night, and Rick would call up to me with the evening's film schedule. More often than not, I'm come down and we'd watch movies together, usually one or two most evenings. I'm a late night person to this day because of that routine. And those late nights were responsible for my movie education and my love of film. It's weird how such a big part of my life came out of such horrors but that's how it is." He said, shrugging his shoulders.
When Dan was around seven or eight, Rick would have a drunken episode every month or so. Then by the time he was in junior high school, the frequency of violent scenes was happening at least once per week and growing. Along with the increased frequency, the severity also grew worse. Rick was most likely emboldened by past episodes in which he suffered little or no consequences for his actions. At first, his mother would have small bruises that were hardly noticeable but over the years, the bruises grew larger and one time she received a black eye for some imagined transgression. At first, Rick never resorted to hitting Dan's mother in his presence so MaryJo felt safer when he was around in a bit of twisted logic. So instead of making sure Dan was out of harm's way, she made sure he'd be around to lessen her own. But even that taboo was lifted when Dan witnessed Rick smash a telephone recently ripped from the wall into his mother's face. She'd needed several stitches to fix that one.
After that, they were both beaten with more or less impunity. Generally Rick was careful not to make any marks that were visible, the stitches and black eye being the notable exceptions to that rule. MaryJo tried to get help from Rick's family but they refused to believe their little boy would do such a thing even though they saw his constant drinking. They effectively turned a blind eye to what they must have known was going on. His mother's own family was equally incapable of helping in part because of MaryJo's own reluctance to admit to them anything was wrong and their own history of not talking about family problems openly. It was perhaps, simply a sign of the times but people just didn't confront such issues preferring to bury them.
Dan withrew from sports or going to the pool; any activity where he'd have to bear his skin to any degree. He tried to stay out of trouble and not arouse his stepfather's ire but that was impossible. He and his mother would walk on eggshells whenever Rick would come home drunk. They'd tiptoe around trying to do nothing that might upset him. But the fact of the matter was, his stepfather was looking for any excuse to release his anger. Whatever demons haunted him, it seemed to make him feel better when he'd destroy his own home and beat up his helpless wife and stepson. So resistance was, indeed, futile.
He became quite literally a Jekyll and Hyde character. As his violent alcoholism worsened, his sober days seemed all the more calmer by comparison and he was capable of being sensitive, caring and even funny. But then the bottle would find him again and another round of beat the family would ensue. It was a terrible time to be a teenager. But Dan tried as best he could to maintain a normal facade and only a few close confidantes knew what his life was really like. That went on for the rest of Dan's time in high school. Dan spent the summer after graduation working at a camp and then went into the Army, anything to be away from home.
He hated leaving his mother alone with Rick but his relationship with her had soured considerably. Dan continued. "So when I was old enough to realize what was happening and what part my mother played in keeping us in such a powder keg of a home life, I became angry and resentful with her. I know now she was doing the best that she could, and she probably even thought that a father figure was what I needed so she could justify it was for my benefit but once the violence overtook our lives, I felt she should have left Rick. When she didn't time and time again, I started taking it out on her."
As Dan aged and matured, his mother clung to him and tried to keep him from growing up. At least that's how Dan saw it at the time. They fought all the time in the last five years of her life. She seemed to always trying to hold him back and he did everything he could to be anywhere but home. That's why military service seemed so appealing; it was somewhere away from home. So when he turned eighteen, he joined up and set his start date for the end of summer after graduation. His mother had been furious but since he was an adult there was nothing she could do about it.
"Come on, let's get started." Dan said, getting up from the kitchen table. "Would you grab some empty boxes from the dining room? I want to start in the back room and work our way toward the kitchen."
Dan was right about how long it would take. By mid-afternoon they'd filled about half a dozen boxes, mostly with pictures, some old games, and a few other mementos. The biggest find was his father's Uncle Wiggly books. They were popular in the first half of the twentieth century and Uncle Wiggly is remembered today chiefly for the children's board game. Dan loved the game as well as reading the books about the rabbit gentleman, as Uncle Wiggly was also known. They broke for lunch and had a few beers. After they had a few beers in them, they resumed work in the dining room. After a few minutes, Bill broke the silence. "When are you going to tell me about her?"
"Who?" Dan answered, feigning ignorance.
Bill shot him a look that he wasn't buying the innocent act.
"Okay, okay." Dan said, resigned to talk about the unmentionable: Trixie.
Trixie had been the love of Dan's life. Until, that is, he abandoned her when he fled Pennsylvania for the left coast. She hadn't wanted to come with him and he couldn't stay there any longer. After his mother's death, it had become too painful and, frankly, too dangerous for him.
"Trixie." Dan said her name out loud for the first time in years and let it hang in the air. "I met Trixie by accident the summer after I graduated from high school. It was a weekend and I was home briefly from the Boy Scout camp where I was working. I had one night off and I began it at a party a friend of mine was throwing. I was supposed to meet another friend there but he never showed and I ended up passing the time flirting with a younger girl whose girlfriend had abandoned her to be with a boy she met there at the party. So the two of us passed the evening just talking in the living room of the house while the party raged in the basement below. It was not at all how I'd expected to spend the evening but I was smitten immediately."
Beatrix Zinn was a striking redhead with green eyes who looked more Irish than German, owing to her mother. She had pale white skin and was covered in freckles. Her personality was as fiery as her hair and she had wit to spare. Years of being picked on had made her soul strong and belligerent. She had a fire in her eyes Dan found irresistible.
"It took several months before I was able to persuade her to go out with me but once I did, we were inseparable. From that point on, I came home as many weekends as I could and she even came to stay with me a few times where I was stationed in the Army. I thought she was definitely the one but I was young and in no hurry. Plus, she was still in high school then. I don't think her parents cared much for me, especially her dad, but eventually I think I more or less won them over. We talked about marrying after she finished college but that was a long way off, as far as I was concerned, and I didn't think about it much. I was just having a good time."
"When I got out of the service, I moved in with my aunt Helen. I lived in her attic. It was small, but cozy and, best of all, free. Suddenly, Trixie and I were together all the time. Before that, I only saw her on weekends and the occasional week off here and there but I was used to having lots of time to myself. I thought that would be a problem but it wasn't. We just got closer and for the first time in a long time, I allowed myself to feel happy. I hardly ever saw Rick and tried to time my visits to see mom when he wasn't around. My mother continued trying to manipulate me and we fought a lot, but I'd just think about Trixie and then it didn't bother me too much."
"Then we got the news that my mom's cancer had spread. She had a mastectomy about two years before that. They cut off her right breast and they seemed hopeful that they'd got it all. But it turned out they hadn't and it was now in her liver, lungs and other vital organs. They gave her less than a year to live so it was pretty depressing. Rick took it even weirder than the last time. When she'd been in the hospital for the breast cancer, he'd been unable to deal with it just stayed away, we never knew where. The one time he did visit, drunk of course, he got pissed off because she wouldn't eat the meatball sandwich he'd brought for it. Why he brought a meatball sandwich to the hospital will always be a mystery. Anyway, after chemotherapy, she was in no shape for meatballs. Rick's reaction was to throw it against the wall. First he unwrapped it, so the marinara sauce splattered on the wall and streaked down leaving an ominous mark that resembled blood. Rick sure was a compassionate guy, wasn't he?"
"So the second time, when she was told she was going to die, what did Rick do? He left her. Started going out with a nurse my mom worked with, she was a piece of work, too. She was a drunk, as well, so they had that in common. My mom was devastated by it and cried all the time. It was such an irredeemably shitty thing to do. Mom started leaning on me even more but I instinctively kept her at arm's length. For years before that we'd been fighting all the time as I struggled for my independence. So I should have been there for her more but it was hard to overcome a lifetime of our mother/son relationship difficulties. I just wasn't mature enough to really understand what was going on."
Dan's mother was able to spend her remaining months at home because she was a popular nurse at the hospital. Doctors and nurses volunteered their time to visit and care for her at home. The hospital donated a bed for the dining room as the end grew obviously closer. The family took turns staying with her so someone was always there for those rare times when she was lucid. It was during one of those times that it all ended badly. Dan and Trixie were at the house with MaryJo. She was sitting up and talking, being dramatic as usual. She was telling Trixie how when she was gone it would fall to her to take care of Dan. Dan was rolling his eyes. Rick burst in the bedroom brandishing a gun. It was the black .44 Magnum he'd bought himself years before. It had been locked in his gun cabinet in the basement and Dan guessed he'd come in through the storm cellar and up the basement steps quietly.
Dan continued. "He was drunk, of course, and waving the gun around, babbling incoherently. He wasn't making any sense so our efforts at trying to reason with him were getting nowhere. He was shouting about something or other and motioned Dan and Trixie out of the room." As soon as they were out of the room, Dan lunged for the phone in his old room and dialed 911, thrusting the receiver into Trixie's hand. She was screaming and scared. He shook her, saying, "snap out of it. Tell them what's going on."
Dan sped down the stairs to the basement and smashed the glass in the gun cabinet with his elbow. He grabbed a rifle and opened the bottom drawer, searching desperately for the right bullets. Sweat was dripping off his forehead. The seconds seemed like hours until he finally found the ammo and loaded the gun. A shot rang out from upstairs and he heard Trixie's scream. He raced up the stairs again two at a time with the loaded gun in his hand. He covered the two stories in record time. Down the long second floor hallway the bedroom door was shut. He considered his options as Trixie peered out from his bedroom door at the top of the stairs.
"What happened?" He asked.
She was still visibly shaking. "I don't know." She said timidly. "I gave the police the address and told them what was going on. Then I heard a shot while I was still on the phone. They heard it too and promised they were sending a car right away. I heard the door slam and it's been quiet since then."
Dan crept quietly toward the door, but Trixie held on to his shirt, trying to keep him from going. "What are you doing?" She cried softly. "Stay here, wait for the police." Her eyes were pleading with him.
"No, I can't. My mom is in there." He answered. "You get out of here. Go to the neighbors." Dan grew closer to the door but Trixie followed at a distance, as if in a trance. They could hear voices. Two voices. So they knew MaryJo was still alive, at least. Dan turned back to Trixie. "Get out of here." He said sternly, gesturing wildly with his hands. She started backing up to leave as Dan kicked in the door.
His stepfather was standing at the edge of the bed, still holding the pistol. His mother was crying but appeared otherwise unhurt. A bullet hole was in the wall above his mother's bed, maybe a foot or so higher than her head. Dan pointed the rifle at Rick and began shouting at him to drop the gun. His stepfather turned and pointed the .44 Magnum toward Dan and fired. The bullet whizzed by his head, missing him by what seemed like mere inches.
He stepped into the room, scared and shaking. Except for the guns, the scene was only too familiar in his family. His stepfather was shouting at him to drop the rifle and pointed the gun again at his mother. "I'll fucking kill her." Rick yelled. His mother began sobbing uncontrollably and Dan hesitated, but he didn't put down the gun. He kept it pointed at Rick. His stepfather had a wild look in his eyes. "Come on, boy. Shoot me." Rick shouted. "You don't have the guts, do you?"
Trixie appeared on her knees in the doorway. She was bleeding from the shoulder and her shirt was covered in blood. "No." She cried. "Please. Stop."
"Aw, how cute." Rick responded. Then he opened fire on Dan's mother, emptying the magazine into her body. The sound was deafening. His mother was dead in an instant. Rick then turned the gun toward Dan and pulled the trigger. Dan braced for the worst, dropping his gun. But his stepfather's pistol was empty. The only sound he heard was a metal click. A second later the sound of bullets rang out from behind them and Dan dropped to the floor, covering Trixie as best he could. It was the police. They shot Rick in the leg and his gun hand, forcing him to drop the pistol. His stepfather just laughed as they entered the room and handcuffed him.
An ambulance was there shortly and Dan went with Trixie to the hospital. She had gone into shock and wasn't talking, not that Dan could blame her. He could not shake the image of his mother riddled with bullets on her own bed, a river of blood trickling over the side, dripping on the hardwood floor below. It was an image that would haunt him for years to come.