Mesmerized, wide eyed, with all of the curiosity and fear of an eight-year-old boy, lying on my belly, propping my head up with my left hand, slowly, achingly moving the right one forward just a hair above the tall natural fescue. The heat of the afternoon sun, high in the cloudless sky was warming me through my bones. Controlling my breath, smelling the purity of the dirt and the fresh moisture of the grass, my eyes were polarized, unblinking, not wanting to squander my chance to catch the biggest grasshopper I had ever seen. I was happy in his solitude, this quiet peaceful place, no one could ruin the moment for me.
Would it bite me if I snagged it? Would it jump and fly directly into my face? I knew I would have to move swiftly with my other tiny fingernail bitten hand to cup it, in order to prevent it from escaping. It was much too large to control with just the one. If I squeezed too hard I knew that I could easily crush its tender thorax and would be covered with the tarry, sticky black ooze that was impossible to wipe off by simply swiping my hand through the grass. I would have to wash my hands in dry dirt, a good friction agent. That would do the job. I had to have the clean up plan mapped out clearly ahead of time. When it came to touching anything I always had a cleansing plan in place. I hated the feeling of anything wet or moist or sticky on my hands. Fingernails bitten to the quick, red splotches of dryness and cracks, my hands looked like they belonged to man who had worked in a tanning factory for years. As if they had been in wet tanning chemicals all day handling slick wet animal skins. But I was only eight.
I knew if I hurt the large insect, accidentally ripping off a leg or otherwise incapacitating it, that it was God’s creature and I would have committed a sin, even though not planned, I would be left feeling that I committed a dreadful, remorseful act. I didn’t want to destroy such a beautiful thing.
The grasshopper was a shiny metallic green, a hopeful color, my favorite color, and with its large black eyes it blended perfectly into the field, its antennae moving in its own purposeful motion, not matching the rhythm of the gentle breeze that was blowing on that splendid bone warming, but not hot, cloudless summer afternoon.
Like a cobra striking, my whole little body sprung forward and I did catch it, even though it was only for a brief moment. Just as quickly I gave up on the idea of trying to capture it, knowing I wouldn’t like the feeling of the bug’s tiny legs pressing into my soft chubby palms and knowing that it would fight for its life to free itself from me. It whirled away, traveling such an amazing distance for something of its size.
But the real reward I had already received. I had a few brief moments to study the creature up close; surprised that the insect let me examine it for such a long period.
But I felt the grasshopper knew I was special.
Examining it in its own environment, feeling as if the grasshopper knew I wouldn’t hurt it, that I would let it go, because I had respect for other living things. I would protect that grasshopper and not let any harm come it. I had control over that. I needed control of something, anything. I did not have any control of what happened in my house across the street. The madness that was my home my family. The sadness that lived there as if it was another one of my siblings.
I felt helpless, dizzy, lost with a profound sense of being in a place that I shouldn’t be. But I was here, just my Mother’s holler away from the dysfunction, the alcoholism and the misguided love that was mine and my sibling’s lives.
The field was across the street from our home, acres of purity and sanctuary but in reality a few hundred feet away from insanity. The fight my parents had the previous night was more brutal than usual. When I finally cried myself to sleep it was close to four AM. After spending the day exploring, wandering and swimming in the canal, my little body needed the rest. I would barely stop for a moment all day long. I shoveled down my lunch as quickly as I could, so I wouldn’t be left behind by my two older brothers. I wasn’t allowed near the canal unless I was with Billy and Blaine. Billy was the good boy, the oldest, the example. Blaine was just fucking mean. He didn’t want me hanging around at all.
Blaine was mean to everyone, to everything.
We would walk across the field to the edge of the Welland Canal and climb down the twenty feet of maintenance ladder to the calm retaining pools that were anchored to the side of the canal by huge rusted industrial chain’s, each link as big as my head. The wood, old and full of splinters, would burn our feet from having soaked up the day’s sun. As the massive ships, called Lakers, that were as long as a football field passed silently by, the water in the pools would rise and fall, lapping over and flooding the sides of the docks, washing them in coolness. There wasn’t much that protected us from being sucked up by the ships propellers which were as big as a car. Once the huge Lakers had passed by the canal water smoothed out and the older boys would dive from the docks directly to into the canal itself, being careful not to swim too far out. Even though the canal was only a few hundred feet wide in that area, they knew that if another ship was to silently slip into the lock that they could easily be sucked into the propellers and be whizzed into fish food.
It was an extremely dangerous place for children to play in and often we would be chased away by the St. Lawrence Seaway’s security personnel. But once they left we came right back. My parents, Kathy and Bill, knew what we were up to, but that didn’t discourage them from allowing us to swim there. The cool water, smelling slightly of marine fuel, was a welcome respite from the heat and helped to distract and occupy us, even though temporarily, from our insane home life. Be careful of the boats, stay with your older brothers, never swim alone were the rules. Sometimes our parents actually swam with us when Aunts and Uncles and cousins came for visits.
The fight started as they usually do. Kathy was on a bender and had been drinking for a few days. She never drank every day, her body couldn’t handle that. And because she didn’t drink everyday, she wouldn’t acknowledge a drinking problem. Of course the days she didn’t drink, she spent in bed detoxifying and hung over, getting ready for the next bender. For my Mom it was a devastating cycle of abuse that she couldn’t and rarely tried to break.
Bill was no Saint by any means either. He too drank everyday, but he was a functioning alcoholic. He worked two jobs, usually seven days a week. He had to put food on the table for his five young children. Bill worked at the car plant a thirty minute drive away from our rented two bedroom home on the shores of Lake Erie. He always worked the graveyard shift from 11 PM until 7 AM in the morning. When Kathy had been drinking he knew should would not have prepared our lunches the night before school like she always did. He would quietly slip into the house and make all of our lunches for school that day. A production line of bread and cold cuts, which covered the entire counter and then folded up in wax paper, a piece of fruit and a snack like a cherry tart. Brown paper bags, he would write our name on them first. Then he would wake us for breakfast, almost always cereal and milk. Sometimes in the morning when I woke, still half asleep, seeing my Dad in the kitchen getting our lunches ready meant that Mom had “been into it” that night. She didn’t get the lunches ready so he took it on. Seeing him in the kitchen was like a smack in the face to remind me of what had happened the night before. All five of us sitting around the metal and linoleum topped table, rubbing the sleep from our red eyes, still puffy from crying the night before. All of us quiet. Breakfast was always quiet the morning after a punch up. Blaine sat with left elbow on the table his cheek cradled in his hand, shirtless, never wearing his pajama top. Billy had his buttoned all the way up. After we were out the door to catch the school bus he would hit the sack, but only for a few hours. Around 11 AM he would get up, quick shower and then head off to his other job at Fort Erie Raceway, a half-hour drive where he worked as a waiter for tips, serving booze to the horse race enthusiasts. Back home by 6 pm, eat, a few beers, then off to bed and then out the door at 10:15 PM to make it to back to General Motors for 11.
He did this for over 20 years.
The previous night Dad was in bed catching a few winks before he headed off to GM. Kathy was on the couch, half passed out, the TV flickering in silence, Glen Campbell blaring on the stereo. She loved Glen Campbell.
Us kids fucking hated him.
Billy, his Father’s namesake, made sure all the kids had bathed, washing off the day’s dirt and the smell of the marine fuel from the canal and that we were safely tucked into bed for the night. Billy wasn’t the kind of kid that said much to us. He just did what he had to do. No sermons, no preaching, not bossy. Our small bedroom had a set of bunk beds pressed up against one wall and on the other side of the room was a double bed. Blaine and the baby David, or Dodi as he was called, shared the double. Tonight Shannon, the only girl, was in the double bed too. Shannon slept on the couch in the living room, that was her bed, but tonight her Mother was drinking, so she was in with the boys. Bill had the top bunk and I had the bottom. Blaine originally had the bottom bunk but it was given to me because I peed the bed almost every night. My mattress was covered by a plastic sheet to protect it, every time I rolled over the rusting of the plastic reminded me that I was a pisser. In the summer the plastic made me sweat and I had trouble sleeping from the heat and sweat. By all rights, Blaine, being older should have had the privacy of the bottom bunk. Lord knows he was fed up of waking in the middle of the night, soaked from my piss yet again. “Michael!” he would shout at the top of his lungs and then would start to wail on me. I would curl up waiting for it to happen, perhaps waiting for ten or fifteen minutes after I voided. Sometimes it took a little while for the pee to make its way over to his side of the bed.
Or until he rolled over into it.
Billy would jump out of bed and pull him off me, or if my Mom wasn’t drinking that night she would run in from her room which was attached to ours by a common closet the rooms shared. Blaine would go to the bathroom and clean up, often throwing his piss soaked pj’s in my direction. I always waited for him to clean up first because if I went into the bathroom with him I would have been punched some more. Often the sheets would be changed, I would be changed and Blaine would be changed and no one said anything. My parents wouldn’t yell at me or criticize me for wetting the bed. The mattress would be flipped over and back to bed we went. If it was in spring or summer, my Dad would drag the mattress out to the backyard and let the sun dry it and air it out. But Dad did eventually get sick and tired of dragging out the mattress and that’s when I was awarded the bottom bunk.
Blaine hated me even more.
Glen Campbell had been turned louder and Dad wanted to sleep. The bickering back and forth started. Exasperated, exhausted, surely slightly buzzed from the beer too, Dad stormed from his bed and knowing better than to shut the stereo off, so he and us kids could sleep, he would turn it down to a much more acceptable level. Plus his niece Barbara, who often babysat us, was now living upstairs in the apartment with her new husband Gabor and they too would have been able to hear the blaring Rhinestone Cowboy.
Kathy wouldn’t put up with the interference of her Husbands intrusion on her need to wallow in her own self pity. The music had to be that loud. The louder it was the sadder and more real her unhappiness became.
Glen Campbell acknowledged her sadness.
She would cry while listening to him. Singing along in her drunken loudness. His lyrics were drawn from her life. Pregnant at 16, a shotgun wedding, the disappointment of her parents, the disappointment of his. The embarrassment of being a teenage bride, married to a child-man she barely knew.
She had wanted more, deserved more.
In defiance she would rise from the prone position that she had anchored herself to on the couch. “Leave the fucking stereo alone you fucking asshole.” “If you don’t like it, too fucking bad,” she bellowed. She would open the bedroom door which was right off the small living room and throw an empty beer bottle at him while he tried to sleep, an exclamation of her determination to continue to allow her to bathe in her pity.
We would be roused now from the cocoon and safety of our warm beds, the slamming of doors, the louder Glen fucking Campbell, our Mother verbally abusing our Father again, saying things to him that children should never hear.
If it was near the end of the record and if she didn’t hit him with the bottle, he may wait for her to pass out and then he would turn it off. He tried to avoid a fight. He tried to protect his children from witnessing yet another fight. He would put up with the abuse again.
But this night she was relentless. She continued with her verbal diarrhea and abuse of him. She continued to drink, Glen Campbell getting louder and louder. Billy would get up and plead with her to turn the music down. “MOM! WE CAN’T SLEEP! IT’S TOO LOUD!”
But that didn’t work, it never worked. When Bill knew that his kids were suffering too, he knew they were suffering, but when they vocalized it, he knew it was his responsibility to fix it. He was their Dad. He would be leaving for work shortly for the midnight shift and he had to get her under control.
If he could.
Many nights he left for work under the same conditions. His children left behind to manage on their own. A responsibility his namesake often took upon himself, Billy didn’t need to be told.
Bill grabbed the stereo controls, the record itself, “THAT’S ENOUGH! GO TO SLEEP YOU GODDAMN DRUNK!” “THE KIDS ARE TRYING TO SLEEP! YOU’RE GOING TO WAKE UP BARB AND GABOR!”
She reached for another empty beer bottle and lying prone from her spot, threw it at him, this time hitting him squarely in the back of the head. The bottle didn’t break, but it stung him and stunned him. We all had jumped from our beds running into the bedlam in the living room screaming, crying, we knew what was going to happen next, we knew it had to get there, before it got better.
Our father would lunge towards her, she would attempt to right herself, to protect herself as best as she could, egging him on, encouraging him, “COME ON BILL, SLAP THE SHIT OUT OF ME, PUNCH THE FUCK OUT OF ME, BE A MAN FOR ONCE IN YOUR LIFE!”
We would jump into the literal middle of the bedlam, running into the blue grey smokiness of the room, cigarette ashes covering most flat surfaces, stale beer smell covering everything; it was imbedded in the fabric of the old couch. We tried to protect her from him, she was still our Mother. I didn’t want her to get hurt again, but I wanted her to stop. I knew that sometimes this was the only way to do that. Dad had a rage in his eyes, he wanted to kill her, but he didn’t punch her, he slapped her, knowing that if he did close his fist, surely she would be killed. Kathy would be swearing at Bill, at the kids, swearing cursing, asking to be punched and to be hit. We would jump on our Father's back screaming at him to stop, not wanting her to be hurt.
I didn’t want her to be too hurt and I felt bad about that, torn about that, felt bad that I wanted my Mother hurt. I knew I shouldn’t feel that way, I loved my Mother, she was the one that told me I was special, made me feel special, but when she was like this I hated her, I wanted her to stop. I had to get her to stop. Not too hurt. What else could I do?
I knew she had to get there.
She would be kicking at him, not hard, but only just putting up a defense, it seemed she wanted to be hurt by him. Maybe the beating along with the beer and the Glen fucking Campbell was what she needed to make her pain feel real. Now lying in a pile on the floor, her robe wide open, the naked body of a woman who had given birth to six children, blood on her face, on her lips, blubbering, crying, incoherent. Dad would still be screaming. “THAT’S IT, ENOUGH NOW, GO TO SLEEP.” He would then usher us off to bed, she in a heap on the floor, all of us crying, tucking us in, kissing us on the lips, telling us he loved us. Asking us to stop crying, telling us to sleep. But we couldn’t, we wouldn’t for quiet a while. But she was quieter now, crying a sad, low cry. A cry that was so low and full of desperation and pity, a cry that you could hear that she was defeated, she had finally given up, it was the cry that we knew we had to hear.
We knew that she had to get there, before me and my brothers and sister could get any peace.
I felt so hopeless, so sad, so unable to do anything to make myself feel better. My older brothers would be crying too and that made me even sadder. I loved my older brothers; I looked up to them, even Blaine. They were bigger, they were stronger. I knew that Billy especially was sad, he took it upon himself to be our protector, but the task was not one that should be given to a twelve year old. Blaine would cry the loudest, be the most upset, Shannon and Dodi would settle the soonest, they were younger, too young to feel and understand desperation, yet. Their crying made me sadder.
But I was special, and this didn’t feel special, I would cry until the sleep came.