I am the wall of the upstairs hallway. I run the length of the house, opening into bedrooms, kitchen, playroom and living room. The restaurant is below. I take a sharp angle in the north end of the house and head east toward the music room and sun room. Seven people live here. They run up and down my linoleum; so do cats, dogs, raccoons and the occasional housekeeper. I am the spine of the house. It is my job to hold this family together.
The children in this house are sad. They listen to arguing, the flare of tempers and knife-sharpened words. I try to take their loneliness and absorb their pain, but there is too much. I don’t know when the hate started but it has seeped deep in my structure, a kind of rot I can not get rid of.
The children need care. They have one another, but no one is teaching or guiding them. They are starved for attention and love. Where are the grown-ups? Mom and dad work in the restaurant below. They trail down about 6 am and come back after midnight. The father is the first to return, his voice filling the stairwell. He is often angry, yelling and wanting revenge. Sometimes he crashes into me, looking for a way out of his life. He acts out his pain and drowns it in alcohol. He has too many children, too many responsibilities, a love gone sour.
The littlest one, the father’s favorite, the one he calls Smiley, is trying hard to please him. She carries her mothers dreams on her tiny back and works to make her father happy. She has noticed that grown-ups do not fight when they are laughing. She decides to make them laugh. She is doing well in school because she longs for structure and rules. Rules give her hope in an unsure family. One night, when left alone, like every other night, she leaned against me wanting to be cradled. Tears ran gently over her rounded cheeks and dropped in wet little circles on her pajamas. She held a blade from her dad’s Gillette razor and ran it slowly, methodically up and down her soft pink arms. Lines of blood trailed her flesh like little pained highways, beginning and ending in short bursts, going no place special, just like her life.
I have a sad job, which has lasted 30 years. I’ve done the best I could, but even I want to crumble and collapse from all I’ve seen and heard. The mother leans on me too. She comes late at night after the restaurant closes and the children are asleep. She gives me her tears; she gives me her pain; she holds on to me when there is nothing else. Sometimes she brings her make-up to cover the violence on her cheek and the swollen shades of midnight around her eye. She doesn’t ever want the kids to see this, she doesn’t want them to know.
The oldest child has swallowed her fathers rage, she has taken it in, whole and complete. She has become treacherous and secretive. She rides the land bareback on a golden horse, long black braids falling to her waist, a black crow clinging to her shoulder. She’s made herself tough, and as intimate as a rattlesnake. Because she’s the oldest, she has the job of keeping the other children away from their parents. The parents have to work. The children are an interruption. They must be held back, the needs of the children are like a damn holding too much water, threatening to burst open and ruin everything.
The middle child resists authority. She needs her mother like she needs air to breathe. She pushes her older sister back and forth between my walls, hurting, crying, and pulling. The oldest wins, her knee pushed deep into the soft folds of the middle child’s stomach as she pounds her face with determined fists. There is so much anger, so much to release. The fighting goes on and on until the middle child escapes into her room, pushing heavy furniture against the door. Sometimes the middle child wins, but there is no victory. She fights her way down the stairs and into the restaurant, finds her mother and clings to her dress, but she is scolded. They are both scolded. They must stay away.
There is no one to care in this house. No one to intervene, no consequences doled out with a stern voice or pointed finger to siblings or neighbors causing harm. Life simply goes on and on, day after day, until fighting, hiding and protecting become ordinary and routine.
And there was the flu. The children, alone as usual. The youngest boy vomited as he came around my corner. The next child ran into it, slipped and fell. They all had the flu. They all threw up that day in the hall, like little islands of misery, devastated and abandoned, so busy surviving, they couldn’t reach towards each other. They fell asleep leaning against my walls, vomit drying in their hair.
The oldest boy joined a gang. I don’t see much of him. He has run away several times, but the highway patrol always brings him back, back to his personal hell. They think he’s a bad kid, but he’s not. None of them are.
The youngest son arrived much later than the others. He is favored and fussed over, but his life won’t last. A car accident will finish him long before he reaches manhood. The other children think he’s lucky. He escaped.
And the neighbors? They think this family has it easy. They have a large restaurant and motel, money to spend, vacations to take, and nice clothes to wear. They think the kids are spoiled.
Nobody knows what I know. They don’t see what I see.
I could go on and on, page after page, story after story, but I won’t. These dark things are best laid to rest. They belong to the shadows of another time, just like me.
Best to cast light on the good things, only for me, it’s hard to remember what those were. I hope those little ones turned out okay. I loved them all and held them the best I could. I witnessed those dark hours and I remember.
written July 21, 2008