We lived near Point Lookout, the most haunted lighthouse in America. It was a peninsula with large boulder like rocks scattered along the shore and the site of a prisoner camp during the Civil War where soldiers froze to death in the winter.
Nearby, on our Uncle’s sun-bleached pier, wood planks bowed collecting puddles of rainwater. The hard edges curled up like a spoon, pressing into the soft skin of barefoot arches. Saltwater softening scabs, turning them mucus green.
By mid-June the water temperature would warm and there would be jellyfish. The tides would wash batches of jellyfish onto the sand, stranding them to dry out in the sun. My sister and I would pierce a stick through the center of their bodies. The feeling of thick flesh resisting traveled up the spine of the stick, its tough muscle pushing you into regret. We would toss the twig aside, rescue the rest of the jellyfish, scooping them up in our hands, sand and all, and returning them to the sea. Slowly they would resurrect, pumping their hearts, reunited with the sea.
We were borrowing our Uncle’s green canoe, pushing out into the river behind our house to Tippity Witch Island. Our Dad wouldn’t let my sister or I help, he rowed the entire way with the blood orange oar. It was always like that with us: him on one side, us on the other. Sharing a seat on one side of a canoe or paired together under the seatbelt of the passenger seat of his blue Chevy van.
My sister and I filed into the room and pressed our backs to the wall. We stood that way, like two wet paper towels thrown against and now plastered to the wall. Our Dad maneuvered around the maze of the convertible sofa until he found an opening. Kristine and I watched as he kissed Ann as her two daughters climbed up the couch cushions to greet him. He picked them up and tossed them around playfully and they laughed and giggled in pure joy from his attention. He was our Dad but we could barely recall a time when he was so warm and affectionate with us. We had surrendered to our fate, being the well-behaved, fearful children of a man with a quick temper whom mostly barked orders at us.
Seeing him shower those girls with attention, our attention, it became clear. He was capable of showing love and being affectionate, he just chose not to, with us. That is when the cruelty set in. The realization in that moment, having to internalize that at ten years old, lining our insides with the unlovable upholstery that would insulate us always and forever.
He gave them presents. He forgot to fill our Christmas stockings. Once my for my birthday, he gave me a card designed to hold money. Tucked inside was an I.O.U. note. I kept a locked cash box in my nightstand drawer. As my father’s drinking progressed, money began to disappear. Three hundred dollars of birthday money from relatives and the allowance I earned from my grandfather had been replaced by I.O.U. notes scrawled in my Dad’s handwriting.
My father drank at a bar called the Green Door, about five miles north of our house. His best friend Brian Tarelton owned it. As kids we used to hang out there when my father was hired to do some work on the place. In the dark bar on a sunny Sunday afternoon, the old drunks gave us quarters to play video games. While he worked, we’d try to play pool and climb up on the barstools and drink cokes through red cocktail straws. There’s a distinct smell that a bar has: wood encrusted with cigarette ash and saturated with spilled beer. When I walk by a bar with an open door and the smell drifts out, I recall the feeling of being inside that dark room with the small rectangle of blinding daylight framed by the open door.
I still remember the phone number to the Green Door. Whenever I came home from school and needed to reach him, to sign a field trip permission slip or report card, I would have to call him there. When I left for school he was sleeping, when I came home he was at the bar. He would usually come home after I went to bed. I would leave paperwork for him to sign on the kitchen counter by the telephone.
Sometimes I’d hear him come in, he had a loud smoker’s cough. I would listen to him in the kitchen, clanging pots and pans as he heated up leftovers on the stove. Sometimes he’d leave something on the stove that would burn and smoke up the house. I’d listen, as he’d walk down the stairs, often slipping and missing a few steps on the way down to the basement.
My father had been rowing for hours. The sun was beating down on him, he had taken off his shirt and was beginning to turn lobster red. The oars spun little whirlpools on the surface of the water and the small current continually rocked the canoe. It seemed that we were going nowhere, we were in the middle of the river, our house shrinking in the distance but still some distance from the island.
The canary yellow phone in the kitchen had a matching coiled cord that I wrapped around my index finger as I stretched it into the dining room where I could sit and talk in one of the chairs. My father smoked Newport cigarettes and put them out in plants in the room divider when he was on the phone. My aunt would rest the phone in the crook of her shoulder while she prepared dinner, or did the dishes. I would sometimes call my mom on that phone.
When I was climbing up the shelves in the linen closet stacked with folded terrycloth towels, I discovered a wicker basket full of photographs and postcards from my mom. They were sent from Rhode Island, where she had moved after leaving my Dad around the time I was a year old. They were glossy photos of fall trees pressed onto cardstock, her cursive handwriting on the back but I don’t remember the words. Just a mother writing to children that couldn’t yet read and would never understand.
She said that if we wanted to keep in touch that we could call her collect and she would call us back. She also said that if we wrote to her, she would write us back. Looking back it seems strange that it was our responsibility as children to initiate and maintain contact while she would only reciprocate.
On our first visit to see our mom, I was six, my sister 8. We couldn’t remember what she looked like and we were afraid that we would hurt her feelings if we didn’t recognize her. In the few photographs we had seen, she reminded me of Samantha from Bewitched or Lindsay Wagner, The Bionic Woman. We waited in the mirrored lobby with my Dad standing several paces behind us. I heard her high heels on the floor and saw her legs, her skirt and her blond hair, arms outstretched, ready embrace us as she walked towards us. She recognized us.
The year I thought my father was going to marry Ann things began to change. I was in the fifth grade when my sister moved away. She didn’t really belong to us anyway, my half-sister, my mother’s daughter from a previous marriage. Her father remarried a woman named Darlene who had two children of her own and didn’t like Kristine. She had moved away to live with her grandmother in Ohio.
We usually went to visit our mom together but on this trip I went alone. My mother lived in a high-rise apartment building in a two-bedroom apartment she shared with her boyfriend Lou who worked for the building doing maintenance. Her living room had white carpeting and silver furniture from the lobby.
I was worried that my Dad was going to marry Ann. I was afraid of what that change meant. I didn’t have any memory of my parents ever being together and I didn’t have any reason to believe they would ever reconcile. Still I didn’t want my parents to get divorced and I didn’t want things to change. My father was all that I had left and I didn’t want to share him.
In my mother’s living room, I looked up at her and I began to reveal my fear, “I don’t want my Dad to marry Ann. Can I come live with you?”
She said, “No.”
My mother has always been a mystery to me, a woman with a black velvet heart. I remember her becoming uncomfortable and fidgety when I began to cry, that she couldn’t tolerate it. Wounded by her rejection and her inability to console me, I crawled underneath the bench in the living room, pressed my cheek against the carpet and continued to cry. She became so annoyed with my behavior that she left the room. I watched as her legs walked away from me, the carpet itchy against my cheek. She couldn’t even be my mother for five minutes.
My father did not marry Ann. My fears about him getting remarried never resurfaced although he continued to date.
When I was in the middle school my sister stopped talking to our mother. I would go and visit her alone. She was still together with Lou; they were both alcoholics, her vodka, him Jack Daniels. They both smoked pot and he also did coke.
Lou was a piece of shit. He was tall and wiry, with thick black hair like John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. He has a tattoo of his name on his arm, it is only 3 letters long, but the tattoo is crooked. It looks like a prison tattoo, each letter lower than the one before it, slanting downwards, as if the person writing it was falling asleep. He drove a Pinto. The gas tank was located the rear and when they were hit from behind, they had a tendency to catch fire.
My mother was preparing to host a dinner party at the apartment. We were peering into the refrigerator to check on the cucumber rosettes that we had left soaking in a bowl of ice water. Lou was dressed up and already drunk by the afternoon. He came into the kitchen and tried to stop the blade of a small black fan by sticking his finger in it. His finger was cut badly and blood went everywhere. He just stood there laughing while my mother rushed to clean up the blood before the guests arrived.
Lou often went out drinking, he was a social drinker, like my father. He came back to the apartment one night drunk, I was woken up to the sound of him and my mother arguing in their bedroom. He wanted to have sex with her and she wasn’t in the mood. I could hear him say through the wall “What if I go and wake up your daughter and show her what a fat, pathetic cunt her mother is?” My mother was crying, begging him not to. I heard the door slam and him come down the hallway for me. I pretended I was sleeping, my back facing him as he opened my bedroom door and cast an arc of light over the darkened room. He hovered at the doorway, my eyes staring into the darkness, my body curled in into a motionless ball. He closed the door and walked back out again.
We had packed bologna sandwiches in paper bags and passed two to my father while my sister and I both ate a half. The Wonder Bread stuck to the roof of our mouths in little crescent shaped bites. My father was tired from rowing but he never spoke of it. We were close enough now to make out the individual trees and the tall reeds at the shoreline. It was bigger than I had imagined.
We would never arrive at the island. After hours of rowing we would simply turn around and go home.