TIME MARCHED TO A DIFFERENT DRUMMER
We’re standing at the bus stop, Dad and I, waiting for the eastbound. A coolness has set in, the sun now obscured by cloud and haze. A light breeze is gently sweeping the pavement, tossing about McDonald Wrappers, cigarette butts and other refuse. A wire trash container sits next to us, idle and empty.
Across the street, a liquor store, its front door ejecting haggard-looking men in soiled overcoats. Next to it, a smoky diner, emitting into the dusty air the smell of greasy burger and burnt toast. Out of the diner walks a man in business suit, clutching the hand of a halter-topped woman at least half his age. They hail a passing taxicab.
We wait. A good half hour has now passed. The breeze is picking up. A chill runs across my body. A young couple, hopefully in love, pass by, the guy whistling into the breeze, his girlfriend smiling gallantly.
We wait. Now it is windy, gale-like. I’m cold, shivering. Cars zoom by , families cuddly and warm, going home. I wonder why we always have to take the bus or the elevated. Whatever happened to the car Dad used to drive, that station wagon with the wooden panels on the side.
“Dad,” I say, “whatever happened to the station wagon with the wooden panels on the side?”
He frowns, looks embarrassed. “It got repossessed,” he says, reluctantly. “Just couldn’t keep up with the payments. I’m sorry but—”
“Dad, don’t be sorry,” I interject. There’s no need to pursue this subject any further. Things happen, I understand. Anyway, who cares if Dad isn’t like a lot of other dads in the neighborhood, driving their kids to school and taking drives out to the country every once in a while. Who cares?
The big green and white bus pulls up. Thank goodness. I’m getting hungry and it’s getting dark. Besides, I’m full of goose bumps and I just hate that plucked-chicken look. Never did care for it. No, leave that look for the plucked chickens, those poor things.
Traffic’s running thick through the veins of the city. The ride home is slow and unbalanced. The bus is teetering to one side, and as it drags along, we get a rather skewered look of the passersby who look up at us strangely. A few shrug their shoulders; a few more shake their heads. We’re a curiosity, teetering along the streets of Chicago on a trimmed budget. But things will be fixed later.
Dad, who has not spoken much the last few hours, pulls from his shirt pocket a leaflet handed to him earlier by an old-looking woman who stood isolated amid the horde, her misgivings ignored or trampled on. Dad, feeling sorry for her, drops a dollar in her tattered satchel, a noble act indeed, especially since it is one of the three dollars he has left to his name. His name, Vince, is a fine name. Short for Vincent. “Bless your soul, Vincent!” the blind lady says, after rummaging through her satchel and realizing her gain—perhaps a dozen eggs and a loaf of bread later on.
Dad folds the leaflet and returns it to his pocket. He looks at me and I can tell he wants to cry but is holding back. I know how it is to fight back tears; sometimes I do it while watching a sad movie. I don’t want to be caught crying because Shane is leaving on his horse and the little boy is calling him, Shane, Shane, come back Shane and Shane just keeps on riding, not even looking back at the little boy. How sad. I want to cry so much but Lenny or maybe Trish will laugh and make fun of me. I have to run to the bathroom and lock the door and let it all out, enough tears to almost fill the washbasin
“Surrender now or face my spite
I grant you it may be Friday night
But did you know this day
Also numbers thirteen.
First I give you fire
I turn your fire into a sleepy stream
Yes but now I give you nightmares
From your horror I’ll create a dream”
Magician’s Birthday – Uriah Heep
Mom is tossing about the salad, blending together a few leaves of lettuce and a couple of slices of leftover tomato. Thrown in for color a few shavings of carrot.
Since there isn’t enough to go around, I am to be given the salad, Mom tells everyone. It’s his birthday. But there is enough meatloaf and mashed potatoes, thank goodness. Otherwise, I would feel guilty, birthday or no birthday.
We gather around the table, well, some of us, the table is too small, so Lenny and Trish take their plates to the living room. They don’t mind they say, the small black and white television is there to keep them company. Shortly, they will be arguing on what to watch. Lenny prefers cartoons, Trish likes documentaries and reality-based shows. Lenny likes to say that cartoons are reality-based and sometimes I think he’s right.
Wendy’s sitting on the old barstool, found in the alley behind the Dew Drop Inn, one of the taverns Dad and Mom sometimes go to. She spins around a few times between bites of her meatloaf, Dad thinks it funny, but Mom finds it annoying. “Stop that Wendy,” Mom says.
“But Mom, it’s fun,” says Wendy, her hair in pigtails.
“Let her have some fun,” Dad says, his hair matted and messed from the earlier winds.
“Vince,” Mom says, “why don’t you do something with that hair of yours?”
“Later,” he says. “Before I go out to—”
“What? You’re not going anywhere,” Mother interrupts, her hands beginning to shake, her face reddening. “My Mother and Papa Joe might be coming over with a cake. What am I supposed to tell them?”
“That I went to see about a job.”
“They don’t know about you losing your last job.”
“That’s not my fault,” Dad says as he pushes his plate away and leaves the table, leaving Wendy with tears in her eyes and me wondering why this has to happen, especially on the night of my birthday. Mother tells us both to eat, that everything will be okay, that she’ll tell Nee and Papa Joe something if they do happen to come over. It’s getting late though and by the look of things they probably won’t be over and maybe it’s better if they don’t. I hate to see Mother looking all embarrassed and sad in front of Nee and Papa Joe. It’ll break my heart, it really will.
The night wears on. Dad has already left, his hair arranged perfectly atop his head. He had also managed to change his clothes, a spiffy looking sweater and creased trousers. Before he left he kissed both Wendy and me on our cheeks and said that he’d see us in the morning. He wished me a happy birthday again and I thanked him. Mom stood by the front door trying to block him but it was of no use, Dad still had enough muscle to push her out of the way. He did say, though, that when he returned he’d have some good news. Suddenly, I had visions of new bicycles and shiny guitars. I saw canopy beds and refrigerators full of food. Mom, I don’t know what she saw, she slammed the door and cursed and then cursed some more before running off to her bedroom, slamming its door as well.
The night wears on. Nee and Papa Joe aren’t coming, it’s been made official by Ma Bell. I answer the phone, thank goodness and not Mother, who probably hasn’t stopped crying since Dad left. Nee tells me that she would see me next weekend and that she has a present for me.
“Okay Nee,” I say.
“Just tell your mother that Papa Joe had to work late, okay, my sweet child.”
“Okay Nee, I will.”
“What did you do today for your birthday?”
“Dad took me on a boat ride…you know the one on Lake Michigan.”
“Good, my sweet child. Bet that was fun. Oh, lemme talk to your big sister.”
“Trish and Lenny aren’t here, Nee. They went out after we had meatloaf and mashed potatoes.”
“You tell that sweet grandchild of mine to call me tomorrow, okay.”
“Yes,” I say.
“Well, have to go make some supper for Papa Joe. Tell your mom I’m sorry but—”
“Okay, Nee.” I put the receiver back in its cradle and then return to the living room where Wendy is concentrating on her Cinderella Coloring Book. She has already pulled out her sleeping bag for the night and is laying atop it now, knees down, adding black and red and silver to the coach that will whisk Cinderella off to the ball. Wendy lives Cinderella and this annoys Lenny and Trish and sometimes, Mom. But me, I think it’s cute. So does Dad. After telling Wendy what a good job she’s doing and how proud I am of her I go over to Mom and Dad’s bedroom and knock on the door. There’s no answer. I knock some more. Nothing. Why isn’t she answering? She can’t be asleep, could she?
“Ma, are you in there?”
“Ma, are you okay?”
The door’s locked. I put my ear against it and hear nothing. That’s it, I’m worried and becoming scared. I pound on the door and this startles Wendy, who comes running down the hall, begging me to stop. But I can’t. I keep pounding till my knuckles bleed.
It’s of no use, pounding, yelling and praying to the Lord Jesus. It’s of no use that Wendy has now added her young voice and little hands to this idea of getting Mother to answer the door. Before long, Wendy’s knuckles are bleeding too.
Our fists are spiked with splinter, our faces drenched in sweat. We’re both out of breath and together, fall to our knees. Oh, somebody help us! Seconds lend to minutes and minutes are rapidly nearing that god-forsaken hour when I must call the police. What else can I do? I run into the kitchen and grab the rotary. I dial the long number, seven digits and then hang up. Heck, this is an emergency. I dial zero.
“Operator, send the police to my house. My mother locked herself in her bedroom and she won’t answer me or Wendy.” I rattle off our address and slam the phone back into its cradle.
I go back to Mother’s door and try again with all my might to push it open. It still won’t budge. I give up and run to the living room and stand next to the window and wait. Wendy’s curled up on the floor next to me, clutching tightly her Cinderella doll. She’s as silent as the clock above the television, whose second hand seems to have gone mute all of a sudden. The only sounds I hear are the ones from outside, an occasional beeping of a car horn, a few awkward voices of concerned parents calling out to their to children to come home. Finally a blue and white pulls up.
Two blue men get out of their car, one tall, the other short and chubby. I can hear their radios blaring, reports of crime-infested activity. I open the window wider and hang my head out. “Up here,” I say. The two blue men look up, acknowledge me, then put their nightsticks back into their belts. Needn’t worry about an innocent kid being concerned about his mother.
I buzz them in and go out into the hallway and wait. They’re slow in reaching the third floor. Probably out of condition, the result of too many cheeseburgers. How often do I see a group of blue men sitting at the greasy spoon, the one down the street with the Formica countertops and checkered walls? Probably too many times to count.
Finally, the two officers emerge from the stairwell, their faces pocked with droplets of sweat, their breathing heavy and uneven. They gain their breath, then come towards me. The chubby cop wipes his forehead.
“What’s the problem?” he says.
“My mother’s bedroom door is locked and she won’t answer me and Wendy.”
“Who is Wendy?” the tall blue man asks, his head straddling the ceiling. I tell him who Wendy is, that she’s shy and probably hiding somewhere, probably in the closet and the short and chubby cop tells me that he needs to see Wendy, just to be sure that I’m not trying to conceal something. Why in the hell would I be trying to conceal something? My mother ain’t answering her door, my father went out into the night to bring back some good news, my big sis Trish left to hang out with her hippie friends and Lenny, who knows where he went and today’s my birthday and Wendy’s afraid of strangers, especially those who carry big guns and loud walkie-talkies and think that kids like us must always have something to hide. We ain’t hiding nothing.
“Sir, can you please open the bedroom door to see about my mother,” I plead. The tall blue man nods at his partner and then pulls from his belt a weird looking device, somewhat resembling a widget, whatever the hell that is. One of my teachers in Social Studies once drew widgets on the blackboard while explaining economics and stuff like that. This thing that the cop has must have something to do with the economy, you would think.
I lead the two blue men down the short hallway and before I let them mess with the lock using that widget thing I knock one more time, just to be sure. No, nothing. I am scared and worried again, my young mind thinking the worst. Mom has never locked the door before, well, she has, but that was when she was with Dad. And if any one of us knocked, they’d answer. They’d sound out of breath and tell us to let them rest. We would too.
The officer, now I had learned his name, Officer Donahue, unlocks the door in no time at all. He cautions me to step back and enters the room, the beam of his flashlight surveying the interior, lighting up cracked plaster and worn carpet.
The beam sweeps across the top of Mom and Dad’s dresser, revealing Grandma Rosa, framed and looking serious. In all the photographs I’ve seen of Grandma Rosa, she looks serious. Next to her, an alarm clock, its hands frozen from neglect. Next to it, a smattering of mementoes, kept as reminders to my father’s bodybuilding days.
My anxious eyes follow the ray of light as it is heading toward the opposite side of the room, where Mom and Dad’s bed is situated. Suddenly, Officer Donahue turns off his flashlight and tells his partner to take me to the living room. But no, I can’t go. I struggle with the chubby blue man as he tries to pull me from what may be an impossible truth. Something is terribly wrong here. I fight hard but am suddenly outnumbered as Officer Donahue helps his partner drag me out to the living room.
They plop me on the couch and warn me to stay put, “It’s for your own good,” they both say, collectively. I’m defeated, out of breath, and my heart feels as though it’s going to rip through my chest. Officer Donahue returns to Mom and Dad’s bedroom, leaving his partner to watch over me. Any thought of escape now eludes me as Wendy, her little body ravaged by fear, joins me on the couch.
She’s trembling so bad, it seems an earthquake is ready to take us both into the bowels of hell. I hold her tightly, her teeth chattering against my chest, the both of us melded together by uncertainty and fear. We’re like two shackled prisoners, each one depending on the other for freedom of movement. But we become paralyzed as Officer Donahue rushes out of the bedroom, demanding his partner to call for an ambulance immediately.
Before long, the sound of siren blasts through the half-open window. It gets louder, penetrating my brain. My head feels as though it’s going to explode.
Again I try to get up off the couch but am pulled back down by the weight of Wendy. She won’t let go. I’m the only security she has, everything else is foreign to her, everything else a threat.
Blaring walkie-talkies, flashing lights, loud sirens, strange-looking men with guns and lopsided hats—it’s all too much for her. She buries her head deep into the cavity of my chest. I hope that the beating of my heart will squelch the dissonance and provide her some relief. We sit like this, entangled, for what seems like a lifetime.
As the goings-on of the police officers and paramedics swirl around me, I become entranced in reverie. I’m taken back to that day when Mom and Dad sat me up on the high chair and sang to me, Mary Had A Little Lamb, their voices so clear, so crisp. And Trish, dancing around in her little pink tutu. Lenny, sitting on the kitchen floor next to my high chair, playing with his little racecars, smiling up at me, me goo-gooing back at him.
From there, I’m taken forward. Mom comes into the house, cradling a pink bundle. “Ricky, say hello to your baby sister, Wendy.” Dad enters the house, humming some pretty song I haven’t heard before. Nor have I heard since.
Soon, I find myself standing in front of my first school—Hansen Park Elementary. I’m so excited. Finally, I made it. I’m five years old, a kindergartner and am so anxious to get started in my formal education.
I beg Mom to let go of my hand. Most of the other kids cling on to their mothers or fathers, crying and screaming that they don’t want to go inside, that they just wanna go back home… oh please mamma, please daddy, please don’t make me go in there. Please, I wanna go home. But me, I can’t get inside fast enough. Before I do go inside though, I tell the other kids, Come on, this is going to be fun. Mom says goodbye to me, gives me a hug. She turns and goes. I proceed through the doors of my new school. Some other kids follow, while others cling to their parents, begging, please, don’t make me go in there.
Trish is shaking me. She’s out of focus, her face blurry. She must be crying, I feel moist droplets pelting my forearms. Her hands are frenzied upon my shoulders and I beg her to stop. She, in turn, begs me to snap out of it. And in a matter of seconds, I’m snapped out of it all right and I wish to God that I didn’t have to be. The reality is upon us and there is nothing we can do now.
Momma is being wheeled out of the apartment on a stretcher. Alongside her a white-coated man is reading off some numbers to the other white-coated man who is behind the stretcher, holding a tank-like contraption.
I try to get up off the freaking couch and run over to Mom but can’t. Both Officer Donahue and his chubby little partner are now blocking the three of us from doing anything. They demand that we stay put. Everything’s going be okay, they say. But I know how big people are sometimes. They say these kinds of things. They like saying that everything is going to be okay when they know it really isn’t.
Officer Donahue asks Trish her age and she lies and says, eighteen. He tells her to follow him into the kitchen, that he has to get some information from her. She wipes her eyes and asks him what kind of questions.
“It’s about your family, that’s all,” he tells her. “And I have to file a report.”
Trish struggles to get up off the couch. Officer Donahue helps her up. She follows him into the kitchen. While she’s in there answering questions about our family, I beg the other cop to let me up. I lie and tell him that I have to go to the bathroom, “real bad, really, really bad.”
“All right,” he says, “I’ll let you up to the use the bathroom.” He steps aside and lets me get up. Wendy’s still hanging on to me and I beg her to let go, that I’ll be right back. She starts screaming.
“Please, oh please Ricky, don’t leave me. Let me go with, please, pleeeeeeeez…
Through the window, I see red streaks painting the night sky. It’s a sign that I still have time. I waste not a second more and tear away from Wendy and I feel bad about it but I have no choice.
I need to get downstairs real quick before it’s too late. I must see Momma. I just don’t know what has happened to her, nobody will tell me, they just say, she’ll be okay but how do I know this. Maybe she’s dead. Those big people wouldn’t tell me, would they? They’re pretenders, that’s what they are. With their white coats, lopsided hats and big guns, they’re putting on a show, that’s all. For Wendy and me.
But Trish, they’re probably telling her the truth. They think she’s one of the big people too. But she really isn’t. She’s only sixteen. She lied and said she was eighteen. She, too, is pretending but at least, not to Wendy and me. No, she has to say she’s eighteen to those cops because it’s some kind of law or something, I think.
I run out into the hall. A few of our elderly neighbors are peeking out their doors at me. They’d been awakened by all the commotion and I can tell they’re scared. They won’t open their doors fully and I can’t blame them.
With the sounds of blaring walkie-talkies and wailing sirens disturbing the night and the sights of blue men with lopsided hats and white-coated men wheeling my mother past them, who can blame them for being scared? I wish I could assure them that everything’s okay but how could I. Because I know that everything is far from being okay.
My mother’s being taken away, Wendy’s an emotional wreck, Trish has to tell lies to the police officer, my father’s out doing who knows what and Lenny’s up to no good, I just know he is. I think he’s been doing the pot. No, everything’s not okay and sorry neighbors, I can’t help you, not now. I must get downstairs quick before that station wagon without the wooden panels takes off with my mother inside. And where is it taking her, I don’t know. Right now, I don’t know much of anything except this is probably the worst birthday I ever had.
I tear down the hallway, and on my way, kick a bottle of whiskey or something into the wall, it smashing and spewing its content all over the place.
A shattering against the stucco, the result of some clumsy derelict who always seems to pick our apartment building to sneak into and do his drinking, mostly at night, mostly in the abandoned broom closet where he must feel safe and maybe at home, I don’t know. I don’t know much of anything except I got to get downstairs. Down the stairs I go, only to trip over something, a hanging thread maybe and go tumbling down, my body getting all twisted and wrapped around itself. On the bottom stair, I desperately pull myself together, shirk off the pain that’s trying to hold me back and fly out the door. Outside a gathering of brave people are huddled, talking amongst themselves and pointing, pointing to the police car that still is flashing and revealing through its radio all the crime that is taking place in the city. Across these brave people’s faces, streaks of blue and now I’m panicking. Where’s the red? What about the flashing red lights of the ambulance?
My mother’s gone! I fall to my knees. I yell out, “They took my mother without me.” The huddled mass of onlookers breaks apart, all at once deserting me, going back to whence they came. I beg them to tell me something, anything about my mother, in which direction she went, but they quickly disappear into the night, leaving me alone without any answers. I pick myself up again and run down the street only to fall again, this time I can’t get up, now matter how hard I try.
The chubby blue man is standing above me, his hands on his hips, and he’s saying something but I can’t make out what he’s saying, his voice graveled and grated. The streetlight above his head glares down on him, and now for the first time, through the folds of his shirt appears a nametag, its silver and gold gleaming with the inscription, OFFICER JOHN G. HOWITZER. I can tell he’s as proud of his name as I am of mine, for I never had seen a nametag so shiny before, never, ever. He must spend a lot of time keeping his name clean. And though, I’m wincing in pain and curled up on the cement, I let him know that he has gained my respect. I tell him, “Officer Howitzer, I’m sorry for lying to you but I just had to—”
A sudden blast from his walkie-talkie sends my apology into shrapnel. He appears that he may have gotten a piece of it though, as he half-nods an affirmative while removing from his belt the radio that is reverberating, “Officer Howitzer, can you read me? Officer Howitzer, can you read me?” It’s the voice of his partner, Officer Donahue. He’s saying something about getting back to the station, that it’s nearing the end of their shift. “We have to file our reports,” he says.
Trish is wrapping my ankle, a possible sprain, and is thankful that Officers Donahue and Howitzer helped me up the stairs before they rushed out to their waiting squad car. Besides my ankle, my hip is hurting, but not broken, no, it can’t be. If it were I would know it, you’d think.
Wendy is next to us, on the floor, asleep. Clutched in her arms the baby Cindy Doll, as she calls it. Little Cindy is unaware of this night, her face devoid of the tearstains that preside on Wendy’s face.
There are so many questions that I want to ask Trish but am reluctant to. She, graduating on this night to the Big People’s Club, has been given the responsibility of guarding the truth to Mother’s condition. She had probably raised her right hand to Officer Donahue and pledged to him she would not let us minors, Wendy and me, know anything more than, “everything is going to be okay.” Although I don’t want to put Trish in a position of going against the oath, I am still her brother, and that woman that was wheeled out of here is my mother, for god’s sake. I must know about my mother, that’s all there is to it.
“Trish,” I demand, “you must tell me the truth.”
She looks at me squarely, drops the last strand of bandage, and then quickly turns away. I beg her again but she remains silent, her face hiding from me any recognition of the truth. I know she is crying now, little rasps from her diaphragm getting heavier, more rapid. I don’t want to press her but what else can I do. I know she has been given a heavy burden but so have I, and it’s weighing on me, much too heavy.
“Please Trish, tell me why Mom has been taken away. Please tell me what happened.” I pull the last bit of elastic around my ankle and clip it. Some relief there, but not much anywhere else. “I’ll be okay, just tell me,” I say, feigning a sense of optimism. Because deep down, I know that there’s a good chance that I won’t be okay, maybe never, ever again. I could live the rest of my life haunted by this night, the night of my twelfth birthday. I could grow up to be some kind of weirdo, living in the park with the pigeons, eating food out of the garbage can and talking to myself. Shocked into craziness for the rest of my life. Post-traumatic stress disorder or something like that. What if Trish tells me that Momma has, no I mustn’t think that, no Trish will pretend she is one of the Big People again and tell me that everything is going to be okay, but unlike most of those other Big People, she’d really, and I mean, really, really mean it. She will tell me, “everything is going to be okay,” won’t she? She’ll tell me Momma is okay, false alarm, right?
Suddenly, as if awakened by the realization that she does owe it to her little brother to be open with him, no matter what the consequence, she turns and looks at me again and opens her mouth to say something but not a word is uttered, for her thoughts seem stuck somewhere between her brain and larynx.
“Won’t you tell me everything is going to be okay, Trish,” I say, hoping to elicit another response from her, hopefully this time an audible one.
After a few moments the silence is broken. Through the roar of thunder I hear, “Mom tried to kill herself. Did you hear me? Mom tried to kill herself.”
copyright 2021 by Ricky J. Fico & Golden Renaissance Productions