It was in that house we ended up in in North East DC; the one my Dad called Shotgun Heaven. We’d been bumming around the country, following him as he tried to work out his life after divorcing my Mom and leaving his old profession.
Dad had been a lot of things in his life– a not-quite-criminal street kid in 1940s Queens, a college student, a soldier in Vietnam, a civil servant in the Federal government, even a part-time carpenter and NGO worker.
Due to some very strange circumstances that don’t need mentioning here, he’d fallen on considerably harder times than expected.
At forty-plus years old he had been forced to take a job as a bike messenger in order to keep the ends, if not meeting, at least close together.
If you don’t know, messengering that way involves a lot of dodging of cars, dirty tricks between competing employees and not a few injuries when your bike gets into an argument with an oncoming taxi. It was a rough life. Now that I’m looking down the barrel of forty myself, I finally understand exactly how rough.
Shotgun heaven was two stories of plywood and plaster with enough paint slapped on to hide the caulk and the mold. My brothers and I scored a room on the second floor with Dad and Wife #2 sharing the big one at the end of the hall. The walls were thin and we all got an earful of some of the aspects of adult life that we probably shouldn’t have for at least a few more years.
I’m sure they tried to be quiet but, if I could hear my little brother humming in the living room without even putting my ear to the floor, catching snippets of the two of them arguing every night was guaranteed.
I didn’t know what the fight was about and, frankly, I wasn’t interested. In my family argument was like O2. We did it like breathing. Politics. Religion. Which actor was better than another. Whether it was cheaper to buy bread from a market or bake it ourselves. I wasn’t interested but I could hear it.
Eventually the arguing led Wife #2 to pack her kit and her kid and vacate. I wasn’t sorry to see her go. Not because of any specific antipathy we might have had between us; she was all right, in her way. More than.
It was just that she had committed the one sin that my tweenaged mind couldn’t forgive: she had made my father’s life, already difficult, more so.
Their nocturnal grumblings had exploded into full blown daily screaming matches, complete with slammed doors, broken dishes and encyclopedic streams of profanity. Yeah. I can’t say I was bothered to see the back of her. Nobody misses a hurricane.
Nobody but Dad. He was a grown-up, a man and, as such, was constantly under pressures of which I couldn’t conceive at that time.
Wife #2 had been in his bed, in his life, for several years by then and, while from my POV their relationship had been mostly acrimonious, I see now that it couldn’t have been. There’s fighting and there’s fighting. There’s love and there’s lovemaking. There’s a universe of grown-up life that is impenetrable to the minds of thirteen year olds.
Dad had become adept at showing a brave face over the months we’d been in Shotgun Heaven. He went to work. He watched the Star Trek reruns and listened to the Pryor albums. He made breakfasts and hustled us off to school.
But at night, when dinner was cleared and homework was done, Dad went away. I don’t mean he left us alone in the house. He sat with us, even talked to us about the day’s minutia, but it was as if he was watching us from a distance, like his mind was on other, more important things.
I was the oldest so, with no other adult in the house, I had to take up some slack. I helped with meals, clearing up, getting things set for the following day’s adventures. I also ended most evenings alone with Dad, or, at that time, with his shell.
I learned in the first few days after Wife #2 left that pressing him, trying to see what was wrong, was futile. He wouldn’t talk, not about that and certainly not to some kid who hadn’t even lost his virginity yet.
On those nights I left him in the living room, sitting quiet in his overstuffed leather chair, listening to Havens or Davis and, as often as not, nursing a beer.
I woke up once in the middle of one of those nights, wondering just for second where I was. The sound of my brother almost snoring from the other side of the room anchored me.
Whatever dream had occupied me a second previous, I was now in my own bed on the second floor of Shotgun Heaven. The clock said 3:20 am.
I realized I was hungry. I was a kid which meant I was pretty much always hungry. There was a half a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter in the kitchen, both with my name on them.
I slid out of bed, considered and rejected the idea of giving my brother a quick Wet Willy and crept out into the hall. It’s fun moving around when the world is sleeping. I still like to do it. It’s like being allowed backstage at an amusement park or into a museum after hours. It’s not ghosts that come out at the witching hour but the shades of everybody’s secrets.
Mine was the peanut butter and honey sandwich I’d be eating in about five minutes.
As I moved, I winced with every creak of the floor as might weight settled in. The last thing I wanted was to wake anyone up. It’s no fun having a secret, after all, if it’s not yours. These late-night snacks had been mine for more than a year and I meant to keep it that way.
At the current pace it would take more than the five minutes just to make it downstairs but the vision of the sandwich steeled me. One step, two and I was halfway to the bend in the hallway that led to the stairs. Three, four, five and I was just about to make the turn.
Dad’s room faced the streetlight out front so I could see the silhouette of his bamboo curtains framed in the faintly orange glow. As I oriented on his digital clock- 3:44 am- I was suddenly aware of something moving nearby, very fast and horribly quiet. A black shape rose up in front of me, blocking the view. Before I could even squeak out my shock, something hard and about the size of a softball slammed into my chest, forcing me back into the wall. I was pinned there, gasping for breath, struggling against the pressure on my sternum. The black shape, now sporting a bit of a halo from the streetlight’s glow, had resolved itself into something familiar.
“Dad?” I croaked more than said, still barely able to take a breath
It was him. He hissed something at me in a language I didn’t know and pressed harder against my chest, forcing out more wind
“Dad,” I said, trying to pull the hand away. “Dad, you’re hurting me.
He said something then in that other language and I felt his body tense, repositioning itself for another blow.
“Dad!” I said, managing a weak cry. “Dad, it’s ME! It’s GEOFF! DAD!”
His fist came at me anyway and I knew that I was about to feel a pain unlike anything I’d ever experienced. Maybe even one of those “killing blows” they talked about in my comic books.
There was a crack, a loud angry sound of bone against- something and the feeling of wind beside my face.
“Agh!, Dammit!” said my father, releasing me as he stepped away. A light came on and I saw him, his right hand bloody from where it had impacted the wall. The wall was bloody too and there was a hole in it roughly the shape of his fist
“What the hell are you doing creeping around like that?” my father said
“I wanted,” I was still having difficulty catching my breath. “I just wanted a sandwich.
He told me to go back to bed and I was way ahead of him. I sat there in the dark until sun up wondering what the hell had just happened
He didn’t mention the incident the following day nor on the next several. Eventually he told me it was a flashback to his time in Vietnam, a sort of sleepwalking event brought on by stress. He was sorry, very sorry, for frightening me and he was getting into therapy. He didn’t ever want a repeat performance.
I lied, telling him I understood. Of course I didn’t. I was just a kid.