When I was in fourth grade, my father cornered my mom in the kitchen, grabbed her by the throat, lifted her off the floor, pinned her against the freezer, and nearly crushed her windpipe. I will never forget the sounds she made as she lay on the linoleum, chin tilted toward the ceiling like a CPR dummy, struggling to breathe while my father shouted at me to bring her a couch pillow. The adrenaline rush he felt as he wondered whether she would die and he would go to prison must have been addictive because he began beating and choking her on a regular basis that would’ve become a daily occurrence if he hadn’t also enjoyed watching her kowtow to every request to keep the peace.
Most of the domestic violence happened while my brother and I were in school, but my imagination filled in the gaps when I stepped off the bus and saw tears, bruises, broken records, slanted wall hangings, Wurlitzer organ keys that had been splintered with a hammer, and, once, police cars parked in the long, gravel driveway. Even though I was a child, I realized the silent, motionless sirens meant the emergency had ended. As I trudged toward the house, I prayed that my mom had killed my father, but God never saved my cats from being run over in the road, so I knew I was more likely to find a 5-foot-3 chalk outline than a 6-foot-1 body with a bullet hole. I didn’t encounter either, but shortly thereafter my parents took turns spending a few days in the psych ward for what celebrities’ publicists have called “exhaustion.”
Mom was a good mom, so she refrained from telling me anything unless my father said or did something extraordinarily scary or monstrous, such as pointing a gun at her and making her beg for her life or telling her that he wanted to hang her from a deer hook and skin her alive – slowly, but all of Amherst heard him call her a slut, a whore, and worse as they renovated the century-old farmhouse he never should have bought. His voice cracked like thunder when he sawed lumber after mismeasuring it, hit his thumb with a hammer, or dropped a tow motor too soon and mangled the tailgate of his truck and blamed her for every mistake.
I did my best to stay out of sight and often held my bladder longer than I should so I wouldn’t run the risk of him remembering that I existed if I stepped on a creaky floorboard as I tiptoed to the second-floor bathroom, but I witnessed some incidents firsthand. For example, late one night he sped up the driveway, addressed the upstairs windows like Sid and Nancy’s production of “Romeo and Juliet,” and ordered my mom to come downstairs. He’d added weed, coke, and Xanax to his drinking by this point, so my frightened mother corralled me into my brother’s room, where the three of us cowered on the baby blue carpet and cried as he threatened to burn down the house. When he got tired of waiting for my mom to obey, he stomped up the stairs, punched a hole in the door he’d mismeasured, grabbed a fistful of wavy hair, and tried to pull her head backward through the jagged, splintered wood. She surrendered, went downstairs, and he beat her for hours while I listened, unable to do anything, because he’d already warned me that I would “pay for it” if I ever called the police.
Apparently, you can only slap and choke someone so many times before it becomes boring. So, like Hulk Hogan, Rowdy Roddy Piper, and other WWF wrestlers we’d cheered for at Richfield Coliseum, my father adopted theme songs in the 1990s. Blaring George Thorogood and the Destroyers’ “Bad to the Bone” on repeat from his 3-foot-tall Fisher speakers during beatings ensured the song would affect my mom for the rest of her life if she were forced to endure it while shopping for groceries or standing in line somewhere. Thus, even when he wasn’t around to hurt her, he was there in spirit.
The year that Ford made him fill out new life insurance forms, he began taunting her by saying he was going to cremate her if she died first. Over the years, she’d developed a callous to accusations and threats to have my brother and me paternity tested, but this triggered tears each time. She probably pictured him chopping her body into pieces and feeding them to the wood-burning stove where he’d torched her clothes, roller skates, and mementos from high school. When I began working, I bought him cartons of Marlboros for birthdays and holidays to make sure he died before she did. Many nights, I stared at the pointy white stalactites on my bedroom ceiling, listened to him snore, and imagined plunging a butcher knife into his heart, but each fantasy ended with him waking up, grabbing my wrist, breaking my neck, and killing my mom anyway.
The nonstop drama crescendoed in 1995. First, during the O.J. Simpson trial, he bought my mom a white Bronco with his A-plan discount. When I broke my vow of silence to ask why he’d traded the sporty red Escort GT she’d named Quigley, he said, “I’m a big O.J. supporter.”
Then, in case my mom tried to divorce him again as she had when I was in fifth grade, he began recording phone calls and splicing microcassette tapes to make her sound like a bad person. Perched on a breakfast stool, he hunkered over the kitchen counter and toiled away with a razor blade as though this were a perfectly normal hobby. He undoubtedly deleted calls instructing my mom to drive to the Ford plant to put a cold six-pack in his F-150 so he could drink during his lunch hour.
After work, he drank at the bar across the street from the factory before coming home at 2 a.m., tossing the swizzle sticks from his 7 and 7s onto my parents’ bed, and telling my mom, “That’s how many whiskeys I had to drink to get up the gumption to come home to you.” Through our adjoining closet, I heard him call her a double-bagger and laugh like a child reciting his first joke as he explained the second bag was in case the first one fell off her head during sex. Another night, he told her he’d guarded the door while the bartender stripped naked for him and his buddies. Every slurred monologue concluded with a beating.
Eventually, he began taking my mom to Applebee’s and other crowded chain restaurants for lunch and pressuring her to drink with him. My mom’s mother drank herself to death to escape an abusive marriage when I was seven, and my mom started drinking and then quickly stopped after she hit a teen who’d darted out in front of her on his bike, so at first she demurred. But the more he drank, the louder he berated her for refusing to “go along to get along” and ruining his good time. She soon learned that leaving with a buzz was better than leaving with liquor-soaked hair and clothing.
The year’s theatrics culminated with him arguing with my mom, sawing off his wedding band, barricading himself in the barn-turned-garage behind the house, and scribbling a suicide note on a dry erase board. After listening to my mom sob, beat on the door, and panic for a sufficient amount of time, he stepped out into the sunshine and resumed life as usual.
Shortly after I turned 21 in 1996, he demanded that I start paying rent. I nearly laughed. The person who’d threatened to drown my kittens in our swimming pool each spring because he was too cheap to get my cats fixed, the person who’d forced my mom to take our German shepherd to the pound to be put to sleep, the person who’d traded my Atari and ATV for rifles he’d hung above my parents’ bed, the person who’d scared me into sleeping with high heels positioned behind my bedroom door so I’d have a second’s notice if he ever decided to burst in and beat me in the middle of the night like his father had done to him, the person who’d gloated over the fact he’d yanked me down the stairs and made me pee my pants, the person who’d put my car up for sale because I stood up for myself and then put Mom’s car up for sale the following day when she defended me, the person who’d prevented me from making friends because I didn’t want anyone to know what went on in that house, the person who’d destroyed my GPA and any hope of going to college because I developed an ulcer in fourth grade and spent ensuing years unable to concentrate on schoolwork, the person who’d called me stupid every time report cards came out even though teachers had pestered me to enroll in National Honor Society after every proficiency test – this person wanted me to pay him? Instead of laughing, I cried. It was time to leave, and I knew my mom’s days were numbered.