This Dirt from One Image - One Hundred Voices

This mound of dirt used to be the kitchen in my father’s house, when it was a house, before workers came to strip it to the foundation to remake history. The walls were saffron when my mother was alive and the floor, which once was clean, was vinyl with a swirling geometric pattern, dizzying if you stared too long. Now it is all covered with dirt.

Dirt covers the acrid smell of fear, the nauseating fear of my father, by my father, for my father.

Dirt from the grave now covers his hands. Big hands, hairy and strong.

Not the hands of the erudite professor he was; the hands of the brute he became.

If you sift through the dirt, maybe you’ll see those hands pulling on my twelve-year-old arm. Maybe you’ll hear the shriek as I make for the back door, as my shoulder pulls from its socket, my right shoulder which would never be right again even when I was older and tried to transform into a mermaid and swim away from that life. Maybe if you dug, you’d see me redouble my struggle, observe muscles bunching in my thighs, notice fear and surprise cross my father’s face as he realizes something’s wrong, something’s gone sick and slack in my arm. Watch as he lets go in horror; he didn’t mean to hurt me. Watch as I slip out the door and into the Children’s Forest, where the dirt is as pristine as a house swept clean.

How to Calm Your Bipolar, Gender-Fluid, Stupidly Strong Kid from Eunoia Review 


First, don’t get mad.

You’ll want to get mad because he is infuriating. You’ll want to scream and send him to his room or to time out or straight to hell, but I promise you this: This Will Not Work.

Second, keep away anything he can hurt himself or you with – knives, bats, cats, Transformers (those fucking things are sharp!). Hide the Wii remotes, his DSi, your laptop and try to get close but not too close because you thought it was a good idea for your gender-fluid little boy to learn taekwondo before he attempts to wear his punk-rocker chick outfits to school so he’s stupidly strong for a nine-year-old boy. Try to stand in front of the six-hundred-dollar flat screen TV your husband just bought so that when he does throw something, it hits you. You will mend. The TV won’t.

Use that soft sweetie-pie voice. Say you love him.

Tell him if he killed himself your heart would be broken forever. Forever. Because it would be. Tell him you would never survive. Because you wouldn’t.

Tell him he’s handling his strong emotions well, even when he isn’t. Bribe him, soothe him, calm him, calm him, calm him. Because if you don’t, chaos will reign and chaos isn’t pretty.

If he calms down, put him to bed with lullabies and then drink until you’re shitfaced and the world seems sane and you can forgive yourself for the genetic time bomb you’ve given him.

If he doesn’t, call 911.

On The Way to The Thing from Split Lip Magazine 

It was cold in the way that only Iceland can be cold. The houses in Iceland aren’t made of wood. It’s a volcanic island and therefore all the buildings need to be built to a certain code, to withstand, I guess, volcanos and other seismic activity. So the houses are stone and concrete and it is cold ten months out of the year. Not colder than New York, where I was from, but the cold never seemed to abate because it bled into every pore of every squat grey building and, at nineteen, I wondered sometimes if I would ever be warm again.

But Daddy and my sister, Meg, and her newly minted boyfriend, David, were visiting for my wedding and my father, a professor of linguistics, was in his glory. Iceland is every linguists’ wet dream. The language is captured in time, ambered for a thousand years in isolation and bad weather. And here his own daughter, a disappointment in so many ways, had married an actual Icelander who was also fluent in German, Danish, Swedish and English. What a son-in-law!  Before we’d moved to Iceland, Daddy had had Kommi (short for Kormakur) read the poetic Edda onto cassette tapes and interviewed him about the pronunciation and relationship between words. On top of being Icelandic – which would have been enough to satisfy my father – he was hulking specimen of manhood. Kommi was six foot six inches – just shy of two meters – and he was incredibly strong (a normal man would struggle under one box of books, while Kommi cheerfully carried three, smiling and not losing his breath) and handsome in the way that very large boys are – big blue eyes, sandy blonde hair, dimples when he smiled. And he could do all the manly things that my father wished he could also do but couldn’t actually – fix stuff, move stuff, drink massive amounts of beer. Daddy had absolute confidence in Kommi.

Frankly, I had absolute confidence in him as well. Right up until that day, he seemed infallible in my teenage eyes. I had moved away from Daddy at sixteen and although I still desperately wanted his approval in all things, I was also blindly and fiercely independent. I wasn’t going to college. That bourgeois bullshit was what my father and step-mother were all about. Instead I joined the Socialist Workers Party that August of 1989, just two months after graduating high school, and then dropped out the same day, deciding to move to Iceland to join the sister party there with my boyfriend of three months. Kommi was in New York volunteering at the publishing wing of the SWP, Pathfinder, and he was supposed to go back. He asked to stay longer but his request was denied. It took me under thirty seconds to decide to move to Iceland with him. It seemed like the revolution would be easier to start in such a small country, anyway. And Kommi seemed so absolutely sure of everything and smart in a Vulcan sort of way but much better looking than Spock. Not really my type – all those muscles – but he made me feel dainty and with my Russian-Jew peasant build, that was a rarity. And he worshipped me. That helped.

So it made absolute sense to get married at nineteen. Not for the institution of marriage which was, of course, a tool of capitalism to keep women subjugated – of course not! But I’d get my Icelandic citizenship faster and I could join the fish workers’ union, where all the action was. And, of course, I was entirely safe because I was with Kommi and nothing bad could happen and, after a life time of terrible things happening, mostly but not entirely at Daddy’s hands (as hard as I try, I cannot really blame him for my mother’s death from breast cancer when I was eleven), I was pretty content to have the rest of my life be emotionally staid. Or so I thought in that way that one thinks they know everything at nineteen.

Daddy wanted to see the Þing, (pronounced as though the word Thing and Think were being pronounced together) the site of the original Icelandic Parliament. Iceland has the oldest parliament in the world and it all started at this large rock in a valley with great acoustics. The people of early Iceland would stand, their backs to the audience, and make their arguments to the wall. The sound would bounce back and everyone would be able to hear, despite the wind and rain and snow and possibly even on a rare entirely sunny day. Daddy wanted to stand in front of the rock and speak and have his voice echo over Iceland, pretending he was a huge, fierce Viking, like his son-in-law of three days.

We’d rented a jeep and set out of Reykjavik early in the morning for Þingvellir National Park. It didn’t seem like the most fun thing to do in January in Iceland, but I wanted to be a good little Icelandic wife (the contradiction in my thinking was entirely blind to me back in 1991) and show my American guests the sights. It was part of the touristy “golden circle” that included Geyser, the geyser from which geysers are named and his little brother, Strokkur, which actually went off like clockwork without prompting. But we were just going to see what was essentially a big rock in the middle of nowhere when it was so cold, even the sheep huddled together out of sight.

It was January 4, 1991 and would be unusually sunny for winter in Iceland. The longest night had passed on December 21st and now there was some daytime, although usually I couldn’t tell the difference. It came midday and often with grey clouds so dark it might as well have stayed dark. At least in the dark there was the promise of the Aurora Borealis. At least in the dark you knew it was going to be dark.

We left in the black morning and headed out in the Jeep, Kommi driving. Daddy was in the front seat and Kommi was playing tour guide, telling him about the city and the history of Iceland. Daddy was a good tourist because he already knew a bit of everything, so he could ask questions, professorially leading Kommi to tell him the parts he didn’t know. I was behind Kommi, the worst seat for touring because he was too gigantic to see around, but I picked the spot so my guests would have a better view. Meg sat next to me and David sat behind Daddy. That was a good spot for him since David was not my father’s idea of the ideal specimen of a man for his daughter. A full foot shorter than Kommi, David looked like he could be my brother. He wasn’t handy, he was dogmatic and loud about it, willing to get into debates with my father (an activity akin to washing your car in a snowstorm) and he usually refused to shut up when it was clear that my father wasn’t interested.

We set out on the main road leading out of the city, past Mossfellsbier and down a long stretch of paved road, a highway by Iceland’s standards but a country road by New York’s standards. The road was sheer ice. The sun came up, glinting off the ice, and the wind playfully whipped ghosts of snow along the road. Ten minutes down the highway the car slid a bit and we all held our breath. Kommi righted it and kept on talking to Daddy and we all sighed. Kommi must know what he’s doing, we all thought. He’s an Icelander and he’s just so big and capable. And to me, he was fully grown up at twenty-eight. It would take me a while to learn that although I was nine years younger, age is relative.

Twenty more minutes passed, Kommi talking to Daddy, Daddy listening, me whispering to Meg about nothing really while David was reading. When the Jeep started to slip again, I wasn’t worried. Kommi would handle it. I was always safe with Kommi.

But then the world was thrown upside-down. Kommi fought with the car but physics won. The jeep made a perfect circle and landed back on its wheels. It shook for a moment, as if deciding if it was going to keep going, down the slight incline of the side of the road where it would have rolled and rolled us into a prehistoric field of lava. But it stopped. Our windows were all blown out and the car was dead.

“Is everyone okay?” Kommi turned to check on us.

We all murmured that we were alive except David. Meg began screaming his name, shaking him by the shoulder. He was slumped down, like a rag doll. It was only thirty seconds or so that he was out but it was terrifying. He awoke, confused and in pain, but alive. We looked around the barren landscape. There was no building or car in sight. Snowcapped lava fields stretched on a flat plain.  

“Right. We have to find help. Jude?” He always said my name as though there was a “ch” hidden in the middle of the “j.” Normally I thought it was adorable. Now I could barely respond.

“My arm and… my foot.” The left side of my body felt crushed. I could barely move it. As a lefty, this made me almost unmovable. The same for David but on his right side. We were both in shock, something I had heard of but never fully appreciated before that day.

“I’m fine,” Meg said. And she was. She’d been tossed between David and me and we were sufficient cushion that she was entirely unhurt except for the pebbles of glass caught in her long brown hair, some of which scraped her neck and cheeks.

Kommi and Meg, by far the most coherent of the five of us, decided they’d go and look for help. Kommi said we’d passed a farm house a few kilometers back, although I had no memory of it.

It was just after they left that I noticed Daddy’s distress. His face was covered in blood. The roof of the car above him was covered in blood. I knew head wounds bled more than other wounds but in that moment it seemed like there couldn’t be any more blood left in my father’s body.

“Daddy, let me clean your face.” I unwound the scarf from around my neck and tried to get close to him. He was inhaling his blood. I could see him breathing it in through his nose and swallowing it through his mouth. Despite all the injuries I’d sustained in my life, mostly at his hands, I had never seen so much blood.

He blocked me.

“Just wait. Kommi will get help.” He sounded gruff and wet, wheezing. I tried to feel around in his pockets for his inhaler, but he wouldn’t let me close enough to him. In the back seat, David was lost.

“So, where are we?”

“Iceland? Why are we in Iceland?”

“For my wedding.” I now had the brilliant idea of taking off my hat to clean my father. I was rebuked again.

“I don’t remember your wedding.”

I sighed. “You weren’t really there. You came the next day. You couldn’t get a flight.”

He was perplexed. “I’m not really here?”

My father started to get agitated. “Of course you’re here now!” His voice was ragged and thick with bloody mucus.                              

I took off my coat. The cold didn’t seem to affect me at the moment, despite the wind and absence of windows. I had to clean Daddy’s face. I got close this time, but he pushed me into the back seat with some force.

“So… I’m here with Meg. As… as a friend or as a boyfriend?”

It had been a recent decision to take their relationship from friend to lover status. It had only been a few weeks. But David was then and always had been and always would be a brother to me. I loved him like family so it seemed natural that he and Meg should be together, to make him part of our family. We always said we three knew each other since before we were born. Later, after they were married and divorced, he moved comfortably back into being our brother. It helped that Daddy was long dead by then.  

“Boyfriend,” I whispered, not wanting to upset Daddy more. It wasn’t just the amount of blood he was inhaling. I didn’t yet realize how serious that would become. It was in his agitation he was shaking the Jeep and we were right on the precipice of the side of the road where the slope was. I was terrified that we’d flip over again and never stop rolling.

I took off my bulky red sweater and attempted to clean Daddy again. I got even closer, so, in my shocked state, it seemed to me that what I was doing was logical.

“So, are we just friends or are we lovers?” David asked.

This was too much for my father. He knew that, at twenty-one, my sister was having sex. David was hardly her first boyfriend. But the thought of her having sex with David was too much. “Lovers!” he barked, bringing on a phlegmy cough, causing his head wound to spout more blood. He tried to turn around but was caught in his seatbelt and unable to get it undone. He began shaking the car attempting to undo it.

“Stop, Daddy, stop,” I cried, taking off my long sleeved t-shirt and attempting to somehow staunch the flow of his blood and his ire. I managed to press the button on the seatbelt.

David was slowly nodding his head, cradling his painful arm, trying to make sense of all of this and totally unaware that he was upsetting my father or that I was undressing in the freezing car. “So how did I get here?”

Just as I was about to wrap my pink shirt around Daddy’s forehead, he pushed me back and started flapping his arms. “You flew, you moron!”

“Daddy!” I cried, imagining his floundering bulk would surely send us over the edge of the road to certain death. I quickly took off my t-shirt and sat there in my bra, trying to clean Daddy’s face.

Oblivious, David went on, “So, I flew to Iceland for your wedding but I didn’t see it and Meg and I are lovers?”

“Yes!” Daddy and I both screamed as I tried to get Nelson Mandela’s face across my father’s face, to keep him calm and from bleeding to death. Luckily at that moment Kommi and Meg came back in a car. The couple driving the car lived nearby and had chains on their tires. They’d call an ambulance. They were all staring at me.

“Jude, sweetie, where are your clothes?”

It took some minutes for Kommi to redress me and longer for my sister to calm my father and David. Calming people in distress is her superpower.

Kommi was short of breath as he put my bloody clothes back on me. In the forty five minutes it took for the ambulance to come, it became more and more obvious that he was, in fact, badly hurt. Meg kept David quiet and wrapped my scarf around Daddy’s bleeding head and made soothing noises. I noticed that we were all bleeding, probably from the glass. Meg told me she got her only bruise from falling on the ice on the way to find help. Daddy and Kommi’s breathing both took on a serrated, broken quality that sounded unearthly in the barren icy landscape. It seemed like we were on Hoth, minus the Jedi powers but with Han Solo coming.

When we finally got to the hospital, everyone was taken in different directions. My mother-in-law, a nurse at another hospital, came to check on all of us.

 “What’s wrong with Kommi?” I asked repeatedly to anyone who’d listen. They smiled and said he’d be fine.

Meg finally found out. “Kommi’s left lung collapsed. They had to put something in his chest to reinflate it. A tube or something. David has mild amnesia. He basically can’t remember the last few weeks. He’s actually annoying the shit out of me. And the whole right side of his body is hurt but he doesn’t have any breaks. I don’t know about Daddy. They said something about his lungs. Kommi’s mom said that they were putting him on a respirator.”

It took hours before anyone would talk to us. It was finally a tired looking young guy with blood splattered scrubs came over and spoke to us.

 “Has your father ever exhibited… psychotic behavior?” We looked at each other and started laughing. This seemed to alarm the doctor. “Is this funny?”

“No, no,” Meg gasped, still laughing, “it’s just no one ever put it quite like that before. Yes. He has exhibited psychotic behavior.” If that’s what you could call a man who had violent rages where he beat his wife and then, after she died from cancer, his children. Somehow calling it psychotic seemed very funny.

“Well, he has fractured his skull. But there is an old fracture there, from childhood most likely, which was never treated. It is pressing on his frontal lobe.” This sobered us. I remembered a story.

“Daddy got thrown from his horse when he was eight,” I supplied. He’d grown up in rural Montana in the thirties and sometimes rode a horse to school.

“Yes, that could explain things. Yes. It could have altered his personality.”

“What does that have to do with his lungs, though? I thought he was going on a respirator,” Meg asked.

“Yes, the skull fracture and other lacerations on his head caused a great deal of bleeding. He inhaled his blood. He has what is sort of like pneumonia, but from having blood in his lungs. The right lung has already collapsed. We thought it best to start the respirator. We can’t do much for his skull until his breathing is under control. He’s not really awake. You can see him in the morning. We are keeping all three of them here. You should go home and rest. You must both be in pain as well.” He walked away from us, having answered some questions but not the really big ones. Like how at nineteen and twenty-one we were supposed to deal with the thought of becoming orphans? Or how to place this new-found knowledge of Daddy’s childhood injury with the years of pain he had put us through? Or how we were supposed to deal with Kommi and David being so injured when we were in shock ourselves?

I felt as though my world was crashing apart. I had left my country and married a man who I thought could keep me safe – based on what, I now wondered? That he was very tall and strong? That he was smart and dispassionate? I felt irrationally angry at him for not being what I wanted him to be. None of these thoughts were this clear then, at nineteen. It’s taken decades to sort out how my unfair expectations were.  

So Meg and I took a cab back to the white cozy house Kommi and I rented close to downtown Reykjavik. That morning it had felt crowded with my father and my husband and my sister and David. It had felt safe and warm. That night, stiff in my cold bed, I realized what I had really known ever since my mother had died: no one was ever really safe.

In Joe's Bar from Kleft Jaw

            My cards were dismal as they were, but I knew it was all in the kitty. I propped myself up on my feet, still calloused from the barefoot summer although it was the end of November, squatting on the wooden chair, my knees pressed into the dining room table, trying to remember what had been played and what might be in the kitty. It could all be there in the kitty. And I didn’t mind going set because in the end, I always won. Well, usually. It was the law of averages. If you played long enough, betting big always paid off. It was simply a matter of masking your face, watching your opponents and figuring out your best move based on what was concealed.

            I glanced around the table. Daddy was clearly also counting in his head, his right hand stroking his Santa Claus beard, which had gotten longer and whiter in the year since Mama died, his cards folded up in his left hand, resting on the belly that looked like it could have an almost full term baby in it, figuring out what could be in the kitty. Meg was reading, her thick glasses beside her. She tended to read while Daddy and I plotted. Sometimes she’d knit but Daddy told her knitting was for Family Reading Hour or watching TV and she should hold her goddamn cards and pay attention to what tricks were being played. I wasn’t sure why the same didn’t apply to reading but logic was never my father’s strongest suit. There hadn’t been much Family Reading Hour since Mama died, anyway. Sometimes Meg just put her head down and slept, but both Daddy and I frowned on that. Reading was occasionally a way for her to mask sleeping. These pinochle sessions could go on for hours – days really, if Daddy was in that mood, the mood for which we had no name. Mania wasn’t part of our vocabulary. Just Daddy – and Judy along with him. We had taken a couple of breaks but we’d pretty much been going two days straight this time. When Daddy was up, I was often up too. Meg struggled to stay with us, exhausted.  

            Clubs were trump and I had kept pretty good track of everyone’s meld. I was the dealer and Daddy and Meg were playing their counters to each other to get me, but I was way ahead of them. I knew what I was doing when I called trump. But no Jack. It had to be in the kitty. “Meg. Meggy. It’s your turn.” I couldn’t tell if she was deeply engrossed in her book or if she was taking a cat nap. I glanced at the clock. We should be getting Johnny up and ready for school soon, but we had time for me to win this one.

            “Oh. Yeah…” She looked at her cards and lifted her left hand to pick a card and then put it back down on the floral vinyl table cloth, unconsciously wiping away some shmutz left over from our many meals. We’d just been piling up the debris of our snacking at the end of the table for the past two days. There were Twinkie wrappers and bits of tin foil, an empty bag of Arnold’s Extra Thin bread that had been full when we’d started, my text book for 7th grade Honors Algebra and Meggy’s banned knitting. Meggy sat in Mama’s spot now, next to the toaster oven on the cart with the big chalk board to her back. There was some word with arrows pointing and other identifiers about the word. I couldn’t tell what language it was in. Too many consonants to be a Romance language. I knew better than to ask. The game would be put on hold and I’d get a two hour lecture on whatever it was that was up there, Johnny would be late to school again and I’d never win this fercockt game.

            “Ummmm…” She looked up at me, her eyes a startling blue in her tanned face. Her hair was feathered and fell down over her shoulders. She was wearing a yellow Ms. PacMan nightgown, her legs curled up in front of her.  I felt a surge of annoyance. She wasn’t paying attention. I was pretty sure she didn’t know what trump was.

            “You’ve gotta follow suit.” I looked pointedly at the trick Daddy had just played.

“Right…” she said, the emphasis on the t, drawing it out as if by doing so she’d know what suit to follow. She searched his meld as if it would jump out at her.

            “Meg…” I tried to use my eyes to direct her but she wasn’t getting it.

            “Judashala – watch out. You’d get shot in Joe’s bar for that!” He wigged his eyebrows at me in a mock warning. Daddy fancied himself a cowboy since he was raised on a sheep ranch outside of Butte until his teenage years and we frequently were told what would happen in the wilds of Montana in “Joe’s Bar” if caught making an inappropriate move in pinochle.

            I rolled my eyes. “Well she’d get shot in Joe’s bar if she didn’t follow suit!”        

The phone rang, bringing us abruptly out of Joe's bar and into the reality of Long Island.    Daddy pushed at the table and it creaked with him, as though commiserating. It seemed for a moment that he was going to get up and answer it himself, something virtually unheard of. Children were for doing such menial jobs. We all knew it was Bethpage High School. Where Meg hadn’t been for two days already. This was the third. Time had somehow moved forward and it was already 7:45. I sighed and got up, pulling down my Smurfette t-shirt over my panties. In another hour it would be JFK Junior High calling to ask about me.

            “Hall’s residence, may I help you?” I used my best grown-up, secretary voice that Daddy had trained us to use on the phone.

            A woman with a nasally Long Island accent asked to speak to my father. I asked who was calling. The woman on the other end was not charmed by my grown up ways. “Hon, just put your father on.”

            I uncoiled the extra-long cord and handed Daddy the yellow receiver. “High school,” I mouthed. I knew a school secretary voice when I heard one.

            Daddy took the phone as though being handed a snake. He sighed deeply before putting his ear to the phone. “This is Dr. Hall,” he said, making his voice deeper. He usually just said it was Mike or Mike Hall – the Dr. bit was thrown in for intimidation factor. “Mmm. Yes. I know she’s been home.” He was nodding. “Of course she’s unwell,” he said with a trace of exasperation in his voice. He didn’t look at us as he lied. He needed to get into the moment – believe the lie. “I’m sure she’ll be fine by Monday.” It must have been Friday. I’d lost track of the days. “Thank you for your concern. I was not cognizant of the protocol for calling in my daughter’s absences.” Daddy sounded every bit the professor of Linguistics he was and every bit the father in charge he wasn’t.

            He finally held out the phone for me to hang up, which I did quickly. Daddy rocked at the table in indecision. We were all remembering the same thing, as if we had a group mind, a group memory of shared fear.

            A month earlier had been the first time the social workers came. I had told Michelle, one of my few friends at school, that I was going to kill myself . When I didn’t show up for school the next day, she told the guidance counsellor not just about my threat but how she’d noticed when I slept over that I had bruises on my back and ribs. I had changed so quickly in the near dark of her bedroom, I didn’t realize she’d seen.

            So the social workers came and we’d sat at this same table while they yelled at Daddy about how dirty the house was and asked me about the bruises. I looked straight at them and told them how I had fallen. As I wove my tale, I could almost remember the fall. I’d been carrying… books. I was at the top of the stairs, in the room Meg and I shared, and I’d slipped and that was how I’d fallen.

            The burn on my arm? From cooking. I smiled as I said it, my mind trying to erase Daddy rubbing his cigarette into my arm in the front seat of the station wagon where I was trapped unless I wanted to throw myself out of a moving car. Which I’d considered. Then it would be over. But as I told them my tale of a burning pot and Johnny, only seven, underfoot, it seemed real. Real enough. That was the trick. It had to seem real enough. And I had to believe it.  

            The two social workers, both very young men wearing white shirts and wide plaid ties, looked around our house in disgust, as though the filth might be contagious and creep onto their pristine shirts. I didn’t know then that they were very young and probably scared of my father, this Santa Claus looking man covered in tattoos, breathing like Darth Vader and furiously angry at me for daring to want to die. They accepted my lies, my crude lies; I was not yet the liar I’d become. They told my father to clean the house, that this was no environment for children. They left quickly, promising a surprise return.

            The living room had had boxes in it, as though we were moving somewhere even though we’d been in this house all my life except for a year in Sudan when I was a kid. The boxes had the stuff from Mama’s office at SUNY Stony Brook and some of her clothes. Daddy would start to go through the office stuff and then rush to his bed to hide under the blankets. Meg and I had taken Mama’s clothes and put them in boxes over the summer but Daddy couldn’t bring them to the Good Will. He would stop and touch her clothes, almost unconsciously.

            Since that visit we’d moved all the boxes into what most people used as the family room. It had always been a dumping ground/ study of sorts for my parents. The living room was dirty and mismatched but it resembled more of a living room except for the big card table in the middle, making it impossible for anyone to really sit on the two sofas, one blue and the other floral but covered in stains from when it had served as Johnny’s bed for six months.

            Johnny now slept with Daddy and not in the Superman bedroom which had hosted live-in Haitian maids until Mama got really sick and they left, taking cleanliness with them. Then Johnny went in there, his old bedroom became Mama and Daddy’s study and Superman curtains and sheets and blankets were bought and never cared for and then after Mama died Johnny’s small bed disappeared, mysteriously to us kids, and we were told to put the dirty sheets on the floral sofa. Johnny almost never slept in there because when he did, he almost always had an accident, and not always pee-pee but ca-ca too. He usually slept with Meg, who was more patient than I with his thrashing around since she slept like the dead anyway. Sleeping with someone else, he never had an accident.

            But now on this November morning, Daddy, Meg and I all thought the same thing.

Today would be the day.

We had no way of knowing it, but the call from the school was like a sign from the gods, warning us to get it together.  The men in their too white shirts, whiter than anything in our house, would return and all hell would break loose. 

What sort of hell we had no idea. No one told Meg and me what could happen, except a vague warning that we could end up with Mama’s relatives in North Carolina. The way Daddy described it, his voice low and horrible, as though he were describing Sauron seeking the One Ring, so I imagined the worst, even though my memories of my cousins and Aunt Pauline from my mother’s shiva were hardly equivalent to the fell beasts of Mordor. But I knew that what was on the outside wasn’t always what was on the inside. Sauron had been beautiful once to achieve his ends. I knew no one really suspected Daddy, a professor who looked like Santa Claus and kept his tattoos covered in public, to be the violent, mercurial man he could sometimes be. He was charming. Handsome if you thought a hippie-ish Santa Claus was handsome, his blue eyes sparkly and his white beard curly and his brown hair pulled back in a ponytail. And if you met him socially, wearing a tie-dye t-shirt and jeans, his tattoos were beautiful and he was quirkily charming.  But the truth could come out and we could end up far away, with people who were really strangers to us. As scary as he was, we were devoted to Daddy.

No one had to say to lie.

Daddy never asked me to lie to the men. I just knew to do it. And even so he beat us after they left for the house being such a mess.

“Okay…” Meg was all business suddenly, wide awake. She knew what the trump was now. “Jude, get Johnny dressed and on the bus.”

I glanced at the clock. Fifteen minutes till the bus came.

I rushed off to pull Johnny from his sleep in the big queen size bed, sleeping on Mama’s side, curled like a kitten in the dent she’d made over the eighteen years she’d slept next to my father. I could hear my sister starting to clean up, bustling through the dining room, picking up things. I didn’t hear my father do anything, but I didn’t expect to hear him do anything but give orders.

I sat Johnny on the toilet in the green bathroom while I stripped him naked. He didn’t question my urgency. “Are you making ca-ca?” I asked.

He nodded.

I left him on the toilet and rummaged on the floor of his room, which still held all his clothes and toys. I found fairly clean underwear and jeans but every t-shirt I picked up had a smear of something – peanut butter or chocolate or twinkie – in an obvious spot. I looked hopelessly in the dresser for shirts. Bingo! The t-shirt from The American School in Khartoum, which had started as Meg’s and then became mine and now, threadbare, was Johnny’s was folded in strict military precision, alone in the drawer. All our clothes were folded the same way, in crisp thirds, the way the Army had taught Daddy and how he insisted that we fold. It didn’t matter that the house was filthy or that our clothes were stained beyond cleaning, but our clothes would be folded in thirds, so help him God.

The bus was already pulling up as I rushed Johnny into the open flap of the yellow doors. I was still in my Smurfette t-shirt and had pulled on a pair of jeans of questionable cleanliness but hadn’t put a coat on. The bus driver frowned at me as I stood and waved with the other moms.

Back in the house, Meg and I moved swiftly but without precision. Precision would come later – nights when we knew Daddy was coming home, days when we just got that feeling that social workers were coming, the rare weekends when we’d have guests of my father’s, graduate students, usually, sometimes coming to take us somewhere. It was never clean anyway – we’d hide dirt, sweep it down the stairs to the basement or into the closets. Everything was covered up, hidden under piles of lies and subterfuge so that we could stay with the devil we knew and loved.

Daddy sat at the table, frozen.

In the months and years following, he’d be barking orders and throwing punches as we scurried, if we were stupid enough to do it in front of him, but today he was as still as the statues in the city, with pigeons shitting, tourists leaning, nature howling while the statue remained immoveable. As we took a slightly stained sheet to cover the very stained sofa, I nudged Meg and nodded towards Daddy. She shrugged.

“Don’t you think that’s weird?” I whispered as we tucked the sheet in place.

“He’s been like that since the school called.” She let her hair fall over her face as she spoke, a trick she learned to hide that she was talking.

I had already cut off all my hair to keep Daddy from being able to grab it so I turned my back to the dining room and whispered, “It’s kinda freaking me out.” She shrugged. I didn’t know if that meant that she was also freaked out or that nothing freaked her out about Daddy anymore.

We moved the card table carefully so that nothing would fall off of it, but I kept glancing back at my father, expecting him to yell or tell us to be careful, goddamnit, but he said nothing and remained unmoving. We put it against my mother’s china cabinet. This opened up the living room.

If you could count on anything from Daddy it was inconsistency, but this was strange in the extreme. Meg just puttered around, trying to make the living room look like people used it and handed me a broom and told me to sweep the dining room, by far the dirtiest floor other than the kitchen. I started over by the blackboard, careful not to brush against the strange word or any of the markings, which could mean anything in linguistics, my father’s secret language.

Wrappers had floated from the table to the floor, along with random socks kicked off from feet knocking around under the table while hands and faces remained ladylike above the table, bits of paper from homework or notes or poems and stories Meg and I wrote, scraps of yarn from our knitting, Johnny’s whiffle ball, cat hair, a piece of bone chewed clean from a steak, other grisly bits of food all followed the yellow bristles of the broom to a pile I was making close to the kitchen door, near the garbage can. I hesitated by Daddy’s hulking form, still unmoving.

If I asked him to move, the spell could break and he could wake up furious and violent but if I didn’t ask him to move and the social workers came they would see all the bits of food and the paper plate trapped under Daddy’s chair. I rocked in indecision.

“Daddy?” I spoke softly, as though I were really waking him. His body was rigid. Still holding the broom with my left hand, I put my right on Daddy’s shoulder and rubbed. “Daddy?”

Quickly Daddy grabbed my right arm tightly, his thumb pressing on a healing cigarette burn. I winced and clutched the broom, ready to use it as a weapon. “Judasha?”

Daddy’s blue eyes turned on me, confused and his grip loosened. I pulled my arm away and put both hands on the broom, ready to defend myself. Daddy sitting was almost as tall as I was standing. I knew I had no chance against him except for speed, my only advantage against three hundred pounds of his grief and fury and rage. But I could throw the broom and make him falter, giving me the lead. My mind was already out the back door and into the children’s forest, my usual retreat.

Suddenly he smiled and put his hands on the table. “Whaddya think is in the kitty?”

My hands were shaking on the handle of the broom. Pinochle.

“Jack. Jack of Clubs.”

“You were waiting on that, weren’t you?” He raised his right eyebrow. I raised mine back at him, smiling a little now. This was Daddy. I willed my heart to stop racing and my mind to stay in the dining room and not dart like the scared deer I sometimes was.

He reached, the table creaking with his weight and scooped up the three cards face down on the table and flipped them over one at a time. Queen of Hearts. I knew that would be there. Ace of Hearts. I thought Meg had that. And a Jack of Spades.

It wasn’t in the kitty. Not this time.

Daddy smiled and flipped over his cards. He had the Jack of Clubs. I put my hand on my hip. I would have gone set.

I picked up the broom and swatted at Daddy’s feet, the spell broken entirely and we were us again.


I raised one eyebrow. “You know, you’d be shot in Joe’s bar for that,” I said as I swept up the filth under his feet and chair.