Tom (WordWulf) Sterner
Six-year-old Jerry sneaked the last slice of bread last night. He took quite a beating when Momma informed Daddy there was none for his lunch. Jerry’s lips are stuck shut with blood, but his belly’s full. They can beat him all they want. The next morning he’s gone. Where did he go, the police want to know. I lived the life. Momma told me her stories. She didn’t like it much that I wrote things down, life and her tales.
Six-year-old Jerry snuck into the bread last night. He ate the last two slices. He took quite a beating when Momma informed Daddy there was no bread for his lunch the next day. Jerry’s lips are stuck shut with dried blood, his forehead bruised from being slammed into the corner where he’s standing, smiling inside. His belly’s full. They can beat him all they want. The next morning he is gone and his four-year-old brother, Peter, with him. Where did they go, the police want to know. So does Momma and seven-year-old Timmy, Jerry’s brother and oldest of the Turner children.
The tenement is on fire. Flame tongues lick the walls on the fourth floor where the Turners live. The linoleum is a living thing, bubbling and breathing, belching cockroaches up from the lower floors. Daddy is passed out drunk and Momma frantic to wake him to save him, to save them, her seven children. He doesn’t disappoint her as he comes awake, swats her away, “Get off me, bitch!” A hero emerges from the drunken bag of his body, finds a way to save them all.
Momma was a Catholic, Daddy was a drunk. Momma was born in a chicken coop behind her grandfather’s mansion in the Ozarks, Missouri before he hung himself and blew his brains out over gambling debts and slave blood. Her father was the ashamed half-breed offspring of this white man and his Cherokee slave woman. At four-years-old, she was abandoned to a Catholic orphanage along with her two older sisters.
Daddy was born on a ranch in Colorado Springs, Colorado, a twin and his mother’s favorite. His twin brother was left in an outhouse at a campground in the mountains on his fourth birthday. His momma, unhappy in her marriage to a ranch hand, had found herself a new man who refused to take on the responsibility of two little bastards. She kept Daddy, threw the other one away. Her new man disciplined the boy with an iron hand and a coal shovel.
I lived the life and Momma told me the stories of life before me. She didn’t like it much that I wrote things down and made songs to sing out of the fabric of our lives and her tales. She needed me though and I think she was desperate to tell it all, to give her life substance. I swore an oath not to breathe a word of it to a soul until she was gone. She is passed, the grass grown long over the paths she walked. I am the son alive in the mist, no umbrella, of Momma’s Rain.
For life is a fiction
birth - a sad truth
death - a just reward
still Children smile
Children in Passing
I don’t like Country Western music
Momma and Daddy rolled their boy child’s lifeless body into a blanket. Daddy reared back and kicked the package a couple of times. It didn’t offer much resistance. Six-year-old Jerry weighed less than forty pounds and was just over three feet tall. Daddy’s foot almost went through him.
“Stop kicking it!” Momma hissed. “We have to find a bridge to throw it off.”
“I’m whippin’ the l’il bastard’s ass one more time!” Daddy insisted, “L’il sumbitch thinks he can steal my lunch bread and get away with it. I’ll show ‘im!”
Jerry scrunched his eyes shut. His nose and cheeks were numb with cold, his face wedged in the corner, icy walls indifferent to his plight. Daddy had stuck him there hours ago, daring him to move, daring him to breathe. Daddy dared Jerry to even think. Jerry, lying little bastard that he was, promised after each punch and slap from Daddy’s hand that he would never steal the family’s bread again. He would not move, he would not breathe, he would not think.
Jerry wiggled his nose, cringed inside, hoped no one noticed; he moved. His ribs hurt where Daddy kicked him when he fell down when Daddy hit him. They hurt so he breathed in shallow little gasps of breath, cringed inside, hoped no one noticed; he breathed. Yes, he was a lying little bastard. He stood in the corners of this house, naked half the time and cold, imagined a plethora of scenarios of death, his own death at Daddy and Momma’s hands. The bridge was long and tall. Through a hole in the blanket, Jerry saw its steel girders high above, stabbing through clouds, wrapped in sunlight. They tossed him over the rail, Momma and Daddy, and walked arm-in-arm away. Lying little bastard that he was, he wasn’t dead. His broken body tumbled through the air, stones, muddy water rushing, weeds awaiting it. He scrunched his eyes shut, cringed inside, hoped no one noticed; he thought.
It was a cold little house, full of shadow and dark windows. Daddy was drunk there and Momma was crying. Timmy always loved his father and hated him for making his mother’s life miserable. Timmy bit his lip and held his breath, then went where he was forbidden to go. The door, usually stuck tight, opened easily. He took this as a good sign; darkness would accept him. He slipped inside and eased the door closed, knowing his eyes would never adjust to the total pitch black but waiting anyway, standing on that top rickety step as soft things with sharp teeth scurried below.
Something with many feathery legs lit on his forearm, skittered across the fine blonde hairs on the face of his skin, its movement lighter than breath. His terrified voice screamed inside but no sound issued forth. He rubbed his arm in that spot, felt the tiny arc of weight the traveler of darkness made as it swung from the pendulum web it had launched on his skin.
“God’s creatures, Never smite them walking, only if on your skin or if they bite, then smite them and smite them well,” he muttered under his breath, repeating one of his Grandma Webber’s lessons.
The odor in that place was darker than ink. He breathed in deep and took the first step down. What damp embrace the womb of that room offered. It was warm in its earthen reek of soil, timeless and rotted root, kind to those who crawled and climbed, huddled in its midst. Timmy’s small hands grasped the wobbling plank at the side of the staircase. Its nails creaked in their steel-worm wooden homes as he leaned in and trusted it with his full weight.
Feet hanging loose and free, he searched with a naked toe through the broken top of his shoe for the first of the climbing holes they’d made, Timmy and his brother, Jerry. There... and there... solid earth; he let loose the plank, felt his legs take his weight, then dropped to the earthen face of the floor. With his back to the wall, he finally let the tears come, hot and salty, forging watery paths down the planes of his cheeks.
Timmy was ashamed of his tears, knew he would be before they began but was unable to hold them back. This wasn’t his first experience with shame, he’d had many; it felt the same, much like times before and since forever. Seven years old, with two younger brothers and a baby sister of two, he knew he had to be brave. Crying would only make things worse; there was never a reward for tears. He hugged his legs to his chest, then sobbed and sucked it in, a choking sound.
Timmy held his breath as his ears picked up some sound outside of himself. Squeak ... squeak, squeak. He exhaled, a gasp, an audible sigh. He could hear the voice of Jerry in his head, his best brother and only friend, a year younger than himself, taunting him. Timmy was older but Jerry knew things, things Timmy would like to argue away, but couldn’t… He felt a smile tug at his lips as Jerry’s voice spoke in his head. “They’re doin’ it, Timmy. Long as they’re doin’ it, they won’t be botherin’ us. We’re safe now.”
Timmy covered his ears with his hands, rocked back and forth in the dirt as the cadence of the squeaking increased. Dust drifted down from the floorboards above his head, a blessing of sorts from mother to son. He stood and brushed himself off, knowing she would seek him out after the squeaking. The climb holes were easy enough to find in the now not so dark. He climbed them up until he could grab hold of the old plank.
Timmy winced as a sliver of wood went in under the nail of his right index finger. He took a deep breath, found the top climb holes with his toes and swung his foot up to the step. Thin shafts of light made their way from the kitchen through the top and bottom edges of the door. He found the knob with his throbbing hand, twisted and gave the door a slight nudge with his shoulder. It refused to budge. Now it was stuck.
Timmy gritted his teeth and fought back the urge to cry out. Just as he was ready to give it another try, the door opened slowly and he almost fell into the kitchen. His mother stood there, a stern look on her face. She took a step back, hands on her hips.
“Timmy, you come out of there. How many times have I told you...” She paused, then lifted her thin arms, and summoned him to her. “You’ve been crying.”
Relief flooded over him as he fell into her embrace. The top of his head just reached her chin and he nestled in, wishing for time to stop, no words. Just hold me on the mercy of your sweet breast. Those were Grandma Webber’s words about Jesus but Timmy only thought of Momma when they came to mind.
She pushed him gently away. “What were you doing down there? If your dad ever catches you...”
He held up his throbbing finger. “It hurts.”
She took it between her hands and raised it toward her face. Timmy giggled as her eyes crossed.
“What?” she demanded with mock sternness.
“Your eyes,” he replied. “They got all crossed up.”
She held his finger tightly with one hand, and plucked deftly at the splinter with the other. Before he knew it, she’d kissed his injured fingertip and was pumping water, washing it off in the kitchen basin.
“Now, what were those tears about?”
He held up his wounded hand. “It hurt real bad,” he explained.
“Don’t lie to me, Timmy,” she scolded. “You know you’re no good at it.”
He turned red and looked down at his toes, wiggling through the top of his shoe. “Why’d he have to whip Jerry so hard?”
Momma stood up straight, arms akimbo. “Your brother got just what he deserved. He was caught sneaking into the bread. He ate the last two slices. What am I going to put in your Daddy’s lunch tomorrow? It’s cold on the roof and he needs food to keep himself going. We’re broke and he doesn’t get paid until the roof’s finished.”
“That’s why I was crying,” Timmy said stubbornly, remembering the crack of the belt on Jerry’s bare skin while he bent over and held his ankles, trying not to fall over or cry, Daddy’s boots when he did.
Momma shook her head, frustrated. “I’m your mother; I don’t intend to stand around arguing with you about your brother. I’m going to lie down and have a nap. I have to go to work in a couple of hours. You keep an eye on your brothers and little Lisa. Wake me up at six.” She went back into the bedroom with Daddy.
Timmy left the tiny kitchen and went to the cramped living room, which served as day room and bedroom for Jerry, Peter, Lisa, and himself. The three boys slept on a convertible couch. Lisa had a makeshift bed in an old dresser drawer. Lisa was asleep and Peter was sprawled on the sofa. Jerry stood slumped in the corner where he’d been placed for further punishment.
Timmy decided to take a short nap himself. He lay down on the floor so as not to disturb Peter. He bit down on his finger to alleviate the throbbing, then put his arm under his head and sang himself to sleep. “I was born one mornin’ when the sun didn’t shine.” Sixteen Tons was his favorite song. It was playing on the Country Western radio.
At five-thirty Timmy awoke and put a fire on low under the old tin metal coffee pot. He went back and sat on the end of the sofa, laid his hand on top of Jerry’s head. Jerry’s carrot-red hair stuck out between his splayed fingers.
“Sorry he spanked you,” Timmy whispered.
Jerry groaned and pressed his small thin face into the hard scratchy corner of the wall. His hands bunched up into fists and he pressed them into the corner, causing his shoulder blades to stick out. Timmy thought he looked like a broken bird, a plucked chicken, too skinny for anyone to consider eating.
A few minutes before six o’clock Timmy went to his parents’ bedroom and entered quietly. He would watch them sometimes, faces moving, eyes twitching. Asleep, they were faces he didn’t know. He thought maybe he liked them better that way. He reached and touched his mother lightly on the shoulder. “No,” she mumbled, “No.”
Daddy’s eyes popped open. “Timmy, what the hell are you doing?”
The radio was playing Country Western. The family had two radios, one on the kitchen table and one next to the parents’ bed. There were three if you counted the one in Daddy’s old truck. The radios in the house were on twenty-four hours a day, always tuned to a Country Western station. The one in the truck was only on when the truck was running. Timmy wondered about that, whether the radio was off when the truck was off. The ones in the house were on whether his parents were home or not. Kids weren’t allowed to touch radios.
“Wakin’ Momma,” he replied. “It’s just about six.”
Daddy rubbed a strong weather-beaten hand across his bleary eyes. “Shit! You go on, Timmy. I’ll get ‘er up.”
Timmy left the room as Daddy began to shake Momma’s arm. Timmy had always gotten on well with his mother but waking her or simply being around her when she woke up were experiences he wouldn’t wish on anyone. She was not nice then. She needed to be left alone. One hour up, maybe a bit more, then she became her almost agreeable self.
So, Timmy left them to it and went to play with his little sister, Lisa, who had just turned two. She was a cutie, the first girl after three boys. Daddy called her Punkin. Timmy tickled her and she giggled. He laughed with her until he felt Jerry glaring at him. Jerry treated Timmy poorly whenever he got punished. It seemed to Timmy that Jerry felt as if it was somehow his fault or like Jerry was receiving whippings on his behalf. He couldn’t figure it out. Jerry took the bread and ate it; Timmy didn’t.
All Jerry could do was look at Timmy mean and stare at him accusingly since Timmy was bigger and a lot stronger than he was. Momma told Timmy a story about when he was a year and a half old (he’s fourteen months older than Jerry), he would sneak in, take the top off Jerry’s bottle, and guzzle down his milk. He would screw the lid back on so no one would know he’d done it. Catching Timmy copping Jerry’s food explained part of the problem with his thinness but Momma resented him anyway. No matter what she did, Jerry had always been unhappy and undernourished.
Timmy heard the volume of the radio go up and the familiar clink of glass as Momma filled her and Daddy’s coffee cups. Smoke drifted through the wide arch between the living room and kitchen as they lit their Pall Malls. Daddy came into the room and plinked Jerry in the head with his finger. “Get your ass standing up straight. You don’t need to slouch around all day like a ninny.”
Timmy felt bad for Jerry as he cringed and shook with fear. The more fear he exhibited, the madder Daddy got.
“Turn around and come here,” Daddy ordered.
Peter was still sleeping, one leg hanging off the couch. As Jerry rounded the corner, his eyes riveted fearfully on Daddy’s hands, he bumped into Peter’s leg. Peter moaned, rolled over, fell off the couch, and began to cry. Daddy beckoned to Jerry with his finger.
“Come here, asshole. Maybe I’ll knock you down on the floor; we’ll see how you like it.”
Jerry stood by the side of the sofa trembling. “No Daddy, please no.” Timmy saw a dark stain running down the front of Jerry’s trousers. He hoped Daddy wouldn’t notice. Sometimes, when Jerry was in trouble, he would mess himself which would only exacerbate his circumstances. Other times, when he wasn’t in trouble, he would mess himself which would start trouble anew.
“Tim,” Momma called from the kitchen, “Come on now. We have to get going or I’ll be late for work.”
Daddy pointed his finger at Timmy. “You put that little asshole in the corner and don’t let him out until I come home, understand?”
Timmy nodded his head. “Yes, Daddy.” Timmy glanced at Jerry, who stepped obediently toward the corner. Daddy gave Timmy a friendly wink and left the room.
Momma came in, picked Lisa up and kissed her chubby cheek. She glanced at the boys. “You guys behave yourselves and no going outside. Keep the door locked. Daddy will be right back to fix you something to eat. Lisa’s other diaper is soaking in the toilet. Rinse it out and hang it by the stove, Timmy. If she needs changed before it’s dry go ahead and use a dishtowel instead of a diaper. There’s one hanging from the oven handle on the stove.” She set Lisa on the couch, gave Timmy a reassuring smile, and hurried away.
The front door slammed shut. The children heard the sound of Daddy’s old truck starting up and pulling away from the curb. Jerry turned around, stared imploringly at Timmy. “Let me out of the corner.”
Tears brimmed up in Timmy’s eyes. He bit down on his sore finger to stop them. “I can’t, Jerry. He’ll find out, then we’ll all be in trouble.”
“How’s he gonna find out?” Jerry challenged. “Who’s gonna tell?”
Peter sat on the edge of the couch. “I will,” he said, a cruel grin on his little-boy face. “I’ll tell ‘cause you took the bread an’ got me in trouble. It’s all your fault. You knocked me off the couch when I was sleepin’.”
Jerry took a step from the corner, threatened Peter with a raised fist. “I’ll pound your face, you little brat! You ate half!”
Timmy ran between them, pulled Jerry’s arms behind his back and forced him back into the corner. He gave Jerry’s head a swift bump against the wall for good measure. “Stay there! Don’t be picking on smaller kids!”
“Yeah!” Peter agreed smugly. “You’re a stealer, Jerry. You’re bad!”
Lisa began to wail. She was hungry, upset by all the commotion. Timmy picked her up and she stuffed a thumb in her mouth. She snuggled against his chest and closed her eyes, sucking contentedly.
Daddy didn’t come home after taking Momma to work. The children were hungry, and there was nothing in the house to eat. Timmy pumped some water and they sipped at it but water is a poor substitute for food. Lisa and Peter cried and Jerry moaned and groaned, then finally slid down the wall and rested in a bony pile.
Timmy roamed around the confines of the shack, despairing for a crumb but, as on many a previous night, there were none. The night was long and the radio was singing. His siblings asleep, Timmy went into the kitchen and sat at the table. He rested his head on his arms, ignored the growling of his stomach and drifted into a troubled rest. A few hours later he heard a rattling at the door. He stepped quietly across the room and peeked out the window. It was Momma come home from work. As he unlocked and opened the door, a car pulled away. It was soon lost in its’ own steamy exhaust in the freezing winter night.
“Where’s Daddy?” Momma asked upon entering the house.
“He never came back,” Timmy replied, “I been worried.”
She kissed him on the forehead and handed him a heavy paper bag. It was greasy wet, close to falling apart.
“Never mind your Daddy for now,” she said, “Thank God for the Big Boy.”
Big Boy was the restaurant where Momma worked as a waitress. She wasn’t allowed to take food home but she would bus the tables she waited on and dump the leftovers from the plates in a bag she kept hidden in the kitchen. On nights when Alvin, the cook, brought her home she could sneak the bag out past the owner. The next trick was getting it past Daddy; he didn’t approve of his family eating garbage.
Momma touched Timmy’s face with her cold hands and kissed him again. She glanced at the clock radio wailing Country Western, Marty Robbins all dressed up for the dance. “Twelve thirty,” she murmured, “He’s probably at the bar. That gives us ‘til two to eat. You start sorting and fixing. I’ll get the kids.”
Timmy set the bag on the table and opened it. Though it was full of rotting salad, coffee grounds, and cigarette butts, all he noticed was the smell of food and best of all... meat! He grabbed a piece of chicken fried steak and wolfed it down, coffee grounds, cigarette ashes and all. He had never tasted better food. Momma came back into the kitchen and smiled at him while he wiped his face on his shirt- sleeve.
“They look so peaceful, I decided to let them sleep while we get everything ready,” she whispered. “Tonight we’ll have a feast. I see you found some of the steak. It was the Big Boy special today. There’s lots of it in there.”
They worked together, mother and son, to scrape cigarette ashes, egg yolk, coffee grounds, and soggy napkin off the meat, and began to warm it in a pan on the old stove. Experts at this, they even managed to salvage some mashed potatoes and corn on the cob from the bottom of the bag. The cigarette butts went in Momma's apron pocket to be worked on later. They didn’t have to wake the younger children as it turned out. Peter and Lisa came stumbling into the kitchen, their noses following the aroma of food cooking even before their eyes were ready to open. Momma smiled. “Go get Jerry,” she said to Timmy.
Jerry was standing up straight and stiff, nose stuffed into the corner. He flinched when Timmy touched his arm. “Come on, Jerry,” he whispered excitedly, “Momma brought some really good stuff home from work for us to eat.”
Jerry turned his head from the corner; eyes big and round, he stared at Timmy. His mouth made one word. “Daddy?”
Timmy tugged at his shirtsleeve. “Come on, Daddy’s not home yet. You better hurry up!”
“Wait!” Jerry pleaded. “Is she... Is she in a good mood?”
“The best,” Timmy replied, “Now come on.”
Jerry shielded his eyes from the light as they entered the kitchen. They ate and ate, then sat around burping and smiling like contented chipmunks.
Suddenly Momma held her nose. “Jerry!” she accused, “You have peed and messed yourself!”
“It’s when he was scared, Momma,” Timmy interjected. “Before you ‘n Daddy left.”
Jerry’s eyes were wide, like an animal caught in the headlight beams of a car. Peter was smirking at him, enjoying his fear.
“Get out of my sight!” Momma ordered. “You’re disgusting. Scared is no excuse; we all get scared but don’t go around shitting ourselves.” She turned to Timmy. “You’d better stop making excuses for him. You’re not really helping and you only run the risk of getting yourself in trouble.”
As Jerry was leaving the room, there was a loud bang on the door.
“Oh my God!” Momma exclaimed, “He’s home. Timmy, get the bag; shove everything in it. I’ll try to keep him busy. You just...”
Glass shattered and the door caved in. Daddy’s angry voice interrupted them, “Lock me out o’ my own Goddamned house!”
“Daddy!” Lisa called excitedly.
He staggered into the room, narrowing his eyes against the light. Shingle granules glistened on his jeans. He wore a small brimmed hat tilted over to the left side. Six feet tall, lithe of body, he was not a big man but certainly seemed so to his children as most fathers do, especially when he was angry or drunk, especially when he was both. He wanted to be a kind man but was nothing close to it when he had been drinking. On this occasion he had been drinking quite heavily all night long. “C’mere Punkin’,” he slurred. Lisa ran forward and hopped into his arms.
“Wassa matter?” He held Momma with an evil grin. “What I bring home ain’ good ‘nough? Your boyfrien’ Arnie been fuckin’ you in the garbage, then you bring it home to feed my kids, huh? Here, Timmy. Hol’ this baby girl for me.”
Timmy extended his arms and Lisa tumbled happily into them. Daddy took a step toward Momma, backhanded her to the floor. It wasn’t the first time Timmy hated his father. He was seven and a half years old. Maybe it was the first time he realized he would probably have to kill him someday. And, the most painful part of that realization, that he would love him when he did the deed. Stay down, a voice in his head begged Momma as she knelt where she had fallen. If you get up... She got to her feet and Daddy slapped her down again. Timmy carried Peter and Lisa from the room, around the corner from their fallen and bleeding mother.
“So!” Daddy’s voice trailed after them. “Where’s that little shit?” He staggered to Jerry’s corner, plinked him in the head with his finger. “Leas’ this l’il bastard stayed where I tol’ ‘im for once.”
Jerry was trembling awfully; Timmy could hear his teeth rattling, his skinny knees knocking together.
“Tim,” Momma laid a hand on Daddy’s shoulder. “Come to bed now, Honey. Come on... please.” Her tongue flicked at blood flowing from the corner of her mouth. Momma was beautiful and wore her fear well. She was very brave. Timmy was afraid for her.
Daddy plinked Jerry again. “Don’ relax, you l’il bastard; we gon’ pick this up tomorrow.”
He followed Momma through the kitchen, into the bedroom. The door slammed, followed by several slaps, screams, and thudding sounds. Timmy rocked his little sister in her dresser drawer until the bed springs in Momma and Daddy’s room began to squeak. Jerry was right; now they were safe.
Jerry turned, fixed Timmy with a stare from the dark hollow holes of his eyes. Peter and Lisa were sound asleep. Jerry’s eyes bored into him; Timmy was sad and ashamed, too confused to wonder why. He escaped Jerry’s accusing eyes for once, slipped away into a restless sleep, his hand rubbing Lisa’s back.
Morning came unexpectedly, dripping with new peril. “Where are your brothers?” Daddy was shaking him roughly awake. Timmy blinked up into his demanding face. Momma was standing behind him, one eye black and closed. Her lips were swollen, cracked, and dripping blood.
Timmy sputtered and looked around the room in confusion. Ten minutes later he was across the street in the park with Momma. The lilac tunnels of summer were closed, their bare branches locked, intertwined and reaching, hands empty. The sky was slate gray, a vast condemning face looking down, and a mirror of the futility of their search. Timmy shivered. He felt his eyes tear up as he realized his brothers must be out there somewhere and that the world was an awful big somewhere. He closed his eyes, and then opened them quickly because Jerry’s eyes were in there. They had told him the night before that they would be leaving; he felt it was his fault his brothers were gone. The awful realization that he should have known that which it was impossible to know gnawed at his senses.