I sat and played Quiet. A 1956 Ford with an out-of-state license plate went by. Up here to shoot partridge and pheasant, probably. A robin landed by the elm tree that threw shadows on my bedroom wall at night, and pecked through the fallen leaves for a worm. My mother played on, right hand rippling the melody, left hand counterpointing it. Mother could play wonderful boogie-woogie when the urge struck her, but it didn’t often. She just didn’t like it, and it was probably just as well. Even her boogies sounded like Bach wrote them.
All at once it occurred to me how wonderful it would be to break all those storm windows. To break them one by one; the upper panes, and then the lower ones.
You might think it was a piece of revenge, conscious or unconscious, a way to get back at the spit-and-polish, all-hands-on-deck old man. But the truth is, I can’t remember putting my father in that particular picture at all. The day was fine and beautiful. I was four. It was a fine October day for breaking windows.
I got up and went out to the soft shoulder and began picking up stones. I was wearing short pants, and I stuffed stones into the front pockets until it must have looked like I was carrying ostrich eggs. Another car went by, and I waved. The driver waved back. The woman beside him was holding a baby.
I went back across the lawn, took a stone out of my pocket, and threw it at the storm window beside the living-room window. I threw it as hard as I could. I missed. I took out another rock, and this time I moved right up on top of that win-dow. A little chill went through my mind, disturbing my thoughts for a tiny mo-ment. I couldn’t miss. And didn’t.
I went right around the house breaking windows. First the living-room window, then the music-room window. It was propped up against the brick side of the house, and after I broke it I looked in at Mom, playing the piano. She was wearing a sheer blue slip. When she saw me peering in, she jumped a little and hit a sour note, then she gave me a big sweet smile and went on playing. You can see how it was.
She hadn’t even heard me break the window.
Funny, in a way-there was no sense of doing anything wrong, just of doing something pleasurable. A little kid’s selective perception is a strange thing; if the windows had been fastened on, I never would
have dreamed of breaking them.
I was regarding the last window, the one outside the den, when a hand fell on my shoulder and turned me around. It was my father. He was mad. I hadn’t ever seen him so mad. His eyes were big, and he was biting his tongue between his teeth as if he were having a fit. I cried out, he scared me so bad. It was like your mother coming to the breakfast table with a Halloween mask on.
He picked me up in both hands, right hand holding my legs at the ankles and left hand holding my left arm against my chest, and then he threw me on the ground. It was hard-as hard as he could throw, I think. I lay there with all the breath out of me, staring up at the dismay and realization creeping over his face, dissolving the flash of his anger. I was unable to cry or speak or even move my diaphragm. There was a paralyzing pain in my chest and my crotch.
“I didn’t mean it,” he said, kneeling over me. “You all right? You okay, Chuck?” Chuck was what he called me when we were playing toss in the back-yard.
My lungs operated in a spasmodic, lurching gasp. I opened my mouth and let out a huge, screaming bray. The sound scared me, and the next scream was even louder. Tears turned everything to prisms.
The sound of the piano stopped.
“You shouldn’t have broken those windows,” he said. Anger was replacing dismay. “Now, shut up. Be a man, for God’s sake.”
He jerked me roughly to my feet just as Mom flew around the comer of the house, still in her slip.
“He broke all the storm windows,” my father said. “Go put something on.”
“What’s the matter?” she cried. “Oh, Charlie, did you cut yourself? Where? Show me where!”
“He isn’t cut,” Dad said disgustedly. “He’s afraid he’s going to get licked. And he damned well is.”
I ran to my mother and pressed my face into her belly, feeling the soft, com-forting silk of her slip, smelling her sweet smell. My whole head felt swollen and pulpy, like a turnip. My voice had turned into a cracked donkey bray. I closed my eyes tightly.
“What are you talking about, licking him? He’s purple! If you’ve hurt him, Carl…”
“He started to cry when he saw me coming, for Christ’s sake.”
The voices were coming from high above me, like amplified declarations from mountaintops.
“There’s a car coming,” he said. “Go inside, Rita.”
“Come on, love,” my mother said. “Smile for mummy. Big smile.” She pushed me away from her stomach and wiped tears from under my eyes. Have you ever had your mother wipe your tears away?
About that the hack poets are right. It’s one of life’s great experiences, right up there with your first ball game and your first wet dream. “There, honey, there. Daddy didn’t mean to be cross.”
“That was Sam Castinguay and his wife,” my father said. “Now you’ve given that motor-mouth
something to talk about. I hope-”
“Come on, Charlie,” she said, taking my hand. “We’ll have chocolate. In my sewing room.”
“The hell you will,” Dad said curtly. I looked back at him. His fists were clenched angrily as he stood in front of the one window he had saved. “He’ll just puke it up when I whale the tar out of him.”
“You’ll whale no tar out of anyone,” she said. “You’ve scared him half to death already . . . ”
Then he was over to her, not minding her slip anymore, or Sam and his wife. He grabbed her shoulder and pointed to the jagged kitchen storm window. “Look! Look! He did that, and now you want to give him chocolate! He’s no baby any-more, Rita, it’s time for you to stop giving him the tit!”
I cringed against her hip, and she wrenched her shoulder away. White finger-marks stood out on her flesh for a moment and then filled in red.
“Go inside,” she said calmly. “You’re being quite foolish, Carl.”
“I’m going to-”
“Don’t tell me what you’ll do!” she shouted suddenly, advancing on him. He flinched away instinctively.
“Go inside! You’ve done enough damage! Go inside! Go find some of your friends and have drinks! Go anywhere! But . . . get out of my sight! ”
“Punishment,” he said deliberately. “Did anyone teach you that word in college, or were they too busy filling you full of that liberal bullshit? Next time, he may break something more valuable than a few storm windows. A few times after that, he may break your heart. Wanton destruction-”
“Get out!”she screamed.
I began to cry again, and shrank away from them both. For a moment I stood between, tottering, and then my mother gathered me up. It’s all right, honey, she was saying, but I was watching my father, who had turned and was stomping away like a surly little boy. It wasn’t until then, until I had seen with what practiced and dreadful ease he had been banished, that I began to dare to hate him back.
While my mother and I were having cocoa in her sewing room, I told her how Dad had thrown me on the ground. I told her Dad had lied.
It made me feel quite wonderful and strong.
“What happened then?” Susan Brooks asked breathlessly.
“Not much, ” I said. “It blew over. ” Now that it was out, I found myself mildly surprised that it had stuck
in my throat so long. I once knew a kid, Herk Orville, who ate a mouse. I dared him, and he swallowed it. Raw. It was just a small field-mouse, and it didn’t look hurt at all when we found it; maybe it had just died of old age. Anyway, Herk’s mom was out hanging clothes, and she just happened to look over at us, sitting in the dirt by the back step. She looked just in time to see the mouse going down Herk’s throat, headfirst.
She screamed-what a fright it can give you when a grown-up screams!-and ran over and put her finger down Herk’s throat. Herk threw up the mouse, the hamburger he’d eaten for lunch, and some pasty glop that looked like tomato soup. He was just starting to ask his mother what was going on when she threw up. And there, in all that puke, that old dead mouse didn’t look bad at all. It sure looked better than the rest of the stuff. The moral seemed to be that puking up your past when the present is even worse makes some of the vomitus look nearly tasty. I started to tell them that, and then decided it would only revolt them-like the story of the Cherokee Nose Job.