The kids from my neighborhood would come outside to watch bats at dusk. I remember thinking the bats were actually birds, but Keith from across the street disagreed.
Darla, Keith’s mother, was hardly ever home. Under the guise of parental supervision, we sat on the front porch, admiring flight patterns—the stretch and fall of wings.
From the blue-green carpet that covered Keith’s porch, I watched as my father exited the front door of our house with a shotgun in his hand. He lifted the barrel high into the sky and pulled the trigger. We watched the wings stop and fall.
My father turned his back and exited with no bow for his drunken performance.
What’s left of the bat? I asked as Keith crept into the street to view the remains.
I—dunno—it just looks like feathers to me?
My father was drunk, fumbling at the trigger on his shotgun, when he fired a bullet just inches above my head. The bullet went through the front door creating a second peep hole. My mother would later patch the hole, but the discoloration remained.
The gun, which he kept behind the front door, made the house safe, he said.
At a protest I explained to a man with an assault rifle around his neck that guns made me feel unsafe. Without a missed beat, he remarked that perhaps if I were fifty pounds lighter and walking alone at night I would feel differently.
Rooting in the pocket of my father’s coat I would feel for a cigarette box—Camels, red. On each cigarette I would scroll the words do you love me?
In my adolescence, I thought that could make him stop.
His daddy, Clarence, coughed up a lung—the pieces all bloody and black.
In 2000, my father watched his daddy die in his bed. His feet swollen, his breath shallow. Even that wasn’t enough for my father to quit, though he did switch—Marlboro, black.
At a gas station in Galesburg, Illinois, my father lit himself on fire. His body consumed in flames, from thighs to hair. He remembers rolling down hills to put himself out.
I remember visiting him. His body in the bed, his swollen head, and his breath shallow. He needed blood transfusions, they took some from me.
A little part of me pumps through my father.
I didn’t understand how my father had nearly taken his life until later in mine.
My mother muttered how stupid my father was while she changed his gauze. How stupid, to light a cigarette next to an open gas tank.
We always peed standing up.
My mother, Amy, would watch my sister Tonya and I as we used the toilet. We had to make sure no part of our vaginas touched the seat. If the toilet were too tall or too large, mother would hold us, hovering over the bowl.
I never thought much of it.
When my mother and I are together, we still go into the same stall.
Now I sit, but she still stands.
My mother was faithful in her marriage, yet she contracted two venereal diseases:
Trichomonas—sexually transmitted parasite; vaginal discharge may be white, yellow, or green with a general frothy unpleasant smell; vaginal bleeding or spotting; burning, itching, swelling, painful urination and painful penetration.
Chlamydia—sexually transmitted infection; abdominal pain; low-grade fever; vaginal spotting or bleeding; pain or burning during urination; painful penetration, including possible vaginal bleeding.
My mother asked my father how it was possible to get disease.
From dirty toilet seats, he said.
In 2001 my great Uncle Roy won a local award: the lawn and garden beautification. It was a black plaque with gold lettering that winners affixed to their houses.
He earned the prize because he was always outside, working in his yard. Skin tanned from sleeves to digits. His house, freshly refinished in tan siding. His garden manicured, his lawn mowed twice a week. Somehow he was able to keep his yard greener than any other house on the block.
He hung his black plaque proudly on his front porch, right next to the door.
Didja see that? I won me that plaque.
There isn’t much left of Roy. His body is thin and slumped. He wastes away in a nursing home while he slowly forgets everyone’s faces. Before he was removed from his home, he and his wife, Emily Jo, were both slipping.
She pissed in containers and hid them in the cabinets. He was tossing his out the back door. No one was sure what was in the litterboxes. The fridge was full of rotten food. Nothing could remove the taste in the air. Dog shit matted into the carpets and cat piss in the sink.
Emily Jo is already dead, but Roy doesn’t know that. So we don’t tell him. We just listen to his stories.
Ya know, Clarence and I—we’re going down to Florida next weekend. Get us some sun.
He doesn’t know Clarence died in 2000.
So we don’t tell him.
The Front Porch
In 1996 there was a blizzard. School was canceled for days and the neighborhood kids were outside playing in the snow. My mother built a slope off the front porch that led down the hill. We spent hours enjoying the snow until our fingers glowed red.
One time my great grandmother, Phyllis, came outside and she went down the hill with me. She couldn’t get up out of the snow, so I helped her up.
The slope lasted for days—weeks—until it melted, leaving the neighborhood quiet again.
I remember the question: inside or out. After nights drinking and snorting, my father’s head would swell, like a balloon filled too full with water.
Phyllis, my great grandmother, was my protector. When I tried to come back inside for water after being forced out, my father had shut and locked all the doors.
I went around to the back of the house, peered into my grandmother’s window and knocked. She put out her cigarette and pointed to the front door.
When the door opened he forced her out too.
Good thing she was smart. She held the garden hose while I drank.
We waited outside on the front porch for my mother to get home.
We painted the walls of the room light blue. I complained because my mother didn’t make me another sister.
The room was built for my brother, Bobby. It was drywall squared into a corner of the basement because the house we lived in only had two bedrooms. My twin sister, Tonya and I slept in the left bedroom, my great grandmother Phyllis in the right. My mother and father slept in the basement, next to the washer and dryer.
My brother remembers crawling across the basement floor to check and see if my father had left the bed, so he could take my father’s place.
My father had come home drunk. He demanded my mother make him a peanut butter and mayonnaise sandwich, but we only had Miracle Whip. After one bite, he vomited on the kitchen floor.
After she cleaned up the mess, she tried to get him to sleep on the couch. She didn’t want my brother to overhear his father’s drunken stumbling groping. Instead, he grabbed my mother by the hair and forced her downstairs to bed.
The first time it happened, my mother stayed quiet. My brother slept just feet away and if she screamed, it would wake him. It was easier to just be quiet. To keep things under a blanket.
It doesn’t hurt now, she said.