We were folding socks when the cops broke down the door. If you’ve ever tried folding a sock before, you know there’s an art to it.
“One on top of the other. Ok, good, now move the top one down a bit…a little more…good, now take the bottom one like this, open it up and fold it over…No, like this. Here, try again…”
We had a nice little pile in the middle of the floor, rolled up like snow dipped in food coloring. Mostly pink and white, but there were others, blue, green, yellow. I finally got one right. My mother grinned. Her smile was crooked but light, infectious. It made me feel like I was in on a secret.
“GET DOWN! GET DOWN! HANDS ON YOUR HEADS, NOW!”
Shiny black boots thundered into the living room. Sock-balls rolled across the clean white carpet, which brushed harshly against my face as I hit the floor. Mommy sat on the floor across from me. Her face was pale with fear, her eyes fixed on Holly and I. We followed her lead and threw our hands behind our heads. Her friends, sitting on the couch across the room, did the same.
I looked over at my three-year old sister. Her eyes were wide. I don’t think she knew whether to be scared or awed. At six, I knew cops and robbers were not just in cartoons. These cops were not fat and good-humored. Stony faces surveyed the room with quick, well-practiced efficiency. Their guns were pointed at a 45 degree angle to the floor, ready.
They shackled my mom and her friends one at a time. Hands were bound behind their backs. The cuffs slid shut with a soft click click click…click click click. One of the officers approached my sister and I, as another began methodically listing their rights.
“It’s ok kids, you can get up,” he said soothingly, as if he were talking to a frightened animal. Unnecessary. Holly looked more surprised than scared. And I’d been expecting this.
“We’ll be takin’ the kids to a relative’s house, no need to worry,” one of them told my mom gruffly. “We’ll switch your handcuffs to the front so you can pack ‘em a bag, long as you don’t try anything.” She nodded quickly, eyes averted in shame.
She assured them vigorously that she’d be on her best behavior, bent to retrieve a few of the trampled sock-balls. Tears slid down her cheeks, belying her assurances.
“Everything will be ok, don’t worry girls, it’s gonna be okay.”
Her words faded as I remembered what had happened the week before.
“Daddy, where’s mommy?” Holly asked.
“I don’t know sweetheart, I’m sure she’ll be home soon.”
“But she’s been gone FOREVER. When’s she coming home?”
“I don’t know honey, I don’t know.”
“Did mommy die?” Holly asked, beginning to cry.
“No no baby, it’s ok. Here, come ‘ere, let’s go pray for mommy ok? Let’s pray she comes home soon. Noelle, you too. Let’s hold hands.”
We sat on my bed, our tiny hands grasping his. Minnie Mouse observed the scene from my white bedspread, surrounded by pink hearts, cheerful as always. White-gloved hands clasped demurely in front of her polka-dotted skirt.
“Dear God,” he began. “Repeat after me girls. Dear God.”
“Dear God,” we repeated carefully.
“Please protect mommy.”
“Please protect mommy.”
“And bring her home soon.”
“And bring her home soon.”
“See? Everything’s gonna be ok now.”
He hugged us close, both of us small enough to fit in his lap at the same time. We sat there for a moment, none of us eager to break the embrace.
Holly began to fidget first, her three-year-old attention span stretched to its limit.
“Alright Holly, time for night-night.”
“But there’s monsters under there!” She cried, indicating the space under the bed.
“Need me to get the monster spray?”
He went to the kitchen and returned with a can of fabreeze. An index card had been taped around it and relabeled “Monster Spray” in heavy black letters. He pulled the trigger and sprayed it liberally under both beds, and in the closet for good measure.
“That good?” he asked.
He tucked her into bed, shoving the blanket under and around to form a Holly-shaped cocoon. He kissed her on the head, now that she couldn’t move her arms and wipe it off and say “eww, gross!” like she usually did. As he left he switched on the Winnie the Pooh night light, filling the room with a warm amber glow. I followed him into the kitchen. I got to stay up another hour since I was grown up.
“Daddy, look! I learned a new song at Sunday School! Watch me do it ok?”
“Sure honey, go ahead,” he said absent-mindedly.
“Are you watching?” I asked impatiently.
“I’m watchin,’ go ahead.”
“Ok! Father Abraham…had many sons…many sons had father Abraham! And I am one of them, and so are you, so let’s just praise the Lord! Right arm!”
I swung my arm back and forth and started over, marching in place after a few verses, spinning around in the corner of the dimly lit kitchen. I was about to fall down at the end of the final verse when mommy stumbled through the front door. Her usually vibrant, fiery hair had been dyed a deep, charcoal black. His face was washed with relief. He turned his head quickly, trying to conceal it. When he turned back, his eyes were hard with both rage and grief.
“Where have you BEEN?” daddy asked tightly.
No reply. She pulled a lighter out of her pocket, a little pumpkin with eyes that glowed when she pressed a button. A tiny orange flame burst from the stem on top, and she lit a cigarette.
“Dammit Diane, I gave you grocery money yesterday. You hafta go all the way to St. Louis to get a fuckin’ loaf of bread? What is your problem?” he roared. “Why would you do this to me? To the kids, for Christ’s sake?”
“I dunno what you’re talkin’ about,” she replied, and turned back to the door.
“I found your lab in the crawlspace. You sellin’ it now? How much money do you need? You already emptied both the girls’ savings accounts. That’s four thousand dollars you stole from your own goddamn kids! I thought you were over it. I’ve sent you to fuckin’ rehab three times already! What’s it gonna take, huh? What do I gotta do? I won’t raise our kids to be like you. This is IT Diane. I’m done trying. I’m calling the cops.”
“Oh fuck you Nathan! Grow UP you fucking hypocrite! You think just ‘cause you started goin’ to church you’re fuckin’ better than me now? You’ve been doin’ the same damn thing for years, you forget about that?”
“It doesn’t matter, I quit when Noelle was born. We were gonna quit together, remember that? Grow up? You’re the one who can’t quit long enough to take care of your own fucking kids! If I gotta be the bad guy, fine, I can be the bad guy for them. I’m calling the cops.”
“Psh, whatever. That’s what you said the last three times,” she said with a wave of her hand.
I made myself as small as possible, and watched through the gaps in my fingers as Daddy reached for the phone, picked it up, began dialing.
“Hello? Hello? Is this the police? Yes, I’m calling because I’ve found a meth lab in my home. It belongs to my wife.”
I saw mommy’s eyes grow wide.
“NO!” she screamed, and hurtled across the room with surprising speed to slam the receiver back down. He dropped it and threw out an arm. She flew back, into the refrigerator, so hard it slid a few inches and slammed into the wall. She yelped in pain, limping out of the kitchen and into their bedroom. I noticed Holly standing in the doorway, drawn from her bed by the noise. Her big sapphire eyes screwed up in confusion. They moved from daddy, to mommy, to me, back to daddy. Angry tears spilled across that pearly baby skin, matting her short mousy hair as she followed mommy into her room and helped apply a Bugs Bunny band-aid to her bleeding shin.
“It’s ok honey,” she told Holly quietly.
“But daddy hurt you!” she protested angrily.
She paused, struggling.
“He’s just trying to do the right thing, baby. It’s ok.”
Holly didn’t look convinced.
I turned to look back at daddy. He leaned against the counter, head in hands, silent sobs racking his body. Tears fell unhindered to the linoleum tiles below, shining dangerously on the floor like tiny pieces of broken glass.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered softly to himself, to no one. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry…”
“What’s wrong daddy?” I asked softly, afraid my voice might shatter him. This man who was my father, who could carry me in one arm and Holly in another all day without tiring, was suddenly more fragile than mommy’s nice glass dishes we weren’t allowed to touch. I knew, then, that there was something terribly wrong. Daddies didn’t cry.
He raised his head slowly, eyes full of emptiness.
“Your mommy broke my heart,” he whispered.
I realized then, as I threw my tiny arms around his leg and held him tightly, that sometimes daddies need a hug too.
COPYRIGHT Noelle 2010