1952, Christmas Eve, Covington, Tennessee
I was sitting on the sofa with a mean frown on my face and my lower lip stuck out. I was pouting, but not in that sad cry baby girl way. I was a tomboy, so I pouted mean. I looked at the cuckoo clock hung on the wall above Mother’s schefflera plant. It seemed like a million years ago that the little blue bird poked out through the doors seven times in a row.
We were waiting on Daddy. My three older brothers, Frank (10), Sorrel (9), and William (8), who we all called Gator, were sitting on the small living room floor playing “hits.” They were taking turns punching one another in the arm. I watched as one hit too hard became a three boy wrestling match.
Repeatedly, one or the other of them would holler to me, “Come on Jonnie.” I shook my head no and frowned whenever one of them looked at me in between arms and legs.
I didn’t feel like getting my ass whooped. I always ended up on the bottom of the pile smashed flat like a road kill squirrel. And, if my oldest brother Frank got a hold of one of my arms, he’d bend it back and try to snap it off. He didn’t care that I was only seven-years-old and a girl. Perched on the gold velvet sofa, I was safe. None of them could drag me off of it down onto the floor. I was protected by the long skinny coffee table in front of me. It was cram pack full of Mother’s special Christmas things. Her figurines filled over half the table. She brought them out for the holidays. The rest of the year they lived on top of a high chest of drawers in her bedroom. I counted thirty-two glass and ceramic ballerinas, Chinese girls, angels, and women in long dresses with hats. They all had tiny mouths and hands. On the other end of the table, Mother set out candy dishes on top of green and red crocheted squares. One was a white bowl that she filled with hard candies. There was a green Christmas tree dish filled with peppermint sticks. And the very most beautiful was a glass swan bowl. The top half of the swan lifted off the bottom half. It was filled with salt water taffy. The swan had a skinny curved neck and big pointy glass wings. There was no way my brothers were going to try and drag me down to the floor and risk breaking any of our Mother’s special Christmas things. We all knew how much she loved her figurines. More than that, if my brothers broke something, Daddy would tan their hides when he got home.
Mother was in the kitchen fretting more than cooking. She had spent the whole day smoking a ham and a turkey in the backyard even though it was freezing cold outside. All day, the back door slammed as she went in and out checking the cooker. She smoked the meat together in a black drum. The ham sat on top of the turkey. Mother said the only way to make an ol’ dry bird taste good was to drown it in ham drippings. The house smelled like smoked meat. My stomach was growling. Earlier, when I stuck my head in the kitchen, I saw both counters beside the sink filled with different sized white casserole dishes with glass lids. Mother’s dented pots covered every eye on the stove. I knew dough was in the oven waiting to be cooked into homemade biscuits. Mother never cooked the biscuits until Daddy got home. When Mother saw me peeping in she said, “Skat,” and waved one of her crocheted potholders at me. She didn’t like any of us kids in her kitchen.
My brothers started wrestling meaner. They were saying a lot of bad words. Pretty soon, Mother was going to hear. I watched Frank sit on Sorrel and start knocking on his chest repeatedly, like a woodpecker, with the knuckle of his middle finger. Gator jumped on Frank’s back and wrapped both arms around his neck, but Frank kept banging on the center of Sorrel’s chest, right on the bone. After Frank had hit Sorrel about twenty times in a row, he rubbed the spot. Sorrel howled. Frank stood up throwing Gator off of his back. Gator’s head hit the wood floor with a loud watermelon thunk.
Frank was a lot bigger than us. His arms reached out as far as those orange monkeys. There was not one piece of nice about Frank. During the summer, he stabbed Sorrel with a pencil in his shoulder. Sorrel still had a chunk of lead in his arm. When we rubbed the spot, there was a knot under the skin. What he did to me was just as bad. When we went to Cold Creek for our weekend vacation, Frank held me under the water so long, I fainted. When I woke up, everybody was screaming, and Mother was shaking me.
Frank looked like Daddy, only ten times uglier. His hair was so black it looked wet. He had small dark eyes and his ears were too big for his head. Because his hair was so black, his face looked white like those people with the pink eyes. Frank hardly every smiled. When he did, only his top lip lifted up the same way a dog’s does when it is growling. Because Frank was bigger and meaner, Sorrel and Gator teamed up on him a lot. Sorrel wasn’t much of a fighter, but Gator would bite. I’d seen Frank swing Gator in the air while Gator hung on to Frank’s arm with his mouth.
I looked over at the Christmas tree. It was wedged in between the television and the end of the gold sofa. The tree was covered in silver tinsel, hardly any green showed. The ornaments were covered too. I was with Mother when she found Tinsel Rain icicles on sale, fifteen packages for a dollar at Kress Five-and-Dime. Before she could stop us, we used all fifteen packages on the tree. Only the angel on top wasn’t covered in silver strings. Mother crocheted the angel with white yarn and sewed black eyes and a pink mouth on it. The head and wings sort of fell forward. I thought it looked more like a ghost than an angel.
I wanted to sneak a piece of taffy, my favorite, but of course it was in the candy dish that had the half of a swan lid. There was no way I could lift the lid and grab a taffy without one of my brothers seeing. They would screech like hyenas. We weren’t allowed to eat the candy until after supper. I knew my brothers were starving as much as I was, but the four of us could not commit a crime like stealing candy together. We would be telling on each other before the sugar was down our throats.
I started picking at a loose thread on the end of Mother’s pineapple afghan hanging over the back of the couch. I knew I shouldn’t pull on the yarn, but I kept doing it anyway.
We all sat up straight when we heard Daddy’s Eldorado pull into the driveway beside the house. Daddy kicked through the front door and stood there grinning on one side of his mouth and holding an unlit cigar in the other. He was wearing a suit. His shoes were part black and part white. His hat had a shiny band around it. If Daddy was wearing a suit and hat that meant he’d been to the dog track. I thought Daddy looked like one of those men in the movies who robbed banks and carried machine guns.
Daddy was tall. With the hat, he filled most of the doorway. I smelled cologne. Usually, when Daddy came home the smell of blood filled the house. He was a meat cutter. He’d walk straight through and take a bath. When he came out, he smelled like Ivory Soap and Old Spice. One time, my brothers got into the medicine cabinet and pulled down the white bottle with the ship on the side. Daddy knew his cologne had been touched. He made all three of them take a sip of Old Spice as punishment.
We were all quiet, staring at Daddy. He was holding a long shiny black box over his shoulder in the same way I’d seen him hold his shotgun.
Mother came running out of the kitchen. She was taking off her apron. At the same time she was pulling her scarf off of her head. Mother had pretty red hair. She patted her curls and stepped across the living room.
“I got you something Verna Mae,” said Daddy out of the right side of his mouth.
Mother stepped forward and reached for the box. As Daddy was handing it to her, the top separated from the bottom. Something brown and furry began to fall to the floor. Quickly Mother grabbed it, threw it to the ceiling, and screamed. Then she caught it, grabbed it to her chest, and started saying, “Oh, oh, oh, oh,” in a high voice. Tears were falling down her face. Next, Mother started doing a little jig holding the brown fur in her arms like a baby. I looked at Frank, Sorrel, and Gator. Their mouths were open. I could see their tongues.
“That’s enough. That’s about enough,” said Daddy.
Mother wrapped the fur around her shoulders then hooked it together in the front. That’s when I realized it was a mink stole, just like those rich ladies wore on TV.
Mother took off to the kitchen. Daddy sat down in his big black leather chair. Right away, Mother brought him an oversized glass of sweet tea and set it on the round table next to his chair. The clock began to cuckoo, the little bird poked in and out of the wooden doors. I counted eight times. Mother headed back into the kitchen. I knew she was cooking the biscuits. We heard her sing, “Hey good lookin’ Whatcha got cookin.”
Daddy told Frank to turn on the television. With Daddy home, there was no more wrestling or playing. Frank messed with the antenna until most of the white fuzz went away then he sat down on the floor. We watched a man hold up a red carton of cigarettes that had white Christmas trees on it. He said, “What could be better than Chesterfield’s Christmas cartons.” Then “The Perry Como Christmas Eve Special” came on. Mr. Como sat surrounded by five children, two girls and three boys. The girls were wearing fancy dresses, bows, and shiny black shoes; the boys were wearing suits and their hair was parted and slicked down. All the children were sitting up straight, and they had their hands in their laps. I frowned at them.
Music started then Mr. Como began reading the story of Jesus from a book bigger than any I’d ever seen. The youngest girl, who was sitting on a fancy velvet bench to the left of Mr. Como started squirming around. She kicked her black patent leather shoes back and forth then she grabbed and lifted her skirt and petticoat up and down. When she stopped wiggling around, I was bored. I looked at my brothers. They were all in a trance staring at the television listening to the story of Jesus.
Mother stepped into the living room and said, “About five more minutes, Brad.”
We all turned. We watched Daddy. He didn’t say anything, so Mother returned to the kitchen. Daddy looked over at me and slapped his leg three times in a row.
I didn’t move, so he said, “Jonnie, come sit on Daddy’s lap.”
With my chin stuck to my chest and my lower lip stuck out, I walked over and climbed up. Daddy tickled me. I wiggled all around because I was ticklish. When I finally got still, he pulled the back of my hair.
“Where’d you get that strawberry blond hair?” said Daddy in the weird voice he only used with me.
I didn’t answer. I glanced over at my brothers. They weren’t watching Perry Como. All three of them were staring at me with squinted mean dog eyes.
Daddy pulled my hair again and repeated, “Where’d you get that strawberry blond hair?”
“In the strawberry patch,” I mumbled.
Daddy laughed as if that were the funniest joke ever. His legs spread apart and my butt slid down into the crack between them. My knees were close to my chest, and I felt all mushed up. Daddy grabbed my nose and pressed his thumb through his index and middle finger.
“Got your nose,” he said.
I tried to wiggle my butt to a higher position, up off the black leather seat back onto one of his legs. Daddy played “Got your nose,” several more times while I squirmed to come up out of the hole. I looked over at my brothers again. They were all frowning. Away from my parents, they would make me pay for being “Daddy’s pet.”
My father said, “Give Daddy some sugar,” then he put his enormous, frying pan sized hand on the back of my head and pressed my face to his. I smelled nasty cigar puke whiskey breath. He kissed me on my mouth. I flipped myself onto the floor and played dead like a possum.
Mother stepped out of the kitchen again. I came alive and crawled up onto the gold sofa.
“We’re almost ready,” said Mother. “One more minute on the biscuits.”
I watched Daddy’s eyes squint.
My heart started beating fast.
Mother stood still.
Daddy grabbed his glass of tea and said, “This goddamned tea is too sweet.”
He stood up.
I clawed the sofa.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my brothers slowly sliding back, away from Daddy.
On the TV, Mr. Como was singing, “Oh come all ye faithful.”
Mother took a step forward to take the tea glass from Daddy.
He threw the tea in her face.
I stared at the flattened wet fur dripping at the ends. I thought Mother’s mink looked like a beaver I’d once seen at Cold Creek. The fur was all prickly like. Her curled up hairstyle was straight, stuck to her neck.
She reached up and rubbed her eyes smearing black under them.
Her red lips were shaking when she said, “I’m sorry, Brad.”
It felt like a rubber band popped me in my chest.
I leaned forward and picked up the top half of the glass swan. It flew out of my hand before I could think. The candy dish hit Daddy in the head just over his right ear. My aim was good. I had had more than my share of dirt clod wars with my three older brothers. We all watched the side of Daddy’s head turn red. He reached up and put his hand over the wound. Mother stepped toward him. He yelled for her to get away. Daddy stormed down the hall to the bathroom. Mother ran into the kitchen. None of my brothers would look at me, so I leaned back into the sofa and started picking at the pineapple afghan again. My mother came back out and bent down to clean up the mess. She had a blue and white kitchen towel wrapped around her neck drying the mink. I watched her sweep the shattered swan glass into a dust pan, sop up tea, and clean blood off the floor.
When Daddy came out of the bathroom with white gauze wrapped around his head, he looked at me and said, “You’re about a mean one, ain’t cha?”
I didn’t get a whoop’n. Daddy never spanked me.
When we finally sat down to eat Christmas Eve supper, no one talked. Mother had a green and gold Christmas scarf wrapped around her head. Between that and the white bandage wrapped around Daddy’s head, I lost my appetite. I sat poking holes in a piece of ham with my fork. When I looked at any of my brothers they gave me the stink eye. My brothers were angry, not because I hit Daddy, and not because of Mother. I knew my brothers. They were worried that they might not get to open their present.
We each got one gift from our parents on Christmas Eve night. It was always a toy, something good. Christmas morning we unwrapped packages that had underwear, socks, one outfit, one pair of shoes, and one coat, all from Santa Claus. None of us cared about Christmas morning. My brothers said there was no such thing as Santa that Mother and Daddy gave us all those clothes and underwear. I wasn’t sure.
After dinner, we all sat in the living room. Daddy was smoking a cigar and sipping on a pint of whiskey. Mother was sitting in her chair crocheting. She had put her mink stole away. The four of us were going through the long drawn out Chinese water torture of still being made to wait to open our present. Sorrel’s eyes looked wet like he was about to cry. Frank was chewing on his thumbnail. Gator was lying on his back staring at the ceiling.
When the bird cuckooed ten times, Daddy told me to open my present. Everyone watched while I tore the wrapping paper off of a box that was half as big as me. I believed a purple and white Schwinn, the kind with the hornet on the side, the silver button horn on the tank, and the purple and white torpedo headlight on the front fender, was inside the giant present. I figured they had taken the bike apart to fit into the box. When I flipped the top open and saw a pink Little Lady oven inside, I didn’t even take it out. I went and sat on the gold sofa and started eating salt water taffy, one piece after another. I was mostly staring in my lap while Gator and Sorrel opened matching electric train sets. From the edge of my eye, I saw them both taking out lots of pieces: miniature train cars, metal tracks, electric wires, and black boxes. I tried to ignore Frank completely when he opened his present, but he came and stuck his new BB gun in my face. On the wood part I saw a cowboy riding a horse.
He leaned forward and whispered, “Don’t you ever touch my gun; I’ll shoot you.”
That night I lay in bed unable to sleep. My stomach hurt from eating the whole bowl of taffy. Mother wasn’t going to come listen to me say my, “If I should die before I wake,” prayer because I could hear the bed springs in her room squeaking and Daddy making goat sounds. When the house was finally quiet, I put my head on the pillow. It was freezing in my room, so I pulled the covers over my head. My breath was starting to warm me up when I heard something outside. I popped my head out from under the covers. I wondered if it was Santa Claus. Then I saw Frank’s ugly face in my head. He was saying, “You’re so stupid; you’re such a baby. There’s no such thing as Santa. It’s Mother and Daddy.” I heard a neighbor’s dog barking. I put my head back under the covers.
I sat up in bed when I heard a noise again. It sounded like sleigh bells. It sounded like jingle bells. Quickly, I put my hands together the same way I did to pray to Jesus. I said, “Dear Santa, can I please have a purple and white Schwinn Hornet bicycle?” As soon as I asked, I saw my brothers knocking me off my beautiful bike then jumping on it, all three of them, and taking off down the street. Around the corner, I knew they would light firecrackers on the seat and stick them in the handlebars. Then they would take my purple and white Schwinn Hornet to mud hill and ride it down and crash it at the bottom. That’s what they did with Frank’s Shelby Flyer. They ruined it in one week.
I put my hands back together and said, “Dear Santa, can I please have a new family?”
Christmas morning, Daddy wasn’t there when were opened our clothes presents. The day after Christmas, he still wasn’t there. Mother took to the bed and refused to come out of her bedroom. We took plates of leftover Christmas food and glasses of tea in there and set them on the nightstand. She hardly ate or drank. Over the next week, Frank, who I always thought was the strongest, started having crying fits. He would curl up in a ball on the floor rocking back and forth saying, “Where’s my Daddy.” I didn’t understand why Frank was so sad. Of my three brothers, he always got beat the worst. If something got broken or went missing and no one fessed up, Daddy always dragged Frank down the hall and strapped him with the leather belt that hung on the back of my brother’s door. One of the worst I ever saw was when Daddy stuck Frank’s head in the toilet. My bedroom was right across the hall from the bathroom, so I watched Daddy repeatedly dunk Frank’s face under the water, hold it down for what seemed like forever then jerk his head up by his hair. He shook Frank’s head saying, “I don’t like no goddamned liar.”
Waiting for Daddy to return, Sorrel sat in Mother’s chair holding a black engine car from his Christmas electric train set. A lot of the time when Frank started crying, Sorrel did too. Gator spent most of his time sitting in a dining room chair he’d drug over by the front door. His light green eyes stayed open extra wide. Gator had orange hair, so he looked like a scary pumpkin head doll to me.
I spent my time perched on the gold sofa with my knees to my chest and my arms wrapped around them. There was no heat in my bedroom, so it was too cold to stay in there unless I wanted to get in bed under the covers.
When we’d been two weeks without a Daddy, Frank finished another crying spell on the floor then he looked over at me. His small eyes were red and swollen. There was snot dripping out of his nose. His upper lip lifted. The hair on the back of my neck stood up. I knew he was coming before he moved. When he sprang, he knocked the coffee table into the couch pouring Mother’s figurines into the gap. He grabbed me by the hair and jerked me over the coffee table onto the floor. He pinned down my arms with his knees and started punching me in the face. I screamed and turned my head left and right. His fists kept coming. I tried to kick at him, but I couldn’t reach his back. He kept hitting me. I tried to raise up, but he punched me in the nose. The back of my head slammed into the wood floor. It seemed like I was getting hit from the front and the back. I spit at him. He started hitting me faster and harder. Then he paused for a second and said, “Help me get her.” Right away Sorrel and Gator came and started kicking me in the top of my head. Gator was wearing cowboy boots. I started seeing streaks of light shoot across the ceiling. I saw colored spots. Then I saw Mother. She grabbed Frank by the hair and pulled him backwards. Sorrel and Gator moved back away from me. Mother picked up a newspaper and started swatting them all on the head one after the other. She didn’t say anything, but tears were rolling down her face as she continued swatting them over and over. Finally, she threw the newspaper on the floor. Mother picked me up and took me down the hall into the small bathroom. She sat me on the toilet seat and cleaned my face with a warm washcloth. Then she washed the blood out of my tangled hair. She pulled off the tan sweater I was wearing and poured hydrogen peroxide on the blood. When she went to my bedroom to get a fresh shirt, I stepped up on the toilet and leaned over to look in the mirror. I was all puffed out like a black and red balloon face. I’d seen Mother look the same. I wondered why it didn’t hurt more. Mother came back and gently slid a T-shirt over my head. Then she wiggled my teeth, one after another. It was a good thing my two front teeth hadn’t grown it yet.
In the kitchen, Mother put ice in wash rags then rubber-banded the ends. I sat at the dining room table holding the cold packs to my cheeks. All three of my brothers were silent in the living room. The coffee table was set upright and Mother’s figurines were back on the table. We all heard Mother spinning the dial on the black phone in the hallway. The sound echoed through the house. She spun the dial forward then let it return. We didn’t make or receive many phone calls, so the spinning of the dial or the ringing of the bell was usually about something important.
The dialing stopped.
“Momma, Momma it’s Verna Mae.”
I heard Mother sniffle.
“I need you to come now.”
The next morning I woke up crying. Every spot on my head hurt. My rib bones hurt even more. When I breathed, I had fire in my chest. I had to guess Frank was jumping on me while he was hitting me. Only one of my eyes would open and that was only halfway. When I tried to turn, I realized my face was stuck to the pillowcase. I quickly jerked my skin free then hollered out from pain. I threw up in my bed. I started crying more then I passed out.
Next thing, I heard, “Lord, Lord, Lord, my poor child.”
I opened my one half good eye and saw Mamma Gwinn standing beside my bed. She gently patted my arm and said, “We’re taking you home.” Then she walked out of the room. I heard my mother crying.
Ten minutes later, Momma Gwinn and Grandpa wrapped me in a quilt and loaded me into their truck.