Drawn by the voices in the hall, David lifted the sheet and left the bed, his T-shirt pasted against his back as he moved silently, taking short, cautious steps toward the door. The worn floorboards felt cool and soothing beneath his bare feet. Pale light from the sixty-watt bulb in the bathroom pressed weakly against the humid darkness, casting a sallow glow into the hall. Standing inside the doorway of his room, hidden by shadows, he watched and listened.
“For the love of Christ, Vicki, please, come to bed,” his father said, wearing only a pair of pants and socks. He was a large man, solidly built from years of manual labor and beaten down by decades of disappointment. Tears formed in David’s eyes at the sight of his father pleading.
“Go to hell, you bastard,” David’s mother shouted, her face glistening with sweat. Dressed only in a slip, its straps threatening to slide off her shoulders with her every move, she struggled to free her wrists from his father’s grasp. Through the sheer Nylon, David saw the outline of her body silhouetted against the bathroom light and blushed as much for her as for himself. Beneath the slurred profanities and incoherent shouts, he detected the voice that gently woke him every morning, soothed him when he was frightened, and read him to sleep each night. His stomach churned and his bottom lip quivered as he wiped new tears from his eyes with the back of his hand.
A few feet away the floorboards creaked. He turned, expecting to find his grandmother standing at the end of the hall, but instead saw Connie, his sister, her expression a mixture of concern and disgust. She was fourteen, six years older, almost an adult in his eyes. When their parents fought, she hardly ever came out of the room she shared with their grandmother.
David’s grandmother, who went to church every day, had told him about purgatory and hell. From an old Bible in her room, she had shown him pictures of tormented souls suffering for their sins. Despite his young age, David understood quite a bit about sin, judgment, and punishment.
The thunder of his father’s voice commanded David’s attention, while his mother’s piercing reply tore through him like a fever’s chill. Their emotions were open wounds from which pain and anger flowed, and David was the cistern that collected their runoff.
“Vicki, come to bed. Now! The neighbors’ll hear.”
“Let go! You’re not a man. Go sleep with your mama,” David’s mother said, speaking each word louder and shriller than the last.
David heard whispers and the shuffle of slippers and turned to see his sister go back to her room, replaced by his grandmother. Short and stout with sparse white hair and pallid skin, she was a rock, grounded by her faith and made solid by decades of hard work against which the waves of her life had battered, marking her surface but never wearing down her essence.
His mother had also noticed. The house grew quiet except for the steady drone of the window fan near the top of the stairs.
“Get out. Get out you lousy ol’ bitch!”
“Ma, go away,” his father said, his expression vacillating between anger and despair. “Go to bed, dammit.”
David’s grandmother didn’t move. “She’s drunk again, Jimmy. Every weekend she gets drunk. And she drinks during the week when you’re not home.”
“I drink ‘cause of you! Sixteen years of having you in my house.”
“Shut up, Vicki,” David’s father said, his eyes bulging and nostrils flaring. “Shut the hell up before I choke you, you drunk bitch.”
David had seen their mood swings before, but it didn’t make them less frightening. His father could change from tearful pleading to murderous profanity in an instant; his mother from drunken shrieks to girlish laughter the moment she had another drink.
His mother pulled her arms free and slapped at his father.
“I want her outta here. It’s the ol’ woman or me. Be a man for once, will you?”
“I don’t bother nobody,” David’s grandmother said. “I pay my share. I cook and clean. Get your wife to bed, Jimmy.”
“Enough, Ma, go to your room.”
“Get out of the way,” David’s mother said, trying to move past his father. “I want a drink, you cheap bastard!”
“No,” his father said, blocking her way to the stairs. “You had enough, Vicki, come to bed.”
David’s grandmother shook her head. “Let her drink herself to death.”
“Drop dead you ol’ bitch!” David’s mother lunged for the older woman and would have fallen if not for his father catching her.
“Jesus Christ, Ma, go to bed!”
“I’ll go, but what about your son, seeing his mother like this?”
David stood frozen in the spotlight of his grandmother’s words and his father’s stare, caught just outside the safety of his bedroom. For a moment he saw shame in his father’s eyes, but it quickly changed to anger. He turned to his mother, hoping she could see his pain, his fear, his uncertainty, but her eyes were glossy and flat and showed
“David, go to bed or I’ll smack you so hard, you’ll—”
This night he was spared his father’s wrath as his mother’s arms, slick with August sweat, again slipped free. David watched her stumble down the stairs, her feet barely finding the steps, her hands skimming over the banisters.
“Vicki, come back!”
“Go to hell, mama’s boy,” she said with a nasty laugh, somehow making it to the landing. She turned to descend the last three steps and slipped. Time seemed to slow as her feet flew out from beneath her. For a moment she appeared to hang in midair, defying gravity.
The sound of his mother hitting the floor rattled through David
as though he were the one who had fallen. His father hurried down
“I told you. I told you to come to bed. Oh God, Vicki, what did
David’s grandmother walked past him, wearing an expression of disapproval and vindication as she moved to the head of the stairs for a better view. David stepped closer to the railing to peer down between the balusters.
His mother slapped at his father, who was trying to help her up.
“Let go, you sonofabitch bastard.”
“Please, Vicki, no more tonight.”
David leaned forward. His parents were nothing more than shadows fighting in the dark. A hand gently touched his shoulder and caused him to turn with a start.
“Come on,” Connie, said with a nod of her head. Without another word, he let her guide him to his bedroom. “Get some sleep, Davie. It’ll be better tomorrow.” She began to pull the door closed.
“Don’t, Connie, I don’t like the dark.”
Below them in the kitchen his mother shouted at his father. “Where’d’ja hide it, Jimmy, you cheap shit?”
Connie looked at the stairs and then at David. “It’ll be quieter in the dark. G’night.”
The door swung shut, muting his parent’s voices, but he could still make out their words. Even if he couldn’t hear them, he had lived through enough nights like this one to know that his father would offer one more drink in exchange for his mother going to bed. She would agree but would not stop at one–could not stop at one. When she was barely able to walk, his father would help her up the stairs, his steps slow and sure, while his mother, tripping and slipping, would mutter a mixture of incoherent curses and drunken flirtation.
“Night, Connie,” David said to the closed door and then climbed into bed, pulling the sheet over his head and wrapping his arms around his legs, repentant for whatever sin he had committed to have caused such misery.