I woke up, knowing what to expect. It was my 16th birthday. The old man would be sleeping off the night before. Even with the door closed, when I walked by my parents’ bedroom, I could smell it. The dank, cloying odor of alcohol oozing out of his pores mixed with the stench of his sweat-soaked sheets. I have no idea how my mother slept in the same bed as him.
Speaking of my dear old mother, once I got dressed and went out to the kitchen, I found her sitting at the kitchen table, cigarette in hand, smoke stretching a few inches above before disappearing. The secondhand smoke left me with a permanent cough and runny nose. I guess I could thank her for that.
I walked to the refrigerator to grab an apple. “Happy Birthday, kiddo,” she said, in a voice that rattled like a handful of gravel in the depths of her throat. “Hope it’s a good one, Peter.”
“Thanks,” I replied, not turning to her. I kept my head in the fridge, trying to let the cold soothe my anger. I was sixteen years old, left to my own devices for a happy birthday, just as I had been as long as I could remember. Those words would be the extent of my parents’ acknowledgement of the blessing I brought to their lives. Mom would head to work shortly after I left for school and be off her feet by the time I got home.
And Pops? Yeah, he’d get out of bed soon enough. That is, soon enough to get to the bar over in Gloversville by 4:00. His greatest disappointment when we moved to Northville shortly after the first of the year was the lack of a drinking establishment, that he had to drive his car five miles to drink and watch a game on TV, instead of being able to walk down to the corner. Mine was that he had yet to spin his car or hit a tree on his way home. Mine was that my sweet mother had yet to cough up a lung and choke to death on it.
It was my birthday. Yippee-fuckin’-ki-yay!
* * *
I was six the last time I had a party. Complete with paper hats and noisemakers, kids from the neighborhood, and my dad even stayed sober for most of it. Sober being a relative term for him. He kept it to a minimum that day. How could I tell? He managed to stay awake through the party, right up to when he spanked my bottom raw.
Mom was right there too, helping with the games, cigarette in hand sending smoke into my friends’ faces. When it came time for cake, she lit the candles with her lighter in one hand, and her cigarette in the other, a clump of ash falling on the cake between the “P” and the “e” of my name. I guess I should be thankful they got my name right. She smoked right through the spanking, too, the smoke forming a filter that blocked her eyes from my view. Course, I couldn’t really see anything through my tears.
I didn’t realize any of this until much later. A six-year-old kid notices none of these things when he’s laughing too hard as his friends dizzily try to pin the tail on the donkey. He doesn’t notice his dad is back at the fridge in the middle of a rousing game of musical chairs. He doesn’t see the omnipresent orange glow at the end of the cigarette. None of it. What the boy sees is happiness and laughter and fun. So much of it that he asks for, no he demands, another game of Pin the Tail on the Donkey, after the cake and before the presents.
I blew out the candles and we ate our cake. “Please, Mama, can we play Pin the Tail on the Donkey again. Please.” The cake was strawberry with white frosting. The ice cream, Neapolitan. I ate around the vanilla but filled myself with chocolate and strawberry and a piece and a half of my birthday cake. “Please,” I repeated after my last mouthful had filled the final space in my stomach. For good measure, I took another big swig of fruit punch.
“I don’t know, Petey. Your presents are waiting. Don’t you want to see what you got,” Mama replied.
“One more. One more game. Pleeeease.”
She sighed and tugged a little nicotine into her lungs before blowing the smoke out the side of her mouth. “Honey,” she said to my dad, “you wanna spin them around one more time?”
“Why not?” he chuckled. “He only has a birthday once a year.” My dad picked up the blindfold. “Who’s first?”
Jack went first. His tail went on the wall five feet from the donkey. Sue, the neighbor girl Mama insisted I invite, went next. She pinned her tail on the donkey’s nose. I insisted I go next. Dad spun me and spun me and spun me. “That’s enough,” I heard Mama say through the growing roar in my ears. But he didn’t stop. I went around two more times. The room spun and I tried to turn with it but I couldn’t catch up. The roaring grew and then there was a rumble and everything in my stomach, even the jelly beans I had eaten an hour earlier, came up in a volcanic eruption that hit my dad square in the chest, covering him in a pink mélange that dripped down to the floor, forming a puddle of half-digested cake, jelly beans, and almost blood red liquid.
As I tore off my blindfold, afraid it was going to happen again, my old man flung his arms out scattering spots on the walls of the little front room, forming a crime scene-like splatter. He grabbed my elbow and yanked me to him, my body suddenly as boneless as a rag doll. “You little shit. Damn it all!” He spanked me with his large hand, alternating every once in a while with a clenched fist that left bruises on my butt and thighs that lasted for weeks, muttering as he swung, “You little shit!” My friends scattered and cowered. When he was finally done and dropped me to the floor and stomped to his room, I looked at Mama, who sat at the table, cigarette in hand, smoke in the air.
“Mama,” I pleaded.
She stubbed her cigarette and shrugged her shoulders at me. Rather than picking me up, she picked up paper plates and plastic forks and threw them out, cleaning the room instead of cleaning me up.
The next day, alone, with my father at a bar and my mother shopping, I opened my presents.
* * *
School was a bust. Being the new kid, as another year wound towards its inevitable close, meant nobody knew the first thing about me. I got no birthday wishes there. No high fives because it was my day. No cute girl smiling shyly and blushing while she whispered, “Happy Birthday, Pete.” Nope, none of that. Just another day in Boringville, New York.
After school, I followed a group of kids into the five and dime. I had a dollar in my pocket. If nobody else was going to do it, the least I could do was buy myself a candy bar and sing happy birthday to myself. I grabbed a Snickers and made my way to the back where a handful of boys were standing around. “Hey,” I nodded to them.
One of them, I think his name was Baxter, said “hey” back. The others nodded or shuffled about. I moved along. And, that’s when I saw it.
* * * * * * * * *
Thanks to Carrie Rubin, I learned yesterday about a manuscript evaluation contest being run by Barbara Kyle. The winner gets a free manuscript evaluation by Ms. Kyle. On the spur of the moment, I submitted the excerpt above. It is chapter 2 of Northville Five and Dime. So, does it make you want to read more and get into the inner workings of the story?
I’ve been hibernating with my writing for a number of months now. There are a few things that have happened that give me hope that winter is over for me. I’ve been making some slow progress on part two of Northville. It’s about two-thirds done now. And I’m eager to get to part three of the saga. I also have an idea how that story could develop into a much longer series of stories that span a much longer time. Just a question of whether I want to spend the rest of my life writing about those particular characters.
This is all a way of saying … I’m working on getting back to this writing thing. That I submitted for the manuscript contest means something.