After my father left the service, my parents rented the first floor of a house on Jason Street. Leslie and I shared a bedroom at the back of the house beside the driveway. Despite my being two years older than Leslie, she and I went to bed at the same time.
One summer evening, the day was only grudgingly gathering dusk and the light kept us from falling asleep. Perhaps Leslie and I were unruly after dinner, driving our parents to distraction. If you’ve raised children, you’ll recognize the impatience you feel when you can’t settle your kids for the night.
Leslie and I were in bed; the house was quiet. Mom in the kitchen; Dad trimming the driveway hedges. Against the rules, I crept out of bed to play with a toy. I was four years old. I took the toy up on my bed by the window and found myself staring into the face of my father. I think we frightened each other. He didn’t expect a pale face peering through the screen like a ghost.
“Get back into bed.” Dropping the rake, he took off around the corner of the house.
Maybe I’d been in and out of bed all evening and been warned not to leave my bed again. Dad was angry, and I knew what would happen. I wailed. I sat on the bed and pulled the sheet over my head. Leslie was in her crib and I suspect also crying by this time.
The door burst open. Dad whipped the sheet off the bed. “Don’t try to hide from me. What did I tell you when you went to bed?” (I’m cutting him some slack by assuming I’d been forewarned.)
My pajama bottoms were yanked down, I was hauled over his knees, and smacked once. He had a particular expression on his face: his lips pressed shut and air pumped behind them, puffing them out. The flat of his hand on my bare skin hurt, but the pain was transitory. What I remember is the look on his face. It was the face of rage.
Shortly after Rachel gave birth to Jennifer, we moved to Durham, North Carolina. I worked at Duke as a videographer making short films about government services for the elderly. When Jennifer was three months old, we drove to Nashville, Tennessee to celebrate Thanksgiving with Daryn, a friend whom I’d met in the Air Force.
Exhausted from driving all day, we stopped at a Howard Johnson’s outside Nashville for dinner and not arrive hungry. We examined the menu. Rachel fed Jennifer her bottle. The waitress came over and Rachel placed her order. Let’s say, it was macaroni and cheese with ham.
A moment later, the waitress returned. “We’ve run out of that. What’s your second choice, dear?” A true Southerner, the middle-aged waitress was a bubbly combination of friendly efficiency and an eagerness to help. Rachel chose something else. An open-faced turkey sandwich with gravy. Meanwhile, Jennifer fussed, ignoring Rachel’s attempt to comfort her.
The waitress reappeared. “I’m so sorry. There’s no more turkey.”
“What?” Rachel was at the end of her rope. “Why didn’t you tell us this when we sat down?”
The waitress was baffled by her question. “How would I know you wanted turkey?”
“Gimme the menu for Heaven’s sake.” Yankee exasperation steamrolled over Southern hospitality.
Rachel gave the menu a cursory glance. Jennifer spat out the little amount of milk she’d taken and cried loud enough to cause other people to turn and stare at us. As a new parent, I was mortified.
“I’ll have the vegetable soup with cheese and crackers and a small salad.”
The waitress left.
“Can you hold her?” Rachel asked, handing Jennifer to me over the table. I recognized the ‘She’d-behave-if-I-was-a-better-mother’ expression on her face.
Jennifer sensed someone else holding her. After a moment of silence, she assimilated this change and screamed even louder. “Mark, take her outside.”
I was standing when the waitress brought out my dinner. She turned to Rachel with what had become a familiar expression, now mixed with dread.
“Don’t tell me,” Rachel said. “You’re out of salad.”
The waitress smiled with relief. “Oh no, we have salad. We don’t have the soup.”
I edged around the waitress. “Cover my dinner.” With Jenn, I escaped the rest of the conversation.
Outside the restaurant, I walked around the pool. I was hungry, tired, and sick of her screaming. I thought of my dinner getting cold. She screeched again, with added energy. I squeezed my eyes shut, wishing I could do the same with my ears. The volume increased. I snapped. Not angry enough to drop her into the pool, but it crossed my mind. I lifted her close to my face – my puffed-out lips pressed together – and shook her. “Shut up, God damn it. Shut up.”
Jennifer stopped crying, her eyes wide and staring up at me, her expression as clear as if she had spoken the words: “Holy shit. This guy’s nuts.”
She made not another sound. I was ashamed of my behavior and scanned the pool area to see if anyone had seen us. I had become my father with the facial expression of rage to match. Hugging Jennifer close, I kissed her forehead. Her huge eyes were riveted on me. We returned to the table.
“That was quick. I guess you have the knack.” Rachel took Jennifer and resumed feeding her.
I uncovered my plate. The meal was still hot. “By the way, what did you finally order?”
“I’m getting what you’re having. And God help her if she comes back...”
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