“Shit, Dad’s home,” Frannie giggles nervously at the dining room window. “Carol is that your green Pacer,” she asks even though she knows the answer.
“Yes, why?” Carol, 26, can’t help but act like the oldest. Even when something’s wrong she tries to act above it all.
“’Cause Dad’s ramming your bumper,” Frannie announces.
A lightening-quick change happens in the faces of my barbecue-eating, 12 brothers and sisters. Their wild jokes and laughter shift into nervous chatter and sharp comments-like a food fight only everyone’s throwing sarcasm and no one’s listening. I check on my Mom, who’s bowing her head and wiping her mouth politely – our only calm before the storm.
The front door slams shut, and the entire dining room shuts down. Barely a peep except for stiff movements: Magdelene,17, gulps her milk. Luke, 21, puts his head down, buttering a roll and eyeing his wife, Kitty, to take her elbows off the table. Eddie, ”the tease,” 20, pinches 15-year old Mark’s earlobe, trying to make him laugh. Frannie, 18, keeps blinking her eyes like she’s got a twitch. Sweet Hope, 13, chews on a drum
stick; while thin as a rail Grace, 25, makes the sign of the cross. Terry, 23, hides the empty Tab can underneath the table; her twin, Paul, folds his arms across his chest
like Mr. Clean, as if he’s going to dare my Dad to lay another finger on him. Once I overheard Terry, say that of all us kids, ‘Paul got the worst of it from dad.’ When
Paul was my age (11), my Dad would take him into the basement and beat him with his belt. No one really knows why and I was still in a high chair when it happened, so heck, if I know.
I reach for my Mom’s wrist, slipping my pinky finger underneath her elastic watchband. It barely fits, but I hold on anyhow.
“Hi Dear.” My mom always breaks the silence. Dad sways into the room, blood vessels climbing up his nose like a vine. His bottom lip hangs loose; his tongue
licking his lips every few seconds. A long, manicured finger balancing his linen sports jacket over his shoulder. A pale-yellow dress shirt and matching yellow necktie look
wet from the thick wet summer air. He stands at the head of the table like Captain Von Trapp taking roll call with his bloodshot eyes. Beads of sweat pop up like a contagious
disease on everyone’s tight faces. I bet if you took an X-ray of all the stuff going on inside of me and my brothers and sisters, you’d see howling and screaming and trembling inside. And if we weren’t such a polite family, you might have people scratching and clawing and punching, and maybe there would be a stabbing or even a gunshot. But we’re a nice Catholic family that has good manners and says the Rosary every night after dinner.
So even while my Dad’s drunk and on the verge of something dangerous, we sit up straight in our chairs; elbows off the table; cloth napkins on our laps, chewing baked beans and barbecued chicken with our mouths properly closed – doing our best not to tip the scales of our father’s mood.
As he starts his mouth-to-mouth kissing ritual around the 16 chairs, I smell the mix of garlic, wine and Listerine. While his lips make contact with the lips of my siblings, I quietly pray that he’ll kiss my Mom and at least say, “Hello,” or “Good evening, Mother,” even though he hasn’t looked at her, since he staggered in from one of his long lunches with one of his priest friends. As he makes the sign of the cross on the foreheads of the
three wiggling grand kids, I watch my Dad and wonder: why did he marry someone that he doesn’t want to talk to?
“Excuse me, I have to go to the bathroom.” I walk out of the dining room, before he can put his moist, puckered mouth on mine. I wait around the corner with my back pressed up against the paneled hallway wall, as he moves closer to the only unkissed person in the room. My whole head listens, hoping for my Mom to be treated like a wife and not a “bloody American.” But nothing. No kiss. No hello. Just hollow, empty air as he
walks past her white swivel chair and disappears up the creaky wooden stairs to their bedroom. I’m never getting married.
I peek into the dining room at heads shaking and eyes rolling. His moods are as mysterious as a lost civilization.
“Fine, how are you, dear?” My mom’s quiet sarcasm lets everyone know she’s OK. Conversation builds again. Nothing wild. You can tell even the bravest of the bunch don’t want to wake the sleeping giant. I walk back into the dining room, sit back in my seat and
watch my mom scoop out coffee ice cream from the five-gallon tub from Baskin-Robbins.
“I can scoop it, Mom,” I whisper as nice as possible.
“That’s OK, sweetie. You go ahead and finish your dinner.”
I lean onto her round, jelly-like arm and kiss it right where her muscle would be, if she had one. I peck at her arm with kisses, hoping they will erase my Dad’s silent treatment. Only God knows why he punishes my Mom with glares and silence. If it were up to me, I’d choose that he not speak to me and treat my Mom better. But the worst part of all is that the longer his silence, the more dangerous things get.
After eighteen days of not saying a single word to his wife, my Dad’s crazy-person temper finally boils over at exactly 6:45 pm on a Monday night.
“Why the bloody hell can’t someone in this house fill up the Goddamn ice trays when they’re done,” he barks as he yanks the plastic trays out of the little freezer at the bottom of our brown fridge.
He’s red-faced again from a three-hour lunch today with his good buddy, Father Anthony, a Jesuit from the Catholic Charities Office. Most days, my Mom calls Terry, who works at my Dad’s travel agency, for a report on my Dad’s lunch : Who did he go with? What time did he leave? What time did he get back. The length of his lunch let’s us know in advance whether we should walk on eggshells or run like hell before he gets home.
“Tina, run down to the basement and get your father some ice out of the freezer,” my Mom says.
I don’t want to leave her side.
“ Never mind, Christine.” He always calls me by my given name. And then he’s back in my mom’s face waving the empty trays.
“Would you mind telling me why dinner is not on the table? It’s half past six,” he yells.
“Well, I’m sorry dear….,” my Mom apologies in a cracking high- pitched whisper.
“Is it too bloody much to ask? What the hell have you been doing all day, WOMAN!,” his neck veins bulge out as he inches closer to her.
“WHAT AM I RUNNING HERE, A BLOODY HOTEL?”
My mom says nothing and keeps molding the raw meat loaf. Both our are heads bow low; hers sad and hurt. Mine rushing angry blood; his shouting hammers my temples. And then I explode,
“Why don’t you leave her the hell alone!”
All at once, there’s a flash of light; a burn on my cheek and then my buckling knees. I lay on the sticky yellow linoleum kitchen floor, as my dad’s tight mouth yells down at me, “I beg your pardon?”
I’ve fallen next to Sam’s red plastic bowls. His black dog hair floats in the almost empty water bowl. I crawl out of the kitchen, as quickly as I can, not begging my father’s pardon. Still dizzy from his mean hand, I climb up the three flights of stairs to my room and
examine the blotchy right side of my face in the mirror above my dresser. A red-reflection of defeat.
By nine o’clock I’m still hurt, but hungry, so I tiptoe downstairs past the second floor making sure my father is in his room for the night. The door is closed. I inch down one more flight, and head towards the voices coming from the dining room. Sitting around the now-cleared table are Kate, who just got home from her nursing class; Mark, who’s sliding pennies across the dining room table-some kind of hockey game with coins; Magdelene, doodling in her biology text book; and mom, sitting in her usual after-dinner position at the head of the table, eating Ritz crackers out of the box and sipping a steaming mug of Sanka.
I walk towards the dining room table and lean on my mom’s bare round shoulder. Black coffee breath slips out of her mouth, as she slides the crackers between her lips, first cupping one in her hand like a magician and then sliding it into her mouth whole, pretending she’s not really eating anything. She puts her other arm out to hug me, and then pulls me onto her lap. Her round girdled, body feels like I’m sitting on a rolling hill.
I bury my face into her soft neck.
“Aren’t you a little old to be sitting on Mom’s lap?” Magdelene hates me, I’m sure.
“You’ll get your turn”, Kate teases Magdelene.
“Real funny, Nurse Ratchet. She’s just whiny because Dad smacked her,” Magdelene blurts.
Kate leans towards me. “What happened?”
I pick my head off my mom’s neck, since I can feel some sympathy coming on.
“Dad came home and was screaming at Mom in the kitchen and slamming the ice trays all over the place. And I just said, ‘Why don’t you leave her alone,” I explain.
“You mean, why don’t you leave her the hell alone,” Magdelene corrects me.
“You said that?’’ I can tell Kate is proud of me.
“And then Dad slapped me really hard across the face,” I say. I feel my mom pulling little balls of fabric off of my green Izod sweater and I wait, holding my breath for a big hug; or a kiss or for her to say, ‘Awwwwwww, my baby.’
She reaches over her crossword puzzle for her coffee cup and says, “He didn’t hit you that hard.”
Still on her lap, elbows leaning on the table, everything turns thick and heavy like someone buried me in sand at the beach. Unable to move, I stare into my Mom’s coffee mug – an oil spill, greasy with cracker crumbs sinking into the dark decaffeinated water. I see people’s mouths moving, but I can’t hear them-not even my mom, who’s back to playing Harry Houdini with the round buttery wafers. As I climb off my mom’s lap, I wipe my nose with the sleeve of my sweater.
“Get a tissue will ya?” Mark flings one of his pennies at me. I walk out of the dining room into the first floor bathroom. As I shut the door, their voices become muffled like a cartoon. I sit on the toilet lid with my dirty sneaker resting on the plastic toilet-paper holder. I
swallow and tense my face and bite my cheeks – anything but cry. As I walk out of the first floor bathroom, I slip past the dining room trying not to be caught by the troops. I was hoping to be a hero in today’s war – win a Purple Heart.
As I sneak up the backstairs, I hear my mom calling me, “Tina….Tina, did you go up?’”
I can’t talk to her right now. I might make a big deal out of something – breaking an unspoken house rule. And it’s pretty obvious there’s only enough room in the house for my Dad’s ‘big deals.’ The rest of us will just have to wait. So I keep moving up the 36 stairs to my bedroom, pretending it’s not a big deal and trying my best not to feel a thing.
There is a wooden plaque on the mantel in the den that says, “The greatest gift a father can give to his children is to love their mother.” We have these kinds of nice plaques all over the house.
Some hang on the paneled walls throughout our house and some just lean up against stuff like a dying fern or a left-over Christmas card from last year. We also have statues everywhere that my Dad picks up on his religious tours. When I look up from my place at the dining room table, I feel like I’m eating at a monastery. There’s a stained glass Madonna; the wooden Saint Francis Of Assisi statue; a round glass case with pieces of
some saint’s bones in it and crosses galore. When I look right-into the living room- I see portraits of my parents wearing their robes from the Knights of the Holy Sepulcher. (A Catholic organization in the Holy Land dating back to the time of the Crusades.) The oil
paintings look like two people I don’t recognize – some holy nun and dignified priest wearing robes with a large, red crusader cross. The wooden crucifix that hangs on
the living room wall between the two caped crusaders, is a constant reminder to anyone who enters our house: This is a very holy place.
“Sweetie, your father asked me if you were upset with him about something. Is anything wrong?”
These kinds of questions feel like someone has pushed the pause button on me.
“No. Nothing’s wrong,” I say, holding my face and neck very still, so it looks like nothing is wrong.
I watch my mom mix the batter for tonight’s corn fritters. It’s quiet except for the metal bowl scraping on the counter. It sounds like there are crumbs trapped underneath the bowl. With each turn, a grinding sound. I imagine the little bread crumbs from this
morning’s toast screaming to be saved from this torture.
“He said you just put the phone down when he calls without saying a word. That’s not nice, sweetie. He’s your father. You can’t just not speak to him,” she says, as she licks her battered knuckle.
I look away. My whole body feels like a huge foot that fell asleep. I stand up trying to shake myself awake, while my mom covers the silver mixing bowl with wax paper and puts it in the refrigerator. I walk towards the empty counter to check on the bread crumbs- now black suffocated grains. I want to fix them and put them back together.
“Hi, Mom,” Grace shouts from the foyer. I hear the volume of her screaming baby, Teddy, getting louder, so I pick up my basketball off the kitchen chair and slap it hard. Over the crying I shout, “I’m going to Chevy Chase Playground to shoot around for a while.”
“That’s my basketball girl,” my Mom says with pride.
She pats me on my arm, like she’s patting the batter for the corn fritters and then reaches to take the baby out of Grace’s arms. I bolt out of there, running nonstop through the hallway, out the front door, until I hit the freedom trail at the top of our street.
With every bounce of my basketball down Brookville Road, another why passes through my brain. Why does she defend him all the time? Why does she blame me?Why doesn’t she yell back at him? Or tell him to leave? Why does he hate me?
No answers come.
So, I just keep dribbling.
Tina Alexis Allen is an actor, writer and director. Most recently, Tina starred opposite Teri Garr and Paul Sand in “God Out The Window,” which she wrote and directed. Currently, she is finishing up “Lucky 13”, and is in development on the screenplay version of this memoir. Up next, she will perform her one woman show, “Irresistible,” in New York City. Look for Tina (dressed as a doctor) playing basketball in the upcoming NCAA commercial airing on CBS during “March Madness.” Tina lives and loves in New York City.