Sean lived in the left-hand side of a garishly green and yellow stuccoed duplex in an otherwise quiet neighborhood. The house looked as if the people on one side had wanted green, and the people on the other had wanted yellow, and they had compromised by rolling both colors, one right over the other, onto the jagged surface. The low smooth areas were yellow and the high rough spots were green. A windowed gable projected from each half of the steeply pitched roof that covered both attics. In the right half of the duplex lived an old bachelor and his mother. Nine people lived on the left.
Sean was the oldest of the children, an altar boy, and a boy scout. He was a “good” boy. He loved his parents, his three brothers and three sisters. He did his chores, not necessarily cheerfully, but dutifully hand scrubbing and waxing the kitchen floor on Saturday mornings, scrubbing the cellar’s bathroom, mopping the concrete cellar floor when asked, and he alternated washing the dishes, mowing the lawn, and weeding the small strip of land in the back of the house with his brother Paul. He played games with his younger brothers and sisters and read them stories whenever his parents were out. He went to confession on Saturday afternoons and never missed Mass on Sundays. Sometimes he just sat on an attic window ledge, wondering what it would feel like to hit the gravel in the driveway below, and what the most painless way to fall would be. Sean wanted out.
“Sean! Get in here!” Sean’s mom bellowed while he sat watching the old black and white one night.
“Yes, ma’am,” he said, jumping up and running into the kitchen. Only twenty years older than him, Sean’s mother looked tired. She had gone upstairs to “lay down” before Sean’s dad had left for his second nighttime job with a janitorial crew. She was wearing a faded pink house dress, one or two sizes too small, and what looked like hundred-year-old pink cloth slippers.
“Look at the mess Brian made,” she said. A bowl of leftover peas was upside down under one of the table’s long benches. Brian was the six-year-old. “This is your fault. How come you haven’t done the dishes yet?” she demanded.
“I was watching Star Trek. I never get to see it, and I was going to clean up when it was over.”
“And this is what happened.”
“It’s not my fault.”
“Of course it’s your fault, you were supposed to have the dishes done.”
“What does it matter when I do ’em? Brian spilled the peas. Why aren’t you mad at him? Why don’t you make him clean it up?”
“Listen you. You don’t talk back to me. I’m your mother,” she screamed. At that point Sean knew he was in trouble, knew he should shut up and ignore it, but he was tired of seeing the four youngest get away with murder, and he was tired of being blamed for things he hadn’t done.
“Why are you yelling at me? He’s the one,” pointing at Brian, “that made the mess,” Sean yelled back.
“How dare you raise your voice to me?” she screeched, and she picked up a glass and threw it at him. The glass broke on the wall and a flying piece of it cut Sean’s leg. He stormed around her, dripping spots of blood, out of the kitchen, along the hall, and out of the front door.
“Where do you think you’re going?” she screamed. Sean looked back as he closed the door, but he didn’t say anything. He closed the glass storm door slowly, suppressing an urge to slam it into pieces. It had been shattered at one time or another by all four brothers.
“Your father will take care of you when he gets home,” came through the door.
I’m sure of that, Sean thought, That’s what you always do, sic him on us.
He trotted up the street, past all the quiet houses, and slowed to a walk up the hill that had been paved into street. The old tree house was gone, of course, but a few of the trees that used to cover the whole hillside still stood along the edges of the new sidewalks. He climbed an old maple and sat on a thick branch that forked into two near the trunk. It was a sturdy seat. He noticed squashed peas on one shoe, which he scraped off with a rare leaf. There were just a few tenuous leaves hanging on, fluttering in the autumn breezes.
“Damn it! I want to get away from here,” he shouted at the stars, and he laughed, bitterly, crazily, almost crying, when he realized that he’d spoken out loud. He often gazed longingly at the stars, hoping to see a UFO, hoping that aliens would land and invite him to come with them. That’s such a stupid idea, he thought, I don’t know why I think of it so much. But he wanted a new life, somewhere, anywhere, and he knew it was all up to him: I’ve got to finish high school. What will I do if I don’t graduate? Wash dishes? I sure can shine and polish. Scrub floors? Yeah, a floor’s not done unless the corners are clean. And I can wax without leaving streaks. What else do people do? Drive trucks? Hell, I don’t even have a driver’s license.
“I’m sure as hell not going to make the same stupid mistake they did and get married so young. Seven kids later, all they have are bills, bill collectors on the phone, bill collectors at the door, and fights over money.
“Tell him I’m not home,” he had to tell the ones who came to the door actually expecting money, even while his mom hid behind the door. Often the aggressive ones wouldn’t believe he was old enough to be home alone, and they challenged him, insisting on seeing his parents. On the phone he was told to say: “The check’s in the mail.” Sean shifted uncomfortably on his perch. Why do they fight so much? It doesn’t help. Why did they have to have so many kids? The memory of last night’s fight echoed in his mind, as it had echoed through the house to where he had lain in bed in the attic.
“More money? What did you do with the money I gave you? You sure didn’t spend it all on food.”
“You want to bet? There’s hardly enough as it is. I still have to send Sean or Paul down to the store every week. We run out of things. Maybe we’d have more money if you didn’t stop at bars on the way home.”
“I’ve got to cash my check somewhere.” His voice got louder, angrier. “Why can’t I have a few lousy beers, damn it? You’re spending too much, that’s all.”
“Beers? That’s all you spend it on? I spend too much? The kids need shoes, for Christ’s sake. And clothes.”
“Clothes? They just got clothes last Easter. And what do you mean ‘That’s all’? Tell me. Tell me.”
“They grow out of them. They’re growing, remember? And you know what I mean. You know damn well what I mean.”
The wind was getting stronger, and colder. Sean tucked his hands under his arms. Last night he had tucked his head under his pillow, trying to shut out the noise, but it hadn’t helped. I’m not going down there, he told himself, I’m tired. He and John had gotten in between their parents before, and stopped a fight by staring at them, or laughing at their inanities.
There were crashes mixed in with the shouting. That’s mom, throwing things, and he could see her arm winding back for the pitch. There were bangs and thuds, too, as his dad smashed his fists against walls and tables. He tried to ignore it, to go to sleep, but some words drilled through the pillow into his ears.
“Divorce? You know we can’t get divorced, the Church doesn’t allow it.”
“We can’t go on like this. Something’s got to give. We’ll have to separate, or something.”
“We don’t have any choice. What about the kids? You know we can’t separate with seven kids.”
Sean shivered, and wished he had brought a coat. No way I’m going back for one. I’m staying right here. I don’t care. This is never gonna to happen to me. I’ll be damned if I’ll have kids before I have the money to bring ’em up right. I’ve got to go to college. Shit, I’m gonna have to study my ass off to get accepted anywhere after failing last year. Wouldn’t it be something if I could go to California?
He dreamed about living on his own, buying food just for himself, buying his own clothes, and having things that were his, just his, for his own use. He wanted to be a chemist, mixing solutions, investigating the unknown and creating new things. He wanted respect. People will know who I am, he mused, I’ll be somebody.
But, it was getting pretty cold just sitting in that tree. He had cooled down by then, so it was time to get himself home, even though he knew he was going to get his butt kicked. Funny how cold the night is, I hadn’t noticed it when I left, he was thinking as he jumped out of the tree and double-timed it home. The street was dark except for his house; someone had turned the porch light on. Well, that’s something. At least I’m expected. The old Ford ‘wagon was in the driveway, so Sean’s dad was home. Sean crept up the porch steps and stood outside the door. Now or never, he decided. He walked in through the hallway to the kitchen and started cleaning up the mess. He heard his father come down the stairs, but he pretended not to notice. Sean’s dad came up behind him. Sean found himself amazingly calm.
“Why were you yelling at your mother?”
Sean started to turn around, but before he could speak, he heard the familiar command: “Look at me when I’m talking to you,” and his dad grabbed Sean’s chin in his hand.
Sean worked his jaw muscles against that hand, “She was yelling at me.”
“Why was she yelling at you?” his dad bellowed, and let go of his chin.
“Because I hadn’t washed the dishes yet, and Brian knocked the peas off the table, and I don’t think it was my fault.”
“You don’t think? And why weren’t the dishes done?”
“I wanted to watch a show that comes on after supper. I thought I’d watch it and then do the dishes.”
“Who told you to think? Come on, tell me, who told you to think? How dare you talk back to your mother? Listen you, you speak when you’re spoken to, and don’t ever, ever raise your voice to either one of us.”
While his father was working himself up, Sean had maneuvered himself around to the other side of the table by continuing to clean up. He knew he was going to get hit – as usual – but somehow he didn’t want it, this time. Parents, he was taught in Catholic school, are second only to God. You obey everything they say, unless it violates God’s laws. Sean’s father made sure of that. Sean swore he never tried to piss his father off, but he managed to find fault with most everything Sean did anyway.
“Come over here, I’m talking to you,” Sean’s dad said. They started playing cat and mouse around the table. Sean didn’t like the look on his father’s face.
“No,” he said. The older man’s snarled face told Sean that he’d kill him if he could.
“You don’t talk to me like that. If I have to come over this table to get to you, your lazy ass is going to be sorry.” He don’t know exactly why, but Sean suddenly took a swing at his dad. He tried to pull his arm back, even though he was too far away to connect anyway, but it was too late, his father had already seen it: “What? I’ll kill you!” And he probably would have too. Sean’s mom usually interceded before her husband did any real damage, and she had to drag him off of Sean this time too. His father had jumped right over the table and backhanded Sean through the wall before Sean could move. Sean crawled under the table but he was trapped in the corner. His father alternated between screaming in his ears and whacking him on the head until Sean suddenly realized it was over. His mother had his father’s arms pinned behind his back. By the time Sean left home that hole in the drywall still hadn’t been repaired. He loved his dad. Most of the time he figured he deserved whatever punishment his father came up with. There were times, like this, when Sean doubted his father’s sanity, as his father doubted his. Once, when Sean was much younger, his dad had found a little bit of laundry detergent on the cellar floor and two empty boxes, and he had threatened Sean and John with the strap if they denied doing it. He had made them stand there and sweat. “Someone poured all the soap out of those boxes,” he said.
“I don’t want to hear one word, unless it’s: ‘I did it.’ Well? Speak up.”
“But, we didn’t…” Whack.
“I said not a word.”
The next time he challenged Sean like that, Sean kept his mouth shut.
“Why don’t you talk? What’s wrong with you?” Whack.
“But, you said not to talk unless it was to confess.”
“You literal-minded idiot.” Whack.
Sean lived in fear for most of his childhood. His dad had told him, more than once, how much he could really hurt him if he tried, and how much he had to hold back. Sean believed him. He tried not to ever step out of line, not at home, not at school, and not in church.
It was years later before he understood that his dad was probably keeping inside all the shit he took at work, and the problems he had stretching money to cover the bills, and was dumping it all on any convenient scapegoat once he had a couple beers in him. At the time Sean was not really sympathetic. Damn, but I want out, was his constant thought.
As it was, he stayed late at school as often as he could. There was sometimes dinner in a pot on the stove when he got home. Coming home from a Drama Club rehearsal one night, he looked in the pot, and tasted it; it was still warm, so he sat down to eat. His mother came down the stairs and into the kitchen. She was wearing a red dress with red high heels, and she had painted her lips deep red
“Wow. You look different,” he told her.
“Yeah, we’ve got a contest tonight. And we need you to watch the kids.” Sean shoveled some more food in his mouth. That was nothing new, they were always at the roller rink, practicing, practicing, practicing. Sometimes, he thought, I wish I’d kept taking lessons. At least I wouldn’t be the one they use to watch the kids.
“I was hoping you’d get home before now, we have to leave soon,” his mother emphasized. Sean swallowed quickly, so he could ask, “What about John? or Pat? I have a lot of homework to do.”
“You should have come home sooner. John’s already at the rink. And Pat’s not here. He went to Pennsylvania.”
“Again?” Sean asked. His brother Pat had disappeared three times already, the last time was when he and their father had broken the dining room table during a fight. Pat was a feisty one. He always ended up with Aunt Millie, but he usually came back.
“Well, yes, but this time he’s going to stay there.”
I should have come home earlier, Sean thought.
“What about school? What will he do about that?”
“Your Aunt Millie will put him in high school there.”
“Oh, he’ll like that,” Sean said, cynically. Aunt Millie was a teacher herself.
“He’ll have to, there was nothing else to do. You know how he and your father get along.”
Yeah, Sean mused, I wish I’d thought of that.
Just then his father came down the stairs yelling, “We’re gonna be late.”
“Yeah, I’m ready, I was just waiting for you,” she yelled back, but to Sean she said, “You can let them stay up to watch TV, but make sure they’re in bed by eight-thirty.”
“OK,” Sean agreed.
After they left, he tried to study, but the kids were fighting over which show they were going to watch, so he went in to arbitrate. “Look,” he asked Karen, if you’ll watch what Brian wants to watch, I’ll let you pick the next show.”
“But mom said we have to go to bed after this.”
“I’ll let you all stay up for another show.”
“Yeaaaah,” they all yelled, and Karen came over and climbed on his lap, so he sat and watched TV with them.
Of course, when the next show was over, they all saw the announcement for another one, so they pleaded for one more.
“Alright, one more. But, this is it, understand? You can watch this show, but then you have to go to bed, OK?”
“OK,” they all said, in unison. Sean was pleased. It wasn’t often that he’d ever been able to stay up late, so he was glad to give his sisters and little brother some freedom. And, they did get up when the show finished, and Sean turned off the TV. Karen, Betsy and Kathy were already on the stairs, when Sean heard the TV. Brian had turned it back on and sat down in front of it.
“I said it’s time for bed.”
“Hey, I let you stay up an hour later than you were supposed to already. Now, get upstairs.”
“No, I wanna watch TV.”
Sean turned the tube off, Brian turned it back on, and Sean saw red. “I told you to get upstairs,” he yelled, but Brian just sat there. Sean picked him up, and then lifted him up over his head. “When I tell you to do something, you do it,” he yelled, and he carried Brian up the stairs that way, and threw him down on his bed. “And stay there, you little twerp.”
“Ow, ow, ow. My arm. My arm. You broke my arm. Aaaah. Aaaah. Aaaah,” Brian started screaming.
Sean looked at his arm, decided that he was OK, and told him: “Shut up and go to sleep,” and went back to his books. He listened to his brother crying and screaming. When he didn’t stop crying he went back upstairs to check on him.
“Brian, let me see your arm.”
“Aaaah, aaaah, aaaah. It hurts.”
“OK, OK, it’s not broken. Just go to sleep. You’ll feel better in the morning. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to hurt you, I was just mad at you, like Mom and Dad get mad at me. They told me to put you to bed, I have to do what they tell me. Understand?”
Brian stopped crying, but he was still whimpering into his pillow. Sean sat on the edge of the bed until Brian fell asleep. Damn, I hope he’s not hurt. They’ll kill me, he thought. Damn, I’ve got to get out of here. I’m becoming just like Dad. I don’t want to hurt these guys, not ever. This is ridiculous. I almost hurt Brian. I’m not going to be like them. I’m not, I’m not.
As it turned out, Brian wasn’t hurt, but the girls told their mother what happened, and she chewed him out.
“Didn’t you realize you could have hurt him?”
“I didn’t think about it. I was mad. I just carried him upstairs. I didn’t throw him on the floor, I made sure he fell in the middle of the bed.”
“And what if he hadn’t? What if he had hit the frame? or the headboard? You can’t lose your temper like that with them, they’re too little.”
“I know that. I’m not the only one with a temper around here.”
They left it at that. Sean just stared at his mother, and she just looked at him. There was a sadness in her face that made her look far older than the 20-year difference in their ages.
It hadn’t always been that way. Sean liked his father’s laugh, but it wasn’t heard much anymore. As each new kid had come along, things had gotten tougher: more bills, more arguments, and less of him around. They had moved four times that Sean could remember. Mr. Emmett came home from his job every day, and they all sat down promptly to eat at 4:30. Dinners were quiet affairs, unless Sean’s mom had a complaint about one of the kids and wanted Mr. Emmett to “take care of it.” Usually all he wanted was to eat and take a nap before he headed out again to his second job. Sean remembered him helping put the kids to bed, fixing things around the house, and watching TV together. Mr. Emmett had shown Sean how to sweat copper tubing together; how to splice electric wires, how to take a sink trap apart and fix a toilet. He used to take Sean and John for archery target practice. Sean could pull his father’s big bow all the way back now, but there wasn’t any fun to it without his dad along. It just didn’t happen anymore. Trips to the drive in or to the beach were a lot less fun, usually cut short because one kid or another was sick or crying. It was quite a hassle to get seven kids organized and transported anywhere. Between the jobs and the roller skating, there wasn’t much going on at home anymore. The younger kids all saw their dad more than Sean did, as no one else had opted out of the endless skating competitions and practices as Sean had. However, practice was hard, and Sean’s parents made everyone work at it. Good for some, not for others.
Mr. Emmett was increasingly irritable, and demanding. Sean loved his dad; missed the times they’d talked or done things together. No amount of discipline could make Sean forget he loved his parents.
However, there is sometimes a breaking point, and Sean’s came one evening. Mr. Emmett had called him down from the attic, stood facing the hallway from the kitchen doorway. He had then accused Sean of stealing some money from his wallet, something Sean knew better than to even think of doing. “I didn’t do it,” he insisted.
“I don’t believe you.”
“Well, I didn’t do it. What do you want me to say?”
“I told you to not to ever talk back to me.” Whack, he backhanded Sean across the face.
“Well, speak up, damn you.” Sean didn’t say another word, didn’t want to make the situation worse. Whack again. Again. No tears now. Sean stared directly into his father’s eyes, rage building up in him. He couldn’t speak, because he knew his voice would be too loud. That would be another heresy, raising his voice. He stood his ground. His dad slapped him again, and again, on either side of his head until, suddenly, Sean’s rage took hold. He pushed his dad hard, knocked him right over. He jumped on him, and all he could think of was killing him. Sean’s dad grabbed his arms so Sean brought his foot up and tried to kick his dad’s head in. Fortunately, his dad was strong. He grabbed Sean’s leg when it was inches from his face. Oddly enough, he was smiling. The rest of the kids were sitting at the kitchen table a few feet away, and they were screaming, “Sean and Daddy are fighting,” and they started crying. Sean and his dad both got up, looked at the kids, looked at each other, and walked away.