Fixed on the end table between the sofa and the love seat was a curvy brown lamp. On the top of its base was a cream-pleated shade that looked like an upside-down cupcake liner. When I was a kid, I’d lean in really close to the shade and try to count the pleats, one at a time, but I wouldn’t get very far before my eyes would glaze and cross over one another and I would either resign to starting over or just give up completely. Immediately in front of the lamp, encased in a soft white glow, was a silver 5×7 frame leaning on a piece of black cardboard that looked like a man’s tie. The picture was of a stocky, dark-haired woman standing in front of a row of brick houses.
Everything about her, from the lack of an expression on her face to the way her arms plunged at her sides, felt bitter and uninviting. One day, when I was six years old, I made the colossal mistake of asking out loud why the lady in the picture looked so mean; my stepfather Joe, who had been unloading a 24-pack of Budweiser into the refrigerator, came roaring out of the kitchen in a drunken frenzy and screamed, “That’s my mother! Don’t you ever talk shit about my mother! You hear me, bitch?” I waited until he went back into the kitchen to peel myself out of the back of the couch.
I remember the first time that my mother brought Joe home to our shabby, one-bedroom apartment above the beer distributor. My initial thought was that he looked like he had been plucked right out of one of those Neanderthal natural history exhibits that I once saw in a museum: His head rested like a thick block on the top of his shoulders and his forehead rippled out and created a hood over his blunt, black eyebrows. When he spoke, it sounded like he had a fat clump of sticky peanut butter jammed in the back of his throat and when he wasn’t speaking, his lips fell rigid and flat across his face like two taut rubber bands. I didn’t say much of anything to him that first night—until he and my mother started fighting after several hours of drinking and she kicked him out of the apartment. As he bounded down the long pile of stairs towards the door that opened onto to the street, I dashed into the bathroom and ripped open a pack of toilet paper. From the top of the stairs, I launched all four rolls at the back of his head and yelled, “Don’t you ever come back here!” I was somewhere between five and six years old at the time—apparently old enough to know that there was something about him that I really didn’t like.
My mother told me a couple of years ago that Joe was the reason why she drank as heavily as she did. When he would come home from the bar after work with his eyeballs all twisted up in his head and his words tumbling around in his mouth like marbles, he became brutally violent; my mother took the brunt of it. As she explained to me, drinking herself numb so that her mind melted away and her body became softer than pudding made the abuse tolerable. Unfortunately, as the violence increased over the years, so did my mother’s habit; their marriage lasted for several decades.
Once the beer was stowed away in the fridge that day, Joe returned to the living room with a loud boom. I was still sitting on the corner of the couch next to the end table with the curvy brown lamp and the picture of the cranky-looking, dark-haired woman. He stumbled over to my mother who was sitting cross-legged at the other end of the couch with a fresh can of Budweiser resting lightly on her lower lip. I heard her front teeth clink against the tab on the top of the can as she leaned back to take a sip and that’s when it happened: suddenly the beer can and every bubble of liquid inside went bursting through the air, colliding with the white walls around the couch like a handful of birthday confetti. Joe’s hands were clamped around my mother’s neck and her legs were now uncrossed and kicking wildly at his thighs and hips. A large pocket of air rushed through my chest and curled around my throat as the word, “No!” crashed on my tongue and then barreled through the spaces between my teeth. I threw myself on Joe’s back and wrapped both of my arms around the stubble under his chin. Tiny flecks of beer spit flew out of his mouth, raining on my arms and splattering across my mother’s face. He pushed harder on her throat, determined and dangerously focused. From over his shoulder, I could see my mother fighting for her life as her face started changing colors like one of those old school mood rings. So I screamed louder, squeezed tighter and kicked harder until he finally let go. The tips of his fingers left purple half-circle dents all around her neck. Before he left the room, Joe knocked my mother on the side of the head and sent her tumbling sideways into the middle of the couch. She curled up into the fetal position, buried her face into the cushions and let out a thick and sickly moan that clotted under my skin. I stood there in a crippling state of shock, unable to catch my breath.
My relationship with my stepfather completely ended when, at eight, I finally moved out of this horror show and in with my father. My mother however, remained married to Joe and continued to serve as his personal punching bag up until the day he died of a massive heart attack some 15 years ago. I do regret missing out on the opportunity to confront him as an adult but what I don’t regret, oddly enough, is the overall experience of living with him and the strength I’ve gained from it. I consider surviving Joe and all of the other craziness of my nutty childhood to be proof that I am capable of handling just about anything that comes my way. That’s something that no drunken bully can ever take away from me.