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I’ll never forget the night my Mom wasn’t my Mom any longer. Even though these memories are guarded and seem vague for this time, one of them is so strikingly welded into me that a plasma cutter couldn’t get it out. This story of my Mom’s first of many suicide attempts will forever be burned inside of me.
My brother, Jimmy, came into this world ten years after me. Dad had been, let’s say, ‘not so faithful’ and the word on the track was that Jimmy, my little brother, was not planned at all. A product of make-up sex when Mom discovered his second life. How funny it is that some details of what I remember are nothing more than flashbacks and others come to me in Technicolor.
Even more odd is I don’t remember her showing her pregnancy either by being overweight or even just a little fat in the belly. There was talk on the circuit amongst us kids of problems between my Mom and Dad. I paid little attention to the gossip although I know it had to hurt.
The truth of the matter is that the time when Jimmy was born, also happened to be a good time in our home. So I thought. But again, to tell you with sincerity is to tell you that I’m just not one hundred percent sure. All recollections of the moment tell me he was born in Omaha in the mugginess of June.
The reason I remember this is there’s a slight flash of the second I named him. Dad and I were driving to the hospital to see my new brother. In those days there wasn’t a lot of Fathers who wanted to be with the Mother during birth. I suspect the Doctors and hospitals didn’t allow this practice because? Hell, I don’t know, , , but how stupid was that?
As we drove through the streets of Omaha, I spotted a sign on the roadway that had big bold letters painted on it, ‘James Michael , , ,’ something or other. An insurance company advertisement comes to mind.
“James Michael, that’s his name,” I told my Dad and that was it. Dad didn’t have a lot for the details in the small or big stuff I guess.
The next year when Mom, myself and little Jimmy returned to Omaha to meet up with Dad we went first class in a Frontier Airline prop plane. That only meant there was a curtain between us and the less desirables in the back.
The whole flight was rough and I ended up airsick and throwing up all over the back of her head as she was seated directly in front of me. I learned to love the airsick bag in less than five minutes and held tight to it throughout the miserable flight.
When we arrived at the airport, Dad was nowhere to be seen. An hour or so goes by and he shows up just as Mom was calling for a cab. She was furious and looking back now I understand why. The redhead at the gin mill near the race track held him up and he was definitely drunk.
In July, a month of days away, I would turn eleven years old and I felt I was mature for my age. As so I thought, but what other ten year old boy doesn’t think that? That is until they are asked to prove it. Today, I honestly feel I did it well. I remember Jimmy was not walking well and Mom carried him everywhere.
Omaha, , , the vast harvested cornfields, a drive-in theatre called the Golden Spike, the great Ak-Sar-Ben race track and the Johnny Carson show are the players in this 50 year old impression of mine. Myself and Jimmy were just a sideshow of new brothers in a plot in what today is a stark realization of how my family back then was as disjointed as a dislocated hip socket.
My own family today is light years from them. The wounds never have healed completely but for me reminiscing the past is as cleansing as a spring purging of the winter’s clutter we all seem to gather. I’ve just never been able to throw this one out entirely.
Oddly I feel subconsciously forced to relive my family’s summertime horror story in Nebraska in a story. Maybe doing so will rid this from my thoughts once and for all.
Dodge Street Cafe was a nice little place for breakfast, lunch and an early dinner. The small establishment sat conveniently at the rise of the driveway entrance to the trailer park where most of the trackers lived. It was adjacent to the Golden Spike theater’s ticket booth road and only a mile from the bridge over the Little Papio Creek. All of this sat just a few miles west of Boys Town.
Two sets of doors greeted the guests. In the small foyer between the doors was a simple black wall-mounted pay phone. Before you walked in through the second door, a handmade welcome sign was taped to the glass and white shear curtains kept everyone from seeing in clearly.
A pinball machine which everyday took the brunt of my tilting skills sat directly to the right of the entrance. In the center of the entrance was a glass counter with doilies and other odd items for sale inside the glass and also served as support for the cash register. Us kids were constantly changing our dollars and quarters for dimes and she kept it full of them for us.
The inside door was locked up tight after seven but the outside doors were always open. Late night call-ins to owners and trainers who needed to use the pay phone were always a possibility. The lady at the cafe understood this and left the outside doors open for just that reason in the summer.
This was, for a time, the best hiding place in the game of hide-and-go-seek until I figured out I cound’t hear the cry of, “Ollie Ollie oxen free”, and besides that, the run to base was down the hill at the giant oak by the tornado shelter. After getting caught and becoming ‘It’ more than a dozen times I abandoned the pancakes and eggs foxhole.
Myrtle, Marge or Maggie, the name of the older gray-haired lady who owned the cafe let us kids bang on the pinball machine as hard as we wanted as long as we kept it full of dimes. The flippers slapping back and forth with the bells ringing and lights flashing had me salivating like Pavlov’s dog. But nothing compared to the loud knocking sound when a replay was awarded is what fostered my ten-cent unbreakable addiction.
Everyday after using up my daily ration of allowance, which was probably a whole quarter, I would leave after being tilted-out and slyly check the phone slot for an accidental dime left behind. On my lucky days, when a silver treasure was left, I would strut back in like a King, tilting to my heart’s content until the face of the flashing glass lit up the words, ‘Game Over’.
No one person, even the cafe lady, knew how in the days to come that the simple phone foyer would be a godsend for a young boy. A young man who on one humid night, glowing with fireflies, minutes after the black and white of Johnny Carson was over on TV, needed only one thing to happen and happen now. I needed a person on the other end to answer.
. . .
“Hello!” I screamed. My high pitched voice cracked with panic. “Hello, please!”
“Please someone answer,” I murmured. It must have been somewhere around eleven or midnight at night. Chances are whoever the Operator was during the day was sound asleep. I pulled the handset away and stared into the mouthpiece holes. I could hear a low sounding voice coming from the phone all of a sudden, drowned out between the sounds of trucks and cars passing by on Dodge Street. I put the phone back up to my ear, “Hello,” I said.
“Yes, number please.”
. . .
Dad was always late coming home. Seeing the long white Chrysler come around the corner of the last dirt road in the trailer park was exciting. He would sometime have a whip or goggles from the track and a new one for my collections was a treat.
The trailers were fed by propane for cooking and heating. Most trailers were equipped with two large white tanks mounted to the tongue of the trailer. I would stand in front of them and tap on them with a stick trying to play a song out of all the different sounds coming from different places on the bottles.
On this day darkness came and Dad was nowhere to be seen. Mom leaned out the door and told me dinner was ready. I skip tossed the stick across the dandelions in the trailer’s small grassy lawn and bounded up the stairs as the parachutes of seeds floated in the air. I can remember exactly what she made for dinner that night.
Even today I still think of what happened when we have the same thing for dinner at my home. Mom’s chicken and rice to this day is still one of my favorite meals. My wife says it needs ‘color’ and wonders why anyone would eat a meal that was all white.
“Why ruin a good thing?” I say everytime she breaks down her culinary wall and stirs up the delicious dish for me while complaing of the colorless recipe.
Usually Mom would play a card game with me at night before bed but this night she sat silent at the dinner table smoking a Pall Mall red. A six pack of empty beer cans were pushed back on the table. She’d take a long drag of the cigarette and blow the smoke out her nose while keeping an eye outside through the thin curtain over the kitchen’s window.
From her chair she could see down to where the road made the turn into our section of the park even though it was pitch black. The flash of headlights would be the warning as they would light up the corn field before a car would make the sharp left turn to our trailer space. She was on the prowl and waiting for Dad.
Jimmy was asleep in her room and the black and white was turned down just enough that she could hear Ed Mcmahon announce, “Here’s Johnny.” That was my key to go to bed but this night she didn’t tell me too. I watched the show for a few minutes more and started feeling tired out of habit.
Mom opened another can with the silver can opener and slugged down a huge swallow. “Time for bed, Billy.”
I was already drousy and staggered into my room, pulled off my Levi’s and shirt and climbed into the single bed in my underwear. The light from the living room shined through the six inch opening of the sliding pocket door. I’d always leave it a little open so it wasn’t so dark in the room.
I remember laying there listening to the TV show and hearing Mom make sounds in the kitchen. Drawers were being closed and I could hear her walking on the creaky linoleum. The chrome chair sliding back and forth under the table and the popping sound of the shiny can opener freeing up another beer. I remember the clink it made when she set it down on the table. Those memories are as clear as can be because I relived it over and over in my head for years after that night. Dad was still not home.
I’m not sure how long I had been asleep before the dream. I dreamt Dad was standing in my doorway and the light behind him was bright enough I couldn’t see his facial features. “Hey Dad,” I said. He didn’t say anything and slid the door closed. I snapped out of my dream and looked at the door. There was still the crack I had left open and I could hear the static of the empty channel on the TV.
I noticed the straight line of the door moving like it was rubber and I stared harder at it trying to get it to stop. Somewhere during those seconds in time a pungent smell came to me and I sat up. Throwing the covers off, I climbed out of bed and slid the door all the way open.
The wall in the hall was moving in a rythmic motion of a wave. I looked toward the back of the trailer where Jimmy was sleeping in his crib. The doorway was dark, open and distorted. I turned toward the kitchen. The lights were on and everything I could see was moving in a sine wave motion. The eerie sound of the TV crackle was covering up a hissing sound in the background.
I took two or three steps into the living room and could see the oven door was open. Mom was laying on the floor spread eagle naked and bathed in a very large pool of blood. White asprin-shaped pills were scattered everywhere. The beer cans were laying on the floor against and under the kick stop of the cabinets.
“Mom! I screamed as I ran toward her in a dizzy line. “Mom!” I slipped in her blood and fell hard on my back hitting my head in a whiplash. Now I was close to the oven and could hear the propane surging out of it. I reached over and pushed it closed. I don’t remember shutting it off, I think I just closed the door. Why the pilot lights didn’t cause a fire is still a mystery. Maybe there was just not enough propane yet to trigger an explosion.
I got up on my knees and knelt next to Mom. She had cut both wrists deep and diagonal. Blood oozed out of one and boiled out of the other. I reached up and grabbed the kitchen towel on the edge of the counter and wrapped the one bleeding with vengence. “Mom!” I screamed again. I remember her mumbling she was sorry.
My underwear was soaked in her blood and I knew Mom and I needed help fast. I ran back to Jimmy’s crib and grabbed him and his blanket. I opened the door of the trailer and hurried down the four steps to the grassy area and set him down on the wool. Dad’s car was not parked in his spot.
I ran to the adjacent trailer and banged hard several times on the metal siding as I screamed for help. I worked my way to the front of the trailer and ran down the street screaming as loud as I could. “Help me! Help me!” The darkness of the cornfield came to me quickly as I rounded the corner and the shortest way to the cafe’s phone was across it.
This section of land was furrowed so another crop may have just been harvested but I remember trying to run barefoot in a furrow hoping to avoid the short stumps of cornstalks. I was alone in the dark, covered in blood and in the depths of a full raging panic.
The lights on the top of the Golden Spike theatre screen lit up the huge letters on the back of it and dimmly lit the field. Without them, I would have had to walk. I came out of the field exactly where the trailer park’s play area was and ran out to the driveway leading up the hill to the cafe.
The half gravel, half pavement road was over a couple of hundred yards long and I made it in only seconds it seemed. I had stopped yelling back in the field and was only feet from the entrance to the diner. Pushing the big swinging door open to the foyer lit only by the lights of the pinball machine inside, I reached up and pulled the handset down to my ear.
. . .
“Hello!” I screamed. My high pitched voice cracked. “Hello, please!”
“Please someone answer,” I murmured. It must have been somewhere around eleven or midnight at night. Chances are whoever the Operator was during the day was sound asleep. I pulled the handset away and stared into the mouthpiece holes. I could hear a low sounding voice coming from the phone all of a sudden, drowned out between the sounds of trucks and cars passing by on Dodge. I put the phone back up to my ear, “Hello,” I said.
“Yes, number please.”
. . .
The lady must have asked where we were but I don’t remember too much of the conversation. I do remember her telling me to stay where the phone was and she would get help there. I stayed about five minutes then I had to go back. When I made it to the trailer there was a lot of people standing outside and in the kitchen. Jimmy’s blanket was lying on the grass without him on it.
Bloody footprints were everywhere on the sidewalk, on the steps and all over the inside of the trailer. I could see a man and a women inside wrapping up my Mom’s arms with towels. Someone had put a pillow under her head and it too was soaked in blood terribly. A lady stood on the grass crying and several men were there too, talking and smoking.
“Where’s my brother!” I yelled at the people outside. A woman leaned over and said that he was at Barb’s trailer and he was okay.
“Are you okay?” she asked while eyeing the blood caked on my back and legs.
Two men had picked up Mom and brought her outside down the steps to load her into a car that was parked in Dad’s space. The back doors were already open and another man sat behind the wheel. At the same time I could see the red glow of the blinking emergency lights flashing on the cornfield just before the Sheriff’s car rounded the corner and pulled up to the trailer.
The Sheriff asked the men to put her in his car and as they were doing so, he asked, “Is the little boy okay?”
“Yes, we took the baby to another trailer,” someone in the crowd answered.
“No, the little boy who called us. He called us from the cafe up on the hill. He wasn’t there and that’s where he was supposed to be.”
They turned to me and by that time tears were just about to happen. “Did you call us?” he asked. “Young man, did you call us?” I could only nod. I was shivering even though it was a hot and humid night. “Your Mom is going to be okay. I’m going to take her to the hospital and you have to stay here with someone you know.” He looked at the lady.
Another woman who I didn’t know asked me to see my feet. “Honey, how did you get to the phone? Did you run all the way to the phone?” She looked at the bottom of my feet through the coating of blood from my Mom and a man came up with a blanket and put it around me.
The Sheriff’s car sped off with Mom inside and the lady told me to go inside my trailer and she would get something to clean up the place. Everyone else left. I sat on the couch, the TV was still making only static noises with no picture. The blood on the floor was losing its shimmer. The lady was back in the bathroom and water was running when my Dad opened the door.
So here is the foggiest part. Dad must have said something but all I remember is him saying,”Where’s Mom?” I was sitting on the couch with the blanket over me. The lady came through the hall and told him where she was I suppose. He left in seconds and I could hear the car pull away quickly.
The trailer was cleaned up and I washed the blood off my legs and backside. I had gone back to my bedroom and fell asleep. I spent the next day staying near the trailer and Jimmy stayed somewhere else. The lady spent the next night with me. Dad had come back in the afternoon to get clothes and left again.
In the morning of the second day as I woke up, I heard Mom and Dad talking in the front room. I walked out of my bedroom to see Mom sitting facing my Dad at the kitchen table. She was crying and out of breath. Dad held her hand. “Hi Mom. Are you okay?” I worriedly asked.
“It’s okay Billy, get dressed and go outside,” she managed to say.
I went back to my bedroom and could hear her questioning the lipstick on his shirt in the bedroom. It’s funny how some things people say just stick. What he said to her that morning I’ve repeated to friends many times. “It’s pistachios, Honey. I was eating red pistachios.” It convinced me too at the time and I truly believed it as I knew that my Dad loved pistachios. I went out the back door by the back bedroom and jumped out into the dandelions.
I walked up to the cafe and stared at the phone I used a couple of nights before. I don’t remember if I checked the coin slot but if I was to guess, I probably did as this phone was a lucky phone.
Mom was standing at the counter nearest the stove and Dad was hugging her from her back when I walked in after wandering the park for two hours. I was hungry for sure.
Mom, with her arms wrapped in white bandages from her elbows to her wrists turned her head toward me while Dad just hugged. Maybe tonight they would try to make me another brother.
Mom slowly turned her head to me. She looked directly into my tired eyes and I looked at her’s. They were bloodshot red and filled with torment, embroiled in the paradoxical nature of love and hate she had for Dad. I stood still in that exact moment of time in my life, only days after I was asked to prove my maturity at the age of ten and wondering where this would take me. I was too young to fully understand and it was only hours after my Mom’s first of many to come suicide attempts, but somehow I knew.
It was then on a day of heat and humidity in Nebraska, just a mile from the Little Papio Creek and only miles from Boys Town, in a yellow and white single-wide trailer with two propane tanks mounted on its tongue and the Golden Spike theatre in sight whose owners decided to leave their spot lights on at night.
It was about red pistachios, cut corn, a late night TV show and a dream.
It was there, near a gin mill and a race track, where a bigger-than-life lucky phone lived up on the hill with a pinball machine as a friend and where a cafe lady left the doors open at night for an unexpected significance of a phone call.
It was when a young boy realized he was more of a man than a boy and knew for sure that his Mom, who he loved more than all the dandelions in the world, , , wasn’t his Mom anymore.
“The best part of life starts at the top of the stretch.”