Dinnertime

The Ramones were on the stereo the day it happened. Emma and I were dancing. All of us were dancing. I was seven but the moment is set into my memory like a scar.

My parents were drunks—maybe they still are—but they were never angry or fighting like the ones on television, just happy drunks. Anyway, Emma and I were holding hands, she was showing me how to bob my head just right to the song. Like Dad, back against the counter, chanting, Hi Ho….Let’s go!

Blitzkrieg Bob belted away in the kitchen. Mom sucked down a cigarette between sips of beer, a casual effort to brown the hamburgers. We were all happy that she was feeling better, but I was still bummed that I was no longer going to be a big brother.

Emma pulled, then swung me high. With her hot sweaty hands wrapped over mine, the room whirled as she spun me in circles. My laughter came in spurts, so hard that it was all I could do to catch my breath. Blissful dizziness as the window, Mom, the stove, then dad all merged into one blur.

Court records show that it was a school night. Not that it mattered at our house. School was something you did if you were in the mood. Like cleaning or working. Everything at home was  a free-for-all marathon until you fell down and passed out. Wake up and do it again.

We’d go days without electricity. My eyes still water thinking about flushing the curdled milk down the toilet. How I had to hold my nose to keep from gagging as the chunks clung to the side of the commode. Rent, telephone, groceries. Bills were suggestions, and even as the power flickered the party never stopped. Dad would fill up the cooler, stock up on batteries for the stereo, and life would go on for a while. Mom would sit on Dad’s lap, the two orange glows from their cigarettes chasing each other in the dark. She’d tell us it was an adventure. Like camping indoors.

The neighbor’s didn’t share my parent’s zeal for such untraditional parenting. Especially when Mom started showing and it looked like a third kid was in the plans. Our yard, a jungle of tall grass and assorted appliances attracted complaints, and the landlord was always coming over to scrape up some rent. Of course I didn’t know all of this then, but Emma remembers it all too well.

I do remember Mrs. Sloan next door, and knocking on her door to ask for milk or eggs or things like that. She’d always invite us in, where she’d let us help ourselves to the green glass candy dish with the strawberry candies. I’d eat two or three, and then fill my pockets when she wasn’t looking. Emma always made me put some back though.

Emma and I have talked what it would have been like with a brother. We shake our heads and wonder how we survived our childhood. We’ve talked some about that evening, or what led to that evening in the kitchen, finding stark differences in our collective memories. Where I was shielded by the fuzzy glow of innocence that comes with youth, she remembered Dad cheating on Mom. The drugs. The many shady characters that came and went. I remembered Blitzkrieg Bob.

The pounding shook the doors. Emma quit twirling me. I flopped down on the yellowed linoleum floor, where I could see all the crumbs and cereal morsels and dog hair clinging to something sticky under the fridge. Dad finished his beer and wiped his mouth. He glanced at Mom and then headed for the door.

Then the music stopped. My breaths returned, fast and raspy. Our smiles fell when they came in. Two men and a lady with shiny black hair. She smiled at me as Dad told Emma to take me down the hall to our room. We listened at the door. Mom was crying. Dad’s voice hardened as he cursed. Emma’s face was frozen. I felt my nose begin to burn.

Footsteps. The nice lady opened the door. We were going for a ride. Dad knelt down to me, his breath harsh with smoke and beer. He told me to listen, it would all be over soon. Mom’s hands shook as she smoked another cigarette. I really started crying when the lady had me bring a change of clothes.

I held Emma’s hand so tight. One minute we’d been together, completely happy and dancing, and now we were in some strange car with strange people. Mom and Dad said it would be fine. They’d have us back tomorrow. That only made me cry more. Have us back from where?

Emma got real quiet. Which was strange because Emma talked to everyone. The lady sat in the passenger seat and explained we were going to be placed in emergency foster care. Her words didn’t make sense. I looked to Emma but she only stared out the window.

The people lived in a nice house. They had a yard and everything was neat. The lady came in with us and we all sat in the big clean room. Emma and I sat tight on the couch. I asked about Dad.

“Your parents will be able to see you sweetie, they just need some time to fix some things.”

Fix what? We were happy. I knew my house wasn’t like other homes but it was all I’d known. My parents were always happy. Always singing. Always dancing. Even in the dark. Now everything was quiet and clean and I couldn’t imagine the two people sitting across from me dancing.

Days passed. Then months. Emma and I started a new school. Mr. and Mrs. Reynolds were nice people. They made dinners. We ate on time and went to bed after bath time. They let me stay with Emma for a while. We’d wait up for Mom and Dad.

But they never came.

 

 

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