I’ve had this story for a long time, waiting until the fulcrum of my ability to share it flipped over. If you feel I’m being unjust or harsh, I apologize. It’s a true story, one of a few that I’ve guarded. A few people have heard the sanitized version of it. Years ago, I told Mom the story. She became enraged and denied it. “It’s true, Mom and you know it. It’s my story to tell and not yours to deny.” I take no pride in this story – nor shame. I can’t alter the past sequence of events. None were my fault. Failing to share it simply because it strips my parents of their humanity, at least in these moments, is not my responsibility. I had several such conversations with my Mom as the years rolled past.
My cousin built a house in Elm Springs in the early 70s. He moved from an incredible house near the mall. He needed a place where he could build a shop and have a great deal of flexibility with the property. We assumed he was incredibly rich because he built an in-ground pool in the back, one with a slide. For me, an in-ground pool was as unimaginable as anything on the planet. I was accustomed to going to the dirty lakes, streams, and ponds of NWA with my cousin Jimmy. Jimmy was deathly afraid of the water, and his fear was amplified after “Jaws” came out.
All these years later, the house still stands. The pool was filled in by a previous owner. Years ago, I walked through the long yard and around back. The rear of the house seems odd to me now. The patio isn’t as large as I remembered it. Its roof length was held up by 4 vertical posts that expand into a “Y” at each point the posts touch the roof. A large sliding glass door led inside, with the fireplace being to the right and on the rear of the house. I was able to hide in the crevice of the fireplace on the outside sometimes.
I loved the adventure of the water, even I couldn’t swim. Swimming meant ‘somewhere else,’ and that was a place I always wished to be. My biggest issue was that it was impossible for me to relax and enjoy it if my Dad were within ten miles of me when I tried to enjoy it. Those times when I went with Jimmy and my Aunt Ardith and Uncle Buck were glorious. They had issues but they tried to give Jimmy an opportunity to enjoy himself. If my Mom went along, too, I was constantly uncomfortable. Her volatility made enjoying things difficult. I didn’t fear being taught a lesson and drowning with her, though. Thankfully, Aunt Ardith and Uncle Buck gave me a chance to experience something close to normal time at the lake. I wouldn’t have known one if it weren’t for them.
My parents never took us to swim. We only went when accompanying others. It’s a strange observation for me because one of my earliest memories was of me standing up in the back of a black car, as Dad drove. In the passenger seat was the widow of a cousin with whom my dad was having an affair. We were probably headed to Clarendon Beach in Monroe County during that drive.
With Dad, it was always a risk. The incongruity of him telling a 7-year-old, “I’m going to teach you to be a man” still rings alien in my ears. I heard it ten thousand times growing up. Whatever a man might be, his example taught me that I didn’t want anything to do with it. When I grew older and discovered the depth of cruelty he subjected those around him to, I knew my instincts as a child were right.
Mom and Dad generally tried to behave when they were at my cousin’s house in Elm Springs. The cousin’s family was considered superior to us in every meaningful way. My cousin was also Dad’s boss, which made things awkward. He tolerated an incredible amount of shenanigans from my Dad.
One summer night, we were all at my cousin’s house and enjoying the pool, even as the sky darkened. The nights when everyone behaved were typical summer memories: food, overly-sweetened drinks, and all manner of pool games. While every visit had its problems, many nights miraculously avoided the stupidity which characterized my childhood. I think this is true because some of those people who had lives intersecting with my parents had a more reasonable mix of fun, love, and joy. To be sure, they had problems, but not so many that the arc of their lives would fall outside the normal range. For those times in the summer, I’m thankful. I can separate them in my mind from those which would otherwise discolor my memories. For each night punctuated by violence or anger, there were three good ones. The possibility of any given night ending horribly, however, made it difficult to relax and enjoy the otherwise good nights.
Night brought the tendency to drink to excess. This particular night was one of those. At one point, my Dad managed to climb on top of the house in the back, several feet from the pool. He stood over the covered concrete patio and urinated. Someone shouted, “Bobby Dean! Damn it. Don’t piss in the pool.” Whether he was trying to before the shout is anyone’s guess. After hearing it though, he felt a compulsion to try. When he was done, he prepared to try to jump from the roof to the pool. Several people shouted at him not to. At the last second, he tried to get his footing down the side and then jumped from the roof down to the ground. The only thing saving him from serious injury was the fact that he was drunk. It’s relevant to note that several people shouted at Dad to convince him not to attempt to jump from the roof to the pool.
Within seconds, Mom and Dad were screaming at one another incoherently. Luckily, Dad didn’t punch her. He shoved her as hard as he could. She tumbled to the ground. Mom continued to shout while splayed in the grass. It took her a long time to stand up. Each time she’d attempt to get up, she’d lose her balance and fall again. She yelled every curse worse that can be imagined during this process. I’d seen it on repeat throughout my entire young life. Everyone, including the kids, heard every word. In the fantasy version of my memories, I sometimes laugh at the image of one of us kids using a steno notebook to take notes of all the especially memorable curse words as Mom spewed them. They’d watched in fascination and horror as Dad stood on top of the patio roof trying to urinate into the pool, too.
We resumed splashing around and trying to salvage some fun. I never dropped my guard when my parents were around, though. It was certain death.
I don’t remember what I said to one of the cousin’s kids. Whatever it was, I called one of them “Stupid” after one of them had done something unimpressive. It was a harmless comment. He got out of the pool. I probably assumed he went for a drink or some chips under the patio.
I heard Mom screaming from the other side of the pool. I ignored her because I attributed it to her fighting with Dad. Their fights could subside and resume like rolling waves. Whatever happened that night, I knew that we’d experience broken furniture and bruises upon our arrival home.
“Get out of the pool, you little fat fu#$er! Right now.” Mom was screaming from the steps of the pool. I could see her cigarette glowing as hot as she probably was.
My cousin Jimmy said, “I think she’s screaming to you!”
I took steps in the water to meet her and get out of the pool. My feet were as heavy as bricks. Before I even got out of the pool, my Mom was hitting me violently in the face and head. “Did you call him ‘Stupid.’ You don’t call people stupid! I’m tired of telling you, so help me God.” With her shouted amen, she resumed hitting me as everyone watched. “We don’t behave like that.” She sounded completely irrational and her words were slurred into a river of mixed syllables. The only reason she stopped striking me was her arm got tired enough for her to drop her cigarette. Her other hand held a paper-towel covered can of Budweiser. I could see the kid who had told his Mom I’d called him stupid standing there in the dim patio light with a look of horror on his face. At his house, such transgressions were probably met with a stern word and nothing more. That violence could result was now a horrible reality to him. No one shouted for Mom to stop.
When Mom bent to pick up her cigarette, she fell face-first into the ground. She dropped her beer, too. Someone laughed. Mom focused on the fact that someone laughed at her. She again did the dance of attempting to struggle to her feet. She was cursing again and screaming something incoherent about being laughed at. I moved away from her and went to the far side of the house where it was much darker.
I could hear Mom screaming and ranting still.
Not too long before, she’d been screaming and fighting with Dad. Her anger and beer-fogged brain shifted to shouting that I’d pushed her down. She was horribly embarrassed that someone had laughed at her for falling while beating me. Several times during my childhood my Mom told my Dad some crazy stories and lies. Regardless of who wants to hear it or not, there was something violently broken in my Mom and she at times reveled in the misery of people around her. As her anger peaked, her appetite for others to suffer rose commensurately. Although I’ve implied it before, this desire to see the world burn literally resulted in her burning down places she lived.
That both she and my Dad had engaged in public fighting, child abuse, cursing, drunkenness, not to mention urinating in front of a group of children, none of that seemed relevant. The hypocrisy should have struck her dead where she stood.
Within seconds, my Dad was hollering for me. I knew better than to continue to hide so I walked around the corner of the house. He staggered toward me and struck me backhanded. For whatever reason, I didn’t fall or shout. He hit me again. I felt my ear pop. Dad grabbed me and dragged me toward the pool. I welcomed being thrown in the deep end even if it resulted in me drowning. Instead, he screamed at me for me to go up the ladder of the slide. I didn’t mind using the slide if I wasn’t hurried. I could get to the edge of the pool quickly, even though I couldn’t swim. Mom shouted drunken encouragement. When it suited her, she loved Dad’s violence. It was part of the incredible duality of my Mom that very few people understood about her.
Still, no one shouted for it to stop. Whether they were frozen in disbelief, the adults knew that Dad’s misbehavior could easily result in someone’s death. It happened before.
My Dad had a long relationship with attempting to drown me. I have several such stories and I’ll share some of them in the next couple of months. Not all of them were horror stories or terrible, as contradictory as that may seem. It might be hard for you to imagine humorous near-drowning stories – but I do have a couple. I climbed the stairs of the slide. My Dad surprisingly went up the steps drunkenly behind me. As I reached the top and was about to put a leg over to position myself, Dad punched me ferociously between the shoulder blades. The breath whooshed from me. I fell face-first into the hard plastic surface of the decline of the slide and my body flipped over. I somersaulted and hit my head near the bottom as I bounced in the pool. I went under and didn’t try to get back above the water. I don’t remember who pulled me out of the pool. I drank a lot of water.
Dad wasn’t finished with me. No one had intervened yet. He shouted at me to get up. I tried to get up. I couldn’t breathe, my ear felt pierced, and my back ached from being punched. I didn’t know I was bleeding a little on my forehead from the impact of the fall onto the slide. “I’ll teach you to be a man!” He pushed me into the pool, where another quart of pool water went down my throat. For those with curious minds, “Pool Water” isn’t a flavor. There was a bit more cruelty from my Dad afterward but I’ll hold back the whip.
Even though my cousin Jimmy was a couple of years younger than me, we talked about this night years later. His dad, my Uncle Buck, had recently died. “I thought I dreamed that, X,” he told me. We both sat, thinking. We shared several stories that night. Even while sharing the harsh ones, we laughed. Our ancestors were dead and much of their power died with them. They wasted great chunks of their lives.
Like the pool at the house in Elm Springs, maybe it would have been better for my memory to have been filled in, too. Whatever scar I earned as a result of that night has long faded into obscurity. I can hear time calling my name, echoing for the day when my feet won’t walk the earth.
These words will remain.
In them, I truly find comfort. In a way that few understand, my sharing them transforms the hate of the moment into a lesser curse.
These words will remain, as shall I, for a moment.