The smells of sugar, lemon, and vanilla poured from the kitchen in Spring, when the temperature was still cool enough in Detroit so that baking wouldn’t heat the kitchen up too much, and just warm enough so Anne Marie and I could play outside without boots, jackets, and mittens.
“I better not catch you kids running in this house or being loud while I got a cake in the oven,” Mary would say, pointing her yellowed finger at us, a cigarette hanging out of the side of her mouth. “If my cake falls, you two are gonna get it.”
So we’d play outside. We’d run around the mulberry tree in the front yard. We’d gather shirtfulls of rocks from the alley and skip them off the cement on the side of the big house and bounce them into its yellow walls. The scents born in the kitchen would waft out the windows, through the four tall evergreens in the front yard. We’d jump off the porch and play under the trees, scooping pine needles into neat, green piles. On days when there was no danger of collapsing a cake, we could hear Mary’s laughter coming from the kitchen while she cooked and drank coffee and talked to her daughters or the neighbors who would come over to visit. The floors and walls and ceilings of the yellow brick house would vibrate with her laughter.
Anne Marie had a magic crystal ball toy that we’d play with. For it to work right, we had to take it to the special place—in the bathroom under the sink-pipes. Anywhere else, and the magic ball tended to lie. She would ask the oracle, “Is Daddy gonna come home drunk tonight?” She’d shake it up, and an answer would appear behind a plastic window: “Of course.”
“Are Dad and Baba gonna fight again,” I would ask. It would answer: “You can count on that!”
One evening, on Good Friday, Anne Marie and I were both grounded, sentenced to sit on the couch until bedtime. Earlier that afternoon, Anne Marie had chased me with her eerie doll that is life-sized to a four year old—one of those dolls whose eyes open when sitting up and close when lying down. I was only four, and I couldn’t handle that type of thing. Anne Marie knew this. We’d been upstairs in one of the bedrooms playing a board game. Mary told us to stay up there and not make a sound; she was making a cake for Easter with her new mold, a lamb laying on its belly with its head upright and looking to the side. Anne Marie stood up from the game during my turn and reached into her closet, pulling out the doll, holding it up by its wiry hair. When the plastic, evil eyelids opened, I yelled and took flight.
She chased me down the stairs, laughing, while I ran ahead of her, scared for my life and screaming at the top of my lungs. Mary ran out of the kitchen, swinging a wooden spoon. She clipped Anne Marie with it, but I was gone—out the house, through the yard, and to the alley, where I gathered rocks and hid. The cake fell, enraging Mary. She told me that I had to eat piftea for dinner for the rest of the week. Anne Marie and I sat on the couch all evening, silenced until bedtime.
Listening to the crickets outside harmonize into one long orchestrated chirp, we looked blankly at the television Mary had unplugged to punish us. It was Friday night, so my mother was waitressing at the Coney Island in the mall, and her other two sisters were out for the night. Anne Marie and I dared not even whisper as Mary sat on a chair in the dining room, smoking a cigarette with her back turned to us, giving us the silent treatment. By the time we heard Gus cursing down the street on his way home from the bar, the hum of crickets had fallen completely silent. As his legs clunked heavily on the front porch stairs, we heard that familiar guttural growl of him clearing his throat followed by the splat of phlegm against cement. He stumbled through the screen door, breaking it off its hinges. He held a half drank quart of beer in his hand.
“Damnit, Gus,” Mary yelled from across the room. “What the Hell’s the matter with you? We just got that door last week.” He shook the black curves of hair out of his face, meeting her stare with his red eyes. He rushed in broad, clumsy strides toward her.
“It’s not your fucking problem. I’m the one who works all day selling machines to those Malakas over on the west side. I bring in the money; you don’t know how it is.” He turned around to face me and Anne Marie. We sat on the couch with our knees buried in our chests. Swaying slightly from side to side, he pointed at the wall by his recliner, where he’d hung the picture I’d drawn in school, that picture that my teacher pinned to my shirt with a note to my mother, the picture of dings and boobies.
“I like your picture, Michael,” he said, slurring the consonants of my name and cackling wickedly as he walked away from the couch and toward my grandmother.
“Yeah, you make the money, and you drink it all away,” Mary yelled, taking a step toward him. “I’ve spent all day trying to cook for our family this Sunday, and all you can do is stay drunk at the bar and come home and break shit. Jesus Christ, Gus!”
His faced soured. He took a pull of his bottle and slammed it down on the television set. Foam erupted out of the bottle’s lip.
“Oh, shit, Gus,” she said, turning to reach for a towel on the dining room table. Gus spun around with unprecedented agility and clenched her silvering hair in his brown fist, turning her and pulling her into him.
“My family, my family,” he mocked at her. “You really did fuck my cousin Vanny, didn’t you.”
“Gus, the children,” she whimpered with her head lowered and her arms crossing her chest. He pulled her to him tighter and lifted her off of the floor a little bit. “You know I never messed around with Van,” she said, crying and absolutely helpless.
“That’s bullshit,” he yelled, spraying saliva across her face. I could smell the smoke-and-alcohol stench of his breath from across the room. Mary squirmed when Gus raised his hand. The next part is missing from my memory—the sound of palm or fist, the sight of contact—missing like frames of a film that have been edited out and lost. I buried my face in my hands, and when I pulled my hands away, my grandmother’s face looked different—loose and emotionless. Gus pulled his hand back again, and Mary hung in his arms silently and looked at the floor where the light of a shadeless lamp cast shadows.
“No, Daddy, no,” Anne Marie pleaded. I cried and squeezed my arms around her torso. Gus flung Mary into the dining room table and walked to the kitchen. She walked to the chair next to where Anne Marie and I sat and lit a cigarette with her shaking hands. I jumped off the couch and crawled onto her lap.
“I hate him,” I told her.
“So do I Michael, so do I.”
“Why don’t you get a divorce,” I asked. My mother had explained to me once that people who are married and don’t love each other anymore get a divorce. Simple as that.
“I don’t know, baby. I should.”
“Shut up, Michael,” Anne Marie screamed at me from the couch. My grandmother nudged me off her lap and went into the bedroom. “Just shut up,” Anne Marie yelled again when I climbed onto the couch, and she slapped me in the back of the neck. I kept my distance at the end of the couch opposite from her while she cried herself to sleep. When the little hand on the clock pointed to eight and the long, skinny hand pointed to six, I knew it was bedtime, and I opened my grandmother’s bedroom door to ask her to tuck me in. She sat on the corner of the bed, her body wobbling, and she laughed with her face buried in her hands. I ran to her and started laughing, too.
“Hee-hee-ha. What’s so funny Baba?”
“I’m not laughing, Michael,” she said. She raised her wet face and pushed her lips out like a duck. “Just go, I’ll be out in a minute.” I’d never heard my grandmother cry before. I went back to the couch and lay down on it. I could hear Gus banging pots and pans around in the kitchen and coughing.
“Malaka,” I whispered at him until I fell asleep. I awoke on the couch the next morning, Saturday morning. Anne Marie lay on the floor watching cartoons with her evil doll. Gus lay passed-out across the bricks in front of the fireplace. Mary stood alone in the kitchen, frying breakfast for her babies.
Crack the Spine, February 2012, Issue 12