throwaway cameras or G.I. Joes or cap guns with extra caps. How could
we have paid for these? She didn’t ask; she ignored. Chris used to keep
cash in his wallet, money he got for chromies or for bike parts from a
bike he might have taken, and my mother would sometimes find it on
the dresser. She wouldn’t ask questions. Instead, she’d pluck a five from
it. If he complained, she’d cry and say we took advantage of her, that she
did our laundry and made us vanilla milkshakes and provided a heated
house for us to sleep in, and by the way, your piece-of-shit father hasn’t
sent us money.
That was the only argument she needed. We’d go back outside to
roam the neighborhood, and she’d go back to her bedroom with impunity, because, I think, we must’ve thought she understood what it meant
to take, since so much had been taken from her. Besides, the more my
mother ignored, the less she tried to control us, and we were free because
of it. Though I would’ve taken the warm bedrooms, video-game dens,
and family dinners of my friends over the kind of freedom my brothers
and I shared.
Over time, we kept getting into trouble, kept stealing. We were the
first to be blamed for every crime in the neighborhood. A porch set fire,
a house egged, a tire slashed, a windshield bricked, and the police would
show up on Mom’s doorstep. She’d apologize. Then, later, she’d chase us
through the house, calling us “rotten,” screaming that we’d end up in
prison. She’d break us off, catching us in a corner with a wooden spoon,
a book. If it hurt, we refused to cry. Though mostly we laughed, like the
time she chased Jonny through the house smacking his naked, prebath
body with a belt, leaving welts all over him, and Chris and I laughed so
hard it hurt, even when she started whipping us, too.
I don’t remember what was funny, except that Dad’s beatings were
worse—a fist, a steel-toed boot. Maybe that’s why we laughed, like there
was something funny in the difference, the innocence of my mom’s punishments compared to the brutality of my dad’s.
But there was resentment, too—growing since Dad had left. Mom
didn’t work; she “rested.” She said Dad wouldn’t pay child support. He
said he paid every month, that she was spending it on herself. She called
him a deadbeat, a drunk. He called her lazy, a victim. She’d say he was
lying, that he’d beaten her, was a monster. He’d tell us she’d taken money
from him, called his work to threaten him; she was a schemer, a thief.
It wasn’t easy choosing which one to trust. It was easier to react, and
we reacted to the shift in power at Mom’s.