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Triumph over Tragedy - Chapter 13

We spent Thanksgiving Day in Cedar Rapids with my aunt and uncle, the annual worry about dad’s pre-Christmas hours hanging over our heads as we drove northward, the odds of us coming home without some incident as likely as a pinata surviving consecutive swings from Cub All-Stars Don Kessinger and Billy Williams. Mom slept most of the way there and back, her face thinner and more haggard since dad’s drunk driving charge in September, the dress she wore hanging on her thin frame like that of a garden scarecrow.

I had never mentioned to my father that I finished second at the State Meet and was shocked when he bragged to his brother how well I had done in Marshalltown as they drank beer throughout the meal. Although it felt good to be praised, it also stirred up hatred, as though he was trying to steal some of my glory, taking something which wasn’t rightfully his.

He pulled the Des Moines Register picture from his wallet and showed it to Uncle Jack, the one of Mark Johnson and me at the finish line, the same picture he ripped off my bulletin board last weekend and tore into shreds. I was afraid to look up and acknowledge his praise, and yet afraid not to, certain whichever choice I made would be the wrong one. So I smiled across the table at mom, winking at her with the eye dad couldn’t see.

Between dad and his brother the pair drank a case of beer so I had to drive back to Iowa City, mom cradled in Alice’s arms on the front seat, dad stretched out in back, snoring up a storm. Every glance at mom made me sigh.

An uncertain armistice continued for the next three weeks, as if my performance at the state meet somehow stifled his anger, but we continued to walk on eggshells at home, certain that something was going to set him off. His Friday job layoff on December 16th was the spark that lit the fuse.

When I came home from Howard Johnson’s that evening I could tell something was wrong. It was too quiet. I hung up my coat and tiptoed towards the living room, peeking into dad’s 9th Circle of Hell – the home of Satan. The wood floor was scattered with smashed bulbs and strings of white lights, a hole in the wall where he threw a holiday decoration Alice made out of clay, branches of the fake tree bent and strewn around the room. Oh my God.

I rushed to Alice’s room, my sister teary-eyed as she described the carnage, her heart broken by the scene, Christmas no longer a joyous event. It was hard to hide my anger as I listened to Alice’s description of the incident, vowing as I sat beside her that dad was going to pay a price – a price he would live to regret. I laid with her until she fell asleep, her soft breathing a comforting sound despite my anguish.

I knew what I had to do next.

Knocking softly on mom’s bedroom door I got no answer, too uncomfortable to enter the bedroom without her permission. It was the only sanctuary she had left. A place I rarely ventured. Sighing, I paused before turning towards the kitchen to phone Mr. Johnson, then grabbing a dustpan and broom following the call to clean up the mess, the broken tree too big to fit in the garbage can in the alley.

Saturday after breakfast, I went in search of a replacement, an hour later carrying a 6’ fir and a sack of decorations home – both of which I couldn’t afford. I laid the tree on the patio, quietly entering the back door to put the bag of bulbs and tinsel on the kitchen table, poking my head into the empty living room, mom’s bedroom door halfway open. I didn’t have a clue where she was.

Grabbing a shovel I created a small pile of snow between Mr. Johnson’s house and ours, sticking the evergreen in the makeshift stand, pushing snow around the base of the tree so it wouldn’t topple. I laughed at the effort and then tapped on Alice’s bedroom window to show off my purchase. The curtain slid to the side and her face lit up, Alice rushing towards the back door to see the Yule tree, wrapping her arms around me as I lifted her off the ground.

“Wow, its beautiful!” When I set her down she was jumping up and down, unable to control her excitement.

“OK, I talked with Mr. Johnson and he has an extra string of lights and an extension cord for power. And I talked with Liz and she has a surprise for us.” Alice clapped her hands together, paused and then frowned.

“But what if dad knocks it down again?’ I smiled.

“That’s why I put it on Mr. Johnson’s property and used his lights. Dad will be afraid to. He’ll assume it’s Mr. Johnson’s tree. He won’t know that it’s our tree.” She hugged me again, a grin filling her face. “Just remember, it’s our secret. You need to tell Liz we are doing this for Mr. Johnson. OK?” Alice nodded, reading the plea in my eyes.

The three of us spent the rest of the afternoon at the Skogstad’s making paper chains out of green and red construction paper, Alice and Liz decorating ornaments with Elmer’s Glue and glitter while I wrapped the present for Mr. Johnson, the girls singing to Bing Crosby Christmas tunes on the record player as we worked.

It was getting dark when we returned with the decorations, the string of lights Mr. Johnson wrapped around the tree glowing brightly between the houses. I hoped Liz hadn’t notice the busted tree hidden in the alley.

Standing back while Liz and Alice went to work, I watched as they wrapped the paper chain around the tree, hung the newly decorated ornaments, passing out tinsel so they could toss it over the branches. I gave Alice the angel and lifted her so she could place it atop the tree, Mr. Johnson standing at his window, enjoying the scene.

We knocked on his door after.

“How do you like it?” Alice was so happy to have a tree. Mr. Johnson smiled at me.

“It’s the best one I’ve had in a long time.”

She raced over to grab a present.

“This is for you.” He smiled, obviously touched by the gesture. Alice continued. “And we made an ornament just for you. It’s too dark to see right now but I’ll show you in the morning. It’s the red one.” He smiled and stood.

“I just made some hot chocolate. Does that sound good?” We all nodded enthusiastically.

While he was in the kitchen Liz whispered in my ear, a burst of laughter erupting from my throat like a cough. We stood by his fireplace, placing hands on Alice’s shoulders as she held the card with the lyrics, Liz cuing us in on “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” as he entered the room with the tray of cookies and hot chocolate.

How he didn’t laugh I’ll never know.

Alice and I knelt by her window each night to stare at the colorful lights on the tree before she went to bed, telling each other stories of our day.

Runs during the first two months of 1974 were fraught with far too many extremes – frigid temperatures, deep snows, and bitter northwest winds. We didn’t always get the trifecta but it was a rare day when we didn’t get two of them, the discomfort going into each session as mentally taxing as a week in our family household. Yet we persisted.

Steve and I continued running after school when we weren’t working at Howard Johnson’s, Mike Wilkinson joining us when he wasn’t facing deadlines for the school newspaper or practicing with the orchestra. Though we still didn’t hang out with him socially, last fall’s State Title brought us closer together, his father always welcoming us when we met Mike for the long runs Sunday morning.

It was interesting to see how Mr. Wilkinson motivated his son, using the carrot rather than the stick I was used to, promising us gold Adidas Mexicana training flats if we ran over 350 miles before March 3rd – the first day of track practice. Even with the job at Howard Johnson’s, Steve and I had that many before the middle of February.

On Sundays we typically ran on Hwy. 1 towards Dane’s Dairy, the wide shoulders used for the Amish buggies always ploughed and much less treacherous than icy sidewalks or slush-filled curbs. The only drawback were steamy piles of horseshit littering the gravel. Nonetheless, we always waved at the horse-drawn carriages, getting polite nods from the bearded men, the women and children staring at us as though we were insane.

In moments when conversation faded, I wondered if I would have been as good without a father who beat me, curious if it was the adversity that made me so successful. Maybe fiercer than someone who lived in the comforts of a family like the Wilkinson’s. It was hard to think of my upbringing as an asset – but maybe it was. I would never know for sure…but would have gladly made the switch.

I looked forward to the upcoming track season.

St. Patrick’s Day was my Sweet Sixteen birthday, an anniversary that made it legal for me to drive Liz to a drive-in movie or out to the Purple Cow for miniature golf. It still amazed me that mom allowed me to drive the car to Des Moines last summer to visit Ashley. It was the riskiest venture I had ever undertaken. I wanted to believe she remembered I was only fifteen back then, though at times her thinking was so muddled I couldn’t be sure.

This year my birthday was on Friday and dad was at Donnelly’s so we could celebrate without distraction, the small box of Jiffy chocolate cake perfect for the three of us. Alice sang Happy Birthday loud and clear, mom softly whispering the words as I blew out the candles and opened the gifts. From Alice it was a tie-dyed t-shirt and handmade birthday card, from mom a used copy of “The Jim Ryun Story” and batteries for my transistor radio.

Mom’s face lit up when I leaned over to give her a hug.

The rest of the weekend was spent with Liz, sharing a pizza at Pagliai’s after taking her through the Mammal exhibit in Macbride Hall before the meal, kissing her in the darkened areas when no one was around, frustrated this was as far as we could go. It was killing me to have to stop the primal urge when my hormones were in over-drive, the desire to go for a “home run” with Liz almost unstoppable. I would have to take out my frustration in the shower.

I understood the necessity of staying virtuous with Liz, one of my classmates rumored to have gotten an abortion last summer, the damage done to her reputation beyond repair. I could never let that happen to Liz. She was special. Introducing her as my girlfriend to acquaintances was something that had been so awkward last fall, but now was so easy. So natural.

I felt guilty spending so much time at the Skogstad’s, leaving mom and Alice to fend for themselves, but I could no more have refused Liz’s invitation than I could have refused an ice cream cone. The environment at their house was like a storybook; filled with card games in the dining room, cribbage on the living room floor, bodies filling the room as they huddled around the tube, the atmosphere in their home as foreign to me as walking on the moon. It was the only place I felt relaxed.

Over our March spring break, we stayed up late Friday night to watch the Chuck Acri Creature Feature, all of the Skogstad’s asleep upstairs, the horror films we watched more humorous than scary. But it gave me time to spend with Liz. That evening I sat on the floor, leaning back into the couch with her legs around me, enjoying the comfort of the moment.

During a commercial she crouched forward and looked at my face in the light of a commercial for a K-tel’s Veg-O-Matic kitchen product.

“How did you get that scar under your eye?” She ran her finger along the edge. “I always wondered.” Whenever she touched me like that it made me melt.

“From the refrigerator.” Liz leaned forward again to see if I was joking.

“You cut your face on the refrigerator?” I was too tired to make up some elaborate lie. “It’s a long story.” I wasn’t in the mood, but she reached around and hugged my head, finishing with a kiss on my temple.

“I’m all ears.” I sighed. Did I want to tell her? I stared at the TV. I was going to have to tell her at some juncture. It might as well be now. I took a deep breath.

“The short story is my father slammed the refrigerator door on my head when I was eight.” My eyes suddenly filled with tears at the memory. Liz gasped, leaning forward to kiss the top of my head. It was almost easier that she couldn’t see my face. Nor I see hers. I continued.

“My dad…my father…he’s…he’s an alcoholic.” I used a sleeve to wipe away the water that filled the rim of my eyes. “He was mad that there wasn’t any beer in the refrigerator…so he took it out on me.” I had to take a deep breath to stop from crying. “He…he pushed my head in the refrigerator to show me and then slammed the door as hard as he could.”

Liz slid down on the floor beside me and wrapped her arms around my body. I continued.

“The trays inside the door split it open. I had to get six stitches to close it up. No one was around so I walked to the hospital by myself.” I took a deep breath, grimacing at the memory. “I still remember that the blood ruined my favorite shirt.”

I hung my head and quietly sobbed, shoulders shaking as the dam broke. She nestled her face into my neck and held my hand, cooing in my ear.

“It’s OK Matt. It’s OK. Don’t worry.”

She held me until the tears finally stopped. I was ashamed I exposed my weakness. Afraid that she would think me less a man. I turned towards Liz.

“You can’t tell anyone. Especially Steve. Please don’t. Please.”

In the weeks and months ahead, she would learn of the broken arms and broken ribs, the reason why Ashley left home, and of my wish that he would one day disappear from life.

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