Winter was the easiest time, bulky coats, sweaters, and jeans always a good cover. I was amazingly adept – even without instruction. Toothbrushes and combs fit nicely in my socks, the tube of Clearasil easily clamped under my left armpit, a three-pair bag of socks out of sight in the back of my jeans underneath the coat. I managed to slip a Snickers into my pocket as I accidentally dropped the Right Guard deodorant on the counter, the noise a perfect distraction for my left hand. For sixty-seven cents it was a great deal. I saved almost four dollars.
Christmas was fast approaching and I would have to find gifts for Alice or I worried that she might have nothing of anything significant under the tree. In fifth grade, she still looked forward to the holiday with great joy, but I had no money, so I made a way. I shoplifted. I was practical about my thievery, never stealing what I didn’t need; always approaching the counter to pay for a small item to remove any suspicion of theft. Without my five-finger discounts we wouldn’t have gotten by.
The first thing I shoplifted in sixth grade was accidental, shoving the pack of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit gum in my hip pocket as I bent over to help an older woman who had just dropped her bag of groceries. She was grateful when I carried them to her car, insisting on giving me a dime as a reward.
I was so pleased with my good deed that didn’t hit me until I was halfway home that I hadn’t paid for the gum. Yet rather than feeling guilty, it was an enjoyable feeling, as though I had finally gotten something for nothing, just as kids from rich families received. My life wasn’t even a cup half full – instead one mostly empty, and even then, only filled with dashed hopes and dreams.
Dad’s income always dropped as the holiday season approached, families choosing to save money for Christmas presents rather than hiring someone to do interior painting or wallpapering. It was never a good time of year for the Wilson family. Some years mom could afford a new pair of jeans or maybe a sweater if he maintained the work hours, but usually it was a second-hand book or a clothing item a neighborhood boy had outgrown. The unemployment checks were never enough to cover alcohol and food – let alone presents. And beer was always first in line.
His moods were edgier before the holiday, the temper much greater, our punishments more severe. We tip-toed around the house as though he were a colicky baby, afraid to wake him from his slumber, knowing there would be a price to pay if we did. For most kids Christmas break was joyful time to look forward to, but for the Wilson’s it simply meant more time around dad. That was never good.
Getting the busboy job at Howard Johnson’s two weeks before Christmas was the highlight of the vacation, the chance to earn some spending money, a bonus that made me feel like a king. Steve Skogstad had put in a good word for me and now the $1.75/hour was mine. On my first Saturday, I ran seven miles at 9am in fresh snow, showering in the basement and eating a big breakfast, taking two city buses to get there for the noon to 9pm shift at HoJo’s.
It was exhausting standing on my feet for eight hours after the morning run, if not for the astounding $14 I earned, I would have quit. After work that first day I waited by the side door of the restaurant in the cold, acting like someone was coming for me, turning down a couple of offers, too embarrassed to acknowledge no one cared enough at the Wilson household to pick me up. On my fifteen minute break earlier in the shift I had called mom, but apparently dad was still at the bar with our car. I was forced to walk two miles home in the cold, fuming at my parents.
That evening I woke sometime after midnight to muffled conversation coming from Alice’s room. It sounded too deep to be Alice’s…but maybe it was all a dream. Curious, I got up to take a leak, pausing at her door, trying to decipher whether she was talking in her sleep or it was something else. It left me with an uneasy feeling.
I flushed the toilet and washed my hands, tiptoeing out to the living room to see if dad was asleep, the glow from the streetlight illuminating part of the couch. Only an empty blanket. I crept back to her door, this time his drunken whispers quite apparent. Shit, shit, shit.
I stood frozen in place. What should I do? Bust in? Confront him? I didn’t have the courage at this moment and I didn’t want to get the shit beat out of me. Besides, I couldn’t be sure if he was even doing anything wrong. I tiptoed back and forth in my bedroom, wrestling with the options. Even if mom was awake I knew she would do nothing. She was as scared of confrontation as much as I was. I gotta do something.
It was the only thing that came to mind.
Picking up my history book I dropped it flat on the wooden bedroom floor, the unrecognizable sound startling in a quiet house. The voices stopped in Alice’s bedroom, followed by more whispering and the creak of bedsprings, someone pausing by my door and then shuffling down the hallway towards the living room. I lay under the covers, staring at the ceiling, wondering if I was just imaging things.
I was still awake Sunday at 7am when I heard mom stirring around the kitchen. Might as well get in a run. I paused in the living room, surprised to see dad was already gone. Mom said "good morning" with a brief smile crossing her face before I headed downstairs to change into my running gear. I responded with “morning.” After sighing she resumed staring into her cup of coffee.
I threw on my running clothes and pulled on a stocking hat, my long hair peeking from the edges, pausing at the back door before I pushed it open.
“I promised Alice I’d take her sledding this morning so I’m going to run now, and then we can go out around 9 o’clock. Can you remind her when she gets up?” Mom turned and gave me another weak smile, her bathrobe falling open and exposing an ugly bruise on the inside of one thigh. She noticed my eyes and quickly closed the robe. We were both embarrassed. As though I had seen her in her underwear.
I hesitated. There was still a question I didn’t want to ask.
“I work at HoJo’s from noon-9pm today. Can you pick me up at 9?”
“I’ll try.” She didn’t look up. I’ll try? What in the hell? Howard Johnsons was two miles away and I froze my ass off walking home last night.
It was on the daily runs that I did my best thinking. I jogged through the alley pondering solutions to problems, trying to make sense of all that was bouncing back and forth inside my brain. I charged up the Governor Street hill near Oakland Cemetery, eyes glued to the sidewalks, vigilantly looking for hidden ice, my breathing increasing rapidly as I crested the long slope.
It would be foolish for me to rely on mom for a ride home since dad never gave two shits about me. He made that abundantly clear. And any attempt to ask him would only prompt confrontation. It wasn’t worth the hassle. I would need to bring my backpack and training clothes so I could run home tonight.
And there was another issue I wrestled with. It concerned Alice. I had to devise a way she could prevent him from coming in at night, to keep her safe. But what was I going to do? I sure as hell couldn’t beat him up.
I cruised down Prairie du Chien, facing traffic along the curbs filled with water, trying to avoid the slushy areas in the gutter as cars flew by, a few assholes driving through puddles and spraying me with water. Nineteen days in the past three weeks I put in my miles, only missing training because I was babysitting Alice when mom was gone. Where she went on those days all dressed up – I hadn’t a clue. Alice was too young to be alone, but I really didn’t mind. Especially when dad was prowling around.
Turing left on Linder Road I passed the old Jewish Cemetery and picked up the pace, trying to guess what tempo I could hold for the next ¾ mile of the sub-division. On some days an increase in pace was challenging, but today it felt easy, the miles gliding by effortlessly. Staring straight ahead I focused on each foot-strike, landing on the ball of each foot, imagining I was riding a skateboard past the homes of classmates without a care in the world.
I wound through the neighborhood enjoying snapshots of happy families through their picture windows, pretending I was on the couch with them watching TV. The thought always made me happy. I recrossed I-80 and rolled down Dubuque Street where it skirted the river, enjoying a relaxed pace for a few minutes, at Foster Road resuming the 5:20 tempo, my goal to get the ¾ mile stretch to Church Street with no break in speed.
Passing large houses high on the bluff above I raced by the Mayflower Hall apartments which faced the dark river water, grateful my last hill wasn’t as tough as the one up Brown Street to my left. Crossing Park Road I made the three block climb, attacking the hill with all my might, unwilling to concede to the fatigue that racked my body.
Over the top my breaths came faster than the second-hand of a clock as I crossed Church Street, refusing to give in to the tiredness. No more chickenshit workouts. I needed to get serious. I fell back into a seven-minute pace the next block, the last mile home joyful like a good race, contentment the reward for my efforts. I was a good runner. I could feel it. Maybe this sport would take me places.
A quick shower and I was sitting at the kitchen table alongside Alice, scooping spoonfuls of Trix into my mouth so we could get out the door. Dad didn’t look at me when he entered the kitchen to get coffee. Mom ignored him, instead watching Alice draw a line through the maze on the back of the cereal box as she waited for me to finish eating. I stood and put the bowl in the sink, turning to Alice.
“You ready to go?” A smile filled her face as she nodded.
She still liked to hold my hand as we walked to the park, the sled wobbling side to side as we talked. I knew I had to broach the subject.
“Does dad come into your room very often?” I stared straight ahead, swinging her hand back and forth, trying to keep the conversation light-hearted.
“Not too much. He used to come in when Ashley lived at home.” A sudden realization hit me. “He made me climb in the top bunk.”
I tried to keep my voice flat.
“Are you sure?” She nodded. Shit. Is that why Ashley left? “Always remember we are the only ones who know the special knock. OK?” Alice nodded again.
“Good.” I smiled as we approached Brown Street Park. “Are you ready for a heart attack?” She nodded, a grin spreading across her face.