Half of the money I earned at Howard Johnson’s went into mom’s household funds, my meager income and dad’s unemployment checks barely supplanting his typical full-time pay. But there were still two problems. Most of my donation went to buy dad’s beer. And my jump in income was only temporary. Once school resumed I would need to get back to my shoplifting ways or we would starve to death.
Life ran smoothly until five days before Christmas. That night he broke my thumb.
Mom had forgotten to buy beer and Mr. Johnson wasn’t home. When dad saw me returning empty-handed he erupted in a fit, slamming her against the refrigerator, turning to grab a cereal bowl to throw at her body as she curled in a fetal position against the appliance.
I lunged at his hand and caught the wrist before he could follow-through, the bowl falling to the linoleum floor and shattering into pieces. His face turned red with rage and all his attention went to me as he wrapped his free arm around my skinny trunk in a boa constrictor’s embrace, the stale alcoholic breath hot in my face while he pulled hard on my left thumb.
We both heard the distinct pop.
“Don’t you ever fucking try that again. You hear me?”
I crumpled to the floor, my thumb sticking awkwardly to the side as I grabbed the wrist tightly to control the agony, tears falling uncontrollably from my eyes as I rocked back and forth on the cold kitchen linoleum. Waves of pain pulsed through my hand in excruciating waves, the misshapen angle accenting the distress. Laying on my side, I clenched my eyes closed to stanch the pain, finally opening them when the throbs eased, glancing at the dust bunnies and a broken shard of the bowl under the refrigerator as sweat dripped off my face.
It was suddenly eerily quiet in the kitchen, their disappearance going unnoticed because of my discomfort. Using my forehead as a fulcrum I got to my knees and stood, pain emanating steadily from the fractured digit, suddenly feeling so light-headed I thought I might faint. I grabbed a wooden spoon from a drawer, biting on the handle to alleviate the throbs, uncertain what I should do next.
I had to go to the hospital.
Shoving my right arm through the coat sleeve I shrugged the parka around me, cradling the left arm tight against my chest, pulling the jacket closed with the good hand, frigid air making me shiver when I opened the back door. I flipped up the hood with a snap of my shoulders, walking down the alley towards Mercy Hospital, puffs of steam shooting from my mouth with each step, the intense pain making me squint through the tears running down my cheeks.
It was clear the doctor didn’t believe my story about falling on the ice, but I was in so much distress I couldn’t think of anything more convincing. I didn’t look as he injected the area around my thumb with lidocaine and sent me out for X-rays. When the technician brought me back to the examining room the doctor glanced at me as he set the medical records down, commenting this was my third fracture in five years. I stared at my shoes.
He indicated I should lay back on the exam table, the paper protection sounding unusually loud as I shimmied to its full length and then stared at the ceiling. The doctor gently lifted my left arm and looked at me. I nodded and turned my head away as he pulled the dislocated digit back into place. I thought I was going to faint.
“Matt, we’ll keep the cast on for three weeks and then use an Ace bandage afterward.” I nodded, staring at the anatomical chart on the wall. “I’m Dr. Botti. I’m concerned about these breaks, so let me know if there is anything I can do for you.” I couldn’t look him in the eye as I nodded.
The nurse led me into another room.
She gently wrapped strips of cotton around my hand and forearm, then placed the plaster of Paris in the rectangular tub of warm water for the preparation to encase the area. The tender way she handled my hand made my eyes water.
While we waited for the plaster to dry she brought in a tray with a grilled cheese sandwich, some vegetable soup, and a carton of milk, fashioning a sling out of muslin as I ate. After I finished she wrapped it around my forearm and tied it around my neck, carefully zipping my jacket, sending me on my way with smile and a pat on the shoulder.
No one greeted at home me when I slid out of my coat and hung it on the kitchen hook. Alice came out of her bedroom in pajamas and stared at the cast. The whites of her eyes grew large. Trying to deflect her focus, I smiled and said she should get a magic marker to sign her name on the white plaster. She sat beside me on her bed, writing Alice in cursive, adding a small heart underneath before she smiled up at me.
“Wow. That is so cool.” She beamed at my praise.
We talked about her day and then I demonstrated how to stick the wooden wedge in the door so it couldn’t be opened at night. The idea for the protection hit me on the run today. I did my five-beat knock on the wood frame of her bed and she responded with the two-beat reply.
“Remember, only take it out if you hear my knock.” I smiled and started to get up.
“Matt, what’s masturbate mean? Some of the boys at school asked me if I liked to masturbate.”
In the soft shadows from the closet light she couldn’t see that my face was beet red. I sat back down beside her and took a deep breath, staring at the floor. I should be an expert. There wasn’t a morning in the shower I didn’t take advantage…but to explain it to Alice. Man-o-man.
“Masturbation is giving pleasure to yourself.” She looked at me quizzically. I paused, trying to think of another tact. “You know boys and girls have different things between their legs.” Alice nodded. “Well boys, and girls too, (I guessed, who knows) rub in that area because it feels good.”
“Is it like when mom gives me a back massage?” I smiled and nodded.
“Sorta, but with masturbation…you do it yourself.” She thought about it.
“So, I don’t masturbate. Do I?”
“Nope, but if you want to it’s probably okay.” She nodded, slipping under the covers.
I kissed her on the forehead and walked to the bathroom, sighing as I stared at Ashley’s toothbrush hanging in the rack, grabbing mine and laying it flat on the sink so I could squeeze toothpaste from the tube. Getting through three weeks with a cast on my arm was going to be tough.
Mom was quiet at breakfast the next morning, no thank you or hug to show her appreciation for my protection, a half-hearted smile and a whispered “Good morning” the singular gesture. Neither of us was willing to broach what happened last night, the discomfort hanging in the air like Grandma Gaten’s fart during grace. I welcomed Alice’s presence at the table seconds later because it alleviated the tension, neither mom nor I able to meet the other’s eyes. I scooped cereal into my mouth as Alice talked in a steady stream about working on an art project at Kathy’s in the afternoon.
I couldn’t get out of the kitchen fast enough. I didn’t know whether to be angry or feel pity at mom’s reaction, struggling to find a rationale for her behavior. Was she ashamed? Embarrassed? Or did she just not care? She could see the cast on my thumb. She heard him break the digit. What the hell? It was the first time I had ever gotten hurt protecting her and all I got was…nothing. Not a hint of appreciation. No apology. No thanks.
Fortunately, the broken thumb was a godsend, because the sling proved to be a perfect hiding place for the Christmas presents I stole that afternoon. Ones we couldn’t have afforded. Without it Alice wouldn’t have gotten the bell-bottom jeans from Penny’s. And mom certainly wouldn’t have gotten the bottle of Windsong perfume I stole from Osco’s. Despite the method, I never felt the least bit guilty about the thefts.
I worried constantly about Alice and all this craziness, concerned she would turn out just like her older sister. We talked each night before I tucked her into bed, asking about her day, praying my actions would be enough to keep her safe and make her feel loved. One night mom was already there talking with Alice. I acted as though I was heading to the bathroom, unable to sit down with the two and break our impasse. I felt so guilty.
The following night I paused at mom’s bedroom door, listening to see if she was awake, wondering if I should knock, thinking a word of encouragement might do her good. Ultimately I didn’t, berating myself for the cowardice. It was just too awkward. I fell asleep that evening recalling the good moments from years past. Times when mom was the center of my world and made me feel special. What changed? What happened?
Christmas Eve dad wasn’t around. More than likely with friends getting drunk. I thought to myself that it was his present to us.
Mom smiled like a young girl when she opened my unexpected gift, getting up off the floor by the fake tree to give me a kiss, her eyes filled with tears as she sat alongside me on the couch and gave me a hug. I was shocked by her display, recounting the many times she had done the same so many years ago, proud of myself that I was able to do something nice for her. Alice smiled at the scene, encouraging mom to sign my cast, racing to get a magic marker as I grinned at my mother. She drew a heart with "Mary Ann" inside, giving me another kiss.
It was our best Christmas in a long time.