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Triumph over Tragedy - Chapter 8

Alice got a birthday card from Ashley two days later. She read it to us at the kitchen table.

“Dear Alice, Happy Birthday to my favorite sister!” Mom and I laughed as Alice continued.

“I’m staying with Melissa Reid’s family and share a bedroom with her.” Mom smiled at me when I glanced over. “I don’t know if you remember but we were best friends in grade school.” So that’s who all mom’s phone calls were to.

“We have matching bedspreads and are the same size so I can share her clothes.” Ashley drew a smiley face. “I miss you all so much and hope to see you sometime this summer. Hugs and kisses. XOXOXO! Love, Ashley.”

Alice was so excited, reading the card twice before she put it back on the table. She especially liked the “I miss you all so much” and the “hugs and kisses,” a smile radiating from ear to ear when she pointed at the words.

I found a thank you card for Alice and she sat at my desk, writing to Ashley in childish cursive to thank her for the birthday wishes, describing the things she got for her 11th birthday, including a line about the chocolate cake with pink frosting and the $2 bill from Grandma Gatens. I added a $5 bill for Ashley from my last paycheck and “Miss you! Matt,” showing Alice how to address the letter and where to put the stamp.

The Saturday of the Memorial holiday weekend, a week after the State meet, I took Alice with me to Skogstad’s house, hoping she would find something to do while Steve and I set up our summer training. Mom said she had a doctor appointment and asked me to keep an eye on my sister. There was a beehive of activity at their home while we huddled at their dining room table and discussed mileage plans, Alice reading from a chair in the living room.

Steve’s three younger brothers and sister were in constant motion throughout the house, someone always running up and down the stairs, rushing in and out the doors in a steady rhythm while Mrs. Skogstad worked quietly in the kitchen baking a pie for Sunday. Elizabeth stood over us at the table asking what classes she would be taking at East High next fall, approaching Alice when we ignored her entreaties.

The conversation between the two barely registered as we exchanged ideas and filled in the weeks.

“Is it okay if I take Alice to my bedroom?”

I looked up and nodded, Elizabeth grabbing Alice’s hand, the pair racing up the stairs like each step was on fire. She was prettier than I remembered. Forty minutes later they came back down, carrying on an animated discussion, each holding a brown A&P sack, their conversation like those of best friends. Before Elizabeth left for work she turned to Alice.

“Remember, you can come over anytime. I’ll show you how to French braid your hair. It would look so good on you.” Alice grinned and nodded, a smile lighting her face as she said goodbye to her new friend. “See you Liz!”

On the way home Alice talked like a Chatty Cathy doll, going on and on about the outfits, ones which no longer fit Liz’s frame. Items we could never afford. It was still hard for me to hold anything with my left arm, so Alice carried the lighter sack across her chest as we walked home, describing the clothes with a childish enthusiasm that made me happy.

We set the sacks on Alice’s bed and then she pulled out items out one at a time, as though she was in front of her class at show and tell, both of us embarrassed when she grabbed the training bras, Alice and I suddenly breaking into laughter as I held one up to my chest. I handed her the blouses to put on hangers in the closet, a smile spreading across her face as she placed the bras and swimsuit in the dresser. I glanced at the opening in the studs between our rooms, praying the issue was behind us.

Steve and I got in our initial run of the summer the next day, both of us filled with a sense of wonderment and excitement, like we were planning for an epic family vacation. The night before I laid out my running clothes on the desk chair, anxious to embark on the maiden training voyage of the summer, my sleep continually interrupted from a brain in over-drive.

Conversation was animated as we jogged east on Market Street past small ranch houses and three stories monstrosities, spitting into the water as we crossed over a gurgling Ralston Creek, and then headed up the long hill towards the Catholic high school, words drying up as heavy breathing amped up. It was invigorating to resume our miles.

“So, how was the mile at sectionals? I never did see results.”

“Nothing exciting. I stuck with the pack through the halfway point but when Newell took off I just couldn’t respond.” His chin fell on his chest. “They dropped me like a hot potato. Sauer handled the move, and so did Jensen, but it was all I could do to stay with Johnson.”

“What was your time?” The pause before the answer told me all I needed to know.

“It was only 4:41.” Steve shook his head. “I was hoping I’d PR, maybe 4:35 but…” He shrugged his shoulders.

“How about the two-mile? How fast did they run?” He glanced over at me, obviously reluctant to say the next words.

“9:41 and 9:55.” My head pivoted like a wooden dummy’s; my eyes the size of saucers.

“Shit! You mean I could have gone to State?” Steve nodded sheepishly.

“Yeah, it was too bad you were sick.” I sighed in response.

Two weeks had passed but there was still a faint yellow bruise on my ribs, forcing me to learn to sleep on my right side. I couldn’t tell anyone about the beating. Not even my best friend. We were quiet for the rest of the run, both aware of the opportunity I missed.

By Friday, our enthusiasm for training was tested like a mother’s patience, the relentless cost of forty-five and fifty minute runs challenging our willpower to continue. As did the hills in Iowa City. Yet we endured. We stopped at Steve’s house after each morning run and turned on the outdoor faucet, bending over with the hose in hand as though looking for a lost screw on the driveway, letting the cool water run over necks before we took a long drink. Then we did our lifting with the makeshift equipment they had in the garage. I winced quite a bit the first week.

Whether it was a lull between battles or the buildup before a war, there was still a disquieting tension in the house, like the interlude between the novocaine and drilling. On the surface things seemed good, but recently mom had become more withdrawn, her moments of laughter and good spirits fading like the evening light. She spent more time in her bedroom and fewer moments in the kitchen, going through the motions of a motherhood with little energy. It was sad to watch the transition.

I was rarely around when dad came home from work, my late hours at Howard Johnson’s keeping us separate and free from confrontation. Most days Steve and I ran in the morning and then worked the same time slots in the afternoon, riding bikes into the setting summer sun afterward, tired from the long day. There was always an eerie quiet when I arrived home at 9:30, the June interval our longest period of sanity in months. But I was certain something was going to break the spell. Our family history taught me the truth of that conviction.

Liz continued to dote on Alice, treating her like the little sister she didn’t have, a substitute sibling to share clothes and stories. As the summer progress it was wonderful to see how well they got along, just as Steve and I did, making me happy that Liz could provide the role model mom didn’t seem able to fulfill. I knew my sister would be going through changes soon, ones I was vaguely aware of from the sex education class in junior high, but the thought of any such conversation was far beyond my means. It was abundantly clear after she asked me to explain masturbation last Christmas.

As close as we had gotten to Skogstad’s, Alice and I maintained the unspoken agreement to never invite them to our house, afraid of the reaction if they saw how we lived. Our homes were as different as black and white. Theirs was welcoming and warm, filled with happy conversation and laughter. Bodies were stretched around the TV and there were always enthusiastic voices the few times I ate with them. The living room had lamps on end tables, candles spread across the mantle, family pictures hanging on the walls, and magazines on the coffee table. Like normal homes.

Our living room had no hint of humanity, nothing to make you think a family of four occupied the house – the space as barren as the moon and as plain as an old cardboard box. It was the room where he slept each night, a room we skirted and never really entered, the invisible “No Entry” sign indisputable even in the darkness. There was nothing which might be thrown or broken, no books or candy dishes or picture frames, nary an item which could maim or injure. A couch, a TV on a stand, one overstuffed chair, and an end table. That was it.

The Skogstad’s ate dinner from matching plates, used salt and pepper shakers, sticks of margarine in a butter dish, identical glasses for their milk. They didn’t have better clothes or newer toys or more food. They were poor just like us. But they had something the Wilson’s never would – a home. A place where you felt loved and valued.

Our house was so sad. It mimicked the downward slide of mom. The light in her eyes that I remembered as a child had been extinguished years ago, the brief glimpses of happiness a forgotten memory, the beatings and the slights stealing her soul like a thief in the night. It had been so long since I’d heard her laughter that it surprised me when she did – as though it was someone else in some other house.

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