Something startled me awake, a low and distant sound that was still sharp enough to drag me out of a bad dream I was having about falling from a bridge into a deep, dark rushing water which I knew would be my death. For a moment, I was grateful for having been saved—until the sound came again, a clear, staccato banging from downstairs. I pulled the covers up to my chin and listened. It seemed to be coming from the kitchen, up through the floor of my bedroom. Someone was banging on the kitchen door window, hard and insistent. I felt my heart beat against the blankets. The banging noise went on and on, louder and louder. Then there was a high-pitched voice, too, calling something, I couldn’t tell what. I wondered why I seemed to be the only one in the house who heard it; no one else seemed to be getting up to see what it was, to stop it. Where was Mama? Daddy? I couldn’t just lie there and listen to it. I made a move to get up—then stopped short when I realized I’d peed the bed. An all-too-familiar sensation of ice water began trickling into my stomach, adding to the chilly wetness of the sheets. I knew I was going to get the belt or the hairbrush for it. Mama couldn’t stand it when I peed the bed—it was the smell, she said. That and having to air the mattress out every time, hanging it out the bedroom window for everyone in the neighborhood to see, like a billboard, a public declaration of what a screwed-up kid there was living here. The banging on the back door stopped suddenly. Now I heard other, different voices, and I understood then why Mama and Daddy weren’t getting up to stop the noise: it was their voices, yelling and screaming at each other. I couldn’t make out what they were saying; they must have been outside the house somewhere.
I got out of bed and peeled off my wet pajamas and threw them on the floor, then put on my flannel robe and went out into the dark hallway. The door to my sisters Karen and Debbie’s room was closed. A light from the kitchen sent a soft yellow glow up the stairway. I tiptoed down the stairs.
The pounding on the kitchen door resumed, bam! bam! bam! I thought someone might be trying to break the glass. Then I realized whoever was doing the banging was also calling my name. “Billy!” a voice squealed. “Oh, God, Billy, open the door! Quick!”
I tiptoed into the kitchen and peered through the window and saw my friend Andre’s mother, Viola, who lived in the apartment next door. I turned the lock and opened the door, and she burst into the room past me, wearing her robe and tiny curlers in her black, steel-wool hair. She headed for the dark living room, and immediately knocked over a lamp she was trying to turn on. “Shit!” she spat. When she’d finally set the lamp upright and snapped it on, she grabbed up the phone from the end table and dialed one number. “No good, mother fucking sonofabitch!” she hissed, jerking her finger around the dial. “HELLO!” she bellowed into the phone. “Operator? Get me the poh-lice, quick!” A voice buzzed back at her in the receiver. “Hell, yes, this is an emergency! I’ll teach him a thing or two, waking me up in the goddamn middle of the night!” She turned toward the kitchen and looked at me as if she was seeing me for the first time. “And you better get your ass back up to bed,” she said. “This shit ain’t for little boys to be seein’.”
Watching Viola act the way she was scared me. Were there burglars? Some kind of monsters on the loose? I still didn’t know where Mama and Daddy were. Had they been hurt? My mind raced alongside my heart. “But what’s the matter?” I said to her.
“What’s the matter? Shit, boy, nothin’ a bullet in your daddy’s haid might not cure!” She jerked her head back. “HELLO!” her voice exploded again. “Is this the poh-lice? Well, my name’s Viola Bell. That’s B-E-L-L. Bell. I’m callin’ ‘cause there’s a drunken sonofabitch in my house—and he’s trying to kill his wife!”
Something heavy and metallic-sounding slammed against the other side of the wall between Viola’s kitchen and ours, whump! Both Viola and I jumped. Then I heard Mama’s muffled voice, but it was like she was actually singing at the top of her lungs: “No! Oh, Jesus, Bill, noooo!”
Viola made a noise like a hurt dog and shook her open hand in front of her face like she was fanning herself. Her wet eyes shone in the lamplight. “Come quick!” she squealed into the phone. “You got to get someone out to nineteen-fifty-six Sunnydale Avenue, right away! I tell you, he’s killin’ her!” She dropped the receiver on the cradle but it fell onto the floor; she left it and ran past me, out the kitchen door, pinching her robe together at her chest.
I followed Viola out of the kitchen and into the night air, which seemed strangely bright for being the middle of the night. The lights and the screams and the unmistakable smell of whiskey were like Fourth-of-July fireworks set off too close to me. I stumbled around the corner into Viola’s kitchen, dazed. Then I saw them, in the far corner of the small kitchen, holding onto each other the way I’ve seen people dancing on TV. But Mama and Daddy weren’t dancing: Daddy had the longest knife I’d ever seen, and was holding Mama against the wall with his free hand, trying with all his might to push the knife into her chest. Mama had hold of Daddy’s arm with both hands and was pushing back with all of her might, crying and grunting with her face blue-red, rasping hoarsely, almost whispering to him, “No! Oh, God! Please, Bill, no! Please!”
“Whore!” Daddy said to her, eyes squinting. “Fucking whore!” He moved his legs farther out from the wall to give himself more leverage and leaned on the knife. It got closer to Mama’s heaving chest. I watched them swaying back and forth like this, trying to understand what was I was seeing. But I couldn’t. My mind seemed to fog up inside my head. It was as if I suddenly didn’t know who these people were. There was no connection. I could have been watching actors on TV, for all I felt. But my heart still beat wildly. And I was surprised when tears started brimming over from my eyes, streaming down my face.
Viola was jumping up and down behind them, crying and screaming. “Stop it!” she squealed. “Stop it! I’ve called the cops, you drunk fucking white trash. They’re gonna shoot your ass if you don’t stop it and get the hell out of my house!”
Then they were all three screaming at each other and I couldn’t tell who was saying what. Finally, Viola picked up a cast iron frying pan that for some reason was already on the floor across the room and ran over to the corner and hit Daddy over the head with it, hard.
“Unhhhh,” groaned Daddy. “Jesus fucking Christ!!” He dropped the knife and let go of Mama, who fell to the floor like a rag doll. She didn’t waste any time just lying there. She scooted away from him on all fours and then got up and ran, sobbing, toward the dark front of Viola’s apartment. Daddy staggered around for a few seconds, then fell to his knees and held his hand to his head. Then he started crying. The sound coming out of Daddy’s mouth was strange, almost like a little boy’s voice. It was something I’d never heard from him before, something I never thought I could hear. He turned his crumpled face up toward Viola, looking suddenly like he wanted to kill her. “You cunt!” he screamed at her.
Viola stood over him with the frying plan raised to hit him again. “That’s right,” she hissed, “call me names, you drunk fucking white piece of shit!”
Later, on the back porch, I sat with Daddy and waited for the police to arrive. I was still wearing only my robe, and I was cold. Daddy tottered like a building about to fall over, and stabbed a flaring match toward the end of one of his Camel cigarettes. He puffed on it like he was still learning how to smoke, until it finally caught. But he’d held onto the match too long; it burned his fingers. He said fuck! and dropped it, shaking is hand as if the fingers themselves had caught fire. The night was so black now that I couldn’t see him, just the tip of his cigarette, moving around in the dark like an orange firefly, glowing brighter when he took another puff. “I’m just a little drunk,” he said into the night. “Jesus, can’t she understand that?” I tried to see him against the white of the building, but I couldn’t. I didn’t say anything to him. “Drunk,” he said again. “Jesus.”
Finally, a black and white police car came up the street from behind the building and stopped, its two red lights throbbing on the roof, like glowing ears, a big seven-point star looking gray against the white of the car door. The motor stopped and the doors opened and two big men got out, putting on hats and shoving long black sticks into their belts. A radio crackled from inside the car. They slammed their doors closed and started walking toward us.
“Well,” Daddy said to me, “you know what this means, don’t you?”
“What?” I said.
“It means I get to spend the night in the pokey again.” He puffed on his cigarette. For a second his eyes sparkled orange, then disappeared as he pulled the butt away. Then he dropped the stub onto the concrete and ground it out with his foot.