This week’s Writing Challenge was to write about the picture below.
Oh Jeez, where the heck did you ever find that photo? Really? All these years? Man, I never even knew. Yeah, that’s Lilly and me with Dad outside our church, not too long before he left us. Well, he left Mom, but she wouldn’t let him take us and what could he do?
I was five, so Lilly must’ve been almost three. At that time children automatically went to the mother in a divorce. Come to think of it, maybe he had a friend take this picture because he knew he couldn’t take it much longer and he wanted something to remember us by. And he gave me one.
Three years later Lilly and I ran away from home.
I know, every eight-year-old runs away at some point and they never get farther than the corner of their street. Well, this was different. We weren’t running away because Mom forced us to eat Brussels sprouts or drink our milk. We ran away because we were scared. And I fully intended to get farther than the street corner.
I loved reading. I read like a fiend. I’d been reading lots of library books about people surviving on their own, making do with only a few belongings and adapting to their new environment. Books like The Swiss Family Robinson, Robinson Crusoe, My Side of the Mountain–survival stuff like that. So when I decided we had to run away, I made sure I was prepared.
Every time Mom was passed out after her drunken ravings–in other words, most nights–I took some change from her wallet. Never much–she couldn’t realize what I was doing. But I did it for several weeks, and by the time we ran away, I had saved up three whole dollars. Three dollars was worth a lot more back then, you know.
Looking back, I could’ve taken more. She wouldn’t have noticed. Most of the time I was the one getting food and supplies anyway. Mom didn’t care or didn’t notice when we ran out of stuff, unless it was her sherry. I’d tell her we didn’t have anymore food, and she’d just throw her wallet at me and tell me to go get some then, what did I expect her to do about it? Didn’t I see that she was having a migraine?
Anyway, I hid the money in my secret safe, the space under the loose bottom shelf of the desk in my bedroom. It’s where I kept all the things I cared about, including my library books and this picture–well, my print of it, of course–because Mom could be quite the tornado when she was angry, which was pretty much any time she noticed us.
I also rummaged through all the kitchen drawers when Mom was out–passed out, that is–looking for useful stuff, and that’s when I found Dad’s old pocket knife. I’m sure he never meant to leave it behind, because it had belonged to his dad–my grandpa who I never met. But he was in a bit of a hurry when he left, because Mom was drunk as a skunk and she was throwing anything at him that she could get her hands on–plates, a vase, records, whatever.
I heard all of this later, because it happened when I was at Kindergarten. When I got home he was gone. But he’d left the picture under my pillow.
Anyway, he forgot his pocket knife, and that was a stroke of luck, I figured, because I knew from the books I’d read that having a good knife is crucial. So it, too, went in the secret safe.
The night Mom cooked was the night we took off. Mom rarely cooked, because she started drinking her sherry every day around noon, when she got up, and by the time we got home from school she was generally getting pretty wasted. So even though Mom was what they would nowadays call “independently wealthy” and we lived in a nice house and all, Lilly and I ate cold beans from a can most nights, like we were on welfare or something.
But that night she was making spaghetti. I don’t remember if there was any special occasion or if it was just one of her crazy impulses. It usually didn’t bode well when she strayed from her routine, but I remember thinking that it did smell pretty good. She threw the onion and the knife across the kitchen when she –“Fuck!”–nicked herself–“Fuck, fuck, FUCK!”–but there was still tomato sauce and even meatballs from a can.
Lilly had slunk off to her room when the throwing and “fucking” started, but I stood in the doorway after Mom calmed down, looking at her back as she stirred the sauce with a wooden spoon like a real mom, except for the glass of sherry in her other hand. But her ramblings to no one didn’t sound all that angry. I remember feeling slightly hopeful.
When Mom called us to come eat–“Hey, anyone want spaghetti?”–she had set the table, with the real plates and a tablecloth, even. Lilly and I sat down quietly, hoping for the best. Mom put plates of steaming spaghetti in front of us. Then she spooned the sauce over it. It looked just like the food in the pictures taped to the windows of the Italian restaurant downtown, with the meatballs looking so good and all.
We had just started eating, or fighting with the spaghetti, more like, because Mom would’ve had a fit if we cut it. Mom was faster eating uncut spaghetti, despite being under the influence. She took a first bite and . . . “Fuck it! I forgot the salt!”
Lilly and I froze; we knew that any little thing could completely change the mood. And sure enough, the salt was that little thing. Mom jumped up, shoving the table into Lilly’s chest in the process, which led little bitty Lilly to exhale with a gasp. She was clearly in pain, but she knew better than to cry.
Mom came back to the table with the salt and started sprinkling it over my spaghetti. I told her it was enough, that I was sure it was just great the way it was, but she insisted, swaying drunkenly and getting impatient because she couldn’t see the salt come out. So she flipped open the other side, you know, where the salt pours from a bigger hole. She covered my whole plate in a layer of white. I wanted to cry; the food had looked so good just moments before.
She started doing the same with Lilly’s plate, but Lilly, probably anticipating that she would be forced to eat it, cried, “Mommy, no! It’s too much!” This really set Mom off. She shrieked that Lilly was an ungrateful little bitch as she picked up the plate and smashed it back on the table as hard as she could. It broke, of course, and saucy pieces flew everywhere.
Lilly screamed. We jumped up and made for the door and the stairs beyond. Mom threw my plate after me, barely missing and hitting the wall beside the door instead. We flew up the stairs and into my bedroom, reasonably sure that Mom wouldn’t follow us; she usually couldn’t be bothered in this stage of inebriation. Still, we sat with our backs to the door until the screaming and smashing stopped downstairs.
Once it felt safe to get up, I saw that Lilly was bleeding. When Mom smashed her plate, one of the pieces must’ve gone flying past her left cheek, just above her jawline, leaving a two-inch cut. It looked really bad, with blood making a stripe all down her cheek and into the neckline of her t-shirt. I opened the door and listened, but everything was quiet downstairs, so I tiptoed to the bathroom to soak a washcloth and get the Band-aids.
When I wiped away the blood from Lilly’s face, I saw that it wasn’t that bad. The cut was shallow and the bleeding had already pretty much stopped. It could’ve been a lot worse, but the fact that it wasn’t somehow wasn’t much of a consolation. Lilly could’ve been cut in her neck–she could’ve bled out. I knew all about the carotid artery and how hard it is to stop that from bleeding.
I put on three Band-aids, all in a row, vertically across the cut. Lilly just sat there, quiet, pale and trembling. I knew then that we had to go that night.
I told Lilly about the plan. I hadn’t said anything before, because she was only six, and I was afraid she’d let something slip and ruin our chances when the time came. I told her we had to just focus on getting as far away as possible first, so Mom couldn’t find us and get us back, and then we’d find Dad and live with him.
Lilly started to cry. “I’m scared, Jake,” she said. “What if Mom does find us?” See, even little Lilly wasn’t scared of running away because we’d be leaving our house, entering uncharted territory, but because Mom might find us and . . . well, we didn’t actually think it out too much at the time, but looking back, I know we were both afraid that if we ran away, she’d kill us if she got her hands on us.
Anyway, as I was talking to Lilly, telling her it would all be okay, that I had a plan, I took my schoolbag off the bottom shelf of the desk and opened up my secret safe. I took the cover off my pillow–I had this all figured out ahead of time–and quickly stuffed everything from the hiding place inside it. Except for the photo, which I stuck in my shirt pocket. I had a vague notion of showing it to people when I asked them if they’d seen my Dad.
Lilly looked on with big eyes. She needed to snap out of it, so I told her to go put on her shoes while I grabbed some clothes. I had planned to take towels–I imagined us bathing in streams and lakes–but the pillowcase was already getting full and we still had to get Lilly’s clothes.
Once we were all packed and I assured Lilly again that she would be alright because I would take care of her, we quietly went downstairs. I made Lilly wait by the front door while I looked around the kitchen door. Sure enough, Mom was passed out at the table, with her head in her plate of spaghetti. Her empty sherry bottle stood beside her face. The umpteenth sherry glass lay in shards on the floor, along with the spaghetti and tomato sauce, broken dishes and the salt canister.
By then Lilly was getting into it and she was actually the one who opened the front door with a this-is-it gesture. I threw the pillowcase over my left shoulder like a real runaway and we walked out. Just like that. Eight and six. With one pillowcase full of stuff.
I figured Mom would probably be out for a few more hours, and when she came to she’d stumble straight into her bed and not get up until noon. Then she’d think we were in school, like any other day, and she wouldn’t start to wonder until late afternoon at the earliest. We had a whole night and a whole day to get as far away as possible.
My plan was to make it to the train station and sneak onto a freight train. That’s what runaways did. I’d rode my bike all around town with my friend Casey, and we often went to the station to check out the trains. I estimated that it took about half an hour to get there by bike. Except we were walking, because Lilly didn’t have a bike yet.
I won’t bore you with the trek to the train station, other than to say that it took hours, because Lilly got tired and needed to rest a lot, and to be honest, so did I, because the pillowcase felt like it was getting heavier all the time. And we had to take alleys and the darker residential roads so we wouldn’t be noticed, because I felt we practically had the word “runaways” written on our foreheads.
Me and my pillowcase. Jeez, we should’ve just stuffed our schoolbags full, of course, but kids in books never ran away with their few belongings in their schoolbags. It had to be makeshift.
The benefit of getting to the train station in the dead of night was that the place was deserted. Lilly was exhausted and refused to take another step once we got to the first freight train, so I left her in the shadows by a fence while I went looking for an open boxcar. She was too tired to even protest being left alone in the dark. She curled right up for sleep against the fence, the pillowcase held to her belly like a big teddy bear.
The second train had an open boxcar, but now I had a problem. As you can tell from the photo, both Lilly and I were kind of small for our age. At six, Lilly was catching up to me, but I was still quite a shorty for being eight.
I now saw that the boxcar was way too high for me to reach from the ground. I remember that being the moment when I wondered if I had maybe bit off more than I could chew. Here I was, with my high hopes and big plans for running away, and I was too short to climb onto a darn freight train.
I had to find a crate or something, to stand on. I was exhausted and I just wanted to join Lilly by the fence and sleep, but there was no going back. I looked around. Closer to the station building, in the lamp light, was a pile of construction debris. I didn’t want to venture so close to the building since there might be a guard, but I had to get something to stand on if we were going to get out of town by freight train.
So I walked hesitantly toward the building, stopping at the end of the last train to see if anyone else was around before crossing the open space. The place looked deserted and I made a run for it.
Sure enough, there were odd lengths of two-by-fours lying around, and broken, soggy bits of plywood–construction debris, but nothing useful. Then I saw something metal half hidden behind some plywood. It was a paint bucket, one of those really big, industrial-size ones more than a foot high and it looked solid enough to stand on if I placed it upside down.
I stood there, holding it, debating whether I should look around some more in case I could find something better, when someone grabbed me hard by the shoulder from behind. I screamed.
It was the station security guard, of course, and he was dragging me toward the station to call the police. I was stiff with fear and couldn’t think. Lilly was still asleep by the fence and I was going to be arrested and thrown in jail! I had promised to take care of her. “Wait! My sister!” I remember yelling and sobbing at once. This was it. This is as far as we’d gotten. The railway station.
The security guard made me lead him to Lilly, never letting go of my jacket. So we ended up in a little room. Lilly was scared and crying, until two cops came to talk to us. A man and a woman. The woman cop did most of the talking, asking us where we lived and why we were running away. By then I had gotten some of my spunk back, though, and I told her I didn’t care what she did to me, I was not going to give her our address because we were never going back home. We were going to live with Dad.
She assured me we weren’t being arrested and nobody was going to hurt us, but that a nice lady from Child Protective Services would want to talk to us in the morning. They drove us to the police station and we got to sleep in some bunk beds where I suppose the cops nap when they have a chance. The next day the lady from Child Protective Services talked to us–first to me, then to Lilly.
More importantly, she listened. I told her all about Mom’s daily drunkenness, the hitting, the throwing, the neglect as Mom lay in bed for days with a “migraine”, not to be disturbed, and how it was getting worse all the time.
In the meantime the cops–other cops–went to our house. We heard later that Mom scared the bejeezus out of them. She didn’t answer the doorbell so they went round the back. They found her stumbling around the kitchen with her back to them. She was in a foul mood, searching for another bottle of sherry and muttering to herself.
When one of the cops said, “Ah, excuse me, Ma’am?” she screeched and spun around. Spaghetti and sauce still hung in her hair and on one side of her face, and she looked like a zombie in one of those movies. The cops almost shot her. She was in no state to act the upper-class lady with pathological liars for children.
So we didn’t have to go back to her. They found Dad, somehow. He was three states away, living in a tiny studio apartment and working in the kitchen of an Italian restaurant, can you believe that? Anyway, because he had a job and a roof over his head, it was okay with the lady from Child Protective Services that he come get us.
We were all three pretty stressed out when Dad got there. He no doubt wondered how the heck he was going to cope, but determined to do it somehow, and us tired and tense because we hadn’t seen him in three years. Lilly didn’t know him at all, really, since she was two when he left.
Jeez, from looking at it, this photo could be both from before he left us and from after we were reunited, except that we’d grown a bit and we weren’t wearing our Sunday best. There aren’t any pictures of Lilly and me with Mom from those three years in between as far as I know; it’s like we could just forget about that time we were alone with her. In pictures anyway.
With her face in the spaghetti–that was the last time I saw her. We never even went back to get more stuff. Neither Lilly nor I wanted to. She died about a year later. Apparently she had slipped and fallen after one of her drunken smashing sessions. She passed out on the floor, never even realizing she had cut herself on broken glass, and she bled out. The carotid artery, the autopsy report said.
Yeah, we got a bit farther than the corner of the street–not much, but that was just as well. The overall plan was to get away from Mom and find Dad and at eight years old I did make that happen. So it’s all good.
I gave Dad the three dollars to go toward our bus tickets and he was happy to have his pocket knife back. Dad’s boss was a really good guy and for a few months, until Dad got a better job and we moved into a bigger apartment, we could eat as much spaghetti and meatballs as we wanted. But I found that I actually preferred pizza.
Jeez, this photo’s all worn around the edges, from all those years in his wallet, I suppose. He was never much of a talker, but we knew he loved us. And then keeping that picture on his person all the rest of his life–that proves it, doesn’t it?