Wednesday, again, no matter how hard I tried to stop it rolled into each week like road bond into pavement. Rough, gritty, and ugly was how Wednesday afternoons always started, but were expected to smooth into tarmac before the night was through.
The house, my only witness, remained still as I slowly crept up the threadbare stairs, avoiding the creak of the seventh step. With shallow breath, all knotted up and sour from the powdered milk, I did my best to squelch the screaming inhalations and exhalations so I wouldn't be caught. My dirty right hand, now slick with sweat, grasped the splintered newel post at the top. Grateful to have made it this far, I took a minute to wipe my hands on my dress and catch my breath.
Creeping around the corner, I could barely discern the soft snores that Mommy was making as she took her then daily nap. The reality was that no amount of noise would have woken her from that slumber, but my six-year-old self couldn't perceive a truth such as that. She was the monster under the bed, the rabid dog, and one false move could awaken the scary ogre that lurked in the shadows of her personality.
Trying not to sneeze from the dank, musty air of the summer day, I made my way down the long hallway to the sewing room sequestered between Mommy’s room and the bathroom. Hands once again dripping with sweat, I began to shuffle through the avalanche of items next to the sewing machine. Leaving soft handprints of moisture on the papers, making them wrinkle, I finally found what I was looking for in the corner of her desk. It had been slipped just behind the latest sewing pattern that Mommy had just bought. That it was tucked so carefully amongst the other items made sense. Obviously, it needed to be immediately accessible to the keeper of the crimes so no misstep could ever fail to be recorded. Every week, since the divorce when the record keeping began, the catalog of atrocities was found in a different spot. Perhaps she knew that its contents were subject to the prying eyes of the house. For as bad as brother and sister were, neither, to my knowledge, had ever braved this den of insanity to prepare themselves for the night's festivities.
The list, found now, seemed to demand a sick reverence. It was the categorization and alphabetization of our daily crimes so that when Wednesday made its unwelcome return, a habituation that couldn’t be stopped, punishments would be doled out. An automatic clock, it was reset at the end of each Wednesday.
My older sister’s and my younger brother’s lists were often long during the seven days of record keeping. The transgressions, or the appearance of such, were transmitted swiftly as the heat made waste of good moods and boredom became the instigator of turmoil. An unnatural odor was preparing to make its way through my bottom as my stomach, an old jalopy on a bumpy road, festered with the milk and the fear of what my list would reveal. The list, as it usually appeared, sat naked and alone—nothing to atone for, nothing for which to be shamed, or beaten, and, nothing to bond me to the two other criminals in the house.
“Jenny, you better not chase Tommy into the house with your feet all dirty like that, she’ll notice,” I might tell my sister or, “Tommy, you better give the album back to Jenny before Mommy finds out that you took it,” or “Tommy, don't push Jenny off the swing—the bloody knees will give you away,” or “Jenny, don't bury his G.I. Joe doll in the sandbox, Mommy gave it to him.” Frequent necessary little reminders, small conversations, about what could get them on the list. No matter how innocuous the snatches of childhood mayhem were, they were heinous enough to make the list in the end. For whatever reason, at least at that time of my life, there seemed to be an understanding between the two that I was not to be a target of their bullying and general bashing of one another. To do that would invite me into the inner circle as even the victims were at fault in these little games that were played.
As I tiptoed out of the sewing room, I glanced at the door of the room I shared with Jenny. Muted voices produced a language foreign to my ears—a dialogue of camaraderie that would not be translated to me. Retracing my steps back through the slumbering house, I thought about not skipping the seventh step. The creak of the seventh step, after all, if pressed hard enough, may have gained me a ticket to the delinquent club. I was stubborn, I was brave, and I was mouthy, but I couldn’t make myself stupid enough to get punished on purpose. With just a few minutes to spare, I made it downstairs and out to the yard to wait for Daddy to pull up in his worn white Beetle. The good news was that the chugga, chugga noise always preceded his actual appearance so I had time to prepare myself.
Kicking the sand with the old weathered flip-flops that I had just slipped on, I hurried to the old swing and climbed on, careful not to dirty the yellow, flowered dress that Mommy had made for me.
A loud groan escaped from the little Bug as the door was opened and then subsequently closed. I could hear Daddy's slow methodical footsteps as he approached the gate, lifted the latch, and made his way into the backyard, his lanky shadow meeting me first on the sun-drenched patio almost as if it were coming to do the dirty work of the evening instead of him.
Daddy greeted me with his Wednesday smile. “Hey, Sunshine, did you make Daddy proud again this week?”
My smile came slow and soft, weighted with the lie we both told each other, as I replied, “Yes, Daddy, you know I did.”
Shoulders slightly sagging, his fingers drifted into the crumpled bag that had been clenched tightly in his hands. “I got you your favorite donut, Sunshine.” With a look that was to satisfy us both, I thanked him and took the donut into my dirty, rust-covered hands while he, with his hand listlessly hanging at his side, put the remaining donuts on the small picnic table next to the swing.
“I'll see you in a little while, Sunshine,” he said and turned toward the sliding glass door, each footstep seeking an anchor away from the madness that waited for him inside.
Gently swinging back and forth, I took my time licking the chocolate off the donut, occasionally having to lick it off my fingertips, careful to avoid the grittiness of the dirt and the tang of the rusted metal. Each lick an offense to the slap, cry, slap that was coming from the kitchen. I didn't have to be in the room to know what was happening. Sometimes, I, too, got my turn to bend over Daddy's lap, bare bottom up, ready to meet the leather and metal of my sins. The recorder in my mind rewound and played the familiar scene: Jenny's angry face, arms crossed, resolutely trying to conceal the fear and shame lurking beneath the surface. I could feel Tommy's confusion as he tried to understand why his mommy made his daddy do those things to him, why Mommy was always so angry and tired.
I continued to meter out the chocolate, going for the inside of the donut, peeling back every last tasty morsel of the smooth dark icing, keeping time with the whippings—one small lick for the lesser offenses, larger licks for each of the bigger offenses. Daddy, in his jumbled efforts to do this freakish task, would read the list out to us before he began. Mommy would be standing by, arms always folded, and head always shaking. Her face would be stern, ready to defend and revisit the crimes that were committed during the week. If for no other reason, it gave her another opportunity to bask in the glow of her tortured and thankless life. The collection of the lists, and the keeping of them (for they were never thrown away) an ever present reminder of just how horrible we three little shits were.
Before it was over that day, I counted ninety-seven hits for Tommy and eighty-eight for Jenny… each lash striking an endless execution to my heart.
The tears, a riverbed on my face, made their steady progression down, turning the shell of the donut into a gooey mess. Climbing off the swing, as quietly as possible, I made my way over to the picnic table. I peeked into the bag that had been left on the wooden picnic table at the three other donuts that lay within—little ticking bombs of normalcy. There was one more donut for me—the good child—and one donut apiece for Jenny and Tommy. Bringing the treats, regardless of what preceded their consumption, was the best protest that he could muster against this barbaric type of punishment system. In later years, Daddy would share just how awful he felt on these days, how nothing had prepared him for this woman, this life, and the crazy puppet master that had us all on a string.
Climbing back on the swing, legs heavy with grief, I swung back and forth, back and forth, and waited for it be over. No afternoon breeze to whisk away the sadness—the air, warm and suffocating, a corset entangling my midsection.
Sounds from within were beginning to dwindle as the ceremony of weekly wrongdoings came to a close. The accuser, otherwise known as Mommy, stayed during the entire weekly flogging to ensure that the miscreants felt the full weight of their missteps. Tissues were doled out by Daddy who often needed some of his own before the belt made its last judgment on the naked bottom of the offender.
Knowing that the end had arrived for the week, and it was safe to come inside, I dropped down from the swing, with the three remaining sweet donuts, each bought with guilt and covered with shame. I made my way into the house being careful not to meet the eye of either sibling. Even at six, I intuitively understood that their humiliation had to go through a cloaking process in order to reemerge as indifference.
Faces dirty, pants once again pulled up, hands tentatively rubbing some feeling back into their backsides, Jenny and Tommy made their way over to the family room and gingerly sat down on the ten-year-old sofa. Pressed against the other end of the couch, I tried to nestle into its folds and mimic the inanimate nature of every piece of furniture in the room.
The transition time was at hand. It was time to move away from the horror of the afternoon. With spurious smiles plastered on our fixed faces, the four of us—Daddy, Jenny, Tommy, and I—would hasten our goodbyes to Mommy as she walked us to the door and then stood on the porch, waving goodbye. As if the events never happened, she would bestow her beatific smile on us, red hair flowing down her back, makeup applied perfectly, nails freshly manicured, and remind us to have a good time and not eat too much junk. A thinly veiled layer of insanity gliding just beneath the image of perfection.
Costumes adorned, our masks in place, we would pile into the backseat of the Beetle, and pretend, if not for us, then for Daddy. Down the street we would head to a location such as Burger King or Big Boy, anticipating the fries, milkshakes, hamburgers, and king’s crown. Conversations would be kind, temperaments would be sedate, and, in an irony not lost on me today, the unnatural perfection that the woman at home most dearly sought would finally be at hand as the pressure of the lists, at least for an hour or two, would be cleared away.