(T/W: Child Abuse, Spousal Abuse, Murder)
My father’s fists were always charged with a dangerous blend of alcohol and emotion. His favorite alcohol—Jack Daniel’s. His favorite emotion—jealousy. My father wanted everything that he didn’t have, and when the whiskey mixed with his envious blood, he took his rage out on the things he did have, me and my mom.
My mother had endured his tortures for longer than me, but she finally gave up the battle and just before my fourteenth birthday she disappeared. She didn’t leave me a note or even sneak into my room one last time to kiss me goodnight and goodbye. I don’t blame her. When you are a prisoner, life takes on a singular focus—survival.
I was happy that Mom made it out and I secretly hoped that someday she would come back for me. I often pictured her in my mind, cruising a California highway in a swanky red convertible, top down, with her favorite hunter green sheer scarf attempting to constrain her curly red hair, its long tail fluttering in the wind behind her. Her car’s radio would be blaring George Michael’s “Freedom!”. She would have a huge smile on her face, one without cosmetics used to conceal bruises and cuts.
Of course, this was a fantasy; it was the best-case scenario for my poor mother. The truth is, I had no clue where she had gone, and the abruptness of her departure weighed on my soul. I have to say that my concerns were not only for her because with her gone I was the sole target of my dad’s wrath.
My mom had always prepared me for escaping. Every day before Dad would come home from the mill, she would tell me, “If your dad shows up drunk, hurry to your room, climb out your window, and go play at the river until it is safe to come back.” The truth was, it was never safe to come back, and I think she secretly hoped I would run away.
My family’s trailer home was perched upon cinder blocks in a field on the edge of the Brazos River’s flood plain. The river was only about one hundred yards from our home, and I enjoyed the large cottonwood trees and vigorous overgrowth the banks had to offer. I had explored both sides of the river, north and south for at least ten miles in each direction. There was not a rock formation, fallen tree, or hole that I had not fully investigated. Exploring the banks of the river and an overactive imagination allowed me a temporary escape from the chaos of my real world. I had a favorite place to let my thoughts run wild, I called it The Sub.
The Sub was a large concrete pipe, about six feet in diameter, that ran from the town’s sewage treatment plant into the river. The pipe crawled up from the deepest part of the river, exited the water, then twenty feet later it entered a large concrete cube with a hinged manhole that latched by rotating a large wheel on its top. It looked just like the conning tower’s entrance on an old WWII submarine, thus The Sub.
I know what you are thinking, “Eww, sewage!” Yep, it had a little of that, but it was only an emergency overflow, so most of the time it didn’t smell. However, toward the end of the summer the Texas heat would permeate the concrete pipe, sending humid waves of stench through it. On those days, I would tell my imaginary crew to brace for an emergency ascent. We would pitch up the sub’s nose toward the surface and climb, causing our eardrums to pop. We would launch our vessel through the surface and into the air like I once saw in the movie The Hunt for the Red October. As soon as the sub settled from the maneuver, we would open the hatch to allow the fresh sea air in.
On one such hot summer day, my crew and I had just successfully completed the hazardous surface breaching maneuver and I unscrewed the hatch. When the hatch opened, I saw a figure shading the sun from above. A large familiar hand reached down, grabbing me by my hair. It was my dad. I wrapped my hands around his wrist to try to keep my hair from pulling out. My father exhumed me from the conning tower and threw me into the tall weeds below. It was too late for my crew, but I had a chance for escape. My father was a big man, and he wasn’t very fast. Me? I was tall and lanky—and could run like the wind. So, I did.
I didn’t pause to look back, nor did I try to interpret the string of curse words spewing from the enraged beast’s mouth. But like any child programmed by perpetual abuse, where did I run to? Home of course! I escaped him only to return myself to the cage that he was sure to come rattle.
I’d rather not discuss the beating I took for playing in the sewer pipe, but I did learn something about my father from it. In between his punishments, my father said, “I heard you talking and laughing down in that shit pipe! Who were you talking to? Do you have a little gang of turd collectors?”
That is when I realized the extent of my father’s jealousy. He wasn’t worried about his son playing in the unsanitary confines of a sewage pipe, he was jealous of my imaginary crew. My father had made sure that I was just as lonely as he was, I didn’t have any real friends because he didn’t allow it. However, this time I had overcome his physical constraints with my mind’s creativity, making him jealous of a gang of imaginary, turd collecting friends. This was a moment of self-empowerment, and it made me smile inside.
My mother saved me that day. She had intervened and my father stopped beating me so he could beat her. I wish she wouldn’t have though. She didn’t need to. I had come to accept his beatings by slipping into my role as a Submarine Captain, now a prisoner of war. I stayed tight lipped and set a stoic example for my fellow sailors, defying my enemy through my silence, rarely emitting a scream or a cry, my only sign of conceding was a steady stream of tears. Mom, however, had no imaginary escape and I saw her spirit break and fade in that beating. I loved her for saving me and I hoped that she knew that. She was never the same and just a month later she was gone.
On a quiet night, about a week after my mom’s disappearance, I was waiting for my father to come home. He was spending time at The Rusty Slag, a local dive bar. I was enjoying a moment of stillness in our trailer; the lack of sound was broken only by the lonely cries of a solitary cricket hiding somewhere in the disheveled trailer. The cricket’s solo stuttered and stopped as the sound of jingling keys came from the trailer’s doorstep. This was a moment of shear dread for me and obviously the insect felt the same way.
“God damn lock! Why is this door locked? You little bastard—open this fucking door!” my father yelled as his pounding fists shook the entire trailer.
“Coming!” I yelled as I scurried toward the door.
Just as I reached for the deadbolt, the door exploded from its frame. It collapsed on top of me with my drunken father falling on top of it. I scrambled to get out from under both the door and my father’s weight. I squirmed my way out from under the door’s side.
My father swiped a powerful paw at me while screaming, “This is your fault! If you and your mom would have just listened to me, I wouldn’t have…” He took a long pause.
“You wouldn’t have what?” I screamed.
“I wouldn’t have killed the bitch!”
His words buzzed in my ears, my mind resisting their interpretation. My body was in a state of paralysis, but I knew I only had seconds to make a move toward escape. My feet felt weighted, but they moved, and I narrowly escaped a second paw swipe as I exited the trailer.
I ran faster than ever. I heard my father let out a cry behind me that sounded animalistic, almost like a wolf’s howl. A shiver went down my spine. I had never heard anything like that, and I knew that it meant he was pissed!
The tall weeds and low hanging branches slapped and scratched at my skin, but I kept running—running for the safety of The Sub. As I got closer, I could see the cubic concrete silhouette reflecting the moonlight. I slammed into the side of the structure at full speed and climbed hand over hand up the rebar handles protruding from the cube’s side. Once on top, I unscrewed the hatch, nearly falling backward as a sultry blast of stinky air hit me in the face. It contained such a putrid punch that I dry heaved. I took in a deep breath, held it, and descended into The Sub.
I took a last look in the direction of the trailer while closing the hatch, and I could see a hulking shadow crashing through the weeds just yards away from me. I slammed the hatch shut and spun the latch closed. Grabbing a rusty piece of pipe from the floor, I wedged it in the latch so that the enemy could not open it from outside, which was a process that my crew and I implemented after the last enemy attack. I had just finished securing the pipe lock when the hatch handle began to twist back and forth. The creepy animalistic howl sounded again and then trailed off away from The Sub.
Had my father given up that easily? My mind raced with questions until my adrenaline suddenly waned and my olfactory senses took back over.
Why was it so smelly in here? It was nighttime, so the sewage was not being superheated by the sun anymore. The smell was coming from behind me, the long section of pipe leading to the sewage plant, the place the crew and I called “the bilge.” Submarines have a bilge area, the lowest part of a sub, that collects water and debris. These areas are usually disgusting, and sailors hate having to do any work in them.
I had only explored about fifty feet of the bilge before that night. There was absolutely no light back there and the hollow echoing of trickling sewage and footsteps caused sensory overload. My crew and I were convinced that the bilge was haunted by the spirits of lost sailors and that no man should have to enter that area. But tonight—tonight the smell was so awful that I needed to know what was causing it. Besides, I needed to wait out my dad’s drunken rage. I was safe inside The Sub.
For light, I only had a small pen light that I found in the sand while exploring one day. It was a prized find because it still worked—well kind of. It would work for about three seconds and then I would have to tap it on my palm a few times to get it to work again, but it was better than nothing.
I briefed my crew and told them to keep watch for the enemy as I explored the bilge. The crew voiced their objections, but I reassured them that I could handle the task alone. I left the conning tower and headed toward the bilge.
My pen light shone a bright circular blast down the bilge, exposing a slimy green moss edging a small stream of rust colored water, then the light suddenly extinguished, engulfing me in a sea of blackness. My chest tightened with the abrupt onslaught of darkness, and I frantically pounded the pen light against my hand, sighing with relief when the light reappeared.
I made it farther into the bilge than ever before and that’s when I caught sight of something. My eyes were adjusting on the scene when …
DARKNESS—Pen light pounding—LIGHT!
Something was lying in the rusty stream. My nose was also confirming it was the source of the awful smell.
DARKNESS—Aggressive pen light pounding—LIGHT!
I moved closer and I jumped as I spotted a side-to-side slithering movement in the nasty water.
I screamed, “Snake!”
DARKNESS—Panicked pen light pounding while screaming, “Turn on you piece of junk!”—LIGHT!
I pointed the pen light back toward the snake. My terror shifted to sadness as I realized what was lying in that filthy water wasn’t a snake, but a hunter green sheer scarf littered with sewage, waving in the dirty little stream. My light followed the scarf to its mooring. There, resting in a pool of sewage was the beaten, swollen body of my mother.
DARKNESS—Total surrender—CONTINUED DARKNESS.
I collapsed against the side of the pipe and cried. My cries echoing through the bilge as if a thousand victims of abuse were crying with me. The mystery was solved—the worst-case scenario for Mom realized.
Suddenly, a clanking sound rang through the bilge. My crew began screaming for my return.
LIGHT—One last look at Mom….
I whispered, “Sorry I wasn’t strong enough to save you, Mom.”
I grabbed the scarf and ran toward the conning tower. My crewmembers were yelling and pointing up toward the hatch. As I approached them, I recognized the clanking sound, it was a chain’s links sliding on steel. I pulled the pipe lock from the latch and tried to open it, but it would barely budge. I heard the beast laughing from above.
He stopped laughing and said, “I hope you and your turd collectors enjoy your newest gang member. Did you find the present I left you?” His muffled laughter drifted away from the hatch.
I don’t know why I did it, but I broke in front of my crew. I screamed, begging for my father to let me out. I even tried to conjure his fatherhood by crying, “Daddy don’t leave me here.” My cries went ignored.
I sank to the side of the pipe, curled into the fetal position, and sobbed. All hope was lost. Things couldn’t get any worse, or so I thought…
A siren in the far-off distance began to wale. A red light in a caged fixture, adjacent to the hatch, began to pulse. A crashing sound echoed through the pipe and in the ominous glow of the pulsing crimson light I saw my mother’s carcass caught in the leading edge of a wall of water.
The water consumed me and sent my body tumbling deep down into the flooded pipe. My spinning stopped abruptly as I slammed into a steel grate at the end of the pipe. My head was pinned to the grate. I looked through the slots in the grate, into the river beyond. In the faint shimmer of the now distant pulsing light, I could see my mother on the other side of the grate. Her body floated like an apparition in the dark water, arms out drifting toward the moonlight splashing on the surface—she was finally free.
Yes! She was free! That meant there was a way past this grate. I slowly inched my body toward the top of the pipe and the current began to quicken. My body was sucked through a hole in the grate and carried to the surface. I gasped for air, but immediately tried to calm my breathing and flailing, not knowing if my father was still on the hunt. I stayed very still and floated on my back, looking up at the stars. In that moment, I realized that not only had I escaped The Sub, but in doing so I had created a chance to escape my father’s bondage for good.
My father had locked me in that pipe and when somebody finally figured out that I was missing, they would search for my body in the river. They wouldn’t find me, but they would find my mother and that would be enough to lock my father away.
It was clear to me now, I was always jealous of his freedom, and he was always jealous of my mother’s love for me. He took my mother away from me, but in doing so, I stole his freedom.
I spent the entire night floating in the gentle current of that river. When I was sure I was far enough away from home, I climbed out and began to trek along the river to the south. I eventually made it all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.
I walked to a small fishing town and found employment, with board, on a local fishing boat. People would question my age, but they found out that I was a hard worker with a calling for the sea, and soon my age caught up to my reputation of diligence.
The sea was always my calling. After all, it was water and the love of my mother that broke my chains.
I’m the captain of a fishing trawler now, with my very own crew that I secretly call “the turd collectors.” Sometimes, when sailing late at night, I wave my mother’s scarf over the rail as if I’m summoning her to the surface. I stare deep into the warm waters of the gulf, and sometimes, when the moon is shining just right, I can see her floating—free at last. And if I listen hard, I can hear the faint introduction of piano followed by—"I won’t let you down…”