They say that every house has a hum. In this hum you can hear the walls whisper of what has happened over the years. There will be celebrations, a birth or a graduation, endless rounds of the singing of “Happy Birthday to You”. There will be death and tears, laughter and regret and contentment. Yes, every house has a hum as it has its own scent and its own feel. The hum is what makes the house a “home” for someone, unlike any other space on earth. We only call one place “home.” It’s where we hear the hum. If this is true-if every house has a hum, like the say, then our house, our “home” would have more of a scream, wouldn’t it? If these walls could talk, they’d tell of screams and sobbing and pain and fear, wouldn’t they? That is our hum, torture is what courses through the veins of our home, right? Well, I’m asking you because you should know. You know, don’t you, Father? Because you’re the one who caused it.~ ~ ~ My mother is not so much an esthetician as she is a make-up artist. There is a difference. An esthetician brings her clients champagne as she talks of tones and shading. A make-up artist, of the department store variety, is more of the minimum-wage color consultant, the kind who has to reach a certain quota in order not to be reprimanded by her supervisor. She’ll suggest the bright red lipstick you’ve chosen (which is sure to show up more on your teeth than your lips) has never looked so natural on any of her other customers. She has to say it so that she can get the sell so she can get paid so she can stay afloat in life. It’s not glamorous…it is just survival. My mother, whom I consider more precious and important than air, left home at age sixteen to follow a dream that consisted of a guitar and not much else. Dan River is a blast for tourists but it is too plain to call home. Though it offers a small town feel and security, the comfort of old-fashioned values, it doesn’t come equip with the glitzy lights that appealed to teenagers in the 80s. My grandmother sent her to live with relatives in North Carolina and she did well there, graduating from high school and attending beauty college. Whatever happened to the guitar is anyone’s guess, really. But, six years later she returned to Nana’s doorstep, cradling me in her arms and married to you. Now my grandmother is tolerant and so she took all of us in and we sort of settled into a rhythm. My mother began work at Dillard’s in the cosmetics department and I remember she actually enjoyed it then. Looking back, I do remember an excitement in her when she would dress in black and leave for work. She sparkled with the idea of making women beautiful. Mrs. Janice was her favorite because she craved color and would buy any crazy eye shadow my mother suggested. She’d rub and rub filling the space between her brow and her lashes with the latest—Carnivale Coral, Sunflower Fiesta, and Mom’s favorite, Vivacious Violet. We had run into her in the Grocery Mart one weekend and she seemed to have all of the colors on at once fanned in a complicated rainbow over both eyes. We greeted her as genially as possible as Mom introduced Nana and me. When she walked toward the registers, we all hid behind a tower of cantaloupes and laughed until we cried as the cashier let out an audible gasp. You see, these are the memories I have of my mother. She has made me laugh until I thought I’d lose my breath. In the summers, she sprayed me with the hose until the Virginia heat rose off of my body like happy ghosts and she commissioned my grandmother to make homemade cakes for the holidays instead of buying them from stores. She had a small patch of daisies in the bottom of the backyard where she would sit and play her new guitar from time to time. Oh, she smiled when she cradled that guitar and sang the songs that I guess only she and the daisies knew the lyrics to. When I think of my mother I become light-headed with my love for her. It’s you that I often have a hard time conjuring up any good memories of. What I remember of you is like nightshade on my tongue…it hurts every time. Here are the things though, small and insignificant. I can go back in my mind and replay the images like a miserable picture show and realize that you were wholly nothing. You were a black spot on the sparkling life of the women I adored and hoped to become one day. On my first day of second grade, it dawned on me as Mom pulled my unruly black curls into two wild ponytails, that I’d never seen you get up and go out to a job. I have tried to remember the name of any place you’ve been employed and I can never recall. Either way, that morning I wore my favorite outfit that I believed to be good luck, blue and white striped tights and over them a blue sundress with a tiny bow at the neck. I had seen the ensemble in Dillard’s at the beginning of summer and Mom had laid it away and paid for it over the next few weeks and surprised me with it on my birthday in the middle of June. I had refused to wear it or even take it out of the box until the first day of school. I believed it to be lucky because it was the first outfit I could recall getting that was brand new and came in a gift box. It occurred to me that my mother scurried here and there trying to make sure that I was where I needed to be—school, ballet, the junior softball team—and you? You sat. You sat on the couch watching the television, you sat on the front porch drinking beer with “Skool Boy” from across the street, you sat on the back porch in the unbearable summer heat as you dozed on and off under the cover of a straw hat, your ever-present beer bottle nestled in your hand. You were a sitter, of sorts, I guess because all you ever did was, simply, sit. All of a sudden, in the infinite wisdom of a brand new second-grader I went up to you and wanted an answer.“Daddy, how come you never go to work like Mommy? Do you use all of Mommy’s money cause you can’t make your own?”I was serious at the time but, looking back, I wonder how I ever could say this to your face. Mom and Nana exchanged sudden, horrified glances and Nana took a step forward but was too late. Quick as lightning your right hand struck out and caught me full in the midsection, taking my breath and I fell to my knees, certain I’d never been in more pain. I couldn’t breathe and I hugged myself where your hand had landed as if to coerce my lungs to remember their job. “Cloy King! How dare you, you ignorant son-of-a-bitch?!” It was my Nana who took a tone with you that my mother never would have—would have known better than to. She put herself between the two of us but there was no need. You were up out that chair and out the front door before I caught my next breath. My face contorted and I heaved, drinking in great gulps of air and coughing desperately. As my wind returned some, I began to cry in long, loud sobs. At that moment, I needed to cry as much as I needed to breathe. I was amazed that a father could hurt his baby like that. Nana and Mom alternately hugged me and assured me that everything would be okay and not to cry and it was Nana I had to untangle myself from when I suddenly felt sick. I ran for the bathroom but didn’t make it. My second grade lucky outfit was ruined and I had to put on another dress and another set of tights and that night at dinner, while Nana served you first, you looked right at me and said, “How was school, Pumpkin?”~ ~ ~ After that incident, I treated you much like Mom did…careful, aloof. You were poisonous and it was dangerous to get too close. You were a presence in the household that could be neither ignored or bothered. Mom and Nana would wash over my belly carefully those next few days paying close attention to the angry purple mark above my bellybutton. Because I’d gotten a taste of your tempestuous side, I finally began to make sense of the late-night noises I had mistaken before. The slaps and smacks and muffled bumps that made their way under my bedroom door when you assumed Nana and I were asleep. I had heard them before and thought they were wild animals in the woods behind the house. I didn’t realize it was the wild animal inside of the house. Then I understood the irony of my mother’s job. She made a living covering up blemishes. You could cover up sunspots and blackheads but you could also cover up lies, pain and hurt. You only had to know the perfect colors. As I turned twelve, I wondered about a strange household phenomenon. You were mean and intolerant to everyone in the house but you had a weakness—my Nana’s cooking. It was then and still is the best cooking I’ve ever had. The weirdness of our house was not that you truly loved Nana’s cooking-we all loved her cooking. The strange thing was that shortly after you had been hired by Petermore’s Concrete Company, a job that you could actually manage to get to on a regular basis, you had begun to insist that you be served first and that your meals be prepared especially for your tastes. If the family liked it some other way, Nana would have to make a separate dish completely. You loved onions and Nana’s dishes for you contained onions, which Mom and I hated. Most nights when I’d come home from softball, famished and exhausted and Mom came home with her white coat still on, smudged with varying shades of foundation, a weird rainbow, we’d often find a large pot of chicken and dumplings steaming on the stove top with a smaller pot simmering just as heartily right behind it—your pot. The demand had come after you’d held your concrete job for thirty days and got your official uniform shirts which had a name label at the breast pocket that read “King.” King was a misnomer. Although I’d never met my grandfather or any of the other men on your side of the family since they all lived in North Carolina and we never went to visit, I thought there could be no lower man on the face of the earth who was referred to as King all day long. “Look, Jean,” you stammered through your beer-fogged reality, “I’m officially a King. I demand to eat like one! From now on, I want my own separate meals and I want to be served first. I mean it—breakfast, lunch in my lunchbox, and dinner—full of onions, and lots of pepper!” We sat stunned at this man, making my mother into his punching bag and demanding separate meals. “If I don’t get it, I’ll be sure to give Leah the message so she can help you prepare it right the next time.” He paused and winked. “If you know what I mean...” He was aware of how we all felt about him, Nana included, but he knew her weak point and Nana would die if she was the reason that her daughter incurred anymore pain from your wretched hands. You were a wily man, and Nana conceded. I don’t think we ever figured out why you decided that your meals should be special and separate but that was the way things worked from that moment on. The next night, she made a casserole dish of turkey pot pie and left it on the countertop. As my mother and I bustled about grabbing forks and glasses of milk and pulled down plates, my grandmother pulled another, smaller dish from the oven and cut a huge and perfect square from the dish and put it on your plate. She served you up garden fresh carrots and drizzled a healthy amount of glaze over them. She served you an ice cold beer already open with a lime stuck into the top of the bottleneck. I thought she’d be enraged by your demands but as you dug into the meal with sudden haste, I thought I almost saw her smile. I often looked on with rage at your delicious meals. Nana would soak your chicken in salt and herbs for hours before she baked it, she’d make a thicker gravy for your steak than ours. She once made a 16-bean soup that smelled like heaven. I was so looking forward to a big bowl of it that my eyes teared up when I sat down and was served a grilled cheese. She’d let that soup simmer for hours, adding dashes of this and that, shredding the chicken by hand and when she ladled it out, there was just enough for you. Your smile made my voracious hunger wane to nothing and I hated you even more. I loved my grandmother but I hated the way she coddled you and surrendered to your demands without argument. Dinner had become a culinary charade. Other than the weird new dinner set-up, nothing much was changing. The beatings continued after which my mother would soak in Epson salts and you would return to the couch with a drink in hand and fall asleep. I wondered why Mom continued to let you stay here when she had nothing to gain by your presence. I didn’t ask her because, even at age 12, I understood that all her hard work was for me. The worst way to follow a beating from you would be questions from me. I never wanted to give my mother, the woman who sang with daisies, a reason to think I was ungrateful. Unlike you, I was hopelessly committed to her happiness.~ ~ ~ You’d think the same old song-and-dance would get old and the parties involved would get bored enough or mad enough to move on, but not so. A few months after the special meals started, Nana and I sat in the hospital emergency room for the third time that season waiting for my mother to be bandaged up and released. Even I was becoming ashamed of the feeble excuses my mother was giving the nurses and doctors. This time the reason had been snow; “slip; hard fall due to snow” was written on the medical form. She was becoming the proverbial boy who cried wolf. I was worried that when my mother truly wanted some help no one would believe her and no one would be there to swoop in and save her. The beatings had gotten worse, but your gracious meals continued to be served with the grandest of care. As soon as dinner was over, my grandmother set to washing your cookware with scalding water and rubber kitchen gloves. When my mother emerged, the nurses looked pitiful and the doctor who had wrapped her arm looked exasperated. I turned my head so I didn’t see the stares of judgment. At home now, Mom sat like a zombie most of the time, looking out but not seeing. Going over in her mind, and her heart too I guess, what her life should have been. I was accustomed to this routine and I was numb to some degree, enough to realize that after three hours in the emergency room I was starved.“Nana, can we go grab some food?” I asked as I climbed into the backseat of her little Honda.“We have somewhere else we need to stop first.” She said and pulled out of the parking lot a mere microsecond after I’d closed my door.“Geez, Nana! Wanna’ let me get in the car first?” She looked at me in the rearview and we all laughed a little which turned into a lot until we were crying with laughter, a relief that the three of us could only feel when it was just us three together. These women, in this little car in the middle of a Dan River winter snowstorm, were my favorite people in the whole world. It felt safe when it was just us and I wished that it could always be like this. We pulled to the right and parked in a tiny strip mall. “The hardware store?” I didn’t understand.“We need a new lock for your mom’s door.” She turned to my mother, her daughter. “Leah, I don’t want that bastard to be able to put his hands on you anymore.” Cupping my mother’s face in her hands, she was careful not touch a tender spot. Nana held back tears, her previous laughter fading like a tiny memory. The moment was so sweet that I looked away, not wanting to intrude. When we walked into the store, something felt “funny.” There was an ease to my grandmother’s strides and the owner greeted her by name.“Good morning, Jean.” He said, smiling. It was an innocent enough exchange but there was still something so unsettling about it. “How are the rats?”“Almost gone.” She said, smiling. Rats? We didn’t have rats.We chose a sturdy door knob with a strong locking mechanism that would fit the door perfectly. Nana smiled all the way home and my mother looked beaten (in every sense), but hopeful. It seemed a simple enough idea that I wondered why we hadn’t thought of it before. We did not stop to eat. We drove directly home to put the new lock on my mother’s door while you were still at work. By God’s grace we were able to install the lock correctly and my grandmother and I used random metal objects like hairpins and paperclips to see if we could spring it but it held fast. Then I brought ginger tea and put my mother to bed, giving her so many painkillers that she fell asleep almost immediately and I thought I spied the faintest upturn of her lips that could have mistaken for a smile. It was an odd dinner because Mom didn’t come down to eat but you didn’t press the issue. At the head of your table was a steaming plate of spaghetti. I don’t know where she found fresh tomatoes in the middle of winter and despite how you mistreated your wife to the point that she was bedridden, your appetite was aggressive. I was pretty angry about your holiday meals, laid out as before a visiting dignitary: a beef casserole with gravy, thick vegetable stew, apple pie with sugared crust, and a lasagna. I will never know if it was that dreadful beating that landed my mother in bed for more than a week recovering or the fact that the incident coincided with the holiday season, but you were in a mood that was almost pleasant. You didn’t notice the brand new doorknob for weeks. ~ ~ ~ It is on the night of the lasagna that Skool Boy says something to make you mad and your voices become shouts on the back porch until he staggers down the steps toward home. Rather than fight with him, you tear up the steps bound for my mother’s closed bedroom door. I wanted to be there to see your face get red, to see you relent and retreat to your couch when you can’t get in. I wanted my mother to win this time. From my room, I listened to your confused and angry banging on the door. The lock wouldn’t give and I imagined my mother’s silent victory on the other side. “Leah! Open the damn door! Or, so help me…” We three women sat behind our bedroom doors smiling and celebrating, but what you did next was unprecedented. I could hear your heavy steps in the hall but I couldn’t get to the door in time and the next moment found me with hands around my neck, pulling me up so viciously that my feet left the ground. You are a powerful man, a king in the most sadistic sense of the word and your hands were amazingly fast for someone full of food and beer. I can’t recount it all; you seemed to beat me for hours though it must have been less than a minute when my mother and her mother ran through the door. You actually smiled when you turned from me to Mom and grabbed her up in that same deathly grip and dragged her back to her bedroom. We hadn’t won a thing. You knew…you knew what would make her open that door. In the morning, I attempted a warm bath but the water made me hurt worse. When I came downstairs my breath caught in my throat to find my mother and grandmother both with cups of coffee and you at the head of the table with a steaming plate of biscuits and gravy…lots of onions, lots of pepper, a mug of hot cocoa. Wordlessly, I made my way out of the house. I could not do it that day, I could not pretend that everything was okay. That day, I was mad at me, my mother and my grandmother, and not so much at you. You were doing what you knew best. We were powerless in your grip and it made me hate us all. “Grab a jacket! It’s cold!” Nana called after me and I opened the hall closet and pulled out the first dusty thing my hand landed on. I was more than a mile away from the house when I realized it was an old coat of yours. It was a suit jacket and it was cold enough outside that I needed to wear it. I walked to the banks of the Dan River. I become undone by your cruel hands and as the tears flow freely, heating up my face, I lay down on the bank on my back looking up at the winter sky. As I pull your old jacket around me, something falls out. An old photo of you and my mother, faded and cracked lies in my hand like something forgotten. This person is not you; it is a smiling person who holds my mother’s hands as she jumps down from the back of a blue pick-up truck to the grass below. She is also smiling, her face not turned toward the camera. She jumped…she trusted you. I can’t keep the photo because it is a gross portrayal of something that no longer exists. I set it adrift downriver. The photo was of a man—but you are a monster, aren’t you?~ ~ ~ I must have visited the Dan River a thousand times that winter and well into the spring. When you hit my mother mercilessly at night, I’d sneak out and sit at her banks in the moonlight. I never prayed or spoke or thought. I just sat and watched the water. I came home one day to find you on the couch, sickly sweaty and moaning in pain. This scene unnerves me, I’m so unused to seeing you vulnerable. However, I just don’t care and without saying anything I go upstairs. The strange thing is that it goes on for days with no improvement. All my life, I have thought of you as too evil to be stopped; it seems incongruous that you have come down with a cold. Later that week, I come in from school and stop in my tracks. Your eyes are clear and focused on my face and I forget to breathe. “Sit down.” You say, your voice clear but low. “I want you to know that I never meant to hurt you. You are a wonderful daughter, my only beautiful baby girl, and I love you.” Your eyes are searching me for something, an adequate response. You haven’t been this lucid in nearly a week, but I can’t find the appropriate words. I am powerless in a different way, I am powerless in my hatred. It is a deep pool into which I fell and drowned many years ago. There is not a sliver of forgiveness that I can offer you and it has been a very long time since any part of me loved you. For days, despite Nana’s best efforts—chicken soups, honey tea, old wives’ remedies—your condition gets worse. The night before you died, I got up to get water but stalled on the stairs when I saw my mother sitting across from you, her profile just visible in the firelight and you lying with your eyes wide open, looking at her. Neither of you spoke, neither of you looked away. You just sat, contemplative or condemning I know not. There almost seemed to be peace between the two of you despite the spilled blood that lay in your shared past. If there were a map of where you and mother had come from to the place where I saw you both that night, the tiny lines would be printed in my mother’s blood and her bruises would be the cities and her helplessness would be the rivers and somewhere on the outlying borders there would the name of a town that no longer exists but used to and it would be the love between the two of you. ~ ~ ~ The next day should have been a haphazard rush of preparations, but it wasn’t. There was a certain type of quiet because you, the monster, had departed. Your body was gone before I came down for breakfast and Pastor Jones sat writing a program of service. Sister Hollingsworth would sing and he would perform your eulogy. Skool Boy would surely be the most devastated of us all. A couple of days later as my mother and I made our way downstairs to get into the family car and proceed to the church, Skool Boy, in a checkered bowtie of all things, sobbing on your nasty couch in alcohol-induced agony, Nana informed us that she would not be attending the service. “I need to know for sure that that son-of-a-bitch is dead…” my mother whimpered. And, we did make sure. We saw your face and the suit Mom had picked out for you. The service was sixteen minutes long and eight people attended. Your relations from North Carolina sent regards as they could not seem to make the hour-long journey to pay their respects. In that coffin you almost looked like a man who had been a nice person. You looked young to me and I realized that you weren’t that old really. You still had a lot of living to do but, for all of your brutal strength, you were no match for the flu. Or, at least that was what the coroner put on the certificate. My mother cried until she could barely breathe as we sat graveside and her tears were those of relief and freedom. I did not cry at all, for I truly believed you to be completely unworthy of my tears, my memories, the well-wishes from your co-workers and the hiccupping prayer from Skool Boy. I was not angry about your death because I don’t believe you truly ever deserved to live. When we got home that afternoon, Nana was not home. We made tea and waited, sitting in silence appreciating the way the house had relaxed around us. When she came in laden down with bags from Sears, we ran to help her. “Mama, what is all of this?”“Well, I had to throw out the old pots and pans.”“The spoons and spatula too?” Mom laughed.“Yep.” My grandmother replied.“No more meals for the king, huh?” I asked and began to unload a bag that contained a new strainer and soup ladle. Nana stopped unloading and looked at my mother and me, putting a soft hand on both our shoulders.“No, I will never cook like that again.” She promised and resumed her chore. It was the eeriest promise anyone’s ever made to me. For a long beat my mother looked at me and I at her and perhaps we both evoked our own images of Nana’s amazing meals, piping hot and spicy prepared especially for Cloy King, my father. I recalled how I’d been mystified by the hardware store owner knowing Nana by name and asking about our rat problem. I don’t know what ran through my mother’s mind but we both turned away and began to unpack our new kitchen things. Nana began to roll out a crust for chicken pot pie and simmer vegetables in a new stock pot.They say that every house has a hum. On that night, the house—its foundation and its walls—hummed with happy voices, light-hearted laughter and conversation, the notes of a long-forgotten guitar dug out of the dusty attic. The house hummed of three women separated by generations but united in the certain knowledge that they would eat suppers with no onions, cooked in a brand new pot as they sat fireside and they would do so in celebration of the death of a king.
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