~Younger than 10~
The house is darker tonight. The open country sky and my beloved stomping grounds, the Ozark woods, seem dark alleys and hiding places. Dad is gone later than usual– after dark– gone away to the far off and mysterious State Capitol, where he walks the halls fighting evil and defending the family. Without him, the liberals win. I’m young, but I understand. I know without him we will be taken away, because one look at our TV-less home, shelves full of books and Bibles, and they would say we were “neglected.” He has to go, he has a calling from God.
But tonight the house is too empty, our defender is gone, the World is pressing in to my safe spaces. I huddle under the blankets, eyes wide open, waiting.
Bright lights and the gravel make my heart stop. Is it DFS– The People Who Break Up Families–, is it The Social Workers??
The door opens and cowboy boots resonate against the hardwood floors. He laid those floors by hand, he built the whole house, one piece at a time, no debt and no help. Sure, purposeful, commanding steps– his boots on his floor. I would know those steps as surely as his face or his voice. My entire tiny body relaxes.
Dad is home.
I am safe.
I hear them.
On the walkway, on the porch, on the kitchen linoleum. The ache in my stomach starts. I try to keep reading– it’s school, I can’t get in trouble for this. I’m not being forgetful or irresponsible. I sit up straighter so it’s clear I’m studying not lounging. I face the book’s title toward the door. First impressions become fact, so I set the scene to be immediately readable.
I struggle to focus as everything in me instantly becomes polarized toward the sound of the boots. I instinctively track every step. I listen to doors, cabinets. I listen for boots to trip over something carelessly left on the floor– a sure trigger for an outburst. I picture each room just ahead of his footsteps– did I leave a project where he would need space? Did Mom leave out something (is an argument looming)? I can’t picture anything out of place.
The boots turn. They carry him closer. Back through the kitchen… toward the front door? Is he leaving? I experiment with relaxing. No. Closer, down the hall. I flush, heart racing in fear. My mind becomes near-death-experience focused, tunnel vision on a slideshow of my day. Did I leave my bike out again? Are the clothes on the line and it’s raining? Did I forget a chore or something he asked me to do? Those things are always priority. Did someone tattle about an argument? No. We all know better. There is nothing any of us can do to each other that’s so bad we would bring him into it.
I scramble to remember what I’ve done wrong, but I’m coming up blank. Which is bad. It’s always better to know, to anticipate, to prepare an apology or reason that cannot be mistaken as an excuse. To be caught by surprise means I was not self-aware enough, committing the ultimate sin of stupidity.
It’s a short hall, so the miles of mental snapshots I’ve viewed since the boots passed the door is, I’m sure, quite impressive. Hand on the knob now. My racing heart stops, face drains. Did I lock the door? A locked door is never allowed in his house, though we lock each other out during the day when we think he’s gone. To him, children should have nothing to hide and demanding privacy is a rebellious act of mistrust, a spit in the face. So a strange relief is felt when the door opens, the immediate fear having displaced the slightly more abstract.
I had done it. Something I didn’t know I wasn’t to do. I feel ashamed for not realizing it would be a problem, for not getting there faster, figuring it out. It seems I’ve done it intentionally, rebelliously, despite everything he’s done for us all. Despite how hard he works. Despite how much he puts up with. The lecture is never ending, the tone rising and falling in a lilting pattern I hear in my sleep most nights. Shrilly angry to patiently self-righteous to gruffly angry and back around. It continues, tracing an impressive story arch from my unknowing breach to my mother’s rebellious attitude to her family’s generational curse of feminism to my baby brother’s many failings to the time I was a toddler and pushed him away when he reached for me. I knew the path. The canyon had been carved. The words flowed through, still finding sharp corners in my mind to work on breaking down, washing away my thoughts and pounding onward.
At last he is done. I don’t know how he decides he’s said enough since I never understand what he chooses to include in each rant. But it’s over. As the boots stomp loudly down the hall, out the door, down the pathway, I focus on their recession and my fear fades as the footsteps do. The knot in my stomach takes longer to untangle. I stare blankly through the pages and replay every word.