Saturday, November 17, 2007

Just Another Saturday Morning Cartoon

I’m sitting cross-legged three feet from the TV watching cartoons. I’m four. I’m so close to the tube, my baby-fine hair stands away from my head from the static electricity. I can actually feel the picture, dancing on my face, tingling it with static. I’m somewhere else, lost in the make-believe world of Technicolor.

Mom’s in the kitchen feeding my baby brother. He’s one and sitting in the high-chair pushed against the wall. And then I’m aware she’s screaming at the top of her lungs. No words. Nothing discernable. Just that Janet-Leigh-Psycho-high-pitched-he’s-killing-me-with-a-huge-knife-in-the-shower kind of scream. A scream so full of terror, there’s no room for words.

My mother’s scream doesn’t just get my attention, it transports me into her world of terror and suddenly, there are two lives at stake. I’m in the kitchen before she can take another breath. Heart pounding, hands and feet full of the impulse to do something, anything, but I have no idea what’s wrong or what I can do to save us both. I know all the way through to my core that death is close. Nothing else could possibly make that sound. I’m terrified. Frozen. But also too frightened to do nothing.

Strange as this sounds, mom’s screams are coming from up near the ceiling. I look quickly up and to the right and attempt to assemble the puzzle of images into sense. Mom’s rear-end is three feet above the counter and she’s wedged between the wall and cabinet, like a rock climber shimmying between two vertical surfaces. She’s as high as she can go and she’s all crammed up near the ceiling. Had it been in my vocabulary, I’d have said, “What the fuck?” But instead I just breathe in and out very fast, eyes wild and searching. I look around the kitchen quickly. My little brother was eating elbow macaroni off of the high-chair tray, but now he’s crying – that open-mouthed squinty-eyed no-sound-coming-out kind of cry. One elbow macaroni noodle still held between his thumb and forefinger. Holly crap! When was the last time he took a breath?

I look back at my mother but I’m too scared to talk. My eyes are begging her to tell me how to put the world back together. She can’t speak either. And oh my god, that screaming! Terror has her by the throat and it’s squeezing the life out of her. She makes a fist, and with her index finger extended, she punches the air repeatedly pointing towards my baby brother. I steal a quick look at him and he’s still locked in mid-cry, Grouper-mouthed and beet red. Then I hear my mother try to say something over her shrieking. She chokes out “KILL IT!!!!!” still punching the air towards my brother.

I look at my brother again. I’m pretty sure she doesn’t mean him, so I look at mom again having now added a venire of confusion to the look of terror already plastered on my face, which is quickly hardening. Having found her words again, I’m suddenly inundated with a barrage of “KILL IT”s.“

Kill it! Kill it! Kill it! Kill it! Kill it! (punching and pointing – punching and pointing) Killitkillitkillitkillitkillitkillitkillit!!!!!” I take a step towards my brother’s high-chair and my mother’s screaming returns, but with a higher intensity – a greater sense of urgency, if that’s even possible. And then I see the “it” from which she’s making her escape. I don’t really see it as much as I detect a streak of movement, quick – jerky and down close to the floor, not far from the high-chair. My eyes instinctively follow and I finally catch a glimpse of my mother’s nemeses.

It’s a baby field mouse, no more than two inches long. I squat down, my butt resting on my heals, and look at it. It’s breathing faster than I am and desperately looking for a way to escape my mother’s screaming. I stare at the mouse and think to myself that I have no idea what to do or how to make her stop. I suddenly recall the Tom & Jerry cartoon I was watching and my four-year-old brain makes the necessary connection. Suddenly I realize we need a cat. I look more closely at the mouse and all I want in that very moment is to pick him up and take him away with me – away from the screaming, somewhere we can play together. I want to put him in a box and just watch him eat. In my mind, I’ve already named him.

My mother again finds her words. “KILL IT!!!! KILL IT!!! GET THE BROOM! GET THE BROOM!!! GET THE BROOM!!” She’s holding an imaginary broom and through pantomime, she’s showing me how to jab at the mouse with the bristles. She keeps repeating this exaggerated motion while screaming, “GET THE BROOM!!!” Twenty-five years later, when I tell this story to my therapist, he winces as I stand in front of him stabbing at the wall with my imaginary broom. The empathy on his face makes me cry.

I run through the kitchen, past my mother into the laundry room to get the broom, not because I plan on killing the mouse, and not because I’ve figured out that doing so will save us both from her private hell, but simply because she’s commanded me to do so. As I pass my mom, I notice how she’s managed to climb up between the wall and the cabinet and think to myself that it looks like fun. I make a mental note to myself that when this is over, I’m going to try that.

I come back with the broom and by now, my mother’s emotional state has deteriorated. She’s sobbing uncontrollably and I finally can hear my brother crying out loud as well. I stand over the mouse and suddenly in my mind, everything is quiet. I completely understand what needs to be done. I’m going to kill this mouse and save myself, my mom and my brother. The life of everyone in this room depends on me following through with this. I’m in a world of complete silence. In my mind, I apologize to the mouse. I say, “I’m sorry I’m going to kill you now. I wish we could have played together. But if I don’t kill you, I’m going to die, because my mother is going to die apparently, and I can’t live without her. Do you understand? I’m only four. I need my mom to live. And therefore, you can’t. Your name is Peter.”

The broom feels awkward in my hands. Have I ever held one before? I hold it at a forty-five degree angle, like my mom showed me, and I reluctantly touch the bristles to the side of the mouse – just a tap. These many years later, I think that I was simply wishing the mouse dead – wishing he would die with just the touch of the broom, to spare me the awful task of killing him. I feel his soft body yield under the bristles, ever so slightly. I think it hardly disturbed him. I pull the broom back and see that Peter is in the same place, sniffing for a way back home.

I look over to my mom for reassurance. I don’t want to do this. But my mom makes huge jabbing motions with her hands in an effort to kill vicariously. Her teeth are clenched and here eyes are wild with a hunger for murder. I sense something evil but don’t have the words required to describe what I am experiencing. Her wild movements implicitly urge me – compel me to kill.

Breathing deeply, I take a serious stab at Peter. This time there is no question about my intention. I feel the softness of him give way to my thrust. It is horrible and I remember it still. The squeak that escapes him rings in my ears even now. One short chirp at the highest register of sound. In my mind I hear these words, “I made him make that horrible sound. I’m killing him.” And in that moment something inside of me clicks in an awful way. A switch is thrown and suddenly I am bathed in a new and unfamiliar light. And from somewhere unseen, I fill with hatred. My next thrust at Peter is all business. His squeak is terrible. But I jab at him again, even harder – another squeak. I hate him now for scaring my mom, but mostly for thrusting the responsibility of saving my mother’s life into my four-year-old hands. I hate him for suddenly making me old. And so I jab at him repeatedly. With each thrust, I see my mother mimicking my movements out of the corner of my eye – her actions, somehow comforting her and reassuring herself that the killing business is in full swing.

Peter’s third chirp is his last and the only sound after that is the noise the bristles make as they scrape against the baseboard under my brother’s high-chair. Eventually, I stop jabbing at Peter with the broom. It doesn’t feel so big in my hands anymore. When I stab at him the last few times, I don’t feel his body yield. I know I’ve crushed him and it’s time to stop. I don’t know at what point during Peter’s murder I started crying, but I realize now that I am. I stand there with the broom wishing that my mom’s powers would return so that she can make me feel safe again. But she just sits there on the counter, crying – sobbing hysterically, and I feel like I will never be ok again.

I get the dust pan and gently sweep up Peter’s broken body. It takes several tries, and with each attempt, I quietly whisper to him that I am sorry. My tears so abundant, I can hardly see what I am doing. I take Peter outside and hide him behind the air conditioner in the back yard, so I can burry him later. I simply have to – to hide what I’ve done.

When I get back inside, mom’s holding my brother and rocking him – shushing and cooing him quiet. All I can think about is how badly I need a turn in her arms – how desperately alone I feel. And then the reality of the situation settles on me. It stabs me into a dark corner in my own mind and crushes me like the corn-broom must have felt to Peter. Mom can’t keep me safe. In fact, she needs me to keep her safe. It’s almost too much for my four-year-old self to handle. And I’m crying again.

Mom scoops me into her arms and holds me tight against her cheek. Her face is wet with tears and she stinks. I realize terror has a smell. I stop crying and for the first time in my life, I push her away. I ask her if I can go play outside and she asks me if I’m sure I’m ok. “Yes.” I say, and run up to my room to get a Band-Aid box. I dump all the Band-Aids in the drawer and take it outside and gently wrap Peter in tissues. His body is still warm, but his bones move inside of him in a way that even a four-year-old knows they shouldn’t. I imagine the damage I’ve caused. I inspect his little body further, looking for any sign of life – not because I hope he’s alive, but because I’m afraid to burry him if he isn’t completely dead. I look closely into his eyes. I inhale deeply and hold my breath for as long as I can, the whole time watching Peter’s chest for any sign of the tell-tale rise and fall of life. There’s no question that he’s gone. I burry him. And when I’m done, I can’t help but wonder if something has also broken inside of me.

By Dennis Tkon Copyright 2007


Pauline said...

Poor you, poor Peter, and poor mom, so frightened of a mouse. This was well told.

BipolarLawyerCook said...

Heartbreaking, horrible, wonderful retelling.

poet with a day job said...

God, D, how awful...I mean really...

I couldn't do it. In fact, when I had a whole family (mom and five babies) n my NYC apartment, I scoped them into a big plastic can and drove them a few miles away.

Foolishly, they came back. And my roommate wasn't so caring as I.

Strong story...perhaps a chapter in the book?

Dennis said...

Pauline & Bipolarlawyercook, thanks for reading and for your thoughtful comments.

M – I can remember this like it was yesterday. And it happened just like this. I wish I could have put him in a bucket and taken him outside, but I was 4 and my mom needed him dead, and I needed her to be ok again. The worst part wasn’t killing him, it was being in the presence of a parent who was suddenly incapable of keeping herself let alone me, safe. It was one of the worst moments of my life. I still get upset when I tell the story. Thanks for reading! And yes, this will definitely be one of the chapters of the book. Thanks for noticing.

Madeleine said...

Beautifully written!
Mad Kane

Jo said...

Wow, an amazingly brilliant telling of an awful, awful tale. I'm so sorry, Dennis......

Holly Mac said...

I absolutely love this story. It is so well told, so vivid. Truly, truly amazing.

paisley said...

sounds like it is mom who needs the therapy... who in their right mind would do something like that to a four year old child??? to a child of any age for heavens sake...

tumblewords said...

The power here is overwhelming, consuming and wild. Well told!

aka Danny Wise said...

This story kept me on the edge of my seat right to the end! Poor Peter, poor you, poor baby and poor mum!

Dennis said...

Thanks everyone from Jo on down. I appreciate your reading this and sharing your thoughts.

Paisley - I agree that it was my mom who needed to spend time on the couch. In hindsight (and as a father of two myself) I can't imagine ever doing what she did!!

Anonymous said...

What a wonderfully, powerfully told, terrible story.

Thank you for sharing it.

gautami tripathy said...

No matter what a parent has to be the stronger person.

You seem to have photographic memory.


...deb said...

Wonderful story: all that desperation, a mad-woman & child.

And a soft, grey mouse. Dead. A child separates himself.

Well done. Horrible, but wonderful.

I look forward to reading your book one day.

Dennis said...

Thanks Deb - for reading and your kind words.

R's Musings said...

Hi Dennis - been away awhile! I've actually stopped blogging, but I've been getting caught up with your posts this evening. This one is great storytelling! It triggered all the senses, very vivid images came to mind. I've just returned from spending time with family over the holidays and I find it sad that we spend most of our adult lives trying to overcome our childhoods...very sad! Hope you're enjoying the holidays and that 2008 brings you joy and peace! Thanks for sharing your story with us!