I’m four. Eating a Zinger. Those are the ones with the hard chocolate frosting with the ridges. It has cream in it, and I am about done and wondering how I am going to talk my grandma into giving me another pack. She works at a thrift bakery store selling day-old bread and Hostess cakes. She brings them home by the bag and puts them in an old dishwasher. The sight of that door coming down and a rack of Hostess cakes sliding out before me was so sweet, and I know she has more.
I’m eating my cake as she does the dishes, and she asks me, “What did you do today?”
It’s about four. I was dropped off by Char about ten minutes ago because Rose is still at work, and their marriage is stretching on. Grandma is babysitting.
“Well I ate breakfast, that stupid flakes with no sugar. I hate it and it gets soggy so fast and then it makes me gag. I had that. Then later, after Mommy went to work, I had some candy. Then later I had a happy meal at McDonalds and now I am—”
“Jesse, did you do anything but eat today?” Grandma said with a laugh.
“We went over to Daddy’s girlfriend’s house and I got to see her dog, and she has two boys, but they are mean to me and—”
Grandma stopped washing dishes. She turned around and is now staring at me with wide eyes and slack jaw. “Where did you go?”
She looked mad, so I stuffed the Zinger in my mouth and scarfed down the last one. She dried her hands and opened her old dishwasher again. She pulled out a package of Twinkies and set them on the table.
My eyes got wide as she said, “Look at me.”
I looked up from the Twinkies to lock eyes with her as she eased the cakes across the table at me.
“Where did you just say you went? With the dog and the mean boys?”
“Daddy’s girlfriend’s house.”
“Your daddy has a girlfriend?”
“Yeah, her name is Store. She is better than the other one,” I said. I looked at the Twinkies. “Cuz of the dog.”
“Eat your Twinkies, sweetheart.” Grandma went back to the sink to finish the dishes.
When Rose got to her mother’s house, I told them both all about Char’s girlfriends and how often we were there and for how long. They kept feeding me cakes and I kept talking.
About a month later, Rose, Less, and I are living in a tiny basement apartment. I am watching Dukes of Hazzard when Rose gets the call.
“Hello.” Pause. “No, I am not coming home.” Pause. “Cause you’re a cheating bastard, that’s why. I am not your wife anymore. Once the papers go through, it is over.” Pause and now she is getting scared. But that fear is being replaced with resolve. Now with anger. “Well, you try to come get us if you want to. But I have my 22. Your 3030 hits harder, but my rifle can carry 18 rounds in the magazine and you drilled me. Do you remember, you fucker? Do you remember how much you drilled me and how much you made me fire this rifle? I have 18 shots and I never miss. So you come and try to bring us home and we will see who is lying in a pool of blood.” She gripped the phone with white knuckles. “Come and get me, fucker!”
Rose slammed the phone down and looked at me with unsteady eyes. “Jesse, you go get Less and you two get in your bedroom and close the door. Both of you, now.” She waved me off. “And get under the bed. Don’t come out until I tell you. Now go!”
I snuck out once to go to the bathroom and saw her at the window with a rifle in her hand staring at the street.
Then Bramble. We have talked about him before. He was a short, trim martial artist with a mustache and wild hair. He wore a lot of leather and was, without a doubt, my mother’s soulmate. He started coming around and he started staying the night.
I was not supposed to know that. He came over usually after Rose got back from work. They would sit on the couch, he would hold her, and they would whisper and she would giggle. They kissed a lot and he loved me. He loved me more than anyone, save my mother, and he was gentle and kind with me.
One day we went to his dojo. He was dressed in a white gi with a black belt, and there was a large mat with folding chairs ringing it. He was being tested, and I saw him working out.
I saw him hit a man. To say it that way makes it seem like I saw him hit a man. What I saw was, I saw him step out before another student at the dojo, and I saw his arms move. I did not see the impacts. He was simply moving too fast. I saw the blur and heard eight strikes. Then I saw him grip the guy’s wrist and, with a half spin and a shift of his foot, with a bit of a pull and the slide of his hip, the man flew over Bramble’s head to soar about ten feet. The man hit the mat hard then popped back up. Bramble rushed the distance and leapt. He kicked that man in the chest and that student flew another ten feet. The man popped back up, then attacked Bramble.
I had never seen anything like it. On The A-Team when they got into fights, B. A. Baracus would pick a guy up and toss him. Slow-mo the man would fly into the air, legs flailing, and land behind something. That was the only kind of fighting I had ever seen. I had taken countless hits from Char, but nothing like this. Watching Bramble fight was like watching a hurricane. It was like watching rain. That is the best way to describe it, I think. Watching Bramble fight was like watching rain. The hits were constant and there was no way of escaping them. When Bramble hit you, you always got wet.
One day I was in the kitchen. Bramble was watching TV. I found a pair of scissors and laid down. I held the scissors up over my face and I just opened and closed them over and over again. I was fascinated by the way they closed, slowly folding over each other and stowing the edges the way they did.
“Jesse!” Bramble shouted.
I looked up and he was rushing toward me. Before I could act, he was on me. He snatched the scissors away and stabbed a finger at me.
“Don’t you ever do that again!” He looked furious.
I burst into tears.
He set the scissors on the table and bent to pick me up. He wrapped me up in his arms and he carried me to the couch.
“Listen now. Look at me.” His face was soft right then. Thoughtful. “I want you to stop crying and listen to me. I am not mad at you, but you need to think right now and you need to stop crying.” His voice was soothing. And I did stop crying.
“I don’t want you to think I am mad at you. I am not mad. I yelled because I was scared. I was scared you were going to get hurt. What you were doing was very dangerous and you can’t do that again.” He laid his hand on my shoulder and stared me in the eye. “Never again. You have to be very careful with scissors. That is what I want you to remember. Not that you were in trouble. Not that you made me mad. Remember the lesson. Scissors are dangerous and you have to be careful.”
“Now come sit down. I want to introduce you to a friend of mine.” He sat me next to him and pointed me at the television. “This is The Greatest American Hero.”
The song for the new show came on the air, and as he held me I froze that moment in time.
Believe it or not I’m walking on air,
I never thought I could feel so free-ee-ee.
Flying away on a wing and a prayer,
Who could it be? Believe it or not, it’s just me.
’Cause I was safe with Bramble. I was loved by Bramble. I was cherished.
Now let’s look at the visitations. Let’s look for a moment at my time with Char.
“I am doing exactly what you said to do, Daddy,” Less said from her spot curled up on his lap. “But Jesse isn’t. He likes Bramble and he is not doing anything you said to do.”
Hands up. “I don’t like Bramble!” And in that moment, I didn’t. Because in that moment, I would have done anything to save myself from what was about to happen. I would have slit Bramble’s throat to stop the next part.
“What did I tell you to do?” Char said. His eyes locked on me as he tickled Less, and she kicked her legs giggling. “What did I say?”
It was the way he played with her when he said it that was so horrifying.
“You said not to listen to mommy. Not to do our chores. Yell at her when she tells us to do something. You told us to break her things and make messes,” I said.
“If we do that kinda stuff then—” My body shuddered. “If I do that kinda stuff then she will see that she needs a real man that can keep us straight.” I was crying now because he was clearing off the tiny coffee table in front of him. I looked at Less. She giggled and bit her bottom lip.
“How are we ever going to be a family again if you don’t obey me?” Char said. He stood, towering over me and glaring down. I was tiny then. A speck, nothing more. I trembled all over. “Don’t you want to be a family again? Don’t you want to live with your father and have him around when you wake and you sleep?”
“Yes.” I sobbed. I was weeping now. I dare not look away, but the mask of hate that was being placed delicately on his features then were hideous. I trembled uncontrollably and shook my head. “I want to be a family again. Honest.”
“Get in,” he said as he kicked the table open. It was a foot locker. I stared in wide-eyed horror.
“Now,” Char said. “Don’t make me stuff you in there.”
In and curled up. Top slammed shut and locked. I could hear him putting his drinks and ash tray back on the top of the foot locker, then the music hit. It was the music that made me scream.
Love me. Yes we love me.
Love him. Yes we love him.
Loud and vicious. Alice Cooper. The darkness of Char was tied up in that music. The horror of my father birthed by The Million Dollar Baby. The daughter he had created was the Black Widow. I could only hear that music for moments when locked in that coffee table before I began to scream.
Alice Cooper still makes me scream.
Rose worked at the convenience store Open Pantry, and at four thirty in the morning, she would wake us up. We would pour like taffy into our clothes then into the car. It was a Dodge Dart that dated back before the muscle car. Blue with leather seats. It was barely running and loud. We would pile into the back of that car and drift off to sleep while the city streetlights blurred by and the sound of the sputtering engine lulled us to sleep.
We were dropped off at the house of my aunt The Queen of Cats, Lioness and Tigress’s mother. We would fall into a bed and wake up playing with Tigress.
Rose picked us up at about noon. Less would go to Kindergarten and I would be put back in bed. Rose would take a nap but I could never sleep.
I would ramble around the house as quietly as possible looking for candy to steal and usually finding none. One day I did fall asleep on the couch, my head resting on the arm. I fell into a fitful sleep but woke up rested.
I woke up with a gentle arm resting on my body. Bramble had crawled behind me, put his head on the same couch arm, and was holding me. I laid there and quietly cried, the love the man felt for me radiating through me.
The night it happened I was fully asleep. I did not hear the bedroom door open. I did not hear Bramble wake Less up and tell her to go to the living room. But I felt him scoop me up and carry me away. I was half asleep when we walked through the kitchen, where I heard my mother crying, and by the time he set me on the couch, I was almost awake.
He pulled out an album, Al Stewart, Year of the Cat. He handed it to Less. “Here, I want you to have this. I know you like cats and I am going to be gone for a while.” He hugged her and shooed her back to bed.
I rubbed my eyes and looked at him. “Where are you going, Bramble?”
I remember the room being dim. I think the living room light was off, and only the light from the kitchen could be seen streaming into the darkness. Bramble and I were in the dark, Rose weeping in the light.
“Look at me, Jesse.” He gently touched my chin and guided it to his face. “Look at me. There you are. Here I am.” He closed his eyes and took deep breath. “I am leaving. Your mother asked me to go, and when a woman doesn’t want you around anymore, you have to pick up and ride. I don’t know when I am going to see you again, but I want to leave you with this.”
He pulled a small box out from nowhere and held it out for me. It was about two inches tall, about ten wide and a foot long. It was a black box and had two brass hasps holding it closed. When he opened it, I could see a row of five, foot-long sticks. Very decorative. Very smooth.
“I want to show you how it works.” He pulled out the thickest of the sticks, and the next, and began screwing them together. He continued until he had a full-sized pool cue. “Here it is. This is what I want you to have. It’s a pool cue. I know how much you like to knock the cue ball into the holes at the bars when we used to go.”
“Used to?” I mumbled.
“Yeah.” He closed his eyes again and drew in a deep breath. “Used to. I want you to take this and keep it. Take care of it. Look, Jesse, I love you. I always will. Nothing will ever change that.” He unscrewed the cue and placed it back into the red velvet it came in. He closed it and set it on my lap. “If you ever need me, your mom can find me.” He grabbed the sides of my head and kissed the top of my hair. Frantically he hugged me before pulling back, looking at me one more time, grabbing a bag, and as if Bramble had never been there…
He was gone.
The truth of it didn’t hit me until the next day. She told me Bramble was not her boyfriend anymore because he wanted to party and drink at bars and she had two little kids to take care of. She needed a man who made her kids a priority. “I’m doing this for you,” she said.
She found me in my bedroom with my pool cue screwed together trying to figure out what I was going to do with it.
“Looks like a sword, huh,” Rose said.
“Kinda,” I said.
“Go play with it outside.”
I took my pool cue outside and swung it around like a sword. I hit it against a tree.
It all shattered that day.