Horses, Whores, and Psychosis
Dad was in one of his moods. He sat next to me on the front porch step and started talking. I knew he was talking to no one. It started with paranoia, progressed to delusions and for the grand finale, helplessness and anger. Same pattern, different night. Really, I should have known to get out of there, but I was lost in my own world and not paying attention.
“They are after my money, Hon. They are all against me! There’s nothin’ I can do.” His agitation peaked as his rant continued, eventually aiming at me.
“What are you gonna do with your life?” he asked.
“I want to be a doctor,” I said.
He sat silent for a second. A flash of anger crossed his face.
“You’re gonna grow up to be just like one a dem, good for nothin’. You’ll work at McDonald’s all your life.”
“I will not!” I said with as much boldness as a nine-year-old could gather.
“You’ll never be nothin’. You’ll be a whore just like your mother.”
I stood up from my spot on the crumbling cement step so I could meet his gaze.
“I’ll never be like her!”
“Yeah, well, we’ll see.” He flicked his cigarette into the yard before getting up and going into the house.
I looked out at the railroad tracks across the street. He doesn’t know me. I can do anything I want. Nobody’s in charge of me. I probably should have felt sad or hurt. By nine, though, I had learned it was better to feel nothing.
I considered staying outside, but it was getting dark, and I was scared to be on the street alone. I went in and settled on the living room couch where I slept.
On hot summer nights we kept all the windows open. Our ground-floor apartment was in a hundred-year-old home sandwiched between two buildings. Any hope for a breeze was more wish than possibility.
From my spot on the couch I could hear men yelling, “Mira! Mira!” as they tried to spark interest in what they had to sell to passers-by. It didn’t take much imagination to figure out what they were selling, late at night on a street corner in Perth Amboy, New Jersey.
Most nights I’d lay awake, re-living earlier years, trying to make sense out of my world. This night was no different. My mind rolled back to several years earlier, when I barely had memories.
I thought about Stella, who lived in the apartment above us on 96 Buckingham Ave. She was a sweet older lady with white hair, which she kept neatly pinned in a French Twist at the back of her head. Dad was constantly yelling at me to stay out of her apartment. I liked it up there. It was quiet, and nobody was sad. Stella always had a cookie for me, and for Christmas she set up a small ceramic tree with a white doily under it on a table in her living room. Her home was clean, and a place of stillness. Even though our apartments were the same size, with the same layout, I often wished I lived up there with her, instead of the 500 square feet of disheveled chaos below. I even asked her once if I could. She hugged me and said no, but I could visit anytime.
Dad came home around six. Shortly after that, the ritual berating began.
“This place is a friggen pig sty!” he yelled from the kitchen.
My mother stood up from the couch in the living room and walked over to the television to turn up the volume on her episode of M.A.S.H.
“Listen, you lazy bitch, I’ve been workin’ all day. Now I’m expected to come home and clean, too? What have you been doin’ all day?”
“I worked too!” she said.
It was like a song stuck on repeat. Same tune. Same outcome. Nothing changed.
I set my mind to fixing this problem. Mopping the floor in the kitchen seemed like the solution. I pulled a chair up to the counter, turned on the faucet, and plugged the sink. I swished the mop around. The water filled the sink and poured over the counter onto the floor. I hoisted the mop from the sink onto the floor and spread the water around on the tiles. When the linoleum started coming up by the corners, I mopped harder, thinking if I pushed it back down, it would stay. It didn’t. The entire floor was covered in a half-inch of water before I considered turning the faucet off. After a long while of my efforts to push the corners down with the mop, the tiles started taking on a funny yellow hue where I had poured the cleaner on it. My four-year-old mind doubted they’d notice, but they did.
“What the hell did you do? Lookit all this water! Get the hell outta here!” Dad said. I left out the kitchen door that led into the side alley, upset that I didn’t fix the yelling. Mom moved out shortly after that. I hoped her absence would stop the yelling.
On lottery nights, Dad and I sat by the TV, expectantly watching the lady pull a lever that sucked a small white ping-pong ball into a chute. She would retrieve the ball and add it to the Pick Three winning numbers, calling out the numbers as she retrieved them. My dad, seeing his numbers on the ticket matched the ones on our screen, jumped up.
“I won! I won!”
He was laughing and jumping around the room. My own excitement matched his. I got up and started dancing and jumping with him.
We walked down to the corner store to claim his winnings and saw the store owner sitting on a crate, smoking under the awning. Dad waved.
“We won $90!” I shouted as we approached.
“Shut the hell up! Are you crazy? Do you want to get mugged? Keep your damn mouth shut!” Dad said. The excitement of winning drained out of me with each passing insult. He was never one for softening a blow.
Dad wasn’t a tall or intimidating man, but at 5’9” he still seemed like a tower to me. His black hair ringed the bottom portion of his head and the bald spot on top often glistened. He wore jeans and a button-down shirt with one chest pocket, every day. He had three pairs of shoes: dress shoes, work shoes, and slippers. If he wasn’t in his work shoes, he was wearing slippers. And that’s how we walked to the store to cash in the lottery ticket: Dad in his slippers, jeans, and button down shirt, and me in one of the outfits my grandma found at a garage sale or seasonal closeouts at Bradlees down the road in Woodbridge, New Jersey.
He didn’t even believe in taking showers. Instead, scalding hot baths were his preferred method of cleaning. The water from the tap just didn’t get hot enough, nor did the hot water heater hold enough for a bath, so he boiled large pots of water and filled the tub, adding enough from the tap to keep from burning his skin.
He had just poured the last pot of boiling water in the tub and was headed back to the kitchen. He would return to add water from the tap in a second. I saw my chance to scale the drawers in the bathroom vanity and get up on the counter, so I could reach the cabinets. I had to know what Dad kept in there. I made it all the way onto the counter and managed to open the cabinet. I studied the contents before pulling down the mercurochrome. As I examined the bottle with its red liquid sloshing around, I lost where the end of the counter was and fell backwards into the water. My skin exploded on impact, and the pain intensified as the scalding continued. No amount of thrashing helped and I breathed the searing water into my lungs as I tried to scream. I managed to get ahold of the side of the tub and hoisted most of my body out when my dad came and fished me out the rest of the way.
“What the hell are you doin’?” he said.
The pain from the burns was so intense I couldn’t concentrate on his words, or make my mouth form an answer. He continued yelling at me.
“I fell.” I managed after his screaming reached a fevered pitch.
“You shouldn’t be climbin’ up on the cabinets! That’s what you get!”
“I’m sorry,” I said around coughing fits.
I flinched when he slapped me on the back to help me get the water up. “You’ll be fine,” he said, and finished drying me off with a towel. Miraculously, I only suffered first degree burns and minor blistering on my legs that were in the water longer.
Dad was right. I got what I deserved for being sneaky. Every time I got hurt, it was because I was messing with something I knew I should have left alone. Like the time a lightbulb had gone out on one of the lamps–Dad broke it off trying to change it. He moved the lamp onto the floor and set the tool box next to it, then went off to retrieve another bulb. I thought I’d be able to help, but he told me not to touch anything. I grabbed the screwdriver while he was gone and tried to dig the broken piece out of the socket.
“Dammit! What the hell are you doin’?” Dad yelled as he came back in the room. He startled me and I jumped. I felt a jolt. The next thing I felt was the pain in my burnt fingers. I guess Dad managed to knock me away from the lamp to stop the flow of electricity.
He was always there to keep me safe. Yet, I never really felt safe.
Most nights he sat at the kitchen table for long hours talking to himself. He’d smash his cigarette into the ashtray and immediately light another. His cup was still warm from the last coffee as he poured again. While he stayed well caffeinated, he avoided alcohol. He watched his own father struggle with that vice, and swore it off for the most part, except for an occasional beer or two. I never saw him drunk. That night, like most nights, he talked himself into an angry frenzy, yelling at no one.
“You listen to me, Monique! This world is filled with a bunch of no-good liars, and all they want to do is take your money. You need to be smarter den dem! Don’t tell no one about nuthin’. It’s none of their damn business anyway.”
“You better stay in school. Do you hear me!”
At six, I didn’t have plans of dropping out. Generally, I had no idea what he was talking about, but I knew better than to ask questions. It only made him more upset. I learned quickly that it was best to just nod and run off somewhere else to play. I looked for these escapes often. It was rare you could find me in the house, except on Saturdays.
Saturday morning cartoons were a staple, as was cold cereal. The TV served as my second form of escape. I was enjoying my Cookie Crisp and some Bugs Bunny when a Crisp that wasn’t quite chewed enough lodged in my throat. I attempted to swallow it, but that made it worse. I couldn’t breathe. Panicked, I turned and looked at Dad. My lips must have already turned blue, because he scooped me up by my feet, dangled me upside down and beat me with all he had till that Cookie Crisp came flying out of my mouth.
And then the yelling began.
“You gotta chew your food! That’s what happens when you’re not careful! What the hell kind of cereal is this? You’re never eating this again!”
I was happy to be breathing, but Cookie Crisp was my favorite. My heart sank. I should have been more careful. Dad was a fanatic about banning it, too. I didn’t eat another Cookie Crisp till I was 20. Even then, I still made sure to chew each bite carefully.
Saturdays in the summer were spent at the horse track. I had the train schedule to Monmouth Park and Freehold Raceway memorized, as well as the layouts of each track, in case I got lost and had to find my own way back home. I knew it wasn’t time to get serious about betting until the ritual re-telling of Dad’s favorite track story.
“Hey Hon? ‘Member dat time you and me went to the races and I sat you on the railing right up front. When the gun went off to start the race you got scared and fell backwards into the garbage can.” He’d end with the same sheepish grin every time.
“No, Dad. I don’t remember that,” I said.
“No, a-nah? You was too young.” Then he’d focus his attention on the race book and leave me to myself.
Monmouth was a throwback to a different time. The ladies room had a sitting area with furniture that looked like it was put there in the 19th century. The bathroom was massive, and I imagined it filled with women dressed in their Sunday best with parasols and bustles and black boots that laced up like ice skates.
I was too young to bet on my own, but Dad patiently explained what the numbers meant in the book, and how to choose the best horses to bet. By the time I was nine, I was next to Dad shouting in the eight horse for the win and subsequently cursing that this horse was a favorite and with those odds I’d get a crap payback on the bet Dad placed for me.
“It’s rigged!” he’d yell from his seat when his horse didn’t come in. Then he’d launch into a loud tirade about how the whole track was corrupt and they were out to steal people’s money. Most people sitting around us ignored him. Sometimes they’d yell back. I’d stay quiet and attempt to blend into the background. Our day at the track ended the same way every time. Dad threw his tickets on the ground.
“Bullshit. This place is crooked. Let’s go, Hun.”
That was my signal that it was time to get back on the train for home.
Occasionally we’d go to the bar and I’d play pinball and drink shirley temples, or go fishing for pickerel at Farrington Lake. Because in Dad’s words, “What the hell else is there to do?”
When I was six, he started taking me out for driving lessons which was even more fun than going to the races. He’d pull me into his lap in the car and I would steer down Cliff Road in Sewaren. The street was lined with giant, old oak trees and the most beautiful homes I had ever seen.
“You gotta have eyes out your asshole around here!” he explained. I understood he meant that I needed to watch out for what other cars were doing.
We’d end at the marina. Sometimes, we’d get out and walk down to the Arthur Kill and look across into New York. This became an evening ritual for us, up until I was tall enough to actually reach the pedals, and then he’d get out and let me drive while he rode in the passenger seat.
In the evenings, we’d sit out on the front stoop and talk to our neighbors and others passing by who spoke English.
“This used to be a respectable neighborhood,” he said. “Everyone came from the old country.”
“What’s the old country?” I said.
“Poland. It was all Polish here when I was a kid. Now there’s nothing but spics. The Puerto Ricans took over everything.”
I always thought it was strange that he differentiated us from them. By mid-summer, both he and I were so dark from the sun you couldn’t tell the difference. We fit right in.