The summer I turned eight was the first time I ran away from home. Dragging along three pillows, a faded wool blanket, some red licorice, my little brother and the best friend I’ve ever known, Bobby Fowler, I headed out into the world with the utmost confidence that life would be better far away from my mother. The big park was the goal, a hidden clearing in a glen near the creek, surrounded by thickets where we would be safe and happy.
Five miles is a long haul when you’re small. Most of the walk was on 61st Street, a major Milwaukee thoroughfare with minor traffic crossings every few blocks. We laid down and rested by the crosswalks when we got tired, ate a bit of licorice, discussed our new life. Not a single adult ever stopped to question what three small children were doing stretched out on the sidewalk in broad daylight with their blanket and pillows. Surreal.
By the time we turned into the neighborhood that surrounded the park it was well past midday, thirst drove us to a well known house three short blocks from the park. This was the old section of town, genteel wealth living in gracious older homes on wide, tree lined avenues. A clear world away from our barely respectable, fourplex apartment units laid out in a square grid surrounding the scrubby piece of lawn we were escaping.
A tiny, silver haired widow lived in a immaculate three story red bricked Tudor surrounded by carefully sculpted hedges and large pots of red geraniums on one of these fine streets. The house was a shrine to her late husband, nothing changed since his death twenty years earlier, except her son’s locked room, which she never entered. I remember well polished wainscoting, high shadowed ceilings and green curtained rooms filled with old furniture and porcelain figures that you couldn’t touch. There was an attic reached by climbing a narrow, hidden curved staircase. Dusty, deadly quiet and safe. The kitchen was the only bright spot in the whole house, filled with a wall of windows and white painted cabinets. She grew violets on the windowsills.
My brother and I had spent many nights in this house the previous three months, sleeping on a featherbed laid out on the floor in the front parlor, while Mrs. Schraeder’s son dated my mother. The widow was our babysitter. She was never kind, but she took good care of us and seemed trustworthy on a basic level. I thought this would be a good place to get a drink, maybe snag a raison cookie or two before heading into the park.
The simplicity of children is amazing. It never occurred to me that the old lady would question our trip to the park, call my mother or that there might be a manhunt of massive proportions going on for three missing children who’d vanished several hours earlier. She sat us down on the good couch in the living room, took her time bringing us refreshments and then chatted up a storm. Stupid girl, I should have ran. Mrs. Schraeder never chatted and we certainly weren’t allowed to ever eat on the good couch, much less sit on that holy piece of furniture.
Steve, her son, my mother’s boyfriend, showed up with Bobby’s dad pretty quickly. We heard them heading up the back stairway after the door slammed in the kitchen. My four year old brother wet his pants on the widow’s good couch. So did Bobby. The old lady quietly backed into a far corner of the room. She later told me that I stood up, placed myself between the boys and the men, bared my teeth and growled. I don’t remember that. I do recall hitting the wall, hauling myself up and biting Steve right before he threw my baby brother down the back stairs. I remember the hard push that sent me down those first eight treads, falling in a pile on top of Douglas at the landing and the kicks that sent us down the last eight steps to the back entry. I still see Bobby, wild eyed with fear, his big brown eyes leaking tears, his daddy hurting him. I’ll never forget that. The ride home in the back seat of the big white convertible Pontiac with the red leather seats smeared with child piss, shit and tears.
Bobby and I didn’t leave our houses for the next week. We couldn’t, the punishment didn’t stop in that old woman’s house, there was a whole world of hurt waiting for us when we got behind our own closed doors and it would have embarrassed our mothers for the neighbors to see us so black, blue and swollen. It wasn’t anything new for Bobby or me. Hell, at least I didn’t get locked in a closet or burned like Bobby.
My mother married that asshole Steve eight weeks later. Bobby got lucky, his daddy died the following month.