TJ had just turned six; and Leroy and his mother had been married for about a year and a half. TJ was not sure of Leroy, could not quite let him fit in, could not quite fit himself in with Leroy and Mommy.
“TJ, it’s time to put your stuff away and get to bed,” his mother gently reminded.
It was time to argue with her a little and delay bedtime as long as he could. TJ pouted a little and did not start to bed. Maybe Mommy would read him a story and maybe sing him his song on his way to sleep.
“What the hell’s wrong with you? Are you deaf? It’s time you get your ass kicked and start listening to your mother,” Leroy shouted as he grabbed TJ by the shoulder and started dragging him off to bed.
Leroy stopped for a breath and to swear more at TJ when TJ got his footing and lunged at Leroy with his hands and feet. “You little bastard, I’ll show you who’s boss around this house. I’m not going to put up with some little bastard like you kicking me. Anytime you think you’re big enough to take me on, you just try me.” Leroy jammed his fist into TJ’s face and picked him up and carried TJ screaming to his room. As he threw TJ onto his bed, Leroy screamed, “You shut your mouth and get your ass to sleep. I ain’t putting up with any more of your mouth and you not listening to your mother.”
TJ did not go to sleep. He was afraid to go to sleep. He laid in his bed, not moving, not breathing, experiencing terror for the first time. Mommy finally came to him.
“I’m sorry TJ. I never thought anything like this would happen.” She sobbed and held TJ closer as she continued, “You know how it was after your Daddy left us. I never thought anything like this would happen.” She left him for a minute and came back with a warm wash cloth and a glass of milk. “I hate this. You know Mommy loves you. Please try to get along with Leroy. Please try not to upset him.”
TJ did try hard not to upset Leroy and was successful most of the time. He mostly stayed in his room when he was in the house. As often as he could, he stayed at the neighbor’s or at one of his friend’s house. Even then, though, he could not always avoid Leroy.
“What are you doing sitting on your lazy ass when your mother needs your help in the kitchen?” “Quit standing there like some kind of idiot and hand me that shovel.” “Get the hell out of my way and let me do it. I have to do everything around here if I want it done right.” “Get that stupid look off your face before I take it off for you.” The threat was always there and there was always the challenge, explicitly, implied, demonstrated. “When you think you are big enough to tell me what to do, you just try it, you little bastard. Until then, shut your face and get the hell out of here.”
When TJ was not by himself in his room or spending time with Pam, his step-sister, in her room, he was at the neighbor’s or over night with a friend. And there was school, always school. By the fourth or fifth grade, TJ found his place, he belonged, he was valued and important. He was not at the head of the class but close enough to get the rewards, the attention. What he did not quite get there, he got in endless doses on the play ground and on the ball teams, any kind of ball. In the eighth grade, his life found its climax in what he later thought of as a hat trick. He won the county democracy speech contest with a speech he wrote all by himself and just a little help from his history teacher. He was the most valuable player on the winning baseball team at the county tournament. Leroy broke his nose and put him in the hospital for three days.
TJ was in high school the day he heard the arguing from his room but did not think much about it. His mother and Leroy got into it like that a lot. They usually yelled and screamed for a while and then Leroy left. He had to go find his friends and get drunk.
“It’s your own fault,” he always yelled at her as his parting shot.
“I suppose you are going to run off and drink with those so called friends of yours,” was her usual reply. The script was always the same, except this time Leroy did not leave. TJ heard his mother yelling and then screaming, except it was not the same. “Please Leroy. Please, don’t, Leroy don’t.”
TJ picked up his ball bat on his way to the kitchen. He saw Leroy hit his mother just as he got to the kitchen. She was on the floor and Leroy was pulling her hair with one hand, had one foot on her stomach, and was bent over hitting her with his other fist. Out of instinct, out of inner rage, out of blind emotion, TJ raised the bat and swung. Leroy saw the bat just in time to stop the blow with his arm. His hand came around and caught the weapon and jerked it away. He was off TJ’s mother and had one hand at TJ’s head and the other under his arm forcing TJ against the wall. Leroy did not say anything, could not say anything. Instead, he grasped TJ’s hair and pounded his head into the wall. At the same time, he hit TJ in the stomach and then harder in the face. He slammed TJ’s head against the wall and hit him and kept hitting him. When he finally stopped hitting him and let go, TJ dropped to the floor, remembering nothing until he awoke in the hospital.
TJ’s mother was beside his bed; but he did not see Leroy as he first found awareness and then was more alert. Leroy smiled as he said, “There he is Mother. I told you he was a fighter. He is too tough to let an accident like that slow him down. Hi TJ, how are you boy?”
Even in the hospital, from within his pain, TJ understood, knew the script. The doctor leaned over him and said, “You had a rough time of it. Your nose is broken and you are pretty banged up; but you are going to be fine. You will hurt for a while but you should be good as new in a few weeks.”
TJ touched his hand to his face; and the doctor said, “Your nose will be fine. You’re just lucky you’re not a girl. It should heal up fine; but even if it is a little off, you can tell them it is a football injury. Girls like that kind of thing in their men. They think it means you are sexy.”
It was the last week of school when Pam’s mother came for her. “I have to have you back with me. I just can’t believe in a God who wants to keep us apart. My God, our God isn’t that kind of God. He wants me and you to be together, no matter what I have to do.”
Leroy did not say much except to glare at his ex-wife and tell Pam, “Go live with the bitch if that’s what you want. You’ll see how good you had it here. Don’t drag your ass back here when you wake up some day and find out what a big mistake you made.”
Pam hesitated and then ran to the stairs to get her things. Pam’s mother looked at TJ’s mother as if to ask, “May I go help her?” Instead of answering her, she looked at TJ and nodded. He was instantly to Pam’s aid.
They did not talk while Pam packed and TJ helped. All of her things, her transportable life, were neatly packed into one suit case and a small box TJ brought from his room. Pam was finished and stood looking around the small space that had been her room.
TJ said, “Wait just a second, please.” When he returned, he held out his closed hand to Pam.
She first looked at the extended hand and then at TJ. The tears in her eyes were not noticeable in her quiet voice as she tentatively asked, “What is it?” TJ only opened his fingers and let the two medals drop into her hand. She glanced at them and stammered, “But, these are your medals. You told me … .”
But TJ did not let her finish. “I want you to have them. Don’t forget me. I love you Pam.” “And me you,” she said.
School finished for the year, TJ got a job working on the neighbor’s farm, and it was baseball season. He did not forget the world he shared with Pam; but the days were getting warmer and the nights were growing shorter. TJ was settling into the home stretch leading to graduation and the day he would leave, could leave his painful space.
His job and activities kept TJ away from home most of the time, and most nights were spent at the neighbor’s continuing the pattern that had developed over the years. His mother missed him and asked once or twice if he would spend more time at home but knew he would not, should not. Leroy did not seem to notice one way or the other, though. He was busy with his dogs, his garden, and his friends. The only times he seemed to notice TJ was not around were when the garden needed weeding or the kennel needed cleaning.
“Where is that lazy kid? When is he going to get his ass home and do his share?” But TJ’s mother did not answer, no answer was expected or wanted.
TJ came home when he needed clean clothes and sometimes when the summer rains kept them out of the fields or made it too muddy to work around the barn. If Leroy was out, on days like that TJ went home to see his mother and to spend some time in his room, time remembering.
Tuesday was one of those days in late July. TJ and his mother talked about the farm, the baseball season, his senior year, the rain. He devoured the pie she baked for him; and TJ and his mother remembered the old days, the days before Leroy, although neither mentioned any of this.
When Leroy came in, both TJ and his mother were surprised, disappointed. Their special moment was broken to perhaps never return. “So, you finally planted your ass in my kitchen. What the hell are you doing here? I suppose you’re trying to get the old lady to give you something. Who knows what the hell you’d’ve walked out of here with if I hadn’t come home.”
TJ’s mother uncomfortably said, “We were just talking. Would you like some pie?”
TJ did not take long slipping out of the kitchen and up to his room. He put his clean clothes into his duffel bag and tried to quietly get out the hall door to the cellar where he could get out by the outside cellar stairs without going through the kitchen.
He almost made it, but just as he started to open the hall door to go down to the cellar, Leroy yelled, “Get your hand off that door. You’re not taking nothing out from this house. Put down that bag and get your ass on out of here.”
TJ dropped the bag, opened the door, and started down. Before he was on the first step, Leroy jerked him back and was between him and his escape. “Who the hell do you think you are? If you think you can just come waltzing in here and carry off half the house, you’ve got another thing coming to you; and I’m just the man who can give it to you.”
TJ had grown past six feet and was looking down at his step-father now. He was aware of the little man who was yelling at him. “You are worse than that so called daughter of mine.” Leroy stretched up to scream louder in TJ’s face. “That little slut took what she wanted and then took off with that bitch of a mother of her’s. And you, I suppose you think I don’t know what was going on. What do you think I am, blind or something? Do you think I don’t know what was going on up in that room while I was busting my ass to keep this house together? You’re worse than that little whore was.”
TJ reached for Leroy, for his throat. There was a hint of panic as Leroy said, “You keep your hands off me. You just try it and I’ll kick your ass all the way up between your ears. Any day you think you can handle the old man, you just try it.”
TJ’s rage was blind. The violence within him was unbounded. The terror of a life time turned out to engage the source of its power. TJ forced his hands under Leroy’s arms and he lifted him off the floor and slammed him against the door jam. As Leroy fell, he swung at TJ who caught the blow with his arm. With the fury of outrage, TJ’s fist crashed into Leroy’s face once, twice, three times; and Leroy slumped and staggered back. TJ saw what was happening but did not reach to help. Leroy went over backwards and tumbled down the cellar stairs.
TJ’s mother went with the ambulance, leaving TJ to try to understand what had happened. “I should have killed him. Maybe I did kill him.”
The sheriff arrived about two hours later. Leroy was going to be alright. He would be on crutches for a few weeks but should be fine. Leroy had told the sheriff about how TJ had attacked him for no reason; and TJ’s mother had corroborated his story.
The sheriff fastened the handcuffs around TJ’s wrists as he said, “You have a right to remain silent. You have a right. . ..”