When we were kids, we ran. Not like you’re thinking. Not like in that “Of course, you ran, it was the ‘70s before video games and cell phones stole mobility from the youth” kind of way, but flat out. The chest heaving, fist pumping, rocks flying beneath our shoes, against traffic lights, in front of cars, don’t-stop-until-that-hitch-in-your-side-threatens-to-kill-you, “if you stumble, I will drag you with me” kind of running. We ran for our lives. We ran pass the kids playing double-dutch, the boys playing basketball, the girls with ribbons in their hair, little balls bouncing away from grasping fingers and jacks scattered on the ground. We needed to beat that blue truck.
That blue truck meant he was home.
That blue truck meant home was eerily quiet.
That blue truck meant home was a dangerous place.
That blue truck meant many things to Dawna and me, but mostly, it meant, “You better run.” So, we did.
Dad didn’t care about after school events. He didn’t care about being popular, or talented, or athletic. He cared about having a cold beer. He cared about sitting in a house that was silent as midnight mass even if it was 7:00 p.m. on a Tuesday evening.
We were children of the ‘70s, but he was a man of the ‘50s who still believed that children should be seen and not heard and he took that adage seriously.
My sister and I would sit in our rooms trying desperately not to make any noise that might draw dad’s attention. Dad’s attention was not something you wanted. His attention meant a raised voice, a heavy hand, and harsh punishment. It didn’t matter what you had done:
Laughed aloud at a comic book page – “What the fuck is so funny?”
Closed the door without holding the knob so that it whispered shut instead of slamming – “Don’t slam doors in my Goddamned house.”
Dropped a plate into the sink with too much force – “Tearing up all my shit”
It all carried the same punishment; the back of dad’s hand, or his belt, or the nearest thing that he could pick up and throw with amazing accuracy.
So, we ran; my sister and I.
The school bell would ring and we’d fly out of the building with wings on our feet, racing to get there first. Racing to cross four blocks, and two traffic lights. Racing to get to the fourth house on the block. Racing to be free. We ran, you see, because if we could get there first we could laugh aloud at comic book strips, we could let the door close without holding the doorknob; we could put a dish in the sink without extra care.
We ran so that we could be what we were: children of the ‘70s.
Dawna would come into my room and bounce on the bed while I listened to music without the headphones. She could roll up the sleeves on her shirt without anyone saying she was “a harlot in the making.” She could smile and I could tell her she looked just like mom without it being an accusation.
I could sing the blues from the top of my lungs, instead of soft and low, humming lyrics into my pillow that were meant to be belted out and cried over. But the blues didn’t make me cry. I understood all of the music’s colors. It was the dark blue of a Chevy pickup that brought moisture to my eyes, a quickening to my heart, a clench to my hand.
I didn’t understand.
I remembered my mother. Mom was vibrant. She was loud. She was gregarious and vivacious. Even her silences were filled with noise. Laughter was a constant upon her lips, bursting forth like soap bubbles to fill a room.
Yet dad loved her and the cacophony that was her constant backdrop.
But in us, those she left behind, my sister and me, even my dad, all the casualties of a war we had not enlisted in, he accepted only silence. He drank it in. Bathed in it. Basked in it. Reveled in it until there was nothing left, but him and the eerie calm broken only by the occasional disclaimer that he “Never wanted any fucking kids.”
It was true; he’d gotten us by default, but my mother was not to blame.
The guy who crossed the divider –
The young teen who didn’t hear the horn blowing –
The lady who looked away “for just a second” –
Those three strangers who walked away unscathed from a four car pileup that took my mother’s life were to blame.
Blamed for my mother’s death, for turning our house into a tomb, and my dad into a man who drove a blue truck.
And for making my sister and me run.
There is enough blame to go around, yet, it is still inadequate compensation.
But these reflections are old.
I am a man now and I haven’t had cause to run in a long time. The sweetest music I have ever heard is the laughter of children. I customarily push doors closed reveling in the echoing slam. I haven’t owned a pair of headphones since I threw mine out when I was packing for college. I tossed them in the trash and the resounding noise made Dawna’s eyes go big and round. She giggled, but quickly covered her mouth with her hands, muffling the sound.
She couldn’t afford to be bold, couldn’t afford to be seen or heard. I was leaving the next morning, but Dawna still had time on the books.
That last night, we sat on the edge of my bed talking softly, making plans, dreaming of what the world had in store for me, and what life for her would be like without my presence. She smiled, rising from the bed, and kissed my cheek. “Only three years, buddy, then time served in full and I’m right behind you,” she said. “I’m running, too.” She walked to the door in slow motion, miming a running man. Her head weaved from one side to another. Her body swayed and her legs kicked up. Her elbows jutted out in exaggeration as she pushed to reach the imaginary finish line. “You aren’t the only one who gets to be free,” she said, just before closing the door, careful to twist the doorknob first.
The door shut without a sound.
My hand brushed away the fallen leaves. I patted the stone, cold and hard, beneath my glove. They said she dashed out into the street. They said she was careless. They said it was her fault. They said she was running as if someone were chasing her, as if her life depended upon getting away.
I listened politely while they spoke never interrupting, never taking offense. I could have told them why Dawna ran, but it no longer mattered.
Yolanda M. Bridges is the author of two published novels, Are You Satisfied, yet?, and Getting up and Getting on. She has had various short stories and poems published in anthologies and journals. She received her BS in Professional Writing from the University of Houston-Downtown, and her MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University. She currently teaches writing at the University of Houston.