9 minute read

Paula Sophia Schonauer, LCSW, continues a serial memoir. If you haven’t read the earlier parts of this series, follow the links at the bottom of this page.


I cannot say what triggered things that day in June 1979. I was glad to be finished with the school year, glad to have slept in, grateful for the warm weather, the sunshine, and looking forward to the pleasant ennui of a summer day. 

I looked out my bedroom window and listened to birds singing and frolicking in a nearby tree. When I went downstairs, the house was vacant, but I heard pounding in the basement, clanging noises, metal-to-metal. It seemed like the distant thunder of an approaching storm.  

Mom was on the front porch smoking a cigarette, hand trembling as she raised the cigarette to her mouth. She had been crying. 

“What’s wrong?”

Mom took a drag and held the smoke in her lungs for a long moment. When she exhaled, the smoke seemed like a cloud of sorrow, darkening the day. 

“Nothing,” Mom said. 

“Is Dad mad, again?”

Paula Sophia
Paula Sophia (provided)

Mom scoffed, flicking her cigarette into the grass. 

“What is it this time?”

Mom lit another cigarette, blew out the smoke, and watched the smoldering coal at the end, the ash growing longer. The silence before the storm. 

Our neighbor drove into the driveway next door, pleasant rock music emanating from her open window. She was wearing sunglasses and smiling, large silver earrings sparkling in the sun. She had short brown hair; a pixie cut style. When she stepped from her car, she was wearing a sundress, the tops of her large breasts already slightly red from exposure. She had a large frame for a woman, more athletic than overweight, but her belly was a bit round below her navel, not soft, like a roll of fat, but firm. 

“You’re starting to show,” Mom said, smiling, her voice suddenly cheerful. 

Janice smiled and patted her tummy, an essence of joy radiating from her demeanor. She must have noticed Mom’s red eyes, and she walked over with an air of concern. “Are you okay, Diane?”

Mom shrugged but said, “I’ll be fine,” invoking more concern from Janice.

“What’s happening?” She looked at me this time. 

“Dad…” I said, unsure about saying anything else, but that was all I needed to say.

Janice frowned. “Is there anything I can do to help?”

“No,” Mom said, but she had a pleading look on her face. 

Sis drove her Ram pick-up truck into the driveway a little too fast, grinding to a halt with a squeal of the brakes and the sound of gravel grinding between rubber and concrete. Janice backed away as Sis bounded toward the porch steps, blustering, “What did he do this time?”

Janice walked back to her side of the driveway and made her way to the front door of her house, frowning the whole time. I heard the side door of our house slam shut, heavy footsteps on gravel. 

“Well, at least someone is having sex around here,” Dad shouted toward Janice. She quickly entered her home and slammed the door. I saw her peering out a side window as Dad rounded the corner, glaring at Mom and Sis. 

“Go check on your brother and sister,” Dad growled. 

Sis bowed up at Dad, shoulders back, chest out. She was almost a head shorter than Dad, wisps of hair in her face, an unlit cigarette in her mouth. She looked tough but still not a match for Dad, whose face was dirty, streaks of sweat teeming down from his temples, plowing through the grime, making it appear he had been crying.

Mom got up and placed herself between Dad and Sis, pushing Sis back. 

“Go check on your brother and sister!” Mom said. 

I went into the house, reluctant to leave Mom alone with Dad and Sis. My brother and sister were in the backyard playing on a picnic table, a sponge mop inserted upside down between boards at the top of the table. My brother sat on a milkcrate, both hands on the rectangle sponge like it was a steering device. My sister stood behind him, a stick in her hands, holding it like a rifle. It seemed the picnic table had become a boat, and they were hunting for Jaws. 

When they saw me, their eyes revealed anxious concern as Dad’s voice echoed between houses. Sean’s eyes welled with tears, his round face blanching with fear. Tina seemed dissociated, staring through me, unable to acknowledge my presence. 

I noticed the garage had been open, some of the contents strewn around, the remains of a Big Wheel lying twisted in the yard, some trash on the gravel, a dented trash can lay on its side. 

“Dad took your bike,” Sean said. 

“What?”

“He took it down to the basement.”

Suddenly, it occurred to me what Dad had been pounding. My bicycle! I imagined him mangling the metal between hammer and anvil as I ran to the side door, the voices out front shrill with conflict. 

I entered the house, jumped down the basement stairs, and saw the remains of my bicycle strewn all over the floor, the remainder of the frame fixed to the vice on Dad’s work bench. He had been pounding the frame with a small sledgehammer, weakening the metal with a blowtorch, top tube torn from the seat tube, down tube bent at a right angle. 

Why?

It did not make sense. Wanton destruction!

I heard the pound of feet on the floor above, the stomp of Dad’s heavy steps and the scurry of lighter footfalls. The shouting got louder, voices trailing down from the kitchen. 

“It’s over!” Dad said. 

At first, I thought he was talking about his marriage to Mom, and I felt relieved, hoping he would move away and leave us in peace. 

“No, John!” Mom screamed. 

Then I imagined Dad trying to kill Mom, hands around her throat, Sis trying to pull him away. I bounded up the stairs and stood in the doorway. What I saw was completely unexpected. Dad had a knife to the side of his neck, threatening to slit his own throat. The end of the knife jabbed into his flesh enough to draw blood. 

“Do it!” Sis said, teeth clenched, eyes steely and cold. “Come on!” 

Dad slammed the knife down upon the kitchen table, stabbing through the Formica top, knife bending on the metal beneath. The knife cut Dad’s hand, and blood spurt from the webbing between fingers. He ran to the kitchen sink, grabbed a dish towel, tore it in half, and wrapped it around his hand. Blood oozed into the rag and dripped on the floor. He tied the rag around his wrist and ran out the back door, Mom screaming behind him. Sis ran the other way, tromping through the house and out the front door. 

Mom collapsed to the floor, flopping with despair. She looked at me pleadingly. “Go after him! Go get your father!”

I ran out the back door, colliding with Sean as he was trying to enter the house, Tina still on the picnic table staring toward the adjacent street, Portage Trail. I heard tires skidding, the honk of horns and imagined Dad getting hit by a car. I looked toward the street and saw him pounding the hood of a car, yelling at the driver. He was still bleeding, trailing blood behind him, spattering the car’s windshield. 

I caught up to Dad a block away. He was tromping on the sidewalk, ignoring my pleas for him to stop. When I grabbed his shoulder, he turned around, glaring at me. 

“Dad!” 

“Leave me alone!”

“Let’s go home…”

“My life is over.”

What did that mean? Was he still intent on killing himself? But how? Then I remembered the observation bridge. Might he be going there? 

“Dad, please?”

Dad ran at me, raised fist. He swung at me but missed, blood spattering my face and t-shirt. “Leave me alone,” he repeated. 

I had a moment of indecision: continue chasing Dad or go back and check on Mom and my siblings. Dad kept tromping away, moving down the sidewalk toward Front Street near the river. I did not think I could stop him. I opted to turn back.

When I got back to the house, Mom was lying on the kitchen floor crying, an open pill bottle and lid next to her. Sean was crying, so was Tina. Janice came into the house, looked at Mom and looked at me. 

“Call 9-1-1,” she said. She knelt next to Mom, picked up the pill bottle, but the label had been torn off. It was completely empty. 

“What did you take?” 

Mom had trouble holding her head up, and her tongue lolled out the side of her mouth. When she spoke, she sounded drunk. “Darvocet…”

Janice looked at me again. “9-1-1! Call 9-1-1, now!” 

[This episode will continue next week.]


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Last Updated March 19, 2022, 5:34 PM by Brett Dickerson – Editor