“You’re a piece of shit,” I told my dad over the phone when I was 12. My mother was smiling and whispered, “Tell him the other thing too.” “You’re not a man either, you deadbeat,” I parroted, hanging up the phone.
Mom coached me before dialing dad’s number and cheering me on. Not that dad didn’t deserve it. He was definitely a deadbeat and I can’t help but wonder if all my mother’s men were deadbeats.
Mom’s first man was developmentally challenged. His name was Ray, a janitor for The New York Daily News. Mom seized the opportunity to escape her abusive mother and ran away with Ray to an apartment in Parkchester of the Bronx. They conceived their first child, my oldest brother, *Luke. Mom found herself in the same situation she was in with her mother back at home; in an abusive relationship. She wasn’t allowed to dress casual or put on makeup. Ray was a very jealous man.
Mom and Ray hired a handy man to fix up their apartment. This handy man would become my father.
After fixing up the apartment there was nothing else left to do but fix each other up. Ray came home from work and found that he was locked out. He knocked, waited and my father opened the door. They looked at each other for a moment before my father stated, “She’s with me now.” To which Ray turned away and walked off.
My father was mom’s longest running man of seventeen years and seven children. Dad wasn’t a jealous man. He was a factory worker, making paint in a plant on Blondell Avenue off Westchester Square in the Bronx. We struggled in squalor. Dad repaired VCRs, TVs, and appliances. He had sidewalk sales to make ends meet.
I remember an incident where dad’s head was in the back of a washer machine we picked out of the trash when we went garbage hunting through the rich neighborhoods of Riverdale. He was tinkering with it as six of the eight of us watched to see if he would get it running. We had clothes piled in the closet that smelled of mildew and this was the first time we owned a machine that could save us money and the trouble of lugging loads of laundry down the block to Zerega Avenue to the old man at the laundromat.
My mother stood over him. “Are you ever going to get that damn thing to work?” she snapped.
Dad pulled his head out and said something that offended her. She grabbed a handful of his Elvis styled hair with one hand and pulled at it while slapping him in the face with her other.
Dad said, “Go ahead, pull it all out Debbie.”
I don’t remember the washer machine ever being fixed.
After my father split mom began a relationship with a man named Richie. A six-foot man with a long scar on the side of his face. He lived with his mother in co-op city of the Bronx. Richie and mom conceived a child. Mom’s ninth, *Nathan. Richie spent most of his time in the tavern on Westchester square and when he got mad at mom he’d yell out, “Piss on you” and storm out to his mother’s in Co-op City.
The last time we saw Richie was when we lived in Nashville Tennessee. We moved from the Bronx to Poughkeepsie then to Nashville. Richie had a friend, a southern black man named Tommy who hunted fox squirrels that gave him work renovating houses. Richie said his last “Piss on you” after mom ordered me to walk past a house down the block he was renovating and yell out, “Expose me, expose me.” He abandoned us, returning back to his mother’s place in co-op city.
Mom had a brief relationship with Tommy the fox squirrel hunter, but ended it after Tommy smacked me for messing with his hunting jacket full of dead animals. We all moved back to Poughkeepsie.
In Poughkeepsie we lived briefly on White Street. A neighborhood full of convicts, crack heads and prostitutes.
My mother had a brief relationship with a cab driver named Mark who helped us move to a house on Plutarch Road in Highland, NY.
We settled in and mom got a job at the 87 motel cleaning rooms to make ends meet. She walked a mile and a half every day, there and sometimes back. This is how mom would meet and fall in love with one of her most interesting men, Les.
Les was a brawn, country man. He had already raised a family of five. Though Les had been recovering from a stroke he had six months before, at 63 he sported the strength of a man thirty-five years younger. He was having marital problems with a woman he wed back in 1958 and he was sleeping on his living room couch for the last two years.
Les stalked mom who was twenty years younger than he was. He asked mom if she’d like a ride. She refused for a month. One day Les did what he always did and pulled his van beside mom as she walked. “Can I give you ride?” he asked. My mother had a hard night and was in no condition for the mile and a half trek and finally said yes and every day after. Les became infatuated with my mother.
They fell in love despite the protest of Les’ family. We realized the intensity of the relationship when one of Les’ two daughters, *Kristen, who was about 10 years younger than mom came running out of her car from the driveway and tried to hide behind my older brother *Andrew. Mom was running up the driveway screaming, “That bitch just tried to run me over.” Kristen stood behind Andrew befuddled. Mom began spitting at her, Andrew getting struck in the cross fire as he managed to ease mom into the house and close the door.
Les heard of the altercation and professed the disownment of his family. He then created a new family with mom when she gave birth to her tenth child, *Rachel.
Mom joked, “I thought he was too old to have children.”
I remember when I first witnessed an incident between my mother and Les. We were at a stop light in Les’ Oldsmobile and a woman crossed the street. My mother swung at Les, slapping him. “You want to fuck that girl? You piece of shit,” She said. Les perked up like someone not wanting to get attacked by a rattle snake and turned to her dumbfounded. “Who? The girl that just crossed the street?” He began. “Debra, she was in my field of vision, I don’t want to do anything with her.” The light turned green as Les drove off and my mother said, “Yea right, I saw the way you looked at her.” Les kept quiet.
Another time Les dropped mom and a few of us off at the supermarket. He parked and waited in the car. We knocked on the window to wake him up after we were done. He came out of the car and loaded the Oldsmobile with the groceries as mom sat in the front seat. She was looking across the parking lot into the supermarket. You could see the inside through the large wall windows. We all piled into the car. Les sat and put on his seatbelt and mom swung at him. The crack of skin pierced our ears. “You parked here to fantasize about the cashiers.” She began. “You want to fuck them, dirty old man.” Les looked at her in bewilderment and said, “Debra, this was the only spot open. I wasn’t fantasizing about anyone, I was sleeping.”
To ease mom’s jealousy Les knitted himself car booties that read, I Love Debra. The next time we went to the supermarket Les dropped us off at the front then drove to the back by the dumpsters, parked, placed his knitted booties over the side and rearview mirrors and eased his seat as low as it would go before taking a nap. This seemed to satisfy mom.
There was this one time Les was a week away from getting a large mole removed from his face. I was awakened at midnight by an argument Les and my mother were having. Les was yelling, “Debra, that’s how you spell vanilla!”
I poked my head out of my room just enough that they couldn’t see me. They were out of their bedroom and in the hallway.
Mom yelled back, “You don’t know what you’re talking about idiot, it’s spelled v-a-n-i-l-a.” She then slapped his large mole right off his face saying, “Spell that, asshole.
She slammed her door screaming, “Get the fuck out of here and don’t come back, moron.”
Les was so mad he punched a hole in the wall before grabbing some tissue and walking out. Drops of blood trailed from the hallway to the front door.
Les was born in 1937 and died in 2005 at Vassar Brothers Medical Center in Poughkeepsie NY of cancer. He was 68 and the only one of my mother’s men so far to pass away. Les’ obituary says that he was a loving and devoted husband, grandfather and friend who will be greatly missed by all.
Mom said he was a piece of shit and a deadbeat.
*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.