I always loved the magnificent sights of the fall season in Ohio, how this season produced colorful leaves that eventually would fall to the ground. In the moonlight, I could see how it shaped the landscape of my street. I hooted with the owls and imagined my life in fast forward. I relaxed on my bed. I watched the darkness of my neighborhood from my bedroom window, and enjoyed the nightly breeze as it blew through the screen across my face. My mother’s 1979 Datsun Z sat each night on the curb at 58 Leaman Street. I could see the dents in the back finder under the streetlight. Mother drove the Datsun to work, the grocery store, and to the Round Table bar on Home Avenue each evening after work. Her driving skills suffered from an impatient, heavy right foot, and she often had accidents due to her frequent drinking. The dents in the fender came from backing into a truck in the parking lot of the Round Table.
When I was two-years-old, both my mother and father had irreconcilable difference that stemmed from alcohol abuse. My grandmother deemed them unfit to raise three young children and called the authorities. We had bounced around in Children’s Services up until we found someone to take mercy on our souls. I lived in different foster homes at this time; my siblings also lived in their share of temporary homes, and the courts ordered visitation rights to allow family members to come re-familiarize us to their family structure. We were quite young. Our caseworkers would bring us to the Children’s Services building on Dayton Xenia Road. My mother would come for a few hours each month. We sat in a room and starred at each other like strangers. Mother moved to Hazard, Kentucky with a man named Ralph. Ralph was a coal miner, he drove a dump truck up and down the Jellico Mountain, and they pretended to be stable.
After months of this same routine of court ordered visits, mother took us to the hills of Kentucky to hide us in a broken down house with no electricity or plumbing. We shared an outhouse; water came from a well and at night candles illuminated the house. After the summer, mother enrolled us in school. The law caught up to us, two officers came to the school, and took us back to the building on Dayton-Xenia Road. Our father came and took us to his home in Xenia, Ohio. The abuse we endured in the home became a serious matter and the courts moved us back to building on Dayton-Xenia Road. Mother went to court in Greene County for charges of kidnapping.
She said to the judge, “I could never leave my children in temporary care.”
The state of Ohio finally gave mother a rare second chance to redeem herself. The judge decreased her sentence to five-years probation. He sat tall at the bench, all draped in a black gown, and he must have seen something good in her. Now mother had a decent job at the unemployment office. The judge granted her custody of my older brother, my sister, and I. Each evening around 5 o’clock, her Datsun would pull up to the curb. Mother wobbled out of the car, slouched as she stamped up the sidewalk. After a few drinks at the Round Table, she came home ready to play her role as our mother. Mother met a man named Bob at the bar. Mother and Bob, my two siblings and I lived in house next to my grandmother’s house. Bob was an ironworker. We were finally a family again. That year I made friends in the neighborhood and settled into a normal childhood.
It was the week of my ninth birthday. I just wanted to be left alone all day to play with my friends. My brother was 4 years older, my sister was 3 years older, and they were annoyed by my youthful conduct. My neighbor, Benji, hung out in the creeks all day. Our other friend, Carl, would meet us at our makeshift tree house. We had stolen some scrap wood from around the neighborhood to build the structure. We found a tree that hung slightly over the wall of the creek. On a normal day, we played hide and seek until dark. I usually won most of the rounds. Benji could run for miles. Carl played fearlessly until the end. We splashed through the creek beds with water up to our shins; we raced to the top of different parts of the wall. We had already figured out all the stepping-stones for miles. I hid behind an immature oak by the edge of a tree line.
I could see Carl as he approached from a distance, but I felt like I could beat him back to base. We used the tree house as the only safe spot. I darted through a weaving trail toward the wall. As I ran, thorny bushes snagged my pants. I leaped into the air to escape capture. My feet landed in the water’s edge near a sand bar. My shoes sunk in the soft creek bed. I could feel the warm water as it filled my shoes, and a pebble invaded the toe of my right shoe. Carl was close behind. I splashed towards the opposite wall. I climbed by grabbing one stone, reaching for a hanging branch to regain my grip. Then I grabbed another stone and I hustled up to the top of the wall. I made it to safety.
Meanwhile, Carl startled Eric from a patch of honeysuckle. Eric was not a part of our little group, but he desperately wanted to be our friend. Eric, in a sneezing fit, stepped towards the wall’s edge. Before Carl could react, Eric went over the side. With a loud thud on the ground, Eric scraped his forehead into a bloody abrasion. Eric was one unlucky kid. A week before Eric took a falling cinder block to the top of the head. Now, Eric had gotten himself in a predicament, and he blamed us for his accident.
After Carl pulled Eric from the creek bed, we helped Eric home by holding him up by both arms. A small frail boy, Eric barely weighed 65 pounds. Tears rolled down his freckled face. He mumbled indescribable words on the way back to his house. Of course, Eric’s mom blamed us for his mishaps and forbade us from playing with him ever again. I was upset that Eric would miss my party once my mother came home. Carl, Benji, and I walked across the street to my house to play hot wheels in my living room. The room had plenty of space to build a city for miniature cars. We would cruise around the spirals in the rugs like a racetrack. Carl had all the coolest hot wheels. He had a 1969 Hot Wheels Redline Maxi Taxi Olds 442 and used it as an imaginary business. Benji had a tow truck. I had not found a career, yet.
My mother pulled the Datsun to the curb in a screeching halt. Her head hung low, and she took a moment before she exited the car. She made her way down the sidewalk and into the house. I could tell her day must have been stressful because she instantly started to complain about the mess left around the house. I sat Indian-style on the floor. My legs slept beneath me. If I had paid attention to the mess before she got home, maybe I would have received her good grace. Mother would be as excited as I was about my birthday, but all she could do was point out that the house was a wreck. I started to straighten up the living room. I grabbed glasses from off the coffee table, and then my friends began to help me.
Time quickly passed as my friends and I took garbage bags outside, carried dirty laundry down to the basement, and washed the dishes from breakfast. After the housework was complete, I trailed behind my mother like a lost puppy. Still I received no happy birthday wishes. I asked how her day went and she cracked a false smile. I asked mother if there had been any big plans for the day.
She replied, “Not that I am aware of.”
My emotions sunk to the bottom of my chest. I knew now that mother had forgotten my birthday. I stormed out the front door and my friends followed. We ran across the street into the woods to our tree house. I climbed the planks to the top and sat as tears poured down my face. My friends tried to cheer me up with a cigarette that Carl had stolen from his father, but I hated the way menthol tasted in my throat. I hit the butt to stay cool with Benji and Carl.
I said, “Why is she so selfish?”
“Maybe something bad happening to her,” Carl said.
“Ronnie, it could have just been a bad day at work. My dad has those days.” Benji said.
“I just hope she really wants me this time,” I replied.
We decided to run the streets until dark. Hours went by, and I saw the streetlights started to blink. I had to make it home before the lights lit the streets and darkness fell upon my head. If I were a second late, Bob would be upset, and he had a heated temper when we didn’t follow his rules. I started out at a jog, but picked up pace and ran up the sidewalk into the house. A terrible mood came over me. Now, instead of having cake and ice cream, mother had made liver and onions for dinner. I hated the way liver smelled like dead carcass, and the onions made the house reek of spice. I walked over to the table and asked mother, “Can I have something different?”
She informed me that I would eat the same thing as everyone else. I stood woozy. My stomach turned. Before I could sprint to the bathroom, vomit spewed across the table. I puked for what seemed like a full minute. I destroyed the dinner. The taste of menthol and vomit sat on my tongue. My mother yelled and screamed for me to march upstairs to my room. I ran up the stairs without even saying goodbye to my friends. My friends watched my tantrum as I pounded the steps with my feet in a rage. Then Carl and Benji went home to have dinner with their own families. I sat on the edge of my bed, hungry, tired, and full of disappointment. After a while, mother came up to ask if I was done throwing a fit. I explained in a whimper that I was only upset because everyone had forgotten my birthday. She reached her arm out with a plate. I acted as if I didn’t want the food. I could smell the cheesy aroma of grilled cheese and macaroni and cheese. My stomach began to turn once more.
“You know sometimes I make mistakes and I am sorry I forgot your birthday, son. I had a bad day at work.”
In my most forgiving voice, I replied, “I know, Mommy. I don’t feel much like eating now. Can you make me breakfast in the morning?” I stared into her soft, brown eyes willing to accept any excuse.
Mother placed her hand on the top of my head. “You’re a good boy. Happy Birthday.”
“I love you, mommy.”
“I love you too.”
“You fall asleep, and tomorrow we’ll try to have a party with some of your friends. Okay?”
As I nodded, mother tucked me into bed, turned out my light, and shut the door behind her. I rolled over to examine the night from the comfort of my window. My imagination flipped into fast-forward; I was another year older. I imagined the next year would be another opportunity for a happy birthday.