STEPS ON THE STAIR
By Doc Walton
He remembers it now.
His had been an aggressive and pervasive fear, always there waiting to spike at the sound he dreaded, the sound of steps on the back stairs. The moment the first footfall touched wooden plank, his attention would sharpen, his hearing become focused and acute. Was it the heavy tread that presaged pain or the lighter one that meant an evening of minding his Ps and Qs and making it safely to bed? The measure of the steps on the stairwell foretold all.
The solid whuck of a car door slamming in the drive was the first tell. He would stop and drop whatever he was doing and become "all ears." The big man’s tread on the old wooden steps spoke to what the night would bring. A light brisk, regular footfall meant sobriety and, perhaps, an evening free of violence, an evening in which Mommy smiled and Daddy smiled and he, the good, obedient child, only spoke when spoken to. A heavy, uneven series of thuds on the stairs meant brace yourself, steel yourself, there would be pain and, perhaps, even blood. Daddy was home and he was drunk. Again.
Daniel was his name, born and dubbed so some twelve years ago to an abusive father and a beaten down mother too frightened to intervene. His reality from the moment he understood the concept was simply fear, fear of hurt, fear of harm, fear even of death. And the face of that fear was Danny’s father, a hard man who strode nightly through his house, his kingdom, with the attendant I-am-lord-and-master attitude. He was a thick man, strong, fearsome and, as Danny was taught over and over, NEVER WRONG. So take what you had coming and try not to say a word. Cry a little, cringe a little, show that it hurt, hurt a lot. If you didn’t, the blows would increase until you did. Squirm, beg even, but never act defiant, no never defiant, or your life, young Danny knew, could be ended.
Twelve, though, is an interesting age. For many it marks a "coming of age," a time when bright kids realize that some decisions are actually theirs to make and they are not just puppets dancing to their parents’ will. Self determination, at least in part, becomes a goal if not an immediately accessible reality.
Considering his circumstance, though, it would be harder for Danny to achieve his psychological emancipation and even more difficult his physical one. Running away, he knew, would not work. He would be caught and brought back to a hell worse than the one he now occupied. Telling someone was also out of the question. Who would believe him? And even if he was believed, who could take action before his father put his fists to him? There was in Danny’s mind but a single choice that could free him forever. Since he couldn’t go… Daddy had to.
His plan was simple and seemingly accidental enough that even if it failed Danny couldn’t be blamed. In fact it was Danny’s own misadventure, tripping on a low stair and falling, that gave him the idea. It was winter and snow would fall. Shoveling the heavy, wet white was his job and he did it diligently. Along with the sidewalks and driveway the back stairs, all twelve of them, had to be cleared. What if, Danny thought, Daddy was to slip from one of those stairs, he would surely be hurt, wouldn’t he? The bruises from his own fall were proof of that. And what if he slipped at the very top? Wouldn’t he be hurt more, hurt really bad? Maybe break something? Maybe even his head? He could be so hurt, Danny thought, he might be unable to stop what would happen next.
And so this boy, tired of pain, tired of fear, tired of groveling, waited impatiently for that one day when the snow would come and the temperature would fall and a weatherman promised more of the same. On that day he would act.
And so he did.
Danny shoveled and then swept the stairs of every last flake of snow. Not a trace remained. The water he poured on the landing and top two steps froze instantly and was quite invisible. His bat, a hefty Big Papi model, was propped inside by the door. Danny was warmed to a sweat by his work but nevertheless felt chilled inside; cold and determined. The day was Friday. The day his dad was always drunk.
The car door slamming was later than usual and, to Danny’s attentive ears, louder. It was an hour or so past most bar Happy Hours and quite dark outside. Danny had purposely left the house back lights unlit. This he knew would infuriate his father, but an angry, drunk, careless man was what Danny hoped for. Muffled footsteps reached his ears as his father stumbled the short walk from driveway to back stairs. It was with the first step upward that the big man’s cursing began and Danny’s hope and fear shot up simultaneously.
Cluff cluff, the first two stairs. “Son of a bitch, I’m going to beat the crap out of that little fucker.” Cluff cluff, the next two. “Goddamn it, I can’t see shit.” Cluff, cluff, two more. “I am truly going to bust his ass.” Cluff cluff. Seven and eight. “Come out here you little bastard!” Then quickly, cluff cluff, cluff cluff. “I’m going to teach you, WHAT THE!”
With his ear pressed to the door Danny then heard…was it two or three loud thumps? He wasn’t sure. He flipped the back light switch to on, turned the knob and opened the door warily. His father lay crumpled at the bottom of the stairs, his head twisted at an unlikely angle. The bat, Danny knew at once, wouldn’t be necessary. He turned then, back into the house. “Mom” he hollered to his TV engrossed mother. “I think Dad has hurt himself.”
Yes he remembers it all now, some 15 years later and he remembers it with no regrets. Why should I feel bad, he thinks, the man was a monster. If he hadn’t died me or Mom would have. He was certain of that. He pushes the memory aside as he hears the sound of laughter ring out from the next room. His twin sons are happily engrossed in their video game.
“I told you boys to go to bed,” Danny shouts at them with menace in his voice he doesn’t actually feel. “Do it right now.” He knows they will piddle around a little longer until he actually appears and hustles them up to their room. He doesn’t mind. They’re good kids. He thinks, though, for a second, what his father would have done. He has heard it said, after all, so often, “Like father like Son.” He ponders that for just moment and then his next thought spills out aloud. “Yeah, well not in this house” he declares. “Not now, not ever.”
September 2014 Doc Walton