I referred to my childhood home by its address: 704 Spruce. We all did. I’m the third of the eight Allio children. Jimmy, Cathy, Marianne (me), Matt, Joe, Pat, Vince and Don. We were somewhat two families, the older three, and the younger five. Maybe because there was a four-year break between me and the next youngest. Maybe because we were one boy and two girls and just because we were older. Maybe because my Dad knew how to be with my younger active sports-obsessed brothers and was not so sure how to be with his daughters and even less certain how to be with his eldest son who had no interest in sports or even being with other boys. But I adored my big brother; we were constant companions and loved talking about music, books and movies. Jim was my refuge in that scary house.
We’d moved to 704 Spruce when I was five. My sister and I shared the bedroom next to the one small bathroom. When you sit on the toilet, your knees touch the bathtub. I could identify who was up at night by the sound of their footsteps and their pissing. The house sat at the crest of a steep street that was a thoroughfare across South San Francisco, a working-class suburb populated mostly by Italian, Irish and Mexican families. Our bedroom was at the front of the house, and the sound of cars racing past often kept me awake. Especially after one careened into our front yard, stopping a few feet from my bedroom window.
Two sets of bunk beds lined the room next to mine, the one that could barely contain Matt, Joe, Pat and Vince. What masters they were at harassing each other in ways that would not bring attention from my parents – pinching, kicking, throwing water. Pat and Vince, only 11 months apart, often took comfort in climbing into bed with my sister and me. By the time my youngest brother Don was born, my oldest brother Jim was not living at 704 Spruce.
My parents’ room was across the house, through the kitchen and dining room and up a few stairs. My Dad’s coworkers, a gang of firefighters, had helped add this room on after we moved in. Their bedroom was at the back of the house with a window that looked out to the San Francisco Bay.
Jim’s room was in the frightening downstairs, but he loved spooky stuff and having his own space, an unfinished haven of cement walls. Wood paneling partially covered one wall; I’m not sure if it was there when we moved in or if my father made an attempt at finishing the room. A door on one side opened into the garage. An opening on the other side, directly across from his bed, presented darkness. As you walked into that opening you entered the laundry room and the back of that room led to under the house. Instead of an attic, we had an under the house. This area provided much needed storage and ran the width of the house. There were two entrances, one through the laundry room and one in the garage. Both the floor and the ceiling were rough, scratchy, unfinished cement. There were a few dim lights, and the height was about four feet at either end and maybe five feet in the middle.
Under The House was our own haunted house. Jim would lead my sister and my brothers in screaming runs from end to end and back again, weaving around boxes and Dad’s half full wine bottles, bumping heads on the rough ceiling and crashing into each other. I hated Under The House and even just staring at either entrance made my skin crawl. I ran through it maybe three times.
The house was scary for other reasons. Dad was an angry drunk and we never knew when he’d explode. His 24-hour shifts at the firehouse gave us time to relax, play, and talk. He was frightening and unpredictable, and my goal became to be so still and so quiet that he had no reason to pay any attention to me. My brothers took the brunt of his words and fists, and Jim never learned to just shut up and so was an easy target for our father.
I remember the night Jim left. I lay in my twin bed, my body rigid, listening to Dad scream at him. I pushed my pillow over my face, trying to stretch the puffy sides over my ears. Jim had just graduated from high school. I was fourteen and Jim took care of me more than anyone else did. We hung out in his bedroom and listened to music. He had his driver’s license and let me go with him and his friends to the beach and to drive-in movies, and he listened to me. He never made me feel dumb or ashamed. He was my safe place.
That night’s fight erupted from Jim having disrespected our mother a few nights earlier, when Dad was working at the fire house. Jim was always outspoken. Didn’t he understand that Dad wouldn’t yell or hit him if he just kept quiet? His refusal to be silenced fascinated and horrified me. I tried to be no more noticeable than the walls in our house. Jim didn’t argue much with Mom, and I don’t remember what started the fight. What I do recall is Jim rising up from his chair at the dining table, walking across the kitchen, looking at Mom and saying, “Fuck you.” He retreated down the stairs to his bedroom. I was stunned. He’d never sworn at her before.
Mom told Dad a few nights later, when the two of them went out to dinner. I imagine she debated whether to tell him. She knew his temper. She was caught between being honest with her husband and protecting her son. She chose her husband as she pretty much always did over her children.
When they returned home from dinner, all seven of us kids were in bed. Dad stomped down the narrow stairs to Jim’s bedroom, and started yelling at Jim, telling him to get up and get out. Jim ran up the stairs, in white briefs and nothing else. Dad’s angry words fell like blows. I lay in bed, scared. My sister would have been in the twin bed across the room from me, but if we exchanged any words, I don’t remember. My four younger brothers were in bunks in the room next to ours, closer to the front door.
The front door opened, and I heard Jim’s bare feet running down the cement stairs and into the driveway. “Don’t hit me, don’t hit me!” he wailed.
Dad chased Jim, calling him a son of a bitch. Terror shocked my body like electric currents. Operating only on impulse, my body left the bed and ran down the hall and out the open front door. I stood at the top of the outside stairs. My brother was below me, at the end of our sloped driveway, the garage door at his back. Dad was a few feet up the driveway, fists up yelling at Jim, “Hit me; Hit me.” My impression was that Dad wanted Jim to hit him, so he’d have an excuse to beat the shit out of him.
“Stop it! Stop it! Stop it!” I screamed in a high-pitched voice that I’d never heard before, that didn’t seem to belong to me. I hadn’t chosen to leave my bed, run down the hall, to the top of the outside stairs, and scream. Some force propelled me. My screaming stopped them. Dad just looked at me, my desperation having taken the punch out of him. Mom had been trembling in the kitchen and she came behind me, her hands on my shoulders. I started shaking and crying. Dad walked up the stairs, past me and into the house saying nothing. Mom walked me back to bed. And in the morning Jim was gone. To where I did not know.
Marianne Lonsdale writes personal essays, fiction, and literary interviews. Her work has been published in Literary Mama, Grown and Flown, Pulse and has been aired on public radio.