Running in the Dark
by Maureen Deaver Purcell
Even on a mildly bad day, my father, a good German Catholic boy, would never think of disrespecting a priest.
But this time the priest created a very bad day.
My mother had described to the priest the person her husband became when he got drunk, and the Father dared her to prove it. He and one of his priest pals got it into their heads that they would have my parents over one evening and then get my father the drunkest he had ever been, just to see if it was true – that he was a bad drunk.
On the night of the experiment, in his stupor, Dad broke a chair. I think he tripped over it. Afterward he fled the rectory and drove the block and a half home while our mother lingered to discuss the situation with the priests.
My brother and I were sitting in the living room watching television that night when we became aware that our father was standing in the dark doorway between the kitchen and dining room. He knew we could see him, holding onto the doorframe, rocking uncertainly. In order to get to the bedroom upstairs, he would have to walk through the dining room laid open by a 10’ wide frame.
There were three large rooms in the downstairs of our house on Scott Street. Each room had two of these wide doorways connecting it to another room. My brother and I used to drive our mother crazy running the circle those doorways created, ducking just inside an interior wall and tripping whichever sibling came around the corner. The front room, aptly named, was the full width of the house, wide enough for a couch, a 7-foot grand piano, a spinet organ, and an oak-turned and paneled staircase.
On this night, this terrible night, my father seemed to be weighing his options, whether to dart directly through the dining room and risk rattling the good glassware in the china closet and tipping over the candlesticks on the table or cutting through the living room and risk the glare of bright lights and the eyes of his children. Time and again he retreated back through the kitchen and out the door to the yard, probably hoping the night air would clear his head and steady his walk.
The phone was just inside the kitchen door. When Dad walked back outside, my brother began calling the church rectory and asking the priests to send our mother home.
In a while, they said, in a while.
Our father came back in to make another try. Breathing heavily and smelling of alcohol, his attempts to keep balance continued with quiet knockings against cabinets of dishware, the table that held salt and pepper shakers, desk drawers filled with loose pens and pencils. He couldn’t help but make some noise or other. Once again he seemed to be assessing the route he would take: just twenty feet through the shadows to the piano, and another ten feet to the assistance of the bannister and up to the bed.
He turned and retreated to the back porch and quiet night.
At 10-years-old, my hands had started to freeze up during stressful times, not cramp exactly, but just freeze, almost into talons. My mother told me when this happened I should soak them in hot water – as hot as you can stand it, she said – and the heat would release the muscles. On that night, each time my father turned to go outside, my brother would run to the phone in the kitchen while I would run to the little bathroom under the stairs, plug the sink and turn on the hot water. Behind the solid oak door, the little girl reflected in the mirror became brave. She looked through the steam, put on her strongest face, and told off everyone who had hurt her.
My brother decided the only way our mother would come home was if we went to get her. Maybe they’re not giving her the message, he thought. Leaving the blue glare of the black and white console television, we called our dog and headed out the front door.
Scott Street was very dark. Small, scalloped tin shades twirled above the street lights like ballerinas and hung across the intersections, but they didn’t reach the tree-lined blocks in between, and none of the lamps in the neighbors’ windows cast enough light to reach the familiar sidewalks on our block. We ran by memory, barefoot, first along the cement and then across the brick pavers at the next intersection. The next street was asphalt and slivered with cinders that hurt my feet until I could reach the cool, waxy grass. We ran across the yards around the next corner and on to the rectory that was Fr. Casey’s home. It was hard keeping up with my brother; he kept yelling at me to hurry. By the time we got to the house, we were, all three, panting alike.
When we knocked on the door, the overhead light came on over the small stoop and the priest we didn’t know, Monsignour Moriarity, opened the door. He spoke to us through the screen.
My brother told him his name and said, “We want our mother to come home. Now.”
We could see her standing down the hall, holding her hair back from her forehead as if she had been sick.
“She’ll be along, she’ll be along.”
“But our dad is home and we need her, too.”
“She’ll be along,” the old priest continued.
And then he did it. He shut the door. He shut the door on the children.
When our mother realized that my father’s drunken display brought forth no constructive plan from the priests, and that her husband, in fact, had been humiliated, she hung around the two loosened Roman collars to discuss her own plan of action. This, too, they denied her.
They told her that should she divorce her husband, neither he nor she would be allowed to receive any of the sacraments that nourished the Catholic faith. They added that divorce in that small town in the late 1950s was still a scandal, and further, Dad probably would not only continue to drink, but his problem might become worse. And it would be her fault.
By the time we got back to the house, our father had found his way upstairs to the bedroom. The dog, a Brittany Spaniel, collapsed on the cotton shag rug in front of the fireplace, panting heavily, like he did after every hunt. My brother stretched out next to him, gulping away his 12-year-old’s tears.
My brother had been able to stay ahead of the drinking by taking aim at the bottles he found hidden in the cellar and the attic of the garage. Patient as the spaniel, he sniffed them out of the deepest and darkest corners of our home, lined them up in front of the brick foundation in the basement or along the edge of the firewood box in the garage, and proceeded with mass executions. He left the smell of Prohibition in the air along with quite a collection of pellets and broken glass; and he left the carnage for the enemy to find. So he would know. The child sharp shooter just hadn’t considered looking for the bottles behind the bar in the rectory two blocks over.
It had been an adventure for me, running in the dark. My face was damp and flushed, even before steam fogged the mirror as it boiled up from the bowl, even before the sink became a thermal pool that quietly soaked the tension from my hands. I wasn’t scared then. It had been worse than normal but still I wasn’t scared. You don’t scare me, I bravely told all the monsters in the mirror.
You take your chances when you run in the dark; there’s a surprise in every shadow. Sometimes the most important people fail you: my father, my mother, even my brother who ran so far ahead that I had to walk alone in the dark the last three houses from home, and the priest whose act I considered the first nail in the coffin that ended my relationship with the church (there would be other nails later). I remember the little girl in the mirror. If you survive, the bravest thing you can do is forgive.
Maureen Deaver Purcell is a writer and civic volunteer who lives in Indianapolis with her newly-retired husband and ever-vigilant dog. Her three grown children live in the Midwest of the US and the Midlands of the UK. Originally a commercial copywriter in radio and later a feature writer for a company newsletter, Maureen now meets monthly deadlines for her church newsletter and meets semi-monthly with her Women Writers’ group. This is one story of a collection titled Scott Street Stories.