My mother divorced my father because he nailed down rugs. We ran back to the house when we heard hammering. Breathless, we stood in the doorway and watched. There were small nails at the corner of his mouth, and his forehead was beaded with sweat. His hands could easily have held two hammers, the span wide and the fingers full and blunt.
“Why are you doing that, Daddy?” I asked. Without looking up, he spat the last nail from his mouth and started to hammer, employing short, staccato taps.
“Y’all run in and out of this house all day long and mess up everything. This rug is gonna stay straight.”
Mama was at the other end of the room, hands on her hips. Her lips were in a pucker and her eyebrows were so tightly knit they seemed one long, furry caterpillar across her brow. I knew she was angry, but I thought that my daddy was a genius. He had solved the problem of rugs that moved.
Her voice started as a low hum, incomprehensible words tumbling from her mouth, fast and violent, like the dangerous buzzing of honeybees. I don’t know what she said as she moved across the room, but the tone of her words hurt me and I flinched, my shoulders hunched near my ears. She stopped in front of him as he continued to hammer, and I felt it a sacrilege for her to be so close to him and so angry. I held my breath. She bent lower and spat the words at him as he had spat the nails from his lips.
“Get out,” she said. It came from her depths, a voice she had never used before, forceful and scary. “Get out. I ain’t raising my children to be afraid to move. They already afraid to talk.”
He looked up, head slightly tilted, hands still clutching the silver-headed tool. There was a moment when I thought he might swing it so that the head would land in the middle of her eyebrows like a miniature moon. But he didn’t. He bent and thundered the hammer, the hits more pronounced with each wide, arcing swing. My mother stepped back, fingers over her mouth. She was trembling.
Turning, I ran, hitting one of my sisters on the arm and snatching a hat from the other. We have to leave, I remember thinking, because I don’t want to see what will come next. Theresa and Nona followed with thumping footsteps, slamming the screen door, all of us forgetting the rules against noise and my lessons from Kwai Chang.
After he left, she went crazy, dancing like a holy roller on First Sundays, slipping her clothes off whenever she wanted to feel a breeze between her meaty thighs and watching Jeopardy so hard that we didn’t see her blink for the entire show. One day we crept on the floor beneath her and raised an old flyswatter with a mirror taped on it so that we could see if she was still breathing. We waited for the puff of air to frost the mirror but instead got a balled fist in our direction and cursed out for bothering her during a Daily Double. We tripped over each other, laughing and running.
We were three girls, Theresa, Nona, and myself, Pamela. And while Daddy lived with us we dragged through the house, cautioned at every footfall that he wanted quiet. We did the best we could, taking care not to giggle loudly or argue with the same voices we used in the streets. But it was hard, moving without sound and speaking in whispers.
I attended P.S. 158 on the corner of Ashford Street and Belmont Avenue in East New York. It was an old school with wide hallways and no lunchroom because children were supposed to go home for lunch or bring it if their parents worked. Mama made us peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and sometimes bread with butter. We kept old jelly jars with the lids so that we could bring drinks; most of the time it was orange juice, but if we didn’t have it, water was good enough to drink. Mama said it quenched the thirst just as well and washed the peanut butter down better. I didn’t think she was right, but I knew better than to say so. On the water days, I slid my jar in the brown paper bag and kissed Mama with the same type of kiss I always gave her. Nona would wait until we got outside and away from Mama. She would take out the jar, unscrew the cap, and pour the water on the sidewalk.
“I can get piss water from the fountain.”
Theresa was only a grade ahead of me at school even though she was two years older. I had been skipped a grade on account of the fact that I could read almost anything by the time I was three. Nona was two grades behind me and smart too but not smart enough to be skipped like me.
In school, I was not good with noise—a chair scraped across the floor, the clicking glide of chalk on the board, or the loud thud of a door slamming made me jump. I found I could only concentrate by sitting still, with my lips closed and my hands folded. I wished all of the children were like me, but I could not control them, and neither could the teacher. School was the exact opposite of home, loud and out of control.
When it was my turn to recite, I programmed myself to move without sound. First I picked my chair up and placed it on the floor so there would be no noise. Then I stood straight with my book in my hands, turning the pages gently so that only I could hear the whisper of air between the leaves. The teacher always praised me for the way I read, and that was enough to make sure I did it the same way all the time.
Mama appeared in every corner of our house, a crooked smile and her finger on her lips, reminding us that Daddy needed his rest, that he had worked an extra shift. She was different in those days—neat and thinner, wearing panty hose without ladders, rushing home from her job as a nurse to cook dinner, sometimes with her uniform still on. She’d look us in the eye, pleading, and wouldn’t let us go until she had an answering nod that we would be good and not make noise. When we forgot and tumbled on the floor, pushing and pulling hair, tickling and screeching, I saw a shade of a smile even though she rushed to separate us and make us behave like we had some sense before he yelled from their bedroom.
I practiced quietness with the actor David Carradine, who played Kwai Chang Caine on the television show Kung Fu. Kwai Chang walked on rice paper without leaving an imprint. He was my hero. Because of him, I learned every squeaking floorboard and step in the house, placing my feet squarely in the middle or at an angle, avoiding sound as a condition of my apprenticeship with Kwai Chang and my continued survival at home.
I moved with a grace that I tried to instill in my sisters. But they laughed and raised their open palms, using swift chopping gestures, emulating Kwai Chang as he was forced to use violence—which happened in each episode. They did not admire the moves that left rice paper unmolested; their joy rested in the destruction he wrought with a single turn of his wrist or kick from his unshod feet.
“Ah, now look, he need to beat that man’s tail. Callin’ him yellow. That’s just as bad as calling us niggers,” my baby sister, Nona, shouted as she moved to the twelve-inch black and white television that sat on a Bassett table acquired from the back of a broken-down truck. Her brown and white cowgirl boots with the silver spurs stomped the floor.
“Girl, what’s wrong with you?”
Daddy appeared suddenly, his black belt wrapped around his neck. We knew he was speaking to Nona, but we all muttered, “Nothing,” staring at the belt that appeared to grow wider as he brought it from his neck, looping the ends together. He pointed to the wall. We lined up and he gave us each three hard licks on our bottoms. He believed in punishing us all for the sins of one.
His punishment was different from the ones meted out by our mother. Hers were labored beatings that did not hurt us physically. It was mayhem when she spanked us. She cried and we cried.
Whop, whop, whop. He ended with Nona.
“I told you all about the noise. If you wanna watch this show, you’d better sit down and be quiet.”
On television, Kwai Chang ducked his head, trying not to fight. When Daddy left, we sat and finished watching, not crying although our backsides burned. I sighed at the fading picture of the Chinaman in silhouette, a searcher, walking in the sand alone.
On the day my father left, before I knew he was gone, I was in bed listening to the sounds of the house, little creaking noises that he’d once explained were the sounds of the house settling.
“A house can take as long as it wants to hunker down and get comfortable. That’s about all it does. Tries to get just right for the family that’s in it.”
My head had been against his heavy chest as he explained about houses and why I shouldn’t be afraid because he was there. He had pushed my bangs out of my eyes with his large blunt fingers and smiled slightly, teasing me about being concerned.
“Funny child.” He’d cuffed me on the chin and put me down. I was lost when we were not touching. I breathed in his musky smell and moved closer, but he swung his legs from the bed and started to walk off.
“Where you going, Daddy?”
“Going to see the turtle make water.” He’d slid away from me and out of sight.
The evening he left, our mother met us downstairs with minute pieces of Kleenex stuck to her face and eyes that darted back and forth quickly between the three of us, never stopping or resting on any one daughter. We stood together as she explained, but we already knew. He had stopped by the foot of my bed the night before, but I pretended not to hear him. Then he went to Nona and finally to Theresa. But no one moved, no one breathed as he said good-bye. There was silent communication between the three of us, and we each pretended to be dead.
“I gotta go,” he said to me. “I’m sorry ’bout all of this, but I can’t stay being the way I am and she can’t let me stay bein’ the way she is.” There was a shuffle, then quietness. Then pain in my middle because I had not said good-bye.
I pushed deeper into the sheets and thought of my father swinging a hammer. I knew we’d been safe as long as he was around, tap-tapping at the rug, beating the nail into the floor, making things straight, the way they should be. What I didn’t know was how things were going to be without him. I’d never lived without the sound of the hammer in the background.
Excerpted from The Middle Sister by Bonnie J. Glover. Copyright © 2005 by Bonnie Glover. Excerpted by permission of One World/Ballantine, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.