I was living with my dad at the time, an alcoholic upholstery worker, who spent his evenings drunk on Night Train and raving about the “White man.” He was half Indian and blamed his self created problems on his antagonist ancestors, no doubt making himself out to be an oppressed protagonist in the midst of some great conspiracy. In truth, any delusion would have sufficed. Here was a man who justified every terrible act with stoic devotion to his “correct” point of view. He was a player in the theatrical debut of his so called life, and would remind my brother and me of this fact whenever he found himself in the midst of such an act. The bruise on my back from his steel toe work boot and my brother’s swollen eye could attest to that.
When he came home from work he would pass out on the bed located in the living room so as to control the entire house from his throne of power, even when sleeping. In this state of potential calamity, our only option was to leave the house. The smallest noise would set him into an abusive flurry of fists and cruelty, the details of which I will spare you, however his words linger still in the dark recesses of my mind. They seem impossible to forget no matter how hard I try, like an embarrassing tattoo on my brain.
That’s when my brother and I would roam the underbelly of Portland, Oregon. We would look at the homeless enclaves that seemed to conspire under every bridge like a growth infecting the untended places of society, like another world hidden from our own. Looking back, I think we did this in an unconscious effort to find someone worse off than ourselves, however, in retrospect I know that was a delusion.
On one of these excursions we discovered the Dog Food Hobo’s; named so because they lived in the protective shadow of a dilapidated dog food factory in a pseudo-village comprised of tents and a few wooden hovels built from driftwood and cast off pieces of construction material. When we walked into the camp, curious and a little afraid, we weren’t given a second glace. It seemed as if they knew how tortured we were, like an unwritten hall pass for the tormented. There we came to meet James Cole. He lived in a surprisingly sturdy looking shack he had built himself. It had mismatched windows with real glass and even a front door. We never knew why he came to be there, he managed to avoid the question whenever posed, giving himself an air of mystery that we both found fascinating and haunting. We grew used to James and the others, whose names escape me now. When dad would get in one of his moods we went to the Dog Food Hobo’s where we weren’t considered abused, but merely others. We weren’t considered targets but friends, no one hit us there, and no one demeaned us because we were all alike in that special way only those who have been to the dark places can know. It was in the eyes, I think, a sort of darkness where there used to be light, like a home bereaved of humanity long since abandoned in an act of disparity.
We ate Hobo Gumbo, a mixture of Top Ramen and hot dogs, James would cook in a skillet over the fire. It felt like camping most nights, except for the crying that seemed to come from nowhere as if in a dream. It floated into the camp on the shirttails of drafts and whispered to us in naked reality. One night we lost track of time and stayed a little too late. James offered to walk us home and we agreed. It was a gorgeous night walking past the camp fires, smelling the gumbo and feeling safe. We said goodbye a block away from our house and James departed with a smile. When we entered our trailer-home Dad was awake and pretending to be a father on this particular night. He feigned concern and began to yell, we knew he had been given an opportunity, another justification to an act he had already intended to carry out. That night he took turns beating us. He started in on my brother first, I think because he made the most noise, and in doing so received optimal pleading from myself to which he started in on next. I stopped crying after, almost immediately, but my brother continued into the night. I loved him for that in a way. He could still feel betrayed, still feel unjustly treated as though he refused to acknowledge that this was our life and would not stand for such mistreatment. I, on the other hand, knew this was but a single scenario in a long chain of unfortunate events.
When we awoke the next morning, eyes crusted shut with dried blood and tears, we expertly applied a hot wash clothe to each others eyes, an act we had perfected. We were greeted by a mysterious turn of events waiting for us in the form of a dad that had been beaten to a bloody pulp and left sprawled and half naked on the kitchen floor. His dirty yellow hued briefs clung loosely to motley assortment of bruises and cuts. He groaned softly in a voice that seemed far away, a groan my brother and I had become accustomed to from each other, but never from him. Shortly thereafter Child Protective Services came do to an anonymous call and carted us away in a bitter sweat escape from our previous situation. None of our short list of willing family members could take us both so we were separated. It could have been one of the neighbors finally fed up with late night sobbing or a passing stranger with a cell phone, but my brother and I knew it was James Cole. He had set things right, our good friend the Dog Food Hobo.
The above story is true, minus the ending. The truth of the matter is no one came to our rescue the next morning and our dad continued to find reasons to punish us. I suppose I wrote this story because of the beauty of re-creation and as a way to grant myself a wish that never come true as a child. Story telling is more than just letters on a page or words spoken aloud; it’s the awesome power of hope and has given me in some small way that special wish I made every night my brother cried himself to sleep. Thank you for reading.