By the end of October 1962, my family was in an awful mess. Mama found a job as a switchboard operator at Petroleum Helicopters, but Roger spent too much time exercising his right arm with Budweiser cans and lost his job offshore. Our tomcat ran off to find a wife, and our puppy grew up and pledged her allegiance to my stepfather instead of me and followed his every move.
The worst was my oldest sister’s rising fever from worrying about a nuclear war. In her delirium, she’d mutter questions about Cuba and Castro, Khrushchev and a man as handsome as my absent father, our beloved president, John F. Kennedy.
“Why on earth did we move to Louisiana?” Jeanne asked Mama in the middle of the night. “We’re too close to Cuba!”
“Don’t get hysterical, ” said Mama. “You’ll scare your sisters.”
My mother had eased into our bedroom to give Jeanne two Bayer aspirin and a sip of Coke. Janie and I had rolled together like kittens to the farthest edge of the bed and pretended to be asleep. But even if we had been snoozing, Mama was too late; we were plenty scared already. My sisters talked about Cuba’s missiles every day, and every night I’d dream about Russian tanks barreling down the street in front of our home.
I’d awaken next to my big sister, who’d be drenched in sweat, our bed sheets damp and limp. Mama said she couldn’t afford “one more expense, ” so Jeanne had to ride out her fever without a visit to the doctor. Janie and I never caught whatever it was she had, and thank goodness for that, because it was the middle of January before she dragged back to school.
When she regained her strength, Jeanne taught Janie to roll her hair with giant curlers. And every morning, they’d tease and flip their shoulder-length hair. Jeanne’s hair was red, mine was yellow, and Janie’s was what Mama called “dishwater-brown.” I would’ve gone to school without lifting a comb, but Jeanne made me sit still until she brushed out every tangle, then she’d twist the wavy mess into a high ponytail.
At the end of each school day, my sisters waited for my bus to flash its lights, stick out its arms, and spit me out. They seemed so grown up with their tucked-in blouses and skirts, bobby socks and penny loafers. To the neighbors we must have looked like normal school kids, cheerful and unafraid.
We’d clamber into the house, and the dog would scamper to greet us. Then she’d dash back to Roger, who’d be sitting in his favorite chair by a window—his eyes hard and distant, his mouth a straight line. He’d always be holding a can of Budweiser. In a nearby ashtray a cigarette would burn, its thin trail of smoke curling to the ceiling like a tiny missile.
President Kennedy had resolved the Cuban Crisis, which was a huge relief, but my stepfather’s battle never ceased. I had no idea what caused anger to simmer in his veins. Bad blood? If so, we’d all been tainted. Mine ran cold with trepidation. And no matter how hard my big sisters tried, even the best appearances couldn’t keep the rage and fear and fever away.
Photo by Davi Ozolin, Creative Commons license via Flickr. Post by Darrelyn Saloom, co-author of My Call to the Ring: A Memoir of a Girl Who Yearns to Box.
Read more of Darrelyn’s story: “The Worst Kind of Luck”
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