By Linda Rodriguez
It was morning sickness that told me I was pregnant again in late 1944, though I don’t know why they call it that. I did all my puking in the evening, every time I had to cook up supper for the old man. Fry up pork chops, run and puke, fry up chicken, run and puke, cook up stew, run and puke. It didn’t matter what it was.
I finally told Mal—that’s my old man—he’d have to pick up supper and bring it home every night. Boy, he didn’t like that, said a wife was supposed to cook for her husband. I told him you’ll wish you’d done what I said when you get a pork chop covered in puke on your plate. And that’s the last I heard of that. He knew I’d do it, too. I’m not some sniveling meek woman. You mess with me at your peril.
Since we met as teenagers in the Ozarks, Mal and I had been married for four years, two little girls, and a stillborn baby boy. Maybe it was the loss of our little boy. Maybe it was just resentment at being settled down. Maybe it was a feeling of guilt because he was 4F and doing defense work in Kansas City, building bombs, instead of fighting with his brother and friends in Europe and the Pacific. But whatever was causing it, Mal started drinking more and getting mean. In that fall of 1944, he started running around with a bunch of single guys—or guys who might as well have been single for all the thought they ever gave their wives and kids.
My older sister, Naomi, shook her head and clucked her tongue against her teeth, looking at me with sad concern. I called it her “poor Dilly” face and hated it. She’d been doing it ever since I married Malcolm Kort back when I was sixteen.
None of our families had indoor plumbing or electricity back home, but Mal’s family was such hill trash they about lived in a cave. Mal was different, though—handsome as all get out and bound and determined to make something of himself. He promised me an easier life with electric lights and no more outhouses and pumping every drop of water, and here I was with a kitchen sink where I only turned a knob and hot or cold water poured out while I watched under the yellow glow of an electric light bulb hanging down on a cord from the ceiling.
“Dilly, you need to watch out,” Naomi said in mournful tones. “That’s a bad crowd he’s running with.”
Of course, I knew they were worthless shits. I’d heard a couple of them laughing about how they’d fooled the doctors into letting them stay home and not go to the front lines. I couldn’t believe Mal didn’t blow up at them, right there, what with his own brother over there dodging bullets and bombs. But he just gave a tight smile like he thought they were funny and smart, too.
After running with that crowd of rowdies for a couple of months, Mal started coming home liquored up and ready to fight over anything. I didn’t want Naomi to find out about it, but it was hard to keep it from her after he smashed my big wood ironing board to pieces. I had to borrow hers so I could finish the drapes I was sewing for that rich Mrs. Conover. If I didn’t have them finished in time, that old witch would try to weasel out of my fees, I knew. I couldn’t think of a lie that Naomi would believe, so while I sewed and ironed pleats in damask, she spent that afternoon, trying to talk me into taking the kids and moving in with her and her husband. Of course, I couldn’t do that. I’d never have lived it down.
The first time Mal hit me, I was too stunned to say or do anything. I just gasped, trying to suck in air and failing. He looked as stunned as I felt and stared at me, his muscles popping out of his white undershirt while his eyes about popped out of his head. It was a moment neither of us had ever expected to see. We’d married for love, real love, even if Maejean was already on the way. We’d been crazy about each other. So what had happened to all that?
He apologized right away, even crying, while I was numb, almost paralyzed, and things went on as if nothing important had happened.
The next week, though, he came home in much worse shape. When he hit me that time, I hit him back. I wasn’t taken by surprise like before. I wasn’t the kind of woman to just cower as a man pounded her, so I tried my damnedest to fight back and give as good as I got. Since he was twice my size and had left his good sense on some barroom floor, he beat the hell out of me. Blacked my eye and bloodied my nose. I was a mess, but I learned I couldn’t fight him on his terms. So did he, apparently, so those times came more often while Naomi begged me to leave and come live on her charity. I had two girls and a baby on the way to think about, though. There had to be another way.
Christmas Eve came, and the girls and I waited and waited for him to come home to take us to candlelight services at church, but the time came and went for that with no Mal in sight. When he finally arrived, he was sloppy drunk and spoiling for a fight, I could see. I began to think I might have to give in and run with the kids to my sister’s house, after all.
His mouth was twisted in a snarl, and he started cussing at me from the minute he walked in the door and slammed it shut behind him. I was just coming out of the girls’ bedroom after putting them to bed and calming their disappointed crying, and I stopped in the hallway, staring at him and wondering how I could take the girls and get out of the apartment without him catching us.
“Don’t just stand there,” he yelled when he saw me. “I want some supper. Man comes home hungry from a hard day’s work, he’s got a right to expect his woman to have hot food ready for him.”
I hurried into the living room. “I didn’t know when you’d get here. I’ve kept supper warm for you. Come into the kitchen, and I’ll serve it up.”
As I turned toward the kitchen, he grabbed my arm and twisted it behind my back. I had to twist my whole body to keep him from damaging the arm.
“Don’t you give me that shit about being late,” he yelled and hit me in the jaw. “I come and go when and as I please, see.” He let go of my arm and hit me again. “I’m the king of this here castle, and you better by God remember that.” He kicked at me, but I managed to dodge it.
Suddenly, Maejean, our oldest and only four years old, ran between us yelling at him to stop hitting me. He swung wide and knocked her across the room. I ran to where she fell, screaming and crying, to the floor. Holding her, I looked up at him, and he must have seen something in my eyes because he muttered about being tired and headed to our bedroom and slammed the door.
I couldn’t believe that he would hit Maejean. His own little girl. I kept shaking my head over it all the while I calmed her down and made sure she wasn’t hurt real bad and sang her to sleep in her bed next to her sister’s crib. I stayed there for an extra hour to make sure she wouldn’t wake up and to make sure he’d passed out completely.
Then I went to my sewing nook in the living room where I made extra cash by sewing drapes and slipcovers for those rich bitches with money to toss around. I opened my sewing basket and pulled out my big, old shears that I kept nice and sharp so they wouldn’t tear the fabric. I opened the door to our bedroom where he was snoring and snorting away, dead to the world because he was dead drunk.
I stepped out of my shoes and tiptoed to the bed. When I got there, I crawled up on top of him where he lay on the bed in his jockey shorts and undershirt. I could have spit in his face for hitting Maejean, but I had a better idea. I had my shears with me.
I carefully cut away his undershirt leaving the hems hanging loose on his arms and the collar on his neck. I cut away his jockeys, leaving the elastic around each leg and his waist. Then I sat on top of him and waited for him to wake up.
It was a long night, sitting there, looking at his face, listening to him snore, wondering how I could have had children with that man. Finally, the sun began to lighten the room through the sheer curtains. I decided to wake him before the baby would be up and crying for me, so I slapped his cheeks.
When he woke with a start, looking around in confusion, I was on top of him with the point of those big, sharp steel scissors right at his nose.
I told him, “Mal, look at yourself.”
His eyes got real big when he realized I’d cut his clothes off him.
I tapped him between the eyes with the sharp tip of the shears. “If you ever hit me or the girls again, you better plan on never sleeping, ‘cause I will cut off a lot more than your clothes.”
He twisted his head around, but I tapped between his eyes with that sharp steel point again to keep his attention.
“You need to know this, Mal. I am serious.” I caught his eyes with my own and let him see how close he came to losing some part of himself while I sat there all night.
Then, I got off of him and let him run to the bathroom with his elastics sliding down his legs. I smiled as I heard him puking in the toilet. It was going to be one hell of a hangover.