Looking Out for Life

Light Filtered Through Window

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When I was growing up, no one ever talked about depression. I didn’t know what it was, and the moods I went through didn’t get much reaction from my parents. Yet I spent a lot of time isolating myself, not feeling like playing with my friends or going anywhere, not interested in much of anything. I went through many spells of anxiety as well.

That was something I did recognize because it was like fear, and there wasn’t a boy who wanted to let fear stop him from doing anything. Yet I had to walk a fine line between the fear of what might happen outside my home and what might happen within it. There was a lot of depression in that small space.

One summer when I was about 9, I became convinced that it was too dangerous to go outside. I couldn’t stop thinking about all the things, great and small, that could hurt me. For one thing, I could be stung by a bee. Or I might get beaten up, especially by that terror, Del Halstrom, who lived diagonally across the street from us. Or I could run into a car while riding my bike. These and many other possibilities obsessed me.

Staying inside was the thing to do. There I could keep an eye on the neighborhood while leaning on the wooden cover of the big living room radiator and staring out the wide casement windows. That was my lookout post.

I could spend hours at a time mesmerized by the late-day summer light on abundant red rose bushes right under my window. The roses themselves had gone limp in the July sun and had lost their wild density of color and fragrance. The humid heat smothered them to the ground, and the loose petals carpeted the lawn with deep but wilted red.

Our house was set back about fifty feet from the road and built on a slight rise. That gave me a sweeping view of everything that happened in this part of the neighborhood. Sometimes, I felt I was in an audience. The street was like a stage, and I watched the action carefully, ducking down if glances turned my way. I wanted to be invisible.

One evening I was at my post waiting for Del Halstrom to appear. He and my brother had made a fearful date to fight it out, and I wanted to keep track of his movements. There wasn’t anything I could do, of course, and I was nervous that Del might spot me at the window and come after me too.

He was a force that had pushed into our neighborhood when people started moving up from the City. He wasn’t like rest of us. He was a street fighter who dared you with his eyes to step anywhere in a ten foot zone around him when he walked the streets. And when he grabbed you, it was to land a rock in your face, a sharp boot in the groin or a fierce punch in your solar plexus to blast the air right of you. He didn’t fool around with fighting, he went in for a quick kill, got a terrifying scream out of his victim then ran like a cheetah to get as far out of sight as he could.

I don’t know why my brother decided to take him on. Maybe he’d just had enough of this one-man gang. I was afraid of the outcome of this fight and didn’t think Jimmy had much of a chance.

Behind me in the cathedral living room, I could hear my father dragging his arm chair and ottoman into position, settling down with a cigarette, patting his beanbag ashtray onto one arm of his thickly upholstered chair and setting a beer coaster on the other. I heard him popping the can open, catching the quick gush of foam in his mouth, clicking on the TV, and settling in for the Friday night fights.

My mother was stretched out on the couch, an arm flung over her forehead, the fingers of that hand limp by her cheek until lifted to peel back a page of her Ellery Queen mystery magazine. My father made lots of noise, loudly clearing his throat, creaking the chair springs with a one-arm push-up to clear a bubble from his gut as he groaned about gas. But then, at the referee’s signal from the center ring huddle with the fighters, Dad started his action-packed commentary. It wasn’t so much commentary as groans and get-em’s while his favorite took or struck a punch. His own fists followed the action, shooting a jab, an uppercut, a body blow or just shoving away when the fighters leaned on each other in exhaustion, weakly glove-slapping a kidney punch to make it seem like they weren’t playing for time.

Mom suddenly sat up on the couch, wiping her forehead with her handkerchief. “Where’s Jimmy? It’s 9, and I haven’t even seen him tonight.”

I shrugged and muttered that I didn’t know but I didn’t turn around to face her. She hadn’t directed the question at me so much as at the room in general. Her voice had that angry, hurt edge to it that I knew well. It always cut through whatever she was talking about and warned of trouble. I had no idea why – my mother and father were just sitting there – but something must have happened to cause that fearsome and intense quiet of hers. My father looked preoccupied with his boxing, but I knew that when my brother walked in – especially if he’d been in a fight with Halstrom, the balance might be tipped. This fight would begin.

“Why didn’t he say something?”

“He no consideration for anyone!” said my father pausing a moment between swings in his TV fight.

“I didn’t ask you,” my mother shot back as she swung herself down on the couch again, pushed her arm over her forehead and lifted the magazine before her eyes. She couldn’t have really been reading.

Then I heard it, a brief outcry from the Halstrom house, booming sounds of slamming doors, as if sucked shut by a vacuum within emptying rooms, another shout pulled from deep within a male throat and chest, a physical tearing out of a pent-up hurt, far below words, below feelings even, some primitive roar of pain. Del was getting another beating from his dad.

A side door at the top of a flight of steps flew open and shut in a single action. Del stood there for a second, slightly crouched as if ready to spring at anything of danger nearby. He was a tall, lean 14 year-old boy, all wired muscle, taut beneath the denim jacket and pants that pulled back slightly from his rapid frame, as if always a moment or two behind his quick steps.

His small intense eyes scanned across the yards and street below him, as if taking in possible traps or prey. In a clatter of action I could hardly take in, he was suddenly at the bottom of those steps, out the driveway, onto the street, lurching forward in his straining way, his head and eyes yanking the rest of him along. His thin legs reached ahead in big strides, his torso in tense hunching posture, his eyes daring anything to move into his path. Halstrom was out stalking the neighborhood and on his way to beat up my brother.

I heard my father loudly battling through the fight, and then, as he sensed the impending knock-out win, shouting his man on to flatten the bloodied opponent with that magical left hook that came out of nowhere, then finish him off with an uppercut of awesome force. My mother kept silent with her Ellery Queen.

She hated Dad’s antics but couldn’t shut him out. I could imagine the familiar look of disdain, even disgust on her face. I sensed the tension as she scuffed through more pages than she could possibly be reading. That scuff, scuff sounded like a warning signal. Something was about to happen, though I didn’t know what or why.

I focused out the window again and waited for my brother’s fight to be done. took place about a block off stage. They’d agreed to meet down where the brook flowed under Argyle St. – it was out of sight below the street level and shielded by trees from the neighboring yards. Hallstrom had warned everybody else to stay away, and nobody would dare defy him.

The whole thing was over in a couple of minutes, just as I had feared.

There was a quick shriek. I knew it was my brother, though I’d never heard such a voice of pain from him before. And sure enough, a couple of minutes later there went the streak of Halstrom back toward his house. That was that. My brother had lost and would soon come back, hopefully with no more than a welt or bruise. But that shriek – I couldn’t it out of my head.

Behind me the TV fight was over, the television clicked off. My parents just sat there, waiting for Jimmy to walk in the door.

I couldn’t make a move.

6 Responses to “Looking Out for Life”

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  1. Ellen says:

    What a nice piece of writing John. You had me on the edge of my seat too. I did want to know what happened when your brother came home, though I can guess from how you’ve described the situation. It makes a lot of sense that you chose to keep out of the way….smart and self-preserving.


    • john says:

      Thanks, Ellen –

      That was a strategy for survival – but I paid a heavy price for it. What happened after my brother came home – or the sort of thing that happened many, many times – is described in a post called Shame and Family Violence. I’m not eager to write about that any more!

      All my best –


  2. This piece of writing had me sitting in your living room, anxiously jumping from your parents faces to the street outside… My heart was beating fast and I felt the breathlessness of being on the rim of a rumbling volcano.
    Your ability to affect a reader in this way is incredible.
    Best piece of writing I’ve seen in ages John.


    • john says:

      Wondering Soul –

      Wow – thank you so much! Writing this helped me see more clearly a continuing pattern in my choices and behavior throughout my life. I’m glad the feeling of it comes through.

      All love –


  3. herrad says:

    Came by to say hello and wish you a good Halloween weekend.

    • john says:

      Thanks, Herrad – I love the collection of books you posted – many of my favorites and some I don’t know at all.

      My best to you –


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