It was the night before my father was to go to Memphis to have his leg amputated. A beautiful May night in 1963. About 9 o’clock, I drove over to pick up Harold, one of my best basketball buds, to head out to Newbern’s gathering spot, the Dairy Queen. I only had been driving a few months. We had a new car, a 1963 white Chevrolet Bel Air. The car wasn’t fancy, but it was enough to put some icing on a newly found sense of freedom. Harold lived near the school, the opposite end of town from the DQ. We headed through a nest of little streets toward Main, which connected the town and also was a small part of US Highway 51 linking Chicago and New Orleans. Ray Charles was belting out the last chorus of “Take These Chains from My Heart.” Harold wanted to listen to the Cardinal game, but I asked him to let Ray finish his soulful version of Hank’s country tune:
Take these chains from my heart and set me free.
You’ve grown cold and no longer care for me.
All my faith in you is gone, but the heartaches linger on.
Take these changes from my heart and set me free.
We approached a routine four-way stop where there was never much traffic. I stopped. There was a car coming from the right. Even though it seemed to be going a little fast, it was some distance away and I saw no threat. This was a local street. Most everyone knew to stop here. But when we were mid-way into the intersection, the car, driven by some disoriented out-of-towners, crashed into the passenger side of our car. The car hit us with such force that had Harold not been leaning in to tune the radio, he likely would have been injured. As it was, the crash scared him so badly that he jumped out and headed back home without saying a word. The car was a mess. The front door on the passenger side had been ripped off and the back door was almost doubled up.
I knocked on the door of a house nearby and asked someone to call the police. The officer came and looked things over, asked a couple of questions and took us to the small downtown office where we gave our statements and then I walked the two blocks to our house. Usually when I came home, the porch light was on. The inside of the house was also well-lit, lights on in the breakfast and TV rooms and a table lamp in the entryway. This night the house was pitch black except for a harsh overhead light in the front hall that we rarely used. My father sat in the dark living room alone, his leg, as it had been for two months, propped up to simulate circulation. He was relieved I wasn’t hurt, and tried to comfort me. “I’m just glad you’re safe. We will find someone to take us to Memphis tomorrow. Don’t worry.” Still, he also gave off a sense of helplessness I had never seen before. I quickly understood why.
Upstairs, my mother ran from room to room hysterically shouting out a commentary on the evening. I felt sure my father had been listening to this for a couple of hours. My mother at last had the proper object for her wrath, “How could you do this to me? And tonight of all nights?” She shrieked as she ran from room to room, mostly repeating herself. Downstairs, we sat in the dark, our eyes rarely meeting. Every now and then she added a new sentence or two. “What are we going to do?” “How could you be so careless?” My father and I were both very tired, but she seemed to be continually reenergizing herself. “Were you not thinking at all?” “Don’t you understand all the stress I am under”? “I’m at my wit’s end. I just can’t bear anymore.” I had heard many of these words repeatedly while growing up. What made this all so frightening was the darkness, the shrieking, the unshakable sense I had that this time her words were they were masking something even more menacing. Something utterly beyond her control or ours. That feeling grew even as she became silent and kept herself apart, unwilling or, worse yet, helpless to come down those stairs to be with my father and me. But another feeling grew stronger too, the first one I had when I’d walked in the door, shamefaced, and seen him–my father’s own helplessness.
I got up and walked to the bottom of the stairs a couple of times to explain, but the distance made conversation impossible and that’s how things would remain that night. I didn’t feel up to walking up those stairs into her madness and returned instead to the vigil of silence with my father. This must have gone on for at least an hour. He needed to be asleep. His body had paid a steep toll for the last three months. We all knew that his last good chance had been open heart surgery in Cleveland, but the doctors there concluded he was not strong enough to endure the surgery. The trip had actually made things worse since one of the tests had resulted in blocking the flow of blood to his foot. The only alternative was amputation, but there was only a 50-50 chance he would survive it. My prayer for months had been only that I would be strong no matter what happened.
About 4, my mother finally grew quiet. I lifted my father from his chair and helped him to the dining room where we had set up a bed for him. I had grown accustomed to helping him like this, and I liked it. It was my way of holding him in my arms. Still, he had never felt as limp as this night. When I put him into bed, he told me to get all the rest I could and, once again, how glad he was I came home safe.
I did not feel safe at all, and I am not sure my father did either. When I see the scene in memory now, I see it from the overhead camera Hitchcock uses in “Psycho.” The detective is ascending the stairs of the Bates house behind the motel when Norman, dressed as his mother, appears at the top of the stairs. Norman does not make a sound, but Bernard Hermann’s score swallows the audience in the music of hysteria that intensifies the insanity of the moment. Norman stabs the detective in the head, and he falls backward down the stairs. My memory has blended the filmic and the actual to a point that I was surprised to discover there is no landing in the Bates house as there was in ours. I don’t know if “Psycho” flashed before my eyes that night or memory added that detail later, but I do know I never felt safe sleeping in the same house with my mother again.
(This piece takes its title from Ray Charles’ cover of a Hank Williams classic, but its central piece of music is Bernard Hermann’s score for the film Psycho and particularly the parts played by the string section in the stabbing sequences. I have posted a link to Psycho Stabbing Scenes on my Facebook page, but it is easy to find on your own. Barbara Bennett helped me find this piece in a much longer piece and I am grateful for her good eye.)