I am 5, or maybe 6, and I have crawled into my parents’ bed to sleep with just Mommy because Daddy isn’t home again. He is usually out after work until way beyond our bedtimes. I have left the room I share with my big sister. I am always leaving the stifling pink polyester bed spread in the middle of the night to get out of there. Mommy is not very affectionate with me during the day, but at night she will hug me to her and I love sleeping intertwined in her soft arms. I try to match the rhythm of her breathing until I fall asleep.
Often, the next morning at breakfast, we find out we’ve had the same dream the night before. Mommy doesn’t believe in God, but she believes in ESP, so she nods sagely over her cigarette when I recount my night stories, and she adds details I have forgotten. I think this is totally normal, for us to share our dreams. My big sister rolls her eyes and looks so annoyed when we do this. She is always disdainful of anything Mommy says. She is my hero, so I try to mirror her a lot and it gets me into trouble because I don’t understand what I am saying or doing.
The phone rings. It is loud next to our heads and Mommy and I both jump in our sleep, startled awake. She answers and her voice is worried, then stern, then angry. She won’t talk as she bundles me into clothes, wakes up my little sister, dresses her, as she’s telling my big sister to get up. We are all sleepy and confused and we can read the sparks of fury in our mother’s eyes. We want to whine about how tired we are, but we know better. We are anxious but quiet when we pile into the white Volkswagen Beetle.
The police station is overly lit and the sound of our shoes hitting the floor echoes around the empty hallway. When we get to the desk, Mommy’s cheeks flame when she hears that my father was not only driving drunk around the streets of London, but that the woman riding in the car was injured in the crash—possibly a broken arm. She writes a check and I know that it is an enormous amount of pounds from the way she blanches.
We wait on wooden benches a long time, my little sister and I leaned against our mother, my big sister sitting further down away from us as she often is now that she is in her teens and always in a battle with Mommy. We hear footsteps approaching, and Daddy appears with the officer looking sheepish and droopy-eyed. His black longish hair and sideburns wildly standing up in a mane of disorder. He won’t meet Mommy’s angry eyes and at the car takes the keys from her without talking. Her lips have entirely disappeared when she lifts me into the backseat.
In the morning she tells us not to talk about what happened at school, but it was far too exciting for me to have been to the police station not to tell Miss Meadows the moment I got into the classroom. She gives Mommy a witheringly smug look of pity when she came to pick me up that afternoon, and Mommy’s face flames until she gets me to the car and scolds me for talking without even asking if I did it.
The next week is strange. Daddy is home for dinner a few nights in a row, but then doesn’t call or come for dinner later in the week. My little sister and I are having our baths when we hear him bustling at the front door. It’s not the normal noise of keys jangling and the door slamming a moment later, and there are muffled curses and the sound of heavy things being dragged. He calls, “Honey, can you come help me?” He calls Mommy “Honey,” but he also calls the rest of us “Honey.” It’s easier than ever saying our names.
My big sister gets downstairs first and she is saying, “Wow, Daddy! Really?” as my little sister and I jump out of the bath and pull on our long nighties without properly drying off, our hair matted and dripping down our necks and spreading over the flannel collars and yokes. We push past Mommy, who has not moved at all after hearing Daddy call up to us. We run down the carpeted stairs in tandem. She is two years my junior, but she is already faster than me. At the bottom, by the front door, there is an array of boxes and bags crowding the entryway. My big sister is pulling records out of paper bags from different stores.
Daddy drags the boxes into the living room, across the burnt sienna shag pile carpet and starts to pull stereo components out of the cartons. He loves a project, loves making things work, especially electrical gadgets, and he spends a lot of time making sure the speaker wires are firmly in their clips and that the turntable is level on the end table he has repurposed for the brand new hi fidelity system. It is 1975 or 1976 and we have a small transistor radio, and a portable red plastic children’s turntable that my big sister monopolizes, but we have never had a stereo. We feel deprived, since all the magazines my big sister brings home in her book satchel are about bands we want to hear.
As far back as I can remember, Mommy has hated the sound of music in the house. She sings to us sometimes, but doesn’t like hearing music play. When Top of the Pops comes on, my sisters and I crowd around the tiny black and white TV in our bedroom and keep the volume low so that Mommy won’t know we’re watching it and get mad at us. We play dance music on the radio whenever she’s out shopping, one ear always listening for the chug of the Bug pulling into the drive. My big sister locks our door when she plays records, but inevitably Mommy will stomp up the stairs, bang on the door, and threaten to take the record player away if she doesn’t do her prep for school in the morning instead of listening to “that goddamn godawful racket.” My sisters and I have English accents, but Mommy’s voice is as American as they come, and she flattens her vowels, especially when she’s angry.
We are looking at the piles of records that my big sister is pulling out of the bags. There are musicians we don’t care about like Johnny Mathis and Tony Bennett, but there’s also Elton John, Jefferson Airplane, and the Beatles. She squeals over David Bowie, the Bay City Rollers and the soundtrack to Godspell, and hugs the large cardboard squares to her chest while she flips through the rest of the albums. It seems like he has bought the LPs from a few stores without bothering to follow style or genre, just whatever struck his fancy or caught his eye.
I become aware that Mommy is standing in the doorway, a fresh cigarette in her hand, surveying the room with a pronounced look of disgust on her face, from the arch of her eyebrows down to the set of her chin. She is shaking her head slightly as she fixes her eyes on my father, then the disarray of the room, the boxes, the lamp sitting on the floor instead of on the table where she put it, where instead the record player sits, and giant black speakers on either side are an unwelcome addition to her carefully designed aesthetic.
Daddy looks at her and he knows how enraged she is. He knows, but he doesn’t care. He is practically taunting her. He is showing her that he can do whatever he wants. I understand this is mean of him on some level, but I also see the humor in it, the blatant nose-thumbing of this action, because she is so uptight, and this will really get her. Daddy is happy, laughing as he finishes hooking up all of the components. He’s sipping from a glass of scotch every few minutes as he puts the system together. He ignores Mommy entirely.
He comes over to our piles of LPs and digs through until he finds one with a picture of a woman with light, curly hair, wearing jeans and sitting barefoot in a window. He grabs it and rips the cellophane wrapper from around the cardboard cover. We gather around the record player and watch with round eyes, as if he is about to perform a magic trick. He pushes the button that makes the platter turn. He pulls the sleeve from the cover, and the record from the sleeve, which he places gingerly onto the turning wheel. He is so intent on setting the needle down onto the vinyl exactly right.
There is a light hiss and the music can be discerned very faintly, but it’s not coming out of the speakers. We look at him and each other and see the look of annoyance cross his face. We instinctively pull slightly away from him. He is checking connections and pressing buttons until suddenly the speakers roar into life and we hear the sweetest voice singing “Oh darling, when I see your face, gentle as the month of May.” We all break into laughter from the surprise and delight of it.
Daddy starts dancing to the thumping beat, the bass and the piano putting the bottom into the song, and we join him, jumping up and down and shaking our hips, holding hands and breaking the hold. He gets into the music so hard that his hair flips forward, out of the careful style he usually keeps it in and hangs in front of his eyes. We feel the earth move under our feet—we really do feel it in the give of the floorboards as we jump and dance like a flock of lunatics.
We are out of breath when the record moves into “So Far Away” and he takes turns slow dancing with each of us while we stand on the ends of his feet, even my big sister. When it’s my turn I lean back as far as I can, dangling my head in the backbend, trusting that his grip on my hands will not fail, and upside down I can see Mommy, still in the doorway, watching us gallivant with pursed lips and one eyebrow arched. She is not charmed by any of this.
When “It’s Too Late” comes on, he looks up at her, smiles widely and asks, “What do you think, Joan? Is it too late? Please?” Something about that makes her snort sarcastically, almost a laugh, almost the acceptance of an almost apology. Because they are not tender together, my parents, they only deliver barbs. It tickles her perverse sense of humor, I think, for him to ask if they are through in a hopeful voice. Her voice is wry, “Well, it’s too late to take that goddamn thing back, I suppose. I don’t know where the money’s coming from for that.”
“Come on, girls, it’s time for bed!” and we are suddenly caught up in the whirlwind of her pushing us up the stairs while we beg to stay up longer. When she tucks me in, she says, “Stay in your bed tonight, Grace. Daddy needs to sleep.” I lie in bed forever, the sound of the same record being played over and over while the smell of cigarettes creeps up into our room along with the words, “Tonight you’re mine completely” followed by, “Will you still love me tomorrow?” There is the occasional sound of raised voices. Daddy is slurry and Mommy is sharp.
Carole King is pounding on a piano insisting he makes her feel like a natural woman behind the sound of my parents’ voices. I look across the bedspread to the twin bed where my big sister is staring at the ceiling, listening to the sounds in our house, to the music of our parents fighting. I watch her listening until I can’t keep my eyes open anymore.