I should start by telling you, Mom is Italian. I’m not sure if it helps this story for any other reason than to excuse her serious anger issues during my childhood. Why do we do that, anyway? It seems like there are certain nationalities who get a bad rap for one person’s character flaws. The entire country of Italy now suffers because my mom had a short fuse. She went unchecked, and Italy is to blame.
“Hey! Why did that lady just yank her kid out of the store by his hair? Someone should call C.S.D.”
“No. Don’t. She’s Italian.”
“Well, it’s a good thing you told me because I almost called and then that poor lady would have been wrongfully accused.”
Anyway, mom is Italian but aside from that, she was a mean bitch when she was angry.
The time was 1976, 1977 or somewhere in between. I had a vivid imagination back then, and at the time it was focused on my love and adoration of witches. Pretending to be one was just my thing. Mom could have explained to me that boys must be warlocks but I guess it just wasn’t important in the grand scheme of things. Warlocks weren’t even interesting come to think of it, just sharply dressed. She never explained the differences and all that could have backfired. “So Doc, I guess the reason I put on a dress before hitting the town is because for the first five years of my life (the developmental and character building phase), mom failed to inform me that witches have vaginas.”
My favorite movie at that time was The Wizard of Oz. I’m sure this is why I enjoyed being a witch. Mom liked playing the part of one too, and I remember she would chase me around the house and tickle me with her long fingernails and I would laugh uncontrollably. I could never forget those nails either. They were industrial strength, built not just for tickling gender confused boys but for rock climbing with her bare hands. I’ve seen a lot of women with paper thin nails and I’ve always thought, those poor, malnutritioned ladies. However, Mom’s nails were planks of wood attached to fingers all the size of thumbs. There was no clipping them: it was a sanding task, really. She could have whittled them into statuesque wooden eagles, or totem pole sculptures like you see driving through small coastal towns.
She made me a witch hat, a very sophisticated invention too. The materials used were old newspaper clippings (probably the obituaries ) painted black and sculpted into a little boy’s dream. I wore it proudly around the house playing witch and trying to tickle her back with my one good hand and a bad, cerebral palsy, crooked, rubber chicken monstrosity of a hand. Hat or no hat, in the dark ages I would have been accused of witchcraft and drowned alive in water just for that sorry impression of a hand. Hell, my hand is a witch all on its own. When I try to do things with it I can almost hear it cackling and crying out, “I’ll get you, my pretty and your little dog too! ….” You know what would be cool? If my hand had the bad witch theme music from the movie every time I did something like wave awkwardly to someone or go to shake their hand. What a world, what a world.
One such day I was playing my favorite fantasy when it was cut short by the arrival of the furnace repairman. It was important to get that furnace fixed too. It was vital because it didn’t just provide warmth throughout our house but was a destination in itself. We had one of those old fashioned furnaces that blew out from floor vents. These were no electric wall heaters: they were the real deal, fueled by oil. The Middle East produced not just energy, but perfect, warm and cozy memories that wrapped around little children like blankets as we sat there on corner vents heating up in the cold early mornings. Yes, blood has been spilt for my comfort. Back in those days, I never felt safer, sitting there as hot old oil and heater dust blew around every inch of my body and into my small child lungs while I wore my very flammable newspaper witch hat glazed over with black lead based paint. Some basic necessities are worth mentioning and more importantly, worth fixing. Even if it meant I had to put my witchcraft on hold.
The heating repairs took place in our basement and I use that word loosely. I would feel more confident describing it as an extremely large secret crawl space under our house. There was no flooring or insulation of any kind. The floors were cold grey cement and the walls were made of concrete. The walls were basically the foundation of the house and were heavily scarred with stress cracks. The walls bowed out and the cracks made small replica sized waterfalls during the rainy season which was all year long in Portland.
The steep staircase leading down into this 1940’s European makeshift war room was flimsy and would have done poorly in an endurance test against my mom’s thumb-fingered planks. I’m sure one of the selling points of our home was the back northwest wall. It had storage space available for use. This wall did not extend to the ceiling but instead it came up only half the distance and then gave way to a deep dark abyss that indeed was the storage space I speak of. This area was an outstandingly sized cubbyhole perfect for hiding body limbs, crime scene evidence, or guns for weapons trade. If one was so inclined, they could even have filled it with garbage sacks of human hair, and better yet, with the right building materials could have been used to fence in live humans themselves: ten to twelve fully grown or eighteen to twenty small children. Maybe even more if the equation accounted for Asians. The corner utility sink was also made of concrete, divided into two sections and housing separate drains which I’m sure at one time was used for the sole purpose of scrubbing away blood stained hands, seaman stained dresses, or even a mattress.
The door which let out into the garage was one of the few things not made with cement. There was nothing puny about it though. It was like one big wooden vault door. If the door had a soul you would not have known because the windows were all knocked out. I suspect this was probably another moment of Italian rage. All four windows were replaced with screen mesh and covered with cardboard on either side. There was no seeing in and there was no seeing out. The extent of the security was a rusted pad lock. If you managed to get past that you were almost free from the Bruhn family life. However, if you were courageous enough to break into our home from the outside, you still had one more wave of security awaiting you: the upstairs door leading back into our kitchen had a small bathroom hook lock. I shit you not. We all slept sound at night knowing we were safe from intruders by the pure brute force of a hook lock! This was not a small room holding Q tips, cotton balls and feminine hygiene products, it was a house with a family dwelling inside. There were three children and a mom and dad. What were my folks thinking?
My point: downstairs was not your ordinary basement, it was an on-location set for Saw. Regardless, it was furnace repairman’s work environment and the staging area for the following events which would follow all because a five year old boy was curious about more than just his gender role.
I decided that since I wasn’t playing at the moment I’d head downstairs to watch him do his work. I sat down on the weak staircase and could hear it begging me from underneath my ass. “Get off me little boy… or girl, you’re heavy.”
We had superficial chit chat while he worked on our furnace. I’m sure I was bothering him. A man like that likes to be left alone in his work. I was just a weird boy in a witch hat, and a working man like him doesn’t have a lot on his mind. In fact the less he has to think about the better off everyone in his life is. A quite mind means he doesn’t dwell on the consequences of his life’s decisions. He simply didn’t say much, and I’m sure he was trying to keep his mind off the thought that he repairs heaters for a living.
He quickly and efficiently removed important screws from the heater casing. That’s over twenty years of experience working right there.
Another heater, life’s good. Why isn’t someone watching this weird little boy?
Then he stood in position as he removed the casing.
This wasn’t an accident. I’m a seconded generation heater repair man. Why didn’t I question whether this was or wasn’t my destiny? I just followed suit. Pops just lied, this is no career. It is a job.
Then he examined the engine parts, peering behind dirty wires and greasy blocks of metal, taking it very seriously. He was like a back alley surgeon, ashamed of his work but knowing the importance of it nonetheless.
“What was that kid? Did you ask if I like The Wizard of Oz?” His words drifted off preoccupied by his own work.
I believe it was right about that time he found what he was looking for, and he seemed happy, as if getting this fixed would bring him a few minutes closer to being at home with a six pack of beer, slugging them all down but one. The last beer was to wash down the chicken pot pie that his wife had better have ready before his favorite show started the night off for his late night TV extravaganza and numbing session.
This was a dangerous way of thinking. It was a double edge sword. Yes, it is true you are one minute closer to your beer, but also another minute closer to it starting all over again tomorrow morning. It’s a good thing I wasn’t smart enough then to counter his excitement with today’s observation.
It was also that very moment that mom called out from upstairs. “Lonnie, you are not wearing slippers, you cannot be downstairs without them.”
I protested the notion of wearing the slippers. Sure we were basically outside but I wasn’t cold, nor were my feet, and I was very interested in the possibility of being a furnace repair man. To run upstairs would mean I might miss something of little importance. For example, he might burn his fingers trying to pull out a block of hot metal. If I was upstairs putting on slippers I might miss his artful reconstructed of swear words. I might miss him putting together a collection of words that should never go together, let alone make any sense. Like, “Ah, YOU FUCK MY KNUCKLES, BITCH!”
If upstairs, it would simple go to waste.
Mom was serious though, this wasn’t a debate. I don’t understand why I continued to ignore her wishes. A simple task and I could have been back downstairs alone with a disgruntled grown stranger working a dead end job in the heating business.
“Mom,” I shouted. “No, he’s almost done and I’m not even standing, I’m sitting on the stairs.”
My mom had a lot of energy back then. She hadn’t been broken yet I guess, and there was never much room for debate when it came to her directions. Talk was cheap. First came the stomping of the feet from the living room area. I could then hear her rounding the corner into the dining room and then into the kitchen. The stomping got louder as the thunder from above moved toward the weak bathroom-door-hook-security system latching the downstairs door shut. That hook was the only thing between me and a beating from a very angry Italian woman. I wasn’t going to take any chances gambling on the strength of the hook. This was no tickling chase, this was no drill. It was the real thing and I had to take things seriously if I wanted to get out alive.
I was in trouble all because I couldn’t just put on those slippers. I wasn’t ready for a beating, it would have embarrassed me in front of my new friend. In a moment of panic I leaped off the staircase and threw open the large wooden vault door on which apparently the rusty pad lock was not locked at all but only there for decoration. In a split second I had a flash of brilliance: the best bet for escape was by big wheel. I jumped aboard and started peddling as fast as I could toward the light of the double door garage. The outside world was moments away. It was like a scene out of Raiders of the Lost Ark with the bowed out walls closing in on me and cracking even more with each step she took down the weak stairs. They held up though. Damn those stairs! It seemed the closer she got the slower I went, like those horrible dreams when you are being chased and no matter how fast you run it’s like running through invisible quicksand. Lucky for me, I was outside.
Even though I pulled off a great stunt in which I used my red big wheel emergency brake attached to the right wheel to peel out around the corner and on to the sidewalk, the stunt driving maneuver I used to turn onto the strait a way slowed me considerably and she was gaining. On the other hand, I had no more obstacles. I was trucking down the side walk and almost free and clear.
Okay so here’s the thing. I don’t really know what I was even thinking. I had no plan for after the escape. Where was I going to go once I got away? I was five, maybe pushing six if I was lucky? It’s not like I could drop into hiding; you know, lay low and keep off the streets until the dust settled. I didn’t even have friends. I was a little confused boy in a witch hat with a weird hand. Nobody was outside yelling, “Quick! Hide in here, we will repaint your big wheel and give you a haircut and a fresh set of clothes!” I did not think this through.
Somehow Mom was gaining on me. How was that possible? It’s not like she was in shape. Was she secretly training for a triathlon in her spare time? Maybe if I had my slippers on. It probably didn’t help that I was laughing hysterically too. I was laughing even harder than when I was being tickled by her totem poles. I must have lost my mind: I thought this was funny, I thought this was fun. It was better than any Wizard of Oz reenactment. It was a fucking rush is what it was. But the euphoria was short lived. She caught up with me halfway down the block.
I was yanked out of the big wheel as it was moving. In a split second I went from escaping to seeing my big wheel rolling forward on its own. Go big wheel, I’ll keep her busy. Get away. I’m no good to you now. I remember her then literally kicking it up into a yard. So much for either of us getting away from this inevitable rage. I was dragged back into the garage and past the cracks. I noticed their sadness, as if some of them lost bets. Then I was pulled past my friend still working on the heater, who worked feverishly to finish before he was a witness to a crime. Mom carried me up the stairs by a wad of my hair. I misjudged the weakness of those stairs. Mom was swearing out sentences that would have made the repair man jealous. If he was smart, he would have been jotting down notes for the next knuckle burn. She was breathing heavy from the chase. At that very moment she was the embodiment of anger.
“You think it’s fucking funny running away from me like that?“ she spewed out half winded and not really expecting an answer. “Oh you’ll see how funny it is when I get you up stairs.”
Destination kitchen. The door slammed shut. (Some help you were door hook.)
I’ll bet you laugh when I smash your fucking witch hat,“ she announced as she pulled it off my head. And put it on the drain board counter.
“No.” I screamed out as I burst into tears. “Mom, please,” I begged.
POUND. Mom’s little fist smashed down onto the hat. POUND. Her fist hit again. Look at this as I smash it again and again. POUND. POUND. POUND. Then it was like she leaped over the line of sanity, dove off the boat of rational thinking. Her voice went deep and her speech slowed to a crawl as she placed my witch hat on the kitchen floor and looked straight into my eyes and moved close into my face. I was face to face with a real live witch. Things that go from mere fantasy to reality are never as glamorous in real life as they are played out in your mind.
In a slow gutterly moan, she croaked “Yooooou’ll… Neeeeever… Geeeeet… anooooother… fuuuuuc-King… Witchhh… Hat… againnnnn… Not… as… looonG… as… I… live… Do you hear me, Lonnie? NEEEV-EEER!”
Then she stood up erect like a dragon breathing in all the surrounding air to burst flames onto a village of surfs. She lifted up her gigantic leg and stomped her foot down on my hat over and over, rattling the entire house, crushing the tip down flat. There was calm afterwards, the house stood perfectly still. I was the only noise that could be heard. She picked the hat off the floor with her anger trembling hands as if nothing happened and tossed it into the garbage. It was as if she just walked into the kitchen and noticed a wadded bundle of black painted newspaper on the floor alongside a historical and traumatized child looking down at its demise. And as if nothing happened, saying, “Oh what’s this doing here? Do I need to do everything in this house? Fine, I guess I’ll throw it away.” That hat sat there stuffed into the garbage, defeated. It ironically looked like the wicked witch from Wizard of Oz had melted.
She stuck to her word, she never made me another hat. If she did, I sure in hell would not have wanted it to be paper. I never liked Wizard of Oz much after that day. I never wanted to play witch again either. But in the end, looking back, it was not a sad day. It was a hard core lesson in the reality of life. What lessons, you ask, could have possibly been learned by an angry destructive mother out for revenge by killing a paper hat? What lessons do I speak of? There were many and I will tell you them all.
One, you cannot ride a big wheel barefoot when trying to get away from a very determined mother who does triathlons in her spare time. Also, that heater repairman probably never allowed children into his workspace again. It may even have been the tipping point for him to find that career he had always dreamed of. Boys cannot be witches and for that reason, I’m thankful she destroyed my girlish dream. Most importantly it was a small morsel of time I can still appreciate looking back on because, to this day, I realize how much humor is packed into strife.
How many children do you know whose moms love them enough to build them their very own paper witch hat just to destroy it with such malice right before their innocent little eyes? My mom stands alone. You can say what you want, but although my mom destroyed a small dream that fine afternoon in 1976, she didn’t drown her child in her bathtub. Crushing my hat was no act of cruelty, it was a sacrifice. And if you can’t see the humor in that, then God help your children.