Dan the Man

December 21 2018

When I was ten, maybe eleven, my mother decided it was time to go back to work and took a part-time job at an insurance company. After nearly forty years of reflection, I am sure that the problems began here with a woman named Grace. I was never comfortable around Grace. She was unlike any of the other people that my mother had brought into my life. I felt around her like a dog must feel around children. Her energy was too high, her voice too loud, her actions too hyperkinetic and unpredictable. I know now that Grace had problems, but at the time all I saw was someone who made me wary. My mother was never someone who had many friends. Brenda Morris was really the only person that I can recall being around on a regular basis, and Brenda and Grace were nothing alike. Brenda had three children, was a homemaker, and although she complained about him, was devoted to her husband. Grace was childless, liked to drink, and I never once met her husband during the time she and my mother were friends. So there was a transition from Brenda to Grace that had I been older and wiser I would have seen as a transition in my mother’s life. I imagine that my mother spent her free time between typing letters and answering phones talking to Grace about how dissatisfied she was with her life and marriage. I have nothing to base this on, but I would still bet the farm that Grace encouraged her malcontent and fueled the fire of unhappiness burning in my mother’s heart. I envision Grace pressuring Debbie to join her for drinks after work or a Saturday night out at the Flying Club, none of which Debbie could say yes to with two young children at home and a husband gone for days at a time on the railroad. How frustrating it must have been to say no time and again to Grace, a woman unencumbered by any burdens at home. My mother, not even thirty at the time, must have envied her so and wondered “what if” so many times. And then there was Dan. I know that Grace opened the door to Dan like I know that the sun will rise tomorrow. He was one of the insurance agents and was in and out of the office regularly. What I remember most about him was his need to go overboard to be liked and admired, to be “the big man,” prime example being the cokes at his river cottage. My brother and I were there one weekend with him and my mother. If I had a coke that had sat open for more than twenty minutes, he would insist that I throw that out, and with a flourish he would pop the top off of another glass bottle, handing it proudly to me like a king bestowing riches. I tried to defer, but he would have none of it. Dan fancied himself charismatic, and I suppose that a lot of people must have fallen for that. My mother did. I’m sure he saw my pretty, young mother as a naive ingenue ripe for the picking, despite the fact that they were both married. I wonder how many times she said no to the lunch invitation before Grace convinced her that it was just lunch after all. She wouldn’t be doing anything wrong. I wonder how hard Debbie tried to fend Dan off before giving in. I wonder where they went for lunch. Of course, lunch became an accepted practice and the gateway was opened. And for this, I blame Grace. The first time I met Dan was in my backyard on Elizabeth street, him and my mother in the swing as I cut through the neighbors’ yards on the way home from school. I was engrossed in heaven knows and didn’t realize that the man in the swing wasn’t my father until I literally was standing in front of him. I remember the shock when I looked up to see a stranger, a man introduced as her friend. I knew in the way that children always do but are never given credit for that this wasn’t true at all. Something in their body language had given them away. Although I mouthed the correct words, my face and tone would have said it all. I was never good at hiding my emotions. A blink of an eye later and my world had been atomized. I played softball for the Blazers, a little team from a little town. We had all started playing together several years earlier for the Ki-wives, and a community of mothers, daughters, younger siblings, and occasionally fathers had grown. Every soccer mom will know exactly what I mean. We played ball while our mothers sat around in lawn chairs and gossiped. That night we were playing a Salisbury team at the Salisbury Park. During the last inning, my father showed up drunk. He had been away for several days on the railroad, and someone had dropped him off. My mother sat stiffly in her folding, aluminum chair and ignored him, mortification painted across her face. I too tried to ignore him, but he was talking to all my teammates who were not so indiscreetly giving each other the side eye smirk. After we formed a line and slapped hands with the opposing team, I walked directly to the little, orange Datsun, opened the door, folded up the front passenger seat, got in the back, and said goodbye to no one. I was desperately trying not to add insult to injury by crying in front of the girls that I not only played ball with, but also went to school with. The same friends that were involved in almost every aspect of my life. I was angry, but then I was scared. When something of that nature happens, I clam up. The mouth shuts, the eye contact ceases, and the head turns away, but not Debbie. Debbie likes to try to end the world by fire, not ice, so when she got in the car she started in before she could even shift to second gear. I’m not sure why she thought arguing with a drunk was a good idea, but somewhere on Route 50 heading east my father yanked the car out of gear into neutral. In retrospect, this probably wasn’t the life or death crisis that my eleven year old self believed it to be, but at the time I believed that my brother and I, in the backseat, were going to die. That’s when I started crying. When my parents fought like this, routinely directly in front of us, they never seemed to notice our tears. Well really, my tears. Andy didn’t seem to cry much. I wonder if even then he was learning how to not feel, a problem my mother accuses him of having today. By the time we reached home, the scene seemed to have played itself out. I went in the house and directly up to my room, laid down on my bed, and picked up a book which I knew I wouldn’t be able to read. And that is where I was when not five minutes later my mother came up the stairs. She was still very angry. You could hear it in her footsteps. So when she came into my room, I looked down at my book and tried to avoid eye contact. She stood in the doorway and said, “Your father and I are getting divorced.” Never giving her my eyes, I started crying in earnest so she followed up with, “Stop crying,” and turned and went to presumably tell my brother. In between the divorce drama and dad moving out, Dan started spending more time at our house. At first it was during the day, like the Saturday afternoon that he took us in his red Jeep, top off, to eat pizza and then bowl in Seaford at the Nylon Capitol Shopping Center. My mother insisted that we enjoy ourselves. I remember initially not wanting to go and Deborah Ann being angry. Her word was law. To my shame, I remember warming up to Dan as the day went on. Later that night, lying in bed, I knew myself for the traitor to my father that I was. As the days progressed, Dan began to be there in the evenings, and then late at night. My mother conveniently decided that I was old enough to stay alone, and she and Dan would head out to drink at the Castaways, a seedy bar next to the truckstop in Laurel. When my friend, Lisa, came to stay with me one of these nights, I remember standing on the curb, while she argued in the car with her born again Christian mother over whether she should be allowed to spend the night in the home of a woman such as my mother. Paulette gave in, and Lisa and I spent the night drinking wine left behind by Dan and wandering around the town of Delmar. We were thirteen and Lisa’s mother was right. As hinted at earlier, Dan began to stay the night and on occasion have us as overnight guests. At thirteen, I knew exactly what was going on, didn’t like it, and didn’t get a say in the matter. The first crisis occurred at my own hands. Dan had moved out of his family home and into an apartment on High Street in Seaford. It was an old storefront that had been turned into an efficiency. Debbie was a bundle of nerves because Dan’s daughter, whose name I’ve long since forgotten, was going to meet us all for the first time. She was in her early twenties, and if I had to guess, not too pleased with the current circumstances. The meeting was short and tense. Afterwards, when we were preparing to leave, I begged my mother to let me start the car, the infamous orange Datsun. To this day, I have no idea how it happened but the key broke off in the ignition. My mother has a long standing history of blaming me for things that aren’t my fault and taking out her frustrations on me (never my brother by the way). This time was certainly no different. You see, she was extremely fearful that my father would find out that she had Andy and I at Dan’s apartment. As if he didn’t know. Well, she blew, and I did my best to shrink, to tuck my head and weather the storm as usual. In the end, everything worked out. It always does, and she forgot what she said to me or how she said it, but I didn’t. Dan was routinely spending the night now. He seemed to be there more often than not, but not all was well in paradise. One night there was a volatile fight with yelling reminiscent of that between my own father and Debbie. I was upstairs in my bedroom and suddenly the house was stifling and I just could not be there anymore. I called the Banks convenience store’s pay phone, and honest to God, my cousin Lisa answered. Being six years older than me, she was hanging out with some questionable folks and riding around town. I went outside to wait for them to come get me, and Dan was outside smoking a cigarette and leaning on his El Camino. He wore ankle boots too in case you’re wondering. I asked him if he was going to rat me out to mom, he said he didn’t know, and when she found me I was riding around with a black guy named Greg. When we got in the house, she lost control. I was on the kitchen floor on my knees, back bent in the fetal position while she took all of her frustrations out on me, slap after slap after slap. The next morning she made me come downstairs and eat pancakes with her, Dan, and Andy like nothing had ever happened. A happy family. And then Karma joined the party, and the stuff of urban legend was created. One morning, Dan awoke at our house, got out of my mother’s bed, got dressed, went outside, and found all four tires on his El Camino slashed. My mother instantly assumed that it had been my father. My father swore he had no idea what she was talking about. Dan’s pimp mobile was carted away on a roll back while the neighbors stood on their porch directly across the street and openly smirked. The neighbors were an interesting lot. The house, in a state of tar papered disrepair, swarming with sickly cats, belonged to an elderly woman whose two sons, Jimmy and Robert, were intermittent residents. It is rumored that in order to avoid having their car repo’ed, the two had, in one night and using shovels, buried said car in the backyard. The two gay men who later bought the house confirmed that a car had been found in the backyard. One of them just happened to cut my hair. Small world, huh? Robert later told my father proudly that he had been watching the goings ons at 407 Elizabeth Street and was morally and ethically insulted by Debbie and Dan’s behavior. So he slashed Dan’s tires. My father and I laughed about this for years and Robert rose a half notch in my estimation. The next crisis, however, I could find no amusement in as late in the evening Dottie, Dan’s still legal wife, showed up at our house, having followed him. The yelling started outside, and was quickly brought inside. I remember my brother and I sitting at the top of the stairs, staring through the railings in wide eyed terror at the new variable in the equation. I knew Dan had a wife. My mother had admitted it to me, but always rationalized it away by quickly adding that they were separated. Up til now, she had only been an idea. Now the reality of her was in our living room saying horrible things about my mother. Things that I knew deep down were true but were too wrong to consciously admit. My thirteen year old brain was frozen in confusion over what to think or feel. Meanwhile, my mother would yell at Andy and I every few minutes to go to bed. We ignored her and just sat there to witness it all. When it was all said and done and Dotty was gone, all I felt was shame. Like somehow the sin was mine to bear. From that time on, I knew that I wasn’t as good as, as clean as, as worthy as the other kids. I thought of myself as trash. As my mother had become disenchanted with Dan, possibly through guilt or at least that’s what I’d like to think, Grace had, like a true friend, stepped in to help her out of another bad relationship. She did this by introducing her to Dick Bratten, an appropriate name if ever there was one. So mom began seeing Dick behind Dan’s back. Karma on so many levels. And my brother and I watched this too unfold. It culminated one night after Debbie had ended things with Dan. It was again late at night, Dick was in residence, and Dan showed up drunk. So many alarming trends. My brother and I again sat at the top of the stairs watching in shocked awe as Dan pointed at my mother’s privates repeatedly, telling Dick, “I’ve had that. You know I’ve had that right?” And Dick retorting, “Does that make you more of a man?”, a fist fight looking to be unavoidable in the dining room of our house. Almost as disgusting as Andy coming home from school one afternoon and walking in on Debbie and Dan having sex. She swore Andy to secrecy, but like her he never could keep anything to himself. And that was the end of Dan. Over a decade later, I was at a party and met a woman named Dotty. I didn’t recognize her but somehow I knew instantly. And she did too. She asked me my last name and an odd look flitted across her face so quickly that if I hadn’t been looking I would never have caught it. She was very nice to me, and I wonder if it was out of guilt for what she knew us to have witnessed that night, or if she felt like we were comrades somehow. I never saw Dan again.