I was eleven years old when I saw my first dead man. I came through the front door of the house, clutching my bloody head, wondering if I should tell my mother about how I was knocked out just a few minutes before by one of her drunk friends. I staggered into our living room on the right, looking down at my shaking hand, at bloody fingertips that I’d touched my scalp with. I winced as pain radiated through the back of my head and neck. My forearms were also pulsing with pain.
I could hear shouting. There was a frenzy in the living room.
“Mom?” I said. She didn’t hear me. She was blowing air into the dead man’s mouth, but only after she’d wiped the vomit away from his blue and purple lips.
I’d never seen a dead man before then except on television. His skin was a disturbing color. Like faded periwinkle. I stood there, watching the adults stumble around in drunken attempts to help the periwinkle man with arms akimbo stretched out on the couch. Finally noticing I was there, my mother screamed for me to get out of the living room. Dazed, I did as I was told. I went back out into the hall and went up the stairs into the bathroom at the top. Closing the door behind me, I could hear my siblings playing in the next room, oblivious to the plight of the dead man downstairs or to my own bloody scalp.
I’d been playing “King Of The Mountain” outside with the other kids. My mom was throwing another rager, and since the inside of the house was so crazy with drunk men and women, it was just easier to stay outside and enjoy the summer air.
I was a little bit older than most of the other kids that night, so I was having some fun horsing around with them. Soon, I noticed a bare-chested man step out onto the porch, watching us play the game. Every time one of the younger kids would come to my position, I’d dive out of the way, or gently push them down. I kept returning my eyes to the man on the porch. What was he doing?
He moved his head back and forth, looking for something. He bent over and then stood again. This time, he held a large 2×4 piece of lumber in his hands. He looked right at me and pointed with it.
We stopped playing the game as he approached. Was he going to yell at us for playing too near the road?
“HEY!” He yelled. “I’m king of the mountain!”
I barely had time to register what he was saying before he was raising the piece of lumber over his head, as if he were going to hit me with it. I hesitated. He wouldn’t hit me, a KID, would he? As he brought the beam crashing down on my skull, I tried to block it with my tiny, eleven-year-old forearms. My forearms did nothing against the hard wood or the superior strength of a man four times my age. I felt a brief burst of pain, tasted copper in my mouth, and the world fell away in a flash of white.
When I came to, the other children were running away, and the man was hoisting the 2×4 in the air and cheering for himself. I stayed down until a long time after he went back inside, because I didn’t want him to hit me again. It was a tactic I’d used many times before with my mom’s other boyfriends or bullies at school. It worked most of the time.
And now, I was in my bathroom, wiping my bloodied head with a wet towel. I couldn’t get a good look at the cut, but I did my best to wipe away most of the blood. Some of it had already congealed and formed a scab around my hair follicles.
When I walked out of the bathroom, my mother was coming up the stairs. I flinched, thinking I was going to be hit, that somehow in being knocked unconscious I had done something wrong. I wasn’t hit, but she put her hands on my shoulders. She looked at me, and her eyes were dewy with a drunken glaze.
“Joey, I need you to watch Dan’s kids.” Dan was the dead man on the couch downstairs.
“They’re playing with Gary and Monika,” I replied. “What happened to him?”
“He’s dead, Joey. He’s dead. Please don’t let them come downstairs. Don’t let them see their father like that. I tried to save him. The ambulance is coming.” She looked like she was going to cry. She squeezed my arm, and stumbled back downstairs. She didn’t notice the blood in the least.
And so I did my duty, moving into the bedroom with the other kids and shutting the door behind me. I concocted a game in which we jumped from one mattress to another, competing for distance. The entire time, I wondered when the ambulance was going to show up. Why were they taking so long? I stole glances out the window, and minutes morphed into an eternity in my mind.
Finally, when the night was done, the ambulance had carted the man away. The children were brought home by a family friend. I was left with a throbbing head and grisly images of the man downstairs, and then the casual way in which the paramedics placed him on a stretcher and brought him away. “That could have been me,” I thought, over and over as I lay in the dark. “I could’ve died.” I’ve never forgotten that, and I never will.