Awake at Midnight

The father had long ago given up the art of conversation for more useful things like sports and television. He sat in a drunk position, arms flailed about, shifted to the right on an old sofa cushion backed by a few worn, shrunk and yellow pillows. 

They certainly lived within their means, and that was enough for him. It was nearing midnight and the kitchen door screeched against the old wooden floor made of something far less than mahogany. The man did not move. There wouldn’t be much for a criminal to take. Even if it was a criminal, it certainly couldn’t be worse than what it was he was expecting.

 It was exactly who he expected.

“What are you doing still up?” The strong voice came from a woman half its size.  She marched through the worn, black door and then in front of the television set with her hands on her waist. She glanced at the man on the makeshift seat and thought better of addressing him. She aimed her gaze  at the small girl sitting beside the window. Despite her attempts, the girl did not shutter. She shrugged. 

“I was watching the television,” the little girl said. “That’s when I noticed there were sirens outside.”

“Don’t you mind about the sirens,” the mother said hotly. Her head had turned red and then got hotter and hotter until it burned a crimson white, which dragged her freckles out into blazing craters. She spoke with her tongue pressed too far into her teeth, at least to the American ear. But the girl was used to the accent by now. “It’s time to sleep.”

The girl wasn’t amused by this. She stood up, annoyed, and slowly moved beyond the television set in a graceful movement, as though she were dancing. The man’s eyes had not moved. Then she turned back. “But,”

“What?” the mother said. She had red fingernails bunched over her hands like claws which she now tapped feverishly, brushing against her waist which had failed  to remain supple after all these years. She gave her the glare she knew best: it was a woman’s glare, an angry red blazed glare which inspired obedience, that reached down into little girls’ hearts and tried to rip them out. Her heart was far too big, though. She didn’t budge.

“Father said I could watch until the game is over,” she said. She nudged the man’s arm playfully yet suggestively. The man grunted.

“Did he now?” asked the woman, and span around on her heel towards the lump of a man on the sofa cushion. In his eyes she looked with the same flaming glare, but he hadn’t noticed. He grunted again, this time more gently.

“Very well,” the mother said, privately and lividly contemplating her position in the household. “Until it’s over, no later! And don’t be staring out the window like that. Little girls get hurt like that.” She huffed her chest out and let out an audible sigh, glanced quickly at the man for a response, but there was none. She walked back through the kitchen door. The dust from the floorboards followed her dutifully to bed, but for now it seemed that would be all.

The little girl stared at the father for the timespan of a few blinks, and soon went back to the window. The night was cold, and you could see it, in the opposite way you can see a wave of heat. Snow remained pitifully on the ground as though it wasn’t quite sure whether it wanted to stay around yet. Two large streetlights alternated in flickering, and together with the sirens from the police car and the flashlights it was well lit. The night was silent now. The sirens must have stopped wailing while she was talking to her mother. 

A man emerged from the house a few doors down, husked by two policemen holding over both arms. She knew the house they came out of well. It was her friend Sally McLuff’s house. She went to school with her, and sometimes they would talk together in their English class. Her mother knew Mrs. McLuffy from back in Ireland, and the were very good friends, so they saw each other often. She liked Sally. 

The little girl watched intently as the police dragged a man out with some difficulty, no taller than her father but far larger in size. She thought his arms looked like a gorilla’s. She watched with wide, hazel eyes that glimmered both red and blue from the sirens, indulging herself completely in the defiance of her mother. She understood that she was defying her mother but it was exhilarating to no longer be so innocent, if even if for a moment. The scene outside fascinated her. The man screamed many words she had never heard of and some that she had. She recognized the man. She would recognize those big black eyes, those assorted size teeth, the red puffy face anywhere.  She was not scared nor excited nor upset but it seemed to her that lot of things now seemed to make sense.

She turned around to the man in the chair behind her and started to say something about what was going on across the street, but he was asleep. He fell off the sofa part of the chair and was now laying only on the floor with the pillows. She looked at the television. The game was over. The cardinals won 5-3. She thought her father must have been very excited, before he fell asleep, and she was happy for him. She looked out the window again.

They were having him walk in a line. The little girl thought this was pretty silly, and a lot of things began to make sense again. After all, she had learned how to walk almost five years ago now. If the man could not even do that, surely there was something wrong. She wondered if many men never learned how to walk right. She noticed that her father had a hard time doing it too sometimes, late at night. She had never seen Mr. McLuff stand up before, but there he was doing it, although not too successfully. She was grateful for that. He was a lot scarier when he stood up. He didn’t scare her now, though. He only confused her.

Eventually they pushed him in the car and he started screaming like a maniac and then they put these big shiny bracelets on his arm and drove off. She could see Mrs. McLuff and she was crying. It wasn’t a loud cry, but you could see the tears on her face, even as the police car jetted away. She looked like she was trying to be as quiet as possible. The little girl wondered if she was crying because he had never learned to walk, and if that was the same reason her mom cried sometimes. She didn’t know when boys stopped being able to but she figured it must be very depressing. She felt bad for her mother for one of the first times in her life. She sighed and got up off the floor by the windows and started off towards he room, dazed by it all.

It must be this sort of thing that happens at midnight, she thought. That’s why mother doesn’t want her awake. She doesn’t want her to know that men can’t walk because one day she’ll get married and then they’ll stop walking and she doesn’t want her to get turned off to the idea altogether. It was certainly true that after this night nearly everything made sense to the seven year old girl.

She was very sleepy and she almost tripped on the kitchen door on the way to her room. She began to get worried that maybe she’s got what they’ve got. She sat down and began to cry. She doesn’t want to get those big silver bracelets. They didn’t look very comfortable. She doesn’t want to end up like Mr. McLuff. Her mother heard the soft sobbing as they reverberated through the floorboards and came out through the bedroom, beyond the kitchen. She looked down at the girl very sternly. This is why little girls shouldn’t stay up late, the mother thought. It’s against the way of things. 

“What did I tell you, girl!” the mother said and hit her on the back of the head. “Little girls aren’t meant to stay up this late. It’s just not right.”

“Yes, mother, yes,” the girl said, drawing her face from her hands and the tears. “I’ll never do it again. I never want to see something like that again.”

Yet somehow she knew she would, and that’s what bothered her the most.