In 1973, the Squirrel Cage was just another scummy go-go bar on a street filled with businesses that paired well with scummy go-go bars. It’s gone now, of course; replaced by an above ground pool company—almost an elbow-to-the-ribs attempt at baptismal humor.
The Squirrel Cage sat at the crossroads of Austin Highway and Walzem Road in San Antonio, Texas. In the distance, like a siren’s song, was Interstate 35 luring cars north to Austin. I was almost thirteen then, living with my family in subsidized housing a very short distance from the Squirrel Cage. When I told adults where I lived, they looked away.
There were two playgrounds at the Austin Arms Apartments. One was for real kids—the ones who wanted to swing and teeter-totter and scream a lot; the other was the hang-out for older kids, the ones who sat on the swings, lounged on the monkey bars, and whispered plans for future trouble.
His eyes said he’d been betrayed. Betrayed by blood.
My “because of proximity” best friend was a thirteen-year-old named Liz who stood nearly six-feet tall. Her mother ran promotions at a local radio station. Liz always gave me inside information, like times to call in to a radio show so I could win prizes, but I never made any of those calls. When I saw her mom coming home from work wearing blouses with built-in bows at the neck, I couldn’t see a woman who would jeopardize her job to help a preteen cheat a contest.
“You know so little about the world,” Liz told me over and over. “Winners only win because they know people.”
The older boys at the playground were probably not considered winners by Liz, but they knew a lot about how our small world worked. I listened while they talked about things like the ice house on the corner where you could pay an extra fifty cents to get a six pack of beer without showing any ID. Judging from the number of beer cans littering the sides of the playground, I believed the story.
“You can also say you’re getting cigarettes for your mom and they’ll let you buy them,” Kenny, a regular on the playground, said to a new kid I didn’t know. Kenny’s hair was so blonde it was closer to white than yellow. People said his father was in prison for stabbing a truck driver in Fort Worth. Liz whispered about the knife collection Kenny had in his room, but that information made Kenny seem more sad than dangerous.
“Where is this place?” the new kid asked.
“Right across from the Squirrel Cage,” Liz said. “On the other side of Walzem. Marty’s Ice House.”
The new kid nodded silently.
“Naked girls dance at the Squirrel Cage,” Kenny said, in a hushed voice like he was giving up an answer to a test in school. “They dance in gold cages.”
“Cages? Like bird cages?” Liz asked. She walked nearer to Kenny, making him shield his eyes from the sun as he looked up at her.
“Sure,” Kenny said. “They hang the cages from the ceiling so everything shakes real good when they dance.” He gyrated his hips and cupped his pecs. His tongue stuck out the side of his mouth as he shook.
The new boy laughed.
Liz rolled her eyes and walked away. “You don’t know anything.”
“I do too.”
“Well, I know the girls aren’t all the way naked,” Liz said, looking at me as if we’d won Jeopardy. I went up a rung on the monkey bars. Liz could come across as a know-it-all sometimes.
“They got these little star things over their nips,” Kenny said. “And go-go boots. Otherwise, they are naked.” He paused, waiting to throw out his trump card. “My brother works there.”
“He does?” I said.
“Is he in a cage too?” Liz laughed.
“Nah, but he could probably get you a job there,” Kenny said, staring at my breasts. From my perch on the monkey bars, I crossed my legs.
The next week I went to Solo Serve with my mom so she could buy some new tops for summer. I waited until she went into the dressing room to try on clothes, then I walked to the shoe department. There was an entire rack devoted to go-go boots. I picked up a pair of shiny white boots and hid behind the coats to try them on. The boots were a cheap plastic, not leather at all, and smelled odd. Before I had the second boot zipped, my first leg began to sweat. Still, when I stood up and felt the silky material reach over the top of my knee like an unfamiliar hand, I stuck out my chest and sucked in my stomach.
Before I walked back to the dressing room, I stuffed the boots behind the men’s work shoes, hoping they’d stay hidden until I could figure out a way to buy them.
* * *
That night, my brother and I sat in the bedroom we shared, listening to my mother plead with my father to calm down. They were in their bedroom with their door shut, which was never a good sign. Occasionally we heard a slap or a fall or a sharp cry. We didn’t look at each other though, only at the Mickey Mouse rug beneath our feet.
When their bedroom door finally opened, my mother came straight into our room. She was wearing a light blue robe. There were drops of blood around her collar, like she had sewn tiny roses around the neckline. Her right eye was already swollen.
“Let’s go,” she said, reaching for my brother’s hand. He was nine and skinny, like something that could easily be broken in a move.
“Now,” my mother said looking at me and pulling my brother toward the door. I followed.
The three of us ran down the two flights of stairs in harmony, as if we had trained for this event. When we pushed open the hall door, a neighbor opened her door, then quickly shut it. Outside, the cool air surprised me. My pajamas were light cotton. My brother had on short pajama bottoms and tube socks with green stripes. I was barefoot. It had been warm when we dressed for bed.
“Hurry,” my mother said. “Andiamo,” she said in Italian, as if those words were magic carpets that might make us move faster.
I tried to run without stepping on loose rocks or tabs from soda cans. Once we ran past the porch lights, I was glad for the dark so I wouldn’t see what my feet were headed for.
I followed my mother’s robe as she ran toward Austin Highway. When we got to the highway, she abruptly stopped and held her arms out to each side like a human cross. It was as if we stood on a precipice. The wind and noise from the cars sounded like an ocean far below us. My mother looked to her right, toward Austin and the Squirrel Cage, then ran to the left down the side of the busy road. She wore thin slippers and hobbled occasionally when her foot stepped on something sharp. She was not used to hot summer days and bare feet like we kids were.
We ran past tattoo parlors and bars and motels that seemed abandoned but weren’t. I finally saw the shopping center where my mother must have known she’d find a phone booth and safety. The Piggly-Wiggly was already closed for the night, but there were employees inside the store sweeping up and stocking shelves. I looked at the three of us and wondered if someone would call the cops. No one did.
My mother picked up the pay phone and dialed “0” for the operator. “I want to make a collect call,” she said, giving the operator a number. “Marie,” she said a few seconds later. “Ho bisogno di aiuto.” I need help.
While we waited for Marie’s husband Carlo to arrive, my mother went into mother mode. She found a planter box beneath a bright light with a wide ledge where we could sit out of the wind and get off our feet.
“It’s going to be okay,” she said, checking the bottoms of our feet. “Marie has milk for you and then we’ll all go to bed. Tomorrow will be a better day.” My mother’s bottom lip was cracked, but the blood had dried a strange orange color.
It didn’t take long for Carlo to arrive. He was a short, chubby Sicilian man with a thick head of hair he would keep well into his eighties.
“Valli,” he said, hugging my mom. “Let’s go, huh? Hi, kids. Go ahead and get in the car.” We slid off the planter and into his massive Cadillac.
As Carlo drove toward his house, I looked out the window and watched the neighborhood change, like I was a character in one of those movies where people’s fortunes rapidly shift. As we crossed under Interstate 35, lighted coffee shops began to appear along with gas stations and restaurants and fancy furniture stores. When we got to the corner full of churches, I knew we were almost there.
This wasn’t our first late night visit to the Presti house. It wouldn’t be the last. In the driveway, I saw the curtains in the front window open a bit. We walked to the front door and Marie opened it wide. “Vieni dentro,” she said, leading us all gently by the shoulder, like refugees you see on the news at night. Come in, come in.
“Hey,” I heard from down the hallway. I followed the voice and went into Nina’s room. She was two years older than I was; beautiful and thin with a car she couldn’t even drive yet waiting for her in the garage. “Same old, same old?”
“Yep,” I said.
Nina sat back in her canopy bed and patted the other side. The whole room was white and lavender and gold, like something I figured French aristocrats set up for their daughters. “So what’s new?” she asked.
“I tried on some go-go boots the other day.”
“What?” she said, stopping in mid-yawn. “Where?”
“Solo Serve. My mom was in the dressing room. Over the knee,” I said, showing her where the boots had hit my thigh.
“No,” I said, suddenly disappointed in my choice. “I mean, little block ones. I guess that’s easier to dance in, right?”
“At the Squirrel Cage! Those boots are the first part of the job interview. Boots? Check. Boobs? Check. You’re hired!”
We laughed, then talked about some friends we knew until she fell asleep. It was good to feel normal, like this was any other sleepover with a friend. I had known Nina my whole life. Our mothers met in Europe when we were babies. Both husbands joined the military and ended up in San Antonio. Even though Carlo was an officer and my father was not, we never talked about that difference, or any of the other ones.
While Nina slept, I planned. I figured if I babysat every weekend for a month, I could buy the go-go boots. My breasts were already larger than most girls my age. Maybe, with makeup, I could get a job at the Squirrel Cage. Maybe I could make enough money so we could leave my father behind.
In Nina’s bathroom, I took off my pajama top and found some Band-Aids in the medicine cabinet. I taped my nipples and shook my body up and down and side to side. There was some good shaking going on beneath the Band-Aids.
Taking them off was a different matter. When the adhesive ripped away from the tender area around my nipples, tears sprang to my eyes. I ran a washcloth under cold water and held it to my breasts to stop the pain. I knew so little about my own body, but I had big plans for it anyway.
The next morning, Carlo drove us home. My brother and I got ready for school. My mother cooked breakfast. Their bedroom door stayed shut.
It wasn’t easy to concentrate in class that day. During lunch I took my sandwich to the library, ate it in the bathroom, then grabbed a study table and planned. I wrote down the following:
Money: + $32.00 saved in the bank
+ $40.00 possible babysitting money for weekends through March
– $29.99 boots
In the light of day, I’d realized that getting a job wasn’t going to be enough to save us. Over the years, I’d heard my father threaten to kill my mother if she ever left him. Sometimes he even said he’d kill us kids first then leave her alive so she would have to live knowing we were dead because of her. There was no simple getting away from him. We would live in fear as long as he was alive.
I was willing to fix that.
My dad worked all night delivering bundles of newspapers to boys on bicycles so they could deliver papers to their smaller routes. When he came home, he slept on the couch almost all afternoon. If I could get a gun, I would come home from school while he was asleep and solve all our problems.
Until that episode aired, I’d never seen a man hit a woman anywhere but in my own home. It felt like a shameful secret we just lived with.
After he died, I would go to school during the day and work at the Squirrel Cage at night to help with bills. We would be a happy family then. My mother was still beautiful. What if she met a nice man who could care for us all? There would be no more late-night trips to the Presti’s, no more neighbors calling the police, no more sleeping on my stomach so I wouldn’t see it coming.
I felt like a hero in the making.
This plan consumed my thoughts for months. I fixated on how to make sure my father would be asleep when I walked in the door. Like a director, I blocked and re-blocked the scene over and over, imagining every possible pitfall. I wanted to avoid hitting a noisy step and causing the dog across the hall to bark. If I dropped the gun or my book bag or my keys, or miss-timed the departure of the postman who always said hello in a too loud voice that echoed in the hallway, my father might wake up. I needed my father soundly asleep when I walked through the door because I knew if he looked at me, I couldn’t kill him.
I spent weekends at the public library researching social security benefits my mother and brother could get from my dead father. I wasn’t sure I would get them too, since I was the one who killed him, but I had the phantom job at the Squirrel Cage anyway. I read about trials where children killed their abusers and were set free or placed in detention centers for a short time. I learned what I was doing was called parricide, the killing of a parent, and I hoped the outcome would not be living in a detention center, but a conviction of manslaughter, probation, and the right to live at home.
I kept notebooks filled with details of the plan. The notebook was my confessor because there was no one else to talk through my plan with. There were no conversations about things like abuse on TV or on the playground or in our kitchen. After a night of beatings, my mother would tell us that my father had just been tired, or worked too hard, or didn’t feel good.
“Everyone has something,” she told me one night. I was suspicious of everyone after that.
I babysat every weekend in March and ended up with $47.00.
“Hey Kenny,” I said, surprising him at school one day when Liz was not around. “Where do people buy guns?”
Kenny shrugged his shoulders. “Why are you asking me?” I raised my eyebrows. “The flea market maybe?”
“Ask your brother for me, okay? Also, ask him how I can get a job at the Squirrel Cage.”
“Sure,” Kenny said, but he looked at me like I had once given him a gift and was taking it back. “My brother doesn’t even have a gun.”
“Just ask him, okay?”
* * *
In June of that year, my father surprised us by buying a house. My mother was happier than I’d ever seen her. “I told your father I wanted a house before I turned fifty,” she said, as if she had stumbled upon a winning lottery ticket. “And here it is. I can’t wait to invite Marie over for coffee.”
My plan died there. If I killed my father now, there would be no house. I would no longer be the hero. I let go of the gun, the boots, and the Squirrel Cage, and concentrated on the new house and the new version of our family instead.
In September of 1973, in the living room of our new house, I watched the season two opening episode of the TV sitcom Maude. The show began with lots of references to drinking. The night before, a drunk Walter made obscene phone calls to Maude’s mother, slow danced with his friend Arthur, and fell asleep on the living room floor. The audience laughed as each exploit was recalled. Boys will be boys.
The next morning, somewhat shamed by the night before, Walter and Arthur decide to stop drinking. By lunchtime, Walter is already spiking his Shirley Temple. By dinnertime, Walter is so drunk he ruins his nine-year-old grandson’s birthday cake. The whole time, laughter from the audience. Drunk is funny. Bea Arthur is funny. Hey, she’s drunk too.
Then things turn dark. Maude tells Walter he’s mean when he drinks. Walter tells Maude he drinks because all he sees when he looks into her eyes is how much she resents him.
Then he hits her.
In the face.
The laughter stops. You can hear the audience’s collective intake of breath. Walter looks appropriately shocked by his own actions.
Then he cries.
“You didn’t hurt me,” Maude assures Walter. MAUDE ASSURES WALTER. Her tag line on the show was, “God will get you for this, Walter,” but she didn’t utter it this time.
In the morning, Maude sits at the breakfast table with a cup of coffee and a black eye. She tells her daughter she walked into a chocolate donut. Laughter again.
Until that episode aired, I’d never seen a man hit a woman anywhere but in my own home. It felt like a shameful secret we just lived with. And Maude playing it off reinforced what my mother taught us—don’t let people know, pretend it’s all okay, be better so we look better.
The episode wasn’t a total waste though. It taught me to blame everything on alcohol. Though I never saw my father take one sip of alcohol in my entire life, from then on, when neighbors called the police, I had a ready excuse. Thank you, Maude.
We were in our house for a year when I heard my parents arguing through my closed bedroom door. The fight was unusual because it was daytime and because things had been calmer since we’d moved into the house. I walked toward the kitchen and passed my brother sitting on the floor of his bedroom playing with GI Joes.
He shrugged his shoulders, not taking his eyes off the action on his floor.
In the kitchen, my father had my mother by the throat. Her head was against the brick wall. The pistachio colored bricks were her favorite part of the new house. I saw blood on her forehead and on the brick.
“Stop it,” I screamed. “Stop it, you asshole.” When he turned toward me, I slugged him, close-fisted, on the mouth. A tooth must have hit his lip and the blood began to flow. He reached up to his face, looked at his hand, then at me.
His eyes said he’d been betrayed.
Betrayed by blood.
While he walked to the bathroom, my mother yelled for my brother. We all ran to the garage, into the car, and back to the Presti’s. None of us said a word until we hit Austin Highway. At the stop light, my mother sighed. “Tomorrow you’ll tell him you’re sorry.”
“No way,” I said. “I’m not sorry.”
“You hit him,” she said. “What did he do to you?”
I’m guessing there is a feeling people get when they realize they are completely alone in the world. It feels like you are drowning from the inside out. The instinct to hold your breath is almost involuntary, like a gift to keep you from speaking or crying out or taking in something that will prevent you from ever opening your mouth again.
We passed the Squirrel Cage and I remembered how that place had once been the church I sent my prayers to. Now I knew that if I had gotten a gun, if I had killed my father, my mother wouldn’t have taken my side. I imagined her in court, talking to the judge, “He never did anything to her. He was a good father.”
I was the one betrayed by blood.
I also became bitter and resentful and keenly aware of how much my mother seemed to best love the ones who hurt her the most. But, like most things in life, we adapt to our roles.
When we returned to the house the next day, the door to my bedroom had been removed. I knew it was part of my punishment, but I couldn’t figure out how. Over the years it became clearer. I could no longer try on clothes for the school week posing in front of the mirror that once hung on the back of my door. I couldn’t dance to records and pretend I was in a Broadway musical, or read plays out loud, acting out each of the parts, or shut out the noise when things got bad.
For the next five years, my father refused to speak to me. All through high school, I was into theater. He never saw one of my productions, not even when we won the State UIL competition. He missed my high school graduation, seeing me go to proms, and taking part in any plans for the scholarships I received to colleges.
For five years, we never ate a meal at the same table, watched TV in the same room, or looked at old family photos. My brother and mother and father still did all those things together. I was the excommunicated one.
At least once a week my mother would come to me like a temptress in a fairy tale: “Just say you’re sorry. Then he will talk to you.”
“I’m not sorry.”
“You don’t have to be sorry. Just say it. Then we can go back to normal.”
There is a long list of things I am not proud of in my life, but not giving in to my father is not on that list.
At the end of my freshman year in college, my mother’s sister and her husband arrived from Switzerland to stay with my parents for the summer and take a tour of the USA. I loved my Zia Armida. She’d confided in me that she’d left Italy at fifteen to become a maid for a family in Switzerland just so she wouldn’t have to stay in Italy and marry an Italian man. In her mid-twenties, she met my Zio Jean-Pierre, a native of the French part of Switzerland. He was a watch engineer and mayor of their small town. My father adored my Zio. He called him his brother.
I was living with my friend Lisa for the summer. Her parents went to the beach every June and July, so living together was a good solution for both of us.
When I drove up to my parent’s house, my Zia was sitting on the front porch wrapped in a blanket.
“Così freddo dentro,” she said to me. It’s so cold inside. It was June in San Antonio. It had been hot for so long, we’d already stopped complaining.
“They don’t like air conditioning,” my father said to me. And just like that, we began to talk. I knew it was so he could save face in front of my Zio, but I played along.
My mother hugged me when my father went back into the house.
“See? Everything is good now.”
“Mom, everything is the same. We’re just talking again.”
“Good,” she said. “That’s how it should be with family. Forgive and forget.”
* * *
My father finally got too old to be mean, then he died.
My mother lived another three years after his death.
As a child, her family left Italy and moved to France after her father found work in the coalmines. When she was twelve, and World War II began to escalate, they fled France, where the coalmines were being bombed, to return to Italy only to find Russian armies occupying their family land. My mother went through puberty hungry and scared, but entered adulthood strong and cunning.
She picked me as the child to count on because she knew how to survive. When the chips were down, when my family was in crisis, I contacted doctors, lawyers, bankers. I put all the pieces together for all the cracked eggs after all the big falls.
I also became bitter and resentful and keenly aware of how much my mother seemed to best love the ones who hurt her the most. But, like most things in life, we adapt to our roles.
When I talk about my mother’s final days, I talk about her strength and courage. I tell the story of how my husband held her face after the nurse gave her what I always suspected was a larger than usual dose of morphine and said, “Mom, if you can, come back and let us know you’re okay.” She nodded and expelled her last breath. It was a breath of force and finality. She’d made up her mind to go.
A few years after my mother died, my sister died as well. Her kids struggled with their own grief and guilt. They also had to turn to me for help. When my niece texted asking for $350.00, I told my husband I was going to say no.
“We just gave her money a few weeks ago,” I said. “And she never thanked us. She never calls to check on us either. I’m done.”
Before I could finish my text to her, the postman rang the doorbell and handed my husband a certified letter from State Farm insurance.
It was that dramatic.
In the envelope was a check for $349.83. The refund was from a six-year-old audit they had completed of my mother’s insurance policy.
I texted my niece and told her she could have the $350.00. Could there have been a clearer sign from my mother that she wanted to help my niece?
* * *
Later that day, I drove to Brackenridge Park. I sat on a concrete ledge facing the green water of the San Antonio River and watched the ugly hybrid ducks swim by. Across the river, families played loud music and sat on blankets in the grass. It seemed appropriate I was on the other side of the divide.
“Sorry,” a woman said as her dog began licking my leg. She grabbed his leash and pulled the dog away. “Do you teach at Northwest Vista College?”
I nodded again.
“I had you for Comp II,” she said. “About eight years ago. I loved your class.”
I said I remembered her, but I didn’t.
What I did remember was going to the grocery store with my mother a few months before she died. We’d run into an Italian woman I had never met before.
“This is my daughter,” my mom said to the woman.
“It’s so nice to finally meet you, Olga,” the woman said to me.
“I’m Denise, her other daughter.”
“You don’t work for the basketball team?” she asked. My sister was a temporary usher for the San Antonio Spurs since a back injury and a drug addiction made it impossible for her to continue working as a hairstylist.
“No. I’m the teacher.”
“A teacher?” she said. “What grade?”
“College. I teach English.”
“Valencia,” the woman said to my mom. “You never told us you had a daughter who was a professora.”
I felt a rush beneath my feet. It was what I’d always imagined an undertow might be—something grabbing you by the ankles and pulling you along so fast you wouldn’t have time to breathe. I was drowning from the inside out again.
She’d never even mentioned me.
The story I don’t tell about my mother’s death is from right before my husband took her face and asked her to give us a sign from beyond. I sat by her bed and stroked her arm, hoping she would feel me and know she was not alone. But when I touched her, she scrunched her eyes as if biting down on something distasteful and pulled her arm away. It felt intentional, not reactive, almost like she’d recoiled from something awful.
I never told anyone this happened. I felt shamed by her reaction and stupid that I had ever believed I was anything more than the child who was necessary for her survival.
So when the check from State Farm came—when my mother finally gave a sign from beyond, I wasn’t completely surprised it wasn’t for me. She just wanted to make sure I’d take care of my sister’s kid.
I’d been betrayed by blood.
Denise Tolan has published work in journals such as Lunch Ticket‘s Amuse-Bouche, Hobart, Apple Valley Review, The Saturday Evening Post, and others. Tolan’s piece “Because You Are Dead,” first published in Lunch Ticket’s Amuse-Bouche, was included in 2018’s The Best Small Fictions. She was also a finalist for the 2018 International Literary Award’s Penelope Niven Prize in Nonfiction.