The Night my Heart Stood Still by Diane Kimbrell

Ancients studied celestial phenomena in the heavens to chart seasons, determine the best time to plant and harvest crops, wage battles, and hunt animals for food. In the 1950s, the kids in my neighborhood studied the night skies for flying saucers or UFO’s (unidentified flying objects). Since I never actually sighted one, I suspected the UFO’s showed up after my bedtime. My brothers and their friends were allowed to pitch a tent in our backyard and sleep under the stars. Unfortunately, my female gender prevented me from joining them (Mama said it wouldn’t look right). But during the day, I followed my brothers and their friends everywhere to make sure I was the first to hear of their latest sightings. The popular genre of science fiction captivated a wide audience and fueled imaginations everywhere—especially mine. The unknown became known. Television and movies showed us that a flick of a switch on a machine could hurl us into the future or back to the past. Supposedly, aliens, disguised as average American citizens, walked among us waiting to steal our identities. After a brilliant scientist discovered his head on the body of a common housefly due to a flawed experiment, my nine-year old mind decided that anything was possible.


I grew up in the small town of Quicksand, North Carolina and lived about five miles down the road from the Twilight Zone—a small bar and grill with a jukebox, a pool table and a dartboard. Monday through Friday, the minute Daddy got off work at the sheet metal plant, he drove straight to the Zone to have a few beers before supper. He spent most of his weekends at the Zone, shooting pool and tanking up on beer. His drink of choice, the beer that “made Milwaukee Famous” made him drunk. Hunched over the wheel of our ole battered blue Chevy, his glasses dangling cockeyed over his nose, it was a miracle he made it home without being killed or killing someone else. Mama insisted the car drove itself.

If Daddy had been a happy drinker, I suppose things could’ve been different at home but he was a mean drunk; the more he drank the meaner he became. We never knew what might set off his fiery temper. The bad things that happened at home always resulted from his drinking. Of all the terrible incidents that occurred in my childhood, I think the night the space ship landed was the worst. On this particular Saturday night everybody goes to bed right after “Our Hit Parade” ends. It’s one of my favorite TV programs and that night I especially enjoy Snooky Lanson singing, “How much is that doggie in the window?” The tune is catchy and the lyrics keep spinning around in my head.

We leave Daddy sleeping in his chair in front of the TV. On her way to bed, Mama turns the volume down and eventually, that’s what wakes him up. I don’t know how long I’ve been asleep when I hear Daddy yelling and screaming. He is yelling for somebody to fix the sound. I sit up, wide-awake. With a heavy sigh, Mama goes to the living room.

“Come to bed, D.W.” Mama says, “Let’s turn off the TV”

“What the Hell time is it?” He demands.

“Maybe 10:30 or so.” Mama’s lying. I figure it has to be close to midnight.

“Where’s Rosebud, Goddammit?!” He knows she’s out on a date. Daddy’s tongue is thick but his message is clear. He shouts, “By God! If she walks in this door one minute after midnight after I’ve told her time after time what time she has to be home—and if she’s been drinking—I’m going to kill her. Now get my rifle! Goddammit to Hell.”

My sister Rosebud is 19 years old. She holds down a steady job and pays rent to live at our house. Daddy says that as long as she lives under his roof she has to obey his rules or else. For some reason, Daddy never wants Rosebud to go out on dates. She mostly goes to the local square dances. One time I heard Othermama, my maternal grandmother, confide to our next-door neighbor that Daddy’s interest in Rosebud’s social life seems “abnormal” and, she suspects that he is jealous of the young men she goes out with. “D.W.’s a weird mortal,” Othermama said. Right then is when I begin to suspect that Daddy is not a creature of this earth; at times, he acts heartless—inhuman. I become convinced that he is an alien from another planet because nobody on earth would be so mean. I fancy that he only took human form to fool everybody and that his real form is terrifying beyond description—scales and claws perhaps with lots of bloodshot eyes that bulge from his head.

Daddy yells again, “Get my rifle.” He won a rifle playing Poker a few months before. Mama plans to sell it. Until a buyer can be found, Othermama keeps the rifle hidden in the far corner of her bedroom closet hoping Daddy will forget about it. The rifle came with bullets. I don’t know what has become of them. Daddy always threatens to kill us when he’s angry, but tonight seems different—these aren’t just idle threats. He says, “Gimme my Goddamned rifle, Goddammit.” In her kindest and sweetest voice, Mama says, “D.W, calm down. Let’s go to bed.” But he gets louder and angrier. For at least a half an hour or more, I listen while Mama patiently tries to reason with him. To keep him from waking the whole neighborhood with his shouting, she finally agrees to give him the rifle. Then he begins screaming for the bullets. Once again, Mama tries to reason with him but it’s no use. Mama agrees to go to the neighbor’s house where she swears she’s stored the bullets for safekeeping. I can’t believe it. Is Mama just saying that in order to get away and ask for help or has she lost her mind? Mama’s different from other mothers somehow, but I have never thought of her as stupid. She has a gentle nature. In Othermama’s opinion, she also has no backbone. But surely she won’t go get those bullets.

“Get me the damn bullets, before I bash somebody’s brains out!”

“OK, D.W. I’ll be right back.”

“You better be.”

The minute Mama leaves, I hear Daddy stumble from his chair. I guess Mama turned off the TV on her way out because the house is very quiet except for the pounding of my heart. I peek from under the covers. Carrying the rifle in his right hand, Daddy staggers slowly into the dimly lit hall. If he sees me cowering here in bed will he aim the rifle and shoot? He veers right as if to come towards me. I could hide under the bed before he takes aim but it’s like my body’s frozen. I can’t move. Frozen too, is Daddy’s silhouette in the doorway. I want to scream, “Daddy, please don’t shoot!” But I can’t make a sound because my heart is in my mouth and it’s beating faster than the wings of a Hummingbird. Then suddenly the beating stops. No longer spinning on its axis, my world seems to have come to a complete and silent stand still. Am I dead? Have I died of fright? The next thing I remember is Daddy putting his free hand out to balance himself against the doorjamb before he lurches across the hall towards the bathroom. I have obviously returned from death because I hear the pounding of my heart in my ears again.

Daddy doesn’t bother to close the bathroom door but he does flush the toilet and soon after, I hear the music. The sound is muffled because I have pulled the covers over my head and although it’s almost impossible to concentrate while worrying that Rosebud might soon be blown to bits—I can name that tune. “Name That Tune” is another one of my favorite TV shows and I’m good at it—better than some of the contestants. Daddy is humming, “You Are My Sunshine.”

At the time this incident occurs, we are living in a small two-bedroom house. Othermama, Rosebud, and my brothers Jake and Ben share the back bedroom and I sleep in the front bedroom with Mama and Daddy. Othermama, Jake and Ben can hear Daddy humming, too. I long to jump out of bed and dash across the hall to be with them. The hallway is short and to get across I would have to pass by the bathroom. I decide it’s too dangerous. Daddy could shoot as I run by.

The bathroom has become an echo chamber for Daddy’s rich, powerful baritone voice. With training he could’ve been an opera singer. The very idea that he can sing at a time like this makes my teeth chatter and I can’t seem to make them stop. I begin to feel nauseous. What if, for some reason, Mama does bring bullets back? Daddy won’t just shoot Rosebud. Surely Mama knows that. He’s mad enough to shoot everybody tonight—even me—and Daddy seems to like me more than the rest because I’m the baby of the family. When he’s in a good mood, he calls me, “Doll.” I long to cry out for help but I’m so scared I can barely breathe or swallow. I began to feel angry at Rosebud. Why does she drink and disobey Daddy? Everybody seems put out with Rosebud for one reason or another. Othermama claims she is lazy and doesn’t turn her hand around the house and this is true. There is only one way of doing anything and that’s Othermama’s way and hard as she tries, Rosebud can never get the hang of it. I think that’s why Rosebud has given up trying. Mama gets upset when Rosebud defies Daddy, which she does as often as she can. Jake and Ben complain that Rosebud spends too much time in the bathtub and I’m sour grapes because Rosebud hardly pays any attention to me. Sometimes, like when she catches me spraying myself with her perfume, she calls me names like “obnoxious,” “you little ugly thing” or “spoiled brat.” At times I want to pinch her black and blue and pull that thick dark curly hair out of her head but I don’t want her to die.

Rosebud’s a beauty—the pride of the family. And she always makes us laugh. She knows how to wear clothes. With the right earrings and a pin, she can make an outfit out of a flour sack and look like a model in a fashion magazine. She can sing too, like Doris Day and Peggy Lee and other famous singers. Some people say she looks like Elizabeth Taylor. Her best number is “Can’t help lovin’ dat man” from Showboat. When she was sixteen she got a job singing with a big band in Charlotte. Mama says Rosebud knows how to give a man that come-hither-let’s-go-yonder kind of look. I would like to know just what she’s talking about.

Where could Mama be? If only there were some way I could keep Daddy from doing this awful thing. Talk to him, maybe. Or better yet, speak to him in his native “alien” tongue and tell him not to destroy Rosebud. It would shock him that I can speak his language—
shock him that I know his deep dark secret—that although he has taken on the human physical form, he’s from outer space. He probably wandered off while his fellow aliens were on a mission exploring earth and got left behind. I would yell at the top of my lungs for him to stop, but what language would his real family speak? I wonder. Do they even have mouths? Maybe they speak or at least understand Pig Latin. Everybody knows Pig Latin. I could shout, “Addyday! topsay histay ownay!!” I am very close to throwing up when I think I hear Rosebud’s high-pitched giggle. That high-pitched giggle is a sure give away that she’d been drinking. Evidently, Daddy hasn’t heard anything because he continues to sing. He’s now on the second verse. He has suffered major hearing loss from working in sheet metal plants around noisy machines. Mama insists that’s why he yells rather than talks. She always makes excuses for him. Where is Mama? What’s going to happen when Rosebud comes in the house? Daddy’s so mad he doesn’t need bullets—he could use his bare hands to do away with her or even beat her to death with the butt of the rifle. Weak, sweaty and dizzy, I feel I’m on the verge of passing out when I hear a shuffling of feet on the front porch that sounds like an army. The front door opens and people swarm in. I hear male voices mixed in with Mama’s soft nasal twang and more high pitched giggling. Before I can figure out what was going on someone walks in the bedroom, switches on the overhead light, yanks the covers back and I find myself squirming beneath the steady gaze of a police officer. What’s he starring at? I wonder. I’m wearing clean pajamas. Without a word, the officer covers me back up, switches the light off and leaves the room. I throw back the covers and sit up just in time to see two other officers lead Daddy out. Handcuffed, Daddy walks with his head down. If he had a tail it would be between his legs. I can’t see his face but he reminds me of a dog on its way to the pound. I hear the front door close and wish with all my heart that Daddy would never walk through it again. Hopefully those men in the blue uniforms aren’t really policemen. They could be the men from outer space who have come to take Daddy back where he belongs. He’s not going to jail—he’s blasting off into space.

For the first time in what must’ve been hours, I draw a full deep breath. Mama, Othermama, Jake, Ben and Rosebud gather in the kitchen—all talking at once. I want to join them but I’ve been in a fetal position for so long, I feel too stiff to move. I need to talk to Mama privately. I want to know exactly what happened. Which neighbor’s phone had she borrowed to call the police? I want her to know that she was so convincing when she told Daddy she would go get the bullets I almost believed her.

I call out to Mama several times but I can’t make my voice loud enough to be heard. I begin to cry. Mama had bravely gone for help. Saved our lives. Guilt covers me like the blankets I lay under. According to the lessons in Sunday school class at the Quicksand Methodist Church of Redeeming Grace, I am no better than Peter the disciple warming himself at the palace of the high priest before the crucifixion of Christ. I doubted my own dear, sweet, gray-haired Mother and the cock hadn’t crowed once—never mind three times.

Because nobody presses charges, Daddy is released from jail and comes home the next day. I guess the men from the space ship decide they don’t want him to live on their planet after seeing how badly he has behaved. Mama claims that Daddy says he is sorry for what he’s done and is ashamed of himself—but nobody else hears him say it. And forever after, nobody talks about the rifle incident. Life at our house continues as usual, as though nothing out of the ordinary has happened, as if men from outer space never took Daddy away only to bring him back the next day. And in summer my friends and I still gathered on porch steps to scan the starry skies for UFO’s.

——

Actress and writer Diane Kimbrell has lived in NYC for many years, but was born and raised in Charlotte, North Carolina. Her literary credits include River Walk Journal, Plum Biscuit, Subtletea and Muscadine Lines. A graduate of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, she has also attended Columbia and New York University.

3 Comments

  1. sunnysidegem

    What an awesome story! I feel like I was transported to another time and place. I especially appreciated the child’s interpretation of confusing grown-up events. And the characters are described so lovingly, with childlike innocence and adult insight at the same time. Loved it!!!!!!!

    Reply
  2. Judith Lynn

    What a beautiful story. These adult events seen from the eyes of a child are so enlightening. Especially how a child can still love its family no matter what happens.

    Reply
  3. MargaretE Campbell

    Great! A born writer. I cannot wait to see what she comes up with next. she kept me hanging on .

    Reply

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