He lay in bed quietly listening to what sounded like an argument going on downstairs. He was no stranger to Carol (he wouldn’t call her Mom anymore, no matter what she wanted) yelling. He’d heard it enough but he didn’t remember her ever yelling at Liz. He never remembered anything more than a clipped phrase or two to express displeasure or to hurry Liz along when they were going out but this was full-on volume. It wasn’t loud enough that he could make out the words through the closed bedroom door-but he could hear the sharpness, the anger in the sounds. Below that, he heard Liz’s voice-softer and responsive-parrying the louder charges and attacks. The words seemed to flow into a crescendo then trail down to nothing. He sat on the edge of the bed-almost without realizing he had done it-straining to hear. Then there was silence for a moment; at least the voices stilled. He heard movement and knew they were still downstairs in the living room right at the bottom of the steps.
Then he heard Carol’s voice again-not yelling this time-just clipped staccato bursts of words bitten off until….WHACK!…the sharp report of a smack drowned out everything and seemed to hang in the air like the smoke from an exploded sky rocket. He stood up quickly in time to hear the second crack echo loudly out in the hall.
He tiptoed in a parody of every tiptoeing cartoon he had seen on TV to the bedroom door, opening it carefully-trying to remember if there were any squeaks that might give him away. The door swung open and he stepped out into the carpeted hallway as another stroke fell. This time he heard Liz catch her breath with the impact of it.
He knew this sound too well to not know what was going on. The strapping that Carol had been going to give him a few minutes ago was being given instead-with great gusto apparently-to her friend. And he also knew by the sharp crack of the strap that the blows were falling not on Liz’s khaki shorts, or even on her underwear but on her bare butt. And this was happening at the end of the couch-as it did with him-bent over the heavily upholstered rolled arm.
From the top of the stairs he could hear Liz clearly as she explained breathlessly, “I told you I’m sorry, Carol. I didn’t mean to get between you and him…UUHHH!“ She swallowed a groan as another stroke fell. He stepped down the first step.
“But you did”, the older woman growled. “You did…and I don’t appreciate it.”
Carol was not much for conversation when she was wielding the belt. It was as if she had a job to do and she was going to get to it and on with it. He took another step down. “I won’t do it again”, said Liz. “Really, I won’t.” Her voice was dry, not a hint of tears or desperation in it. He winced as another swat fell loudly. “I..I just thought that with him being sick…”.
Johnny wasn’t hearing the words anymore. The thought of having a heart attack flashed across his consciousness if only because his heart was pounding so loudly as he hit the third step down. Squatting here-just bending a tiny bit-he could peek into the closest part of the living room. He saw Carol’s feet, then her legs as he bent down. She was standing behind Liz who had saved him from this beating and of her he could see feet and as he bent lower, calves. Her legs were crossed at the ankles and she was indeed bent over the arm of the couch and he could see her shorts and underpants gathered in a bunch at her knees. He dropped his head and saw the backs of her thighs-hamstrings tense and quivering.
She yelped as the belt crossed her buttocks again just out of the boy’s sight. “OK, Carol-I won’t say another word. You do what you have to do..if this is what you want…” He watched as she uncrossed her feet and took as firm a stance as she could with the balls of both feet on the floor. Another stroke caused her and Johnny to both jump. One more step and he would be able to see the whole tableau before him: the naked bottom, the strapping, whatever else there was to see since at this point in his life, women and their secret anatomy were as unknown to him as the dark side of the moon except for what he saw in the magazines that his father stashed under the bed.
But he didn’t take that last step; the one which would have shown him things he had thought about but never seen and answered questions he didn’t yet have. He couldn’t take that final step. Instead he backed quietly up a stair, then another. He knew that this was happening to Liz because she hadn’t let it happen to him. And this made him a little protective of her-at least from his prying eyes. His heart still pounded and he winced with every slash of the belt-which came less and less frequently now but no matter how much he wanted to lay his eyes on what was happening in the living room, he really didn’t want to see it.
He slipped quietly back into the bedroom and ever so quietly closed the door behind him. He tiptoed back to the bed and sat down. The hardness in his pajamas would make it impossible to lie on his belly but that was fine. He plopped onto his back and pulled up the covers and tried to slow his beating heart.