How do arguments start? They begin somewhere deep down beneath still waters, waters heavy enough to hold down resentment, fear, suspicion, and doubt. Those heavy waters seal those things in the way a blanket keeps a bed warm at night at least until a restless sleeper, fevered and sweating casts them off.
It would be years and miles before he’d understand what makes a man and a woman argue and fight. As a boy he felt as though he stood at the feet of giants, his mother and the man she’d married — not his father — the man in if not of the house.
How do arguments start? Over a toy. He had wanted to play with a Mr. Potato Head Doll in the back yard of some forced friend at an adult social gathering. The kid wouldn’t give it over. The thing was fascinating, detachable lips, eyes, and nose.
“Just let me see it,” he said. “Just give it to me!”
“No,” the other kid said. “It’s mine, no!”
He wanted to take the pieces off, the nose, the eyes, the lips, and then put them back on again. But the kid wouldn’t let him have it.
That’s how that argument began.
But how did the argument between these lumbering giants begin that night?
It’s violence was incomprehensible to him then. The shouting, the pushing, the shoving. He was not part of it, he could disappear. And so he did. Hiding was something that he knew how to do.
Once, when he must have been two years old, he hid in a closet. He disappeared. His parents panicked and searched. They turned over the neighborhood. How glad they were when they found him, safe, playing with some toys in the closet. What power came with hiding. When he disappeared he mattered.
Later he’d learn to be inscrutable, or he’d see himself that way. Hard to describe.
“What does he really believe?” people would ask. Who knows? And before it mattered, he’d disappear. Being small meant being vulnerable, but not if you could hide and provoke. So he would light the fuse and run. Adults were peculiar beings, so strong and in charge, but so easy, with mocking or a practical joke, to turn into a child. Teachers were the easiest target.
But tonight he just had to survive. By the time he got to his room and went under the bed, he could hear things breaking. Plates? Glasses? Dishes. Another one hitting the floor. Another one. Yelling. Screaming. Another sound of breaking. More yelling. More shouting. Breaking glass, breaking dishes. On it went.
Now what? It was quiet. The quiet that arrived and settled was that heavy and sturdy blanket dropping again over the anger and the resentment. It put out the fire but kept the coals. This efficiency meant it would live, it could and would go on.
He walked down the hallway to the kitchen. Every cabinet and cupboard was open and empty and all the contents were on the floor. Glass, crockery, flour, pantry items — everything was on the floor and broken. Everything.
His mother wept in the corner. But she was on the phone, describing the scene.
“Yes,” she said. “Yes.” Over and over again. And the man sat out on a wall in the backyard facing the skyline of the city in the distance, his back to the scene in the kitchen.
The boy was not upset. How could he be. What was this? What did it mean? His thoughts went to breakfast and eating. How would they do it?
The doorbell rang. His mother went to answer. It was the pastor from the church. They exchanged words. Details of the argument? An explanation of what had unfolded? The pastor walked past the boy, his mother following.
The pastor wore a brown suit with a vest and a tie. Did he put this on like a fireman puts on his equipment? Did the pastor and his wife have a house with an alarm and when it went off, would he put on a suit and tie and slide down a pole? Maybe.
The boy didn’t think about that then. He just heard the pastor’s shoes walking across the kitchen floor, crunching on the glass and broken dishes like he was walking across ice. Then he went out to the backyard where the man sat and they talked. The pastor put his arm around the man.
As the pastor walked out, a police car pulled up in front of the house. The pastor went out to the policeman and they talked. Then the policeman and the pastor drove off into the night in separate directions.
Later, as a man, the boy would remember the fear in the pastor’s face. The boy would grow up knowing enough anger to break things too. Later, she’d break plates on the floor. Later, when he was a man he’d feel the fear of his own anger, he’d know hers too. He understood what would make a man and a woman argue like that and break things.
How do arguments start? Who knows? But they always start with long nights and end with picking up the pieces.
Somebody pick up my pieces
I’m scattered everywhere
And put me back together
And put me way over there
Take me out of contention
I surrender my crown
Somebody pick up my pieces
It’s just me coming down
That night he just wanted to sleep. That night he crawled into bed and felt grateful he had school to go to tomorrow. That night he looked forward to tomorrow and slept.