When I was three and when my father’s hair was still black, an errant baseball thwacked the rear window of our car. At the time, my father was sitting in the driver’s seat. I was sitting alone in the bench seat in the back, unhindered by a seatbelt, like most seventies-era children.
When the ball made contact with the glass, there was a thud and a pop, followed by a sudden tickle of air at my neck and an intensity of ambient outside noise. Then, gleaming shards of glass surrounded me, jewels and gemstones of error scattered across the leather interior.
Some kids were playing ball farther up the block. One had misjudged his swing and his strength, and had sent a line drive steaming down the street. I wasn’t frightened by the noise or the shift of awareness, but marveled instead at the play of light on the jagged pieces carpeting the seat. Diamonds had appeared, I thought. We’d be rich.
My father flung open the car door and commanded me to “Stay put, baby.” The swit-swit-swit of his leather-soled loafers scraped against the sidewalk as he chased after his imagined assailants. The memory of my 25-year-old father is still so crisp, so easily conjured some 45 years later—with his rope-knotted forearms swinging for momentum and a lit Marlboro still wedged between his lips—fueled by anger, fear and adrenaline to rough up the kids who had damaged his car and threatened his child.
We lived in a second-floor railroad apartment in Queens then, where I spent many afternoons hiding behind my parents’ bedroom sheers, watching hippie teenagers sway down the street in center-parted hair and cheap flared jeans from Korvettes. My parents couldn’t afford to send me to preschool; the front windows were my early education. That year, we watched the Watergate hearings on a black-and-white TV set perched on a rickety rolling cart in the living room, and my father spit at the TV whenever Nixon’s face appeared, grainy and gray, on the tube.
We had few possessions, but my mother tried to make our sparse apartment homier by hanging spider plants in the dining room windows and by balancing an avocado pegboard, like Julia Child’s, over the kitchen stove, where it once caught fire and set my mother to tears until my father could put out the flames. They were young, too young for married life, in hindsight. They had nearly nothing, save for each other, and that, too, was often in question.
My father drove a 1969 BMW 2002—then an odd, boxy car not yet popular in the States. He took great pride in owning it, and at being in the know about such superior automobiles. The vehicle suggested to others that my father amounted to more than his present station in life. He wasn’t meant for this ambush of young marriage, a suddenly-square status in the early 1970s, not to mention the panic of unplanned parenthood one year later. Yet he stayed, tethered and duty-bound, with those keys jangling in his pocket.
That Sunday morning, I stayed put, too, just as I was told, unafraid of the jaggedness surrounding me. My first lessons of love and loyalty, of retribution and clannishness, of promises and betrayal, possession and belonging—were learned amidst the shattered pieces.
After several minutes, my father returned to retrieve me from the back seat. He decided that it was an innocent accident and a miscalculation of burgeoning male hormones, after he arrived nose-to-nose with the boys’ pale, peach-fuzzed faces, and saw his own in theirs.
Kathleen McKitty Harris is a fifth-generation native New Yorker whose work has appeared in Sonora Review, Pidgeonholes, Creative Nonfiction, and The Rumpus, among others. Her essay, “A Timeline of Human Female Development,” appears in the anthology My Body, My Words (Big Table Publishing 2018). She has also performed at The Moth in New York City, and other story slams throughout the Northeast. Kathleen lives in northern New Jersey with her husband and two children.