My earliest memory is of Alan and me jumping up and down on the bed that we shared in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Mom shouted from the living room, "Go to sleep or your father's coming in there with a strap!" We shouted back that we would, but we didn't — and Dad came rumbling down the hall like a bowling ball headed for the tenpin.
My brother and I scrambled under the cover, a prickly blue woolen blanket that would follow me halfway across America, with Alan on top of me as my shield.
Then the door flung open and there he was, as menacing as the professional wrestler Man Mountain Dean, pulling off his belt and doubling it over, snapping its sides and heading for our bed. When he got within range, he bent over and poked around until he found us. Then he hollered about putting a stop to all this horsing around and began slapping down his belt: WHAP! WHAP! WHAP!
Finally, I caught on: the belt landed only where we were not. Alan, already playing along, wailed loudly for Dad to stop, which he did. Then he plucked us out of our hiding place, lowered us one by one onto the pillow, tucked the blanket around our shoulders, and kissed us good night. Slamming the door behind him, he bellowed down the hallway: "And I'll come straight back in there if I hear another peep out of either of you!"
My brother and I giggled ourselves to sleep that night. What satisfaction, to be included in our father's elaborate deception!
And what a habit it had become for our father to deceive.
That was 1946, the year our father met Dorothy Heinrich in a Kalamazoo diner. She would one day become his wife, but for now, she was his waitress. "Dot" was five ten, with the sultriness of Rita Hayworth. Mom was four ten, with the temperament of Henry VIII — so there you have it. It wasn't the first time Mom had caught Dad cheating, but it was the last. Our parents would scream at each other for what felt like hours. Alan would cry in bed beside me, and then, to my astonishment, get up and go down the hall to intervene. Mom would shriek, Get out of here, Mr. Buttinski, this is not your business! Get back in that bed! To her, he had become a "hellion" she could not control.
That December, when I was four and Alan ten, our parents separated and divvied us up, my brother to Dad and me to Mom. (Mom was also pregnant with our sister, Linda.) So, from that point on, during childhoods that rarely overlapped, my brother and I were raised as only sons. Over the years, Mom offered a litany of excuses for why she left her firstborn son with "that momser" (Yiddish for "bastard" and all things irredeemable): a boy needs his dad, our father adored him, Alan had to finish the fifth grade — each true but none the truth. The truth was that Mom thought her little hellion would scare off eighteen-year-old Dorothy Heinrich — a serious miscalculation.
The way Alan must have seen things — the way many children see these things — was that our mother gave up on him because he was responsible for her marriage falling apart. And when I think about what went wrong for my brother, as I often do, I keep returning to the irremediable damage that our parents' separation and all its repercussions had on the way he viewed himself and the world.
Mom and I left out of Detroit on a train bound for Little Rock, where she grew up. Soon after arriving, Mom gave birth to Linda, and the three of us lived in the relative tranquility of my maternal grandparents' home. (I say "relative" because we were, after all, Jews.) The five of us shared their two-bedroom house, warmed by the hallway register in winter and serenaded by cardinals in the backyard each spring. Small though it was, I felt at home there and home felt luxurious. I certainly didn't miss my father or brother, at least not yet.
My grandmother, Momma Hattie, was the safe harbor where I docked the sundry hurts of childhood. Be it a broken tooth or a skinned knee, I could escape it easily enough by tucking myself into the folds of her skirt, often while she stood tending a sizzling stove. Momma Hattie served blackened everything, fried foods that had to be coaxed out of the skillet with a metal spatula and serious scraping. Then she poured the greasy residue into a Crisco can, where it congealed into schmaltz: a slippery mass whose consistency would hold your thumbprint until it came time to melt it down and use it again.
"Momma Hattie," I'd say, "make me a hamburger."
"I'll hamburger you," she'd respond.
Then she'd ladle out a wad of schmaltz, jerk the spoon back and forth until it unglued itself, and let it plop into the sizzling pan.
Whenever she had an extra dollar, Momma Hattie would spend it on us. After she noticed that my soles were taped to the tops of my shoes, she took me to JCPenney and bought me a pair made of shiny black material, with zippers up the front. At Woodruff Elementary School, where new shoes were rare events, anyone wearing some got to sit with his feet in the aisle all day, which I did, frequently leaning over to noisily zip and unzip them so I could catch my classmates looking.
On the other hand, my grandfather, Daddy Joe, was hardly involved in our lives at all. Sitting down to breakfast, he'd wordlessly grab his knife and fork and set about savaging his eggs into a bleeding yellow mass, then lift the plate and scoop it all into his mouth with the blunt side of his butter knife. Only then would he pick up his coffee saucer, which he did with both hands and pinkies extended, suck the coffee over a liquid bridge into his mouth, gargle, gulp it down, and belch.
Daddy Joe did smile a lot, but that had less to do with his good nature than with his Peppermint Schnapps, which he squirreled away in pint bottles and nipped at with the dawn. When I was seven, on Yom Kippur, Daddy Joe decided to break the fast early, left the synagogue shortly before services ended, and repaired himself to the family car. There he ate a Hershey bar, washed it down with a lukewarm six-pack of Schlitz, and returned to the sanctuary. To his credit, he almost made it back to his seat, but puked and passed out in the aisle instead. It happened right next to me, while my mother and Momma Hattie watched in horror from their segregated seats upstairs. They jumped up, ran down into the sanctuary, cordoned off the area like a crime scene, and, as the congregants filed out, loudly announced their diagnosis:
"Daddy's had a stroke!"
"Looks like a stroke to me!"
"Somebody call an ambulance. Joe's had a stroke!"
My grandfather lay there with his head cradled in my mother's arms, prostrate before the altar of God. Upon awakening, he waved off the ambulance, preferring to walk off his stroke rather than have it treated. All the way home, Momma Hattie slowly drove alongside him, occasionally barking out the window, "Polish hundt! Polish hundt!" — onomatopoetic Yiddish meaning "hound," a dog she could not abide.
"Hocus pocus/Kiss my tokas," he replied.
But he was a hard worker, my grandfather: he woke every weekday morning at five-thirty for his calisthenics, fifty jumping jacks, knee bends, and toe touches each — a routine I repeated for all my years in Little Rock — and then he'd set off for the small department store he managed for nearly three decades. There, I hesitate to say, he would stand outside and genially greet the black men who walked by, "Nigger, you need a hat." More often than you'd expect, a black man would follow him into the store, where my grandfather, with great courtesy, would sell him a hat or something else, on layaway, a dollar down, a dollar a month.
Excerpted from RUN, BROTHER, RUN: A Memoir of a Murder in My Family. Copyright 2013 by David Berg. Excerpted with permission by Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.