Dorothy Sands recalled March of 1955, holding her one-month-old baby in her arms after giving him his medicine, suddenly seeing the infants bright-red face and the ring of white around his mouth.
“Johnny!” she screamed. “We got to get Billy to the hospital!”
Johnny Morrison rushed into the kitchen.
“Can’t get nothing down,” Dorothy said. “Keeps throwing up. And now look what this medicine is doing to him.”
Johnny shouted for Mimi, the housekeeper, to keep an eye on baby Jim, and he ran out to start the car. Dorothy met him with baby Billy, and they drove to the Mount Sinai Hospital in Miami Beach.
In the emergency room, a young intern glanced at the baby and said, “Lady, you’re too late.”
“He’s alive!” she shouted. “You son of a bitch, you do something for my baby!”
Jolted by the mothers words, the intern took the baby and stammered, “We—we’ll do what we can.”
The nurse at the reception desk filled out the admissions form.
“Child’s name and address?”
“William Stanley Morrison,” Johnny said. “1311 North East 154th Street. North Miami Beach.”
He paused and looked at Dorothy. She knew he was about to say “Jewish,” but seeing the look on her face, he hesitated.
“Catholic,” she said.
Johnny Morrison turned away and walked to the waiting room. Dorothy followed, slumped into the plastic couch and watched him chain-smoke. She guessed he was still wondering if Billy was really his. Billy looked different from dark-haired, dark-complexioned Jim, who’d been born almost a year and a half earlier. Johnny had been so happy about Jimbo he’d talked of finding his wife and getting a divorce. But he never did. Still, he’d bought the pink stucco house with the palm tree in the backyard because, he said, it was important for people in show business to have a home life. It was a better home life than she’d had with her ex-husband, Dick Jonas, in Circleville, Ohio.
But Johnny was going through a bad time now, she realized. His jokes weren’t getting across. The younger comedians were getting the bookings, and Johnny was getting the dregs. He used to be a top-notch M.C. and musician, but now instead of working on his act he was gambling and drinking. It had reached the point where he would take one belt before the first nightclub performance, “for starters,” and then be unable to go on for the last show. Though he still publicized himself as “half music and half wit,” now he could add “and a fifth of bourbon.”
He was not the same Johnny Morrison who used to fix up her singing arrangements and saw her home safely, “to protect my twenty-year-old, rosy-cheeked Ohio farm girl.” Not the same Johnny Morrison she felt so secure about that she’d warn would-be mashers, “Hey, look out, I’m Johnny Morrison’s girl.”
At thirty-six, blind in his left eye, stocky and built like a fighter, Johnny was more like a father to her, she thought.
“You shouldn’t smoke so much,” she said.
He sfubbed a cigarette out in the ashtray and jammed his hands into his pockets. “I don’t feel like doing the show tonight.”
“You’ve missed too many this month, Johnny.”
His sharp glance cut her words. He opened his mouth to say something, and she braced herself for a wisecrack just as the doctor came into the reception room. “Mr. and Mrs. Morrison, I think your baby’s going to be all right. He has a growth blocking his esophagus. We can get it under control. His condition is stable. You two can go home now, and we’ll call you if there’s any change.”
* * *
Billy survived. For the first year, he was in and out of hospitals in Miami. When Dorothy and Johnny had out-of-town bookings together, Billy and Jimbo were left with Mimi or in a childrens care center.
Dorothy became pregnant, for the third time, a year after Billy was bom. Johnny suggested an abortion in Cuba. She refused, she told her children years later, because it was a mortal sin. Kathy Jo was bom on New Years Eve, December 31, 1956. Meeting the medical expenses overwhelmed Johnny. He borrowed more, gambled more, drank more, and Dorothy learned he was into the loan sharks for six thousand dollars. She argued with him. He beat her.
Johnny was hospitalized for acute alcoholism and depression in the fall of 1956, but was allowed home from the hospital on October 19 for Jimbo s fifth birthday party, which was to be the next day. When Dorothy returned late that night from work, she found him slumped over the table, half a bottle of Scotch and an empty bottle of sleeping pills on the floor.
The Teacher remembered that Billy s first inner friend had no name. One day four months before his fourth birthday when Jimbo wouldn’t play with him, Kathy was still too little and Daddy was too busy reading a book, Billy sat alone in his room with his toys, feeling lonely and bored. Then he saw a little boy with black hair and dark eyes who sat across from him and just stared. Billy pushed a toy soldier toward him. The boy picked it up, put it into the truck and moved it back and forth, back and forth. They didn’t speak, but even without talking, it was better than being all alone.
That night Billy and the little boy with no name saw his father go to the medicine cabinet and take out a bottle of pills. The mirror reflected Daddy’s face as he emptied the bottle of yellow capsules into his hand and swallowed them. Then Daddy sat down at the table, Billy lay down in his crib and the little boy with no name disappeared. In the middle of the night his mother’s scream woke Billy. He watched her rush to the telephone to call the police. With Jimbo standing beside him at the window, Billy looked on while they wheeled the stretcher and the cars with the flashing lights took Daddy away.
In the days that followed, Daddy didn’t come back to play with him, and Mommy was too upset and busy, and Jimbo wasn’t around and Kathy was too little. Billy wanted to play with Kathy, talk to her, but Mommy said she was a little girl and he had to be very, very careful. So when he got lonely and bored again, he closed his eyes and went to sleep.
“Christene” opened her eyes and went to Kathy’s crib. When Kathy cried, Christene knew by the expression on her face exactly what she wanted, and she went to tell the beautiful lady that Kathy was hungry.
“Thank you, Billy,” Dorothy said. “You’re a good boy. You watch your little sister and I’ll get dinner ready. Then I’ll come and read you a bedtime story before I go to work.”
Christene didn’t know who Billy was or why she was being called that, but she was happy she could play with Kathy. She took a red crayon and went to the wall beside the crib to draw Kathy a picture of a doll.
Christene heard someone coming; she looked up to see the beautiful lady glaring at the drawing on the wall and the red crayon in her hand.
“That’s bad! Bad! Bad!” Dorothy shouted.
Christene closed her eyes and went away.
Billy opened his eyes and saw the anger in his mother’s face. When she grabbed and shook him, he got scared and cried. He didn’t know why he was being punished. Then he saw the drawing on the wall and wondered who had done that naughty thing.
“Me not bad!” he cried.
“You drew that on the wall!” she shouted.
He shook his head. “Not Billy. Kathy did it,” he said, pointing to the crib.
“You mustn’t lie,” Dorothy said, jabbing her forefinger hard against his little chest. “Lying . . . is . . . bad. You’ll go to hell if you’re a liar. Now get to your room.”
Jimbo wouldn’t talk to him. Billy wondered if Jimbo had drawn the picture on the wall. He cried for a while and then he closed his eyes and went to sleep . . .
When Christene opened her eyes, she saw a bigger boy asleep on the other side of the room. She looked around for a doll to play with, but all she saw were toy soldiers and trucks.
She didn’t want those toys. She wanted dolls and bottles with nipples and Kathy’s cuddly Raggedy Ann.
She slipped out of the room to look for Kathy’s crib, peeking into three rooms before she found it. Kathy was asleep, so Christene took the Raggedy Ann doll and went back to bed.
In the morning, Billy was punished for taking Kathy’s doll. Dorothy found it in his bed and shook him and shook him until he felt his head was going to fall off.
“Don’t you ever do that again,’’ she said. “That’s Kathy’s doll.”
Christene learned that she had to be careful how she played with Kathy when Billy’s mother was around. At first she thought the boy in the other bed might be Billy, but everyone called him Jimbo, so she knew he was the older brother. Her own name was Christene, but since everyone called her Billy, she learned to answer to it. She loved Kathy very much, and as the months went by, she played with her, taught her words, watched as she learned to walk. She knew when Kathy was hungry and what foods Kathy liked. She knew when something was hurting Kathy and she told Dorothy if anything was wrong.
They played house together, and she enjoyed playing dress-up with Kathy when her mommy wasn’t there. They’d put on Dorothy’s clothes and shoes and hats and pretend they were singing in the nightclub. Most of all, Christene liked to draw pictures for Kathy, but she didn’t do it on the walls anymore. Dorothy got her lots of paper and crayons, and everyone said how good Billy was at making pictures.
Dorothy was worried when Johnny came home from the hospital. He seemedjme when he played with the children or tried to work up new songs and routines for the show, but when her back was turned, he’d be on the phone with the bookies. She tried to stop him, but he turned on her, cursed her and hit her. He moved out to the Midget Mansions Motel, missing Christmas with the children and Kathy’s third birthday on New Year’s Eve.
On January 18, Dorothy was awakened by a call from the police department. Johnny’s body had been found in his station wagon, parked outside the motel, with a hose leading from the tailpipe into the back window. He’d left an eight-page suicide note attacking Dorothy and giving instructions to pay a few personal debts from the insurance money.
When Dorothy told the children that Johnny had gone to heaven, Jimbo and Billy went to the window and looked up at the sky.
The following week the loan sharks said she’d better pay up Johnny’s six-thousand-dollar debt or something would happen to her and the kids. She fled with the children, first to the home of her sister Jo Ann Bussy in Key Largo and then back to Circleville, Ohio. There she met her ex-husband, Dick Jonas, again. After a few dates and promises that he would change, she remarried him.
Billy was almost five when he went into the kitchen one morning and reached on tiptoe to get the dishtowel from the counter. Suddenly the cookie jar standing on it came crashing to the floor. He tried to put the pieces together, but they wouldn’t stick. Hearing someone coming, he began trembling. He didn’t want to be punished. He didn’t want to be hurt.
He knew he had done something bad, but he didn’t want to know what was going to happen, didn’t want to hear Mommy screaming at him. He closed his eyes and went to sleep . . .
“Shawn” opened his eyes and looked around. He saw the broken jar on the floor and stared at it. What was it? Why was it broken? Why was he here?
A pretty lady came in, glared at him and moved her mouth, but he heard no sounds. She shook him hard, again and again, and jabbed her forefinger into his chest, her face red, her mouth still moving. He had no idea why she was angry with him. She dragged him to a room, pushed him in and closed the door. He sat there in the dead silence, wondering what was going to happen next. Then he went to sleep.
When Billy opened his eyes, he cringed, expecting to be hit for breaking the cookie jar, but the blows didn’t come. How had he gotten back into his room? Well, he was getting used to being somewhere, then closing his eyes and opening them to find himself somewhere else at a different time. He supposed it was that way with everyone. Up to now, he would find himself in a situation where he would be called a liar and punished for something he hadn’t done. This was the first time he had done something and waked to find nothing had happened to him. He wondered when his mom was going to punish him for the broken cookie jar. It made him nervous, and he spent the rest of the day alone in his room. He wished Jimbo would come home from school, or that he could see the little dark-haired boy who used to play with his soldiers and trucks. Billy squeezed his eyes closed, hoping the little boy would be there. But nothing.
The strange thing was, he never felt lonely anymore. Whenever he would start to feel lonely or bored or sad, he would just close his eyes. When he opened them, he would be in a different place and everything would be changed. Sometimes he would close his eyes when the sun was shining brightly outside, and when he opened them again, it would be nighttime. Sometimes it would be the opposite. Other times he would be playing with Kathy or Jimbo, and when he blinked he would be sitting on the floor alone. Sometimes when this happened he would have red marks on his arms or an ache in his behind, as if he had been spanked. But he never got spanked or shaken again.
He was glad no one punished him anymore.
Dorothy stayed with Dick Jonas for a year. Then the situation became too much for her, and she left him for the second time. She supported herself and her children as a waitress at the Lancaster Country Club and by singing in cocktail lounges like the Continental and the Top Hat. She placed the children in St. Josephs School in Circleville, Ohio.
Billy got along well in first grade. The nuns praised him for his drawing ability. He could sketch quickly, and his use of light and shadow was uncanny for a six-year-old. But in second grade, Sister Jane Stephens was determined he would use only his right hand for writing and drawing. “The devil is in your left hand, William. We have to force him out.” He saw her pick up her ruler, and he closed his eyes . . .
Shawn looked around and saw the lady with the black dress and the starched white bib coming toward him with the ruler. He knew he was here to be punished for something. But what? She moved her mouth, but he couldn’t hear what she was saying. He just cringed and stared at her red, angry face. She grabbed his left hand, lifted her ruler and brought it down on his palm silently over and over again.
Tears rolled down his cheeks, and again he wondered why he was here to be punished for something he hadn’t done. It wasn’t fair.
When Shawn left, Billy opened his eyes and saw Sister Stephens walking away. He looked at his left hand and saw the red welts, felt the burning. He felt something on his face, too, and touched his cheek with his right hand. Tears?
Jimbo never forgot that although he was a year and four months older than his brother, it was Billy who, at the age of seven, instigated running away from home that summer. They would pack some food, Billy told him, and take a knife and some clothes, and they would go off and have adventures. They would come back rich and famous. Impressed with his younger brothers planning and determination, Jimbo agreed to go along.
They slipped out of the house with their packs and hiked from Circleville through the outskirts of town, past the built-up area, to the big field overgrown with clover. Billy pointed to a stand of five or six apple trees in the center of the field and said that was where they’d stop for a lunch break. Jimbo followed.
As they sat there leaning against the trees, eating apples and talking about the adventures they would have, Jimbo felt a strong wind coming up. Apples started falling all around them.
“Hey,” Jimbo said. “Gonna be a storm.”
Billy glanced around. “And look at the bees!”
Jimbo saw that the whole field seemed to be filled with swarming, buzzing bees. “They’re all over the place. We’ll get stung to death. We’re trapped. Help! Help!” he screamed. “Somebody help us!”
Billy packed quickly. “Okay, we didn’t get stung on the way into the field. So the best thing is to go out the way we come in—but we go out running. Let’s go now!”
Jimbo stopped screaming and followed him.
They took off, racing across the field, and made it back to the road without getting stung.
“That was quick thinking,” Jimbo said.
Billy looked at the darkening sky. “Its getting mean-looking. We got stopped, so let’s call it off for today. We’ll go back, but we won’t say anything. Then we can do it another time.”
All the way home, Jimbo kept wondering why he was letting himself be led by his younger brother.
Later that summer they went exploring in the woods around Circleville. When they got to Hargis Creek, they saw a rope hanging from a branch over the water.
“We can swing across,” Billy said.
“I’ll check it out,” Jimbo said. “I’m the oldest. I’ll go first. Then, if it’s safe, you can swing across after me.”
Jimbo pulled the rope, backed up to get a running start and swung out. Three quarters of the way across, he fell and dropped into mud, which started sucking him down.
“Quicksand!” Jimbo shouted.
Billy moved fast. He found a large stick and threw it across to him. Shimmying up the tree, Billy climbed out on a branch, down the rope, and pulled his brother to safety. When they were on the bank, Jimbo lay back and looked at him.
Billy said nothing, but Jimbo put his arm around his kid brother’s shoulder. “You saved my life, Bill. I owe you.”
Unlike Billy and Jimbo, Kathy loved Catholic shool and admired the sisters. She was, she decided, definitely going to be a nun when she grew up. She adored the memory of her father and tried to find out all she could about Johnny Morrison. Her mother had told the children that their father had been ill, was taken to the hospital, and had died. Now that she was five and in school, whatever she did, Kathy asked herself first, “Is that what Daddy Johnny would want me to do?” It was something she would continue into adulthood.
Dorothy saved some money from her singing engagements and bought part interest in the Top Hat Bar. She met a handsome, fast-talking young man who had a wonderful idea about the two of them opening a supper club in Florida. They had to move fast, he explained. She should take the children to Florida to look over a couple of places. He would stay here in Circleville, sell her interest in the bar and then join her. All she had to do was sign her share over to him.
She did what he suggested, took the children to her sisters place in Florida, checked out some clubs for sale and waited a month. He never showed up. Realizing she had been taken by a con man, she came back to Circleville again—broke.
In 1962, while she was singing at a lounge of a bowling alley, Dorothy met Chalmer Milligan, a widower. He now lived with his daughter, Challa, who was the same age as Billy, and he had a grown daughter who was a nurse. He began to date Dorothy and got her a job at the company where he was a job steward on press machines, molding parts for telephones.
From the beginning, Billy didn’t like him. He told Jimbo, “I don’t trust him.”
The Pumpkin Festival in Circleville, famous throughout the Midwest, was the annual highlight of the town. In addition to parades and floats, the streets were turned into a pumpkin fair, vendors in their booths selling pumpkin donuts, pumpkin candies and even pumpkin hamburgers. The city was transformed into a pumpkin fairyland of lights and streamers and carnival rides. The Pumpkin Festival of October 1963 was a happy time.
Dorothy felt her life had taken a good turn. She had met a man with a steady job who would be able to take care of her and who said he would adopt her three children. He would, she felt, be a good father, and she would be a good mother to Challa. On October 27, 1963, Dorothy married Chalmer Milligan.
Three weeks after their marriage, on a Sunday in mid-November, he took them out to visit his fathers small farm in Bremen, Ohio, just fifteen minutes away. It was exciting to the children to go through the white farmhouse, swing on the porch swing, poke around the springhouse out back and the old red bam a little ways down the hill. The boys would have to come out weekends, Chalmer said, to work on the place. There was a lot to do to get the soil ready for planting vegetables.
Billy looked at the rotting pumpkins in the fields and fixed the bam and the landscape in his mind. He decided that when he got home, he would draw a picture of it as a present for his new Daddy Chal.
* * *
The following Friday, Mother Superior and Father Mason came into the third-grade room and whispered quietly to Sister Jane Stephens.
“Will all you children please stand and bow your heads?” Sister Stephens said, tears running down her face.
The children, puzzled at the solemnity in Father Masons voice, listened as he spoke, his voice trembling: “Children, you may not understand the way the world situation is going. I don’t expect you to. But I must tell you that our President, John F. Kennedy, was assassinated this morning. We will now say a prayer.”
After he said the Lords Prayer, the children were sent outside to wait for the buses to take them home. Sensing the awesome sadness of the adults, the children stood and waited silently.
That weekend, as the family watched the news and the funeral procession on TV, Billy saw that his mother was crying. It pained him. He couldn’t stand to see her that way or hear her sobbing, so he closed his eyes . . .
Shawn came and stared at the silent pictures on the TV screen and at everybody watching it. He went up to the set and put his face close to it, feeling the vibrations. Challa pushed him out of the way. Shawn went to his room and sat on the bed. He discovered that if he let air out of his mouth slowly, with his feet clenched, it would make the same funny vibrations in his head—something like zzzzzzzz . . . He sat and did it alone in his room for a long time. Zzzzzzzz . . .
Chalmer took the three children out of St. Josephs and enrolled them in the Circleville city school system. As an Irish Protestant, he wasn’t having anyone in his family going to Catholic school; they would all have to go to the Methodist Church.
The children resented having to change their prayers from the Ave Maria and the Lord’s Prayer—grown-up prayers they all were used to by now—to the children’s prayers Challa had to say, especially “Now I lay me down to sleep.”
Billy decided if he was going to change his religion he was going to be what his father, Johnny Morrison, had been— Jewish.