That Sunday night in 1966, when I was nine, my father, mother, thirteen-year-old brother, and I watched The Ed Sullivan Show in our dark front room. My father preferred that all the lights be turned off while we watched television, so the glow of our black-and-white Zenith was our only light. As was our custom, my mother and I sat snuggled in a chair near the warm oil heater. My twenty-three-year-old brother and his new bride, who were living with us until they found a home of their own, remained upstairs in their bedroom.
The pounding at the front door startled us. My father stood from his chair and went to the door. When he opened the front door, a stranger jerked open the screen and lurched in.
“Hey, wait a minute, Buddy!” my father exclaimed, nearly toppled by the man.
“Can you give me a cigarette?” the man asked with a slurred voice. Though I had never actually seen anyone intoxicated before, I had watched Red Skelton portraying a drunk on his T.V. show, so I recognized the condition. This man wasn’t funny like Red Skelton, though, so my mother in her housecoat and my teenage brother and I in our pajamas hurried into the hall that adjoined the front room to get out of the way and watch from there.
“What is it, Daddy?” my married brother called, coming down the dark staircase to stand with my father.
“Mister, can I have a cigarette?” the man asked again, weaving unsteadily as if he might fall.
Like most men of that day, my father smoked cigarettes, so he always carried a pack of Camels in his front shirt pocket. He pulled out the pack from his pocket and tapped out a cigarette. “Now you take this and go on home,” he said. The man took the cigarette in a fumbling hand and stuck it between his lips, seeming in no hurry to leave.
My mother, brother, and I watched from the hall doorway. Nothing like this had ever happened before. We never locked our front door because we didn’t expect anyone to break in. But I was a nervous child, having lost my paternal uncle — our next door neighbor — the year before to a heart attack and my maternal aunt two years before to a homicide. These shocking, premature deaths had wreaked emotional havoc upon my family and contributed to my being a chronic nail-biter. So after the intruder burst through the door, I cowered behind my mother.
I spied the heavy pedestal ashtray next to my father’s chair, and I wondered if it might make a good weapon. In our house, there were no guns — my father was not a hunter, and he trusted his own fists for self-defense. The most feasible weapon in the house was my mother’s old butcher knife.
But no weapons were needed.
My father calmly coaxed the man out of the front door onto the porch, lit his cigarette for him, and told him again to go on home.
We onlookers gathered behind the front screen door to see that the man was on his way.
He stumbled down the porch steps onto the walk and headed across our front yard toward the gravel driveway at the lower side of the house. He staggered over to our white Mercury.
“Hey-o!” my father yelled as the man opened the car door and started to get in. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“Gettin’ in my car,” the man yelled with some authority.
“That ain’t your car, Buddy,” my father called back, his voice gruff.
He’s getting mad, I thought, and I feared we might see a fight. A chill filled my stomach because I had recently witnessed my father — an ex-Merchant Marine who had served in World War II — fly into a rage and tear everything off our front room wall. And I knew that even though he was a quiet man who rarely used profanity, he was also capable of profound anger if he felt himself or his family compromised.
But the storm passed quickly as the man mumbled something, closed the car door, and staggered down the street, disappearing into the night. My oldest brother went back upstairs to his wife, and the rest of us resumed watching The Ed Sullivan Show.
The next morning when my brother and I, along with other neighborhood kids, walked down the street to our school bus stop, we found the man asleep in a car parked on the side of the road in front of a house where he must have lived. He was stretched out in the front seat, his head propped against the driver’s side window. Until the night before, I’d never seen him, so he couldn’t have lived there long. Unlike him, most of our neighbors were longtime residents and seemed like family to us; my brother and I spent as much time in their houses as we did in our own home, playing with their kids or grandkids or being babysat by them while our parents worked. I lingered at the car to get a better look at him, his crumpled clothes and disheveled brown hair. For a minute, I feared he might wake up, open the car door, and grab me, but he slept on. That evening when the school bus dropped us off, I noticed the car was empty and the man nowhere to be seen.
I didn’t see him again the next morning or the rest of that week. But the following week we woke to see smoke rising from the property down the street. In the night, the wood frame house had burned to the ground; only smoldering rubble and a charred chimney remained.
Soon enough, we learned that our intruder, who lived in the house with his brother, had burned to death in the fire. Though his brother escaped unharmed, he couldn’t be saved. It was said he’d been smoking in bed, and we all assumed that he’d been drinking and passed out.
After that, when I walked by the empty lot, I always thought about the man and the terrible thing that had happened to him. I could never figure out why it was our house he had found his way to that Sunday night to beg for a cigarette.