It started with a simple question:

“Why do you keep a bat next to your bed?”

For a while, my oldest brother, Jason, didn’t say anything. We were hanging out in his attic bedroom, Jason stretched out on the twin bed with his hands laced behind his head while I sat cross-legged on the carpeted floor. Neither the stereo nor the TV was playing, which was unusual; my brother isn’t one to sit alone with somebody and enjoy the silence. But in that moment, all the energy in the room seemed to focus on the object I had just asked about: the aluminum baseball bat propped between the head of Jason’s bed and the nightstand.

It wasn’t the fancy kind of aluminum bat that some of the other boys on my Little League team had, black with neon green or purple writing. This one was dinged and dented, the dead gray of pencil lead, with a navy-blue grip that was worn smoother than the handlebars of my hand-me-down Dyno BMX bike.

“Eh, you know,” Jason said, trying hard to keep his eyes fixed on the ceiling, away from my questioning gaze. “Just in case.”

I didn’t know, not exactly, but I had an idea. The silence settled between us, and I went back to staring at the bat.

That night, I awoke to the sound of arguing. As a seven-year-old, I experienced my parents’ explosive fights as a creeping sickness that started in the pit of my stomach, moved up to my chest, then spread out and made my arms and legs feel too heavy. If I had had an adult vocabulary, I would have recognized it as anxiety, even dread, but I didn’t have the words. All I had was a bodily reaction.

The still, humid air swelled the windowsills, the dresser, the floorboards, making my bedroom smell of moist wood varnish, the scent of a summer evening in an old house. In spite of the sticky air, I curled into a tight ball and didn’t move. I imagined that my parents could hear every squeak of my bedframe, so I tried to be silent, unmoving, anything to keep my mother from realizing that I could hear every word of the argument. That was my way of helping: staying out of the way and giving my mom one less thing to worry about.

The minutes passed, and the argument increased in intensity. My parents’ voices grew louder as they moved on to accusations, then to name-calling. Finally, my mother reached the inevitable stage of slamming plates, pots, and pans around the kitchen. As my limbs turned to dead weight, I wished that I was a heavier sleeper, that I could have passed this night—and the many others like it—oblivious to what was happening downstairs.

Even then, the heaviest sleeper in the world couldn’t have slept through the climax that came next: the gut-wrenching thud of a heavy object hitting the hair and flesh of a person’s head, the resounding crack of shattering plastic, the rumble-crash of someone falling to the floor. The reverberation that rippled through the thin walls and rattled the old windows in their frames would have woken anyone. Not three seconds later, I heard the scrape of car keys being scooped off the counter, the clack of the screen door, and the drone of a car backing up the driveway that ran the length of the house.

And that was it. The argument was over.

Silence fell. It was not the same uncomfortable silence that had passed between Jason and me earlier that day when he had tried to avoid my eyes, but the silence of a sudden absence. I lay there, facing the hallway, my breathing shallow as I listened for any sign of movement, of life.

The first movement came not from downstairs, from where I had hoped to hear it, but from above my head, from Jason’s room: the squeal of his bedsprings as he got up, a quick metallic clatter, then the thunder of footsteps as he charged down the attic stairs to the second floor. I caught only a glimpse of him as he rushed past my door, but it was enough of a glimpse for my eyes to seize on one detail:

He was carrying the bat.

“Where is he?” Jason bellowed when he reached the kitchen. “Where’s Dad? I’m gonna kill him.” Not Are you okay, Mom? Not Do you need to go to the hospital? Just the urge to repay hurt with hurt.

“He left,” my mom said. Her voice was quiet, measured, as though she was telling Jason that Dad had just run to the store to pick up bread and milk.

Jason’s sneakers squeaked against the linoleum as he paced around the kitchen in apparent indecision. Then I heard the scrape of another set of car keys being scooped off the counter, and he was gone, too.

My mother and I were alone in the house. No sound came from the kitchen, and the silence made me uneasy. I felt the need to do something, to take action. In the dark, I slid open the top drawer of my nightstand and groped around until my fingers touched a skinny handle and smooth, polished wood. I picked up the miniature baseball bat and turned it over in the shaft of light that shined through the crack in my door. It was one of the souvenir bats that they gave out to kids at Mets games around that time, a scale model, maybe one and a half or two feet long, of the classic unpainted ash bats used by the pros. As I rotated it, the light fell on the glossy black logo: Louisville Slugger.

For a couple minutes, I held the bat in my sweaty palms, feeling its weight. Was that me? A Louisville Slugger? Somehow, I couldn’t see it. In my short Little League career, I hadn’t slugged much more than an occasional foul ball. My mind raced as it played out what could happen: suppose I ran down there just as my dad returned? What would I do then? Threaten him? Chase him from the house? Hit him?

Afraid of losing my nerve, I forced the worry from my mind. Then I threw off the bedsheet, gripped the bat around the middle as I had seen Jason do, and headed down the stairs into the kitchen, where I found my mom leaning against the sink, pressing an ice pack to her head. The chunky, brick-like receiver of the wall phone lay in pieces on the floor. I looked at my mom, put on my best sneer, and, brandishing my tiny bat, repeated after my brother:

“Where is he? Where’s Dad? I’m gonna kill him.”

My mom looked at me standing there on the landing in my camouflage Small Soldiers pajamas. I don’t know how long we stayed like that. Then, without saying a word, without moving the rest of her body, my mom smiled. It was a slight smile, sweet and disarming. All at once, I gave it up. I knew darn well that I wouldn’t club anybody with a bat, even to defend my mother. I wanted nothing more than to go back upstairs, shut my bedroom door all the way, pull the sheets over my head, and allow whatever was happening downstairs to pass below me. And that’s just what I did, feeling a little embarrassed, a little cowardly, but breathing a huge sigh of relief at not having been pushed to live up to my brother’s example.

Over the years, it has been easy to tally up the damage my father caused to our family. My mom iced the bruise on her head for days afterward, and it wasn’t the last. The battered aluminum bat remained next to Jason’s bed until the day he moved out of our parents’ house at age 30.

It has been more difficult, however, to decide which caused me greater harm on that summer night: my dad’s abusive behavior, or my older brother’s reaction to it. And no matter how closely I examine this memory, I still can’t read my mom’s smile, the way an art historian might become more confused the more she or he tries to pin down the Mona Lisa’s exact expression. Was my mom touched by my effort, however contrived, to stand up for her? Defeated by the cycle of violence she saw potentially being reborn in her oldest, and now her youngest, son? Just plain old hurt and exhausted?

I’ll probably never know. My mom might not have known. But there’s one thing I know for sure: now, as my wife and I talk about having our first child, I will do everything in my power never to find out for myself.