It was the Russian folk music. Sure, people thought my mom was crazy, but they didn’t understand. You had to be there to understand. I was there.

Dad was a cop, an Irishman, a mick as my mother called him behind his back. She was Italian, a wop as he called her to her face. These weren’t always meant as an insult. My father even used the term affectionately, as in my little wop honey. Not that there was much affection between them, or at least none that they showed in front of me. But I was only seven and I wouldn’t know affection if I stepped in it. Sure, I knew my mom loved me. And my Dad, too, even when he hit me with the belt. He’d always say, “This is going to hurt me more than it will hurt you.” But I told myself he had to love me. I was his kid.

The fourth floor walk-up we lived in was part of the problem, I think. It was just four rooms, two bedrooms (mine was more like a big closet), a kitchen, and a small living room. Mom and Dad, they couldn’t get away from each other. Me, I learned quick to stay out of the way. It was my way of life.

Dad was a beat cop (in those days cops actually walked their neighborhood); his beat was the Brooklyn Navy Yards, which we lived near. He worked nights mostly and was home days. That too was part of the problem. Because he slept in the day, we had to be really quiet, which I could

be, but Mom was not a quiet person. She even whispered loud, and she didn’t bother to whisper much. So Dad drank in the day to help him sleep, but the booze only kept him awake. Mom never touched booze. You pick your poison, she’d say, and her poison was coffee. Strong black coffee. No sugar. She drank buckets of the stuff. There was always a pot of coffee percolating on the stove in a metal pot. You’d hear it. You’d smell it. You’d even see it, spurting into the little glass cap on top of the pot, going from light brown to dark brown to ink black. I’d stand there sometimes and watch it, watch it change, perking away, filling the glass cap faster and faster, like it was going to burst it. Mom would sit at the kitchen table drinking cup after cup. I’d have a little. It was bitter, but if Mom liked it, I felt I should, too.

My dad, who couldn’t sleep cause of his drinking and how loud Mom was, started playing the radio in the bedroom. Somehow, he found a station that played Russian folk music. I didn’t know it was Russian until Mom told me. “Your father’s playing crazy Russian music. Listen to that racket.” Then she’d open the bedroom door and yell at him, “Turn that off, Danny. Go to sleep.” And she’d shut the door. Dad would just turn up the volume. Mom would say something in Italian that sounded like a bad word, put on another pot of coffee, and tell me about how happy she had been before she was married.

But Dad really got into that Russian music. It was the accordion, he said. And all the clapping and stomping. He even liked the singing and would imitate the words in a drunken slurry. He wasn’t playing it for spite. The spite part was turning it up so loud when my mother complained. The more she complained, the louder it got. When it got really bad, I would go out and play with my friends in the street. Or sometimes just sit in the hall on the stairs. But Mom had nowhere to go. She just sat in the kitchen drowning herself in coffee and cursing in Italian.

One day, I came home from school and Mom was sitting at the table. She was watching the coffee percolate. Her red eyes looked like they were jiggling. I don’t know how much coffee she’d had, but I could tell it was percolating in her brain. The wild Russian music was bursting through the closed bedroom door. “Danny,” Mom yelled. The bedroom door opened. My father stood in the doorway with his service revolver in his hand, not pointing it at anyone, just holding it. When he saw me, he smiled. “Billy,” he said, “Don’t ever get married. At least not to your mother.”

He winked at me and went back to the bedroom and closed the door. A few seconds later, the Russian got louder. “Billy, go downstairs, honey,” Mom said.

“Don’t be mad, Mom,” I told her.

“I’m not mad.” She smiled at me.

I went out into the hallway, but stood listening by the door. I wanted to run away. I wanted Mom to run away. I heard the shot, loud like a firecracker in a metal garbage can. I rushed in and stood in the open bedroom door. Dad was standing by the window. Mom had shot the radio.  Dad’s mouth was open and he was staring at Mom. He started to take off his belt.

“You crazy wop,” he said. His last words. Mom shot him in the chest. He flew backwards and landed on the bed. It was like a cartoon. She went back to the kitchen and sat at the table and poured another cup of coffee. “Billy, honey,” she said, “go to Uncle Jackie’s house.”

“Why did you do that?” I said.

“You know why.”

The crazy thing was, I did know. I hated that music, too.