I insert my key into the front door lock, turn it, and swing the door open into a dark, comparably warm living room. I sit down on a bench by the door and pull off my knitted gloves, then the heavy snow boots. I shrug out of my winter coat and hang it on the wall hook. Already, the coat is dripping melted snow in a puddle on the floor. My face is so cold that I can’t even feel it except for a warm trail of dribble from my nose. I wipe it off with the back of my hand as I walk over to the gas wall heater. Taking a match out of the Blue Diamond box on the shelf, I kneel down and strike it on the floor. I turn on the gas jet, put the match to it and hear the welcome whoosh as blue flame leaps to life.
Before I even got up, my stomach was in a knot. Allen, my husband, had come in about two hours earlier, whiskey stinking, and collapsed on the bed across my feet. I got myself untangled and managed to get him further onto the bed, taking his shoes off last. I threw another quilt over him and tried to go back to sleep for awhile. I finally abandoned the pretense of sleep and gave myself over to what was keeping me awake.
It was such a simple question. Simple for most, anyway. “Honey, may I use the car today?” Well, not a simple question for me. If I should wake him up out of a drunken sleep to ask him, I would not have a need for the car. Even if I should ask him sober, he would start giving me all the reasons he needed the car. I could walk, it was “good for me” he would say. “What about the kids?” I would think. He would tell me he needed the car “to look for a job”, which he hadn’t done in months. The car never made it past the bar on Main Street. I would be terrified if I even took it long enough to get the kids to the sitter’s house. Someone would tell him. “I see you let the wife have the car this morning, what’s up with you? Giving her a long leash these days, huh?”
My bruises were just beginning to heal on my tender belly and they were turning yellow on my back. But the mixture of fear and cowardice that I felt for him gave birth to an entity named hate. I hated this society that I lived in. This 1950’s mentality that made a wife her husband’s chattel, this Bible Belt religiosity that forbade me to divorce, no matter what the hell was going on behind, or in front of, closed doors. My own female family members who betrayed me back into the custody of this madman. I had left him once and went to my Aunt’s for shelter, and she had clucked and fluttered over my bruises with her salves and ice packs. Allen cornered her in the grocery store in town and cried to her to help him win me back. He just couldn’t understand why I had left with his babies. He begged her to send his woman home to him where she belonged. He told her how pretty she was looking lately, and the next thing I knew, I was in her car on the way back to him.
She told me, “Just quit doing what makes him so mad, be a good wife, that’s all he wants.”
Oh yes, and the good old boy network who turned their backs on my black eyes because, if they said something, it would upset some status quo. Then there was the law, who was my own dear Father-In-Law. No pun intended there. He never did anything to Allen except keep him in jail overnight to sober up sometimes. Of course, he beat his own wife on occasion, so I lost out there too. And the last betrayer, my own body, my very own body!! He takes his self-hate out on me in drunken rapes, and his lust gives me my own little babies. One more tie, one more shackle, one more cord, one more sweet smelling little bundle of need that ties me even tighter to him. They are all I live for now. So….I got out of bed and went into the kitchen and made coffee. Even with the light on this place is dreary and oppressive. I went in to look at my two babies and I felt a surge of bile and anger as I anticipated bundling them up and walking, carrying, and dragging them through the bitter cold morning to the sitter’s house.
I jog myself back to the present when my head falls forward in a doze, and I wake up. I am bone tired. I am 24 years old and I am tired unto death. We were inundated with two buses full of people at the café this morning because of the weather. With only two waitresses and the dishwasher pressed into service we ran non-stop for four hours. Thinking of that reminds me to take care of business, and I go to my coat by the door. From the inside pocket I take out the tips I made that morning, and put half of it in my purse. It was a good morning; I made fifteen dollars. I move the chair and ottoman from in front of the drapes and, kneeling down, I pull out four straight pins in the hem and insert the other half of the money. I pin the heavy floral material back together and replace the furniture.
It is so warm in here now I really hate to go out again. I took an extra hour from the sitter today to have this precious hour of quiet, but now I need to bundle up and go get my kids. Thank goodness the sitter will have fed them lunch. I kept enough money out of my tips to get beans, a ham hock, bread and some of the red licorice we all love. Picking up the kids and going to the store would take forty-five minutes with a car, but on foot with one toddler and one babe in arms, plus groceries; who knows; one and a half, maybe even two hours, with the ice all over.
Sometimes my sitter would give me a ride home, but it depended on how many kids she was watching and, more than that, her mood. There was no hope to be counted on there. I would have had another five dollars to give her for gas, but Allen had come in the café from the bar next door and went straight to my tip jar behind the counter. No one dares stop him from going back there. I have learned to keep my tips elsewhere and just put enough in my jar so he doesn’t think I am holding out on him. Move, countermove; check and checkmate; that is how I survive my life’s game
There is a low moaning whistle that moves around the house. The wind is starting to pick up momentum, and I watch the dingy walls as the room grows darker, then lighter and darker yet again, as the wind blows the scudding clouds across the sky. I hear the branches on the cottonwoods that grow in a line separating this property from the next. I hear icy cracks as the twiggy winter branches snap, and soft tinkling when the ice on them shatters.
“I better get stocking caps for all” I say out loud.
I take my cap into the bathroom to put it on in front of the mirror. As I try to shove my thick, curly hair up into the cap, my fingernail digs into a scab in my hair and tears it open. The blood starts to run, getting almost to my eyebrow before I can check the flow. I reach for toilet paper and hold it on the wound. The memory of how it came to be there washes over me with a feeling of dread, horror, and fear.
When Allen and I were dating in High School, he always said I was the prettiest girl in school. Of course I blossomed under any compliment he gave me, and it was so heady for someone to pay attention to “just me.” To have someone think “just me” was beautiful. So, when we went out I always paid a great deal of attention to my grooming, and especially my makeup. Even though I was a Senior, my Aunt disapproved, so I had to wait until I got to school to put it on. My Aunt was a farmer’s wife and a staunch Baptist, and just assumed that was my goal in life also. Makeup would have been ridiculous to do chores in. She didn’t know it was my intention to never set foot on a farm again.
If Allen and I were still in love after graduation, we were going to be married. He kept telling me this every time he would try to glide his hand under my skirt or into my bra. Married! Married! Married! My own house, my own husband and babies. Oh I couldn’t wait for that good looking guy to marry me. Oh, he liked to party; so did I. We used to have a ball. I would drink my two beers and get a buzz and he would drink his whiskey and beer chasers. I was so in love with love I didn’t pay any attention to the red flags that were coming fast and furious.
Once at the ice rink, he had been drunk and fell. There was a guy from school that good-naturedly teased him, and Allen got up off the ice, took off his skates and went outside. I followed shortly after and found him in the car, chugging on his beer. He was furious with that guy. I tried talking to him, but he would have none of it. He got madder and madder. The vein in his forehead was pulsing wildly. The boy came outside, walking to his car. Allen pushed me roughly away, got out of the car and ran up to him, beer bottle in hand, and broke it over his head. I went over to the guy, and Allen ran to the car and sped away, leaving me there. One of the town cops came and took the boy to the clinic, and then took me back to the farm. All the way home he lectured me and told me it was crazy for me to be partying, or even to be seen with that heathen. That boy was nothing but big trouble for anyone around him, didn’t I see that? Naturally when we got to the farm my aunt and uncle were waiting up for me, like they always did when I was out. Seeing me in the cop car, they put on their stiff upper lip and came out to hear the news.
“What have you got our Winnie for, Jeff?” Uncle asked.
“For being in bad company Earl.”
He told them the story, and then left with lights flashing all the way down the dusty road.
There were other incidents related to alcohol and fury. When other guys would notice me on our dates and speak to me, I would look at Allen and see this vein in his forehead pulse rapidly. I was beginning to be very aware of when it would pulse, slowly at first, and I would immediately begin to placate, only guessing sometimes at the cause. I was going to get to know that physical characteristic, that prelude to fury, in an unimaginable way.
We could rarely go out anymore when it didn’t end in some altercation with someone he thought was flirting with me or me with them. More and more our “fun dates” ended with me trying to reason with him. Talking him out of fights that I was already being conditioned to believe were a result of something I had done. And finally our “fun dates” became more and more solitary. School activities were out. Even though he had graduated, they let him come to school functions as my date, but his hair trigger temper made him unwelcome there anymore. The movies, skating rink, and most other events ended because on the weekends he was usually drunk by two in the afternoon and passed out. So, our “fun dates’ pretty much ended in solitary rides out in the country or over to the next county where he could buy his alcohol with out so much hassle.
My girl friends who used to think he was “just dreamy’ were now telling me to dump him. They told me he flirted with them behind my back, and asked them out. I called them liars and didn’t talk to them again for years. I justified his ways and told myself “nobody knows him like I do.” “He’s just complicated and deep; he needs me to take care of him.” I told myself, “When we are married in our own house, I will love him so much and take care of him so well, that his insecurities will disappear. I will be such a good woman for him, and in time I will even get him to go to church with me. We will sit in the front pew with our beautiful children so that we don’t miss a word. And everyone we know will be sitting behind us absolutely amazed, and they will be saying to themselves, “Marrying Winnie is the best thing that ever happened to that boy. She certainly does bring out the best in him.”
At that thought a deep melancholy sweeps over me. Where is God? Where is He? I’ve lost him and I can’t find him anymore. In reality, I’ve quit looking for God. After all the warnings He sent me, all the signs He sent, I was headstrong and ignored every loving detour He sent me. I wanted off of that damned farm so bad, I grabbed the first rope that was thrown to me, ignoring that the other end was in flames. I deliberately got myself into this mess, and now I can no longer call on God’s favor to get me out.
I look back at my hairline in the mirror and see the blood has clotted.
After we were married, I got a job at the café/bus stop in town. About a week ago, while I was working, Allen came in drunk from the bar next door and ordered steak and eggs at the counter. I was busy at my station, and I gave him a quick peck on the cheek. I got a nose full of whiskey as I moved off, and I left him to Eileen, his waitress.
When he got ready to leave, he staggered over to me and said, “Pay my bill.” He grabbed me by the back of the neck and turned my face up to look him straight in the eye. Then he held me by my cheeks so I couldn’t turn my face, and I looked right into the vein on his forehead that was pulsating like a living thing. He looked over my face very slowly and deliberately, pulled my hair tight and moved my face closer to his. I thought “Good grief he’s going to kiss me right here”, and I was so ashamed. He put his mouth very, very close to mine and said, “You look like a whore!”
I felt like he had slapped me. I looked around and hoped no one had seen that stark encounter. I felt brutalized and filthy, and I wanted to run away. He backed off a little way and said, “We’ll chat when you get home.” There was a loud buzzing in my ears, like a hornet’s nest in my head, and I was afraid I was going to faint.
I don’t know how I got through the next couple of hours. After work I went and sat at the isolated employee’s table and tried to think of what to do. Up until then he had slapped me around quite a few times, but this time there had been such an air of pervading menace that it just hung suspended, not even dissipating with time. I was very, very afraid to go home. After awhile, I thought it would be ok to go home. He usually passed out after he ate, and probably would not wake up. He wouldn’t even remember later what he had done.
It was snowing very hard that day too. I splurged and took a cab to the sitters to pick up my girls, and had him drop me down the street just in case he saw me and wanted to start a fight about wasting money on a cab. They were ready for a nap when we got home, so I took them to their room and covered them up. My sweet babies, so peaceful in their sleep. I shut the door and walked down the hall to our bedroom to peek in on Allen. I put my hand on the knob to turn it, and he came out of nowhere and hurled me from the hall to the front room. I fell on the floor, and I felt the air spew out of me as he kicked me in the stomach. He slapped me across the face, first one side then the other, over and over. He hauled me to my feet and I heard gibberish come out of my mouth.
“What...why...what’s the matter…why?”
He pushed me into the bathroom and shoved me down in the tub. He held me in the tub with his booted foot while he turned around and grabbed the washrag. He was spitting words at me.
“I’ll teach you to make a fool of me. You all painted up like a hussy! You like all the men looking at you like that? Your made up red lips, blue shit on your eyes…you whore!” Still holding me down, he soaped up the washrag and started scrubbing at my face. He took the rag away, spit in my face and started scrubbing again. He pulled my head back by my hair and shoved the soap into my mouth. He banged my head against the side of the tub. “If I ever see makeup on that hussy face again, you won’t have anywhere to put it!”
He held my head back so I had to look at him through soap-stung eyes, with a bar of soap stuck in my mouth. For some reason I got a mental picture of what I must look like, and silent hysterical laughter boiled up in my throat and came out gurgling and gagging.
As he held my face and looked at me, the vein in his forehead pulsed slower and slower, and then stopped. He looked at me like he couldn’t figure out what I was doing there in that condition. He let me go, got up and walked out. A few minutes later, the front door slammed. I stayed put for what seemed like forever; too hurt to move, to afraid to move. And then from far away I heard the sound of my little girl’s cry. “Mama, mama, mama!”
I forced my body to obey my mind. I was shaking so badly I could barely pull myself up. I made it to my feet and got out of the tub to go to her. As I passed the mirror I saw my image in the mirror, and my breath caught in my throat.
“Oh my God, I can’t let her see me like this! She’s frightened enough now.”
Turning on the water, I washed off the soap that was stuck on my teeth, and taking the washrag, I gingerly wiped at my face, clearing off the mascara, lipstick and blood. The ugly black eyes were already replacing the black of the mascara. I wrapped my wet, caked hair in a towel and, crying in shame and fear more than pain, I made my way to the girls’ room. I opened the door and went to Anna, and picked her up. Her little bottom was soaking wet. Turning, I saw the puddle of pee by the door, and her little wet footprints heading back to the bed. My mind screamed in fury as I thought of the terror she must have experienced hearing all of that mayhem. My littlest baby Eva slept through this somehow.
“Oh my God, I hate him! I hate him! I hate him!”
I hated him for putting them through this again. This was not a safe place for children or any living thing. I picked out clean pajamas and took her into the living room. We went in and sat on the couch while I dressed her. I held her on my lap, and we rocked and rocked and rocked, and in the gathering darkness there was a keening wail coming from inside me. I hoped it was not out loud. Outside; the snow was falling, falling in big flakes; no two alike.
No, I never wear make-up anymore, but it doesn’t matter. He doesn’t like my clothes, my hair, the way I walk, the color of my eyes, the mole on my back or the fact that I breathe. It really doesn’t matter anymore. He doesn’t even pretend to find a reason to hit me. Anna, my little girl, was playing with the neighbor boy, who is four or five, and he hit me and told me I was making a little hussy out of her. That’s one his favorite words for women, but I can’t believe he uses it for his own child.
I had really better hurry now; the storm is getting worse. I put my sweater and leggings back on and sit down on the chair to pull on my snow boots. I sit thinking about my babies and a visit; I should say
another visit; I had from my cousin. She has been telling me she would help me get away.
When Allen was in Korea I almost let her help me. But even half a world away I was terrified of him, even from there he would threaten me. He told me he had his friends watching me; his spies would tell him everything I was doing. He had a drinking buddy, Larry, who used to go around trying to be “helpful” to the wives of all the men who were gone to war. He was a real sleazy guy and he would come to the café and ask me to go have a beer with him when I got off work.
I told him off and said, “All the girls think you are a slime, nobody’s interested in you, get out of here.” I should have just settled for “No thank you, Larry.”
Hell hath no fury like a sleaze scorned. All of our husbands began to get bad reports about us. Lies of the worst kind were told. They were told we were partying and dragging our kids around late at night. Their husbands knew Larry and didn’t believe anything he had to say. They had heard about his “helpful” ways already from parents and wives. They believed in the faithfulness of their wives; all but Allen. I got letters about what he had in mind when he saw me next. And he has made good on his threats.
He has a woman that works at the bar. He doesn’t hide it from me and I don’t care. She takes care of him sexually and I don’t have to endure his drunken, punishing groping very often.
I put on my heavy coat and, leaving my gloves until last, I check my pockets for the key. I shove the girls’ hats into my pockets, mentally bracing myself for the icy blast I know is waiting for me. Putting on my gloves, I open the door, and the cold sucks the air right out of me. I pull the door shut, and my gloves stick to the knob. I yank my hand free and start walking as fast as I can. I dodge snow drifts and visible ice patches. Sometimes I have to slow down and take baby steps over icy spots I can’t go around. Where I can, I run. I have already made up my mind that I am not, not, not walking home with the kids; we could freeze or even be injured. This is the worst storm I have been in all winter. I will beg, steal, or borrow a ride home.
The sun shines through an opaque window in the clouds for a moment and turns the icy, frozen air into gray-yellow, and when it hides, it turns into a gray monochrome landscape. I’m surprised my mind is taking in of these details. I am a few blocks from the sitter’s when a dark green Studebaker pulls alongside. I see the blurry form of a man behind the snowy window lean over and open the door.
Oh, good grief!! Its sleazy Larry, what in the world does he want? I think.
“Hey, Winnie, going for the kids huh? Jump on in, I’ll give you a ride.”
Distractedly, I wonder how he knew I was going for the kids.
“Get in honey, I’ll give you a ride there and home.”
Now I know there is a Satan. A ride….. but with sleazy Larry. No way in hell.
“No thanks Larry, I’m almost there.”
“Get in here now!” he demands. And then he softens his tone.
“I’ll walk! I told you I’m fine.”
I lean over to push the door shut, and I see something move behind the seat. And then I see the plaid of a familiar shirt. My stomach clenches as it sinks in that Allen is crouched on the floor in the back seat. I finally get the door slammed shut. My nerves are on high alert. I think “That’s Allen in there! Hiding! Why?”
And then the sick realization: “Oh my God, he’s setting me up. Setting me up to get in the car with a guy. And then I think, if it had been any other person offering me a ride than Larry I would have taken it. I am so horrified and stunned that I just stand in the wind for a few minutes, shaken. It’s a cold-blooded and depraved act, and I am sure his madness has gone to a new level. I have to get the hell away from here.
I’m not aware of the last few blocks, but at last I arrive at the sitter’s. Anna runs to me as soon as she hears my voice.
“Mama, mama. I’m so glad you’re here! Eva said my name today, Mama. She’s in the playpen right now with some toys. Come and play, Mama!”
“Go play for a few more minutes while I talk to Rhonda, OK?”
She runs off happily, knowing I am there at last.
Rhonda comes and sits beside me on her once-pretty sofa, now spattered with baby food and other assorted baby stains. She looks put out with me, and I know it’s because of the extra hour she watched them. But I am going to put her on the spot even more for a ride home. Screaming and fighting break out in the kids’ room and she goes to put an end to it. Thank goodness, I hear her husband in the kitchen humming. Someone will be here to watch the other kids while I get a ride. I go into the bright yellow kitchen and see Gordon, her husband, humming while he works on some piece of equipment. I go to the stove and poor a cup of coffee and sit by him.
“Hey, Gordon, how are you?”
“Fine, Winnie. Cold, ain’t it?”
Gordon and I had gone to school together and he was a good man. He was a very responsible family man and he had no tolerance for men like Allen. He had a creed that every man should care for his “own.” He was a good man, but not always approachable.
I jump in with both feet, as I’m not about to take no for an answer.
“I need a ride to the store and home with the kids, Gordon. It’s freezing and slippery out there.”
“I know” he says, “That’s why I’m not driving.”
“I might fall with the baby, Gordon; it’s that slippery.”
Rhonda walks in before he answers and says,
“It seems like everyone has time to sit at my table and drink coffee but me.”
She wets a dishrag at the sink and says,
“What’s up Winnie?”
“I’m trying to get Gordon to give me a ride home with the kids.”
“Well, he’s got things to do right here at home. He got a snow day and he’s catching up with things here. Besides, there’s a bad storm,” she says.
“Exactly!” I say dryly.
“Call a cab,” she says.
“I’m low on money and I got to get some food at the store too,” I tell her.
“You owe me an extra hour for today too, don’t forget that.”
I knew she would bring that up.
“You know I always pay,” I answer. “You know how bad I need you.” I said.
“Where is that good for nothin’ son of a bitch husband of yours?” Gordon spits.
“He does nothing but take up valuable space on God’s green earth! Why ain’t he here giving his wife and kids a ride home? Answer me that!”
“He needs his car to look for work,” I say.
Why did I just lie for him? I wonder. And then I realize I always have. Gordon just looks at me like it had just occurred to him that I have two noses.
“Woman, why are you defending him? The whole town knows how he spends his days and nights. Anybody else in this town drive drunk around town with his whore would be in jail. He ought to be in jail, Winnie, all the stuff he does. His Daddy put this whole town at risk letting him run amuck like he does.”
“Please Gordon; will you just give me a ride? For my kids and my sake, not his. You know how I hate to ask for favors. I’m really, really having a bad day here! You don’t even know how bad a day it is.”
“He’s got things to do here”, says Rhonda, but softer, relenting in the only way she knows how.
“Hush, woman,” he says, and then to me,
“Get ’em bundled and get in the truck.”
The snow is really coming down now, and the old Dodge truck is doing stomach-turning slides as we travel, basically out of control, down the street. Thank goodness no one is parked on the streets. They pretty much know not to so that the snow plows can work.
Gordon says, “I should’ve just put you up overnight.”
And I say, “Oh no, Allen would not be happy about that.”
Gordon looks at me and almost turns purple biting back the verbal assault he dearly wants to cut loose with.
My mind is in high gear as I go through different plans for leaving; accepting and then rejecting each plan. But the afternoon’s turn of events have solidified the need to get out of here. A moment of clarity like I have not had before impresses on me the fact that my children are in grave danger, as am I. Allen does not care, nor has he ever cared, that I trudged through freezing weather with his kids; as for money, mostly it was a coin toss; a cab or dinner? Dinner always prevailed. I will have Gordon stop at the store and, while I’m in there, I will call my cousin Elaine and ask her to please, please help me now! I am so afraid! I don’t know how I am going to do this; I just know I am!
Gordon’s knuckles are white as he turns the wheel into the skids and rides out the graceful glides, gains traction and makes a few feet more.
“Thank You, Gordon” I tell him sincerely.
“Don’t thank me yet, you’re not home. Do you need to make any stops?” he asks.
“Yes please, one at the store; you read my mind.”
“Just hurry up this truck don’t stay too warm just idling.”
He pulls into Mr. A’s market, and I gingerly pick my way across the ice to the door, thinking of what to say to Anita. I feel as if I have a stone in the pit of my stomach. Looking further down the street, I can see the flashing red lights of the county vehicles and snow plows as they attempt to clear the street and lay down salt. I stop and look further down the main street where I can see the Café and I see some more buses parked there.
The reality has sunk in that, now that I feel desperate to get out of town, I don’t think I will be able to. Thinking back on Allen and Sleaze setting me up today, I sense real evil. It’s hard to explain to someone who doesn’t live like I do. Or who live with the someone I do. The other times he had accused me of cheating on him had been the result of drunken imaginings and projections onto me of what he does. I know him well enough to know that he is always at some stage of intoxication. And this afternoon, hiding in the back of that car, he had plotted with someone else to put me in a position where he could accuse me and also have his witness. “WHY?” I also knew that at that time of day he was at his most sober; that is why this seems so sinister! He wasn’t that drunk yet, and he was planning something! I know it! My anxiety is intense, and I know that if I don’t channel it into a plan, it will morph into pure panic and paralyze me.
I am not too concerned with Allen seeing me with the kids in Gordon’s truck; he has given me a ride home before. And I know he is afraid of Gordon. Cowards really fear a strong man, especially one who would beat him verbally as well as lay him out on the ground. Gordon had been in Korea with Allen for awhile at the same base, and Allen knows his mettle and his good character. I don’t think I have to worry about this ride too much. Gordon, along with the whole town, knows Allen beats me, and if I get a beating because he brought me home, Allen will answer to Gordon and he knows it.
I enter the store and head for the phone while searching my pockets for change. What do I tell Anita? What exactly do I want her to do? It will come to me when I talk to her. I pick up the phone, drop the coins in and hear them jingle-jangle down into the belly of the phone. I dial the number and hear the ring-ring-ring. And then again ring-ring-ring. No answer. This is unbearable; she is always home, where can she be in this weather? I hang up and move down the aisles to pick up my purchases.
I go to the butcher’s counter and ask for a big ham hock. He wraps it in white paper, tapes it closed, and says, “Beans tonight, Winnie?”
“Yes,” I answer and move on, ignoring his invitation for a chat. I go get the onions, a sack of Pinto Beans, a loaf of Wonder Bread, and at the check out I reach into the large candy jar and pick out six of the red licorice. I hand out my hard-earned cash and head back for the phone. Setting the bag on the floor, I dial the number again, holding my breath.
“Please be home!” I whisper. I can’t keep Gordon out too long and if I don’t get her now I don’t know if I ever will. I don’t have a phone at home and the weather won’t let me walk to one with the kids. The phone picks up and Elaine answers.
“Elaine, Elaine, it’s Winnie; I need you, can you help me get out of town with the kids? Something bad is going to happen. I don’t know what it is, but something is going on with Allen, I can’t explain it, I don’t understand it, I just know I got to go now!”
“Oh, Winnie, your timing couldn’t be worse; there is a storm out here and it’s bad enough that Earl brought the animals into the barn. I was just out in the barn throwing hay down into the cribs and you can’t even see the road anymore. The drifts are up to my knees and it’s not stopping.” She groans at the helplessness she feels.
“Oh, Elaine the buses are stopped in town too. This is so bad!”
“I can’t get to the road, Winnie, much less to town. Can’t you tell me what’s going on?”
“I don’t know for sure, Elaine, but I just have a feeling I’m going to die tonight if I don’t get out of town. I think Allen means me real harm. I don’t know why this time is so different but it is.”
“Can’t you call his Dad and talk to him?” she asks.
“And tell him what? I have a premonition his son is going to kill me?”
“Well then, what about his deputy?” she asks.
“Fat chance, Elaine, he’s got his head so far up Zed’s behind he uses his bellybutton for a window. If they never helped when they could see with their own eyes and take reports of the neighbors’ complaints, what are they going to do with this?”
“I’m so sorry; I want to help, you know I do. Where are you calling from?”
“Mr. A’s Market in town.” I answer.
“Well go on home. The weatherman is predicting a white-out.”
“Home is just where I don’t want to be,” I whisper.
Holding back tears, I tell her goodbye, wondering if it is really Good-Bye.
“Call back soon as you can, I can’t stand not knowing if you and the kids are ok. I just can’t get there”, she wails with tears in her own voice. “I’m praying mightily for you and the kids—me and Earl both. And I am going to call that Zed Coffey and give him a heads-up and tell him a thing or two.”
Picking up my bag of food, I walk gingerly out to the truck in the increasingly bitter cold and wind. Gordon is bouncing the baby, who had started to fuss. As he hands her to me, he asks, “Home now, I hope? I got to get back to my family.”
I have the biggest lump in my throat as I nod yes. A big lump of dread, warning me “Don’t go home! Don’t go home!” I want so much to ask him if I can change my mind and stay with him and Rhonda until the roads opened up. I know that Rhonda will have a fit, but maybe they can take the kids. I discard that idea right away. If the roads open, Elaine will come straight to my house, and I will have to get out of town right then; not be chasing around spending precious time going here and there. We will all have to be in the same place and ready.
I look up, and there we are at the house already. At least Allen won’t be home yet and I will have some time to think and plan. Gordon comes around to my side and takes the baby from me; I hold Anna’s hand and take the grocery sack. We walk to the door, and I set down the sack and reach in my pocket for the keys. The door swings open, startling me, and I jump about a foot. Allen stands at the door and is icily staring at Gordon and then at me.
I say, “Oh! You’re home early.”
Allen just stares at Gordon and says sarcastically, “Surprise, surprise.”
Gordon is looking at Allen with loathing and disgust, and Allen stares back with hatred in his eyes that go beyond this situation. I hand Allen the sack, and then I take the baby from Gordon and we push past him into the house.
Gordon says, “Your wife and your children safely delivered.” He puts a huge emphasis on “your.’ I look at Allen’s face and that vein in his forehead is pulsating. I can see every effort the drunk takes to remain silent.
Gordon says, “Did your car break down looking for work? Or did you have to leave it behind the bar again?”
Oh shut up please! Don’t you have any idea what you’re getting me in for? I look at Gordon to will him silent. I hold out five dollars to him.
“For gas,” I say.
“Oh, let’s not and say you did. I know how much you need that. Bye, Winnie.” And off he goes.
We close the door behind us, and I am already berating myself for my lack of judgment. Taking that ride, today of all days, was foolhardy. This was a different kind of day, and where I escaped one setup with Sleaze, I had sabotaged my own self with this blunder. I was just damned if I did and damned if I didn’t.
“What are you doing here so early?” I asked.
He threw the sack of food into the kitchen, and I laid the baby on the couch and began unbundling Anna.
“Well, it seems as if the whole damned town is taking a snow day! Every damned thing in town closed! Seems as if everyone wanted to make sure they made it home to their family; and I say to myself well, I’ll just get a jug or two and go home and be with my lovely wife and family too. I guess it’s a good thing I did get home or you would have had other company, wouldn’t you?”
“It is icy and freezing outside, and I was afraid I would fall and we would have to be in the cold for too long. You know, you saw…” I stop mid-sentence. I had almost said, “you saw me on the road.” Allen has the heater going already, and I take off my things and begin to start hanging everything up. Anna gets her paper dolls and begins dressing them in the middle of the living room floor. I head for the kitchen next and take a pot from the cupboard. I open the package of beans, put water over them and start to cook them. I unwrap the ham hock and put it in. I chop up the onion, doing everything I can to stay occupied and moving around. I take as long as I can so I can avoid going in where he is.
I hear him unscrew the lid on his cheap-ass whiskey, take a long pull and screw the cap back on. I think to myself, this is going to be the longest night I have ever spent. Oh please God, let him pass out early, I silently plea. I put a little bit of baby food in a pan of water to warm, and I go to the bedroom to get pajamas for Eva. I’m afraid to walk that hall, as there is no way out. I’m was afraid he is going to corner me, and I already know what can happen in the bathroom at the end of it.
I hurry down the hall, go straight to the drawer and get pajamas, then head back down the hall as quick as I can. Allen is sitting in the big chair facing the sideboard, trying to tune the radio in. He’s turning the dials, trying to find music, cussing because all that’s on is weather bulletins, warnings and road closures. I sit on the couch next to Eva and put her footed pajamas on her. “What are you doing, trying to show me what a good Mother you are?”
“No, of course not” I say.
I wouldn’t waste my time, I think. The baby food is ready; I go get it and come back to feed Eva. Anna is playing with her dolls, and she tears the paper dress and starts to cry.
“Shush! I’ll see if I can fix it in a minute.” I tell her.
She continues to cry, and I see Allen getting agitated. I am getting really stressed. Usually when he is home, he is passed out, and he rarely interacts with the kids. He unscrews his jug and takes another long drink and sits and stares at Anna. When I look at him again I see the vein pulsating slowly.
I tell Anna, “Hush! I’ll be right there.”
Allen looks at me and says very bluntly, “Shut her up.”
I get up quickly and, holding the baby, I grab her hand and take them both in the kitchen with me. I get some colors and paper out of the drawer, and we stay in the kitchen a long time.
When the beans are done, I go ask him if he wants any, and he says, “I’m not done drinking this whiskey yet.”
Anna, the baby and I eat our dinner alone, and when they are done they are yawning. I am trying to keep them awake as long as I can. Oh dread! Now I have to put them to bed and be alone with him. I would like to go to bed with them, but I have to think. And besides, I’m too afraid to close my eyes. I call Anna to come with me and we start down the hall.
“My dolls, my dolls!” she wails.
I turn and go back to get her, and to see what in the world she is crying about. When I look, all of her dolls are laying in shreds all over the floor. This is really bad, because Allen has never overtly tried to hurt his kids. I drag her down the hall and lull her to sleep with the promise of new dolls. Will I be alive to keep that promise? I hear the music of Johnny Horton’s “North to Alaska”, and I hope music will soothe the savage beast.
I get the girls in bed and, full of dread, go to join Allen. I ignore the paper dolls on the floor because to do anything or mention them may be a catalyst for violence. Going over to the front room window, I look out and all I can see is a wall of white pushing against the glass, as if it were a huge snow beast trying to come in the window. I can’t even see the bushes right under the window. The “White Out” has arrived. It feels like the four beings in this house are the only ones alive in the whole galaxy, and we are locked in together in this small house…utterly cut off from the world outside.
With the kids in bed, and without the distraction they have afforded me, I stand at the window, looking at the white menace trying to invade from the outside. And without hearing or seeing him, I feel the menace from within the house move up behind me. His voice so close to my ear is like a thunder clap, and I jump a foot.
“It’s going to be a long night, isn’t it?”
I move away from him and sit down in a chair. I try to make small talk with him, asking him how the job search is going. He walks back to the chair by the radio and begins spinning the dial. All the stations are reporting rescue vehicles pulling cars and trucks out of ditches, and that all the motels are full because of the road closures. The town council has set up cots with blankets at the High School gymnasium for the overflow of people. Even when the white-out lifts, it will take at least one day, probably more, for the roads to be plowed and opened to traffic.
“SHIT!!” he says. “How the hell long am I going to be stuck in here?!”
Silently I ask myself the same question. With the realization finally settling in that he can’t leave, he goes into the kitchen to check on his whiskey stash, antsy, worried that he won’t have enough to last through this unknown period of time. I’m praying there will be enough milk and cornmeal for hot cereal for the kids in the morning, and maybe another morning. I hope the pot of beans will last a few days.
He returns to sit on the couch and, satisfied that he has enough booze even for him, he asks if I want a shot. I am so on edge I agree, hoping it will calm my nerves. Just as the news of the weather is bad for him, it’s worse for me. If he can’t get out of here alone, how can I get out with two kids? My plight is overwhelming me, and I have to calm down. A few hours with him drinking has been dangerous for me, but the possibility of days with him, drinking nonstop can be carnage in this prison.
I sit and watch with dismay as he abandons his drinking glass and begins taking long pulls right out of the bottle. At the rate he’s putting it down, I can only hope that, with an empty stomach he will pass out soon. The chair he is sitting in is in front of the drapes where I have money pinned in the hem. As long as he is in this room, I can’t get to it. I can’t pack clothes, and I have no phone to call anyone. I’m completely at a dead end.
I want to cry so badly, but I am beyond tears. Frustration and hatred for this man who controls my life and my children’s, and swaddles us with gloom and hopelessness and fear is overwhelming me. I just want to curl up in a ball and fall asleep forever.
The clock says 7:30 PM; is that all the later it is? I want to go to bed so badly, but, as long as he is moving around, I dare not! The bedroom at the end of the hall is a dead end, and I can’t be trapped down there.
“Do you want some beans now?” I ask, hoping food will make him sleepy.
“Nope, still not done with my whiskey.”
Then, “It’s all your fault I can’t see Carla tonight,” he says out of the blue.
He mumbles something else under his breath that I can’t catch but, since he brought up her name, I want to hear what else he says. As though reading my mind he says, “If I hadn’t come home to do my duty and make sure my kids were safe, I coulda been snowed in with her.”
I sincerely want to say that I wish he was snowed in with her too, but it would be suicidal. He takes another long pull off of the bottle, and then he pours another drink into his glass. He must be getting confused in what manner he is drinking. My tension rises at this increased sign of drunkenness. My mind goes to Elaine and I mentally focus on her as if to send her a message over the miles and through the evil whiteness that allows no penetration, not even of thought.
“Please, Elaine! Come and get us! Come and get us!”
But I know there was no way she can. Allen looks at me through hooded eyes and his head weaves like a cobra ready to strike.
“I love Carla,” he slurs. “She wants me to be with her all the time. She wants a family with me.”
I keep very quiet. He stops talking for a minute and, head swaying, he finally says, “The onliest thing in the way is you…. you ugly old girl.”
My mind goes back to that afternoon, when Sleaze wanted to give me a ride with Allen crouched down in the back seat. The feeling of real evil that assailed me, and the thought that I might even die today, the thought that today was going to be a very different sort of day. I send out another mental message to Elaine, “Please, please come!”
Allen’s voice breaks into my concentration on Elaine. Coldly he says, “Carla even wants my kids with you. She wants a family, my kids, and your kids. Just one thing though.” He laughs a very sinister laugh, “Just one thing she don’t want; she don’t want you!” He laughs again; he really thinks that’s funny; and I really don’t like the way this is going.
“You know,” he slurs, “my Carla, she told me…you take care of it. You see to things. Don’t come see me till you take care of it. So, I had to come home and take care of Carla’s kids. And it’s your fault I can’t see Carla tonight.”
“Besides,” he pouts, “You’re a shitty mom anyway.”
My whole body tingles, and my head is buzzing. Again, “Elaine! Come!” I rise up and go into the kitchen. I need to move around, and I don’t want him to see how afraid I am. I put a pot of coffee on just to do something and look out the window to see the snow drifts piling higher and higher. I open the kitchen door and see the snow piling up against the screen door. I open and shut the screen door a few times to sweep the snow off the stoop.
Oh hell no! I can’t get trapped in the house, please no! I run to the front door and open it, and it isn’t as bad there as it is on the back door. But I’m on red alert now to keep the doors unblocked. I take coffee in to the couch and sit down again. Allen has moved back to the radio, hoping for a radical change in what he heard a half hour ago, I guess, and now he sits, head drooping down on his chest. I see that he has emptied one bottle and has poured a glass out of a new bottle. How can a human being drink that much whiskey alone? I marvel.
Thinking he is on his way to passing out, I walk quietly down the hall to the kids’ room and peek in. Their sleeping faces are so sweet and peaceful. I go back to my coffee, and there he is, sitting straight up in his chair, watching my every move.
“You know,” he says clearly, insanely, “it has to look like an accident, or even dear Dad can’t help me. How will I kill you, Winnie?”
The vein in his forehead is beating slowly…pulse…pulse…pulse.
“Why do you have to kill me?” I asked.
“I’ll go away and never come back; that’s not a problem for me, really. Me and the kids will just go away, and you can get a divorce; that’s easy. You and Carla can be together; I don’t want to stand in your way, believe me.”
He picks up the bottle and takes a deep drink from it. He can no longer hold the bottle steady, and somehow I know he has drunk enough now to have the courage to do whatever he has in his mind.
“Now you know Winnie that I never let anything go that belongs to me. I won’t have any woman that belongs to me with another man. My kids gone...? Not gonna happen. No other life for you after me. Larry asked me today if he could have you, I told him I’d kill him too.”
So, Larry did know something was up. Were they going to kill me today if I had gotten in the car? I go into the kitchen and open and close the back door to clear the stoop, then sit down at the table. This is the darkest moment of my life. I am in utter despair and, somewhere from deep inside me comes…“Holy Father, I am so afraid. Because of my willfulness I have put my children and myself in danger. Please, God, if you will not save me, save my children from this madman. Please, God, in Jesus’ name help us! Maybe you don’t know me but please, please…!”
I hear bumping as Allen careens down the hall, and then I hear him using the toilet. I hear him turn the water on in the tub. I can’t believe he’s going to take a bath now, I think. I hope he drowns. I look at the clock; it’s 8:30. Only an hour has passed; unbelievable how time can crawl. It has been such a long harrowing day. I think if he is taking a bath, I can get in bed with the kids for a few minutes’ rest. I sit and wait for what I think will be the right time to go past the bathroom. I hear Allen yell, “Winnie, quick come and help!”
Without even thinking, my response is automatic to help, and I run to the bathroom to see. When I go in, he snakes an arm around my throat in a choke hold. I don’t even think about how stupid I was. He is amazingly strong, and I feel the vise tightening around my throat. He is talking to himself insanely coherently, “Don’t leave bruises—don’ leave bruises.”
My eyes are staring into his face, and there again is that vein, now pounding wildly. I kick my legs up and push off against the wall, trying to throw him off balance. Instead, while my legs are off the ground, he throws me into the cold water in the bathtub. I get a half breath in before my face goes under. His hand slips and I get my face out of the water and try to scream. The attempt takes all my breath, and again he pushes me under.
Now he holds me down with both hands on my chest. A very loud voice comes into my head and, clear as a bell I hear, “PULL THE PLUG—REACH UNDER YOU AND PULL THE PLUG OUT !”
I’m seeing spots in front of my eyes, but somehow the plug is in my hand and I pull. The water level begins dropping and, when Allen notices that, he lets go of me to get the plug. Knowing I have only this one chance; I gulp air in, pull my legs into my belly and kick up at his face with all the strength I can muster. He sprawls backwards and I hear a thud as his head hits the sink hard. Gasping, I notice he isn’t moving, and the thought finally penetrates my panic that he is knocked out.
I get up so slowly and shakily, it’s maddening. My legs feel like dead weight. I feel lucidity return as I hear my kids both screaming in fear and crying, “Mama, Mama!” Dripping wet, I head straight for the bedroom, first grabbing baby Eva. Anna is already on her feet, and I swoop her up. I don’t get a blanket; I don’t get anything. Dripping water, I run with them to the closer kitchen door and push on the screen door. It’s stuck fast!
“Oh my God, Oh my God, help, help, help me!” I hear Allen coming down the hall as I run for the front door. Allen makes a lunge for me as I race past him, and he slips and falls in the water from my dripping body. I reach the front door and, with babies in both arms, I tell Anna as I bend over so she can reach the knob, “Open the door honey, turn the knob, fast baby, fast!”
She turns the knob, I kick the door back with my foot and I run and run and run. It seems as if the snow has packed itself down for my feet, and I move swiftly but blindly through the deep drifts. It is so white out, it looks like another world and I can’t make out one landmark. The kids seem as if they weigh nothing, and my feet are swift.
“Please God don’t let me lose my bearings and head back toward the house!”
I hear Allen cursing and banging into the door as he comes out of the house, and I at least know I am not going towards him. I hear him screaming at me through the wind, “You come back in here, come back now! I won’t hurt you, come in here before the kids get pneumonia! Awww! Come back in sugar it’s freezing out here, BRRR! Come back baby, where ya goin anyway…north to Alaska?”
Then he howls at the sky like a wolf and laughs chillingly. I dare not stop running, even if neither one of us can see. He is totally insane. Looking over to my left, I see a light in the whiteness and turn towards it. I can hear him closer behind me. Then my feet slip, or my legs give out, and the kids and I fall headlong into a snowdrift. The kids, who up until now have not made a sound, begin to cry in unison, very loudly.
“Please, babies, shush, shush now, please,” I beg, “He’ll hear us, shush, he’ll find us.”
And then to my shock, Allen is looming over us, a black hovering shape in the white night. He raises his fist to deal me a heavy blow, and suddenly another big black shape is on him. I feel other hands around me, pulling me to my feet.
“Grab the baby, I have Anna! Hurry!” Gordon’s sweet wonderful voice says.
He pulls us through the snow, and then I hear the low rumbling of an idling squad car. Gordon, sweet wonderful Gordon, opens the door to the police cruiser and out spills light and heat. I crawl into the back seat with the kids and Gordon says, “Stay here, I got to go help Zed!”
He disappears into the white, and a short time later I hear Allen screaming and crying, but not in pain. Screaming that he has to get me back in the house, that nothing that was his can get away! I hear a scuffle that seems to go on forever, and then a gunshot cracks in the frozen air. I hear Zed, my father-in-law, cry out, “Oh, my son, my son, why did you make me have to do that?”
I sit for what seems to me like an eternity, and finally Gordon and Zed return. Zed, his face as white as the snow outside, gets on the cruiser’s radio for help.
“What happened? Where’s Allen?” I scream.
“He’s dead.” Gordon says. “He’s dead, Winnie. It’s over now.”
I sit there, too shocked to move. I look at Zed, and he looks at me and says, “Are you happy now, Winnie? My boy’s dead, he isn’t going to hurt nobody anymore.”
I put the baby down on the seat next to the sniffling Anna and opened the door.
“Find something to cover them, please.” I say.
I take the long police flashlight from the floor and, oblivious to my wet clothes and frozen night, I start out toward where I had heard the gunshot.
Gordon says, “Come back here, Winnie. He’s messed up; you don’t want to see.”
Without looking back, I say over my shoulder, “If I don’t look right now and see that he is dead, forever dead, I will be looking over my shoulder for him the rest of my life. I don’t plan on attending the funeral.”
His body was lying in the cold snow in a red patch of spreading blood that was shocking in its contrast to the white snow. I aimed the flashlight at him to find the wound. As I panned up from his feet to his face, I saw where his forehead should have been, and there wasn’t anything but gore. Where that pulsing, throbbing harbinger of danger and pain had been, there would be nothing there…ever again. I stared at his form for a very long time, burning that image into my mind until I was absolutely sure he would not harm my children, me, or indeed anyone else ever again.
After assuring Zed that neither the children nor I were in need of medical attention, he took us to his house. There, even after hearing of her son’s death, my mother-in-law took my children and tucked them into a warm bed. She returned and, after offering me the warmth of her embrace, we sat and waited for the men who were making arrangements with the morgue. When they returned, Zed said that they had decided to leave Allen in the snow that night as there were enough people in peril for one night, and his body would still be there in the morning.
I asked Gordon for the details of what had happened out there in the snow; and he told me that when he got to where Zed and Allen were, Allen had gone nuts, accusing Gordon of taking off with his wife and kids, and that nobody was leaving with what was his. Allen grabbed Zed’s revolver out of his holster and they were fighting over it. He said it was the weirdest dance of madness; and witnessing it would be with him forever.
Gordon said that somewhere in the fight, the burning of madness had left Allen’s eyes and he looked at his father with eyes that begged “kill me, kill me!” He said Zed pulled Allen’s head to his chest and kissed him and, when Allen backed up, he made a grab at the gun. Zed raised the gun and shot him in the head.
Zed admitted much later on that he knew Allen was a dangerous man, that he knew he terrorized me, and he was guilty of not dealing with the problem of Allen until he was faced with a mad dog. When I asked him later if he really had to shoot Allen, he said he didn’t know if the gun went off on accident or not. In his private nightmares that Zed had for the rest of his life, awake and asleep he dreamed of a blinding white night and a mercy killing.
After Gordon called Rhonda and told her what had happened, and that he would be staying at the Sheriff’s house that night, we sat down for awhile, and I asked him how he had happened to be in town that late. He said that after he and Allen had the altercation at my front door, he had been skidding home and he just kept feeling worse and worse about leaving me there. Driving through the snow he kept seeing that vein pulsing in Allen’s forehead and those dead brown eyes. He turned the pickup around and was coming back when he slid off the road into the ditch. He sat there in the truck half frozen for over an hour, and then Zed happened by in the cruiser and picked him up. All the tow trucks were busy, so Gordon passed the time by telling Zed what an ass his son was and how for years he had wanted to tell him so.
Gordon said Zed had just decided to drive him home and leave his truck there, when Gordon became agitated about what could be happening with me. He said it was an inexplicable fear that grew and grew until he felt as if he were having an anxiety attack. Gordon said it took him forever to convince Zed to go to the house, because Zed was mad at him for putting Allen down. By the time he finally got him to go by my house they were not one second to soon. As he struggled up to the house, he saw our dark forms flailing in the snow, and Allen’s arm on a downward arc to deliver a blow to my head with a whiskey bottle. There was more than a good chance I would not have survived that blow.
I stayed at my in-laws’ house until the roads were passable again, and then Zed took me and the girls to Elaine’s. The time at Zed’s seemed interminable, but it was only a few days. Their house was in mourning, and relatives from all around were trickling in; needless to say, my presence was awkward. It was so unseemly for me to be there, because all I felt was an immense sense of freedom from fear, and peace I will never take for granted again.
I took God back into my life that night; He saved our lives. I know it was His voice telling me to pull the bath plug, and He who packed down the snow and made my feet fly. I know it was He who created the sense of urgency in Gordon that turned him back to town. I believe that, when I quit praying to Elaine to save me, and prayed to the only ONE who could, He took action and did a great move to save me and my children.
I moved to Colorado a few months later in the spring and, with money given to me by Zed, I rented a small house. I moved a few miles south of Denver, far away from Colorado’s eastern prairies that looked way too much like home. High in the Rockies, with a whole mountain as my back yard, I will deal with whatever memories of hell my kids have as they manifest. Anna sometimes has nightmares and wets the bed, but I am sure that without Allen there keeping her stirred up, she will be fine in time. When she wakes up afraid, I pick her up and carry her through the new house. I open every closet and cupboard door she wants me to and reveal there is no boogey man in this house.
This is why I wanted to see the dead body, but it is of course not appropriate for a child, so she will have to take the longer cure and let time show her that Daddy is not waiting to jump out at her from anywhere. I show her the moon on the mountains outside her window where the landscape is so majestic. Sometimes we get in our very own car, bought with money donated by Elaine and Earl, and drive around, sometimes even if we are only going a block…just because we can.
The money I earn at my new job is now sufficient, since most of it isn’t going to the bars, other women and the liquor store. I don’t have to make a choice everyday between food and transportation. I don’t have to hide money in curtains anymore; I have a bank account of my own. I don’t have to lie awake every night listening for a drunk to come home and wonder if I will get beaten this night or not.
I have returned to church and have already met a wonderful man there who also loves my kids. But I will never rush into any relationship ever again. I have told him my entire story and he knows how fearful I am, and he is very willing to wait until I am healthy enough to share my life with him.
I am a very blessed woman whose God has indeed given her beauty for ashes.