The Last Lash is a tale about a spirited adolescent girl's struggle against an abusive father. The story dramatizes the ways in which the girl's reactions to the abuse r eshape family relationships. The climax occurs when, to avoid a beating, the girl runs away in the midst of a raging snow storm. The police of four states searc for her. When she returns, the father has an agonizing reappraisal. He vows never to hit another person. And he never does.
The story is inspired by real life events.
When I saw that look on his face, I knew just what was coming. His eyes grew wide and the veins on his forehead looked like they’d burst through his skin. Then he charged like a bull after a matador. This time, my kid brother Charlie was his target. “God damn goniff, God damn goniff,” he roared as he threw Charlie to the floor and kicked and kicked—at his ribs and sides and thighs. Charlie’s shrieks rang out—“I’ll be good…I’ll never steal again….I promise…oh, dad, stop.”
Mom and I rushed to my bedroom and clutched the curtains to hold us steady. My heart was pumping so fast I was afraid it would crack open. I felt every kick as if it was landing on my ribs, every one of Charlie’s shrieks as if they came from the pit of my belly.
I was just two when Charlie was born, and before long, we were like one. He was my shadow. And I, his protector, like the time I wrestled Fatso Fred to the ground and made him say ‘uncle’ for teasing Charlie about being fathered by mom’s roll in the hay with the postman. Charlie was touchy on that subject, wondering if he was adopted, with his blond hair and blue eyes when the rest of us had dark hair and eyes. His next scream made me feel like a slime ball. I should protect him now when he needs it most. But I couldn’t lift a finger. I was too damn scared.
A cold chill shook my spine when Charlie went suddenly silent while I could still hear dad kicking him. Oh, how I hated him, how I wished he’d disappear into the ground and leave us alone forever. No, no, I couldn’t wish my father dead. That made me as hateful as him. “He’s gonna kill him, kill him,” I cried out to mom. She didn’t say a word, but slipped to the floor in a helpless heap.
I don’t know how long it lasted. It seemed like hours but was probably only a few minutes. Yet, even a few minutes was a helluva long time for a six-foot tall, burly man to maul a skinny, ten-year-old boy. I was about to check on Charlie when he stumbled into my room and fell on my bed shaking from neck to toe. Mom and I hurried to his side. “Are you all right?” she asked.
He bobbed his head, meaning yes, while sucking in great gobs of air, probably trying to find enough wind to talk. Finally, in a voice that trembled, he said, “I shouldn’t have done it, I should have known better.”
“You didn’t do one thing that makes it okay for him to whack you like that, I said.
His voice rose. “But I was bad, very bad.”
I touched my lips to his forehead. “If you’re bad, then I’m worse, for I’m the cause of all this.”
Charlie kept shaking his head from side to side. To Charlie, I could do no wrong, even if it was something illegal, like this morning when I swiped a valentine from Walgreen’s. “Cool,” he said as he tried his luck. It wasn’t that he just imitated me. I encouraged him to steal, told him it was easy. I wanted him to experience the fun in getting away with something, in sticking his tongue out at the rules. Only thing is, I knew enough to steal a small valentine that fit in my jacket pocket.. He pinched one so big it hung out six inches below his jacket where he’d tried to hide it. I was about to tell him to put it back when a man wearing a pin-striped suit and a black and white striped tie grabbed Charlie’s arm and pulled him into his office at the back of the store. My heart racing, I followed them and put my ear close to the wall of the office. “Who’s in your gang, kid?” “I don’t got a gang,” I knew Charlie would never finger me. He’d seen the same gangster movies I had where ratting was the biggest crime of all. “Come on, kid, if you don’t tell me who’s in your gang, you’ll go to jail.” I thought I smelled Charlie’s fear through the wall when he named my two boyfriends, Skinny and Stevie. “Okay, kid, I’ll let you go this time.”
Charlie looked like a ghost when he staggered out of that office. When I caught up with him outside the store, thinking of the old James Cagney film I’d seen recently on TV, I told him, “Charlie, you gotta tell Skinny and Stevie you finked on them.” He didn’t question my advice, and we set off for Stevie’s apartment, just around the corner from ours. There, we found Skinny and Stevie together on their knees fixing a bike tire. They jumped up to greet us. Stevie , a year older than me, but already a head taller, had a nose shaped like a light bulb and a purple mole his ear. He was my main boyfriend, the one I kissed, hard kisses that made me tingle. Sometimes we goosed each other. That was more fun than the kisses. Skinny looked like Tyrone Power and was also smart, smartest kid in my class. But I didn’t know him very well. He was new in the neighborhood and only started hanging around me a couple weeks ago. Boy, did those two have different reactions to Charlie’s confession. Stevie brushed it off. “Forget it, Charlie. Plenty of other drug stores in Chicago.” But Skinny squeezed his grey green eyes into slits and in a tight voice, said, “I’m gonna teach you a lesson, Charlie, what it feels like to be finked on,” and he made a beeline for our place, Charlie and I right behind him. He rang our back doorbell until mom opened up. Charlie and I scurried inside, but Skinny stayed on the porch, and talking loud enough for the neighbors to hear, said, “Your son’s a god damn thief, just got caught stealing from Walgreen’s.” “Shhh,” mom said, “Don’t want Max to hear.” My dad was a Rumanian Jew, real prickly about his people being the butt of goniff jokes. That’s why he makes such a fuss about honesty. Skinny opened his mouth to say more, but mom shushed him again. Only she was too late. Dad heard, rushed into the kitchen like a cyclone, yanked Charlie into the front room and sailed into him.
I knew I was special to dad, for he spent more time with me than ever with Charlie, but he also beat me more often. And when he lit into me, I never made a sound, to show him I was as tough as him, even though the muscles in my chest and stomach were knotted in fear. Afterwards, I’d let loose, muffling sobs in my pillow, and then feeling scummy for being such a weakling. Other bad feelings followed that one. Like shame, not for having done something bad, the way Charlie felt, but from fear I’d be disgraced if others heard the ruckus and knew there was something rotten in my family. Yet, that fear wasn’t even the worst of it. It was my rage, rage that my dad treated me as if I was lower than a dog, lower than a turd, lower than a worm. I tried to shuck off the feeling, but it clung to me like a barnacle to a rock. I’d get lost in day dreams about getting back at him, doing things like putting dried horse manure in his pipe tobacco or limburger cheese in the pocket of his suit jacket. I actually did one of the things I dreamed about. On his birthday, I gave him an expensive pipe that I’d stolen from Walgreen’s. I pictured myself gloating over having put one over on him, but when tears filled his eyes and he gave me a bear hug, I felt like a piece of shit.
He last fell on me a month ago, right after my period started. He found the stolen lipsticks I’d stashed in the little steel box behind his bedroom light switch. And then came at me like a maniac, those blue veins throbbing on his brow, cursing and kicking. This time my anger exploded in my head and I swore he’d never again lay a hand on me, never again.
When dad would go crazy, mom would pale and cry and wring her hands, but never try to stop him. How could she? She was so small, standing no higher than his shoulder, and all skin and bones. He had never hit her, but we all knew anything could happen when he lost control. Still, I wished she was braver. I think she wished it, too. Why else would she smile when I’d break the rules by skipping school or organizing a sit-down strike in my gym class? Remembering that smile, I decided to say something after he lit into Charlie. Dad had gone for a walk and mom and I were alone in the kitchen. “We should call the police,” I said in a stout voice.
The hair on her arms stood on end. “What a thing to say. You want he should go to jail, you want he should lose his business, his family?”
As soon as the words were out of her mouth, I knew she was right. Either the police would do nothing, so why call them, or they’d do something that would make life worse for all of us. There was nothing more to say. I started to leave when mom touched my arm, and said, “It’s just that, well, I don’t think he can help it. His bad temper, it’s inherited from his father.” She let out a sigh that seemed to come up from her toes, and then went over to the sink and began to peel carrots for dinner. No matter what was going on, mom never neglected our stomachs. She went to great lengths to make every dinner like a Sunday feast. .
As soon as dad returned from his walk, mom called us in to dinner. I was still upset, but that didn’t stop my mouth from watering at the sight of rare lamb, rice pilaf, roasted carrots with almonds, and apple and celery salad.
I gazed at dad sitting before me, quiet and dignified, slowly unfolding his napkin and resting his brown eyes on mom, probably to show appreciation of the meal. He’s two different people, I thought, He’s the father who holds me on his lap while telling me stories about his early life in Rumania—promenading with his father to the ice cream parlor on Sunday afternoons, clutching the hand of his older brother as the two of them boarded a ship for this country, leaving school in the sixth grade to apprentice to a tailor. He’s the father who took me to my first ballet, introduced me to the aquarium and Museum of Science and Industry, bought me a fur coat despite mom’s warning that we couldn’t afford it. He made the light shine in my eyes and a warmth curl around my heart, this father, this same father who had just beaten the living shit out of my kid brother.
We were usually talkative at dinner, but this night we ate in silence until mom served desert, dad’s favorite—pineapple upside down cake. Then dad started a joke. I knew he was going to tell one by the sing song tone of his voice and his drawing out the last part of words. “Tooodayyyyy, a schlemiel walks into the factory, looks around like he owns the place, glances at me standing at the cutting table, and says, ‘so, what do you do around here, fella?’ I say: ‘my job is to lead people down this aisle--I stretched out my arm and pointed—and tell them, this way to the crapper.’ You should have seen that schlemiel hot foot it out of there.” He laughed, then stopped suddenly when he noticed our grim silence. He looked at mom. She blinked her eyes and her lip quivered but she managed to speak up. “Max, if you ever hit another child of mine, I’m leaving you.”
My heart jumped into my throat. She’d never said anything like that before. Would we leave him forever, never see him again? Where would we live? How would she pay the rent? She didn’t know how to do anything other than housework and play bridge and organize bake sales for the Temple. She didn’t have any rich relatives either. He’d have to support us, but then he’d know where we were and he’d come there and God knows what temper he’d be in then.
He didn’t say a word, but tamped tobacco into the bowl of his pipe, lit it, took a long draw, blew smoke toward the light fixture on the ceiling, and then went to his easy chair in the living room and opened the Tribune.
Our house was peaceful for a weeks after that, well into March when something set him off again. Stevie and I had been ice skating on a pond next to Lake Michigan when he grabbed my hand and said, “you gotta come over tonight. Folks’ll be gone. And a couple neighbor kids are bringing over a batch of books, too dirty to be sold in stores. It’ll be a blast. You gotta come.”
“Can’t. Not allowed out on school nights except for scout meetings.”
He jabbed my side. “You a scaredy-cat?”
That did it. I was no sissy. I’d find a way to get out. I searched my brain for an idea, and finally lit on one that worked. Told my folks there was a special scout meeting that night, called to get ready for our award ceremony next month.” They didn’t question me, and right after dinner I ran over to Stevie’s, excited at the thought of doing something I wasn’t supposed to.
I didn’t know what those books would be like, but I was sort of shocked when I saw pictures of comic book characters doing stuff to each other, Little Orphan Annie sucking Popeye’s thingamajig. I didn’t want the others to think I was chicken liver, so I looked at the pictures, but I squeezed my eyes nearly shut so I couldn’t make them out. The others maybe felt the same as me, for they didn’t say a word while they continued to turn the pages. And Stevie, he cast his eyes down when I glanced his way.
When I got home, it was about 9:00 o’clock, I went into the front room to say goodnight to mom and dad. And my breath caught in my throat. He had that look--the bloodshot eyes, the vein on his brow throbbing. “I’m gonna beat the bejesus out of her,” he said to mom.
“It’s late, Max, wait until morning,” mom said, pulling me toward my bedroom. Once there, she explained what had happened. My cousin Betty, who was in my scout troop, had come over to play with me. When dad told her I was at a scout meeting, Betty shook her head. “There’s no scout meeting tonight. I oughta know. Our scout leader lives in my building, and she was out in front making a snow man with her son all evening.”
My mind was bobbing like a Halloween apple. Had mom forgotten her promise to leave him if he ever hit one of us again? Had he forgotten? Whatever, one thing I knew. I wasn’t going to be there to receive his blows. I’d leave the house before he got up. I sighed with that resolution, but only for a moment. My chest felt heavy when I thought about Charlie, how deserted and alone he’d feel. Would it be worse for him with me gone? Would dad take it out on him? How could I be so hard hearted? But did I have a choice? My being home didn’t protect him. Besides, dad might learn a lesson from having driven me away. Maybe running away is the only protection I can offer Charlie. Yes, I’m going. With that settled, I began to watch the clock to make sure I was gone before his alarm went off at 7:00.I was too excited to sleep anyhow. I started to picture places I could run to. I imagined going to my aunt in Gary, but dad would find me, bring me home, and then God knows what he’d do to me. Relatives were definitely out. I felt stumped until I remembered Stevie telling me his plan to run away as soon as his broken leg healed. I realized he’d been riding his bike lately so his leg must be okay.
I got up at 6:30 and crept around my room while dressing in two sets of underwear and my heavy wool snow suit. Then I tiptoed to the back door, opened it very slowly so it wouldn’t creak, and made my way to Stevie’s. At first, I waited n the shelter of his doorway. But boy, I got cold. My ears hurt and a film formed in my nostrils. I left the doorway and ran back and forth between his building and the corner until it began to snow, and then I raced back to his doorway.
I was hugging myself against the cold and wet when he came out. Was he surprised to see me. His eyebrows shot up nearly in the shape of a question mark. You’d think I’d been smoking the way the steam poured out of my mouth when I talked. “My dad’s gonna beat the crap out of me when he sees me. But I swear he’ll never hit me again.”
“How’ll you stop him?”
A smile spread across Stevie’s face. “Yo, Jenny. When do you go? Today?”
I nodded. “Right after school when I round up some money.”
“Where will you go?”
I stopped walking and looked into Stevie’s eyes. “That’s the thing. I don’t know.”
He laughed so hard he had to hold his sides. When he finally stopped, he cleared his throat and spoke in his deepest voice, “Never gets cold in Texas.” He looked at me for a reaction, and seeing none, went on. “Plenty of horses there.” And then his eyes lit up. “I fall asleep at night thinking about riding horses in Texas. Hey, wanna go?”
My imagination went wild. I pictured Stevie and me racing on horseback over deserts and into mountains, stopping by clear blue lakes to catch fish and build a fire, bedding down under the stars. My pulse races just watching John Wayne do all these things in a movie. And now, to think we’ll be doing them ourselves. It was my turn to laugh. “I’m ready, and how!” But I sobered quickly. “How do we get there? We’ll need money. I don’t have any. Do you?”
There was a sparkle in his eyes and he sounded as excited as I felt. He thrust out his leg, the one that had been broken. “Strong enough to pedal you all the way there on my bike. We’ll leave soon’s school’s out.”
I looked up at the snow falling heavier now. “How long will it take to get to Texas?”
“Jenny, stop worrying. I’ve worked everything out, made a map of the way there, marked places to stop and clean up and maybe earn something delivering groceries.”
I can’t remember anything that happened that day in school. But when school let out my heart began to sing. First, I went to see my cousin, Betty. “Hey, I need money in a hurry. No questions please. Just give me whatever you have.”
She put her hands on her hips. “You’ll have to tell me why.”
“Can’t. But I promise you’ll know before this day ends. Now hurry.”
“Why the mystery?”
“Betty, it’s an emergency. Please.”
I had managed to scare her and she hurried into her mothers bedroom, took the blue Hadassah bank from the dresser and shook out the coins. Only two dimes and a nickel came out. I went over and shook the bank but it was clearly empty. “Sorry,” she said as she handed me those few coins.”
But she’d given me an idea. I’d get the coins from mom’s Hadassah bank. I raced home, relieved that she was gone, and shook her bank and shook it again. Nothing. Then I remembered, this was the day of her Hadassah meeting; she’d taken the money from the bank with her. I was beginning to feel frenzied. I checked the top of dad’s dresser, hoping he’d forgotten to pick up the coins he emptied there from his pocket before bed, but there were none. Forget it, I told myself. Mom could show up at any minute, I’d better get out of here. I hurried to the linen closet, lifted down the heaviest wool blanket, rolled it up, and tied it with cord. I looked longingly at my sheep lined slippers but decided they were too bulky to take. I checked the time--4:00 o’clock. Quickly, I filled my jacket pockets with two cans of baked beans, four small cans of tomato juice, a can opener, two spoons, and a box of matches. Rushed as I felt, I took time to take one last look around, at things I loved and would never see again---my bookcase with my stereo player on top and shelves filled with my tapes and disks and games and collections of movie magazines; my closet with my royal blue rayon party dress and patent leather shoes, my Sunday organdy dress, jeans and plaid skirts and turtle neck sweaters for school; the ruffled pillow cases on my bed, Raggedy Ann and Andy sitting atop them. I crinkled my nose to hold back tears and ran out of there, carrying my loot to Stevie’s. After tying the blanket onto the rear of his bike and stuffing the rest into the basket in front, we set out. .
It was growing dark, still snowing and cold as the inside of a food freezer. “Where will we sleep?” I asked.
“Cousin Jeff’s.” He lives alone and has a workroom in his basement with a big bed. He’s a good guy, won’t give us any trouble.”
My heart picked up some beats, imagining sleeping next to Stevie all night. I was sure he didn’t have anything bad in mind. All the times we lay next to each other, his hands were never tempted by my flat chest. And they never roamed below that except to goose me.
“Can we stay here?,” Stevie asked his cousin right off. Jeff winked, led us to the basement, and disappeared. I hugged myself to ward off the cold, clammy feeling in that small, dark room. The only light was over the workshop table against the wall opposite the bed. There was a small window partly hidden by a tattered curtain, and an electric heater and portable toilet near the bed..
Sitting on the edge of the bed next to Stevie, mom’s blanket wrapped snugly around our shoulders, I couldn’t think of a thing to say. Stevie couldn’t either. After a while I asked him if he was scared.
He shook his head. “Not thinking about that. Thinking about my stomach growling.”
“I’m hungry, too.”
“How about chocolate sodas and Hershey bars?” he said.
“Cool. How much money do we have?”
“I don’t have a red cent.”
“Oh Jesus, this is it, then, I said as I handed him the nickel and two dimes. He bounded out of there like a chased hare.
Still hungry after eating the candy bars he’d brought back with him, I opened a can of beans. Cold beans—yuk! But we ate both cans. Then, there was nothing to do but go to bed. We kept our clothes on, but it was still cold under the comforter, I moved as close to Stevie as I could get. We began to kiss, one kiss after another, each one harder than the last. And something else got hard, between his legs, but we were used to that and he turned his back to me. He was breathing hard and I figured it was coming out in his pants. But he’d done that before, and then gone to sleep. And so he did this night. I lay there, listening to the soft purr of his breathing and watching snowflakes drift onto the window pane until I fell asleep.
I woke with a start. It must be dawn, I thought, noticing the dim rays of the early morning sun in the window. I was in a panic, sure I’d gone crazy. The only thing on my mind had been getting away from dad. But what have I done to my mom? She goes nuts if I’m a half hour late from a scout meeting. She must have had a hemorrhage last night when I disappeared in a snowstorm. And Charlie? I always told him everything and I disappeared from his life without a word. How alone and scared he must be feeling. I was a bird brain thinking Stevie and I could bike day after day through snow storms with no place to sleep, no supplies, no money. We were sure to starve to death or freeze to death. “Stevie,” I shouted, “we’ve got to go home.”
He bolted upright, dug sleep gunk from the corners of his eyes, farted, and then opened his eyes wide. “Say again.”
“We’re crazy. We’ll never make it. We’ll die on the way. And we’re worrying our folks to death. We’ve gotta go home.”
He didn’t need convincing, probably having come to the same conclusion himself. “Then let’s hurry, before the kids call for us at school. I don’t want them to know; they’ll tease the living daylights outa me.”
After peeing in the portable toilet, we stuffed ourselves into our jackets, grabbed our gear, cleaned the snow from the bike, then jumped on and rode toward home. Stevie stopped at a redlight, near a newspaper stand. “Oh my God,” I yelled when I saw the front page of the Trib. A lead article, titled Chicago’s Youngest Elopers, featured pictures of the two of us. I read the first line: “the police from three states are searching for two twelve year olds who eloped last night.”
“What have we done?” I kept repeating as Stevie pedaled faster and faster. We didn’t say a word to each other when he dropped me off. I ran up the stairs and through the back door. Mom was sitting hunched at the kitchen table over an uneaten bowl of oatmeal. I’d read about this in stories but had never seen it—her hair had turned gray overnight. I ran over, dropped down to my knees, put my head in her lap, and wept. She gave me a push. “Go to the phone and call your father at the factory..”
I was flooded by rage. The police from three states are hunting for me and he went to work. I felt like saying, piss on him, but instead, not wanting to cause her any more trouble, I did as she asked. “Hello dad, it’s me.”
In a voice as tight as a drum, he said, “Why did you do it?”
“Because I’m afraid of you.”
I heard him gasp. Was this news to him? Was he really unaware that his violence scared us? “I’ll see you tonight,” he said, ending the conversation.
After dinner that evening and for the next two, he sat in his easy chair, without reading or speaking, just smoking his pipe and thinking. At the dinner table on the fourth evening, he wiped his mouth after finishing his strawberry short cake, and made a pronouncement: “As long as I live, I’ll never hit another human being.”
And he never did.