(c) Beth Fehlbaum, 2008
We go on—because it is the hard thing to do.
And we owe ourselves the difficulty.
My name is Ashley Asher. That’s right, go ahead, and laugh. Apparently, my parents thought it would be “cute” to make my first and last names nearly identical. My family and friends call me Ash. My mother calls me by my first and middle names, Ashley Nicole. Her husband, Charlie, thought he was real clever and called me Ash-Hole.
I’m fifteen years old, and I live in Patience, Texas, an East Texas town of about 3,000 people. In my wildest dreams, I never thought I would end up going to a school where the unofficial year-round footwear is flip-flops, and people pronounce the word cold like this: code.
Sometimes I think I miss living in a place where there are things to do on Friday nights besides cruise the aisles of the Wal-Mart in Six Shooter City (yes, that's the name of a real place), or see one of the two movies showing in Cedar Points. There’s even less to do in Patience, although pasture parties, where a bunch of underage, redneck, high-school kids bring illegally obtained beer to somebody’s pasture and see how shit-faced and stupid they can get before they run out of beer, are a common occurrence.
If I’m going to be completely honest, though, I'd have to say that I've been alone for so much of my life, I wouldn't know what to do if I suddenly had a social life. I’m a quiet person who loves to read and write more than anything in the world. There’s just something special about falling into worlds created by other people. I spent a lot of time pretending that I was somewhere else when I was still living at home, I mean with my mom, and I think that helps me write stories, too.
My dad. Sounds so funny coming from my mouth, because I never knew him until last summer. He and my mom split up when I was three months old and, except for child support checks and sporadic birthday cards, I never heard from him.
The way my mom tells it, my dad was always a loser, which leads to a natural question: why would she sleep with him if she knew that? He was one year ahead of her in school, but they may as well have lived on different planets. She was a cheerleader, honor student, daughter of a doctor and accountant, and ran with the popular kids.
He didn’t know his bio father, but he had a succession of stepfathers through his life. My mother, the Queen of Bad Decisions, says my dad's mom had terrible taste in men. I guess she would know about such things.
Dad excelled in auto mechanics, computer science, getting wasted on weekends, and talking girls into doing his English homework. Mom used to tell me that he had this way of charming a girl to get what he wanted, whether it was an essay on A Tale of Two Cities or her panties ending up on the floor. Since my dad never knew his father, his older brother, Frank, was always more like a father to my dad than a brother. Frank is ten years older than Dad, but he seems a lot older than that.
There is only one picture of my father and mother together, and it is from his senior prom. He is tall, dark, and gangly in his navy tux. His dark brown hair is puffy, and he's wearing aviator-frame eyeglasses. Mom is over a foot shorter than Dad, although her highlighted, permed hair is a good eight inches high. Otherwise, standing next to him she is tiny. Even though the picture was taken from at least ten feet away, her eye shadow is a frosty silver that makes her green eyes gleam. Her face is rounder than it is now, and she looks like she has been laughing, smiling in a way that I never saw very often. As much as she hates my dad, she used to say that he could always make her laugh. Must be part of his charm.
Her dress is snow-white satin, off the shoulder, and she tells me she tanned for weeks so she would look really brown in contrast to the stark white of her gown. Looking like a bride must have done something to her judgment, because they treated prom night as if it was their honeymoon, and, surprise! I was conceived. Mom’s parents, Nanny and Papaw, were horrified—not only because she got knocked up, but at the type of guy who did the knocking up. My dad never has fit in with the country club set. Papaw, an OB-GYN, set up my mom with a friend of his to give her an abortion.
When Mom told Dad what Papaw had arranged, my dad hit the ceiling and said that nobody was gonna kill his kid. He talked my mom into running off with him, and a preacher married them in Patience, Texas, where Uncle Frank lived on land that has been in their family for generations. Sometimes I wonder if my mom wishes she had kept that appointment with Papaw’s friend.
They lived in a camping trailer behind Frank’s house while my mom attended her senior year at Patience High School, and my dad went to work as a mechanic in Frank’s shop. Mom says they fought all the time, because my dad had a terrible temper. He would fly into rages where he would only feel better after he had destroyed something, like when he threw their tiny black-and-white TV out the camper door into the mud then went after it with a sledgehammer. After he had his tantrum, he would go sit in the shop with
Frank and drink until he thought my mom was asleep.
I was born in January of my mom’s senior year. School was out for Spring Break when Mom packed me and all her stuff up in the car my dad gave her for Christmas—a dented up, brown four-door Datsun. We headed back west on Highway 175 to La Salle, Texas, back to the two-story red-brick house in a fancy part of town that Mom grew up in. Back to a bedroom that, unlike her bunk in the trailer, was lacking in field mice nesting in her shoes and the snake that shed its skin around her hot rollers. Nanny and Papaw welcomed back Mom with open arms, praised her for her return to sanity and civilization, and donated her old Datsun to Goodwill before she'd been home for twenty-four hours.
My dad never came after her, never questioned her leaving. Papaw’s golf buddy, a divorce attorney, took care of all the paperwork to annul the marriage, which means that legally the marriage never took place, so I don’t know what that makes me. They sent the papers to Dad, and he signed off on everything, including paying support to the child born to their non-existent marriage.
Mom finished her high school studies through a correspondence program and attended community college, earning her medical assistant certification. Then she went to work in Papaw’s office, and we did okay for ourselves. She even bought a small house in an old neighborhood in the center of La Salle, and my days there were carefree. When we got home in the afternoons, I’d go play outside, and my mom hired teenagers to watch me during the summer, so I had the Kool-Aid commercial-type summer, where kids play outside all day then come in at night when the streetlights come on.
My life changed forever on the night my mom met Charlie Baker. Nobody in Mom’s Third Thursday Bunco group thought he’d ever go for someone like her—no longer high school cute, a little overweight with a big caboose, and saddled with a kid. Mom’s friend Neshia was dating a guy who worked highway construction. His friend Charlie had just been transferred in from West Texas. Charlie was six feet tall, with a very short haircut and a shy, closed-mouth smile. He has six-pack abs in one of the pictures I have seen of him from that time. In it, he is wearing a red-and-white-striped Speedo, and he's posing like a model.
The guy in the peppermint stripes looked nothing like the Charlie I came to know: the pot-bellied alcoholic madman with wild auburn hair, almost clear gray eyes, and a shiny gold front tooth. Charlie’s appearance is off-putting to people who don’t know him. His long bushy hair seems to have a mind of its own, like Medusa’s hair of snakes. When Charlie is pissed, he radiates hatred, and it is scary. When Charlie chases you down with the intent to tackle you, it is downright terrifying.
The Bunco group held a singles night, and Charlie was there. I was there, too, playing waitress to the adults as they played the game and progressed from table to table. I was enjoying my job—I'd done it before—and I didn’t mind being the only child in attendance. Charlie paid a lot more attention to me than any of the other guests did, even my mom’s friends that I knew. I kept telling him that my name was Ashley, but he insisted on calling me “Kiddo.” It is a name I would come to hate.
The next night, Charlie took Mom and me to a carnival that was passing through town. I was riding the bumper cars, and when I got rammed from behind, I bit my tongue—hard. It stunned me, and I sat with my bloody tongue hanging out of my mouth, while other bumper cars zoomed around me. My mom called my name, but I could not focus enough to move. I was frozen. Out of the crowd, Charlie bounded across the floor, dodging bumper cars and looking for all he was worth like a super hero. He scooped me up out of the seat and dashed back to my mother with me.
“Gotta keep that tongue in your mouth when you drive bumper cars, Kiddo,” he said, winking, as he gently set me down. I felt like Lois Lane when Superman rescues her from being squished by a meteor. I'll bet there were actual stars in my eyes.
My mother and I were sold on him that night, but Charlie sealed the deal by bringing me toys and games every time he came over to our house. Four months later, in a ceremony held in Nanny and Papaw’s living room, my mother and Charlie were married. After years of being without a daddy, I finally had one.
Within a few months of the marriage, Charlie announced that he wanted to start his own construction business. He decided we needed to move to Baileyville, so he could land construction contracts easier than he was able to in LaSalle, which was overrun with the same sorts of start-up businesses. Nanny and Papaw were not happy about it, and neither was I. I loved my house, my neighborhood, and the only school I had ever known. I heard Nanny and Mom arguing about it on the phone, and Mom said, “Mother, I am married now, and my loyalty is to my husband. I am selling the house. We are moving, and that is final.”
We moved in the middle of the school year to a very small town and a ramshackle house out in the country. There were no other houses around ours, so I had no other kids to play with. When I got home from school each day, my only companions were the turkeys, geese, ducks, chickens, rabbits, and two stray dogs that wandered up and adopted us. My mom went to work for a podiatrist’s office in town as an assistant, and, irony of ironies, the only construction contracts Charlie could land were in Northside, right next door to LaSalle, so he went to work early and arrived home late most days. I got the feeling that things weren’t going too good. Mom asked Charlie about money all the time, and he didn’t like her questions one bit.
About the same time, my body decided it was time to start puberty, and my mother insisted on getting me a training bra. A true tomboy back in my old neighborhood, I hated the idea so much that I insisted on spelling the word, b-r-a, instead of coming out and saying it. It was hell, getting used to having straps around me and over my shoulders. On the inside, I kicked, screamed, and cursed Mother Nature for making me a girl.
To make matters worse, Baileyville has a long history of white-on-black racism, and most of the African-American students hated white people, whether they knew them or not. As if being white wasn't enough of a flashing neon sign that said, "Hit Me," I hit a growth spurt and got too tall for the clothes I had. There was no money to buy me new clothes. When my mom talked to Charlie about asking Nanny and Papaw to help us out so I could have some clothes, Charlie screamed at Mom, told her how stupid and fat she was, and said that if I wasn’t so fat, I would still be able to wear my clothes.
Who was this incredibly mean person? Where was the guy who risked life and limb to be my white knight on the bumper car ride?
My fourth grade school year, instead of dressing like an eight-year-old girl, I wore the fashion choices of a twenty-six-year-old woman. I had to wear my mom's clothes to school—and cowboy boots. The only shoes in our house that would fit my feet were some thrift store cowboy boots. Charlie said my feet were as big as beaver tails, like I could do anything about their size. He said that if my feet weren't so abnormally large, he'd buy me Adidas or Sketchers to wear, like the other kids had.
So here’s the deal: I am one of maybe ten white female students in an all-black elementary school. The black kids hate the white kids because for years and years, white people had treated black people like shit. My boobs have, against my will, burst upon the scene. I wear my mom's old lady clothes to school, and, in spite of its rural location, nobody, but nobody, wears cowboy boots to school. Oh, and my best friend is a rabbit named Cinnamon. Or she was. Until Charlie killed her.
I always had a creepy feeling when he got that look in his eyes and started breathing funny like he did when he was alone with me. Less than a year after they married, he gestured to me to sit on his lap. I did so, enjoying the idea of having a daddy like my friends did. I got so relaxed and content there, I dozed off. He started rubbing my brand-new breasts. I wasn’t actually all the way asleep, but it freaked me out so much that I pretended I was.
The next morning, a Saturday, my mother told me to go outside because Charlie wanted to talk to me. I approached him like I would come up on a King Cobra, full of dread and feeling like a tightly wound spring. His back was to me as he bent under the hood of our car, changing the oil.
"Mom told me to come out here. Said you want to talk to me," I spoke to the sky as I watched a black vulture circle over something dead.
Turning from the engine, he said, “Kiddo, slap my hands.” He paused as if waiting for my response.
"What? Why?" I played dumb, hoping that none of what happened in that chair had really happened. I was nine years old, and I already knew what he was doing was wrong.
"Last night … in the green chair …" Now it was his turn to stare somewhere else.
I tilted my head and, in a very high voice unlike my normal one, I said, "What chair? When?"
He smiled that closed-mouth smile from his "model" picture and said, “Never mind, Kiddo. You can go back inside now.”
My heart pounded in my ears as I walked away from him. The morning sun was blinding and felt hot on my hair.
Next time he patted his lap and smiled at me, I pretended I did not see him. When he grabbed my arm roughly and pulled me onto his lap, however, it was hard to fake being blind.
Not long after that, I walked out to the barn on a cool fall day to hang out with my friends, all of whom were covered in either feathers or fur. As I approached the rabbit cages in the barn, I saw Charlie facing the back corner of one of the stalls. He had killed a possum in that exact spot just a few days before. It had stood on its back legs, facing him full-on and hissing as it bared its mouthful of pointy teeth. He whacked it with a shovel and it either fell over dead or just looked like it was dead, "playing possum." Sort of like my faking being asleep.
"Is there another poss—" I began, and he turned to face me.
His penis was hanging out of his pants.
"What do you think of it?" he asked me. His hands were on his hips, legs wide, reminding me of the way Superman stands—like the super hero I used to believe he was.
Never having seen a man's privates before, I told him what it looked like to me: a fire hose.
Charlie smiled widely and looked pleased. I turned around and walked back to the house, the mental picture of Charlie's pose playing over and over in my mind.
A month or so later, I caught pneumonia and was very sick. When my mother could not miss any more work to care for me, I began to stay home alone. Then Charlie started coming home in the middle of the day. It's not like his job was right down the street, either. We lived a good hour and a half away from Northside.
I heard the back door open when I was in the bathroom on the toilet. I pushed the door closed and locked it.
"Ashley?" he called. I remained silent. I could hear his voice getting closer.
"Ashley? Oh, I see. You're playing hide-and-seek with me, aren't you?" He kind of giggled.
"No, I'm going to the bathroom."
He jiggled the doorknob. "Why's the door locked?" I heard him walk away, come back, and then the doorknob was being taken apart. He stuck his fingers in the doorknob hole, opened the door, and stood watching me.
I didn't know what to do. Stay on the pot with my short nightgown pulled as far down over my legs as I could get it—only to realize that doing so exposed my breasts—or stand and pull my panties up and hope he wouldn't see my privates when I did so? He took a few steps back into the hallway, kind of like a cat playing with a mouse.
I tried to get away from him—I know that much—but the next thing I remember is crawling on the floor with my panties around my ankles, and feeling a sense of wonder at how weak and shaky my arms and legs were. I don't remember anything else. My memory is sometimes like a videotape that's been taped over too many times. There's the movie, there's the movie, there's the movie, then, oops! Pure static, a mess of lines, no picture. What happened there? It's anyone's guess.
Within a few days of whatever it was that happened, Charlie announced to my mother that because I never paid any attention to our rabbits, he was going to kill them all. And he expected her to cook them. I freaked out. Even though I did pay attention to the rabbits—I fed them every day, held them, and talked to them all the time—I felt so guilty that those rabbits were going to die because of me! And there was Cinnamon, who I actually did have a relationship with. Well, as much relationship as a nine-year-old girl can have with, let's face it, a rodent of sorts.
"Mom, do something!" I begged my mother as she stirred together a box of macaroni and cheese.
"I'm going to cook them, Ashley, but you don't have to eat any," she said, completely missing the big picture. I ran to the barn, determined to say the right thing to save my rabbits.
I tripped over a bucket when I heard the screech of a cage door being opened, and rounded the corner in time to see Charlie smack the black rabbit, Scooter, in the back of the head. I squeezed my eyes shut and just started pleading. "Please, Charlie, please don't kill the rabbits. I'm sorry. I'm sorry. Whatever I did, I'm sorry. Please."
He held Scooter so that I got the full effect of how dead he was. "You never pay any attention to these goddamn things, so why do you care? They're all diseased."
Then why would you want to eat them? I wonder now, but at the time I couldn't even think straight. "Please, Charlie, at least don't kill Cinnamon. Please. She's mine. You gave her to me. You said she was for me to raise."
He tossed aside Scooter, his skull crushed and bloodied by the tire iron Charlie held in his right hand. "Go on, Ash-Hole. Get out of here."
"Please!" I shrieked, hysterical, but he stepped toward me with the blood-covered end of the tire iron angled as if I was next.
"Get out of here!" he roared.
I ran toward the pond, stopping only when I reached the bank, where I threw myself down on my stomach and screamed into the dirt. I looked up and saw Charlie raise the tire iron in the air and bring it crashing down upon the back of Cinnamon’s head. Her body convulsed once, then hung limp. He had killed the other rabbits inside the barn, but brought Cinnamon outside, within view of the pond.
The next night, my mother served Charlie fried rabbit.
At school, the fourth-grade boys ran up to the girls who had breasts (a lot more girls’ chests had erupted in fourth than in third), and acted as if they were going to grab them. They got a kick out of the girls' shock, stopped just short of touching, and said, as they made squeezing motions, “Cush! Cush!” I always wondered why the teachers didn't do anything about it. Were they blind? How could they possibly look the other way?
Between the boys at school and Charlie, I was under constant scrutiny from creatures of the male persuasion. I became very self-conscious about having breasts, and at night, before falling asleep, I tried to claw them off my chest. I still have deep grooves in my skin where I scratched myself senseless. I hated them. I felt that if it weren't for those damned things, my life would still be pretty easy. Before going to sleep, I would pray to God to please take these things back; I didn't want them and never had. Imagine my disappointment upon waking each day.
We did not live in Baileyville long, just about eighteen months. Charlie’s business had taken off in Northside, and I felt relieved when we left Baileyville behind and returned to the suburbs of Dallas. I think I was hoping that theCharlie I lived with in Baileyville would go away, never to return, and the-good-guy-rescuer-of-bloody-tongued-girls-on-bumper-cars would return to take his place.
In Baileyville, even though I wasn't an outsider because of my skin color, I had a sense of awkwardness about myself that came from within. I knew that what was going on in my house was wrong, but I didn’t know what to do about it.
Charlie chose our new house, another fixer-upper. It had three bedrooms. My bedroom was right across the hall from my parents' room, and my bedroom connected via a bathroom to the guest bedroom.
The doors were hollow and made of flimsy pressed wood. Somehow, the guest room’s bathroom door kept getting a hole smashed all the way through it, so there was always a large, irregularly-shaped peephole in it, about the size of a CD. There was a towel rack in the bathroom behind the door, and I kept catching hell about slamming the door into the towel rack.
The thing is, I hardly ever even opened that door. My great-grandfather was living with Nanny and Papaw by then. On days that Nanny needed a break from him, he would be delivered to our house to do handyman work. Great-Grandpa would go from room to room with a little toolbox, looking for stuff to fix. I don't know how many jars of wood putty he went through on that door. The repair job looked awful, but it didn't matter, because wood putty over a hole in a hollow door is futile, unless the door is never opened or closed. Within a day or so of being repaired, SMASH! the hole was back again, and I was blamed.
I had successfully "operated" a shower curtain for years, able to pull it closed and keep it closed when I was taking a shower, but when my mom replaced my clear shower curtain with a solid maroon one, I apparently forgot how to use a shower curtain correctly. Within days of the new curtain being put up, Charlie was bitching, saying that I was so stupid I didn't even know how to keep the floor dry when I took a shower. To prove his point, he brought us back to the bathroom after I had showered and showed us the standing water on the floor. It hadn't been there when I got out of the shower, I knew, because not only was the floor dry, but I was obsessed with keeping the curtain sealed up against the sides of the shower and along the inside of the tub. Showers were like this: scrub scrub STOP check the curtain for gaps; scrub scrub STOP check the curtain for gaps. Some people found bathing relaxing; for me, it was training ground for becoming an obsessive-compulsive.
He acted like it was a huge imposition, having to spend the money and all, but the next day, Charlie took a day off from work to install crystal clear glass sliding doors.
I think I knew he was watching me shower, but I didn’t want to believe it. I could sense someone watching me, but I told myself that it was my imagination. One day, however, feeling really put out with being spied on, I slid open the glass door, stepped out into the bathroom, and stared directly at the hole. I saw his eye, gray and unblinking, watching me. I don't remember anything except that eye. My mind kind of shuts down when I'm freaking out.
Ever the one with a plan, I stuck a thumbtack through the thin wood of the door right above the hole and hung a towel over it, ending his personal peep show. Or so I thought. But Charlie became more determined and started opening the door a crack. So I pulled out the drawers next to the door and stuffed towels between the drawers and the door, so the door couldn't budge at all. Not being able to view me bathing anymore only made him bolder in his pursuits at other times.
He came into my room at night, with my mother asleep across the hall, and ran his hands over my body. I fought back by always sleeping on my stomach and making myself into a human burrito with my blankets, regardless of the warmth of the season. You know those dreams where you just know something terrible is about to happen, like a tornado is coming toward your house, but your feet are melded to the ground and you can’t move, can’t scream, you … freeze? That's what every night was like.
I was in sixth grade by then, the tallest girl in my class, at five feet, three inches. I haven't grown an inch taller since sixth grade, but my body continued to take on curves, sprout hair everywhere, and look like that of a woman, even though I was still a little girl inside. A more and more angry little girl.
For some reason (note that I am being sarcastic here), I fell into a bad mood and stayed there. My mother threatened to make me go live with my father if I didn’t behave, if I didn’t shake the “ugliness” that I had been in for so long. That was her big threat: she would call the faceless person who, in her mind, left me when I was three months old, because he had made no attempt to see me, ever.
I made up my mind to call my mother to my room the next time Charlie touched me. I wanted her to catch him. Getting my frozen body to cooperate, though, was a different story. I could only cry out into my pillow, and the sounds that came out of my mouth were muffled cries, like "Murgh." I squeezed my eyes shut, my eyelids sealed tight. Every muscle and bone in my body tried to form a wall against his attempts to turn me over by sliding his hands under my breasts or hips. My body was locked, rigid, and it took an incredible amount of strength to will my eyes to open, but I forced them to, because I needed to see him in my room, so that I could believe it was really happening.
There he was, his white underwear looking blue in the moonlight, as he stood next to my bed.
The next morning, I told my mom that someone was in my room at night, and she told me that I must have been dreaming, or that it was because I had been reading a science fiction book about space aliens. Obviously, she said, I dreamed that those aliens were trying to abduct me, and maybe I shouldn't read any more of that book.
She told Charlie what I said, and I heard her talking on the phone to my aunt about it. She talked about it so much, I'll bet she even told people in line at the grocery store.
"There must be something wrong with Ashley," she told whoever would listen.
From then on, Mom and Charlie told me that I could not tell my dreams from reality. I began to believethat I was crazy. My grades started slipping; subjects I had once been strong and confident in, like math, became impossible to master. Mom insisted that I ask Charlie for help with it. He threw my book at me and told me I was not only crazy, but I was stupid too.
When I was in seventh grade, a local church began to evangelize by passing out flyers announcing "pizza parties" on Friday evenings. I had already become suspicious of other people's motives for being nice to me, so I wondered why strangers would want to feed me pizza. What I found out was that the "parties" were really revivals, and the idea of a man yelling hellfire and brimstone stuff at me was more than I could take.
Believe it or not, we were members of the Methodist church. It was, in fact, one of the few places I felt safe and loved. People did not really know us; they had no idea what we were like at home, but they accepted our masks. Charlie was head of the landscaping committee, and my mom was a lay leader, a member who helped lead the congregation. I'm sure the people who told me how lucky I was to have such wonderful parents would be shocked to know the dirty little secret of Charlie's nighttime activities.
I think the reason I felt so loved at church was that the minister told me that God IS Love. God didn't create ugliness in the world. God was not a punishing god. God was there to hold you up when you thought you couldn't take anymore. The God I knew didn't list conditions for His loving me.
I didn't have any close friends, but when my classmates came back to school on the Monday after the "Give Your Heart to Jesus and Have a Slice of Pepperoni" thing, they carried Bibles, pamphlets, and holier-than-thou attitudes toward anyone who wasn't there.
"Have you been saved, Ashley?" Korey Hendrix asked as he slid into his seat to my right in first period math class.
"I … think so. I mean, we don't use that word in my church, but I've been baptized," I said, as I finished writing my heading on my paper.
"And how were you baptized? Did'ja go under water?" Korey never even acknowledged that I took up space in the row next to his, unless he wanted to borrow a piece of paper or have me pass a note to Sherry Brown, who he was going out with. Why was he so interested in me now?
I had a bad feeling about this. "No, the minister put some water on my head."
"Did you pray this prayer?" Mary Hood chimed in from two seats behind me. She recited what amounted to: "Jesus, I know I'm a horrible person and I don't deserve Your love, but the wretched piece of crap that I am humbly asks for You to lower Your standards enough to allow me to be called one of Your children. In Your name, I pray. Amen."
Of course I replied that I hadn't said a prayer like that, even though I had never known any belief but Christianity. I was a "cradle Christian." But apparently not the right kind.
"You're supposed to pray this prayer and cry a lot. It's how you know the Devil has been washed out of your soul," said Korey, turning to the back page of his pamphlet.
"If you didn't cry, how can you really know you've been saved, Ashley?" I jumped when she spoke; I didn't realize that Cynthia Morris was standing to my left, looking down at me.
There were so many more happy and peaceful born-again zombies surrounding me at school, I began to wonder if they were right. Maybe God was punishing me for being the wrong kind of Christian, by allowing me to be spied on, groped, pulled at … you get the idea. I thought, "If I can get some of what they've got, I'll have some of their peace too." And maybe God would smite Charlie, or at least make him leave me alone.
I never went to one of the pizza parties, but I did start riding my bike down to the Christian bookstore in my neighborhood. It was one of those bookstores that put books about Catholicism and Buddhism in the "cult" section. I spent hours poring over the literature, to the strange looks of the clerks. I mean, how many twelve- and thirteen-year-old girls spent time in the self-help section of their store? I couldn't afford the hardcover books they had on "how to bring happiness to your home," but I did buy little soft-cover gems like The Jesus Person's Pocket Book of Promises. In it, I found over one hundred numbered promises Jesus had made to me, most of them regurgitations of the prayer my newly blessed friends had cited as The Way, written from Jesus' point of view, which only people who attended pizza party revivals, certain churches, and were baptized the "right" way were privy to.
I was in so much pain and so angry all the time, I figured I would try anything once, or twice … or countless times. Maybe I was so fundamentally flawed, I wasn't even doing Christianity right. The thing was, I couldn't cry. I prayed that damn prayer so many times on my knees beside my bed, like it said to do. Then I'd wait for the uplifted, "saved" feeling that would happen when the Holy Spirit filled my body and soul, but it never came. Maybe I was such a worthless person even God had turned His back on me. I became angrier then, and curious about the nature of evil. How did bad people come into the power they had?
I biked to the library and checked out a book on Adolph Hitler, the baddest of the bad that I could think of. Why did people listen to him? How did a person who was so evil become so powerful? I wanted to know.
When my mother saw the book on my desk in my bedroom, she snatched it up and insisted that I take it back immediately. "I will nothave that man in my house!" she railed. "He was a tyrant and an evil person!"
"Yeah, I know, Mom, that's why I want to figure out why people listened to him."
"No! Get that book out of my house!" she flung open the front door and let me know that if I didn't take the book back to the library immediately, she would throw it into the street.
You know, it almost makes me laugh. My mother's high sensitivity to the presence of evil in a bunch of pages bound together with glue and a cover, coexisting with her complete refusal to acknowledge the real Satan sleeping next to her each night (when he wasn't trying to pull me out of my covers, that is). It's freakin' surreal. I could laugh at how clueless she is, if it weren't so painful.
As Charlie's pursuits and mental games became more intense, the survivalist within me really started to emerge. Or the terrified coward. It's pretty much a toss-up. Like Hitler and my stepfather living at one point on the same planet, there is a tough, take-no-prisoners survivor—and a pathetic wimp—living together inside of me.
Dr. Matt, my therapist, who I've known since last summer, explained it to me. See, there's this thing called fight or flight. People have had these instincts since way back when. It's like a decision your body and brain make to help the human race keep on keepin' on. During fight or flight, you go on autopilot. It's not as if you take the time to rationally stand in the face of a charging bear and say, "My, my. How should I handle this?" The adrenaline in the body shoots off the scales, and decisions are made by that shot of natural speed. I don't know about other people, but when I experience fight or flight, I pretty much don't remember what happens. It's like waking up from a dream when you never were asleep to begin with; you were just an animal doing what you had to do, to be safe.
Defiance and a bad attitude toward the world were wearing on me, besides not working in terms of keeping Charlie away. I don't know if it was a rational decision or one born of panic, but I started sleeping in my closet on some nights. I had a walk-in closet with two clothing racks, one above the other. I also had a lot of toys and junk in my closet, which assisted in helping me hide. Folding myself into the space behind my lower rack of clothes, I’d adjust the long stuff like my coat, robe, and dresses so that there were no "holes" in the space between the upper and lower racks, and I could (hopefully) not be seen. I crouched on the floor the way you do when you have a tornado drill at school—you know the position, put your head between your knees and kiss your ass goodbye. Then I'd tuck my feet in with the clothes on the bottom rack. All in the dark, of course, because I closed the door behind me and left the light off. It was incredibly hot in there—stifling hot. Charlie didn't believe in wasting money on air-conditioning, either, and during the summers, it would get so hot behind those clothes, I'd feel like I was going to pass out.
Sometimes I'd stay in there a little while, just until I felt safe again. Most of the time, though, I woke up on my side in the morning with carpet imprints on the side of my face, as well as the occasional straight pin stuck in my leg. I didn’t sleep very well in my closet, but at least Charlie wasn’t trying to unroll me from my blanket cocoon. And it wasn't like he could say to my mom, "Cheryl, when I went into Ashley's room to molest her just now, she wasn't in bed. Do you happen to know where she is, so I may get whatever it is that I get out of doing that to her?"
I hid in my closet during the day if I was alone with Charlie and picked up on the vibe that I was about to be jumped. One way I got a hint was if he watched me, staring openly at my chest. Another way was if he acted really, really nice to me, like asking me how my day was going. I am automatically suspicious of any man who is nice to me. My first thought: What does he want? Gotta want something; he's being nice. It took me forever to know for sure that I could trust David, my dad, who I live with now, and Dr. Matt. Before them, I thought that all men had a thing for little girls. If they hadn't tried anything with me yet, it was just because they hadn't decided to, yet. It was only a matter of time, I thought.
Since Charlie had broken the locks on my bedroom and bathroom doors, I had no way to keep him out of my room. I tried putting my kid-sized desk chair under the doorknob, and he broke the chair in half coming through the door. My mother was steamed when she saw the chair, and I told her that I leaned back in it until it broke. With the exception of never finding me in my closet, the one place in my life where I had control, Charlie was all-powerful. He even claimed to know my own mind better than I knew it.
A couple of years ago when I was thirteen, I was watching a cop show on TV, and I made a comment about how cute I thought this one actor was. Things had been going well at home, at least in terms of what our home was like, and I felt pretty relaxed with my mom as we sat and watched TV. Charlie was returning from the bathroom, walking through the room behind the sofa when I said it, and he went off on me.
“You want to screw him! You said you want to screw him!”
"No, I didn't."
"Cheryl? Did you hear what that little slut said? She just told you she wants to fuck that guy. That guy's old enough to be your father, Ashley." He came around to the front of the sofa and charged both of us. Mom tried to stand up, and he pushed her back down.
"Charlie, I really don't think—" She held up her hands as if she was surrendering.
"Shut up, you stupid bitch! I'm sick of not being respected in this house! Nobody in this house respects me!" He left the den and when he returned from their bedroom, he carried a rifle.
"Charlie, what are you do—?" Mom said. I pulled my knees up to my chest, but Mom didn't seem concerned, given the presence of a firearm and all.
"She said she wants to fuck that guy. You don't believe me. You don't believe what I said, so you're calling me a liar." He staggered a little, bumped into the side table next to his oversized chair, and knocked his drink and bowl of peanuts to the floor.
"No, I'm not, Charlie. I would never." Her tone was even and calm.
"Get out of my house! If you don't respect me, you can get out of my house!" He pointed toward the front door with the barrel of the rifle.
My mother laughed at him, and I thought she had lost her mind. In the voice she uses with me when she thinks I'm being unreasonable, she said, "Fine, we'll leave."
"If you come back, I'll kill you! I'll kill you both!"
It was about ten o’clock at night when my mother took me and we started driving the streets of Northside. I kept begging her, “Let’s leave him, Mom, please, let’s leave for good. We can get an apartment. I'll get a job or something.”
"You're too young."
"No, I'll–I'll clean houses or something! I'll baby-sit every weekend! Please, Mom!"
"You're right, Ashley. We should get a place of our own. But I need to set some money aside first," she said in that same calm voice she had used with Charlie. We crossed the bridge over the highway and entered La Salle, where she grew up. I hoped we were going to Nanny and Papaw's house.
"Are we going to Nanny's?"
She did not answer me at first, then, in a broken voice, she said, “I just don’t want to be alone. I can't. I can't do it. I … he loves me, Ashley. I know he does. He's just drunk. He doesn't mean any of it. It's the alcohol talking, not him. He's such a good person. You know that." A sob escaped her throat.
At midnight she pulled into a McDonald’s drive-through and ordered a chocolate shake and small order of fries. It's one of her favorite combinations. She asked me if I wanted anything. I said, "No." What I wanted, she was not willing to do.
Neon store signs blurred together as I stared silently out the window through my tears. I wanted to tell her then, tell her everything he had been doing to me, but I couldn’t get the words to come out. She was already so upset. I hated it when my mother cried. It was always my fault, like this, our having to leave the house, really was. If I hadn't opened my mouth about that actor. I thought back to the time Charlie went on a two-day bender and only called home once in a while. My mom was hysterical; all she did was cry and wait by the phone. When he called she begged him to come back, asked him what she did wrong and promised she would change, do whatever it took for him to come back home.
At one a.m., my mom was listening to a Beach Boys CD. We had driven down my grandparents' street but not stopped, and I was brainstorming a way out that would not require the cooperation of my mother, that would not make my mother cry, and that would make Charlie stop touching me. All in my head, of course.
Even now, I have a hard time ever getting my mind to stop planning an escape route or a place to hide if things get dicey. My radar is always up and checking the screen for changes in other people's behavior toward me and how they are feeling, because if I've learned anything, it's this: people act out from their feelings. It's something I'm still working to get over, because Dr. Matt says it's not healthy to be so tied up in what other people think, feel, and do. It's like I assume that betrayal or rejection are inevitable, and I want to be prepared for it so I can stay safe, or at least not hurt as badly as I will if I'm not on my guard.
Charlie was unpredictable: creepy-sweet to me when my mom wasn’t around and brutally cruel to me when she was. As we drove toward our end of town, I could hear in my head Charlie's reasoning for the way he treated me. Just a couple of weeks before, he was at the kitchen table cracking pecans, and I was making a piece of cheese toast in the microwave. Mom was not home.
"Do you know why I'm mean to you, Ashley?" he gently asked.
I shook my head and watched my cheese toast revolve in the microwave. Crack went the teeth of the nut cracker against the pecan shell.
"I'm mean to you so you won't trust me. You can't trust me. I don't want you to trust me." Crack. Crack.
I stared at the toast. Am I cooking this too long? Is it going to be rubbery?
He continued. "You know what? You are a sexy girl. You are a foxy little thing. Crack. You can do anything you want, Ashley. You can sleep with any guy you want, and you could tell me, and I wouldn't tell your mother.” Crack. Crack.
Dammit, I'm sure I ruined this toast. It's going to be all tough now. I was afraid that would happen.
"But if you ever tell her what I've done; why you Crack can't trust me, I'll leave her. I will. I will BE … Crack ... GONE … just like that. And you'll have to tell her why I left.
"Just don't come home pregnant. If you ever come home Crack Crack pregnant, I'll leave. Just like that. I'll leave if you come home pregnant. I couldn't TAKE IT if you got pregnant!" He lifted the newspaper he had been shelling pecans over, and dumped the fragments in a paper grocery sack next to his chair. He stretched out his fingers, popped his knuckles, and prepared to start the next round of pecan shelling.
The cheese was beyond bubbly, actually starting to grow brown spots on the surface, and the door of the microwave was filling with steam, but the sight took on a dreamy quality as I stared at it so long that it blurred before my eyes. I knew Charlie had had a vasectomy four years before. I don't know why I thought about that in connection with his pregnancy comment, but I did. At the time of his surgery, he was quite obvious about his discomfort, and my mother's sympathy for his pain was all she talked about. The nine-year-old I was didn't want to know about his shaved testicles. I don't think I would want to know about them at the age of ninety-nine, for that matter. I didn't want to know about his stitches and how they itched and if his incision was puffy. Leave me out of it, for the love of God.
"Your mother … doesn't like sex. She hates sex. I … have needs, Ashley. Needs that your mother doesn't want to meet." Crack.
DING! Thank God. My cheese toast shriveled to what resembled a piece of varnished wood, I took it out of the microwave, threw it in the wastebasket next to the microwave cart, and went to my room to do my history homework. You know the sound a seashell makes when you put your ear up to it? That's the sound I hear in my head when I mentally go someplace else, when where I am gets to be too much. Whoosh.
Every once in a while we would stop. Mom didn't grab her cell phone from the charger before we left, and she would get out and go to a pay phone to call and see if Charlie still wanted to kill us. I watched her insert quarter after quarter. I guessed that he was answering the phone—that's why it cost her a new quarter each time—then slamming it down when he heard her voice.
She came to the car and dug around in the ashtray for a coin. "Do you have a quarter?" she asked.
I shook my head, "No."
She lifted the floor-mat. "Oh, here's one!" she said in her light, happy voice. Her shoulders slumped as she trudged back to the phone booth. A car load of bandanna-wearing guys in a low-rider came thumping by our car slowly, the eyes of its occupants scanning my mother's backside and trying to get me to look at them. I looked down when I saw what they were doing. Every cell in my body wanted to lean over and lock her door, like I had already locked mine. I fought the urge to roll up her window and leave her to their mercy, while I had at least managed to delay their attack by being inside the car. I couldn't just throw her to the wolves like that, could I?
I wanted to honk at Mom, to make her turn around and see that we had a more immediate threat than Charlie just then, but she did not turn around to acknowledge the thump-thump of the gang's stereo system. Her shoulders remained slumped, her head bowed, as she listened to ring after ring after ring, which Charlie ignored.
God apparently still listened to me even though I had flunked out as a Christian, because the low-rider moved on, its deliberately slow retreat reminding me of a shark choosing to let its prey live another day, swimming off into the ocean depths.
Around two a.m., after another ten minutes of her standing in the dark and listening to the phone ring, we drove back home.
"Mom, he said he'd kill us. He's going to shoot us. We should call the police and make them go in first." I knew as I said it that my mother would never involve anyone else in our family's business. What would people think?
"He's probably passed out. He won't even remember this in the morning, Ashley Nicole. It's the alcohol talking, remember? We're going home and going to bed."
There were no lights on in the house when we drove up, not even the familiar light we always left on above the kitchen sink.
"I want to stay in the car. I'm afraid to go in," I told Mom as I leaned my seat back.
"Don't be silly," she said sharply. "It's not safe for you to sleep out here. Get yourself out of that car and come in with me. Now."
I slowly got out of the car, the urge to crawl on my hands and knees overwhelming me. "Come on!" she hissed from the front porch.
She knocked on the door. No response. She put her key in the lock and turned it slowly. I expected the door to blow off its hinges.
Gingerly she eased the door open, and whatever objects Charlie had piled up against it went clattering to the floor. Mom laughed nervously. I held my breath.
She pushed the door open all the way, flipped on the light switch in the foyer, and I gasped at the destruction. Charlie had torn the curtains from the den windows and stacked piece upon piece of furniture and heavy objects in front of the doors and windows. The sliding glass door was secured not only with the lock, but with broken pieces of a kitchen chair, as well. The shutters in the front room were closed up so tightly, you'd think we lived on the coast and a hurricane was coming.
A pile of shiny objects glinted against the dark oak parquet floor, and upon closer inspection, it was clear that my mother's collection of elephant figurines had been destroyed.
His rage seemed pretty much contained to the room in which I had uttered those words, as I watched an actor toss his blonde hair and slide his sunglasses onto the neck of his shirt: "He's cute. I wish I could meet him."
I knew how afraid my mom was of being alone. And more than that, I was afraid of being taken away from her. I figured if I told what was happening to me, I would be taken away from my mom, like the foster kids we had were taken away from their parents. A few years ago, my stepdad saw an ad in the local paper pleading for foster families. He was a foster kid himself, and he decided that we needed to open our home to others the way that somebody else took him in.
The story goes that Charlie ran away from home when he was fourteen, and was walking on the highway in an ice storm, wearing just an old white t-shirt and holey jeans, when a nice man pulled his car over and offered him a home. Charlie worshipped the family that took him in, and he declared that we, too, needed to share what we had with others, by being a foster family. The screening process did not involve me at all. I was kind of hoping it would, because if they asked me if everything was okay at our house and I told them it wasn't, maybe they could make Charlie leave. No such luck.
We were a foster family to girls between the ages of eight and twelve, the only gender and age bracket my parents said they would be willing to take in. I guess Charlie's generosity did not extend to boys. For about a year, one little girl at a time occupied our guest bedroom. Suddenly, we stopped being a foster family, though it was never discussed with me. Now I wonder if any of those girls were abused, too.
Those poor girls came through our house, and I saw how messed up they were. I wondered why they didn't stay with any of their other family members. I didn’t know my father, but I never thought of him as another place I could go. As far as I was concerned, he didn’t want me.
Besides not wanting to hurt my mother, I also was afraid that if I told, I could be put into a house like ours. From talking to some of the older girls I shared a bathroom with for anywhere from one day to three months, I learned the reason they had been taken from their original families was the same reason I wanted out of mine. In those girls' eyes, there was desperation, grief, and complete confusion as to why they had been sent away from the one person who was supposed to be willing to die for them, if the situation arose. I wonder what they saw when they looked at me.
(C) Beth Fehlbaum, 2008