V. Spellbound

Emperor

Sifting through some old photographs one afternoon, I encountered a girl of four or five – a man’s fedora balanced precariously atop light-brown curls, sundress skimming her chubby thighs, and a mischievous gleam of pure exuberance in her eye that said, “let’s get somethin’ goin’ here.” I wondered what ever happened to that little girl, how she might have grown up. It occurred to me she might have become a very different person had a new daddy not entered the picture all those years ago: sun in Sagittarius, Year of the Dragon; the picture had looked all right. A newborn weighing in at nearly 13 pounds surely was poised for a life of overachievement. That was the auspicious interpretation. A life of excess, the not-so-auspicious.

Being undone at so early an age had worn hard on her. The gleam in her eye extinguished, she shut down her heart against the world. Her exuberance turned in upon itself and transformed her into something she never expected she could become, despite all: a slovenly, pilfering whore. When I see snapshots from that time period, I am unable to connect even the fingers that hold the photographs to any atom of the smudgy, overweight slob they display – beer can resting between its legs, the remnants of a cigarette dangling from its lips. But it had been truly beyond her, out of her control – as though her heart had fallen into the depths of an acrid well, and rotted there. As though she had contracted a cancer of the soul.

I have experienced one recurring dream throughout my life. The scenarios vary, but the theme is constant: I discover a wonderful place to live – finally a home – one that I adore, where I feel safe and comfortable, in which I know I will thrive. I begin planning, relishing how beautiful it will be: Living there. Having a place. Belonging. And at the last moment, without fail, it is made clear to me one way or another that the place in fact is not mine, that I do not belong there, that in fact I do not belong anywhere. Just get out.

It is a feeling of lack, a gut certainty that you are not entitled, not worthy, and don’t deserve a place, a family, a home. So you learn to rely on other assets. You learn not to need. Anyone or anything. You become deeply invested in the Power of One. You convince yourself that this is freedom.

And then I think about the freedom in the eyes of that little girl – her curious, wide-open, wild heart just dying to take on the world – and realize the freedom I have accepted as truth is rather akin to the new clothes of that once-foolish emperor. All of his subjects afraid to state the obvious. It took a child to break the spell.

It is a matter of reaching that child.

IV. Linden, New Jersey, Is a Shit Place To Die

Linden

Linden, New Jersey, is a shit place to die. Not that I’d know. Well, let me clarify: Linden, I know about; dying there, or anywhere else, not as much. Unless you count the rooming house we lived in back in the late eighties. It was like a halfway house, without the recovery aspect – without the halfway. It was an all-way house, or a no-way house, depending how you looked at it. A small, cold, dingy room with a bed and a dresser, maybe a lamp and chair, and a shared bathroom on the floor. You never knew who, or what, you were going to run into in there. It was, in essence, the end of the line.

But it began rather more rosily: I was nineteen. Richard was a thirty-seven-year-old Vietnam vet I met in a factory I worked at in New Jersey after a failed attempt at moving out west. (A friend of a friend was driving his VW van cross-country and looking for someone to ride with him. I left with five hundred dollars and a suitcase – my second big chance to get the hell out of Pennsylvania. I ended up starving in a bungalow outside Phoenix for a good couple of months before I landed a job at a shirt factory in town. But Phoenix was just another shit hole with a lot of rednecks, and six months later I was on a Greyhound headed home – a three- or four-day journey during which one could not really wash. On layovers, you could brush your teeth and wash your face in the ladies’ room sink, but not a whole lot more. The buses were inhabited by losers and users (who were always looking for company) and haunted by drifters (who seemed like they couldn’t even tolerate their own).)

When I got to Jersey, I stayed with my mom for a while and looked for factory work. It was the only thing I’d done since quitting school, save tending bar (under age) and working at the Bingo. Minimum wage back then was three dollars and change, and when I saw the ad that this place was paying well over four, I was jazzed. My mother drove me over there to fill out the application, and by the time we got home there was a message on the answering machine offering me the job. They probably ran down the aisle yelling “we got a white one!,” joked my mother. In fact there were plenty of us white folk working at the cup factory. My mother hadn’t yet adjusted to the vibrant cultural mix of the environs outside her home town, in the low-lying industrial wonder that is Central Jersey.

At the factory, I packed cups: sealed sleeves of Styrofoam cups that came flying toward me on a conveyor belt and landed in a wooden bin, whereupon I packed them into a box, sealed the box with tape, and placed it on the conveyor belt behind me. In your down time you assembled the boxes so you’d have something to pack the cups in. That was my job. It was easier than dress factory work, except you had to be on your feet twelve hours at a time. Boring for a person with an IQ, but I was doing wonders keeping my IQ at bay through sheer will power and a stiff regimen of drugs and alcohol.

Richard hadn’t been my first lover since moving to Jersey. First, there’d been Vernon: a guy with solid drug connections and a five-year-old son. The gist of Vernon was this: though he was a weasely little dude, he was the first person to give me an orgasm – there on a sunny winter Sunday morning, under a brown wool poor boy’s blanket, listening to Blood on the Tracks. I fell in love with Bob Dylan that day and have never fallen out. I never fell in love with Vernon. The other thing about Vernon was that when I broke up with him, the fucker stole my car – my ‘72 Challenger with the 318 engine that just … would … not … die. And when my girlfriend Cleo and I saw him driving it onto the factory lot one day and started chasing him on foot, the little shit hauled ass out of there like Mary Fucking Sunshine.

And there was the inimitable Louie, though Louie and I weren’t an item – just drug buddies – so I don’t remember a ton about Louie. I do remember drinking Louie’s methadone (way before I ever tried heroine). And I remember bending down in my chair to fasten the clasps of my white sandals … and waking up a good bit later.

Ready to go.

I remember his black convertible Corvette spinning out on the wet, slippery highway – round and round so many times I wondered if it would ever stop, how we’d survive – traveling far from the asphalt into the wet grass of a sprawling green clearing. Hitting a tree. I don’t remember driving away or how we got out of there, somehow not arrested.

I have a vague recollection of Louie at the racetrack – not the same day, not in the rain.

And I recall having the general sense of Louie wanting people to think I was his girlfriend, but I’m not sure if that was true. In fact, I’m not sure Louie cared.

I do remember Louie having one eye. Just the one eye.

Richard came after Louie, when I was supplying half the factory with crystal meth (and shooting speedballs in the ladies’ room on my break). Except we called it crank; nobody called the shit crystal meth. We worked twelve-hour shifts, three and a half days a week, so a body had to stay awake somehow. Movin’. Groovin’. Not wanting to kill yourself because you just worked six hours, watched the sun rise, and still had six to go. I think I sold Richard a bag or two, though never much, before we got together.

He was the only man in the place who presented as a gentleman – not too readily familiar. By then I had graduated to driving forklift, unloading trucks, and doing general maintenance. And I guess the fact that I wore cutoff shorts with a tiger-striped, open-backed, one-piece swimsuit with a zipper down the front must have given the impression that one could be prematurely familiar. My take was: it was hot as balls in there in the summertime – no air whatsoever, and the machines pushed the thermometer up fifteen to twenty degrees more. And though I was one of the few eligible females in the place, my entire life had been lived as a tomboy – one of the guys – so … look the other way if you fucking must. Semis would roll up to the loading dock, and the drivers would nearly shit their pants when I trounced over to let them know I’d be unloading their rig. “No, honey, I need someone to unload the truck,” they’d try to make clear. “Yeah, I’m your guy,” I’d smile.

Richard was somewhat of an island: quietly wild and ruggedly handsome, an intelligent soul who seemed remote and unreachable. He was a man while the others (no matter their age) were yet boys. As far as the life of a courtier went inside a cup factory in New Jersey, he was a reluctant, gentle prince. We had one date and he wound up on my doorstep in the pouring rain the next night, ringing and ringing and ringing the buzzer, soaked to the skin when I answered. He said something sweet about maybe having fallen in love with me, and I let him in. After that, he never really left.

*     *     *

“No one’s STOPPING YOU! from reading.” She remembered him saying that, wild-eyed. It was, in fact, completely untrue. Stopping her from reading was precisely what he was doing, though bringing that to his attention would have led at best to the beating of her life, at worst to a near-fatal outcome. It shook out somewhere in between.

He was angry because she’d found him out. Angry with her for being angry at him – which situation never led anywhere. Never anywhere good. But being angry was better than feeling guilty – or whatever emotion approximating guilt he might have been capable of mustering.

That ended up being the night he dragged her out of bed by the feet, (accidentally) hit her head against the bathtub, and while holding her down on the bathroom floor (accidentally) burned her cheek with the ember of his cigarette, branding her with a legend that years later would be virtually undetectable. (In fact, I can recall only from my spatial memory of that night that it was the left cheek.)

Accidentally. An interesting, creative, and ballsy claim.

On more than one occasion, she tried to leave. Usually she was detained physically, but once she managed to deliver a left-hook to his jaw, and another time she got out of the apartment and ran – furious, sobbing, wearing a light-grey, Flashdance-knockoff sweatshirt with pink sleeves – and got as far as the cash machine. Inserting her card into the slot, knowing she didn’t have enough money to go anywhere really, she heard the hum of the engine: the silver Honda that was sorry consolation for the pristine, vintage Dart he had to have put down after an engine fire. He pulled up alongside her and asked flatly, with cruel, calculated transparency: where was she going to go? He knew she had no answer, no place, no one – because she had been so completely and stereotypically cut off from her family, too ashamed to go to her friends.

Time and again, she went back: he was sorry; it would never happen again; he loved her. Of those three claims, I knew the last was true. It was indisputable that he loved me – loved me in an all-encompassing way no one ever had, not even my parents. Loved me. He loved me like it was me and him and the rest of the world didn’t matter – didn’t exist. But whenever something went wrong in that hermetically sealed world … well, let me tell you there was some hell to pay.

I paid for a lotta hell.

She never knew when that moment was going to come. It could be at the grocery store. It could happen at the airport. Or it could be one night when you walk through the door…

… and the place is dark, except for some flickering candlelight.

And you’re choking on the incense

and the music’s playing just a little too loud (even for a Friday night)—

and you find him lying on the floor….

So you ask him what is he doing there—

lying on the floor in the dark

with those candles and that music and that incense.

He looks at you and grins.

And all you can see are his canine teeth, gleaming in the candlelight

his eyes dancing

and the madman beneath them.

He says he’s going a little crazy.

Then he pulls up his shirt for you to see: four long, bloody gashes running down the length of his chest. He says he provoked some guy at a bar, some biker … because he felt like getting hurt.

You want so badly to flee, to run out the door and save yourself, because you know you’re in for a doozy no matter what. No matter that you weren’t there. No matter that you did nothing. Nothing but come home.

The last time I tried to leave, I found him hanging over the edge of the bathtub, the bloody pulp from his open wrists like chunks of fetus, in clumps on the chalky porcelain surface.

I mean, how’re you supposed to go after that?

But one night something inside of her cracked. And she made love to him the way she’d wanted to make love those past three years – free and wild and beautiful and hungry.

And he was mortified. All at once he saw the cage, and the pain, and the violence. And he finally … just … let me go.

*     *     *

For the uninitiated, I’m here to tell you it wasn’t all beatings and horror. In fact, it was an enormous surprise – that first time, him overturning the couch and coming after me. Because he was a witty, sensitive, artistic, caring, but very very angry man – though you could tell it wasn’t in his soul. It was something that happened to him. That he came back from Vietnam all fucked up and felt he had nowhere to turn. Even this me, now – the one who feels like those things happened to someone else – to “her” – the one who thinks a woman is crazy for staying with an abuser – I know how much he loved me, what a good man he was. He showered me with kindness and gifts of love. Even if he destroyed them during one of his rages, he’d do the best he could to fix them. Once he tore the guts out of a stuffed doggie he’d bought me – ripped it to shreds – and when I came home the next day little Sammy had been put back together – all sewn up, good as new … if you didn’t look too closely at the uneven, tattered seams holding him together.

After I left for good, after our one night of passion, I ran into some old friends, a couple we used to hang out with. I asked after Richard. “Well, you know, he’s bearing up.” And a silence fell between us, while they looked at me as though I were a monster. As if I’d ruined his life. As if I’d brutally wounded him. And not vice versa. Weren’t they aware he’d been abusive all those years? Didn’t they realize that leaving him was the hardest thing I’d ever done? Didn’t they know he’d let me go? They only knew about his broken heart.

Over the years, I wondered if I’d ever run into him again, what his life was like now, if he’d ever gotten any real help. Where and how he ended up. Sometimes I’d dream about him – that he was a changed man, and we were going to take another shot at it. We already knew one another so well….  But it was a situation out of which one could only move forward. A connection that is either live and crackling or indelibly severed.

I learned recently that Richard died six years ago, at the age of fifty-nine, in Linden, New Jersey. And I pictured him in some crummy rooming house (Jesus, please, not the same place) drinking himself to death, completely unreachable. Even after all these years, I was floored – overcome with a visceral sadness, like part of me had died too. Maybe it was the broken part of me that loved being loved and didn’t care what else came with it. Or maybe it was the part of me I buried away so no one could ever find it. So it was safe. Sound. Unreachable.

III. Grist for the Mill

Ozzy

I learned two important things when I was sixteen (two that I remember; sweet sixteen was a hazy year):

(1)        Your mother, your father, and your friends can boot your ass out on the street; and

(2)        If you meet a long-haired, Quaalude-toting ticket scalper at an Ozzy Osbourne concert, and move to New York City with him that very night with nothing but the clothes on your back, don’t expect happily ever after.

*     *     *

There is nothing surprising or momentous about Hop Bottom, Pennsylvania – save for the fact that it exists. If one were to drive down the two-block-long main street, and the town’s inhabitants happened to be present, an unsettling similarity in outward appearance would be evident – one suggesting that evolution had not quite run its full course here, or reached this area of the country … much the same as cable television. There exist as many honorable folk as there are deviants, as many bible-beaters as fornicators, but there is no mix in the blood. There are no services, no health care. Poverty is crippling but unquestioned. No idea exists that one can somehow rise above. Suffice to say our nearest neighbors threw their waste out the back window of their shack and had no indoor plumbing, lice circulated regularly at school, and my family – with its double-trailer and freshly laundered clothing – ranked among the more well-to-do in the area, despite the fact that we lived on the pinnacle of a hill once called Poverty Road.

Enduring your adolescence in a town like Hop Bottom inspires a good deal of creativity and fortitude. For unless you worked the family farm (as many of my classmates did) or saw an escape through academic pursuit (like my sister), you had your work cut out for you: it required vigilance and tenacity to secure the proper connections through which to procure drugs, alcohol, and a warm car or black-light-and-strawberry-incense-filled room in which to enjoy them.

Somehow, we managed.

I severed my ties with high school sometime during the tenth grade. I was fifteen. It was mutual.

By the ninth grade, I’d been selling acid and getting into shit storms of trouble both at school and home. In an attempt to save me, my guidance counselors – who knew my true potential – insisted I test for the gifted children’s program. I told them to shove their gifted-child bullshit up their asses; I didn’t want to be gifted. My sister was gifted, and look where it got her: a scholarship to one of the best preparatory academies on the east coast, fencing skills, fluency in Russian, a summer studying in the Soviet Union, placement at an Ivy League university…. What a snore. Not really – that was what I wanted to tell them, and what I did in effect convey by getting expelled the following year. I took the test begrudgingly and dabbled in the gifted program, taking two grades simultaneously – straight As, honor roll – all the while I was adrift in psychedelic nirvana or circling the earth in a cloud of pot smoke.

I ended up living with my father for a short time, enrolled in another school, but I skipped all my classes – except Spanish (my professor let me sit on the floor in the corner) and Home Ec (there was food) – smoking cigarettes in the john and riding around with my friend Coreen. Going to class was fruitless. I terrorized my teachers and refused to participate. I was nicknamed The Wreck. One of my fellow students made an attempt at terrorizing me, constantly pointing out that I was stoned and once even writing “Don’t let this happen to you: The Wreck” in large, uneven letters on the blackboard in front of me, for all the class to enjoy. I exited the class quickly when the bell sounded that day, waited for him outside the classroom, and punched him in the stomach as he turned the corner. Following that, he was no longer a nuisance.

I was confounded by the easy access to drugs and alcohol in this not-so-middle-of-nowhere suburb, and I dug in. Deep. Dad got me a job at the Bingo, running around shouting out the numbers to confirm the wins, delivering the ladies their cash. We got a few dollars from the house for working the floor plus tips from the winners. That’s where I met Jules. We’d hang in the ladies’ toilet while the game was going on and burst out the door in a billow of pot smoke when someone called “Bingo!”

Jules was the epitome of cool – a female Steven Tyler – and she took a liking to me, turning me on to every sedative imaginable. Downs were everything a girl dreamed of: they left you in a hazy fog (where nothing really mattered and simply standing up and walking to the bathroom was an adventure) and guaranteed blackout 99 percent of the time. Particularly if you mixed them with plenty of alcohol. That’s key. I worked my way up from Valium fives to Valium tens in no time. How many you could handle was a prideful thing, and I held pretty steady at seven Valium tens, but ten was my record. Those were some messy nights. Boozing at the same time was overkill, but we were friendly with the bouncers and owners of the local rock clubs, two of the bars in town where we didn’t have a problem getting served. We never had to pay the entry fee, but believe me when I tell you it wasn’t entirely free – admission to those places.

My stint at dad’s lasted a couple of months maybe, during which time I managed to nearly burn the house down (in a Quaalude-induced, cocoa-making misadventure) and fall so flatly on my face in the driveway coming home one night, I apparently was unable to get up. I remember waking up one day – in the ephemeral light of night turning into day, or vice versa,  but having no idea which it was. While I called the operator to ask the time, pieces of the previous night came through in jigsaw-puzzle flashes: downs, booze, hitchhiking somewhere from somewhere, the driver having coke and some friends he thought I should meet, a ménage-a-trois with said friends (the Mick Jagger of a Rolling Stones cover band and his girlfriend), she and I showering together, no idea how I got home. I was three shades of green, in that cocaine hangover that makes all the world seem bleak, life utterly hopeless. I was embarrassed about asking the operator whether it was a.m. or p.m., and her dubious silence before curtly replying “p.m.” confirmed I should be. I’d never felt so … tenuous, so incapable of self-control, so direly in need of solace and protection. Protection from myself.

The fact that my mother had sent me to live with my father was a joke. If she couldn’t handle me, he certainly couldn’t. Our three-hour, biweekly visits hadn’t been exactly bond-building. (They consisted of: a two o’clock (on the nose) pickup, a thirty-minute drive to Burger King or MacDonald’s, eating at said Burger King or MacDonald’s, driving to my dad’s and waiting for him while he showered and got ready to go to the racetrack, and the thirty-minute drive back home. Small talk in the car.) It was a predictable disaster – a colossal failure of a social experiment – and he kept telling me he wanted me out. But for a short time, I got to live in my specially painted bedroom. It was still pristine after eight empty years, my purple room. The whole house was like that – as though it had been freeze-dried, from the moment we left my dad. And now I was back, but I was not his little girl – the one who rushed into his arms and cried with him that day at the top of the stairs when we said goodbye. I was broken. I was lost. And there was nothing anyone could do to fix me.

So on I went to play house with some friends – a brother and sister living in their family home: dad dead, mom in a nursing home. I’d been working in dress factories since I quit school and chipped in for the bills. We were a blue-collar crew that lived to party, and we had some wild ones: parties like drug orgies, where you’re so fucked up you’re falling down the stairs, or lying on the couch wired – willing to give your left eye if only you could get to sleep – as daylight begins to shed a critical eye on the wreckage and two hangers-on troll the cast-off beer bottles in hopes of squeezing out one last drink. Disgusting even to me.

*     *     *

Pounding on the bedroom door – the police are downstairs and want to talk to me. One look out the window tells me why: my car smashed to pieces; one look in the mirror sets into me the oh-no-oh-no-oh-no-what-have-I-done terror of the frightened little girl I cannot afford to be. A monster returns my gaze – its face crusted with dried brown blood, lip split wide. I frantically search my memory for what might have happened but come up completely dry. No need to dress, still in my clothes from last night, I walk downstairs to talk to the cops.

Moonlighting as a cocktail waitress when you are (1) underage, (2) allowed to drink as many cocktails as you can handle, and (3) working Valiums into the mix can prove rather unwieldy. I kept a gin and tonic going on my tray the duration of my shift. An hour or two in, I’d forget who ordered the drinks by the time the bartender made them and had some difficulty finding their proper owners. Slightly problematic.

The elderly couple whose car I demolished hadn’t decided whether to press charges. My penance was apologizing to them. It didn’t go swimmingly. As I stood there on their living room rug, they looked at me with utter disdain – much as I would now look at some crazy, drugged-out teenager who cannot have been thinking. I had the feeling I was botching it – that they expected me to say or do something that was beyond my ability to know or understand. They wanted feel to feel guilty. I did. I was sorry. But more than anything I wanted to escape from their scrutiny and judgment, their tight-assed way of staring at me, and have them tell me they weren’t pressing charges so I could go home and crawl into a hole.

The cops let Coreen drive me to the hospital beforehand, so I could get my face stitched up: Had I hit my head? Um … obviously. Was I taking any drugs or medications? Negative. Some sutures, x‑rays and other tests, and I came out with a band-aid across my upper lip looking ridiculous, and quite a bit like Adolf Hitler. The gang showed their sympathy that night at the crash bash we threw by wearing Hitler band-aids in solidarity.

*     *     *

The Ozzy Osbourne concert was our last hurrah – after I’d been asked to move on – their fault as much as mine. Or should I say his? Ray, the brother, about 10 years older than Coreen and me, hadn’t wasted time capitalizing on the advantages of a fucked-up wild child living under his roof. It was technically consensual, always rough, and never my idea. And after a while it put a snag in the living arrangements – so as a family, they wanted to see how it went without me. Nothing personal.

I met the scalper in the parking lot before we went into the concert. During it, he screamed into my ear that I should come back to New York with him. To live. New York City? I couldn’t believe my ears!: my first big chance to get the hell out of Pennsylvania. And talk about timing.

It turned out the ticket scalper had two roommates. The four of us lived in a ratty, walk-up studio apartment with creative sleeping arrangements on a street no one ever heard of. The Lower East Side in the early eighties was pretty sketchy, but I was always chaperoned by Mike and the stone-cold fog of a Quaalude buzz. I remember wandering the streets, marveling at the tall wrought-iron fences bordering the postage-stamp parks they somehow crammed onto medians and into corners of the concrete mass of city. I remember that Mike’s roommates were nice guys, and their names were Barry and Radio John. I remember feeling skanky because I had only one set of clothes. I remember finding a pair of women’s jeans on a shelf one day when Mike was out working a concert and wondering who they belonged to. What their history was. And I remember thinking that this guy was so cool, so perfect for me, with his long black hair and his Quaalude supply and concert tickets. This was the life. Such freedom. Who knew what would happen next?

Then Mike came back from some failed drug or ticket business and told me he got a gig as a roadie and he guessed I’d have to go home. It sounded like blatant bullshit – like he hadn’t even tried to use his imagination – but I didn’t question it. I just took the Greyhound back to PA.

One of my first nights in the big city, the band Journey played on the radio in a pizza joint we ate at: “Just a small-town girl, livin’ in a lonely world. She took the midnight train goin’ anywhere….” Even though I was in a partial coma – the drive, the hope, the thrill of that song surged through me like a million volts of electricity. It was my song, my story: a small-town girl, a lonely world. I took the midnight train – or a car ride anyway. Strangers. Waiting. Up and down the god-damned boulevards, for Christ fucking sake.

For a smile, we shared the night. But it did not go on, and on, and on, and on.

II. The Riddle of the Black Panther

The weird(est) thing about my dad – not the carpenter, but my actual, biological father – was how frightfully clear he made it that he had no interest in his family. He didn’t even try to fake it. He didn’t appear to be unhappy in his marriage, just utterly incapable of emotion. My father was concerned with: the race track, playing cards, various foot- and baseball games, and calling numbers at the Bingo. In that order. No thought for his wife and two girls – an implacable indifference that did not result in a lot of childhood reminiscences, fond or otherwise. The few pre-carpenter memories I have involve mainly my sister and my mother. We hardly ever saw my father.

Three things I do recall:

(1)        He used to take us to the crik to feed the duckies;

(2)        One time, when I was about six, my dad announced he was going to do the kiddy crossword with us, and I got so excited (‘cause he would let us sit on his lap and everything) that in my haste in running back toward the living room after screaming the news upstairs to my sister, I caught my heel under the corner of the big white metal kitchen cabinet and tore the whole thing off. My heel, not the door. Well, it was hanging on by a tendon. (The cabinet that housed all the snacks and treats I could not keep myself from eating, that made me look like a fat ugly cow in my purple-and-white, horizontal-striped turtleneck in my class pictures. I had to fill myself with something.) And as they drove me to the hospital bleeding buckets and the doc sewed my heel back onto my foot, as I sobbed and howled, my dad calmly and comfortingly told me a story about a black panther and was the only one who could console me.

(3)        My father would sit at the dinner table eating steak while we three had hamburger.

When we snuck out of my mom and dad’s brand-new home to go live with the carpenter who had built it, my mother left a note for my father. We girls waited while she composed the note, and my seven-year-old mind decided she must be leaving him some riddles, and if he could solve the riddles we would come back to him and all live in the brand-new house with the specially painted rooms instead of the shabby little pea-green apartment the next town over and everything would be okay.

But the riddles were never solved. Not by my father or anyone else. And when we went back to say one last goodbye, my father – who had no care for his family and was incapable of emotion – dropped to his knees and opened his arms for my sister and I to rush into. And when we did, he bawled like a baby – howling there on the top stair of the foyer the carpenter had built.

I guess that makes four things I remember about my dad.

I. Firearms and Other Childhood Pastimes

It was a carpenter who taught me how to shoot – a skill for which I had an uncanny knack, burning a hole dead-center into a Genesee can at twenty paces on the first try. And the second. And third…. I was nine years old.

The carpenter was impressed. Creepy guy – probably a child molester. Definitely a child molester. He told me to hold the butt of the rifle snug alongside my little titty to reduce the kickback. And chuckled in a sick way. Then he showed me just how close it needed to be. I figured that was enough of that and would have gotten the hell out of there – gotten away from him and his large, hovering body, white tee-shirt stretched tight over his pregnant beer belly – but I couldn’t. The carpenter was my father. (Well, stepfather, but nonetheless.) This was the place that, for lack of a better word, was my home, so there was nowhere else to go.

I had always thought you were supposed to feel safe at home. Secure. Loved.

Not hunted.

Home was not supposed to be a place where you couldn’t even sit down to pee without someone leering at you with arousal because you were vulnerable, exposed; and that was the least of it. Not a place where, when you came home from school alone because your sister was at cheerleading practice or chess club or some such other extra-curricular bullshit, you hoped and prayed and wished against wish that you wouldn’t see his van when the bus dropped you off in the long, muddy driveway at the end of the day. In that middle of nowhere. From which there was no escape.

Not that kind of place. Not a place where you were always scared and uncomfortable, and your mother suddenly hated you, and your sister ratted you out on every single little thing you did – always making you out to be the guilty party, even if (somehow, for once) you weren’t.

Not a place where you had no allies.

I never took an interest in firearms after that. Perhaps that was my mistake. Perhaps I should have become an expert marksman – learned to clean and oil the apparatus, stroking its long, hard shaft with a sniper’s keen anticipation. Taken pride in lubricating and priming the instrument, relishing the way it exploded – discharging its load so deftly and fatally into any unsuspecting, innocent target. Or … maybe I simply should have shoved the barrel of the .22 up the carpenter’s extra-wide nostril and pulled the fucking trigger. But, as I said, my interest in that particular pastime was never rekindled.

It could be that I took after my mother. She was surprisingly skillful with a gun. For example: the time she shot out the tires on the pickup truck of the deranged, alcohol-steeped yokel from whom we had purchased the (middle-of-nowhere) property on which our double-trailer now rested. Lack of teeth, health, and brain matter notwithstanding, he was like a bonfire out there in the front yard – screaming and swaying in one of his misdirected, drunken rages: how we had stolen his property. Threatening to drive home and get his shotgun. And my mother walked into the trailer, collected the .22, and stood on the front porch and shot out his tires so that he could not, in fact, drive home and get his shotgun. Game over.

My mother was never the type of person you wanted to piss off.

I remember being impressed with that: my mother protecting her brood – for just she and we girls had been home at the time. I can’t say that it instilled in me a sense of relief, but I knew then and there that my mother had balls of steel. And a deep-seated anger that would fry the eyebrows off your forehead, should you be the unfortunate object of that anger. An anger that would consume her entirely, crippling her relations with her children and certain other prominent characters who walked across our lives. “Better to be pissed off than pissed on,” my grandmother used to say. Not really so in my mother’s case.

There was one other incident involving firearms that informed my youth. One of those events so completely surreal, one remembers it in a very vague fashion – as if it were a dream. It was before we moved the trailer onto the lunatic’s property. It was, in fact, before the trailer – very soon after my mother asked my sister and me, on the car ride home from church, with whom we would choose to live if my mother and father were to separate; very soon after my mother met the carpenter (who happened to be the contractor of our brand-new home – where we girls finally would have our own bedrooms, painted our own special colors) and moved us in with him, to a shabby little apartment the next town over, in a two-family building that sat on a crooked lump of a hill overlooking what passed for a main thoroughfare and was painted a drab and washed-out pea green.

(She had given us the option. In newfound, horrified hindsight, my adult self cannot help wondering whether her motive was a deep and wild hope we might choose my father. For as she would tell us time and again in our preadolescent (and later) years: she loved us kids, but if she had it to do all over again….)

My father had just dropped us off at the pea-green apartment from our biweekly, three-hour-to-the-minute visitation, which had become the standard schedule following my parents’ separation. And innocently in we walked. We soon surmised that the carpenter had been married previously, and probably still was, and that there was some kind of unsettled business: the kind of business wherein you enter the dark apartment and find your mother all scratched up, kind of bleeding (where the skin looks bloody from the scratches opening it up but there is no blood actually flowing), sitting on one side of the kitchen table next to the carpenter, across from whom sat the carpenter’s former wife and her brother, who held a shotgun on the aforementioned mom and carpenter. Candles burning (of all things). (Nothing spoken.) We intuited (or were told) that we were to go into the living room. And I don’t remember anything else about that night.

Except that they took the dog. Schatzie had been her name.

And then there was the time – after the trailer but before the lunatic – when the police came in the middle of the night and took the carpenter away in handcuffs. For dodging child support, I think was the story. Knowing the child involved was a young daughter, I had the feeling it was a bit more nefarious, the reason the cops carted his lying, handcuffed ass out of there. Unfortunately, they brought him back.

Finally, there is the handgun my mother keeps in a lock-box under her bed, which – after a drastic, life-changing illness that befell her in her early seventies, her consequent depression, and avowals that she wished to die – she asked for again and again. We had taken the precaution of hiding the handgun under the colossal piles of debris on the front porch (from which my mother had shot out the lunatic’s tires so many years ago). Considering the fact that both her father and brother had blown their brains out years earlier – with the same gun, in the same room of her father’s house – we weren’t inclined to give it to her.