Tag Archive | domestic violence

That Summer in Arkansas

This is an excerpt from my book Dancing in Hellfire , which is a true story of my life, basically. I am posting it here because I was about to say something derivative on Facebook, but I stopped because I realized that no one would know what the hell I was talking about.

Undoubtedly, the worst four to five months of my life, bar none. There is so much ground to cover here, and it’s highly unlikely that I will get the events in the correct order, but the chronology isn’t terribly important, for the most part. In my mind, it’s all blurred together, encapsulated by the words “That Summer in Arkansas.” There’s only one such summer that I could be referring to—that one between the second and third grade. A nightmare that didn’t seem like it was ever going to end.

It began as an ordinary visit. Mom came and got Britt and me, and this was probably the first time since Easter that we had seen or talked to her, since two visits within a few months was very high frequency for her. At some point over the weekend, she announced that she was not going to take us back, and that she was just going to keep us. Legally, she was more or less within her rights to do that: the agreement that my grandmother would keep us was a largely informal one, because the courts hadn’t settled the custody issue and didn’t seem about to settle it. Even though it had been nearly three years since the separation, the court was no nearer to settling things. In fact, the courts never did rule one way or another. What happened? How come none of the people who are paid to handle such matters was handling it? The divorce finalized, but the question of custody was never settled.

Mom was in full-blown denial about her situation, as would become evident very soon, but I didn’t realize it then—of course, I didn’t know it then. I was eight years old. It was true, though: we never had any money or food, our electricity was cut off due to non-payment several times, and even our water was cut off at one point. And she seriously thought that she could raise two kids in that environment. Plus, she was being beaten pretty much every weekend by that drunk man-child.

Second grade had passed without much of significance happening. We didn’t see mom every other weekend, of course, because she never had gas or a reliable vehicle since she always bought $600 cars. She was always having flats, or some other car trouble. We would receive a letter from her telling us to be by the phone on a certain day at a certain time, and we would sit eagerly by the phone all night. She never called. A week or two later, we would receive another letter that offered up some kind of excuse why she hadn’t been able to call, and she would throw out another day that she would call, or she would announce a day that she was going to get us. Then Britt and I would sit at the front door, hanging out on the garbage can, all damned Friday night, waiting eagerly to see headlights pull into the driveway.

They almost never did.

But she finally managed to get together the whopping ten dollars needed to cover the gas to make the hour-long trip, and decided early that summer that she wasn’t going to take us back.

It was then that we met David, another one of Everett’s four kids, much older than I was but also much younger than my brother. He was a decent enough guy, I suppose, except that he never did anything about Everett’s violence, either. In some ways, I can understand—I know firsthand how hard it can be to confront your father, and Everett was prone to violence. But no one ever confronted Everett about his violence, not even my own brother, which is one of the reasons I’ve never fully been able to forgive Eric.

Mom still lived at that house in Trumann next to the elderly couple, and Everett lived there too. It was an older house, but respectable enough, and had a dilapidated shed in the back that I liked to play in. Everett had a fascination with pocketknives, he gave me a few, and then he taught me how to throw them. I spent hours playing in the battered shed, flipping my knives and throwing them into the distant wall. At the age of eight, between the second and third grades. There were many occasions when I nearly stabbed myself.

As though there was something worse than nearly stabbing myself in the eye with a rebounding throwing knife (because mom or Everett had given me a set of throwing knives they found at a pawnshop), the shed was in poor condition anyway and not stable. The rafters were low enough that I could jump and grab hold of them. So I would—I’d jump and grab the rafters, climb onto them, swing around on them, flip upside down and hang precariously while I practiced throwing knives. It was wild, dangerous stuff that no one should have been doing, but certainly not a second grader, and my mom was well aware that I was doing it. But, in a strange way, she also trusted that I knew my abilities and limits, and that I wasn’t going to hurt myself.

And you know what? I never did hurt myself.

If all that wasn’t dangerous enough, Eric built a tree house for us in an enormous walnut tree in the backyard. Being a cool brother, of course, he built the tree house very high above the ground. No matter how high he’d built the house, though, I climbed up well past it and higher, swinging freely from one branch to the next, and I was higher even than the house’s ceiling when I did this stuff—a fall that would almost certainly have killed me. A fall that did happen that summer, but not to me.

I still loved playing Nintendo, and I did so regularly, but it would be unfair to say that I never did anything else. We lived only a few minutes from two parks, I frequently walked to both, and Britt often accompanied me. One of them was pretty boring, but the other had swings and other cool things—it was further away, though. Mom let us go to these places without supervision, of course, but I only bothered going to the distant one a few times.

I’ve often wondered, when looking back, whether my mom was trying to get my sister or me killed, because she did some reckless things when it came to parenting. I say that mom trusted in me and trusted that I knew my limitations, but that’s purely speculation on my part. Because the fact is that I was in the backyard, throwing knives and swinging from the rafters of a crumbling shed, and shifting wildly among the branches of a tree well above the tree house. Mom did, at one point, tell me to stop swinging from the limbs, but she made it clear that she was only telling me so because Everett’s younger son (who I haven’t mentioned yet) looked up to me and would copy me, and he was likely to get hurt. She didn’t say, “You might slip up, and we can’t afford a hospital visit.” She said, “Charlie will imitate you, and he will slip up.”

Mom’s car stopped working, as her vehicles often did, so we walked everywhere that we needed to go. Eventually, Everett’s parents let us borrow their two-seater bikes, but we didn’t have those for a while, and so we walked.

We went to the store one day, and Britt and I opted to stay and play outside while mom went in and did her shopping. After ten or fifteen minutes, she came back out and said that she had one more store to go to, told us which one it was, and Britt and I again decided we would just stay where we were. Mom left to walk to the other store, and I got bored a few minutes later, and then I went down the street to find mom. It wasn’t hard, and I quickly found her. After she finished her shopping, we came back outside and started heading back toward the initial store, the place where Britt and I had been playing.

And Britt was nowhere in sight.

“Where is your sister?” mom demanded as we rushed toward the store.

“I don’t know!” I cried, feeding off the panic and hostility in mom’s voice. “She was right there!”

As we jogged back, I shook my head, crying, and I mumbled, “I shouldn’t have left her alone…”

“No, you shouldn’t have!” mom snapped at me.

As we neared the store, though, we had a better view of its front, and it turned out that Britt was standing back in a corner, and we simply hadn’t been able to see her from the angle we were at. Years later, I realized what a horrendously foul response that was from my mother. “No, you shouldn’t have!” she said to me.

I was eight years old.

Assuming the worst, what in the hell would it have accomplished if I had stayed with Britt and someone kidnapped her? It would have meant only that Britt and I both were kidnapped. I was freaking eight years old, and Britt was the older one, at nine. I could have no more fought off someone than Britt could have. Still, “No, you shouldn’t have!” she hissed at her eight-year-old son who was already blaming himself.

“No, I shouldn’t have!” is what she should have said. She was the adult who left her eight and nine year old kids playing outside a store.

Britt’s birthday was horrible that year, and was probably still the worst birthday of her life. I’m not sure what caused things to go so badly, but they did. Britt and mom got into a fight—they were actually fighting quite often—and the most vicious one came near the end of That Summer, when mom threw a burning cigarette butt and hit Britt in the leg. I don’t think Britt ever forgave mom for that.

That was the year that Britt got the Polly Pocket toy that she had wanted for Easter, so I’m not sure what spurred the fight. I just remember that Britt cried a lot, and that I wanted her to be happy. But she wasn’t. And though I don’t recall ever seeing anything odd, there’s no telling how deep Everett’s abuses ran, and I certainly wouldn’t put any particular abuse beyond a monster like him. I don’t believe that’s the reason that Britt and mom fought so much, but I honestly have no idea why they did, and it’s clearly too painful of a subject for my sister for me to bring it up now.

I believe it was just that Britt was as miserable there as I was. The electricity was cut off a few times, but we weren’t allowed to run the air conditioners anyway. Arkansas summers are hot, but all we could do was open the windows and use box fans. That doesn’t help very much when the temperature is in the high nineties and the humidity isn’t far behind.

Then, of course, was the fact that mom got the hell beaten out of her regularly by a drunk piece of shit. And this is why I say that Eric would not have stood idly by if he had been forced to witness the abuse as Britt and I were—there’s only so many times that you can watch and hear your mother getting the shit beaten out of her before you’re ready to take matters into your own hands, regardless of your size and regardless of your age.

It was horrible.

You’ll forgive me for not going into elaborate descriptions of what it’s like to see and hear your mother being viciously beaten by an abusive alcoholic, but it’s every bit as awful as your imagination suggests, and so much worse when you’re witnessing it at eight and nine years old.

And one night I could no longer take it.

“[My name], don’t!” Britt whispered as I got up from the couch.

I don’t blame her. We were terrified when this abuse happened. We were too scared to move, too scared to speak, and even too scared to breathe loudly. If we had to go to the bathroom, then we held it. Mom was a lot bigger than us, and she couldn’t protect herself—how could she have protected us? Everett had already thrown a pair of scissors at one of us, so we had no idea if he would hit us. All we could do, at two in the morning, as their shadows danced on the floor, spilling in from the bedroom where they fought, listening to such sickening words as—

“Everett, I can’t breathe…”

–being choked out by our mother, was cower in fear and silence.

But I could cower no more. I had been pushed to the brink. I had seen this too many times; I had heard this too many times. This had been going on for too long, had been happening too often, and my mind snapped. For too long, I’d listened to my mother choking and rasping that she couldn’t breathe. For too long, I’d heard her being slammed into a wall, pushed through a window, punched in the stomach and face, jerked around and slapped. I knew only that I had to act, that something had to be done, and that I was going to do it because no one else was going to.

Someone had to put a stop to this, and there was no one stepping up to do it. And that meant it fell to me. It didn’t register to me that I was eight years old and about to step up to a grown man with a long history of violence. I didn’t care, because I was going to do what no one else was stepping up to do. It didn’t occur to me that I was eight years old, or that it wasn’t fair that I was way too young to be faced with the situation that I was faced with. Besides, no one ever said that life was fair.

No police were coming. My dad wasn’t coming. My brother wasn’t coming. My mom couldn’t handle it. And that meant it was on me, and only me.

I pulled two sharp knives from the kitchen drawer.

“Mom, I’ve got a knife!” I screamed.

Silence fell for a moment, and I was ignored as the horrific abuse continued. I immediately fell into tears, sobbing uncontrollably and whispering, “I’m sorry, mom. I’m sorry.”

I was sorry because I didn’t have it in me. I was sorry because I didn’t have the courage, the strength, or the age to do anything about it. I was sorry because I could do nothing to help her. I went back to the couch that was adjacent to the loveseat that my sister was sleeping on, and I continued crying until long after the violence stopped, because there was nothing else that I could do.

No one was coming, and I couldn’t stop it.

 

Hell Continues

Everett’s other two kids came that July to stay with us, and they were about mine and Britt’s ages, though Anne was slightly older than Britt was, and Charlie was slightly younger than I was. The first Power Rangers movie also hit the theaters, and I badly wanted to go. Mom suggested that I go around picking up cans so that I could earn the money, and I didn’t object at all to that. So that’s what I spent a lot of that summer doing: walking around with Charlie, picking up empty cans so that I could pay my way into the movie, because mom didn’t have the $5 to spare for the admission.

Charlie had some weird issues, though. Mom forced me to put up my Nintendo while he was there, and I was told that it was because he had a history of destroying them. He also burned down a house when he was much younger, by putting a sheet of paper onto a gas stove, or something like that. I never knew the details, but none of the adults ever disputed his claim about it, so it seems that it was true. And Charlie was, of course, proud that he’d burned a house down.

It simply made the summer worse than it already was. I didn’t spend all my time playing video games, obviously, but I did play them a lot, and then I suddenly wasn’t allowed to at all, for an entire month. One morning before Charlie woke up, mom let me connect and play it. I played Mega Man 4, one of my favorite games, but I was only allowed a few minutes before Charlie woke up. He walked through, rubbed his eyes, and mumbled, “There’s a Nintendo?” He kept walking to the kitchen, though. I furiously unhooked it and put it away, and we never discussed it again.

One day I was left home alone, and a man from the water department came by and did something outside. Keeping in mind that I was eight years old, I merely ensured that the door was locked and then watched him from the window. When mom returned, she learned that we didn’t have any water, and I told her about the man who came by.

“Why didn’t you stop him?” she yelled at me, as though her eight-year-old child was really supposed to have been able to handle a responsibility of that magnitude—or even understand something of that magnitude. I’m sure the city would also have been quite interested to learn that she had left an eight year old at home alone, and I sincerely doubt that I’d have been able to accomplish anything if I had talked to the man.

But, as usual, something had gone wrong, and I was just the convenient target to blame it on. Did she really expect her eight-year-old child to go and meet a stranger who had come into the yard? “Are one of your parents home?” the man would have immediately asked, a question that I would obviously have answered honestly. And this was a stranger to me. I had no understanding that this was a city or government employee—it was just some stranger, some strange, grown man in the yard. When I saw him, I verified that the door was locked; I definitely wasn’t about to open it.

Thank goodness, I had more sense than my mom did.

So there in the middle of June—because this actually happened before Charlie and Ashely arrived—we had no water at all. Each morning, Britt and I walked up the street to a nearby gas station, and filled up a five-gallon bucket with water from their faucet behind the building. We were only able to do this a few times, though, because the clerks found out and came out yelling at us, chasing us off, and telling us that we weren’t allowed to do that.

It goes without saying that it was awful, to not have water or air conditioning in the Arkansas summer, but it was even worse than that, because we never had anything to eat, either. Anne remarked once that I ate the equivalent of two biscuits a week, and she wasn’t wrong—I rarely ate anything. Because on top of having nothing to eat, my nerves were absolutely fried. I was always nauseated and on the edge of vomiting, and mom’s “solution” to this was to take me to the doctor for my “anxiety”—something that never happened anyway. Of course, the real solution would have been to get us out of that nightmare where we had no food, no water, and no cooling, and where my early morning wasn’t interrupted by the sounds of horrific violence.

Biscuits are also an apt comparison because I ate a lot of biscuits—there was never much else to eat, and biscuits were the primary staple. We would cook biscuits, then everyone would get two, and we’d dip them in this horrible concoction of peanut butter and maple syrup.

Then there was Treet Meat. It’s essentially a generic version of Spam, and it was the only meat that I ate through that summer. And, sadly, that name was also appropriate—it was a treat to have, because it was actual food. We didn’t even get it that often, because we couldn’t; we were poor as dirt. We didn’t even have water. Our food situation was no better. Throw on top of that the alcoholism and abuse, and it was an absolute nightmare, a true living hell. That, it seems, was what mom considered best for her kids, since she undoubtedly “only wanted what was best” for her kids.

And, unbelievably, it actually got worse.

Because as though all that wasn’t bad enough, the property owners tasked us with tearing down the shed, which we did. We then lit a bonfire with the wood from it in the backyard, and all that was fine. A few days later, however, we also lit a bonfire in the front yard. And from then on, we were under attack by fleas—fully under attack. Mom said that the fire in the backyard chased them into the front, and then the fire in the front yard chased them into the house. That seems likely, because we had a total infestation. Fleas were everywhere. No matter where we went or what we did, fleas where all over us, biting away.

Mom’s solution to this was some flea powder and anti-itch lotion, but that was woefully inadequate to deal with an infestation of that scale. Bug bombs wouldn’t have been enough. Only an exterminator would really have been sufficient, and it would likely have taken multiple visits from an exterminator.

The situation was beyond terrible, and it’s hard to imagine it being any worse and still leaving the victims alive and sane. How much more could my sanity have taken? How much more could my sister have taken? Hunger, thirst, miserable heat, domestic violence, and constantly being bitten by fleas. These are the reasons why it will always be “That Summer in Arkansas” to me, and why it will (hopefully) always be regarded as the worst summer of my life.

During the day, Charlie, David, and I went through the neighborhoods and picked up cans from the side of the road. That was probably the only bit of good parenting that my mother ever did—if I wanted to go to the movie, then I needed to earn the money. I would say that she might have been pushing it a bit, since I was only eight years old, but it’s also true that it was the only way I could have gone anyway.

Then the glorious day came that we called the person to come and buy the cans from me. It was a little over three dollars, and to my horror, he handed half of it to me, and the other half to Charlie. I threw a fit. And, looking back, I was right to throw a fit, because I was the one collecting the cans and had been from the beginning. I wasn’t being a brat when I said that Charlie didn’t help, because he really hadn’t—he simply came along because there was nothing else to do, and because that’s what I was going to do whether he came or not. I carried the garbage bags, I asked people for their cans, and I picked them up from the side of the road. Undoubtedly, Charlie picked up a few, but he wasn’t asked to, and he certainly hadn’t picked up half of them. I can understand, I guess, why the man presumed it was best to split the money between Charlie and me, but it still seems it would have been better for him to give it to my mother for her to handle. I worked all through that summer doing it, and three dollars was already not enough to go to the movie, but a dollar and fifty cents was nowhere near enough.

I was eventually given all the money—which, as I say, is good since I was the one doing it—but obviously still was not enough to pay for the movie. In another display of surprisingly good parenting, however, mom gave me the other two dollars that I needed, and I was able to buy the ticket and watch the movie. I didn’t get popcorn, a drink, or anything else; I just watched the movie, and it was great, because I’d spent the entire summer working to pay my way into it. I wasn’t entirely successful, but no one could say that I didn’t try.

One afternoon as we played in the tree… I don’t recall exactly what we were doing, but Charlie was swinging around in the branches as I did before my mom asked me to stop. And Charlie made a mistake. He fell almost in slow motion, and the three of us could only watch in shock as he fell, slamming into branches as he plummeted. We screamed as he screamed, and then there was a loud and sickening thud as he slammed against the ground.

Mom and Everett got him inside and called an ambulance. Charlie was able to move and able to stand, and the paramedics asked about taking him to the hospital to check if he had a concussion. To me, it seemed obvious. Dude fell out of a tree. His back was lacerated from the branches that had whipped against his flesh as he fell, and he had pounded against the ground. Why were people discussing whether to take him to the hospital? The ambulance was already there, after all—get the boy some medical attention.

But they didn’t. Because it would have been too expensive.

Charlie swooned at the door and nearly fainted, but caught himself on the jamb. Mom and Everett agreed to keep an eye on him for signs of a concussion, but he still didn’t go to the hospital, and none of us climbed the tree again.

Charlie proved more or less okay, though, and he and I stood in the front yard one day as I prepared to show the whole world once more what a jackass I was. A small, purple truck came through as I hoisted up a very tiny pebble—very tiny. Smaller than a piece of cat food, and very light—far too light to cause any damage. As the truck drove past, in full view of everyone and everything, I pulled back my arm and released, hitting the truck with that pebble.

Brakes screeched. Charlie and I bolted inside.

The man driving the truck, understandably pissed off, said that it was the short one who threw it, and that meant Charlie. Mom and Everett yelled for Charlie as the man left, evidently content to let them handle it, and I stayed hidden in the back, fully prepared to let Charlie take the fall for it. Because I was terrified, too. Charlie wouldn’t have that, though, which is good, and he told them that it was I. When asked directly, I did not deny it. There was a reason, after all, that I was hiding in the back.

That I was going to let Charlie take the blame just pissed Everett off more, but it’s not like there was ever much chance for that to happen. The dude mistakenly told them “the short one,” they called for Charlie, and Charlie told them it was me. But Everett was furious, and I suspect he had been waiting for such an opportunity all summer. He wanted to beat me.

Mom wouldn’t allow that, though, which is good. Because, honestly, if Everett had laid a hand on me, my dad would have killed him. As I said earlier, I never held the delusion that my dad was a superhero, as so many young kids do, but my dad wouldn’t have needed to be a superhero to take on Everett, or to kill him—and there is no doubt: my dad would have done both. Everett was the kind of man who hit women; the last thing he needed was to fight someone who was, at the very least, a real man. And my dad would have been so enraged that there probably wouldn’t have been a fight; he probably would have just shot the asshole.

Or stabbed him, as I had once been ready to do.

Mom took me into the bathroom, and I was crying hysterically, because I knew I’d done something wrong, and I didn’t typically do things like that. I really didn’t. I was just showing off in front of Charlie, and mom knew it, too. She also knew that there was no chance that I was going to do it again—it was all over my teary face. She had already promised Everett that she would whip me, though, and I’m sure that she intended to, until she got me in the bathroom with the doors shut.

Mom knew me better than that, though. She surely understood exactly why I had done it, and she and Everett were both aware that the thing I’d thrown was tiny—far too tiny to do any damage at all. And the guy checked his truck extensively, but there was no damage to it whatsoever. The tiny little pebble almost certainly hit one of his hubcaps, in fact, given the distance involved and the very low mass of the pebble. What I did was wrong, I knew that, and my mother knew that I knew that— and she knew that I had known it at the time that I threw it.

But there was also the fact that no damage was done, and that I undoubtedly would never have thrown something that would have broken a window or caused a dent. What I did simply caused a noise. There was no damage, and she knew that was not by accident. She made it clear to me that I wasn’t to do something like that again, but there was no chance that I was going to anyway, and she told me that Everett wanted to get at me.

In hindsight, I somewhat wish that he would have. Oh, sure, it would have hurt then, but when my dad found out, he would have beat the ever-loving hell out of Everett, and if there’s anyone who deserves to be beaten fifteen-sixteenths to death, it’s Everett Barber. And if Everett had ever laid a finger on me, my dad would have torn him to pieces. Everett did later say, “You’re lucky you ain’t my son, or that hide would be tanned and you would be able to talk for a week!”

Instead, mom spanked the toilet, and we both pretended that she’d spanked me. In fact, she lightly tapped me with the belt, but she grinned when she did it—that way we weren’t lying. That was the way that my mom and I handled things—she respected me, and I respected her. She didn’t have to roar and command me to stop swinging high in the tree; she asked me, explained her reasoning, and I respected her enough to obey. And she had been correct. Charlie had gotten hurt doing it, but it wasn’t because he wanted to do what I was doing.

Of course, Charlie didn’t believe that she’d spanked me, being a little snitch who was double-checking for Everett, and he asked me repeatedly. I consistently answered that she had, and she said the same. But she didn’t, because she was my mother, and she knew me better than that. I was no longer a rebellious kindergartener forced to adjust to a separation and trying to cling to the only normalcy that I had by eschewing school and staying with my mother. I was the kid who had just spent an entire summer collecting cans to pay his own way into a movie.

But no, Everett Barber. Violence is not the way that my mother communicated with me. Weak, ignorant people like you communicate with violence.

There is never a reason to spank a child. Talking to a child and reasoning with the child will earn the child’s respect, and will give the child a reason to respect and trust the adult as an authority figure. Resorting to violence will not earn the child’s respect; it will only earn the child’s fear. But I never again came close to throwing a rock or pebble at a vehicle, and violence wasn’t necessary to make that happen—simply talking to me was. But I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that an asshole like Everett immediately jumped to violence as the solution to misbehavior.

Everett was a violent asshole, and it’s proof that the universe doesn’t care, that he lives on while my mother has been dead for nearly two decades. This man directly responsible for untold amounts of pain and suffering, and who inflicted violence upon numerous people. Obviously, he doesn’t deserve to die by any means, and my mother was no saint, but, between the two, one of them deserves to be alive a lot more than the other.

Eric forgave Everett. I imagine that was easy, since Eric never witnessed the horrors that Britt and I did.

I nearly saw Everett again, that first weekend we spent with Eric after reconnecting with him, and I told Eric that it would be a very, very bad idea for Everett to come anywhere near me. Eric offered a weak excuse about how Everett is the grandfather of his son, and that they have to be civil, but I did not and do not care about that. This man relentlessly beat my mother in fits of alcohol-induced rage because he couldn’t face his own failures and inadequacies, and he never apologized to my sister or me. Eric said that Everett is clean now, and that he went through Alcoholics Anonymous. That may be, but he missed a step. He missed a few people that he was supposed to apologize to for some of his wrongdoings. My sister and I should have been pretty close to the top of the list.

With dysfunction of that scale, it certainly wasn’t only during the day that they fought. They fought almost constantly, and one of the many lessons I learned from mom is always have my car keys attached to a belt loop on my jeans. She did so, and it was extremely handy one day when they got into a fight. We planned to leave—probably to go to Aunt Diane’s—but she forgot something inside. By the time she turned around to go back in, Everett had already locked the door.

I will never forget that asshole’s stupid, childish grin as he parted the blinds and gave my mom the finger.

Britt and I stayed in the car for the next few hours as they fought inside, because there was no chance that we were going in there while that was happening. One walks on eggshells when there’s a lot of domestic violence, regardless of whom it is targeted at, because one is constantly afraid that something is going to set that violent son of a bitch off, and no one wants to be the person who causes it.

Charlie and Anne soon left with their mom to go back to Oklahoma, and that sucked, because I did enjoy hanging out with Charlie. I was happy to have my video games back, of course, but it wasn’t fun that a friend was leaving. I would never see him again, either—or Anne, for that matter.

It was soon time to register for school, and that was totally weird. I’d already changed schools several times. I started in South Pontotoc Elementary, but spent a few days in the city school—that was an awkward and unpleasant experience. I wasn’t there long enough to make friends, and the vibe in that school was strangely different from the county school. There was a lot of snobbery, and the playground sucked. Then I went to East Tate, and suddenly I was transferring to a school in Arkansas.

Dad and grandma came, to try to get us, before school started, and they weren’t trying to work within the legal system, mostly because we all knew by that point that the case was a total joke to the state. But mom was served with some kind of papers—it wasn’t a summon, and it seemed to be something that grandma paid a lawyer to write up and make it look official and scary. It was also filled with lies. For one, it asserted that we lived in a mobile home, that mom and Everett were doing crack and other things like that, none of which was true, but I understand in hindsight where they were coming from. But I refused to lose my mom again.

Dad promised us that he had gifts for us in the backseat of the car, and all that we had to do was climb in and get them. He held the door open, and it was all too easy for us to see that there was nothing in the backseat. The elderly couple next door knew enough of what was happening that they wanted to ensure things didn’t get out of control, so they came out and sat on their porch whenever dad was there and pulling his stunts. Britt and I weren’t stupid, though, and we told them that they could hand us the gifts, because we weren’t climbing in to get them.

They were trying to kidnap us, in effect, and I have to wonder what legal grounds they had to do so. What would have happened, if they had shoved us into the backseat and drove off? Someone would have called the police, and there would likely have been a roadblock—then what? Clearly, mom wasn’t in violation of any legal order, or they wouldn’t have had such a difficult time trying to go the legal route.

On one of these several “visits,” I stood near mom and Britt on the porch, as dad and grandma stood by their car at the road, shouting back and forth with mom because they had been firmly told to get off her property. “Does this look like a mobile home to you?” I shouted, because I was furious that they were again trying to take us away from our mom, and Britt evidently preferred to stay, too.

Life was borderline unbearable there in Arkansas, but it’s curious to think about what implications that would have had for me being transgender. I wouldn’t have had to struggle with it nearly as much, because my mom would have gladly accepted me. Everett would have gotten out of the picture at some point (he was removed from the picture later), and he would have certainly made it impossible for me to be transgender—more so than grandma and dad did, really. But Everett’s days with our mom were numbered, even if I didn’t know it then.

Mom is the only family member who I know wouldn’t have taken issue with it, because she was bisexual herself, and out of all the things I can question about my mother, I have never doubted that she loved me. Being transgender would have meant nothing to her, and she would have accepted and supported me. That she is not a part of my life is all the more tragic because of that: she is the only family member who would have accepted and supported me. Maybe back then, my sister would have as well, but with the way it went down, even my sister, with whom I went through all this bullshit, refused to accept my transgenderism.

In the grand scheme of things, though, it was certainly for the best that I did end up back with my grandmother, because I would have ended up dropping out as a teenager. I would never have been exposed to fantasy and would never have started writing; I probably would never have picked up a guitar and become an accomplished musician. My life has certainly not been great, but it would have been worse if mom had won that war.

“Dad, I hate you!” I shouted.

For just a brief moment, silence fell. Then my dad narrowed his eyes and pointed at my mother, and then he said in a low voice filled with icy anger, “Pat, if you ever tell him to say that again, I will kill you.”

So there, at the age of eight, I watched my dad threaten to kill my mother.

Obviously, they left quickly after that, because the elderly couple next door had certainly heard that little line, and it’s illegal to stand just on the edge of someone’s property, point at them, and threaten to kill them. For a while, I was in shock over that; it’s unusual to hear your dad threaten to kill your mom, and to mean it, and mom hadn’t told me to say anything. I spoke of my own accord, because I did hate him at that moment. He was once more a force of disruption, but also the only person who could save us—I just didn’t realize then how badly we needed to be saved.

And I was willing, I think, to endure all of those nightmarish things because they were the price of being there with my mother.

I didn’t understand mom’s laughter later that evening, when she bragged to Everett about what I had said. I was unable to understand that she liked how it hurt my dad to hear, and that she was happy that I stood against him—that I stood firmly with her. She didn’t tell me not to hate him, or even not to say it, as any good mother would have. She encouraged it, because she thought it was great.

For the first time, Britt and I suddenly went to different schools. We were two grades apart anyway, so it’s not like it made much of a difference, but… it did make a difference, and I didn’t like it. I don’t remember much about that school, except that people concluded that I was a talented artist, because I was able to draw something that was on the cover of a book. I did get into Gifted Art during the fourth grade, qualifying by drawing a boot. I have no idea why I made it in, because I saw the boots I drew years later, and they were awful.

They had GT at that school, which stood for Gifted and Talented, but only one person in our class was in it. Again, at East Tate I was allowed into TAGS halfway through the third grade (Talented and Gifted Students), but I was too depressed to have qualified for it there in Arkansas. I didn’t make any friends there. I didn’t want to make any friends there. The teachers would also frequently ask me what was wrong, too…

How was I supposed to answer that? Fucking everything was wrong. Between being hungry through the entire summer, sweating and burning up through the entire summer, not even having water through a substantial chunk of it, being blamed for my mom’s mistakes, watching and listening to my mom being beaten once every other week (on average), what in the hell wasn’t wrong? Oh, and I was having to lie to cover up for my mom, because she was shooting up—of course she was shooting up. Since everyone trusted me for some reason, she had me insist that it was for her headaches, when obviously it wasn’t.

“You know the shots I take for my headaches, right?” she asked me one morning.

“I don’t know,” I answered honestly. She didn’t make it a habit of shooting up in front of me, and I didn’t recall then her ever doing so—not since Pontotoc, at least.

“Sure you do,” she cajoled. “The shots that I take for my headaches.”

“Oh,” I convinced myself. “Yeah.”

“You know they’re for my headaches, right?” she pressed, and I nodded. “Good. Everett might ask you, and just be sure to tell him that you know they’re for my headaches…”

“You’re going to have to participate,” the teachers told me. “You can’t just sit there and mope all the time,” they said.

Then there was walking to and from school every day, at a time when I constantly felt nauseated and was always on the verge of throwing up, because we didn’t have a car and because Everett’s parents were weird about their bikes. We were there for about four months, possibly five, and they were by leaps and bounds the worst four months of my life, and I’ve actually been homeless before. But nothing else I’ve experienced comes close to That Summer in Arkansas.

It was worse than ever one night—so bad that the elderly couple told mom that they would call the police if they heard it again. And, as usual, mom told them that it wouldn’t happen again, the same thing that she told Britt and me. Of course, this left my nerves more frazzled than ever, to the point that I wouldn’t even eat, and mom knew that she had to do something, and her solution was to take me to the doctor. Britt also needed to go to a dentist, so mom scheduled both things for the upcoming Thursday.

On that day, since we would be in the city, mom also planned to stop by and see an attorney who wanted a two thousand dollar retainer “to even look at the case.” Mom seemed to think that implied he was a terrific lawyer, and that may have been true, but she was never going to come up with that kind of money, and she must have known that, deep down inside. Just a few weeks prior, she’d received and unexpected check from the government, which she used to buy a $600 car that broke down almost immediately.

Britt and I were playing at the closest park when I looked across the street and saw, to my horror and dismay, dad standing and talking on the payphone while grandma stood beside him. Dad happened to see me, as well, and I told Britt that we had to go home, and that dad was there. We immediately ran home, since we weren’t far in the first place. We told mom what we’d seen, but she wasn’t overly worried about it.

A few minutes later, dad and grandma pulled in front of the house, but they were not alone. They had the police with them, and they had some legal document signed by a judge that gave grandma legal guardianship of us. They accomplished this through some creative distribution of money (bribes, one might say). Dad never denied this, and it’s certainly strange that they managed to get a judge to sign something so major without a hearing actually taking place. So someone’s pockets surely got a little heavier.

It was heartbreaking, and we were conflicted about it. This was our mother, and we loved her and didn’t want to leave her. But, at the same time, the situation was terrible, and no child should have been anywhere near that mess. Britt and mom fought nearly as often as did mom and Everett—I loved my sister and didn’t want her to be unhappy, and she wasn’t any happier than I was. And while I know now that it was for the best, that didn’t make it any easier then.

It all ended as suddenly and inexplicably as it began. Just as we didn’t expect mom to randomly declare that she was going to keep us, neither were we expecting dad and grandma to show up that day with the law on their side. The police oversaw everything as we packed our stuff, coldly standing by and grilling mom, as Britt, mom, and I cried and said our goodbyes, because there was no telling when we were going to see each other again. Mom’s visitation rights had been revoked, which meant that… legally, we weren’t allowed to see her anymore.

There was no turning around that time, though, even as we answered their questions honestly about what had been going on. Dad repeatedly said that we were going to simply forget what I said to him—as though we could do anything else, or as though punishing me for it had been a consideration. I’d just gone through hell for months with my sister. What could he possibly have done to punish me?

The Blood I Cried

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Introduction

Whether being four years old and watching one of my parents’ friends shoot up peanut butter on our couch and dying before my eyes; whether being effectively kidnapped at the age of eight by my meth-addicted mother and forced to endure a summer of being too poor to buy food, with our water turned off due to non-payment, and with mom being beaten mercilessly by a violent alcoholic; whether coming to terms with her disappearance like something out of a murder mystery show; or whether being transgender in the midst of all of this and trying desperately to come to terms with it while surrounded by a fundamentalist Christian family that forced me to not merely repress who I was but also to forget who I was, I have seen a great deal of tragedy.

It’s strangely easy to forget how devastating all of this must truly have been, even as I was the one who experienced it, because it’s easy to forget how it truly felt to lie awake, crying and listening to the sounds of shattering glass as my mother was thrown brutally through windows. It’s easy to forget how angry I have the right to be at my father and grandmother, for forcing me to oppress myself and attempting to turn me into something that I am not.

Today I am a transgender woman and resident of the state of Mississippi. This is as frustrating, difficult, and dangerous as one would expect, but I survive, and I roll with the punches. I have no choice, just as I had no choice those early mornings as I bore witness to horrific domestic violence.

So this is my story–a story of how low human depravity can sink, but also how the human spirit can stand resilient and refuse to surrender. However, I know that I am one of the lucky ones. The majority of people who endure such childhood trauma, and who are forced by religiously oppressive authorities to repress their own natures, are not so fortunate. Most of the former lose themselves in a sea of drugs that allow them to forget, while the latter often lose themselves to the blade of a razor. Yet I know, because I have lived it, that we can survive the struggles–and not merely survive, but become stronger through them.

Where to begin, in this sordid tale of devils and demons?

My family is exactly what one would expect of a north Mississippi lower middle class / upper lower class white Christian family; it was only a few years ago that I first heard the acronym WASP, but I have to admit: aside from its redundancy, there is no more apt description of my family. They are almost stereotypical in how typical they are of an ordinary white fundamentalist Christian family from the southern United States.

Everyone in Mississippi isn’t like that, however, which is a point I’ve tried to stress in the past: Mississippi does contain many people like myself. As a friend recently put it, “We grew up in an area that is run-down, poor, and stupid, over all, where most of the populace is indoctrinated by religious nonsense to the point where they can’t even recognize rational thought. We pushed through what it takes to fit in here, and we defined ourselves. That’s something to embrace and be proud of.”

My friends and I have reached the end of a long and grueling journey that was filled with adversity and people who would use any means at their disposal—terrorism, fear, violence, and coercion—to bend us to their wills, and we’ve looked back at the paths we traveled and rejoiced that we survived and stayed true to ourselves. Friends are priceless when one is transgender in a family full of fundamentalist Christians.

Both of my paternal grandparents would reject me entirely—they do not yet know, and they will be among the last to know, since I see them only a few times a year. “You don’t know how they’ll react,” I’ve had people tell me. “Give them a chance. Sometimes people surprise you.”

With all due respect, those allies and friends have no idea the type of people we’re really dealing with. My Mississippian friends know better, too; they know that there is no chance that my family will ever welcome me at Christmas dinner as a female. When my grandfather (who, for the record, is on his tenth or eleventh wife) learned that my sister was living with her boyfriend, he wrote her a lengthy letter, wherein he quoted Biblical passages and called her a whore. When my grandmother found girls’ clothes hidden between my mattresses, she wanted to send me to a foster home and asserted that she would not have that in her house. If they had thought I was gay, they would have sent me to one of those awful “pray the gay away” camps.

This isn’t to say that I’m perfect, and acknowledging my own faults and mistakes will be the most difficult part of writing this. I have made plenty of mistakes and stupid decisions that brought people around me severe difficulty and hardship, particularly regarding past relationships.

My memory is also not perfect, and I am likely to make mistakes, and, given that some of the information comes from extremely unreliable sources (like my father), some of that can’t really be helped. It doesn’t matter, though. The point of this is to show how awful parenting shaped me, and the countless lies that my dad told me are part of that. I strive for honesty, integrity, and sincerity in all things. Consider this my vow that everything within is, to the best of my knowledge, the unaltered truth, except that names have been changed.

South Pontotoc

I was born premature, thankfully, since the umbilical cord had wrapped around my throat and I was choking to death. This was surely a result of my mother’s cigarette smoking and eating painkillers while pregnant. My father insists that she didn’t do drugs while she carried us, but… Yeah, she did.

I certainly don’t remember my birth, but I do remember some things from shortly after my birth. Though my family says there is no way I could remember it, my introduction to the world came with overwhelming confusion: I was in some sort of cradle, and the back of my right hand hurt because a number of needles and tubes penetrated my flesh. The details are blurry and fuzzy, as one would expect from such early memories, but the needles burned and itched. They irritated me, and I wanted them out. I was afraid and confused, with no idea why these things penetrated my hand and no understanding of what was going on. I knew only that I was hurting and helpless to do anything about it.

Confusion—pure confusion. I didn’t even have a sense of self. I had no idea that I existed, that I was a baby in a hospital, and that I was a being. I could feel the needles in the back of my hand, and they hurt. The pain, however, was not unbearable, and wasn’t the main facet of that moment. It was confusion. I was not afraid—I didn’t have enough self-awareness for the confusion to make me scared. I simply knew nothing. I was a blank slate, onto which was being written reality in the ink of experience. I didn’t even know that I was a blank slate. I knew only that I hurt, and that I was confused. I was not in the arms of a loving mother whose warmth brought me comfort. I did not stare up and into the eyes of a nurse who was delighted to see a baby growing healthier by the hour. I was not being cooed by an older brother, or rocked in the cradle while a loving grandparent read a story. I was alone and hurting in a room bathed in fluorescent light.

That was my first experience with the world. That was how I was introduced to the universe—in the sterilizing, emotionless light of an empty hospital room, not the gentle and soothing light of a home. I heard the beeps and sounds of monitoring equipment, not the joyous laughter of a loving family. I lie alone in a hospital contraption with the shrill, uncomfortable hospital sheets, not wrapped in a blanket and the arms of a doting mother.

And the worst part—the indisputable worst part—is that I remember this.

The first few years of my life were probably normal, about what anyone would expect from a southern, lower middle class white family that subsisted more on the successes of previous generations than the merits of its own. There were some oddities, though, and signs even then of who I really was, but it was the mid-80s. It wouldn’t really be fair to blame my parents for not recognizing and embracing that I was transgender.

Of course, I was born male, “with a penis and everything.” But whenever all of my underwear was dirty, my mother would put me in my sister’s panties; it wasn’t a punishment, to clarify. Being the clever child that I was, I began hiding all of my underwear, just so that I could tell my mom that I didn’t have any, and so that I could wear panties instead. Somewhere around three years old, I took all of my underwear and threw them into the back of a closet that no one ever opened, and then I reported to my mother that, strangely, all of my underwear was suddenly gone.

So when I say that I’ve been transgender since birth, it’s as close to “since birth” as one can get. I couldn’t have been older than three years old at that point, because my sister hadn’t begun kindergarten herself. I knew then that I preferred women to men: I loved my mother and sister, and, even at that age, I had a deep appreciation for feminine beauty. I also thought that my Aunt Diane was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen, and my mother used to make fun of me for my enamorment with my aunt.

My experience with men at this point was limited to my father (who was fat and not overly pleasant to look at), my brother (who was thin, but who had nothing on my mother), my grandfather (who was also overweight, and a jerk), and my Uncle Danny (who has always been an asshole). Although it’s typical for young boys to love their mothers, I wanted to be just like mine, and I suspect that had a lot to do it with, but who can say? I was three when it began, and I simply wanted to be a girl.

I had a blanket (what most people would call a “blankie,” though I never called it that), and it was one of those cotton-threaded ones similar to fishnet. I refused to sleep without it and my pillow. The pillow actually wasn’t that important, but the pillowcase certainly was. I rubbed the pillowcase between my finger and thumbnail, sleeping on the central heating vents in the floor and driving my father crazy with all of it.

A Look at My Father

I would love to say that my father isn’t a bad man.

But he is.

That’s a difficult thing to say and accept, but I have to stress that it doesn’t really make me love him any less, and that the dominant emotion I have for my father is pity. Even so, I would be lying if I said that he was a good man who simply made some mistakes; that isn’t the case at all. He’s a bad man who has made some good decisions, not a good man who has made a few bad ones.

His own childhood was no walk in the park, damaged by my alcoholic and abusive grandfather beating the hell out of my grandmother. Though not much of that has been shared with me, I can certainly relate to what he has said, and it’s clear the recollections are as painful to him as it is for me to recall the abuse my mother endured at the hands of alcoholics.

At some point, my grandparents divorced—Go, grandma!—because my grandmother wouldn’t put up with the abuse. My grandmother is easily worthy of her own story, because she is an unsung hero of the feminist movement without even trying. In the sixties and seventies, she left her violent husband and blazed her own path in Mississippi, won the house in the divorce, and then worked at a college until she retired at the age of 67.

True to the family history, my grandmother endured her own screwed up childhood, and was even sent away by her mother to live with Uncle Bill and Aunt Edna on their farm. Evidently, Aunt Edna didn’t like my grandmother one bit, and was very unkind to her. What internal strength caused my grandmother, in what must have been the 40s, to graduate as the valedictorian of her class? What quiet resolve allowed my grandmother to learn the necessary skills to work in the administration section of a college during the 60s?

These are questions to which I would love answers, but I’ll never have them, because they are not things that my grandmother is willing to discuss. Questions about her past are met with short answers, and I can’t blame her for not wanting to talk about it.

On one particular drunken rampage, my father held a gun on my grandfather so that my grandmother could limp out of the house. While I truly hate that he had to do such a thing in the first place, I’m also jealous that he was old enough to do something about it. When my mother suffered under Everett’s hands, I was in the second grade, and too young and weak to do anything to intervene.

For years, my father insisted that he was drafted to Vietnam, and he even talked about how he was called a murderer and spit upon when he returned. Eventually my sister and I realized that there’s no way this is true. Either he was actually the oldest between him and his brother (and thus wouldn’t have been drafted), or the Vietnam War ended when he was 16. In this little alternate reality he had constructed, he had to be older than our mother was (which was blatantly false—she had always been recognized as the older one), his brother had to be lying about his own age, and almost everyone had to have falsified birth records.

He changed his story to say that he was in Vietnam during the 80s, through another offensive that we did, but I have been unable to find any military record for him. Whether he actually fought in Vietnam, he did mislead us into believing he’d fought in the Vietnam War, which is a lie of such magnitude and scope that one has to marvel at it.

He is a religious man, though it’s hard to tell by his behavior: heavy drug usage, constant lies, and steady manipulation. Although he is less religious than other family members are, his secularism is applied selectively, and he’s generally as fundamental as everyone else is. He continues to believe that President Obama is a Muslim, is more or less openly racist, and is a diehard Republican, despite that he’s effectively a ward of the state who benefits substantially from liberal policies.

I obviously don’t see eye-to-eye with him, but we do have some similar interests. It was he who introduced me to Fantasy literature and tabletop gaming, both of which almost immediately became passions for me. In turn, I exposed him to the tenth installment of a popular roleplaying video game, and I’m still happy that I was able to show him to something that he enjoyed so immensely. He must have played through it a dozen times, and he certainly discovered more of its secrets than I ever would have.

There is some kinship between us, and I do love him, despite the numerous differences, and in spite of the fact that he has done me far more harm than good. More than anything, I pity him, because his childhood evidently destroyed him; he is one those who did not escape unscathed. He was swallowed by the mentality that the world owes him something, and oblivious to the reality that the world will never give it.

The rifts between us began because I was not the son that he wanted. He hated that I loved sleeping on the heating vents—I’ve always loved heat. I wouldn’t sleep anywhere else. I had to sleep on one of the floor vents, and the heat had to be on. There in the floor, I had the pillow and pillowcase that I refused to sleep without, and the blanket that I required as I slept.

My father hated all of these things. We went to visit some relatives at one point, and I left my blanket and pillow at home. With no other way to shut me up, my parents took me to a store to get a new pillow, and there I went from one to the next, tearing open the plastic just slightly, and “testing” it until I found one that was satisfactory. When we got back to our trailer a few nights later, dad went outside and told me to bring my pillow.

As I stepped out into the night air, I saw him kneeling just outside the small stone circle beside our front steps. It had once been a flower garden—conceived during one of mom’s highs, when she was bolstered with energy from painkillers. The high wore off, but the flowers remained in that little circle of rocks—at least for a while. Then they died, shriveled, neglected, and forgotten.

Almost like a demon out of a child’s horror story, there was my dad, grinning devilishly and eagerly, urging me to throw my old pillow onto a mess of crumbled newspapers soaked in lighter fluid as he held his flaming lighter above it. “We need to burn it!” he said, but I refused. There was no need to burn it. They were already making me throw it away—they were already making me discard this pillow that I loved and had slept with every night for years. Was that not enough?

“We need to burn it!” he said again, as I ran inside and cried to mom that dad wanted to burn the pillow that I loved. It may seem strange that I had such attachment to a pillow, but I did, and both of my parents knew it. My father certainly knew very well that I loved that pillow.

That’s why he wanted to burn it. Because I loved it.

We didn’t burn random things, and I doubt that we ever burned anything there at all. He wasn’t content to force me to throw away this pillow, the symbol that I was an emotional person and not the crass son that he apparently wanted. The pillow had to be destroyed in flames because I loved it, and because “real men don’t love.” This silly, feminine weakness, this emotional attachment to an object—it had to be gotten rid of, and in the most dramatic way possible.

It was not the pillow that my dad wanted to burn.

It was my heart.

My mother intervened, though my father came inside and continued insisting that we needed to burn the pillow, because he was afraid that I would be able to talk my mother into letting me keep it. One has to wonder why it was an issue that I wanted to keep it. In the end, I placed it gingerly on top of the garbage can in the kitchen and told it goodbye. I hated to do so, and I cried, because it didn’t make sense to me.

It’s understandable that I developed such strong emotional ties to objects, as neither parent spent much time with me, and there was not much hugging in the family. Mom and dad were always high on one drug or another, lying on the couch and borderline comatose. I don’t know how Brandi handled it then, or what she did in order to get through the long and miserable days, but it was surely as awful for her as it was for me. Unlike our older brother, we didn’t have friends with whom we could go hang out. Or, at least, I didn’t. Brandi was friends with a girl who didn’t live too far from us, and I hope that my sister was happy then.

Aunt May and Kay-Kay

For a while, mom did work, as did my father. While Brandi and Eric were gone to school and my parents were at work, I was babysat by our great aunt who lived next door, a relatively kind woman who I remember as mostly humorless. My father fleeced her out of most of her money, just as he did to my great-grandmother, and just as he is currently doing to my grandmother. However, I was too young to comprehend that, and there isn’t much that I remember about Aunt May.

It was horrendously boring at Aunt May’s. There were few places worse for my pre-school self. I wasn’t allowed to take my Nintendo, which left me there alone with an eighty-year-old woman and very little to actually do, because there was no one to play with and nowhere to play at. Aunt May wasn’t unkind, but she was also not particularly joyful. I don’t blame her for that—she was a very old woman, and probably not happy to babysit a four-year-old.

I should have been outside having fun, rather than sitting in a living room with an eighty-year-old woman and playing with paper dolls that she cut out of a magazine. Of course, such things seem droll only from a modern perspective, but I was accustomed to video games and cartoons, the heightened entertainment possibilities of the late 1980s. In the 1880s, a child would have been thrilled to sit on a couch in an air-conditioned house and idle away the hours with paper dolls.

However, imagine the horrified response one would get if a modern child was asked to spend day after day in that environment, with only a very old woman as company. There would probably be allegations of child abuse, though I’m not making that claim. However, many modern parents would likely consider that to be, at the least, borderline child abuse. To me, it was simply boring, and the time passed so slowly that I probably lived more moments there at Aunt May’s house than all the moments I have lived since.

I don’t intend any of this to be disparaging to Aunt May. I have no doubt that she did the best she could, and significantly better than many people in her position would have. Still, I dreaded those days when both parents had to work, and it was routine for me to ask mom each afternoon, “Do you have to work tomorrow?”

Aunt May had a moustache, as well, but I never noticed it. It wasn’t until I was a teenager and I was shown a picture of her that I learned she had a moustache. I was pre-kindergarten when I spent time with Aunt May, so the idea that a woman didn’t have facial hair wasn’t in my head yet, so it seemed perfectly normal to me. My father had a moustache and Aunt May had a moustache. Cars had tires, and houses had walls.

One horrible day, as Aunt May sat in her recliner, concealed from view of the kitchen as I sat on the couch near the front door, there was suddenly a crash in the kitchen. The backdoor entered into the kitchen, and I will never forget the fear that fell over this old woman’s face. Someone had broken in through the back door.

She and I hid in the living room, cowering in the corner behind her chair. I don’t believe she ever called the police (she didn’t have a phone), or did anything about it, but my memory of that ordeal is vague. I recall only the noise, the unmistakable terror in her eyes that I was able to recognize even at four years old, and the hiding.

Because she was very old, it simply wasn’t possible for Aunt May to always babysit me, and I had another sitter called Kay-Kay—a hefty, middle-aged woman who seemed to be doing pretty well in life. She had a house, at least, which I recognized to mean that she was okay—we lived in a trailer, and most of the people we knew lived in a trailer. Living in a house… That was a grand thing to me. I didn’t mind that we lived in a trailer, and I was much too young to know that being the child of two fast-food workers (even if they were supervisors) who raised Confederate flags, shot up heroin, and ate Xanax made me the definitive example of “trailer trash,” but I knew that it was a great thing to have a house.

Kay-Kay was an ordinary woman, and there was much going on beneath the surface that most people never saw. As I sat in one of her bedrooms, playing a video game, there was suddenly a banging on the door and people shouting, demanding to be allowed inside and promising that, if Kay-Kay refused, they would tear the house down.

Although I was shocked and scared at first, Kay-Kay put my fears to rest by handling it expertly. She answered in an almost aloof way, as though she had no concern about it. Even as they banged and screamed, I was unafraid, because Kay-Kay didn’t appear to take it seriously. After a minute or so, the banging stopped, and then the rhythmic pounding echoed through her home, coming from somewhere in the back.

“They’re going to tear the house down!” I shouted to Kay-Kay, scared once more. In my head, I had the image of two enormous, burly, and angry men outside with huge hammers, smashing away the bricks and crashing through the walls.

“Oh, no, they’re not, sweetie,” came Kay-Kay’s reply as she dropped to a knee and hugged me. “They’re just mad. They’ll get over it and leave in a few minutes.”

Sure enough, Kay-Kay was right: they did leave shortly thereafter. In actuality, they probably just had given up on the front door and gone to try the back door. Finding it locked, they banged and shouted some more, and then left. I never learned what it was about, and Kay-Kay asked me not to mention it to my parents, which made sense: that isn’t the sort of thing a mother wants happening at the selected babysitter’s home. I didn’t stay quiet, though, and that was the last time Kay-Kay ever babysat me. It was also the last time that I saw her.

The Rise of Tumult

There was a “friend of the family” called Doc, and I liked him a lot. Everyone liked Doc—he was a friendly, charismatic person. Being my parents’ friend, he was heavily on drugs, but Doc was also in a motorcycle gang, which created a problem, because shooting up was explicitly against the gang’s laws. Just to be clear here: this is the world I grew up in. This was normal to my three-year-old self. On any given day, I was likely to see one or both of my parents shoot up heroin with a buddy who was in a motorcycle gang, smoke a joint or two, and collapse onto the couch in a stupor and droning out “Yeah…” to no one.

I watched my mother, laid out on the loveseat, look to my father on the other side of the living room. She held up, toward my father, a syringe full of some red liquid, and then she asked in a seductive voice, “John, do you want some of this?” And as she spoke, she pressed in the syringe and sent a jet stream of this stuff—whatever it was—flying across the living room. They were both out of their minds, just high as hell.

Disheveled, frantic, panicked, and terrified, Doc stopped by our trailer and wanted to sell my father a half-pound of weed for fifty bucks. My father had twenty dollars he could pay. Knowing my father, it’s amazing that he had any money, but he did, and he explained to Doc what he had.

Doc in turn explained that he had to get out of town. “Had to,” he said, and my father understood what that meant. The gang somehow learned that Doc was shooting up, so Doc had to get out of town before they found him and forced him to run “The Gauntlet.” Because, apparently, that actually happens. My father bought the weed, and Doc fled, but it was to no avail, and he was later found dead.

We frequently drove north to visit my Aunt Diane and Uncle Danny (the man who would later go to prison for murder and, in all likelihood, killed my mother, though there is no body or evidence), as well as our cousins. One of these trips proved to be one of the most traumatic experiences of my childhood.

As Brandi and I rode with dad in his yellow truck, in a secluded area where the road was surrounded by steep ditches that spelled death for anyone who lost control and went over, a truck driver decided to pass us. The trucker blew his horn a few times, and then he went for it. As he passed, he veered to the right—or dad swerved to the left. The enormous side view mirror of the rig crashed through the window beside dad and sent a spray of glass shards through the cab of our truck. Luckily, neither my sister nor I sustained any injuries.

The fault was probably my father’s (driving under the influence of one drug or another), but the reason officially given was that the highway wasn’t wide enough to pass. This excuse came much later in the day, after the trip got significantly worse.

We passed through Memphis as we traveled, and came upon an intersection. Not paying attention, I couldn’t tell you exactly how it happened, but there was shaking and noise. We rear-ended another vehicle. It’s possible that my father didn’t stop quickly enough, and it’s possible that he pressed the gas too hard and too quickly after the light turned green. Regardless, we hit the vehicle hard and sent it careening into the intersection. Reportedly, it traveled fifty feet from the impact.

The woman driving that car died on the spot with a broken neck.

Someone obviously called the police, and they arrested my father. The police placed Brandi and me in the back of the police car with him, which made us feel as though we were also being arrested, and that is terrifying when you’re four or five years old and have no comprehension of what is going on. As though we were playing out a scene in a movie, the very same trucker who had hit us earlier happened upon the accident, and presumably told the police that dad was driving erratically. The next thing I knew, the trucker was banging on the glass beside me, shouting obscenities at us—not just at our dad, but honestly at the five-year-old children, too. I was terrified, confused, and frightened out of my mind, and it didn’t help that dad, with his hands cuffed behind his back, was frothing at the mouth, rocking the police car, and demanding to be let out so that he could fight the truck driver.

My sister and I were taken to the hospital, and police, doctors, and therapists repeatedly questioned us about the accidents. We were separated from our father, but also from each other, and that made the experience more traumatic than it had to be. We were finally told that we would be going into the care of Aunt Diane and Uncle Danny briefly, and they were the ones who picked us up from the hospital. My grandmother acquired a good lawyer for my father, and he was able to go to rehabilitation rather than prison, or something to that effect.

For a long time, my nerves were absolutely shot, and it was nearly impossible to get me into a vehicle, which is probably the normal response of a four year old child after being in two accidents in a single day, one of which resulted in a death, all because the parents didn’t mind driving after eating a bunch of pills. Naturally, their solution was to shove pills down my throat, giving me what they called “nerve pills” that were probably Xanax or Klonopin. This was the only way to get me into an automobile for several months after the accidents, because otherwise I would scream and throw fits. Eventually the anxiety faded, but knocking me out with drugs was the only way to get me into a car for a while.

Things returned to what we considered normal, though that isn’t to say that either of my parents stopped doing drugs. I doubt either parent was clean for any notable period, and they continued inviting friends over. These parties, while they were more or less tame and consisted of people drinking, doing drugs, and playing spades, would not constitute “normal” for most kids.

On one such occasion, one of the people with whom they were hanging out decided that it would be a brilliant idea to inject peanut butter. Presumably, he’d heard that “The high is incredible, man!” and wasn’t much interested in maybe asking a doctor before doing something so horrendously and creatively stupid. According to my father—who is a known pathological liar, it’s worth remembering—the man died on the spot, so they took him home and left him on his couch, dead. I have no memory of this, but it allegedly happened sometime around my fifth birthday.

I started kindergarten, and I loathed it. Up until that point, my life was fantastic. I could wake up whenever I wanted, spend the entire day watching cartoons and playing videogames, snacking whenever I desired, and just doing anything I pleased. Then suddenly I couldn’t do that any longer; I had to wake up at a specific time, go spend the entire day in a boring school, and then only had a few hours afterward to do the things that I enjoyed doing. As early as kindergarten, it struck me as absurd: if the point of life is to be happy, as everyone constantly insisted to me, then why did I have to go to school?

We were poor—dirt poor, as you might expect, given the heavy drug usage. Although both parents were managers at various fast food restaurants at times, my mother eventually quit working altogether and got onto disability for her migraines. It was with tremendous excitement that we were approved for food stamps, and we waited for weeks with palpable eagerness in the air, though I had no idea what it even meant. There are two times that I distinctly recall the entire family waiting anxiously for something to happen, and the anticipation was identical on both occasions; we waited for food stamps and we waited for our cable to be activated with the same sense of impending thrill, as did I, even though I had no understanding of what either meant.

Being approved for food stamps felt like having a birthday, and so did the cable company finally coming out, after weeks of waiting, to connect our cable television. While I understood that having cable meant that we would have Nickelodeon, there was no way that I understood the concept of food stamps, so my excitement was surely nothing more than a mirror of my parents’ own eager anticipations. It was just months after this that I began school, and that mom became convinced that dad was not really working, that he was only disappearing while he was supposed to be at work.

It was a school day when it happened, because we were supposed to be in class, but mom kept us at home. My much older brother, my slightly older sister, and I were told that we were leaving dad, and I’m sure I handled that as well as any six year old child would, which is to say with naked emotion untempered by the jaded self-control we are taught to exercise in later years. I didn’t understand what was going on, but I was devastated nonetheless. First, the life I had come to know and love was wrecked by having to go to school, and then what little semblance of it remained was being irretrievably shattered by this upheaval. I spent the entire day in tears, as did my sister. Whatever was going on between our parents had nothing to do with us, and our lives were being cast into the hurricane because of it.

Too young to truly understand what was really going on, my primary concern was whether to leave my father “the good Nintendo” or the bad one. They both worked, but one of them was much more difficult to get working. Both my dad and I were big on video games, and so was my older brother, and even my mom and sister played occasionally. There were lots of family moments when we all took turns, and we even had a device that allowed four controllers to be used.

I agonized over that decision far more than a six year old should, and my mom didn’t give the situation nearly as much attention as it deserved. My entire world, prior to school, consisted almost entirely of playing video games. That I even debated which one to leave was a tremendous indicator of how much I loved my father, how much I didn’t want to leave, and, above all, how poorly equipped I was to cope with the chaos I suddenly was confronting. Mom was tearing our family apart, breaking it into two pieces, and she never sat down with my sister and me to explain what was happening, to assure us that we’d still see our dad, or to promise us that it would be okay. While to some extent that’s understandable, since she had to pack and load things up, the utter failure to remember that she was literally wrecking her youngest kids’ lives is very difficult to excuse.

To make matters worse, she was cowardly about it, too, because all of this happened while my father was at work. We lived in a trailer on my grandfather’s land, and it’s very likely that my grandfather was the one who alerted my father to the moving truck that was at his home. However, seeing as my grandfather later offered to shoot my mother for my dad, I doubt he would have showed the restraint simply to inform my dad of what was happening.

Regardless, dad pulled up while we were finishing and preparing to leave. The next little bit is a blur of anger, hostility, and shouting from which I am able to pull very few details. In a flash, dad went from anger to pleading, but mom refused to listen; her mind was made up, and she cranked the car, put it into gear, and hit the gas. Dad threw himself into the side of the car and then hit the ground, fell onto his back, and then lie there in the grass. My sister and I screamed and cried—our dad had just been run over!—and mom shouted at us to stop yelling. I gazed out of the back window at my father as we drove away, and there he was, lying unmoving in the grass, and all I could think was the horrible thought, “Dad is dead.”

There in the back of the car, crying quietly, having just watched my father die from being hit by a car, I sat at the age of six years old, being shouted at by my mom to shut up because I freaked out when I saw her kill my dad.

Want to read the whole story? Well, now you can! For a limited time (until June 15), Dancing in Hellfire is finally available for sale, for only $3.49. You can buy it here, through this very site, using PayPal or a typical credit/debit card (payment is processed by PayPal, so I don’t see the info), after which you’ll be given access to the book as both a PDF and an ePub.