A Random Image

Jett Superior laid this on you on || December 14, 2002 || 8:39 pm

It’s really odd how one Christmas in particular keeps poking the back of my brain this year. By and large it should not have been any different than any of the other Christmases I had passed in my twelve years, except for that it was only the second Christmas for my mother, my sister and me after my father had gone. He had told us only a handful of months before, “I’m moving to Alaska” and when we asked with a degree of incredulity, “Why Alaska?” we were coldly told, “Because it’s about as far from your mother that I can get and still live in the U.S.” How utterly charming to be so passionately venomous to your young daughters with regard to their sainted mother.

Fred, never the favored child, was visibly upset. I pulled her to my side, looking out over the dam that bore tendrils of steam because of the unseasonably cold day, and muttered, “Don’t matter. He lives fifteen minutes away and we see him once every three months. At least now he’ll have a valid reason to not come get us now and again.” I started wearing black and scowling a whole lot after that. The world was my rotten oyster, and the silt wasn’t in a hurry to become pearls.

It started about two weeks ago, this little tap-tap-tapping in my headspace. Tiny things jog the memories: a man with curly dark hair, a red patent purse, the heater in the car being too much or not enough heat. I can’t for the life of me fathom why they’ve picked this year to visit, to make me shift uncomfortably in my seat during my most favorite season. Almost twenty years now, and it seems like it was no time ago. It feels like I could count those years on my fingers less than once.

I was twelve, my sister Fred was nearly ten, and my mother was too thin from exhaustion and hunger and hearbreak. Her sister, my Aunt Shirley, phoned up and said, “Come home. Don’t stay in Oklahoma alone this year. Come back to Arkansas for the holidays. I’ll wire you the money tomorrow. We have presents bought for the girls. Y’all need your family right now.” The radiator in mom’s car had gone kaput two days prior, and the insurance had yet to be cancelled, so we were afforded a loaner car. On the twenty-third, with the prospect of bad weather looming, we loaded the car with two suitcases, three blankets and pillows, and a cooler of fruit and sandwiches and juice. I paid the neighbor kid, Lance, all of my savings to muck out the barn and feed Davy, the last of the many horses we had once owned.

I don’t recall much of the trip until we got stuck at the halfway mark on that mountain in Arkansas. The storm came up fast and furious, the rental car was idling way too high, the roads were suddenly slick with ice, the Ozark roadsides dotted with skidded-to-an-embankment-halt vehicles. We made our way to the nearest rest stop around four in the afternoon to wait out the weather and the night.

Funny how little things, innocuous things really, like winter storms and faulty rental cars and rest stops can combine to change the course of a life.

We weren’t the only travellers with sense enough to come in out of the weather. As the day wore on, more and more vehicles came straggling in, creeping in fear across the thick, wet ice. We listened to the radio, played word games, ate a sandwich apiece. Boredom began to overtake us, so my mother exited the car and, popping the trunk, emerged fresh-faced from the cold and handed each of us a package.

“These are your Christmas Eve gifts, but you can go ahead and open them now.” Tradition dictated that we were afforded one gift apiece on Christmas Eve of each year, to both whet and appease the greedy monsters that nearly all children become. We opened them eagerly, and while I cannot recall for the life of me what Fred got, I can still see mine in my mind’s eye, gleaming with clarity. It was a matched set, a tiny patent red bag with gold stitching and a gleaming red compact with a light-up mirror and earthtone blush and lipstick inside. The compact fit neatly inside of the bag, and I welled up with tears upon touching these things. The emotion was pulled from two different places; I had not known any finery since my father exited stage right (where once my wants had been indulged without much thought) and I now had my mother’s official okay to paint my cherubic face, however sparsely and modestly.

Mom exchanged information with other rest stop residents, most particularly the couple in the car next to us….a man and woman in their fifties, they seemed particularly mindful of a woman and two young girls journeying alone. The woman gave us playing cards and chocolate, the man looked under mother’s hood. He proclaimed the car unworkable by a layman, and suggested she find another means of transport if she could, at least with that sort of weather. She thanked him and went off to make a collect call to our family to let them know that we were okay and we would try again the next day.

Cold exhausts you, fear and worry both exhaust you (whether or not you are conciously aware of them, and I was not) and the early coming of wintertime nightfall tells you that you are tired long before you normally would be. We settled in to sleep around about eight pee emm, trying as best we could to get comfortable in spite of lumpy seats and jabbing arm rests. Mom didn’t get that much sleep that night; she kept killing the car to save gas and engine, then re-starting it to warm my sister and I when the air showed our breath. The whole night was passed with the eerie dim of the dashboard light and the interior of the car being too cold or too damned warm. I sweated and tossed and cursed in my head, stifled by the lack of space and the dry air, but kept my thoughts to myself lest I trouble my already put-upon mother or Fred, with her worry-sick tendencies. I passed the night in silence, thirsty beyond belief, but not wanting to deplete our juice stores too very soon.

The next morning brought promise of more bad weather. The next morning brought us Mel.

I recall us stretching, going to the restroom to splash our faces with tap water and to pee. I recall dining on a breakfast of apples and bananas and juice. Some few minutes later Mel approached. He came cautiously up to the car, shivering in his sherpa-lined jean jacket, this rogue with moustache and curly brown hair. His features were rough, but the eyes appeared kind and he was polite and earnest when he asked my mother if she had any acetyl alcohol he could purchase from her. The brake lines on his truck had iced over, you see (he gestured toward the rig) and he needed to de-ice them so that he could try and move on, to get his load dropped, to get to his son in time for Christmas. He was always with his son by eight pee emm on Christmas Eve, and well, gosh, he didn’t want to break his word to his kid, you know? He spilled all this not willy-nilly, as my fingers are doing now, but subtly, with just enough gee-gosh. So fucking believable. Some people just are.

He thanked my mother and disappeared for better than an hour. When he returned the bottle of alcohol, thanking my mother, he engaged her in conversation and went away once more. After another hour, he returned bearing hot coffee and hot chocolate, and we were understandably thankful. We all waited for the sun to warm the ice, to break enough of a thaw so that we could get the fuck off that mountain and into the arms of famiglia della madre, but it was to no avail. We ate the last round of sandwiches and grapes around noon, the time we thought we’d be long gone from the rest stop, wondering silently in our hearts what we could or would do. When Mel came back one more time, he told my mother that he was going to head on out, and would she like for him to take us somewhere? She stepped out of the car for a long spell, talking to this man with the kind eyes and broad smile and seemingly unassuming manner. The couple in the car next to us had left some two hours ago, leaving with us chocolate and mixed nuts, saying that they were going to at least try to get where they were going; my mother had politely declined their offer of help, thinking we too would be able to chance it closer to noon, when the sun was higher and stronger in the sky. Something in me wished for that couple back, wished that so many cars had not cleared out earlier in the day.

When mom returned to the car, she told us to go gather our things because arrangements had been made, she was going to go phone our family in Helena once again.

My sister and I looked at one another tiredly, quizzically, but did as we were told. As we climbed into the cab of this man’s truck, it certainly felt safe. It felt like an adventure. We piled ourselves and our things in the sleeping berth behind the adults’ heads and peered out on the world from a new vantage point, way up off the road. We could see miles into the horizon, and although we had not bathed, we felt fresh and new. Wariness comes with being kicked often enough. At that point Fred and I had only gotten a boot to the arse a couple good times.

The trip seemed to take forever, winding down piney roads, and some two hours later we were asked if we were hungry. The truck needed fuel and so did we; we passed a good hour in one of the nicest little hometown cafes I’d ever seen while dining on hot slabs of ham and the aroma of strong home-brewed coffee. We laughed, unencumbered. It had been so long since we had done that as a family, so long since we had eaten a full meal, so long since the simple needs were met so fully. It was exceedingly rich in all its’ simplicity, and we shook hands with Satan over big hunks of pie adorned solidly with perfectly round scoops of ice cream.

We met some of the family in Conway, about an hour and a half from the town of my birth. There stood my Aunt Trish, my huge, mean-looking (awww, he’s a teddy bear) Uncle Howard and my Aunt Myrna (after Loy, the famous actress of old…my grandmother loved her). They thanked this man for bringing their three girls to them safely, wished him a Merry Christmas. Somewhere in there, apparently, my mother and he swapped numbers.

Over the course of the next few months, unbeknownst to Fred and I, the two of them conversed. He called quite frequently, to my way of understanding now, and he and my mother became quite taken with one another. One day Fred and I arrived home from school, slinging our books in the entryway, to stop short at the sight of Mel perched on our sofa in the family room. I was quite rude in my shock, addressing my mother but jabbing my finger toward the usurper on the divan, “What’s HE doing here?” I asked loudly and bluntly. Thirteen and queen of my domain. I had run the house –quite literally, as my mother worked nineteen-hour days– for two years by then and nobody’s comings or goings happened without my observance and approval. Also, I had just begun using and my frequent highs, to steal a phrase from Bill Cosby, “intensified…my…personality“. Where I had been blunt before, I was beyond tolerance now.

“Mel is visiting us,” my mother said kindly but firmly, “and he will be sleeping on the couch tonight.” I was horrified. My mother, my very own mother, the one who had become fervently devout of Baptist faith since my dad split, the one who spoke of propriety on a constant basis in her soft Southern dialect, the one who wasn’t wild or controversial in the least, the one who should be working until nine that evening, was having a man who was a complete stranger to us (or so I thought at that time) over for the evening. Couch or no couch, I felt dismayed and utterly betrayed. We all had a civil dinner (another aberration from the routine…a full meal, with each of us present) and Mel bedded down on the couch, leaving the next day to finish a run. It was an abomination and I was relieved to be shed of it.

Over the course of the next few months there were more of these visits and by the end of the year they were married. My sister, perhaps the wisest of us all, cried throughout the course of the entire ceremony, leaving the room at the juncture where Mel picked up his guitar and serenaded my mom, both of them perched on the hearth of a great stone fireplace, in one of the finest voices you could ever hope to hear. It all has a dream-like quality to it now, but I have seen the pictures, so I know it happened. All our friends and ‘collected family’ were there; they all smiled sweetly and tenderly and proudly: “Gwendolyn deserves a man to love her like this.” And she did. But not like that. Although I was infinitely happy that my mom was no longer to-the-bone lonely, I must go on record as saying it never felt right. Not once. The itch was always there in the back of my mind, even as a house was being custom-built for us. Even as a fleet of trucks was being purchased and outfitted with drivers. Even as we got new clothes and regular haircuts once again, even as a barn was filled with stables-full of horses once more. There is too much too fast, and this was one of those times.

Maybe Mel loved her, in his own freakish way. My mother and I don’t talk about it; we don’t talk about it in the way that we don’t talk about my addiction. These things are too painful to pull up out of the muck and dissect. They just are, and were, and forever will be. Forget that I have questions, forget that she should hear some answers. “This too, shall pass…

He never went to church with us more than once, I remember that. He was always firm and a bit controlling, from the very beginning. Once we moved into the new house, things got strange. There were locks placed on Mom and Mel’s bedroom door. The doorknobs to my and Fred’s rooms were removed. Mom began staying home from work, sluggish and sick, so much so that she was eventually persuaded to quit her job. We stopped going to church. There were locks in odd places and hurried, whispered phone calls at odd times. Mom became very passive in dealings with Fred and I, deferring to Mel and his opinions, the disciplines he meted out. We were grounded, and grounded frequently. Grounding meant that we came home, did our chores, did our homework and then literally looked at the walls until bedtime. Grounding meant no phone, no going outside, no music (this one near destroyed me), no books outside of schoolwork, no television, no toys or things of pleasure whatsoever. Athletic endeavors, a staple of both my and my sister’s lives, were nixed. Fred and I were grounded weeks at a time for heinous slippages such as taking our shoes of without untying them first. I got the brunt of things, as I was not the pacifist, the stuffer of emotions, that Fred was. I bucked the system. The system put the screws further in. I made impassioned pleas to my mother to do something, just do something, ma! but I was always parlayed by Mel into being the rebellious teen who needed a firm hand, needed some strong guidance from the male figure I’d been lacking. We lived encapsulated in our own little bubble.

I remember going to this junior high dance. I was dressed conservatively (as was not my buckles-and-safety-pins style) with soft hair and make-up. I was waiting in the living room for Katie McGuire’s mother to come pick me up. My mother had pronounced me beautiful in my soft pink sweater and white pants and grandmother’s pearls. Mel came into the room and immediately told me that I looked like a whore with all of that make-up on. “I’m hardly wearing any!” I protested, and his next remark stung like an open-palmed slap, so much so that I won’t even write it here. I began to cry just as the McGuires’ horn honked, and I am not easily moved to tears. I turned to my mother, mascara beginning to run, and said simply (with a great deal of pain), “Another moment in my life just ruined.” There was no adolescent drama in that statement, just a resigned and heartbroken sadness. It apparently shook my mother from some sort of reverie for a short time, because after she helped me into my jacket and out the door, waving to Lyn McGuire, my sister (who had crept quietly into the hall) said that all hell broke loose and Mel slept on the floor of the bedroom that night.

The weirdness went past all belief and understanding, and it’s just too invasive and painful to put it all here. It got progressively stranger and worse. My father, whose letters from the great white north had been returned unopened for months, finally sat up and began phoning old friends and co-workers to ask questions. My friends, Fred’s friends, their parents had noticed the oddity of the new setup, but now they began to talk amongst themselves. It all came to a head one night when my aunt phoned my mother.

My grandmother had been bedridden for a time, and we expected her to go long before she actually did. That night when my Aunt Shirley called, she told mom that we should come to Arkansas as quickly as possible, Memaw had taken a sharp turn for the worse. We stopped at my cousin Michael’s house in Mississippi to (supposedly) pick up his wife Brenda, who was Memaw’s caretaker for a long while. Mike would follow us after his workday was over. While we were at Mike’s, something went wrong with our car, and Mike asked Mel to stay there to work on it while Brenda took us on over to Arkansas in their car. Mike and Mel were to follow later.

Upon arriving at my Aunt’s home, my mother was a wreck. The whole family was there, all eight aunts and uncles and several of my older cousins. My Aunt Evelyn spoke first.

“Gwen, momma is fine. We had to get you here quickly. You should sit down, because we have a lot to discuss. Mel may figure out that Mike jimmied the car soon, and he’ll be heading here. We’ve gotta explain all this now.” My Uncle Howard took my mother’s hand, and gently sat her down, seating himself in the chair next to her. I remember thinking that the brown formica on the table looked somehow sinister and forlorn at the same time. In retrospect, it must have been absorbing and reflecting the aura in the room.

Coffee was poured and Fred and I were rushed off to a seperate room by Brenda and Aunt Trisha and my Uncle Roger. Uncle Roger frightened me with his state of calm, because he’s a real ‘het up’ kind of guy, wound tighter than a clockspring and always moving with pent-up energy. He’s quick to laughter, quick to rage, and the best slinger of a perfectly-delivered wiseass (yet comedic) remark I know. He knelt in front of Fred and I as we sat on a crazy-quilted bed, taking our hands in his. They’re strong hands. He’s the family drummer. It makes sense. Drummers are always fucking crazy.

“I’m gonna have to ask you two punkins some things, and as uncomfortable as some of the questions might be, it’s very important that you answer honestly.” He met Fred’s scared eyes, “Okay?” She nodded woodenly, and my Aunt Trish moved to sit next to her, gathering Fred up in her arms. We answered questions for nearly twenty minutes before I asked in exasperation for somebody to please, tell me what is going on??

The FBI was in the front room at the same time, questioning my mother, answering her questions in return while the rest of the family held court in the kitchen.

Mel was wanted for a laundry list of things, some of them I won’t mention, but the one I will is polygamy. There were five other wives. The rest of the list is varied and multi-hued in a criminal sense, and immediately filled in some blanks that had always been there. The long and the short of the story contains a few things. Mel was wanted in several states. We were bankrupt, as everything built or bought was done in my mother’s name and was not cash up front as she was told. Payments on everything were months behind. How Mel had kept the ball in the air so long we had no idea, but it was testament to his skills as a fraud and a thief. Upon testing, my mother was found with five different types of drugs in her system. He’d been doping her up throughout the course of the marriage. This explained my normally-outspoken mother’s passivity. I was told, out of earshot of Fred (who was spared any sort of official questioning), that based on his profile, Mel was setting the stage to molest either one or both of us daughters. I wasn’t really horrified, which surprised me. Some part of me knew. He was fucking all the other aspects of my life, fucking me seemed to be the natural progression.

Thank God, is all I can say. Glory Hallelujah.

That night over in Mississippi, my cousin Mike slept with one eye open all that night as Mel grew progressively antsy, at one point leaving the house. Come morning, when Mel returned muddy and wild-looking (he’d slept in a neighboring field), the verrrrry laid back Michael let his thoughts and anger push him to grabbing Mel up by the collar and beating him savagely with fists and a candlestick. “He’s here and subdued,” he told the agent who’d been touching base with him via phone, “Come get the fucker.” And they did. He was extradited for his day in court, all over the country.

My mom, my sister and me? We had lost everything. Everything. We had one another and two suitcases. Our personal belongings were taken and held as collateral. Family photos, documents like social security cards and birth certificates, my grandmother’s quilts. It was all gone. We were some sadsack motherfuckers. This all paled, though, as Fred and I lie awake late into the night, me holding her while she would shiver and tell me, “I just can’t seem to get warm, Beth. I’m SO cold.” I would stroke her hair and murmur her to sleep….funny how that one thing has played out repeatedly in my life. I can’t even stand to be physically comforted when I’m upset –don’t touch me when I cry!– it feels like invasion, but I cradle others in their hour of need, curling my body to theirs, whispering and singing and stroking them tenderly until they find the comfort of sleep.

The worst thing about it all, the one detail that rings out most vividly, happened that first night after it all came to light. My family, being what and who they are, did not leave my aunt’s house. All beds and sofas were occupied. Pallets of thick quilts and down pillows were thrown in all rooms; every inch of floor was covered. My mother and sister and I were left to ourselves in the small sitting room off to the side of my grandmother’s sick-room. We lie, eyes burning and wide, hearts beating brokenly, listening to the sounds of the house. We whispered quietly on into the wee hours. Mom and I assured and reassured Fred that he was coming nowhere near and we had nothing to fear any longer. She finally went off to sleep and as mom and I whispered back and forth some more, she finally broke. With a quiet wail, she sobbed, crying to me in the darkness, “I just wanted somebody to love me, Elizabeth. I….just wanted somebody….to love me.” I don’t think she was even able to hear me when I said, “I love you, mom. I love you.”

13 worked it out »

  1. April Love 12.14.2002

    I have nothing really to say. I’m just moved.

  2. Bob 12.15.2002

    I love you…. and I love the way you write. A book would be a good thing.

  3. Jenn 12.15.2002


    You really are a terriffic writer. I’ve thought this a number of times before when I’ve read heart-felt words you have written, but I don’t think I’ve ever said just how good your writing is.

    Thank you for sharing this with us.

  4. brynne 12.15.2002

    I think if it was a more hormonal time of the month, I’d seriously be bawlin right now.

    You are an amazing writer, Beth. (can I call you that?) Thank you for sharing your story.

    Love, Brynne.

  5. Suzanne 12.15.2002

    Can’t think of words to string together in an actual sentence.. but how about these? Moving. Gutwrenching. Deep. Soulful. Poignant. Rendered Speechless.

  6. April Love 12.16.2002

    No words can express how priviliged that I feel to be able to read your words. I feel free to “speak” things here that I can’t “on the outside”. :) Thank you for letting us into your head, if only briefly and incompletely.

    Much Love,

    April Love

  7. Jane 12.16.2002

    Jett… Thank you for sharing. I’m sorry you had to live through something like that. I have nothing to say that hasn’t already been said, so thank you.



  8. Jett 12.16.2002

    Bob….a book might be a good thing, but with what do I start? And what to write about? I think I could swing the middle and the ending, but the subject and the beginning are the crushers. (wil wheaton reference for the Pie Queen)

    BUT, now you know how I ended up in Little Memphis.

    Everyone: thank you for your kind comments. I, despite supposedly being an adult, am still awkward with compliments. Most of the time I’m going, “WHAT? What are they talking about? I’m not doing anything superb here…” in my head.

    Because that’s how I feel. I just spill things, and sometimes I marvel that I lived them because I seem so far removed from them now, here in the present. Sometimes when I write things, things of a serious nature, and several people are moved to say something, I feel as if somewhere there’s someone going, “She’s fishing for kudos/sympathy/free beer/a publisher.” That’s okay, I guess, but it still kinda simmers in the headspace a little. Just a little.

    And sometimes, when I write something of a serious nature and get crickets, I wonder why I feel so powerfully about the thing I’m writing when nobody else seems to get it.

    It’s a double-edged sword, really….I’m scared of praise, but I don’t want to be ignored. You too?

  9. Jett 12.16.2002


    ….these are your COMMENTS, Jett-O, not your BLOG….

  10. Gil 12.16.2002

    Jett, I honestly don’t know what to say on this one. What I do want to say is this: you are a remarkable woman of strength and courage. It is those trying times and low valleys that define us, for it is then that our character builds. And your character shines like the sun’s corona peeking over a mountain before daybreak – a radiant glow symbolic of a life filled with joy and sadness and trials. May your journey from here onward be fueled from the strength of the roads once traveled.

  11. ali 12.17.2002

    Wow. So powerful! You are an amazing woman with amazing talent. And, yes, you are uncomfortable with compliments but you need to get over that. :) Thank you for spilling out such a moving post. Much aloha,

  12. jen 12.18.2002

    i love this post….it brought back some of my own memories that i hadn’t relived in a long time.

    thank you for sharing.

  13. skyra 12.18.2002

    WOW…amazing story. You are an incredible writer. It sounds like you have an amazing family.


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