When I was growing up, often on a Sunday afternoon we would travel down a dirt road, across the railroad tracks, then down a tiny dip the road took through a patch of swampy woods to reach two tar-paper houses far out in the country. First, the Deans’ house. The Deans: a scatty woman with a skinny husband and any number of puny, pale-lashed children, living in their small black shack.
I have set half the British novels I have read inside the Deans’ house. Dickens and Thackeray and Charlotte Brontë have all had poverty-clothed families living there; characters who lived and died and did not spend one night of their brief, blighted, if well-written, lives anywhere else.
It was not to the Deans’ we traveled, however, but to Erma’s next door, a house where no fiction ever happened. There was barely enough room for the real life transpiring there.
“Now, I hope you kids don’t devil me to death today.” This would be my mother, dressed up in her church clothes, riding in the front seat of a strange maroon boat of a 1950 Buick as our father drove us out to Erma’s house for Sunday dinner. “You give me some peace this afternoon, or you’ll live to regret it. I can promise you that.”
No one in the back seat required her guarantee. Our mother never threatened and then hit us. It was always either/or. Plus, she struck us only when we were at home. It helped define the place. We could not have told you why she hit us at all — beatings, rash and random, born of a fury we could neither comprehend nor forecast — but we knew we were safe at Erma’s house.
Erma was my mother’s best friend — as far as I could tell, her only friend. She was a kind woman, trusting, easily taken in. We went to her house a lot for Sunday-afternoon dinners or Saturday-night suppers. On Saturdays I would at some point fall asleep across Erma’s coat-covered bed in the room just off the noisy kitchen, later to be carried to the cold car and propped up between my sleeping brothers and sister. I see my father lifting us, one sleep-warm, saggy body at a time: four trips back and forth, leaning us together like so many sacks of potatoes. My father, not my mother, would have carried us. I was long-limbed and floppy, as gangly asleep as I was awake, and it was unlikely for my mother to lay hold of me in any neutral way.
I liked the sleeping part, and the food: the soft ham; the mashed potatoes with yellow butter; thick, salty gravy; the skittish peas; red jello salad with walnuts and banana slices and pineapple. There was too much of everything, and then there was the pie: coconut custard, lemon meringue, banana cream, all with sweet whipped filling two full inches high and white fluff twice as high on top of that. No one makes pies like that anymore. No one else made pies like that back then.
And I liked Erma’s husband, Bill, who slipped us sticks of chewing gum in church as he led us to our seats. Ushers ushered then. None of this seat-yourself business in those churchgoing days. You pointed in the general direction of your seating preference, and the ushers undertook to guide you there, the way they sometimes do at weddings and at funerals today. I liked Bill because he would joke with me without asking the stupid questions other adults asked eight-year-olds, like “Are you married yet?”
I liked Bill, and the food, and the sleep at Erma’s house. The tricky part came when I was expected to play with Erma and Bill’s daughters, Spike and Jessie, whose real names were Sandra and Jasmine. Ten years older, they were teenagers with breasts and boyfriends, and they read True Romance magazine and wore red lipstick and complicated white brassieres. On Sunday afternoons I was expected to walk with them all the way into Bakerville to get ice cream, after I had just eaten more in one meal than I ate in a week at home.
Wild boys in cars — hoodlums, I called them in my head — slowed down beside us. The boys had packs of cigarettes rolled in their T-shirt sleeves and hair slicked into ducktails, and they eyed Spike and Jessie with their ice cream and said things like “Could I have a lick?” Remarks I understood just enough to worry me.
There was sex in the air, but I perceived only a kind of danger. I imagined the boys’ intentions to be murderous, not amorous. Danger figured largely in my imagination then — as it does today: destruction always poised to strike at any moment, kept at bay only by swift prayers and my long-practiced caution.
One Sunday Jessie was off somewhere, and I was left with Spike to occupy the slow part of the afternoon, when sticky minutes drag their feet and the hours are logy, dopey. I was far too restless to fall asleep, so Spike let me play “servant” for a while: she lay on the bed, glamorous and languid in her white slip and tight cotton bra, while I waited on her. The line between her breasts was a deep slit I could imagine sliding dimes into maybe, or thin buttons. It was ninety degrees, and all the heat in the house had risen up the rail-less stairs to fill that small bedroom, with its rough wood walls and ceiling and its worn linoleum floors now strewn with Spike’s red blouse, blue skirt, nylons, and garter belt. I had played servant with the two sisters for years, but over time they had grown weary of the game, wanting instead to read True Romance and listen to the radio. Still our parents would insist we pass the time together.
I live in Massachusetts now, five hundred miles and forty years away from Spike, and Buddy Holly songs, and that stifling heat. My friend Ginny Carlson, who lives two doors over, is a PhD psychotherapist with a tastefully decorated office and a steady stream of paying customers, and she would have me believe that any memory that reeks of sex and Sunday-afternoon confusion was sex and child abuse for sure. She thinks if something sounds erotic in retrospect — to a psychotherapist who was off in Minnesota negotiating a childhood of her own when the event in question happened — then it most certainly was erotic, and probably traumatic, and should now be resurrected and talked about, ideally twice a week.
She’s wrong. I nod and listen to her hundred-dollar theories, eat her German strudel, drink her iced herbal tea, and know for certain that she gets it wrong fully half the time. Crapshoot odds: fifty-fifty. Try it. Close your eyes and theorize. Anyone can go back and second-guess what happened on a hundred different Sunday afternoons and get it wrong as often as you get it right.
I know Spike did not abuse me that day, or let anybody else abuse me either. She did not entice me from that room with promises of adventure — or, if she did, it was not with any ill intent. We did not crawl out her bedroom window onto the scorching roof that would have branded any flesh it touched. Or if we did, if we slid down the roof’s shallow slope and made the easy drop into the waist-high grass below, and if we ran till we were out of breath and out of sight of Erma’s house and hurried, sweaty, down the road to an old barn, as hot inside as a blast furnace, as scratchy on your skin as if you had thrown yourself into the straw and rolled all over like a crazy person, and if we met a boy there — a man, really — and if he scowled at me, and if Spike did say, “This is Annie’s girl. She won’t say nothin’,” and then climbed up the steep ladder with him following close behind, turning once to leer back at me, and if I did stand frozen, feeling chills like when a fever’s high enough to worry everybody in the room, and if the two of them made a lot of noise so that I knew for certain that boy was killing Spike up there and would surely come back down any moment to kill me — well, whatever you might pay Ginny Carlson, PhD, to say, neither of them did any harm to me.
And if I do not remember how I left that barn, what power or volition carried me outside and got me down the dusty road again and somehow into the house and through the empty kitchen and up the stairs and back to that oven room, well, that is not to say that anything of any import happened to me in that barn. I will say only that I was young and impressionable and perhaps not difficult to frighten, just as now I startle easily if someone comes up behind me in the kitchen when I am washing lettuce at the sink.
Besides, it is not the seldom Sunday afternoons of terror and confusion that leave scars. It isn’t heat or fright or flashes of incomprehension, noises in hot barns, screaming overhead. No, it is in daily life where the real harm is visited upon the young. It is the slow drip of the commonplace that leaves marks and wears the soul away. I have told Ginny Carlson this a hundred times. I brought, I think, my own fright with me to that barn, just as I travel around with it today. Spike brought just herself and one of the long hours that she had to pass through to reach evening.
I snuck back to that bedroom to wait out the remainder of the afternoon, which wasn’t finished with me, not quite yet. Later on, when Spike came back, she whispered a word I’d never heard before and asked me if I knew what it meant. I said of course. I made a point of knowing everything Spike knew. She had been kept back in school twice, for pity’s sake.
Spike lay there on the bed, all frowsy and rumpled looking, pulling cotton nubs from the worn chenille bedspread, one thread at a time. More than half the rows were down to pinholes. She was collecting the wrinkled bits and rolling them into a ball, intent and offhand all at once. “You’re not going to snitch on me, are you?” she asked.
I didn’t answer, sensing that my silence gave me the upper hand in some way, even though I thought it should be obvious that I could live two lifetimes and never find the words to tell what had happened in that barn. Speaking of it would have been worse than living through it.
“Promise me you won’t say anything, and I’ll tell you a secret,” Spike said.
I tried to imagine a secret of hers that could interest me.
“Your mum might get arrested,” Spike said. “She beats you, doesn’t she? I heard my mum tell my dad.”
“Of course she doesn’t,” I said. “Don’t be stupid. And how come people call you Spike, anyway? Your name is Sandra. Why don’t you use your name? Spike is a boy’s name.”
“I don’t know. My dad’s always called me Spike. Anyway, I’m just telling you: don’t let her hit you anymore. My mum says it’s a sin, plus it’s against the law.”
“It is not.”
“It is too. She could get sent to jail if she beats you up even one more time. Don’t let her do it. I know I wouldn’t let somebody beat me up.”
“Yeah, like you didn’t let that man try to kill you in the barn. You are so stupid. My mother never even beat me once. You are the dumbest girl I ever knew.”
I don’t remember playing with Spike or Jessie again after that day, although I might have. I probably did. I probably had to walk with them to get an ice cream. I probably listened to their radio. I probably watched them read their magazines.
Then, sometime after that — those years exist in a sort of fluid time; it might have been that fall, just after all the leaves and sun had gone away; or winter, after early snows had fallen two days in a row; or it could have been years later — Spike went away. Nobody spoke of her in anything but earnest whispers: Won’t marry her. In a home. Named him Donald, after the father. No good. No earthly good.
Then, all of a sudden, Jessie got married and went off to Texas with her new husband, who was in the Army. Erma and my mother treated Jessie like a foreign missionary when she came back for a visit. The three women sat in the living room on straight-backed chairs, and my mother asked Jessie serious questions, and Erma shook her head at each reply.
“They sell them right out on the street there,” Jessie said. My mother tsked. “You see them everywhere. It’s not even hidden.”
Erma and my mother gave one joint sigh of disapproval and fascination. I spent weeks trying to work out what was being sold that could be so scandalous. I figured it had something to do with having babies, but I could not conjure up any reasonable particulars. I can’t today.
It occurs to me now to wonder where the men were while all of this was transpiring. The women and their talk of sex and all things female filled up the kitchen and the living room, while the men and boys were nowhere to be found.
The next thing I knew, Erma had a new “son” — Spike’s little boy, Donny. Erma raised him and gave him everything, and he grew up and joined the Merchant Marine. Hardly ever comes to visit, all the ladies said. Never even writes. After all Erma did for him. And her a widow. But everybody always acts like their example of ingratitude would take first prize at the county fair.
Whenever Erma’s life of sacrifice was mentioned, my mother would say to me, “Don’t you go thinking you’ll have kids and come looking to me to care for them.” She need not have worried.
I saw Spike one other time, years later. She was all dressed up with a painted face, and she had bad teeth and a kindness you could feel from across the room. She was glad to see me. I was glad to see her. I don’t remember what we said. Probably the usual. Nothing about sex or beatings, and nothing about bastards or abuse, I am quite sure. I have the idea that Spike married and had a few more children. My mother may have told me this, or I might have made it up.
So where’s the story, then? We went to eat at Erma’s house. I played with her two daughters until they grew up — a little early perhaps, but all the same, they would have had to grow up eventually.
And now, a lifetime later, I call back that one summer day, a Sunday of immoderate temperature and spoken words that made a difference. I recall it and declare: My mother never beat me up, not one time, after that stifling afternoon, because I knew from that day forward that the only way to keep her from being sent to jail was to make certain that she never hurt me again, and the only way I knew to do that was to take off whenever she came at me, to run out the door and down the street, no matter if it was the dead of winter in the middle of the night. I was a strong girl. I could have run a hundred miles without stopping if it meant that I could keep my mother home with me. I could have done anything.
Of course, the sudden swats went on, the times she caught me unaware, but nothing anyone could go to jail for. My mother’s rage was sudden and short-lived. I could always wait her out.
I wish I could have told Spike thank you when I saw her that one time, but she would only have smiled or frowned at me, as oblivious as she had been on that hot Sunday, after the action and the talking were all done, and she lay back and closed her eyes and in two minutes’ time was sleeping like a baby.
I told my brothers and my sister that our mother could be put in prison for beating us, and so they should always run away. I don’t know if they did or not. You can’t remember anybody else’s childhood, sometimes not that much of your own. Incidents and years go missing. And I can’t ask my sister now. We don’t have the sort of conversations where a question like that might be asked. My brothers, too, are men you would not ply with queries about their own or anybody else’s history. My psychotherapist neighbor would have three different things to say about their network of defenses.
So: No story. Nothing happened. No one got hurt, or no more than people do. Everybody got dressed up and went to church and came back to Erma’s house for a great big Sunday dinner, and Bill tickled us and told us not to take any wooden nickels, and I never have. And Spike took me to a burning-hot barn and later bought my already-willing silence with a formula for my salvation, once I added in my own slim misunderstanding. It wasn’t till I was in high school that I realized Spike hadn’t told me my mother could go to jail so that I could take on the job of making sure it never happened. But, oh, how strong and capable that misconstruing made me. And how entirely like me, that my strength should be constructed out of something I took the wrong way.
Sitting here tonight — it must be after midnight — so far away and yet so close to all of them, I want to call Erma and say, Hello, I just remembered you and Bill and Spike and Jessie and everyone, and I’d be crying into the telephone, and Erma would be puzzled, half asleep. I’ve never called her once in fifty years, and Bill’s been dead for forty, and my own mother now has finally gone beyond the reach of any harm. I want to call Erma and bawl my eyes out. I want to reach through the wires and pull them all back to me, those people, stand them in a row and fire my questions, show no mercy, scream at them, What happened? How did we, all of us, get lost inside our lives? And then I’d whisper in Erma’s ear, Please tell me how, when she was very old, my mother said to you she never meant to hurt me. Say how she missed me, how she wished I’d never gone away. And tell me how, as she lay dying, she told you she was setting off to look for me, to find me and to bring me home. Whisper those words softly to me over and again. And have them be the truth.
This story previously appeared in Queen’s Quarterly.