We circled the brown, slightly rusted Buick station wagon around yet another block, none of us knowing where we were headed, including our mother, although she pretended have a specific destination in mind as she drove. We wound slowly through the suburban residential areas, zig-zagging from one street to the next, pausing now and then to look at a house with a “For Sale” sign posted in its lush, green lawn.
“This is a nice one,” my mother said, sniffing away some residual tears. “Looks like a three-bedroom…nice big backyard, too.” Her eyes welled up again as she stared at the ranch-style bungalow, then she took a moment to clear her head and wipe away the tears as we started inching down the road again.
We were “house shopping”. This was an exercise my brother, two sisters and myself would do whenever our mother and stepfather had yet another one of their huge blowouts. There would be screaming, tears, threats, then finally, she would grab the four of us (her kids from her first marriage), storm out of the house into the station wagon, and begin a search for a new place to live, away from the evil stepfather. Every time it happened, my heart would secretly swell with glee – we were finally getting away from the monster.
The life our young minds perceived as perfect ended shortly after the birth of my little sister. I was five years old at the time. I wouldn’t find out until I was well into adulthood, but after Jennifer’s birth, my mother apparently had what mental health professionals call a “fucking freak out.” After nearly ten years of marriage, she felt stifled, suffocated and unappreciated, most of which, knowing my father like I do, was probably justified. What was not justified, however, is how she chose to deal with it. She began going out to bars with her recently divorced sister, a ritual we who come from Kentucky stock refer to as “honky tonkin’.”
Now, I’m reasonably sure my mother didn’t go out honky tonkin’ in a direct effort to cheat on my father – I think it just happened. Whether that’s rationalization or not, I’m not quite sure. Eventually, my mother met a man, fell in love or a close approximation thereof, and ended things with my father. The timeline on all this is still pretty murky…I’m not sure if she and my stepfather dated during her marriage or not. Does it really matter? In the end, she left my father and not a few months later, married Bob.
Bob came from the fucking sticks, and when I say the fucking sticks, I mean the fucking sticks – Buchanan, West Virginia, the shittiest hole I’ve ever been forced to visit. Bob was a classic redneck. He left school after the third grade, knew everything that was wrong with the world even though he had no education or desire to journey outside his protective, small town shell, and did or said nothing to ever earn my respect, even as a five year old boy. If there’s such a thing as instant chemical dislike, this was it. Contrast everything Bob brought to the table with a well-above average intellect for a child, plus two strong wills, and you had a recipe for disaster.
I wasn’t alone…the other three kids from my mother’s first marriage reacted pretty much the same way to this new, uninvited intrusion into our lives, we each just handled it differently. The oldest, Keith, became withdrawn, not talking much at all, which was a shame since he was perhaps the funniest person I ever met. Before Bob, Keith and I would joke, fool around, record hilarious song parodies on cassette, and basically be kids. Post Bob, “shenanigans” were forbidden in front of him. We were not permitted to joke or laugh, especially at the dinner table. If someone was to laugh, they got the belt.
The belt. Bob’s preferred method for handling any and all problems. Backtalk? The belt. Forget to make the bed? The belt. Since we were the only boys, Keith and I bore the brunt of the beatings…it may be time playing tricks on my memories, but I recall being beaten with the belt every single day of my childhood at least once, if not many more times per day. Unfortunately, the belt had the opposite effect on me – each whack made me not respect, but rather hate this man more and more. My mother did nothing except use Bob’s beatings as a deterrent to bad behavior when he wasn’t around. “Just wait until Bob gets home!” was just as useful as a beating.
I took the opposite tack with Bob. I mouthed off as often and as viciously as I could, taking advantage of his limited intelligence by correcting his English in front of company, little passive/aggressive things like that. Another thing that Bob despised was my constant joking around with funny voices, imitating Muppets or other TV characters with uncanny accuracy. While everyone else in the family would laugh, Bob would glare and threaten, “Stop that sissy talk.” And the fun would end while we stared silently at “The Dukes of Hazard”.
Despite their united front when it came to dealing with all the kids in the house (besides the four of us, Bob had four kids from his first marriage – that meant eight kids in a four bedroom house), my mother and Bob often fought, vicious verbal arguments that we could hear despite the closed bedroom doors and pillows over heads. I was too young to realize what the fights were about, but I’m sure money and my mother’s habit of spending far beyond her means had something to do with it. To Bob’s credit, I never saw him grab or hit my mother. That special treat was reserved for us.
Soon after their marriage and a few spectacular fights, my mother and Bob found a solution to their problems. We would now be hardcore Baptists, and go to church four times weekly – Sunday morning, Sunday evening, Tuesday visitation (where you go from door to door with your Bible and bug people while they ate or tried to watch television), and Wednesday night service. This dogmatic reaming continued until I turned 14, was woken up one Sunday morning for church, and decided then and there I would never go again. I ended up moving in with my father to escape and barring weddings, have never stepped foot in a church since. As for my mother and Bob, church didn’t stop the fighting.
The station wagon rumbled on, until the minutes became an hour. We looked at home after home, my sisters and I in the back seat, my brother up front, all silent as we wondered if my mother was serious this time. Fantasies of moving to a new home away from Bob filled my young head. I’d have my own bedroom, we could laugh and be happy again, maybe my real dad would come back. Of course, I’d have to make new friends again, but we had moved so many times before this, that wouldn’t be much of a challenge. I knew better to show my glee, but inside I was giddy. Maybe this time was really it.
My mother wasn’t crying anymore. To break the silence, I pointed out a billboard posted in downtown Elyria.
“Look, Mom, they named a cigarette after me!” I said, pointing to an ad for “Decade” cigarettes.
“Huh? What? Why do you say that?” she replied, coming out of her funk.
“Because it’s ‘Decade’ and I’m ten years old this year! A decade!”
“How do you know that word at your age? I swear, you’re my little genius.” I felt better hearing that. “Well,” my mother sighed, getting her head together, “let’s head home.” And we went back.
I went directly upstairs to my room, put a stack of precious 45s on my automatic record changer, got a pile of comic books by me, laid on the floor and cried myself to sleep.