CHAPTER 6: DAN

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It was 1975. I left Roger Williams in Bristol, Rhode Island, one course short of an associate’s degree. Not just one course, one paper of one course, that’s the bitch. I just couldn’t finish that last philosophy assignment, like I couldn’t finish many things. We were asked to compare one culture to another with the question, “Can two cultures ever come to understand each other?”

I was flummoxed. One needs to have at least some understanding of self before even attempting to answer a question like that. I bravely made an effort to get the help I needed from the professor, but a classmate tagged along, an albatross. I didn’t want her to come but had no clue how to get rid of her. The instructor was unimpressed.

Sitting down, sweaty and scared, I managed to squeak, “I need help. I can’t get started.”

We must have seemed like two lazy nitwits but he said, “I have complete faith in you both. You can do it.”

He was cheery and lighthearted, but I felt like my life lay on the line. I knew if I blew this one, it would be another in too a long list of failures. How many could one take and keep going? I felt I had failed at being a daughter, sister, friend, a person; I existed as a fat thing that didn’t deserve life. The song that struck me most at the time was “You are a Child of the Universe,” but I related more to its spin-off, “You are a Fluke of the Universe. You have no right to be here.”

I genuinely needed help. I felt frantic for assistance, though outwardly appeared quiet and calm. The other girl, all smiles and silliness, made the pair of us look foolish. She probably went back to the dorm, finished the paper, even if only barely passing, and completed the course. I couldn’t and didn’t.

I gave up, dropped out, and moved to an apartment in Newport, finding a job at Cumberland Farms, Rhode Island’s version of a 7-Eleven. Three college friends, all males, including Coke, my boyfriend, eventually followed and moved in. They were welcome to come; it made the rent doable, especially with the minimal amount I made at the convenience store.

The upstairs apartment’s claim to fame was the in-ground pool past the fence in the neighbor’s back yard. On hot evenings we’d scale the fence for a swim in the dark, the risk of possibly getting caught only adding more excitement to our nightly escapades. The homeowners either were heavy sleepers or away on vacation. We never did get caught and the cool water on hot, inebriated skin felt luxurious. It took more than a few beers to get up the courage, along with the stupidity of youth, to hoist ourselves up over the tall slated wooden fence to the adventures beyond.

Another pleasure, falling asleep listening to bells on the buoys in the harbor softly dinging in the distance through the petite old Victorian bay windows next to the bed, the curtains wafting slightly from the gentle breeze. Coke lay next to me, lightly snoring while I listened to the rhythm simulating a vista of waves I couldn’t see but imagined, eventually lulling me into deep slumber.

Though we were upstairs and the ocean close-by, it wasn’t in view from the apartment. A favorite hike was along Newport Drive in front of mansions mostly owned now by the historical society. Tours were memorable. The Vanderbilt children’s playhouse looms larger than most single-family homes. Gold dripped over everything and red-carpeted heart staircases cascaded down both sides of the foyer in the main house. You could walk along the cliffs in front of the mansions with waves crashing against rocks while high up away from danger, safely on the path.

My roommate Michael and I had long talks sitting upon the stone wall along the cliffs on sultry evenings. The rush of sea water hitting the rocky shoreline cooled us, the mysterious shadows of the tide exciting in the dark smoky colors of night.

Summer meant splashing in the ocean on the sandy beaches. Coke came along to the shore, but didn’t go into the water, or even near it, choosing instead to lie on the sand in the sun. I had loved the water since childhood and summer camp days when I learned to swim very well, especially in deep water. The opening of “Jaws” accentuated the thrill of swimming out into the endless blue surf.

We were hanging out one day in our small living room, furnished sparsely with a ratty couch, nicked coffee table, high-quality stereo and an old chair, the music playing at a fairly high decibel. Still morning, we were surprised to hear a knock at the door.

Coke opened it. A police officer stood uniformed in full gear, stiffly starched hat under his arm over baton and weapon.

“I’m looking for Patricia Wilkinson,” he stated calmly, “I’ve been asked by the family to locate her.”

“That’s me,” I answered warily.

“You need to call home,” he responded more firmly.

“Okay, thank you,” I mumbled. I hadn’t kept in contact with anyone from home, so it couldn’t be good news.

We had no phone, so I grabbed my purse and headed out to the pay phone at the end of the block, but without enough change, had to call collect. As it rang, I felt restless and worried. Mom said “hello” to the operator, confirming she would take the call.

My voice timid with apprehension, I peeped, “Hi, Mom?”

“Patty,” she was crying, almost hysterical. “Danny died. Come home.”

The call ended in a haze. Buying tickets, getting to the airport, flying home, all blurred, my body and mind numb, on hold. Snapshots of Dan’s tattered life fell through my thoughts like a hateful letter ripped up into shreds: his failed previous attempts at killing himself, how he had totally rejected counseling or therapy. I didn’t understand because I had readily sought help. Sitting by his hospital bedside after an earlier botched attempt, I had pressed the idea of therapy.

Protesting adamantly, shaking his head with conviction, he exclaimed, “Shrinks don’t know anything. They need help more than me.”

Bewildered, I gave up trying, but asked Don, “Why would he resist help when he needs it so much?”

Don, sad from repeatedly trying to help, shook his head as if spent. “The ones who need it most won’t take it.”

Don had left Dan behind in the VA, a memory he will probably carry a lifetime.

Don said to me at the time, “Patty, he held onto the bars of the door with his face up close, begging me, ““Don’t leave me here, don’t leave!””

Don carried the burden of trying to help Dan for Mom and for all of us. He did the most to help his twin, yet Don’s very existence may have been what haunted Dan to suicide. One so seemingly pure, the other pure evil, or so Dan must have thought. Why else would he murder himself?

Dan left home at sixteen, not long after he raped me. He ran from himself, unable to escape. If only someone could have intervened for us both. I know the feelings; at least how I assume he felt: a fucked up failure not wanting to be.

We had other things in common. He joined the Army; I later did too, though his discharge may not have stated “Honorable” on it like mine. I don’t have all the facts, as us younger siblings weren’t told much. I know he married during the same summer Don did. Did he do so to keep up with his twin? Sadly, his marriage dissolved and he wandered, though a daughter came from it. He should have stuck around; Don eventually divorced too. Only the three youngest of us eight siblings stayed married to original spouses, which luckily included me.

I remembered how before the repeated hospitalizations at the VA psych center and subsequent death, he had joined the Children of God, a religious group that seemed more like a cult.

He looked like an emaciated ghost when his wanderings brought him home. Mom had looked to me depleted, and implored me, “Maybe you can help him.”

I went down to the basement. He stood in the corner by the washer under the dim yellow glow of the dusty bare light bulb above him. Just standing in his underwear with no shirt, he seemed bewildered as to why. He had a little plastic baggie in his hand.

“What do you have?” I asked, approaching slowly, gently taking the bag he offered willingly, a slight crooked smile on his lips, eyes dark, his mind gone.

White powder residue lined the bottom of the baggie. I stood beside my brother, more lost than ever before. I took the bag upstairs and handed it to Mom.

“I don’t know, Mom. Speed? Coke?”

Whatever it was, it was not good and we both knew it.

On another visit home before his death, Dan and I were alone in the living room at Mom’s. I needed to know what I already knew. Events long ago pointed to one thing, that he raped me, but I could not remember the actual event. I needed to hear it from him.

“What did you do to me as a child?” I asked, our knees almost touching between the two chairs pulled close.

As if struck by a bullet, he paused, then answered slowly, almost in a whisper, his head and eyes lowered, “It’s better you don’t know.”

The conversation ended as he rose, moving away, suddenly aged way beyond his twenty-eight years. He’d made suicide attempts before but it was the next one that succeeded. I sometimes wondered if my question killed him.

I felt shocked by his death, but not surprised; he had succeeded at one thing anyway. How could he ever compete with Don, whose father seemed to have loved more than him, who us younger siblings turned to as a replacement father after Dad died, who hadn’t raped his younger sister…and the many other countless comparatives he surely failed at when inevitably measuring his worth against his good twin brother?

They found him curled up on the park bench across from where Dad had once owned a law office with two other partners, dead from an overdose.

Sadness would have been the norm, yet other feelings, unbidden, swam under the surface like sharks or piranhas, prickling insistently but not wanting to be felt or voiced.

I made it home in time to attend the service in the little country church where Dad was buried. It was a pretty church tucked under wide, aged trees, surrounded by rolling hills, the oldest Methodist church in the area, the one I attended from childhood through adolescence.

Happy memories flooded back as my hand glided over the silken honey-gold wood atop the pews: Grandma feeding Ginger Snaps to Stevie and me to keep us quiet through long sermons, later joining the choir with strong sopranos blasting over my timid voice, and happy evenings in the back room with other adolescents during weekly youth group meetings. I sat with a rustle on the long soft maroon cushions, too frozen to cry.

Danny’s wife Cara eventually remarried and neither Cara nor their beautiful daughter, Shasta, were much of a presence in our lives anymore. The sad thought runs through my mind every time I see this young woman, Danny’s daughter, now in her thirties, “You needed to live, Danny, even if only to see this miracle you created grow into an amazingly smart, talented woman.”

And I cannot tell her the truth; none of us can. He was labeled by some doctor along the way as schizophrenic, but what’s in a word? If you don’t feel loved and cherished by parents as a child, how do you grow to love and cherish yourself? His brilliance, talents, creativity…wasted and never realized. His IQ testing far exceeded the rest of us. But demons chased him, the demons of feeling unloved, unworthy, and not good enough. I know these demons well.

Maybe he felt compelled to destroy the only thing our parents seemed to love and cherish besides Dad’s law practice and Mom’s flowers: me, the only girl-child. I can only guess at why my brothers attacked rather than loved me. Mom popped out babies like a rabbit, one after the other, cute when little, not so cute later. And maybe the fawning that likely occurred when a girl came along after six boys, children who already didn’t receive the attention they needed, maybe that made them hate the little girl baby; not all, but some.

Don once opened up, relaying a story. During a poker game with Dad and sons—except Stevie, too young to play —Danny vied for attention, as all of us did out of necessity. In a family of eight, there weren’t enough of the non-material necessities to go around, like attention, nurturing, and protection—as essential to survival as air.

But Dad laughed callously at Dan’s antics, belittling him sarcastically. “You fat buffoon.” Don repeated the words from his memory as if wrenching them from a bad dream, all too real.

Don looked into my eyes, the deep brown irises almost black, like mine, and tormented. His voice was anguished.  “I had to look it up, buffoon means fool. Dad called him a fat fool.”

At Mom’s after the funeral, the table became laden with food that seems to appear out of nowhere when someone dies. An appetite that had nothing to do with hunger for food increased under duress. I ran from feelings, all impossible, scary, and overwhelming, and moved toward the table. “Might as well not waste all this food,” I thought, sitting down to eat alone.

No one else seemed to have much of an appetite. The array of an enormous ham with a variety of many side dishes erased pain. Filling up quickly, I hardly tasted anything. The holes, caverns of feelings I dared not explore, burst instead with food and self-hate.

A minister visited, brave enough to enter this house of skeptics, futilely trying to say things that made my lip curl in a sneer. Mom’s bitterness over losing Dad twelve years prior had washed over me, tainting my view of religion and religious people.

Driving by a church on Sunday mornings, Mom often said, “There go all the good people.”

Hearing it enough times, I believed her, they were the “good” people, loved and protected by God. We were not “good” and I was not protected. The minister’s presence, boldness, and empty words repelled me. When he tried to offer comfort with some religious bullshit, I smiled politely, moving away, secretly scorning and condemning him, “You jerk. God? Where is God in all of this? God is not in this family, does not help this family, is not here. Go away. Save somebody else. Save it for those God loves and that’s no one you’ll find here.”

Don sat outside, his head in his hands, and I just couldn’t go to him. Floating near others without reaching any destination, I wandered among many alone, no connection with anyone deep inside. A sarcastic remark was murmured now and then, followed by a dry laugh. The important part where everything matters, where feelings reside, remained untouched, a third dimension as far away as Pluto, maybe farther. It’s like that with a family that does not bind; something’s lacking, like a recipe without eggs. It just won’t stick. We are courteous but not close.

I didn’t return to Rhode Island.

I told Coke it was time to move on over the phone. “Please pack my stuff in the trunk and ship it,” I said, ending the relationship boxed neatly.

He didn’t put up much of a fuss; he had his constant quart of Miller’s to keep him company. Mom hadn’t yet quit drinking, but I had quit buying it for her. Without realizing the effects, my refusal to drive into town to the only liquor store to once again purchase a quart of her favorite whiskey, Barton’s Reserve, was one of the pivotal moments that shocked her into beginning the long journey of sobriety. But that was yet to come, over the next few years. Her drinking continued in fervor with the sudden death of her son. It was a precarious position for me.

I had quit college, and moving home without a job, unable to support myself, meant living with Mom who was lost in grief and drink. Don invited me to move in with him, his wife Pam, and young daughter, Krista. I accepted readily. If he had not made such a terrific gesture, raising a family of his own with a new baby on the way, I’m not sure where I’d be today…or if I’d be.

CHAPTER 5: HOUSE ON HOWELL

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After seven years a widow, Mom dared re-up and love again, moving Stevie and me to the neighboring city where Bill lived. He seemed nice and acted kind towards us, but I didn’t want another school away from everything I knew. I begged her not to move, but we did, leaving the house I had been raised in. Four older brothers had already moved out. The other two stayed behind fending for themselves, Paul with a cousin, and Chet with a friend. At first we had a small apartment, but later moved to the lake house.

Chet, unfortunately, found his way to us at the house on the lake by the glen. He’d been in a tussle with the English teacher and she refused to allow him to make up assignments he had not done, so he wouldn’t be able to graduate if he stayed at that high school.

Mom put the phone down, “Chet won’t be able to graduate because the English teacher will fail him. So he’s finishing here,” she chirped.

Though feigning brightness, I noticed the tension on her brow and the forced smile. She would need to make calls and arrangements, but her idea of an ideal arrangement would be a house without kids. She couldn’t wait until everybody left, along with their dirty habits and everything else teenagers do that can cause one’s hair to prematurely grey.

I habitually studied her face, every line, every nuance, and every change, even if imperceptible to anyone else. I had to. She drank after Dad died and hadn’t discovered AA yet. When the bottle came out after she came home from work, I retreated to my room, usually safe from emotional outbursts about her bitter life with “all us kids,” thick, slurred words uttered in despair that defeated me in their darkness.

As if a zombie, I shuffled from the sunlit kitchen to the living room, sitting statuesque in front of the gloomy marble-trimmed fireplace. I stared at it as if flames flickered, but it was stone cold, like me. Everything which had brightened by Chet’s absence darkened. The large drafty house with too many rooms for three, suddenly felt haunted and scary, the beauty surrounding it dropping in grandeur as if a grey film, like a bad cataract had just covered it. Play-acting automatically kicked in, the pretense of loving him on display while terror simmered out of sight—even my own. I may have loved him, but I feared him more.

I had managed fairly well with everything so new: new friends, new school, all the insecurities that a thirteen-year-old struggles with. My French teacher introduced the language in a way that made me feel excited to learn it. I loved listening to his voice while he talked French, and his vigor helped ease the fear of speaking French back to him while the entire class listened. The choral teacher was much the same, teaching us diaphragmatic breathing and pulling out the best in each of us.

Oh, the usual angst occurred that teenagers might suffer; being on the outs of the ‘in’ crowd, trying to fit in with the popular kids when my real friends were not popular, boys—all the normal stuff. I discovered a huge waterfall in the glen behind our house only a short hike away. When I needed respite from teenage troubles, comfort came from the hypnotic rush of water and splashing noises as it hit the rocks below. I’d sit at the top and just stare at it, hypnotized.

The fast-moving creek at its base gushed past the side of the house, under the road through the culvert to the lake on the other side. That spring, fishermen in thigh-high rubber boots netted smelt from the creek, and their lanterns swaying over the water lit the dark nights and early mornings. A friend I met on the bus owned a fast zippy boat, a Boston Whaler, sleek and speedy. She invited me for rides on the lake, our hair flying backwards as the bow bounced over the choppy waters and left a white rush of waves behind us.

Then Chet came. He sauntered in, larger than life with a lopsided grin.

“Hi,” he said to Stevie and me while Mom brought in more of his things from the car.

He went upstairs to pick out one of the empty rooms. The rest of the year passed in a blur. He adjusted to the new school as if he’d always been there, even landing the lead in the school play, “The Rainmaker.” My claim to fame was trying to be invisible, walking the halls with my head down so I wouldn’t be noticed, or I wouldn’t see how much I wasn’t noticed. Although I made friends after moving, I felt afraid of everyone else. Mom made an effort to go to the play and took us—a rare occurrence; she seldom attended anything. He was great, really amazing, even receiving a standing ovation. The girls especially loved him. He seemed to have a flock of them, and notably juggled two serious relationships without either one know about the other, at least for a while.

With intense relief, we moved back to the town I grew up in. Maybe Mom noticed my unhappiness after leaving friends to start high school elsewhere. More likely it was because Bill died. Mom had talked of marrying Bill and moving in with him. Stevie and I would move with her too. But Bill ended up in the hospital and when she thought he’d be coming home, he suddenly passed away. With no reason to stay in the new city anymore, we moved. I could go back to my real friends, close throughout childhood. I don’t know how Mom managed her grief, not many years after losing Dad, the love of her life, but she never got that close to another man again.

But somehow, through her grief, and commuting back and forth to her secretarial job, she found a house in our hometown. I was ecstatic, but not for long. Chet came too and Paul soon followed. And for a while, Marty, a son of Mom’s friend, would live with us too; also an abuser during those years Chet used me as his sexual plaything. Chet had invited Marty and another acquaintance of the family, Lenny Nielson, to molest me too, all three of them. That somehow added to Chet’s fun, horrendous for me at only ten, adding more shame to my already overburdened load. So the day Marty moved in only a few years later, terror ratcheted up, if that were possible.

Older, bigger, I still felt very small, the shocks of childhood arresting my development for a very long time. My emotional age did not grow with my physical body. I stayed in the pre-adolescent phase well into the adult years, on the far cusp of middle age. Growth came slowly, and only with hard work. I genuinely had to “act” my age. And since it was an act, I failed often, my reactions immature and overly emotional, lacking wisdom or insight, more like a kneejerk reaction to daily interactions rather than thoughtful responses. The real pairing of my emotional age with my physical age came as all parts healed, a continual journey. I attribute that process to meditation; the quiet, peace, and space allowing an internal atmosphere ripe for joining, coming together…for wholeness.

Though I’d become accustomed to terror, wearing it in my being as if flesh, a new terror arose like a third skin sloughing off in waves of fear. Living with the horrors of my childhood, masquerading in bodies that looked human, that would be harder to live with. Suppressing those fears would take unparalleled strength, but my subconscious, brilliant at survival, found a way.

You are born to one family. It’s your only family. There are unwritten, unspoken rules: loud, deafening, but clear even if never voiced, seared into skin as if branded. If you want to remain in your family, you abide by them.

The small grey house sat sunken in a hollow piece of land. Half of it looked underground, adding to my feelings of captivity. I felt locked into a home jailed with hardened criminals posing as family. Rock and a hard place—love them, love them, love them, but they are bigger than me, and I am afraid with no one to tell it to, no one to save me, no one to keep me safe. Mom’s grief chased her away nights. My terror spiraled out of control. I buzzed with anxiety so intense breathing took effort.

The kitchen was perhaps the largest room, though my bedroom was also roomy with a little alcove where I set up my record player. There were stairs in my room leading to the claustrophobic attic where Stevie’s room would be. Mom’s room was off the kitchen, and by the tiny living room was one more bedroom where Paul and Chet would stay. Marty slept on the couch. Heat came out of floor- to-ceiling space heaters in both the kitchen and living room. A fire erupted in the attic once when Stevie lit a ping pong ball because he heard it caused a neat glow. Mom rushed us outside quickly, then went up there on her own and put it out. Between that and the space heaters, it’s a wonder we didn’t all burn up.

One bathroom accommodated everyone, which meant long waits with so many teenagers. I was afraid to use it after Marty arrived because of Mom’s comment.

“Marty has crabs,” Mom said matter-of-factly.

I already knew what that was, but Marty had a prescription in the bathroom medicine cabinet. My cure had come from DDT, a poison not meant for humans. I looked at Marty’s bottle, with his name and the doctor’s name, and again felt not good enough, shamed, feelings that followed me so long they became me. Terror reigned at the house on Howell, a nameless terror that needed to be named. But I couldn’t let on it was from the real monsters living with us: Chet, Paul, and Marty. I couldn’t let on even within myself; we were a regular family, or pretended to be. The nameless terror, the anxiety and adrenaline coursing through me from the constant fear of being boxed in with my abusers, found expression and became the man in the attic. I was in tenth grade and feared—no, was terrorized—by the man in the attic.

I truly believed a wandering man had taken residence in our attic, in the tiny crawl space adjacent to Stevie’s room through a small cut-out door in the paneling. I had to believe it; my survival depended on it. Without somehow naming the dread, giving it a place to land, I might not have made it. Can people explode? Implode? I would have.

I saw his footprints in the snow, or believed I did after comparing and measuring prints to everyone else who lived there. I heard him, noises in the dark attic space above me, and creaking on the attic stairs. Surely he was coming for me.

I couldn’t bear being alone at night and my fear far surpassed my embarrassment at being fourteen and afraid. Mom worked days and went out nights. If Stevie stayed home, I would be all right, but with him out and the others gone, I couldn’t handle it. I heard footsteps on the tiny stairs leading down from the attic into my room. The next time Stevie stayed overnight elsewhere, I went to Mom, pleading with her to stay home. She instead arranged for Paul to stay, but he didn’t, a conundrum anyway because those that were to stay were the ones I really feared.

How much can one be afraid? One night I slept in Chet’s bed because Mom had a friend staying overnight in my room. I awoke in the dark to a shadow bent at the window by my bed, a man’s silhouette. He was jiggling the window trying to get in.

I ran into the kitchen shrieking, “Someone’s trying to get in!”

Mom came from her room, sleepy yet alarmed. At the same time someone began knocking loudly on the kitchen door, banging it. Chet. He’d been out late and rather than bother the friend’s family he’d planned on staying with, came home and tried getting in through the window. Mom hadn’t expected him back that night, so she had locked all the doors. I felt sure I was going to be murdered, but it was only Chet, out having fun, getting too drunk again.

Another added attraction on the pathway to hell included what should have been an innocuous event but turned into another of my scariest memories. Our little close-knit group of friends throughout the early school years and now high school—Cassie, Sherry, Penny and me—had just been to a high school football game. Penny’s parents dropped Cassie and me off at Cassia’s house, then headed home, dropping Sherry off on the way. Cassia’s parents were out for the night, so we had the house to ourselves, which we loved. Cassie put the Jiffy Pop on the stove while I turned on the TV, switching the dials till I found Mission Impossible, one of our favorites.

Then I went into the bathroom, leaving the door open so I could yell out into the kitchen—Cassie had graduated from Kotex pads to tampons and I wanted her expertise while I tried one. Sticking what felt like a pole up that rather mysterious opening caused some trepidation and I needed constant reassurance that I wasn’t tearing through major organs or breaking something. I heard rustling in the chute under the bathroom sink used for tossing laundry down to the washer and dryer in the basement.

I looked at it, wondering if I had heard anything at all, when it happened again—this time closer. With my pants bunched up around my ankles, I straddled to the doorway, hanging on to the edge of it, looking out into the hallway towards the door at the top of the stairs to the basement where the noises were coming from. I became frightened and quickly pulled up my pants as the noises became clearer. Footsteps were coming up the stairway.

“Cassie! Cassie!” I shouted, but she couldn’t hear me over the rattling of the foil pan scraping back and forth across the burner.

I screamed louder, “Cassie!”

She peeked over the side of pan, “What?” she shouted back.

By that time the footsteps had stopped at the top of the stairs and we both heard deafening pounding against the door. I dropped to the floor in a stupor of fright crying. The Jiffy Pop burned, filling the house with a nasty stench. Cassie rushed it to the sink, turning the faucet on to douse it, but the water hitting the grease caused it to burst into flames. The flames licked at the newly hung curtains, engulfing them entirely before spent. The kitchen had just been redecorated.

It took a moment to comprehend the giggling now coming from behind the door to the basement. I still sat in a heap of tears while Cassie put out the fire, looking at me briefly for help, then shaking her head as she threw the last splash of water on the smoky walls, the tattered curtains blackened around the edges. She went to the basement door and unlocked it, unamused.

Sherry and Penny fell from the door in gales of laughter, telling us how especially funny it was to hear me yelling to Cassie for instructions on tampon insertion through the laundry chute. Penny had asked her parents if they could also spend the night with us, so they had turned around and dropped them off leaving out the part that they thought it would be funny to scare us before making their presence known. And they did think it hilarious until they saw the burnt curtains and Cassie’s face, also smoldering.

Somehow I survived two years in that hellhole of a house, half-sunken in dirt. My spirits were kept afloat by a cat, dog, two white fluffy chickens, two fat rabbits, and a shiny red 65cc Yamaha motorcycle Mom allowed me to buy with money I earned as ‘salad girl’ at the Country Chicken restaurant. I had chickens I could pet, though they froze over the winter, and a motorcycle to rip through the fields across the road; not a bad replacement for the horse I had been forced to give up when we moved to the city where Bill lived.

After 11th grade, we moved out of that grey pit of a house to an apartment, just Mom, Stevie and me. Feelings of being somewhat safe again, for a while, helped me to regroup. There I regained the courage and strength needed for my journey to Rhode Island, where I would soon be a freshman in a college by the bay.

CHAPTER 4: CHET

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In my house growing up there were six bedrooms: three downstairs, three up. Mine was sandwiched in between the two upstairs and decorated to my liking, just for a little girl. The sunny yellow walls complemented the matching bedspread with intricate threading woven through the soft cloth, little squares of yellow outlined in white. Mom’s bedroom, next to mine, faced the front yard and, after Dad died, Stevie slept there too in a separate twin bed by the window.

No one else besides Chet and me were home and the usually active, loud, busy household seemed oddly quiet. Mom had found work as a secretary and we were left on our own much of the time. Chet, fifteen, and the designated watcher of Stevie and me, was known for his happy-go-lucky good nature and charm. I loved and adored him, as I loved all my brothers, though a crack had begun to form deep below. Quite the lady’s man, he dated frequently and the girls couldn’t get enough of him. I couldn’t either. He made me laugh and feel good and always had a smile. You could not help grinning or feeling happy around him.

I sat cross-legged on my bed with an array of punch-out Barbie doll clothes I had received for my tenth birthday, the kind where you dress a paper doll Barbie with paper clothes that have little tabs to fold over the doll to hold them in place. I hummed while playing, the bright sunshine splashing onto the sunny yellow bedspread. Stevie had taken off with his bike down the road to play with his cousin. Warm summer air fluttered the frilly white curtains.

Chet came upstairs, looking into my room, dangling a pack of Wrigley’s gum in his hand, not the stick kind but the box with little pillows of gum crusted with sugar glaze.

His eyes were smiling, playing a game. He said excitedly, “You get it before I do and you can have it. I’ll give you a head start!”

I jumped off the bed into the hallway. He threw it towards Mom’s room where it landed on the floor by her bed.

“Go!” he said.

Loving games with prizes, especially those involving gum or candy, I raced after it, reaching it before he did, claiming the prize. I’d won! I held it up staring at the cellophane, straining to see at least one square of the sugary gum, but it was empty. I looked at it bewildered, but had little time to complain. His body slammed into mine, the rock solid force knocking the air out of me. He dragged me onto Mom’s bed, falling on top quickly, as if all in one motion, smothering me with his weight, his chest crushing air from my lungs, his shoulders, head, and face so close the minute heated air space between his head and my face lacked oxygen. My body roared in defense, bucking, twisting, and trying to pull away or get up but I couldn’t move. Fighting made it harder to breath and so much worse, like I might die if I kept it up. So I lay still. His fifteen years of male growth, massive and violent, overpowered my child-sized frame with deadening, brutal, iron heaviness. No breath came until I quit fighting. The brick wall stifling me had just one moment ago been my smiling brother.

During the unfair battle for my life and breath, my shorts and panties were roughly pulled down. He rubbed himself against me, also naked. Up, down, up, down. The two skins together felt horridly wrong, cold, and creepy. I felt sick and dizzy. He pressed faster and harder against me. He seemed to have finished whatever he started, cupping his hand down there as if to catch something, then left the room leaving me on my mother’s bed in a stupor. I could breathe again, I had air, but my world felt dark and cramped as if I were in a box. I stared off in the distance, going to a safe place inside, the outer me a shell.

And so it began. I became his toy.

More than all the attacks and abuse, it was the empty gum box and that moment in time that crystallized in my conscious and unconscious memory. I had been tricked. I had been tricked by someone I loved and trusted, a brother who, in normal circumstances, would protect a young sister. But instead, unconsciously, instinctually, as a matter of survival, that memory caused the total eradication of trust for any other human being ever. His treachery became a steady, deliberate series of planned attacks for the next few years, symbolized by an empty packet of gum.

It became a very dark period. I continued to be used this way along with any friend unfortunate enough to play with me at the house or spend the night. I lived many years into adulthood with the guilt of what he did to my friends and cousin down the road.

Annie, my cousin and neighbor, used to play at my house as much as I at hers. He attacked her too but she told. Her parents talked to Mom. Annie could no longer come to our house. That made me feel bad, that our family was bad, but most especially me.

Now Mom knew about another brother. I sat in my bedroom opposite her, my face red and hot. The tears stung in their intensity, dripping burning shame into my lap.

“Tell me if anything ever happens again,” she admonished, as if I had the power to stop it.

That was the extent of any protection I’d get. My head slowly nodded yes as tears washed down, but I knew I’d never tell. I felt to blame, guilty and shamed, evidently experiencing much more remorse than the abuser who kept abusing me.

I began itching fiercely between my legs where I peed. And it didn’t go away. Instead the itching intensified. I felt afraid, more afraid of the itching than of him.

“I’m itching,” I said to Chet, after he was done with me.

He smiled as he left. “Oh you probably have a rash,” he said nonchalantly, then was gone from my room.

I became more afraid, panicky. Something was down there and I had to find out. I looked for Mom’s makeup mirror on her dressing room table, the special place where I loved to play dress-up, putting her sparkling blue diamond-like studded necklace atop my head like a tiara. When Dad was still alive and they went out in the evening, I often sat at her little table on the small stool, looking into the three mirrors set at angles to see all sides, adorning myself with her jewelry, pretending to be a princess. But I wasn’t a child anymore, suddenly I had become very old, the weight of reality changing me from ten to two hundred, as I robotically performed functions only an adult should know how to do—or have to do.

I lay on her bed, pulled my panties down, held the mirror over the area and saw bugs. I went downstairs for a cup, filling it with hot water. After finding tweezers from her dresser that she used to pluck her eyebrows, I laid again on her bed, held the mirror in one hand, and with the other plucked the minute spiders from me. Their little teeth stubbornly burrowed tightly into the soft, sweet flesh, but I pulled every one that I could and placed it in the cup of hot water, hoping to scald it to death.

This time I went to Mom.

She seemed quiet, then said, “We’ll see the doctor.”

“No!” I pleaded through tears of shame and fright.

The dread of our doctor knowing far overshadowed the revulsion and terror of what was down there, still stuck on me. So later she came to me with a small container of powder.

“I looked it up. This is DDT. It will kill them. Dust yourself down there in the morning before getting dressed and at night before you put on pajamas. I’ll wash all your sheets, nightgowns, and underwear,” she said, all business. Then she added, “Chet already saw a doctor and took care of it.”

I felt limp and emptied… he didn’t tell me.

This latest rush of shame watered my face, lips and chin, my face again hot. Knowing I added to her burdens of “all us eight kids,” which had become the mantra after Dad died, tormented me. But she wouldn’t expose me and, at that moment, Mom became both a life- long alliance and a place to dump rage.

Did we not go to the doctor because I begged her not to? Or could her fear of exposure have been greater than mine? And she was right, the DDT did kill them.

The abuse stopped, though not on my volition. I never had such power but believed I should have. Feeling real stopped too, as if I’d become invisible, a ghost of a person undeserving of the same rights, voice, or worth as others. Mom hired a high school girl that summer to watch Stevie and me so Chet couldn’t get at me again. I never told her about the others.

CHAPTER 3: CHRISTMAS AT GRANDMA’S

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The long old oak table gleamed like golden honey, someone’s effort to wax and shine evident in its warm glow. All six extensions were in place, stretching the usually small oval form from one end of the ancient farmhouse’s dining room to the other. Grandma and Aunt Sally hosted Christmas each year, one week before the big day, so we celebrated not one but two Christmases. Happy chatter filled the rooms bursting with all eight of us Wilkinson kids, Mom, Aunt Rita, Uncle Fred and their three kids, our cousins, Scott, Annie, and Larry.

Even the youngest, including me, were allowed to help properly situate the crisp white tablecloths over the seemingly endless length of smooth wood. A slight hint of pine arose as Scott and Don shook them before settling askew, as we helped pull the edges so it hung just right, one cloth slightly overlapping another. After storage in cedar lined trunks, they’d been ironed and starched, the soft thick cloth slightly stiff. The kid’s cloth-covered card table tucked to the side would be my seat, along with Stevie and my cousin Larry.

Next we set out plates, then silverware, cloth napkins, glasses, coffee cups with saucers, salt and pepper shakers, ladles, serving forks, and the sugar and creamers. Doing my best to fold the napkins with precision took time, and then the silverware had to be placed in exact order. Annie, older by seven years, held court, directing us younger helpers, then added the finishing touches by lighting all the candles. The room warmed with a soft glow, the flickering light beckoned for all to gather.

Uncle Fred stayed reclusive even among us. He’d force a smile, and then remove himself from the lively gathering as quickly as possible with excuses of a hot football game back at his house across the road. I couldn’t understand why he’d leave the gay party. His structured smile always softened when he said “hello‟ to me. But Aunt Rita rocked with holiday fervor, pounding out carols, while I sat on the piano bench next to her, following along, loving the songs of Christmas, and loving even more that she knew how to play them, turning the pages when she nodded her head. Mom and Aunt Rita exchanged a look that cooled the atmosphere briefly, and it wouldn’t be until years later that I’d learn what caused that soured rift, Mom used instant potatoes in her dish to pass instead of making them from scratch.

Sitting down for the big meal was just something to get done with, barely tolerated, especially by the three of us at the little table. It seemed to take forever to eat. Warmth and activity filled the kitchen along with smells of roasting turkey, bubbling gravy and other mysterious tempting aromas wafting from the oven. We moved through the bustling kitchen quickly with gentle scoldings. “You kids stay out of here,” could be heard from one smiling chef or another.

We jumped into the living room, exploding with excitement to examine the tree again, which filled the bay window alcove. The floor-length windows shimmered with brilliant colors reflected back, mirroring the festive scene, intensifying it. Underneath, prettily wrapped presents in assorted shapes awaited happy hands, the old- fashioned, fat, colored bulbs enhancing their mystery and attraction brightly. Silver tinsel, thickly adorned, streamed downward, glittering with movement in the air current. My favorite ornament sent bubbles into its colored liquid when plugged in, the water inside the tiny tube heating up. The tree’s branches hid several white envelopes slipped in-between branches, but those didn’t captivate us. Our eyes quickly skimmed past them to the gifts below.

Moving constantly with high-test kid energy, the tree securely the same as only moments before, I flounced to the other end of the living room, braking at the treat table to study the candy dish. Its contents overflowed with beautiful striped colored candies of various shades—yellow, green, orange, red, and some swirled with two colors together. That would be for later, the sugary thin brittle ribbon, fun to break into bite-sized chunks, crunching the sweetness, trying to detect each individual flavor: mint, cherry, orange, lime or lemon? The opened box of chocolates next to the fancy ribbon twirls didn’t stand a chance.

Not old enough to be trusted to fill the punch pitcher, I followed Don out to the frigid breezeway where the tall kettle held gallons of fizzy red holiday punch. He used a long-handled porcelain covered dipper to refill it, and I rubbed my arms up and down jumping in a circle to stay warm. The breezeway kept the punch at a perfect temperature without freezing it. Reentering the bright kitchen felt like suddenly being wrapped in hot blankets.

Feasting time approached. Potatoes were scraped into serving bowls, gravy and the rest of the fixings all transferred from cooking pots to Grandma’s multi-colored Fiesta ware. The rolls were handed to me, and I set them on the table before joining Stevie and Larry at our own table. The others began to gather ‘round and settle in for Grace.

Finally sixteen people seated themselves and our eldest cousin, Scott, led the prayer. We bent our heads, clasped our hands, then the meal began, the quiet suddenly erupting with tinkling silverware, clinking dishes and, “Will you pass the gravy? Do you have the pepper?”

No one bothered to tell us what food we had to eat, a plus for the separate table, but once we were done, we had to sit there till everyone else finished. The wait felt like an eternity. Then the clearing began which we helped with, glad for some activity. After the dishes were delivered to the sink area, we flounced impatiently on the couches near the tree, while the clatter of washing dishes continued in the kitchen. Next? Dessert.

I suddenly perked up. I guess I could wait a little longer, but the question begged, which one? Grandma traditionally offered a two-layer chocolate cake topped with fudge frosting, so massive you needed a sharp knife to cut through the deep wad of fudge that dropped off the edges of the almost black confection. Aunt Sally ensured someone had made a run to the city creamery for the perfect, special, peppermint stick ice-cream, pink, and sweeter around the real pieces of slightly crunchy red and green candy mixed inside. And the required pumpkin and apple pies filled the counter, served plain or à la mode, along with dark, rich, freshly perked coffee from Grandma’s plug-in percolator.

So the shuffling for chairs began again as everyone sat to ingest the sweets, complaining of how full they were. We picked at our desserts and chattered as the ice cream melted in our dessert cups, excited that soon we’d be ready for the tree. This time clean-up went quickly. Paper plates with Santa faces were dropped into large trash bags, held by Scott or Don. Some took their coffee with them as they left the table. And then the time came, we blasted into the living room. Finally, the tree!

Sitting cross-legged on the floor, as close to the tree as possible, my fingers clasped and unclasped impatiently as we eagerly awaited the dispersal of gifts. The main event had begun. Everything we’d been waiting for over the last several months culminated into this, wishes to be answered, dreams to come true.

When the Sears Wish Book had arrived before the snow flew, Stevie and I pored over every page. That catalog represented the bible of toy heaven. It held beautiful color images of toys we had never imagined. Our wish lists grew long. Then the studied list had to be organized from most wanted on down. This serious business took time and diligence, more fevered energy devoted to it than to any dedicated to homework. When the list felt just right, perfectly displaying our hearts’ delights, only then did we deliver it to Grandma.

And wishes do come true. The previous year my list topper had been a doll that pooped and peed, vacillating between her and an Easy Bake Oven. The dolly that pooped won out. Over time, the wish list matured, and included a glorious long-haired, blond Barbie doll, complete with extra fancy clothing: a long silk gown, heels, a purse, and of course a tiny hairbrush and comb, accompanied by a closet-like case to keep her and the numerous accessories in. Little hangers were even included, like a real closet, with small drawers below for shoes, hats, or jewelry.

As preadolescence approached, gifts that plugged in would become desirable; the most favored, a record player able to handle 45s and 33s, with a little attachment to hold a tall stack of the smaller one-song 45s. One after another, the latest hits dropped down. After all of the records played, they were flipped over for the songs on the other side to reverberate. “Pretty Woman” echoed through the bedroom walls repeatedly, as my friends and I danced and gyrated. But this year all the rage was Chatty Cathy—pull the string in her back and she talked!

I barely sat still. Scott seemed to take quiet pleasure in drawing out the process. Grandma opened a black leather handbag that looked just like the one she already had. Aunt Sally’s gifts were given out one by one, always a book of interest, and especially chosen to meet the tastes and needs of each recipient. I loved reading due to her tireless efforts, reading all the golden books out loud to me, as we lay together on the couch at night. I cherished books, and my gift anxiety for my long awaited dolly was momentarily relieved while opening a hardcover storybook that now belonged only to me. My ability to read hadn’t evolved to thicker chapter books, but with years to come I’d receive many grand titles including the Nancy Drew series of which I read every one, My Friend Flicka, The Yearling, and so many more treasures that took me to far-off places.

The time had arrived. A big, gaily wrapped box was laid on my lap. Noise, light, and laughter stopped, tuned out; all that existed was the pretty paper, ripped off immediately. There she lay, gloriously beautiful Chatty Cathy. Opening the box, my arms enveloped her close to my heart; my smile surely must have matched the joy I felt inside. The little white envelopes handed out next weren’t even noticed, as I got acquainted with my new friend who talked. I swooned with rapture. She had gold ringlets and a frilly blue pinafore dress. She never left my side, going to bed with me that night and all the nights after. Christmas was complete and everything I had ever wanted, I had received.

 

CHAPTER 2: EIGHT

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Dad died and chaos ruled.

One night I woke in the dark, scared. A shadow at the end of the bed moved towards me. Breathing halted. I had night terrors before, but Daddy wasn’t there anymore to carry me around in his warm arms, calming me as I slept. Was I dreaming or awake? The specter slunk around the bed, creeping closer silently. It was black, quiet, crouched and coming for me. Iced with fear and still half-asleep, I couldn’t even scream for my mother.

When it slipped gently onto the edge of the bed, my terror immediately abated; air once again filled my lungs. I knew who it was: not a phantom but Danny, a brother I loved and trusted. He sat lightly next to me, his face hidden in the dark. I had known his voice for my entire young life: familiar, soothing, very kind, and the last thing I remember.

Softly, so tenderly, the words dripped out of his mouth like warm syrup and melted butter, “We’re going to play house,” he whispered. “You’re the mommy, I’m the daddy.”

During my next bath I began screaming as if stabbed and dying; that’s how much it hurt. The soap seared my vagina as if a sharp hot blade pierced me, though I didn’t know the name of that part of me yet. Danny’s twin Don, the ‘good one,’ came running, his eyes wild with fright for what he might find. When I told him through my tears that the soap hurt, he seemed disgusted and left the bathroom as quickly as he had arrived.

Though the pain ebbed along with the suds trailing down the drain, the terror of living in that house did not. The next day, Seth walked by my bedroom.

“Danny fucked me,” I said.

Seth said nothing, but his eyes glazed through me as if I were stabbed with an arrow. His nonchalance quickly disappeared, immediately replaced by a laser of revulsion. My bravado and confidence in telling big brother, who I knew would save me from the nighttime monster, vanished in an instant.

The look in his eyes became etched on the slate of who I was to become. Those eyes emptied me, devastated me. That moment shaped my core, shame the bedrock I grew from. I don’t know how I knew the word “fuck.” I don’t remember Danny saying it, but I know that he did. The memory of the attack still hasn’t surfaced. I am not ready for it, and may never be.

Once I had been a child who spoke the truth; it was part of the canvas that was me. I was born with it. I am not that woman today, though I look for her. Seth told Mom what I said. That was the first time she became aware of my vulnerability, but not the last. I didn’t go to a doctor. I was left on my own after attacks to my body, like a dinghy cut loose from the main ship. I have felt alone ever since.

The fat that accumulated immediately after Danny’s attack became a permanent addition to my skinny kid frame. Mom loved to cook. She fed me, I ate. She didn’t keep him off me, nor her other sons, but she loved me with food. Once a slim child who ate only when hungry, I transformed into an eating machine who devoured food for other reasons. Waking in the night, sick from the day’s eating, I went to Mommy for help.

As she lay there sleeping, I laid my hand tentatively on the cool sheet over her shoulder. “Mommy,” I whispered. I’m going to throw up.”

Half-asleep, she rasped, “What do you want me to do, spit straw?”

I went to the toilet and threw up. I kept eating and throwing up, my little tummy unable to contain all the food needed to numb out the nightly attacks, to feel loved, to survive. Some part of me believed a fat body was an ugly body, so safer, anything that would keep him away. It didn’t work. And maybe, as who I was slipped away, growing a bigger body kept me from disappearing altogether.

 

CHAPTER 1: DADDY

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Dad died in the winter of ’62, just before he was to take office as District Attorney. Mom was playing Bridge with friends at the Country Chicken restaurant, but some of us eight kids were home with him: Stevie, only five, and Seth, six years older than me. At eight, I didn’t understand Daddy’s unusually short temper, restless as he paced between the living room and his office in the small adjoining room. I lay on the scratchy couch, its tiny bumps of fabric sticking into my skin. Stevie played with trucks on the floor.

“Daddy, can we go outside?” I dared ask. I knew even at that young age that this wasn’t the same Daddy who would smile happily at me when I followed him around the yard like a shadow on his days off. “No,” he snapped back. “Turn down the TV.” He went back into his office, this time closing the door behind him. Quieted by his anger, wondering why he seemed so mad at me, I combed my dolly’s blond, silken hair while Seth turned the volume down. We heard a terrible thud behind the office door. Seth ran to the door and yanked it open. Daddy lay very still on his back. Seth went quickly to him, kneeled, and placed his own mouth over Daddy’s, trying to push breath into his lungs. A reflux of vomit went from Daddy into Seth. Seth rushed to the kitchen sink and splashed it out of his mouth.

I stood in a stupor, Stevie nearby. Daddy lay unmoving. What was going on? I stood frozen in one spot, watching the whirling lights outside and the seemingly sudden presence of so many people. Daddy left with the whirling lights, taken by stretcher. He would never return, but Stevie and I didn’t know that when a family friend, Mrs. Nielson, took us into the back bedroom and told us to pray. On our knees, we put our hearts into it, believing God would make it right. Scared and confused, I dutifully prayed, “Bring Daddy back. Bring Daddy back.”

Later we were allowed to go into the living room after Mommy returned. We sat by her side as she held our hands, but she seemed distant. Daddy lay flat the next time I saw him, so still, waxy, and pale. Approaching the casket slowly, I studied his face. It looked curiously pocketed with dips and curves of skin, not the smiling lively face I had known and cuddled up against with warmth and love. I had been warned before stepping up to the coffin about what I would be seeing. “Your Daddy’s sleeping,” an adult voice whispered, her lips brushing my ear in a hushed voice. But I knew it was more than that, something sick and queer. Someone sleeping ought to move. Someone sleeping would come back home to us.

“Now I lay me down to sleep,” Stevie and I prayed, kneeling beside his bed, our bedtime ritual. Our nightly mantra with clasped hands included blessings for Mommy, each of the seven brothers, the dog Sneakers, and most importantly Daddy who watched over us from heaven. Then came our song together, “Silent Night.” Mommy seemed hard to reach, far away, so I comforted Stevie, reassuring him that Daddy remained close by even though we couldn’t see him. Stevie asked, “Where is Daddy?” Mommy didn’t answer, but I always did, “He’s in heaven watching over us.” I smiled, adding, “He’s not gone, he’s everywhere around us.”

I needed to believe it as much he did, yet the feeling a part of me had been severed never left. Goodbyes of any kind became grief- colored endings. I would experience grief in a million different ways because I did not fully grieve Daddy’s passing, comforting my little brother instead. But maybe what came next obliterated all the rest.