Dad’s been living on the couch for two weeks, Francis. Two weeks. He won’t eat anything. He just lies there watching black’n white movies. He hasn’t changed his clothes in three days. He says he’s waiting for the Rapture. He says he’s ready to go to heaven. It scares the shit out of me. Mom’s moving out this weekend. Did you know that? No, you don’t know anything because you’re out there finding yourself. Without me. Fuck you.
Remember when we were best friends? You were my big brother, my protector, my guardian. Remember when we lived out in the country? We dreamed and talked about living in New York City, where we would never be bored.
We were so bored in our little three bedroom house. You and I shared a bedroom because Dad needed the third bedroom as an office. He was working hard on a book. He was writing about the Book of Revelations. He was deciphering every little detail. After dinner, he would go to his office, not to be disturbed. We didn’t have a TV, so we colored on the living room floor and listened to the Christian radio station.
Remember Sadie Rose? That was the only thing you were scared of…then. A pony named Sadie Rose. The neighbors down the road had bought it for their spoiled five-year-old granddaughter. She hated that dirty pony. I don’t know what they named her. But I named her Sadie Rose, after my favorite book character, and she was divine.
Before you got too cool for me, we would ride our bikes down to the gravel road, leave them at the edge of the thicket, and push through the tangled trees until we reached the clearing. Sadie Rose would be waiting for us and the pieces of apples and carrots stuffed in our dirty pockets. She was perfect in her acceptance of me. I felt like I belonged.
I was amused that my big brother—taller than me by four and three-fourths inches, faster and stronger no matter how hard I tried—was afraid of big animals. As far as I knew, you weren’t scared of anything else: leering, peering adults, standing in front of the church congregation to sing or recite scripture, answering questions in school, or performing in the Christmas Play. All of these things scared me to death. I turned rubbery at the thought of people looking at me, criticizing my pale, reddish face and my thick, plastic framed glasses, mocking my nasally voice. But animals, even big ones, didn’t scare me at all.
Do you remember how it felt to be all alone, just the two of us, in the middle of the tangled woods? No one could hear us singing. The sky above was bright and unending. Limitless potential lived there in that hidden clearing. One could almost still believe in fairies and gnomes, of secret adventures, and unknown places.
Sadie Rose was tangible. Her hefty, rotund body was warm to the touch and soft like thick velvet. I had stolen a brush from our grandma when we had visited her ranch in Kentucky, so I could brush her down. No one else took care of Sadie Rose, as far as we knew. Her lips were soft and her tongue wet and rough as she nibbled the treats from my flat palm. You refused to feed her. I knew that ponies could accidentally bite you if you didn’t flatten the palm of your hand when you fed them.
Sadie Rose would let me ride her. Sometimes. Until she didn’t think it was fun anymore. Then she would just stand still and chow down on grass. I liked to lay flat on the curve her sun-baked back and close my eyes, feeling the summer heat soak into my body. I imagined that all time stood still and only we existed in this happy place.
I heard God there.
You would get bored after awhile. You had friends to play with. Neighborhood kids that would want you on their team, because you were good at everything. I was never chosen for a team, unless you picked me. I could run, but I wasn’t a favorite. I couldn’t swing a bat or catch a ball. I definitely couldn’t shoot a basket.
“Come on, Abby, let’s go,” you said.
I didn’t want to leave the clearing. I wanted to stay with Sadie Rose forever.
Remember the day of the Big Announcement? After visiting Sadie Rose, we trekked back to our bikes and rode home. You were good to come with me. I wasn’t allowed to go anywhere by myself. Dad was afraid that someone would steal me away, since I was just a girl. But I was nine years old and I was fast. I was pretty sure I could ride my bike fast away from anyone who would try to kidnap me.
We heard Mom’s whistle when we were a block away from the house. This was before cell phones and even pagers. Mom’s whistle would bring us back if we were within half a mile of her. Her whistle to call us home was long and piercing.
She was standing on the porch. It wasn’t a big porch with a bench swing, but you could fit a couple of chairs on it. I didn’t care because I liked to sit on the railing anyways. I liked to sit there and watch the sun set between the tree trunks, a golden orb turning the stoic trees into black silhouettes. The luminous colors of an Ohioan sunset are more flamboyant than any other sunset I’ve ever seen.
“Kids, there you are. Dinner’s almost ready. Your father will be home any minute.” Mom’s curly hair pushed through the bandana. It refused to be tamed. “Wash up and set the table.”
Dad didn’t like for us to be late for dinner. He got home at precisely six o’clock every day and he wanted dinner, and all of us, ready. Dad worked as a copywriter and research assistant for the local paper.
We lived in a small, rural town, but Dad wasn’t a county boy. He was a small town boy. A Main Street boy. He liked to read. Like me. He liked to read about history, religion, and politics. I thought Dad was very smart. Dad liked to talk about these things with people. Sometimes people would be upset. Their faces would get red and they would start stuttering. But Dad was always calm. He never raised his voice. He was confident. I read a lot. I wanted to be confident like Dad. I wanted people to respect my opinions. I wanted to have an answer for everything.
Mom was smart too. She taught us at home. You didn’t like it because you had friends and you felt like you were missing out. But not me. Mom and I took lots of nature walks. We learned bird calls and how to track a duck by its droppings. Mom was a different kind of smart than Dad. She knew things that mattered every day. He knew things about heaven and the future and what had happened two thousand years ago.
When we heard the car drive up, you and I were standing by the door. You thought it was stupid to wait at the door for Dad, but I didn’t mind. At twelve, you were too old to wait at the door. Dad walked in, hung up his hat and keys, and turned to face us. He was beaming. “Well, children, today is a good day. Where’s your mother?”
Mom appeared from the other room, wiping her rough hand on a kitchen towel. She always seemed a little out of breathe when Dad was home. Like she was always late for something. “Hello, dear. Dinner’s ready.” Dad walked over to her and kissed her loudly on the lips. You and I exchanged glances. Dad and Mom never kissed in front of us.
“It’s happened, Maggie! It’s finally happened!” Dad grabbed Mom’s hand and began to awkwardly dance around the living room. Mom moved with an awkward imbalance while Dad jerked with happiness.
“Well, what is it, Joshua?”
Mom pulled away abruptly. You and I clutched each other’s hand instinctively. “Joshua. What are you talking about?”
Dad turned to us. “Children, Maggie, let’s sit down at the table and I’ll tell you all about it.” A wide grin was rooted into his bearded face. I hadn’t seen him so happy in years.
After Dad said grace, he told us that he had received a call this morning from a Christian radio station in New Haven. Dad had been distributing a newsletter about the End Times for about a year and apparently someone at this radio station thought that it was insightful. After Dad told the caller that he had a Bachelors Degree in History from Oral Roberts University, he was asked to fax over a resume. Dad had a phone interview not an hour later with the station manager.
“It’s fantastic, Maggie. I’ll have my own radio program.”
I looked from Mom to Dad as I shoveled spaghetti into my mouth. Mom’s face had a pinched look like she smelled something bad. Dad shone like Moses on the mountain. You raised your hand.
“Yes, son.” Dad had barely touched his food. He took a sip of water.
“Dad, I’m very proud of you.” You smiled. You had managed to not cover your face in sauce. I had already gone through two napkins. “I can’t wait to tell my friends.”
Mom finally spoke up. “Josh, New Haven is two hours away. That’s quite a drive.”
Mom’s face went cold white. Your jaw dropped open. I thought of only one thing: I’d never see Sadie Rose again.
And that was that.
Remember how we used to dance to Carmen? In the living room we would move all the furniture to the walls so we had as much space as possible. Sometimes even Dad would join in. You and Mom would sing. The room seemed to vibrate under the passion of your combined voices. I would move spastically like I was under a spell. I’ve never had any rhythm. But I had zeal. I was willing to be a fool for my faith. We didn’t know what good music was, back then. Carmen was all we had.
Carmen sang about stuff that you and I didn’t even know about. Drug use and witchcraft, being on the down and out—we didn’t know what that was. But we understood the message of salvation. All is not lost. Just when you think you’ve hit the bottom, Jesus is waiting for you.
It was a simple message. It reverberated in our chest bones.
At church, I loved when we had special guests. People would talk about how they’d be saved. They were living on the streets. Selling their bodies for money. (At my age, I had thought they literally meant body parts.) They had lost all self-respect, drinking every day, lying and cheating to everyone, especially themselves. But then…and this was my favorite part…then they would walk past a church with open doors. Or pick up a Gideon Bible in the motel room. Or Mom would call on the phone from miles away. They heard the voice of God. Nothing would be the same again.
I had wished for a story like that. I had asked Jesus into my heart as soon as I could talk. No back story of sin and desperation. I was such a goody-too-shoes. Somehow I felt like I was losing out. My own story was so boring. But I have no desire to even do these things. I’ve heard the stories and know what happens at the end. Either you die from your choices or you find redemption. I already have redemption. All I have left is to help others see the light.
Then we moved. Our story got interesting. Sure, to the rest of the world we looked the part. We looked like the quintessential, middle-class, American Christian family. A mom and a dad. A son and a daughter. Good job. Good grades. A productive member of the community. But what was brewing beneath the surface…Even you and I didn’t know the whole story. It came together, piece by ugly piece.
I remember this one time when you and I were playing with my Barbies. I was seven, you were ten. My favorite Barbie had red hair and green eyes. I named her Annie. I didn’t like the blond Barbies because they were boring and there were so many of them and that’s what everyone else wanted. You had been making Barbie clothes for me because we were too poor to buy them. You were sitting at my sewing machine (that I never touched). It made this soothing buzzing sound as you pushed the fabric through the needle. The fabric went in one way and came out very different. Mom had taught you how to use a sewing machine only the year before, but you were a pro at it already. You had an eye for it, she said. You had steady hands. You could picture what you wanted to make and you knew instinctually how to do it.
You only sewed when Dad was away. He hated that his son liked doing “woman’s work.” He was out of town at a state-wide, local newspaper conference that weekend. Mom was doing aerobics in the living room. We could hear the pop music through our closed bedroom door. We shared a bedroom back then.
I was trying to get neon pink tights on my Barbie’s legs but they were too tight. “Here. Let me do it,” you said. You took the Barbie and pulled the tights up. Dad opened the door at that moment. In my memory, the rest plays out like a silent movie. Dad grabbed you and pulled you up so you were both standing above me. I saw the belt but I didn’t hear it. I cried and cried. I felt the belt hitting your legs, right below your butt. “Stop. Stop,” I whispered. I wanted to scream, but I couldn’t. Dad was throwing all of my Barbies into the trash can. “Let me keep one, please,” I begged.
But Dad said they’re idols. He said he won’t have idols in his house. Idols let the demons in.
Remember what it was like when we moved into the cramped apartment on Main Street? Dad didn’t have an office anymore so he took over the living room. The sewing supplies went into the closet. We were excited though because New Haven had more than one streetlight. It had a big library with twice as many books as our old one and two public parks.
I devoured that library. Even then, I would read everything I could put my hands on—that Dad would approve of. I mostly had to read books from the Christian section of the library. Dad scrutinized everything I read for years and years. He even had doubts about me reading Flannery O’Connor, because she was a Southern Catholic.
I spent the winter in my bedroom with my nose in a book, mindlessly pushing my frames up. I read Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wind Through The Door and, of course, The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. I became obsessed with The Lord of the Rings, even though it took me three years to finish the whole trilogy. Later, I read Christian historical romances. All the librarians knew me by name and recommended new books when they came in. My favorite books were written by Hilda Stahl, who wrote the Best Friends series and the Sadie Rose series. My mom devoured the books she wrote for adults.
But then everything changed. You changed. You got older overnight. It’s like you just woke up one morning with a deeper voice, taller, and ridiculously handsome. You stopped playing games with me. You wouldn’t let me play with your new friends. You learned how to rollerblade and told me that roller-skates were stupid. They were for children.
There was no woods where I could walk, enjoying that perfect feeling of being alone. There was no Sadie Rose. No perfect feeling of acceptance.
Just a month after turning ten, I started the first day of the fifth grade. I was almost shivering with nervousness. Mom dressed me in an awful, handmade pink dress with puffy sleeves and tiny flowers. I wanted to throw a fit, but Mom seemed so pleased with her project that I kept my mouth shut and forced a smile. She had put my frizzy hair into curlers the night before and pulled those long curls into two pigtails. I had pink plastic glasses that were too big for my face. (I still have a photo of you and me on that day sitting on my dresser.)
“Little Miss Four Eyes,” sang a little boy, with red hair that stood straight up. I had just entered the classroom. I ignored the redhead and the girls staring at me and whispering behind cupped hands. I sat next to a chubby, black kid. His name was Morgan Johnson. The two of us outcasts sat in the corner with our backs to the wall. I set up my desktop: pencils and eraser in a straight row, paper aligned to the edge of the desk.
Morgan didn’t talk much, but I noticed that he had a keen eye and a quick hand for drawing comic characters. His long division page was covered in huge robots. He drew Spiderman on the pages we were reading in the American History book. He saw me watching and quickly covered it up with his hand, but I smiled and whispered, “It’s really good.”
I didn’t draw in class. I was focused on the teacher. I had been worried about going to a “real” school, but Mom had done a good job teaching me. I raised my hand to answer all the questions. By recess, I had earned another title: “Little Miss Know-It-All.”
At lunch, the little redhead held a whole mouthful of chocolate milk, walked purposefully over to me where I sat with Morgan and spewed chocolate milk all over that pink dress. My new friend, Morgan, punched him in the face and made his nose bleed. The chocolate never came completely out of my dress (I didn’t mind) and no one ever bothered me after that.
Later, I realized that Morgan also went to our church. The Johnsons were the only black family at our church. Morgan’s sister was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen. She was your age. Her skin was deep mocha, like Morgan’s, but she was curvy where he was round. Her long hair was always in perfect braids that I envied. I used to beg Mom to do my hair like that but Dad forbade her. He said that they looked like snakes. Now, I didn’t want snakes as hair, did I?
(to be continued)