Thursday, June 21, 2012
Thanks to all those at Inwood Indiana for the release of Harvest Time, which contains my story BETH. Page 271. The online copy is available by visiting the website and clicking the “Current Issue” link. http://InwoodIndiana.com The paperback issue will be forthcoming in several days.
by MaryAnne Kolton
Beth hoped she might at last be unhooked from the shame of her errant father and manipulative mother now that they were both dead, but she soon learned it didn't work that way. Her depression deepened and the tapes of “not good enough, never will be, just like your father” refused to be stilled. Barely audible, they swarmed like gnats around her head. The non-stop voices of her parents gave her headaches so violent that she was unable to complete the course work for the last semester of her business class. She failed to eat, lost too much weight and spent days in bed. She slept the hours away. Depression settled deep into the pores of her skin.
At some point during the next three weeks when she crawled out of bed to go to the bathroom, Beth stood in front of the sink and risked a glance at the mirror. She was shocked by what she saw there. An emaciated woman of indeterminate age looked out at her. Filthy hair hanging from her head in clumps, face grey with grime, soiled, tattered pajamas hanging from a skeletal frame. Beth tilted her head and listened, startled by the near silence. The voices were so muted she was hardly able to make out what they were saying.
Enough, she said to herself. She pulled the pajamas from her body and ran the water in the tub, adding a good measure of bubble bath. Once the bathtub was almost full, she gathered a bar of soap, washcloth, shampoo and a razor. She stepped into the hot soapy bubbles. Beth slipped under the water and washed her hair at least three times. She drained some water out of the tub, and turned on the faucet to rinse her hair. As the tub filled again, she soaped her frail looking body, shaved her legs and underarms and gently washed her face. Then she lay back and listened.
The words Beth recalled most often from childhood were admonitions, “Be quiet! Your dad is sleeping. If you wake your dad, you’ll be sorry. You know what your dad is like when you wake him up.”
Beth’s dad was usually pissed-off by the time he came downstairs for dinner. His hair stood out from his head at a dozen different angles and he had a dark stubble map of unshaven beard. He always went straight from the stairs to the kitchen cupboard where the liquor was kept and knocked back at least two shots of Scotch before coming into the dining room. Why did he have to drink before work? The Scotch seemed to obscure something. It was a hiding place of some sort and hung in the dining room like the grey haze of cigarette smoke over a room full of partygoers. Beth saw it capturing secrets in its lacy scrim.
Beth had been going to business school at night and working one of the checkout lines at the local grocery store, where she listlessly pushed produce and canned goods across a beeping scanner during the day. She lived in a studio apartment not even three blocks from the old house where she had grown up. It had been sold to a young family after her dad’s death. Whenever Beth walked by on her way to work and saw the flower boxes filled with explosions of pink geraniums or blue and yellow petunias, the scampering little ones playing in the front yard and the mom sitting on the newly installed porch swing, sipping coffee and visiting with neighbors her eyes filled with tears and she wasn’t sure why. She started taking a different route to work.
Beth had no real friends, no one to talk to. Her sisters and brothers had their own families now and she didn’t keep in touch with them because they had all moved far away - besides they reminded her too much of her growing-up days. Her co-workers with were nice enough to her, but not a day went by when one of the people from the old neighborhood didn’t come into the store. She imagined she heard them whispering behind their hands about her dad, her family and her broken marriage. She tried growing a tough, magenta, lobster-like shell to replace her skin, to keep their inaudible remarks from causing her pain. Meanwhile, the tape in her head containing the voices of her mom and dad grew louder. When she was at work, the tapes combined with what she perceived as the neighbors cruel murmurings assaulted her to the point where she often felt like throwing herself through the oversized plate glass window at the front of the store to get away from them. In the end, the panic attacks and the subsequent migraines left her no choice but to quit.
Life was turned around in her house. Her father was going to work when most people were on their way home. Her father was a night shift foreman in the Belting Department at Goodrich. When they weren't in school, her mom had a tough time keeping five kids either outside or soft-spoken all day.
The worst part, as far as Beth was concerned, was that he hardly ever wore a shirt when he came to the table and that led to the nightly lecture, right after mealtime Grace, from her mom about propriety and decency etc. etc. The kids and her father heard it so often they just tuned it out, all except for Beth. Her mom kept bugging her about bringing friends home and said they’d be welcome to stay for dinner anytime. Did her mom really think she would ever ask anybody to come to her house for dinner? She was sure they would make fun of her and her family after seeing her dad's hairy, man breasts at the dinner table. She couldn’t risk it. School was bad enough.
There were a couple men from work that her dad went out drinking with, every now and then, after a shift. One morning he didn't come home from work and her mom was not all that concerned until he didn't show up for dinner. She started calling around to see where he might be. Beth didn’t know who she was calling, but her mom got more angry than anxious with each conversation. They were all sent to bed early that night, even though it was summertime and still light out. Beth heard her mom pacing the rooms downstairs and smelled the smoke from the Camel cigarettes she lit one after another.
Around three in the morning, Beth woke when a car pulled up to the curb. The people inside were laughing and yelling. She went to her window and saw several men shove her dad and a strange woman in a peach silk dress out on the front lawn. The car took off fast, its tires squealing as it raced up the street. Porch lights blurted on at all the neighboring houses.
The woman lay passed out on the grass. Beth's dad stood up and slurred, “Hey Carol, get the kids up and come on down here. I want you all to meet Ruth.”. Her mom slammed the windows shut and double locked the front and back doors.
Her dad went missing in action for about a week after that. The whispering at school - the school was only a block from her house and even the white wimpled nuns were talking about it - and between her mom and her mom's friends tormented Beth. The feelings she had of not being the same as the other kids fed on the whispers. She felt them growing like a large, plum-colored bruise on her forehead until Beth was sure everyone could see it. She sometimes cried herself to sleep at night wishing she didn’t have to go to school and face the talking behind her back and the questioning looks. When she tried to talk to her mom about why her dad did the things he did her mother got angry with her.
“Your dad works hard to keep a roof over your head, food on the table and clothes on your back. Don’t ever let me hear you disrespect him that way again!”
Some of her brother's pals did come for dinner. They enjoyed the spectacle of her Scotch infused father trying to get a forkful of food from his plate to his mouth when he'd had four or five shots rather than the usual two. But to snicker was to incur a look from her mom that could scorch paint off a car. Beth had been at other kids’ houses for dinner and their dads were always dressed at mealtime and didn’t drink before dinner. This disparity heightened her feelings of otherness, of somehow not being suitable in some way. She knew her family was unlike those of her friends, but she wasn’t quite sure what made them so.
It was less harrowing for Beth when there was just family for dinner at her house.
Her dad didn’t seem to have any friends except the men he drank with. He did have four boisterous, roughhousing brothers all close in age. Sometimes on Sunday, the brothers would get together at their house and spend the afternoon in the back yard drinking beer, listening to the Indians game on the radio and jumping off the garage roof.
Beth was never sure how the roof jumping started or why. She thought it had something to do with seeing who could leap and land farthest away from the small concrete block garage. She did know that some of the neighbors called her mom to complain about the noise and the cursing. Beth sat on the front porch on Sundays or stayed in her room so she wouldn’t be expected to answer the phone.
More than one Sunday was spent at the hospital Emergency Room waiting for a bone to be set and once her dad gave himself a black eye when he leaned too far over the beer cooler and flipped the lid up too fast. Beth grew to hate those Sundays.
When her dad came home after her mom locked him out, he was more short-tempered and combative than usual. If Beth or her siblings talked back or fought with each other her father would send one of them outside to cut a long, sturdy stalk from the forsythia bush in the front yard. He would peel the thin, mottled, brown bark from “the switch” as he called it and lace the back of the most obvious offender's legs with stinging red welts. Always high enough to be hidden by their shorts or dresses. He would keep the switch next to his chair as an implied threat. The switchings hurt, but as Beth got older she steeled herself and didn't cry. This made her dad switch her harder and longer than any of the others.
Her mother never intervened during these incidents unless her dad reached for his belt. She was unable to talk him out of using it, but she poured him a few drinks and he usually went to sleep before the punishment was meted out. Her dad's drinking seemed to be both the problem and the solution at the same time. Beth was never able to figure out how this worked.
She was beginning to think her whole family was crazy. Did that mean she was crazy, too?
When Beth moved on to high school, she joined the art club, the newspaper staff, anything that meant she didn’t have to go home right after school. She was able to avoid dinner this way more often than not. High school also meant dating and when Beth first started going out, only the boys that no one else would go out with asked her. She expected this because her mother had told her many times she would never be a pretty girl, but she was smart, “thank goodness” and that would make up for it. Beth was shy and these dates were torture for her. She came home sweaty, sick to her stomach and exhausted. She was trying so hard to find a way to fit in, to be part of the crowd.
Tim Dolan was nice-looking, two years older and had a stylish, robin’s egg blue convertible with a white top. Beth met him when she was a senior and he asked her to dance when he stopped in at a Friday night mixer where she expected to spend most of the evening standing against the wall under the basketball backboard. She was shocked when he asked her to dance to all the songs after the first one and her heart was racing when he offered to drive her home after the dance. Tim was attracted to Beth’s fragile, sensitive nature and her wistful prettiness.
Beth made sure she was always ready and waiting at the door when they started to go out on a regular basis. Never once did she allow him to meet her parents. Her mom would peek from behind the curtains or stand at the screen door to catch a glimpse of him. She badgered Beth to bring him in so she and her dad could meet him and when Beth ran out of excuses she just said, “No, mom. I don’t want to.” Tim took Beth to her prom and they went together for almost a year after that. Beth tried to explain about her family to Tim once or twice but he said it didn’t matter. She was the one he loved.
He was very protective of Beth and gentle with her. She liked him more than any boy she had ever known, but his niceness made her not quite trust him for reasons that she didn’t understand. He was an only child and his parents acted like they loved him and each other in a way that made Beth wonder if they were all just pretending.
When he asked her to marry him, Beth’s mother said Tim was a real “catch” from a decent family and it was unlikely she’d ever get another chance like this. Beth was still puzzled by what seemed to her like contradictions and uncertainties. The idea of the two families ever becoming close or even casual friends was ridiculous, but because she felt Tim loved her and would protect her, Beth allowed herself to say yes.
Beth's wedding reception was an embarrassing fiasco. Her dad made a fool of himself, drunk, staggering around and pawing all the young women. Her mother sat stone faced at the parents’ table resisting the Dolans efforts to make conversation with her. Tim’s parents were so nice to Beth. Mr. and Mrs. Dolan both made a point of telling Beth she was the daughter they always wanted. Still it made Beth’s stomach twist to think about what should have been one of the happiest days of her life.
Beth’s next youngest sister married eighteen months later, and she couldn’t stand to sit through what became a virtual replay of her own wedding. Her dad kept falling down when he tried to dance and spilled drinks on himself and other guests. Beth told Tim she had a migraine and asked if they could leave. She cried in the car and apologized over and over for her dad’s behavior. Tim put his arm around her and pulled her closer. He told her she was a good wife and a good person. He said they didn’t have to spend time with her family if it upset her. He wanted her to be happy. Beth thought maybe she had at last reached some sort of pinnacle and this was the point from which she might live happily ever after.
Her mom must have threatened something epic when Beth's youngest sister was about to be married. Her father was sober and charming - someone unknown to all of them - that day.
After Beth's dad retired, he started using the two shots of Scotch to chase a few tablets of Valium several times a day. Beth and Tim lived in a duplex a few miles away and the other kids had all moved out by then, each of them anxious to try to live life without the thundercloud of their alcoholic father and increasingly inappropriate mother looming over them. On the uncommon occasions they were all together, their mother now talked openly in front of their dad about what a waste of space he was. He was usually too far-gone to respond.
“You are just like your father,” was still the most gut-wrenching insult their mother could throw at any of them.
When Beth's mother died one sun-drenched May morning after a brutal three-month illness, her father came unraveled. Engulfed by long overdue guilt he spent most of each of the following days drinking, crying and relating horrifying events to whichever one of them was with him.
Tear soaked tales of a pregnant red head sent away by train, injuries incurred while escaping from married women's bedrooms and grocery money spent on a platinum blonde with big breasts. It was all too tawdry and too much. They began to stay away.
Her dad died in his sleep the day before Thanksgiving that same year. The siblings felt only relief. The memories of the shame and humiliation Beth had experienced throughout the years were a constant distraction as she now tried to live her life alone.
Although he tried to be patient and understanding, Beth had made her husband feel like he was coming unhinged with her groundless accusations of infidelity and her insistence that she would not live with a drunk like her father when he’d stopped for a beer with his friends after work. He became frustrated and demoralized and he left her on the day he realized there was no way for him to save her, but knew he had to make an effort to save himself.
She was divorced after less than three years of marriage. Another notch on the belt of my endless failures, Beth thought. She had not the faintest idea how to live with a loving man in a normal relationship.
Beth had enough put by from her share of her parents’ house that she was certain if she was just able to finish her business classes and find a job as a receptionist or a secretary she would be okay.
A week or two went by before the tapes in her head got so deafening that she sometimes missed what the teacher was saying. The following week a student who had spoken to Beth on occasion mentioned how thin Beth was getting and hoped she was eating properly. Her papers that had been, without exception, returned to her marked with an A were now coming back with a B- or C and the noise in her head caused Beth to cry out or moan without even being aware she was doing so. The instructor stopped her after class one night and asked if Beth had thought about seeing a doctor.
As Beth soaked in the cooling bath water she could hear her parents’ voices becoming louder again. She was so tired, but she did feel better. She decided she would lay in the bath and rest until she found the energy to climb out of the tub, dry off and have something to eat. She was hungry. She closed her eyes and began to drift. The voices were getting much louder again. “Not good enough, never will be, never amount to anything, I told you so.” At least they can’t say “just like your father” thought Beth as the voices boomed in her head. She watched the lavender scented bath water around her blush geranium red.