Next stop, the duplex on the corner, about a mile & a half from Graceland, empty lot filled with dandelions across the street, blacktopped street in front.
Where my sisters would completely stop being my sisters and become instead, helpless zombies of their master our father. Where I would resist our father with an iron will yet pay for it regularly and learn to internalize all emotions lest they appear on my face where he would become enraged at their judgment, assessment of him. Where the childhood of my youngest brother/sibling, Phil, would for all practical purposes come to a halt. Where older brother Pete, my sometimes protector and only “ally,” would run away from home.
As I write this my body fidgets and I find my head turning here, there, in avoidance, wanting to look anywhere but at my laptop screen and keyboard, all these decades later.
Fight or flight response. All these decades later.
The monster is dead — 2002 — but still he has power over me, although much-much less after 20 years of therapy with a thankfully-excellent trauma therapist.
In the duplex our father shared a bedroom once more with Pete and Phil. One bed. I think there might also have been an overstuffed chair in there that one of the three used as a bed.
My two sisters and I shared the other bedroom. One bed, the three of us sleeping together.
I can’t remember the early days but once Pete ran away it pretty much went like this: our father would come into our room in the middle of the night and “select” one of my sisters to take back to bed with him. Me, I had loudly & resolutely fought him off one night during the last nine months? year? of my mother’s life, whereupon he irritatedly got out of my top bunk bed and simply climbed down into one of my sisters’ lower ones. (“Leave them alone!” I had then shouted, him furiously shushing me. “Leave them alone!!,” louder this time. More ornery shushing. “It’s okay, Susan,” one of my sisters had said. I was beside myself. It’s okay?! “No, it is not okay, tell him no! There’s three of us and only one of him!” I was ready to take him on physically with their help; he may have been built like a big-chested silverback gorilla, but at the 10-years-old I was at the time, I fancied that the wrestling & boxing techniques my brother Pete had taught me would, with our numbers advantage, carry us through.)
It was the most awful, most helpless feeling that I could not stop his evening forays into our bedroom. For his prey. My sisters. Willing him away or, for a hero to rescue us, I would say Our Fathers and Hail Marys until I finally drifted off to sleep, but still the next night and the next and the next, he would come.
Weekends, when he was off work, both girls spent pretty much the entire weekend in his bedroom. As did poor Phil.
Other than that, my memories of those 12 months in Memphis while we lived in the duplex are incomplete, lacking chronogical cohesiveness: they’re more like a stack of photos tossed in the air that fall to the ground in random order.
One memory has my father coming out of his bedroom in only hole-ridden, saggy white briefs, walking to the bathroom. A similar snapshot-memory is of my father coming out of his bedroom nude, walking to the bathroom. Sometimes, in both “outfits,” also strolling around the duplex.
Often he was drunk. Much of the time he was angry. He would frequently become angry with me, for, looking like my mother: he’d drunkenly assault me for dying — “You bitch!” — and, leaving him “with all these kids,” pinning me against a wall with a forearm against my throat ’til I thought I would suffocate.
Or he’d say out of the blue, “Wipe that look off your face,” and, unable to make my face blank enough to appease him, I’d be told by a growling him that he could kill me without leaving a mark. “I could kill you so they’d never know what happened,” he once bragged. “Ever hear of burking?” I had not, at 11, no. But I did know that flattery was effective with my father, and I was learning “managing him,” so at this I murmured, “I bet you could. You’re strong,” and he smiled, laughed, said yes, well, that was true, and I was on good ground again.
‘Til the next time.
He was fond of waking me up in the middle of the night to a choke-hold around my neck, my feet dangling above the ground.
Memory snapshot: I am with my father at Vanucci’s restaurant & bar. (He liked to take me for company. I liked to go because, if he wasn’t at home he wouldn’t be able to molest the kids.) “Have something to eat,” he says. “Great Italian food here.” I smile, “No thank you. Just coffee please.” Not because I was not hungry — we were always hungry, so much so that for the most part I didn’t even feel hunger pains anymore — but because, it felt unfair to the kids unless he would also get some to go for them, and he would not.
Food seemed luxurious: we simply got that little of it. (First official foster home I lived in, when I could nonchalantly slip one into a pocket?, I took dinner rolls to bed with me the first few weeks… I felt like Heidi.)
Sometimes Phil would cry when he was hungry. I would die a little more inside. Helpless. I hated feeling, so helpless.
Except for Pete, we were not allowed to leave our house unless to school, with our father, or to our fenced-in side yard. Even though I was now in 7th grade and then, eighth.
Once, before Pete ran away, a neighbor boy he was playing basketball in the boy’s driveway with, asked if I could come play too. My father said no.
We had only one or two changes of clothes. The kids, no toys to play with. No raincoats, no outerwear like cold-weather coats? We just got wet on the way to school if it was raining. We got colds and, “tonsillitis” (per my father’s diagnosis), a lot.
“Was it really that awful?,” I’ve actually been asked by a few people over the years. “I mean, weren’t there fun times in there too that you’re maybe forgetting?”
I find questions/comments like that so stunning that I am usually left mouth-open speechless by them, which a few people have equally stunningly taken to mean, I am acknowledging that, Yes, blush blush, there were fun times too, what a whiney girl I’m being. Are we kidding?
Y-e-s: it was rEally, that awful.
Then one dark night when our-neighbors-the-duplex owners were away — coincidence? I don’t know — our father says, “Put your things in the car, we’re leaving.”
“Leaving for where??”
“Back home. Wisconsin.” No explanation.
Oh happy day.
In my mind’s eye I can still see lights illuminating snow-covered Madison the evening Gertrude crested a hill and the city came into view. It looked s o w o n d e r f u l.
Although I didn’t know it then, I would only be living with my father for a couple more months. My sisters & Phil? For several more years before Social Services would wake up/take action to what I had already, three years earlier, told them was going on.
And then? This is hard to even write: Social Services would place my sisters in the custody of yet another family pedophile — my 2nd oldest brother Paul — in spite of, what I had already, those same years earlier, told them was going on.
Phil would live in 12 different foster homes yet nevertheless take his aged father in when the old man needed assisted-living care in his 80s.