He beat her again last night—Mama almost didn’t come with us. Thankfully, she did. I just want my parents to get along, like they do when we’re at our house in the country.
“Daddy, can we move to the country? Everyone’s happier when we’re here.” I glance at my older sister, Jean, who sits beside me in the backseat of the white 1968 Plymouth. Her eyes dart away. She grabs a Nancy Drew book and buries her face between the pages.
Daddy grins at my mother sitting next to him in the passenger seat, my baby sister on her lap. Mama turns away and looks out the car window, tightening her arm around three-year-old Lisa.
“Well, we certainly could.” My father steers the car down the dirt country road shaded by black oaks and sweet gum trees that leads to our weekend house in the country.
I scramble onto my knees and grab the back of the red vinyl seat. “Can we, Daddy? Can we move to the country?”
He reaches back and rubs the top of my head with his fist, loosening the barrette holding my brown hair out of my face.
“Stop it,” I giggle, my hand pinning the white oval clasp back into place.
“Continental Insurance is opening an office about thirty miles from here.” My father’s muscular hand strokes his smooth, round chin. “I could easily transfer there. We could sell the house in Dallas and within a few months be living in the country.”
Mama remains silent, staring out the window at a herd of brown and white Hereford cattle grazing in a pasture.
We travel down the road until we reach the barbed-wire gap gate that secures the dirt driveway to our weekend home. My father stops the car and strolls over to the homemade barrier.
I gaze out the window and dream of all the fun things I will do once we move here. Jean and I will watch the bobwhites soar into the sky when we get near their brushy home. We’ll chase butterflies through the pink prairie phlox, hoping to catch one and feel its wings tickle our palms. When we tire from that, we’ll go walking with Daddy and explore the thick woods of stately red oaks until I become so tired I can’t take another step, and my father lifts me onto his shoulders to ride for the remaining journey.
“I can’t wait to move to the country,” I mumble.
“You’ll be moving here without me,” Mama says.
Why would my mother not want to move here? Our country house is located outside of Bankport, her hometown. Her parents live less than five miles away, and her older sister, Kathleen, and her family live about a mile up the road.
“Mama, why don’t you want to move here?” I ask.
My mother hums to herself as her slender fingers stroke Lisa’s fine brown hair.
“Mama,” I grab the back of the front seat and pull myself up. “Why don’t you—”
My mother reaches over and pops me in the mouth.
I plop down in the seat and cross my arms across my chest. “What’d I do wrong? I just asked a question.”
Mama’s fingers comb through Lisa’s hair.
“I just thought if we moved to the country you and Daddy wouldn’t argue as much,” I say.
“Moving here would only make things worse,” Mama says.
“Why do you say that?”
“Because all your father does down here is drink.”
“Yeah, but if we lived here it would be different.”
“Only if you change. He drinks because you’re constantly acting up and misbehaving.”
“I’m not that bad!” Tears roll down my cheeks and I brush them away with my hand.
“The devil doesn’t think he’s bad, either,” Mama says.
Daddy unlatches the gate stretched across the weedy drive and walks back to the car.
We drive through the opening, following two parallel lines—barely visible through the weeds—that meander through a field of ryegrass into a forest of cedar and hickory trees.
The midmorning sun glistens on the dew-drenched hills rolling across the east Texas countryside. A red cedar tree sways over a white clapboard house trimmed in blue. We travel through a thicket of hickory trees before parking.
My family begins our car-unloading ritual. Daddy opens the trunk and wraps his left arm around a brown paper sack of groceries. We bought milk, cheese, corn chips, and bananas at the general store in town. With his right hand, my father balances a case of Schlitz on his shoulder. Mama clutches the handle of her gray suitcase packed with neatly folded cotton pants, skirts, and blouses. She always keeps a black leather Bible with a cross-shaped bookmark between its tissue-paper pages tucked in a side pocket. Over her shoulder she places the strap of Lisa’s cloth overnight bag stocked with hand-me-down dresses, a few toys, and a quilt Mama sewed from fabric scraps.
Daddy plugs in the single-door Frigidaire and opens the case of beer, sliding each can across the metal rack until it clinks into place.
Mama pulls back the floral damask curtains and opens a window. A cool breeze blows fresh air into the four-room dwelling, stale from being closed up for a week.
Once the car is unpacked, Mama ties a yellow chintz apron around her waist. “You girls go outside to play while I fix lunch,” she says to Jean and me. She sits Lisa down at the kitchen table and slices a banana for her.
I follow my twelve-year-old sister out of the house and down to a wooden swing hanging from a hickory tree.
I kick a knotty root and sigh, “I wish Mama wanted to move here. I know things would be better if we did.”
“I know why she doesn’t want to move here.” Jean gently swings back and forth.
“Really? Why? You have to tell me.”
“Do you promise not to tell?”
“Of course I do, just tell me.”
My older sister stops swinging and twirls the toe of her brown penny loafer in the sand. “Mama’s leaving Daddy.”
“Where’s she going?”
“No, silly. Mama and Daddy are getting a divorce.”
“A divorce? Are you sure? Cause nobody told me.”
“Yes, I’m sure.”
“How do you know?”
Jean places her hands in the pockets of her pink cotton jumper. The faded dress is the first garment Jean sewed by herself, and she wears it every chance she gets.
“The other day when I was taking the hem out of my jumper, I found something.”
Jean’s big-boned, chubby frame seems to grow taller every night, unlike my petite seven-year-old body that only grows a couple of inches each year. She has let the hem out so many times several faint crease lines circle the bottom of the skirt. Mama said the jumper is too short for her to wear to school—the hem rests about an inch above her knees—but it is okay for her to wear it in the country.
“I was looking for some thread and opened an old shoe box. Inside there was an envelope full of money and a Good Housekeeping article titled ‘How I Survived my Divorce.’ Mama had written the name and address of a lawyer across the top.”
“Did you ask Mama about it?”
“No, she doesn’t know I found it.”
“Then maybe they won’t get divorced. Maybe what you found was old.”
“No, it was a new article. And the money—well, it was quite a bit.”
“I don’t want them to get divorced.”
“Neither do I, but it’s for the best.”
“No, it’s not for the best!” I begin to panic, and scurry into a cluster of small cedar trees to hide.
Tears trickle down my cheeks. I don’t want Daddy to move out and leave me alone with Mama. My mother thinks everything I do is wrong, and every day she punishes me for something. Daddy never hits me, but Mama does—all the time. Whenever I slam a door, run through the house, ask a question, or just get near her, she grabs her switch—a limb cut from the wax myrtle tree growing by the back porch at our house in Dallas.
The instant she raises the stick into the air, her smooth ivory face hardens to stone, and her eyes empty of life. Her arms mechanically move up and down, up and down, whipping me, whipping me, beating the devil from my soul. Before long, the switch breaks into tiny pieces, leaving me lying on the floor with blood oozing from the pink welts on my body. Afterwards I crawl away to hide, vowing to stay away from Mama and to never go near her again.
My sister hurries after me and peers through the delicate leaves. “I didn’t mean to upset you.”
“Why does Mama want to divorce Daddy? Do you know why?”
Jean looks solemn. “It’s because he drinks too much.”
“No, he doesn’t,” I say. “Mama’s just making a big deal out of nothing!”
“It really is a problem. He’s always staying out late at night drinking, and, like Mama said, he drinks way too much on the weekends.”
“That’s because Grandpa’s always putting him down. Grandpa upsets him and that makes him drink.”
“Maybe so, but he won’t stop.”
I brush the tears off my face. “What if Daddy did stop drinking?”
“Do you think that’s possible?”
“Sure it is.” I puff out my chest and continue, “The other day he told me he could stop drinking anytime he wanted. All I have to do is ask him. He’ll listen to me, and then he won’t drink anymore.”
“Well, I don’t know.”
“You’re always saying I’m daddy’s favorite. Don’t you think he’ll listen to me?”
“I’ll show you. I’ll show all of you!” I say with tears pooling in my eyes. “I’ll make Daddy stop drinking. I’ll show everyone that I am good and that I can do something right.”
The sound of Mama’s east Texas twang interrupts us as she calls us to the house for lunch.
“C’mon, let’s go eat,” Jean says.
Jean and I eat our grilled cheese sandwiches, corn chips and grape juice outside on the wooden front porch.
After I finish my meal, I prance up to the sink with my empty plate and hand it to Mama. She places the plastic dish in a large aluminum pot filled with sudsy water and washes it. Daddy stands beside the refrigerator, flipping through the latest issue of Reader’s Digest, a toothpick twirling in his mouth.
Jean bursts into the house and rushes up to me. “Grandma and Grandpa are here!”
“Shhh,” My mother says, putting her finger to her lips. “Don’t wake up Lisa. I just laid her down for a nap.”
“Their truck’s coming up the driveway,” Jean whispers.
Daddy opens the refrigerator door and reaches for a can of beer. Jean nudges me with her elbow.
“Daddy, please don’t drink that,” I say.
“Please, don’t drink a beer. You told me the other day that you could stop drinking any time you wanted.”
“Yeah, that’s right,” Daddy laughs. He sets the beer back on the metal shelf and closes the refrigerator door.
“Besides, I really don’t want one—just got through eating.” My father pats his full stomach.
Jean and I smile at each other. We have succeeded.
As my older sister heads out the front door, I climb onto the couch to observe things through the front window. Jean wades through clumps of fescue to watch Grandma and Grandpa’s beige pickup truck dip up and down as it travels toward us on the long driveway.
A tall, thin man wearing faded overalls—his square jaw and thin lips resembling Mama’s—climbs out of the driver’s seat. His leathery face has deep lines, and his brow is furrowed by years of sitting in a church pew listening to sermons about love or hate, heaven or hell, good or evil. The passenger door opens and out steps a short, plump woman with soft wavy blonde hair carrying a tote bag overflowing with skeins of pink yarn.
My head sinks between my shoulders. I want to run up to my grandparents and hug them, like my cousins do. I want my grandfather to grab me around my waist and whisk me into the air, like he does his other granddaughters. I want my grandmother to tell me she loves me, like she does her other grandchildren. But they don’t like me.
About a month ago, Grandpa told Daddy not to come to his house if he had been drinking. So when we visited my grandparents last weekend, Daddy didn’t come with us.
Grandpa came up to me, looked down his long, pointed nose and said, “Where’s your father? I bet he’s sitting under a shade tree drinking a beer?”
I lowered my head and stared at the ground.
“Don’t you care? Or are you okay with him disobeying the word of God?”
I turned away and ran, heading for the back yard. I had just started playing with my cousins when my grandmother, holding a plate of fresh homemade sugar cookies, pushed open the back screen door. The other grandchildren clamored around her, grabbing at the plate while I waited behind them. By the time I got up to her, Grandma was heading back inside. “Wait, I didn’t get a cookie!” I cried through the screen.
Grandma stopped inside the doorway and said, “You kids have had enough. I made these cookies for the church potluck dinner tomorrow night. If you want one, you’ll have to go to the dinner.” Then she slammed the kitchen door in my face.
Jean walks over to our grandparents and says hello.
“Goodness gracious, Jean! I can’t believe you’re wearing that,” Grandma says. “You’re too heavy to be wearing a dress that short.”
Jean shrugs her shoulders and wanders over to the swing.
Daddy takes two metal lawn chairs off the porch and sets them in the cool shade of the century-old cedar tree. Mama carries a kitchen chair out of the house, setting it beside the others.
Grandpa walks up to Daddy and shakes his hand.
“Wanna come with us to church tomorrow morning?” He asks my father.
“Don’t think I’ll have time—got a lot going on.” Daddy folds his arms across his chest.
“You really should come. Pastor Heath’s gonna preach on God’s plan of salvation—gonna be a good sermon,” Grandpa says.
“Nah, I’ve got a lot to do. Not going to have time.” Daddy hurries to the front porch and sits on a concrete step.
“Just trying to save you from spending your eternity in hell,” Grandpa says, shaking his head as he moseys over to an empty chair under the cedar tree.
After everyone is seated, I feel a thick fog of tension settle on the yard. I jump off the couch and go outside to sit on the porch beside my father, to support him and to make sure he doesn’t drink.
Grandpa is telling us about a big-mouthed bass he caught when I notice Daddy’s hands trembling. One of his shaky hands rummages through his golden brown hair while the other beats a restless tune on the wooden porch. His fingers drum their way across the painted planks until they cross a loose board.
“Someone could trip on this,” Daddy says, wiggling the board like a loose tooth. He jumps up and vanishes around the side of the house.
Grandpa’s sun-worn face follows him. “Is he looking for something?”
“I don’t know,” Mama mutters through her thin pink lips.
“He sure left in a hurry,” Grandpa’s baritone voice bellows. “Where’s he going?”
Mama shrugs her shoulders, their bony outline visible through her white cotton blouse.
I don’t want Daddy and Grandpa to fight, so I point at the loose board and say, “I think he’s getting something to fix the porch.”
Grandpa nods his head.
Daddy rounds the corner carrying a hammer and some nails he has gathered from the wooden shed behind the house.
My father’s tall athletic body stoops over the wobbly plank. I watch his jittery hand grab the middle of the hammer’s handle and aim it at the nail. With drops of sweat dripping from his forehead, my father struggles to line everything up.
Grandpa walks over to Daddy.
“Do you need any help?”
“No, I got it.” Daddy pounds the nail until it disappears into the board.
“If you’ll hold the hammer farther down the handle, you can drive the nail in easier,” Grandpa says.
Daddy stops hammering and clenches his teeth. “My father did carpentry work. He taught me how to use a hammer.”
“Oh.” Grandpa returns to his seat.
Daddy labors at hammering another nail into the board, stopping occasionally to wipe away the sweat pouring from his forehead. When he finishes, he disappears into the house.
A while back, Daddy told me that when he and Mama were first married they would visit my grandparents and Grandpa would drink a cold beer with him. Then Grandpa started telling my dad that he was out. Daddy would sneak into the kitchen only to discover several cans hidden in the back of the refrigerator.
I watch my grandmother remove a pair of knitting needles from her tote bag and begin working on a pink baby blanket, probably a gift for one of my cousins. My grandparents have ten children and someone is always having a baby. I’m certain she didn’t make me a baby blanket when I was born. She didn’t make Lisa one, either.
Grandma’s long nimble fingers wrap the pastel yarn around the needle. “Did you hear what happened to Kathleen’s friend Hannah? She left her husband about a month ago and moved back home with Roy and Lorraine. Last Monday, Lorraine took Hannah to file for divorce.”
“Really? Why’d she leave her husband?” Mama asks.
“Hannah claims that he came home from work drunk and put his hands on her,” Grandma says.
Mama’s back stiffens, and she runs her fingers through her jet-black hair. “Had he ever done that before?”
“Lorraine said she’s seen Hannah with bruises on her arms and a black eye or two—but nothing serious,” Grandma answers.
“The Bible says that the man is the head of the house.” Grandpa’s calloused hands grip the metal chair rails. “He had every right to do whatever he thought was necessary to keep order in his home.”
Grandpa’s words slap me in the face. How can anyone believe it is okay to strike another person? Hitting other people is wrong!
“I believe she was just looking for an excuse to leave him,” Grandma says, snipping a stray thread off with her scissors. “You know, to be part of this women’s lib nonense. Why can’t she see that divorce is the devil’s handiwork? That’s how he tears apart a family.”
“Hannah was raised in a God-fearing home,” Grandpa says. “She knows the Bible says that a wife can’t divorce her husband, especially if he’s a non-believer. A Godly woman has to stay with her unsaved husband until she wins him over to Christ.”
I watch Mama remove a tissue from the pocket of her pleated cotton skirt. She reaches under her black-rimmed glasses and dabs away a tear.
“If she was my daughter, I wouldn’t put up with it.” Grandpa rocks back and forth in the metal chair. “I’d take her back to her husband and tell him, ‘Here, you married her, she’s your problem, not mine.’”
“God will punish Hannah for allowing the devil to control her life,” Grandma says.
Mama’s chin drops to her chest. Her dark eyes go blank as she stares into space. It is the same look she gets after a fight with Daddy—her fish-eyed stare he calls it.
Last night Daddy came home late from work. He stumbled through the door smelling like cigarettes and beer, his eyelids drooping over his blood-red eyes. He staggered through the house knocking over everything in his path — lamps, TV antennas, chairs, even Mama’s ironing board — and spouting curse words at anyone who came near him. When Mama accidentally got in his way, he struck her across the face, sending her glasses sailing across the room. Terrified, I ran and hid under my bed, crying, listening to the horrifying sound of my father’s fist pounding my mother’s flesh.
I hate it when Daddy hurts Mama. She doesn’t deserve it. Nobody does. Besides, sometimes my mother is nice to me. She cooks my favorite dinner of fried chicken and mashed potatoes at least once a week. The other day she came to watch me perform in my first grade talent show while Daddy spent the evening at a bar.
Grandpa jerks his head around, his beady brown eyes focusing on me. “Where’s your daddy?”
I lower my head and shrug my shoulders.
“Did he go inside to get a beer?” my grandfather asks.
I want to hide, to disappear, to escape. Feeling the cold concrete steps beneath me, I pull my knees to my chest, my head sinking between them.
“Don’t you want your father to repent of his sins and be saved so he can go to heaven when he dies?” I hear Grandpa ask.
I keep my head buried so my grandparents can’t see the tears dripping from my eyes.
“Looks like both you and the devil don’t wanna see your father get born again,” my grandfather says.
Grandpa’s words slice through my heart, cutting me deep. I can’t take anymore, so I hurry into the house. I close the front door and take a deep breath, leaning against the wooden barrier separating me from my grandfather.
I hear something rustling in the kitchen and peek around the corner. My father is standing in front of the refrigerator with the door wide open. He turns up a can of beer and pours it down his throat. When he finishes, he tosses the empty container into the trash, grabs a fresh one, and pops it open.
This is my chance to prove that I’m not the cause of my family’s problem. I will make my father stop drinking and save my parent’s marriage, and then we can move to the country and live a happy, peaceful life.
I step into the kitchen doorway. “Please, Daddy, don’t drink that.”
My father doesn’t move. A bubbly fizz escapes from the top of the frosty can and sends a sourdough smell drifting through the air. The refrigerator motor kicks on, rumbling loudly at first, but quieting once it gets to turning.
“You told me that if I asked you to stop drinking, you would.” I push back my shoulders and hold my head high.
Daddy closes the refrigerator door and chugs down half the can. “That’s right, I can quit anytime I want, but I don’t want to right now.”
“Can you just not drink another one today?”
I move forward and stare at Daddy beside the refrigerator — his hair ruffled, his dress shirt half-tucked into his black trousers. He looks helpless.
“I work hard all week. On the weekends I like to relax and drink a few beers. What’s wrong with that?”
“Nothing. I’m just asking you not to drink any more today.”
Daddy raises the can to his mouth, gulping it down. He throws the empty container into the trash and opens the refrigerator door.
“Please, Daddy, you have to stop drinking,” I beg. “Grandpa said—”
Wham! My father smacks me upside my head. I tumble to the linoleum floor, landing with a thud on my backside.
“I don’t give a damn what your grandfather says!” Daddy roars. His fiery eyes rage with madness. He raises his fist into the air, preparing to punch me again.
The man who carried me on his shoulders when we walked through the woods has changed. Fear races through my body. It reminds me of the day I mistook a snake for a stick. When I reached down to pick it up, I realized the piece of wood was actually a cottonmouth snake hiding in the shadowy undergrowth of a holly tree — its cotton-mouth hanging open, its forked tongue flicking at me, its shiny fangs dripping poisonous venom.
The man standing over me and growling like a rabid dog moves closer. I scoot away, dragging my rear end across the floor, my face burning as tears stream down my raw cheeks. When I reach the kitchen doorway, I spring to my feet, bolting out of the house and onto the porch. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Grandpa wagging his index finger in the air. “The Bible says….”
Across the yard, Jean sits on the swing reading her mystery book. She looks up and our eyes meet, but I turn away and leap off the side of the porch, scampering down a path leading to a grove of wild plum trees. I crawl under a low-hanging limb—hiding beneath the budding leaves and fragrant blossoms—fall on the mossy ground and curl into a ball.
“It’s all my fault,” I cry, pounding my fist on the soft green earth. “I can’t do anything right!”
I don’t understand why God hates me so much? The Bible says that Jesus loves each and every child, but does he really? Or does he only love the good kids, not the evil ones.
Suddenly everything makes sense. My mother is right: My father drinks because of me, because of my bad behavior. If I was good, I could’ve made him stop. Instead, I only made things worse. Now God is punishing me for causing problems for my family, for being a child of the devil.
Tears gush down my cheeks, and I bury my face in the cool moss. I want to crawl into a crack in the earth and disappear forever. The pain of being me is more than I can handle.
As I moan sorrowfully, I hear leaves crunching from someone coming up the path. I look up, my face damp with tears.
Jean’s heart-shaped face tilts down toward me. “What’s the matter?”
“What are you talking about? Why don’t you come out from under those branches so we can talk about it.”
“No! I’m never coming out.”
“Because everything I do is wrong. I’m going to live out here in the woods where I can’t mess anything up.”
“But the woods are full of wolves and coyotes. They’ll kill you and eat you!”
“So what? Nobody cares.”
“Grandma and Grandpa don’t. They’ll be glad I’m gone.” I shake my fist at God. “It’s not fair. Other kids have nice grandparents. Why’d we get the hateful ones?”
“I don’t know. They used to be nice to me—back when they didn’t have so many grandchildren. They even liked me. They’d say hello and give me a hug. But once Daddy started drinking all the time they began to only like certain ones, their favorites.”
“Yeah, back then they talked to me like I was a regular person, instead of just telling me how fat I am.”
“See—we’ll never be happy. Things are only going to get worse for us.”
“Yeah, but—” Jean bows her head and places her hands in the pockets of her jumper. “At least we’ll have each other.”
With the back of my hand, I wipe the tears off my face. “What do you mean by that?”
“Well,” Jean raises her head. “I know that sometimes I gripe about having to share a bedroom with you, but I’m glad I do. You’re fun to be around. I enjoy hanging out with you. Even though our parents are splitting up, we’ll still be together.”
I gaze through the branches at my older sister, her pink plastic headband circling her face like a halo.
“Please come back to the house with me. We’re in this thing together.” Jean’s soothing voice comforts me. “I’m glad you’re my sister. Just remember that no matter what happens, you’ll always have me. I’ll always be here for you. I’ll always be your sister.”
The sound of a truck door closing drifts through the tree branches, and an engine begins to whirr. We listen as the motor fades away.
Once the dust has settled, Jean reaches her arm through the branches and holds out her hand. I grab my sister’s velvet-soft hand, and she pulls me out of my hole. We follow the path back to the house, ignoring the thunderclouds rumbling in the distant sky.