“Summer of ’82” is an excerpt from the forthcoming memoir Beautyfull, a collection of longer narrative pieces and shorter vignettes focusing on comfort, sexuality, spirituality, socioeconomic class, family, my career in counseling at-risk youth, and writing.
“Grab your shit and c’mon!” James yanked Mom through the doorway of her bedroom in Orchard Manor. We’d stepped down from my grandparents’ rented house to a tiny basement apartment, then to the housing project, all within eight months. I threw my copy of Judy Blume’s “Fifteen” onto my bedspread and jumped up. Ray Parker, Jr. was singing about being in love with “The Other Woman,” but I cut him mid-sentence as I shut off the boom box. Jars of baby food clacked together as Mom’s hands stocked the diaper bag. Not the way I pictured the start of my summer before junior high.
Though my body was moving quickly, my mind seemed slow, in dream-
motion. I thought back to that one Saturday night, 10:30 or so, somewhere in 1980,
soon after Mommy and the kids moved in with me and Pa-Paw.
Mommy mops; I vacuum. Kids sleep. Angie Dickinson fights crime on TV. We finish and sit at the kitchen table. She lights her cigarette, sips her coffee. I feel grown-up, getting to stay up later with Mom. I swish ginger ale in my mouth, and she begins the telling.
She says Baby James, Chrissy and Jamie’s dad—no mistaking him with Sweet Baby James Taylor—did not want another child from yet another woman so he comes into my Mommy’s apartment three feet across the hall from his own mother’s home in Washington Manor—bullshit name for yet another housing project—and he pushes her onto the bed, holds her down with a knee bruising her thigh as he twists a coat hanger out of its pretzel into a more useful hook shape, pulls down her panties with one fluid motion and jams the hook inside her—twisting, fishing—and I affix my eyes to the fruit basket still-life hanging above the table—apples red as her blood, grapes almost falling from the painting when I blink. My Mommy and Chrissy had survived.
“Where we going?” Brandon asked me, sweat beads on his forehead from riding bikes in the courtyard.
“Shhh. Just grab a toy and keep quiet,” I whispered.
“Put down that punk-ass doll,” James said as he slammed Brandon’s Curious George to the ground. He was Chrissy and Jamie’s dad but bossed us, too. “You a girl?”
I shook my head as a warning to Brandon. Don’t cry. Not now. Touching his shoulder, I brushed by him and took Chrissy’s hand. At three years old, she still needed help on the stairs. We headed out, silent except for the door slam. I stifled a wince as James shoved Mom between her thin shoulder blades, threatening her balance. Jamie in her left arm, purse and diaper bag dangling off her right.
Without a word, I guided Chrissy into the back seat of James’s sprawling Lincoln Continental. Brandon got in beside me while Mom held Jamie on her lap up front. Tires squealed as the car sped out of the Manor and down Washington Street. James mumbled under his breath at each stoplight, daring Mom to open her mouth.
“What the fuck you do? Kidnap ’em?” Ronnie, James’s brother-in-law, asked as we filed into his living room. Archie Bunker and George Jefferson bickered on the television screen, racial tension set to a laugh track. A rerun.
“Shut the fuck up,” James told him. “Don’t let them out the house. I’ll be back later tonight.”
“Why’d you bring ’em here?”
“I told you to shut. the fuck. up. I’ll take care of it. Right now, I’ma go meet Boog.” James headed out the front door of Ronnie and his wife Fritz’s house.
“I’m getting hungry,” Brandon whispered. The streetlights shone through the window, mingling with the glow from the television. A spooky tint on our faces.
“Me, too.” My gaze landed on Mom who held Jamie against her chest as a shield. I scanned the room. Pictures of the Phillips family on one paneled wall, African masks with hollow eyes on the next. Family Bible atop the television where Archie was still griping at Edith. Chrissy was asleep, lips pursed, body curled against mom’s bony thigh.
“Mommy?” I said. No response. “Mommy?”
Strands of loose black hair peeked out of her red bandana and she looked at us with red-rimmed eyes. “I’ll see if Fritz’ll give you some food.”
Standing in her denim cutoffs, she lay Jamie beside Chrissy then crossed into the kitchen. She returned with a bologna sandwich and a glass of grape Kool-aid for each of us, then rejoined Fritz who was washing dishes at the sink. A couple of minutes later, I heard Mom dial the phone and ask for Aunt Debbi. Through her choked sobs, Mom relayed the events of the past few hours to her big sister: “James ordered me outside—Dad said no—James shoved him hard—I panicked—Dad left—James returned—said no old man was controlling things—said we were going with him—I don’t know what he is planning—I don’t know where to go—I don’t know—I don’t know…”
Phone in its cradle, urgent whispering with Fritz, Mom came back in and told us we needed to hurry. Fritz didn’t meet any of our eyes as she held open the back door.
We were walking downtown.
Aunt Debbi’s blue Volkswagen was parked beneath the dance troupe of bugs under the streetlight in the Holley Hotel lot. We climbed into her car, waiting for Uncle Kenny, who was Mom and Debbi’s younger brother. From the back seat, I tried to hear Mom and Debbi talking while that song about Lucille and four hungry children crooned from the radio. Just then, Uncle K. whipped into the lot and sprang from his car.
Pa-Paw opened the Toyota’s passenger door and lit a Pall Mall. Debbi rolled down her window so the four grownups could talk. Someone said restraining order and women’s shelter, but I was too sleepy to pay much attention. Brandon crowded against me, my upper arm sweaty and itchy from his Brillo pad Afro.
“Come on, babes,” Kenny said. Debbi stepped out of her car and released her seat latch so we could get out. I started to follow Brandon.
“No, sweetie,” Debbi said. “You’re coming to my house.” I looked for Brandon, but he was already settled into Kenny’s red Tercel.
“Why can’t I go with Mommy?”
“Because Pa-Paw would miss you not being with him.” On cue, Pa-Paw slid onto the front seat beside Debbi. Turning on the headlights, she maneuvered the car onto Quarrier Street toward her double-wide home in Pinch. I shut my eyes and kept them closed until we pulled into Debbi’s gravel driveway.
I didn’t understand why I had to be separated from the kids. Did Mom not want me again?
“Why don’t I live with you, Mommy?” I’d asked more than once as a kid.
“It would kill your Ma-Maw. She wants you there.”
I’d visit Mommy in her different apartments every few weekends. Sometimes she’d stay a few days with us here and there, usually between places.
One time, when I was about six years old, I’d accidentally called Ma-Maw “Mommy” in front of her. I didn’t mean to make her mad.
Now, even though Mom and I lived together for about a year and a half, we were separating yet again. I knew it wasn’t for good, but I still felt like she’d chosen the other kids over me.
After six days of exploring the woods with my two boy cousins, eating microwave bacon by the plateful and watching Bill Murray in Stripes on HBO, I got to spend the night with Mom and the kids. Since no one was supposed to know the exact location of the safety shelter for battered women, Aunt Debbi drove to a mom-and-pop convenience store, the pre-arranged spot for families to meet. Mom took drags from her menthol cigarette as she and Debbi leaned against the hood of the Volkswagen. Aunt Debbi handed over a ten dollar bill for ice cream, and Brandon and I raced up the three wooden stairs, crossing the porch in no time. The screen door slammed after we entered.
“Can I get two Push-ups?” Brandon asked.
“No,” I said, choosing a Drumstick for me and cherry Freeze-pops for Chrissy and Jamie. Brandon shrugged and reached into the freezer, face half-hidden in the cold steam as he chose his Push-up.
Brushing our faces with kisses, Debbi said goodbye before we walked the curvy road to the shelter. Mom maneuvered the stroller on the gravel as cars whizzed by, whipping my hair around my face. Brandon described the other kids at the shelter in between licks. One boy had called him a nigger and got smacked by his mom, which made Brandon feel bad. He told me to watch out for a little blond girl who liked to wipe boogers on the furniture. Brandon kept filling me in as we entered the back gate. I scoped out the rusty swing set and beaten-up riding toys, which could have used a good scrubbing.
Our room: three creaky twin beds, two wooden chests of drawers, one closet with a dozen wire hangers, a cross-stitched picture of Jesus holding a baby lamb. Tossing my bag onto the bed I’d share with Chrissy that night, I sighed, then headed downstairs to the playroom. Outside, Brandon chased a red-haired boy who was in desperate need of a teeth cleaning. Chrissy sat on the threadbare carpet gnawing a plastic donut. Smashed peas dribbled down Jamie’s dimpled chin faster than Mom could scoop them. I picked up a tattered Good Housekeeping magazine and thumbed through it as I plopped down by Mom’s bare feet. Juice Newton serenaded us through the radio, letting us know that love’s been a little bit hard on her. No shit, I thought. Mom’s theme song.
“Huntington?” I asked Mom, wondering if I’d heard her right. The only times I had been near Huntington was for family trips to Camden Park. I loved zooming on the Big Dipper and screaming in the Haunted House. I’d never lived outside of Charleston, so I had no idea of what to expect in a new town.
“We’ve gotta get out of here and I can’t be somewhere James can find us.” Mom could barely say his name without hyperventilating. She needed a cigarette.
“I don’t wanna live in Huntington. I wanna stay here.” I pouted. “I wanna see my friends. I can keep living with Aunt Debbi.”
“Do what you want,” Mom sighed. She walked out of the bedroom, shoulders slumped. The women rotated household duties in exchange for the safety of the shelter. It was Mom’s turn to fix dinner. Fried chicken and mashed potato night.
“God, please don’t make us go,” I whispered, afraid I was talking to no one. Every night for years, I’d prayed the same words: Please make Pa-Paw and Mom quit drinking. After Ma-Maw died, I’d prayed: Please let me know she’s in Heaven. God hadn’t fixed anything so far; why would He start now? I escaped with the magazine to the porch swing until time to eat.
The morning after we arrived at the Huntington City Mission, I ran the pink disposable razor over my skinny Ivory-soaped calf, fascinated as the short black hairs fell away for the first time. I paused and looked at the single strip of bare skin between the hairs. This is it, I thought. Giddy, I slicked the tool across my skin. Toweled off, my legs looked as smooth as those of the models on the Nair commercials, except for random bruises and the two bloody spots, one on an ankle and the other behind my left knee.
We had made it to Huntington just after eleven o’clock. Right before we went to sleep in our new room, I asked Mom a question.
“Can I use one of your razors in the morning?”
“I think you should let me start shaving since I’ll start junior high in the fall.”
Chrissy snuggled against me in the twin bed. Arms and legs spread-eagled, Brandon crashed on the top bunk. Jamie, a pretzel in Mom’s arms beneath Brandon. The van ride between Charleston and Huntington had disoriented us and I knew it would be a good time to catch Mom off-guard.
“Yeah. I’ll tell you what to do in the morning.” She yawned and hid her face in the pillow.
I smiled before closing my eyes. I could tell some of the rules would be changing, but I didn’t yet know how much.
A week later, the humid June afternoon made it hard to breathe. My damp t-shirt stuck to my back.
“She’s a lesbian,” my mom said about Sheryl, her new friend.
Mom wore a terrycloth striped dress she’d claimed at the clothes giveaway. She joined me on the worn orange couch in the TV room. Godzilla was overtaking the television in 3D, but we didn’t have the special glasses, so I wasn’t too into it. I would be going to Dee’s new apartment after dinner, anyway. Dee was one of the first women who had befriended us at the shelter. Mom could tell I was running around inside my skin, so she thought a change of scenery for the night might help.
“It means she’s into women,” Mom explained.
“How? Christopher is her son.” I was eleven, Christopher was ten, and we had snuck a brief kiss earlier in the afternoon on his bed. He was one of the few kids my age at the Mission, and his broken leg upped his coolness factor, especially because he wouldn’t tell me how it happened. I was envious because he got to ride the chairlift on the stairs leading down to the first floor. His tousled Bo Duke blond hair was also a plus.
“Well,” Mom crossed her legs. “She liked men until this cop put her in the squad car after arresting her.” Mom continued telling me how the policeman raped Sheryl with his billy club, how she was left torn and bleeding, how she swore no other man would touch her again. Mom’s voice in my ear like a mosquito, an unwanted buzzing.
“Oh.” I said, continuing to write the lyrics to Charlene’s “I’ve Never Been to Me” in my composition book. It was covered in Pac-Man stickers. My lower-case “e” looked like Pac-Man and I dotted every “i” with a heart. It was important that my words be curvy and pretty.
I tried to figure out if Mom was just talking to be talking or if she was trying to tell me she was Sheryl’s new girlfriend. I mean, we were in the shelter because of Chrissy and Jamie’s dad abusing her. Was Mom turned off of men as well? I didn’t pursue it. I figured I would find out soon enough.
As the old clock chimed 5 p.m., women and children of varying ages began shuffling toward the staircase. Dinner was ready, and the sooner we finished eating and worshipping, the sooner I could go to Dee’s place.
Since the Mission fed “neighbors” as well as residents, it sometimes took a few minutes to get a table for all five of us. We shared meals with scruffy men in army jackets reeking of whiskey, teens with forearms landscaped with bruised pinholes, elderly ladies in scratchy polyester blouses. If we had to sit apart, Brandon and I would find two chairs together because Chrissy and Jamie still needed Mom’s help with eating.
We trudged through the line like we did for our free lunches at school. We stood behind our folding chairs, tummies growling. We had to wait until everyone was served and a volunteer led us in the mealtime grace. Soggy grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup again. I liked that meal, but I felt bad for Brandon as his face fell. What he would have given for a bowl of Count Chocula or a plate of pickles and kim chee. Oh, well. I pushed my tiny bowl of chocolate pudding toward him. He smiled and picked up his spoon.
In exchange for our room and board, we were required to attend evening worship. So much for unconditional love. Actually, the services weren’t too painful. The hymns reminded me of our Baptist church back home. No one put up a fuss as Chrissy and Jamie toddled up and down the aisle between the rows of chairs. I scanned the people and my stomach knotted when I saw the old pervert who had tried to slip me the tongue a couple of nights before while his wife took my mom into the clothes building. I didn’t bother Mom with it. She had enough on her mind.
On the second verse of “The Old Rugged Cross,” Dee slipped in and sat on the other side of Brandon.
“You ready for our sleepover?” she leaned over to ask me.
“A night outta here will be good for you.”
After the benediction, I sprinted upstairs to our room and tossed a t-shirt, shorts, toothbrush and hairbrush into a paper bag. I hugged the kids then Mom gave me four quick kisses on my forehead. Four kids…four kisses each. Mom slipped me two food stamps worth a dollar apiece so I could get snacks for the night.
The summer air pressed into my skin as Dee and I walked down the sidewalk to the corner store. I debated before choosing Funions and a Welch’s grape soda. Dee let me keep my stamps, pulling out her own to pay for our groceries. We had another five blocks to get to her new apartment, but I didn’t care. She shared stories about her kids while we strolled, and a guy whistled long and low as he drove by in his rusted blue Nova.
“He thinks you’re cute,” Dee smiled, but I knew she was the one he admired. With her thick dark hair, tanned legs and breasts straining against her REO Speedwagon tank top, who could blame him? I pretended she was my big sister.
Dee said hi to the two men playing cards on the stoop as we crossed inside to the piss-smelling elevator. I read the insults and love tags covering the walls. For a good time, call Claudia. She goes down. Tony loves Bonnie 4-ever.
“Here we are. Welcome to mi casa,” Dee said as she turned the key in the lock.
The place wasn’t much bigger than the room she’d had at the Mission. Blue plaid sofa: worn spots in the cushions, a burn hole on the armrest. A milk crate side table holding an overflowing tin ashtray. Three African violets on the windowsill. At least she could watch what she wanted and eat whenever she felt like it. I tried to ignore the welcome committee of roaches skittering across the counter as we arranged the food in her fridge.
“I need to pee. Where’s your bathroom?” I asked.
“Oh, it’s down the hallway. I’ll show you so you know where to find it.”
No bathroom in her apartment? Gosh, it’s really not much different than the Mission, I thought. Then I noticed the shower stalls with the thin plastic curtains. In the women and children’s area of the Mission, the bathroom was shared with the other families on our floor, but at least it held only one shower-tub combination so you were in there alone. My stomach fluttered, but I knew I’d be back with my family in the morning.
Dee and I played Rummy on her couch and sang along to the radio deejay’s playlist of Hall & Oates, Olivia Newton-John, Toto, Fleetwood Mac. The tunes kept us company until eleven o’clock, when I padded to the bathroom, a toothbrush in hand. Dee had pulled out the sofa bed while I was down the hall. I climbed in beside her and felt the coolness of the sheets on my bare legs. I reached for my glass of soda and stopped when I spied a roach floating inside. Pretty, gap-toothed Lauren Hutton was the guest host on a rerun of Saturday Night Live and the roaches turned the television set into a dance floor, crisscrossing over Rick James as he spat “Superfreak” into the microphone.
Early the next morning, the sunlight nudged me awake. I debated whether I could hold out for the bathroom until getting back to the shelter. My bladder decided for me, so I tiptoed down the hallway. Two women giggled in the shower, making it hard to pee. A, B, C, D, E, F, G…I tried distracting my mind. It worked.
“Good morning,” Dee greeted me as I reentered the apartment. “Do you want some cereal or a bagel?”
“Um, I’m not really hungry,” I said, afraid of what might dump out of the cereal box with the raisins.
“I’m glad you spent the night. I miss my own baby girl. Did you have fun?”
“Yeah,” I said with a weak smile, not wanting to disappoint her.
“That didn’t sound too convincing. You homesick?”
The Mission? My home? Reality stood naked before me. Like it or not, it was home, at least for now.
“Maybe a little.”
“We’ll head back whenever you’re ready.” Dee smiled. “Sure you don’t want any breakfast?”
“I’m good,” I said, suddenly desperate to see Mom, hoping to fill the ache somewhere between my heart and my stomach.
Two weeks later, we had a walking caravan consisting of our family, Dee, Leroy and Bernie. Bernie, who Mom had met at the Mission, was lean with stringy blond hair and tattoos down each arm. I supposed he was Mom’s new boyfriend. Adult males and females couldn’t interact in private on-grounds, so Mom made me watch the kids while they took walks together. Sometimes she returned with beer perfuming her hair and another smell I wouldn’t be able to place until much later: the after-scent of sex.
Leroy, Bernie’s uncle, was a composite of two characters from The Dukes of Hazzard with the looks of Uncle Jesse and the laugh of Cooter.
Our caseworker had assisted Mom in finding us an apartment and now it was moving day. Leroy loaded our few belongings into his red Radio Flyer wagon. Each of us carried what wouldn’t fit. I was excited to have our own place again and daydreamed of what it would look like as we walked up 5th Street. I hoped for space to stretch out, at least three bedrooms, and a nice yard.
White paint peeled in curly-cues on the outside of the weather-beaten house which was actually a duplex. A black shutter hung on one hinge of the downstairs window and dog shit dotted the yard alongside Pabst Blue Ribbon cans and an overturned garbage container. Brandon looked at me, his mouth an upside-down “u.” I shrugged my shoulders and turned away, not wanting to make him the target of my anger. We stepped through the door.
A survey of the apartment yielded one couch and a chair downstairs and a mattress on the floor in one of the upstairs bedrooms. No other furniture, barely more than a squatter’s camp. I felt like smashing something into the wall. “Thanks a lot, God,” I silently fumed.
The gas wasn’t turned on so we couldn’t use the oven, and since there was no refrigerator, our housewarming dinner consisted of lunchmeat, bread, chips and pop from yet another convenience store. The adults scraped enough money together for a couple of bottles of Boone’s Farm and two forty-ounce beers. Taking the last of the chips upstairs, the kids and I lay down on the bare, stained mattress. Brandon and Jamie sprawled on one of the three blankets the Mission gave us, and Chrissy and I took another. The July air suffocated us.
After the little ones fell asleep, Brandon whispered, “Sissy? You awake?”
“Do you think this is a joke?”
“What do you mean?”
“Maybe this isn’t our real apartment or maybe we’ll get furniture and everything tomorrow. I want a Steelers bedspread and…”
As Brandon jabbered, I thought about our game we made up when we were younger called “I Get That.” We would watch TV together and when commercials came on, whoever said “I get that” the quickest got to “own” the featured item. Sometimes we ended up with a Schwinn bike; other times it was a box of Kotex. We didn’t care. We stockpiled crap along with the good stuff.
Brandon slowed his chatter and yawned, “’Night, Sissy. I love you.”
“Love you too, Bubby. Sweet dreams.”
My eyes travelled across the ceiling cracks when Dee came up a little later to say goodbye.
“Your mom and Bernie are making out like two teenagers on the sofa. That’s my cue to go.” She gave me a quick hug and a beer-breath kiss. I stomped downstairs behind her and flung my body into the chair as Dee pulled the front door shut. A cigarette burned in the ashtray, smoke plumes twirling upwards.
Jackson Browne sang “Somebody’s Baby” through the radio static as I shot daggers at Mom and Bernie. Their mouths fused, one swallowing the other, and Mom had her legs locked around Bernie’s back. God, how did life become so crazy?Their hips were grinding and I could hear faint moans coming from one of them. I bolted up the stairs as saxophones shifted into “Harden My Heart” by Quarterflash.
Nine days later, I reached down and slapped a mosquito off my leg as we walked in the dark to the other end of town. Leroy toted our belongings in his wagon again. We were moving to another apartment. Mom seemed hopeful that we would like it; it was converted from a garage, small but nicer than the last place. The Mission would have been better than where we had existed the past week and a half, I thought.
Our new landlord, Allen, met us at the chain link fence and led us inside the apartment. My eyes inventoried the downstairs: a couch, a stuffed chair, a dining table with four chairs, a refrigerator, an oven and a TV set. Thank you, God.
Brandon and I ran upstairs where we spotted two unfinished bedrooms and a bathroom with a claw-foot tub. One room had a green army cot and the other room had a big bed with sheets. “Yes!” Brandon exclaimed. We headed downstairs, ready to celebrate with lukewarm soda. The adults poured plastic cups of beer and toasted the move.
We had met Allen at the Mission; he and his wife, Jo, were separating again because of his drinking. A few times, we’d been to the house where Jo and the kids lived, which was a few blocks from our new place. We’d become friends with their three sons and two daughters. Allen was currently living with his mother in the house in front of our garage apartment, but he visited his family often.
Their eldest son, Little Allen, stretched long and lanky with a huge Adam’s apple and green eyes. He was fifteen and fun to talk with about music and what junior high would be like for me. One time we were alone on the couch at his house while our moms were shopping. The kids were outside playing kickball. He held me to his chest and initiated me into my first long kiss. His lips were soft, and I didn’t pull away as he slipped a hand under my tank top, my belly warming to his touch. He lingered there for a few seconds before skimming up to my tiny breast bumps. Just as his fingertips reached my left nipple, I jerked away and told him I needed to check on the kids. He didn’t follow me to the back yard.
A few nights later, I was reading a trashy historical romance when I heard a soft knock on the front door downstairs. I figured it was Okey, another skank boyfriend of Mom’s, so I resumed reading until kissing sounds and curiosity got the best of me. In the corner of the floor by the bed, there was a hole that must have been cut out for ductwork, just large enough to poke my head through. My breath caught. Little Allen, lounging on the couch with his long legs spread wide, corralled Mom between his thighs as their mouths moved together. Allen’s hands moved over Mom’s butt, barely covered by her pink baby doll nightie. I nearly banged my head as I came up from the floor and onto the bed. My cheeks burned with embarrassment, jealousy, want. The kids slept as I slipped my hand inside my panties and replayed the scene until my body found the comfort of release.
The first day of junior high: a blur of paperwork for Mom, new hallways to navigate for me. Please God, let someone talk to me. We had homeroom twice a day, so even though I was in the office for the morning session, I slid into a seat for the second round. Mr. Girondo taught geography; his room wallpapered in maps and travel posters: Belize, Cairo, Denmark. Exotic places. Places I’d never seen. I’d not been out of West Virginia except through books I’d read.
Bobby Jo was about my height—short—but had a chest that resembled two torpedoes set to launch. Her sandy hair feathered around her face.
She leaned forward. “What’s your name?”
“Oh, yeah. She’s definitely new.” A boy with light brown hair and icy blue eyes checked me out from the desk on my right. “I’ve sure not seen her around.” A slow-as-syrup grin spread across his face. I felt my cheeks heat up.
“Keith,” Bobby Jo said. “Don’t start. Give her some space, Horn Dog.”
The place between my thighs tingled. I sensed that I might do just about anything to have that smile directed at me again.
I couldn’t get “Leather and Lace” out of my head for the last few minutes of the school day and I daydreamed that Keith was Don Henley to my Stevie Nicks.
Maybe things wouldn’t be so bad here, after all, I thought, sitting upright so Mr. G. would think I was paying attention. Really, I was playing a private version of “I Get That.” Maybe Bobby Jo and I would be friends. Maybe Keith would be my boyfriend. Maybe.