“Language is the greatest resource of a culture. It is the repository of thought and the expression of dreams.” – Rita Mae Brown
The following is an essay in verse, then two more traditionally structured essays.
The Woods was awarded the Editor’s Choice Award at the San Diego Writer’s Conference as well as other accolades.
Finally, an essay published in an anthology entitled, Silence Kills intended primarily for healthcare providers. Silence Kills was recently released on audio book. Note the same subject matter in the last two essays was approached in two different ways for two different markets.
Want to read something lighter? Check out an excerpt from Frankenbite Me in the sample book proposal under Selling Your Book.
a memoir in verse
Scotty dogs are white.
I put them in the ballerina jewel box
my mom gave me before she left.
When you open the lid a tiny ballerina
stands on her gold toes and spins
to the tinkling of a music box,
when I remember to wind it.
She said it was for my treasures.
I don’t care about ballerinas.
I like Scotty dogs.
Jimmy’s fingers move the silvery blade,
finding the Scotty dog trapped inside.
The curls of soap land on the linoleum
in front of my Indian-style bare legs.
I’m trying not to pick the scab on my knee.
Scotty dogs only live in Ivory soap, so pure it floats,
and not in Camay, which is oval and a girl’s soap.
We’re all boys here now.
Except for me, so I get to sit on my dad’s lap
sometimes, when he watches the TV.
I’m too little to have a pocket knife, like Jimmy’s,
but he carves the Scotty dogs ‘specially for me.
I pick up the soap chunks, which fall first,
and then the delicate curls, that drift like bird feathers
from the nest under the evaporative cooler.
My dad calls it the swamp box.
I can hear the hum of it in the air
as the sharp knife makes square edges round.
One, two, three, four. The stubby legs appear.
The falling bits get smaller and smaller
and I can tell the difference between the head and the tail.
There was a time when right about now
the part that should be an ear or a leg would break off and fall to the linoleum.
“Shit,” my brother would say. “Shit,” I would say back.
That was before I had this scab on my knee.
Before I fell off the banana seat on my bike that my dad calls a saddle.
Its not a saddle, really,
but I do circus tricks on it just the same.
Jimmy says I have a death wish.
My dad says I’m going through a phase.
My dad started to hide the new blue and white wrapped bars,
so my brother wouldn’t whittle them all away learning to make Scotty dogs.
My dad says he grew up in the depression when they didn’t have soap.
Or they had to make their own soap.
Or they had to walk twenty miles in the snow to get soap.
That’s why we shouldn’t waste it.
That’s why we have to eat all the lima beans on our plates.
I hate lima beans and shove them in the pockets of my dungarees
when my dad gets up to get more milk.
Before I can flush them down the toilet
they make grease stains on the front of my pants.
My mom never made us eat lima beans.
But, she would have been mad about the grease stains.
She cared about the way things looked.
She made me wear frilly dresses with no pockets
and put stinky Lilt Home Permanents into my flat hair.
She told me I was pretty.
My dad says I’m clever, “Smart as a whip.”
He takes me to the library.
He made them give me a special card
so I can get books from the grown-up section.
He helps me with the hard words.
He doesn’t care if I get dirty.
Every time the soap in the kids bathroom wears down
to a little nub, my dad puts out a fresh bar.
My big brother, Jimmy, sits in the kitchen
and carves it into a Scotty dog.
When he’s finished he runs his long fingers
with the half-moon nails all over it
knocking off the last of the clinging Ivory soap bits.
He folds the blade of his Boy Scout knife away with one hand
and looks at me, sitting on the floor.
His eyes are as blue as good news.
The last flakes of soap shake off his Keds high tops
as he walks to the bathroom and puts the Scotty dog by the sink
where the rectangle of new soap used to be.
I push all the left-behind soap on the floor into a pile.
I know my dad will mush it all together
with the other worn-down bits and make a hunk of soap out of it.
It wont be solid, like new, but he’ll keep it in his bathroom
where he’ll use it gently so it wont come apart again.
Waste not, want not.
After Jimmy goes out to play
I slip into the bathroom and take the Scotty dog.
He fits into my hand, light as tip-toe breath
and I know Jimmy carved him just for me.
I hide him in the ballerina jewel box and take him out to play
whenever my other brother, Steve, isn’t around.
Steve would sock me in the arm and take him.
He’d run over him with his fire engine
or amputate his legs, one at a time, with his doctor kit.
My mom called him Stevie, but my dad just calls him Steve.
He calls my other brother Jim too, not Jimmy.
He calls me Pee Wee, except when I’m naughty,
then he says I’m a pill.
I had another brother.
He was a baby.
He wasn’t my dad’s baby so my mom took him with her.
My dad said he’d keep him too, so as not to break up the family.
But it was too late.
Even my dad couldn’t keep the broken bits of our family from going to waste.
After a few days, or maybe a week,
my dad wonders why the towels are so dirty and notices that the soap is gone.
He asks Jimmy about it, then they both look at me.
I act like I didn’t hear the question.
I act like I’m stupid.
I act like I’m pretty.
My dad says he thinks the soap has been taken by elves
and will return shortly.
But I never wash my hands with the Scotty dog.
Even when all the rubbing and the water
make him smooth as a Sugar Baby left in the sun.
I don’t wash my hands.
I don’t eat lima beans.
I’m not pretty.
But I have a brother who makes Scotty dogs,
and I know he makes them just for me.
by Pamela Lane
The small bird fluttered against the sliding glass door. Tap, tap, tap. It persisted beyond sense, trying to get in. Tap, tap. In the folklore of many cultures, a bird tapping on the window is an omen that death is close. I knew why the bird was there.
Inside, my dad reclined on a rented hospital bed, an oxygen mask over his nose and mouth, too weak to turn his head, but aware. I was playing Christmas music and singing along, although I am Jewish and it was July. My dad loved Christmas music and it made me happy to sing to him. It made me happy just to be near him, to smell his familiar dad smell, to see his eyebrows rise the way they did when he was amused or interested.
We would not have another Christmas or birthday or even another week together. The night before the bird came to the window, we brought my dad home from the hospital to die.
His diagnosis was multiple organ failure with internal bleeding. He was 87 and in spite of medical science’s apparent ability to keep his body alive far beyond his ability to do anything with that life, we decided to refuse more surgeries and painful procedures, more machines and transfusions, more indignities and more clinging to life in a Critical Care Unit, alone except for the nurses who kept watch through a glass window, touching him when necessary with gloved hands. We couldn’t even sneak his dog in, like we had when he was in the regular hospital room.
He’d been admitted two weeks before, for bronchitis—no big deal—we all expected he would get better and go home. He’d walk into the house with the ever-present walker that kept him from tipping over, sit in his recliner and watch the news or Dr. Phil. He’d survived worse than bronchitis. He’d bounced back so many times that I’d started calling him the Comeback Kid. But he would not come back from this.
And the little bird knew it. Like the hospice nurse who supplied the caring advice and morphine, the bird kept coming back.
That first night, when the ambulance delivered him to his own room, my dad’s mind cleared. He was home. We brought his golden retriever, Duke, to see him. We helped dad raise his hand to pet his friend. This is what it meant to be home. My dad loved animals as much as people and he loved people quite a lot. But Duke accidentally tore the skin on dad’s hand with an overzealous hi-five and we had to take him out. Duke is a young dog, adopted after my dad was already an old man, unable to run and play with him. Dad allowed him to be an inside dog, the first ever, and they whiled away their days together watching sports and reading.
The family consensus was not to tell my dad that he was dying. My well-meaning family thought he would prefer it if we pretended that he was getting better, that he would resent a maudlin scene. But I sat alone with him that first night, stroking his head, and told him everything.
I am the child of my father’s first marriage and I have known him longer than any of the family that is left to stand this bedside vigil. I am the keeper of his secrets and regrets and I knew that he knew he was dying and that he needed to know that he wasn’t letting us down.
Unable to speak, he nodded and squeezed my hand over and over as I told him all the things he needed to hear. All the things I needed to say. In those few precious hours of consciousness I gave him verbal permission to leave me, to leave us, and I wrapped it in a story, a story of his remarkable life, and he seemed content.
My dad was a teller of stories; he loved a good story or a good joke. He could recite Gunga Din and TheCharge of the Light Brigade from memory. He told of his memories of growing up on a farm, the youngest of seven siblings, of the Battle of the Bulge–and not the one around his middle, the one in Argonne Forest in WWII. He told sad stories of government interference with tribal cultures that he had worked with in Arizona as the Livestock Specialist for 35 years; proud stories of his youngest children; and funny stories of my oldest brother Jim, and the pranks they played on each other like a couple of brothers, instead of father and son.
And he had told me stories that burden me still of his failures and disappointments—of his painful early marriages and the loss of two of his sons, my two older brothers, one to a drunk driver and the other to suspicious and violent circumstances. But, it was rare that he was able to divest himself of these stories, he was an optimist by nature and kept his sorrows to himself.
My dad did not just close his eyes and fade away. By the second day, he was less alert and only able to communicate with his expressive Lane eyebrows—or in moans of pain. Moving him, as the hospice nurse required of us every few hours, caused him agony. I wept in the hall for harming him.
All his kids, the ones still living, arrived. I read Kipling to him and we played Irish music, hymns and Johnny Cash—more of his favorites. I stroked his head so he could feel me near. We tried to be upbeat in his presence and moved our family gatherings into his room so he could hear the laughter and the memories. But when we were alone I sometimes I clung to him and cried like a child, soaking the shoulder of his homemade t-shirt gown. “Papa, Papa,” in my heart I said, “Don’t leave me,” but to him I said, “It’s alright, Papa.”
He went days without fluids or nutrition, they upped the pain meds, and he slipped into a light coma, but still he fought to stay with us. The hospice nurse said she couldn’t find his heartbeat with the stethoscope, yet he was still breathing. I had been unable to sleep for days, since that first night when he had been happy and alert. Even sleeping pills didn’t help me and in the night sometimes I would go and sit by his bed and cry. I worried that I might be having a nervous breakdown and asked for the grief counselor from hospice to come to the house. She was full of hugs and understanding, but she couldn’t console me.
I wanted his suffering to end, but I was afraid to go on without him. When I was six my mom left my older brothers and me, and my dad—they were divorced—moved back and raised the three of us. Now those brothers were dead, my mother was lost, first to distance and then to Alzheimer’s, and all I had left of my childhood was my dad. Who would I be without him?
I spoke with a friend who is an intuitive and has much experience helping people make the transition from this world to the next. I had been doing all the things I knew to do, giving him permission to leave and assuring him we would be all right. But she said maybe that was not enough, maybe he had something that he wanted to say to me before he could leave. She said I should find a quiet place and be still, and open myself to hear what he might need to say.
I laid on the bed in my little sister’s room and breathed deeply, quietly clearing my mind. I stayed there for a long time, waiting. But he never spoke to me—there were no words.
I got up and went into his room and sat next to the bed. With my hand on his chest and the other on his forehead, I sank back in the deep regular breathing and waited for his message. We were still, there in the diffuse afternoon sunlight coming through the glass—he and I and the bird, fluttering, tapping quietly behind me.
But I heard no message, no words in my father’s warm voice, no final parting dispatch. So I got up and left, and as I walked I realized that I felt completely different. I was no longer on the verge of tears, my insides jagged as broken mirrors. I felt calm for the first time in days. And I knew what I had to do.
I packed my suitcase, then went and sat with my dad. I knew who I would be without him, I would be the person he raised me to be, the person I was—he would always me with me. I told him that I wasn’t afraid anymore. And my words were not empty, I felt them in my heart. I saw those eyebrows rise, in spite of the coma, and I knew he could hear me. I kissed him on his cheeks and forehead, something I had come to call kiss therapy—since he had been diagnosed with some kind of bad bacteria that couldn’t be treated with antibiotics, nobody kissed him but me. But I kissed him a lot, so he wouldn’t know.
I told him that it was time for me to leave, and I told him that it was time for him leave too. I said that his sons and his mom and dad were all waiting for him. After more kiss therapy, I said, “Don’t forget, I’m taking you with me.”
When I arrived at the Tucson airport, the runways were closed—lightning had struck the tower and the radar had gone down. I sat in the bar for a couple of hours and finally, as we waited on the tarmac to take off, my phone rang. It was my little brother.
My sister-in-law had put some peanut butter on my dad’s hands so the dog, who had lost interest in his constantly sleeping friend, would play with him. Duke was happily licking the peanut butter off my dad’s hands when he opened his eyes, focused them for about 20 seconds on something that only he could see, and then closed them again. He did not draw another breath.
Later, Duke began to jump and play, as if he were playing with someone that only he could see. The hospice counselor had told us that dogs and cats can see spirits, and that dogs are not afraid of them. Duke was not afraid of my dad’s spirit, and I believe that they romped together joyously, my dad finally free of the used up shell of flesh that had held him down.
The captain announced that we were taking off. I knew my dad was coming with me.
And the bird flew away.
By Pamela Lane
“If you go out in the woods today, you’d better not go alone. It’s lovely out in the woods today, but safer to stay at home.” The voice was soft, almost inaudible. “Cause every bear that ever there was, is gathered there for certain, because...” It was her daddy’s voice. The gentle rocking made her eyelids droop, but the darkness jolted them open.
The safe voice in her head stopped. There was just her bare feet on the cold, hardwood floor. Slender frame hunched over them, bruised arms wrapped about her folded legs, a nineteen-year-old human origami. She could hear the whir and squeak of the fan in the hall. With her good eye she could see dustballs rolling the long beam of gold under the door. The sweetly-sour odor of worn leather merged with the tang of mildew—betraying the presence of the shoes scattered around her.
She slid her hand beneath the closet door and stared at the light painted on her fingers. She didn’t have the strength or the inclination to move them again, so she just stared until they went out of focus.
I don’t go swimming or wear shorts. Not anymore, not in public. People always get that look, that face between terror and disgust. Like the doctor’s, but worse.
They’re perfect nickels. But there’s no Indian head, no silvery gleam. Red and bubbly. No pattern, just random circles. The little blonde hairs on my thighs don’t grow there, even now. It’s funny, the way they mimic the red circles of the burning cigars. Cigar bites, his teeth by proxy. Ken chewed the one end; the other end chewed my flesh.
They don’t hurt anymore. But I can’t get the smell out of my nose.
He gestured with his fork. “Charles Joseph Whitman. He was a Marine, too. I bet you didn’t know that.”
She didn’t respond.
His deep-set eyes glowed like Jesus on black velvet. “Here’s something else you don’t know—before he got up there in the Texas Tower and started shooting, he killed his mom and his wife.” When he laughed, the point of beard on his chin jabbed the air like a blade.
“Uh huh.” She nodded.
“That took real balls. He went up that tower and picked the rest of ‘em off like sheep. Thirty-one casualties, seventeen kills. He didn’t stop until they killed him.”
She could see the half-chewed black-eyed peas in his mouth. She lowered her eyes.
“That’s how I’m goin’ out. In a blaze of glory. Everyone’ll know my name.”
“They’re all like you—liars, whores and sinners. I’ll be doing ‘em a favor. You’ll see.” The pointy beard stabbed spastically as he pressed the sharp tines of the fork between her eyes. “Bam!” he spat. “If you’re lucky, that is.”
The thumbs crush my neck. No air. Night is a vacuum. I pull hard, mouth open. Can’t breathe, sleep gone, can’t scream. My bed thick as pitch, tar pools hold my arms. Panic attack on panic button, springing, jack-in-the-box into the light. Demon night exorcised. I am alone. Again.
Saved by the light.
I bought these boxes at Radio Shack. They plug into the outlet and the lamps plug into them, then you plug in the master box and somehow, suddenly, all the lights, in all the rooms, that have a box, switch on when you push the button. My apartment glows like a firefly’s ass. I bought a lot of boxes. I wonder if all the lights in all the building snap on when I press my button. Maybe they don’t shop at Radio Shack. Maybe they don’t need to.
I try to sleep in the dark. I do. Like Pinocchio, I want to be real. But, I am not a real girl.
“Oh look, it’s your daddy.” He pointed. “Come driving up the road.” She looked past the rotted picket fence, past the huge oak, and traced the ribbon of red dirt that ended in front of the broke-down farmhouse. It was empty. She knew there was a steel gate up past that stand of Texas pine. It was always held tight with a heavy chain and padlock. They were far alone.
“Here he comes in that brown pick-up truck of his. Oh, you must have got a call through to him. ‘Daddy, come save me from the bad man.’” He spoke like he was telling a bedtime story. “Aren’t you clever!” He let go of her hair.
She rubbed her head. She could feel old scabs, lumps and soft spots under her hair. His hand snaked out, her head snapped to the side.
“Oh look, I can see his face through the window.” Ken started to wave. “Hi Daddy! Say hi to your daddy.”
She looked at the empty road.
“Wave to your daddy. He’s coming to save you.”
She tentatively lifted her right arm. She knew he wasn’t there. But Ken kept talking and describing him. The smile on her daddy’s face when he saw her there on the porch. The details. Her dad. He would save her, she knew.
He reached into his boot and pulled out a gun. “Look, he’s getting out of his truck.” He called and waved again. “D-a-d-d-y! Over here!”
She kept waving, mechanically; she could see it now, her father’s face.
Ken bent his elbow so the gun was close to her ear when he chambered the round.
The familiar sound made her shiver despite the September heat. “Here he comes.” His voice was sing-song, happy. The explosion knocked her back a few paces. Fractured bark flew off the oak tree. “Oh, there goes a piece of his skull.” He continued to describe in vivid detail the death of her father. With every bullet, more of the old tree blasted apart.
She tried to know that he wasn’t there, but just like the other times, he made her see it. Made her feel it. Killing her father again and again, in front of her eyes.
Those eyes must have been closed when the pistol came down on the side of her head—she didn’t see it coming. She knew it was the nine-millimeter. She had come to know these things, like she had once known spices by their smell or the length of a book by its weight.
She slumped to the ground. He liked to hit her where her hair would cover the marks. Said he learned that in ‘Nam. “Fucking Gooks.” With a half-hearted kick to her lower back, he left her there on the whitewashed wooden planks.
I was born with a birthmark on my leg. My mom says that when I was a baby it was a perfect heart. But the heart was upside down—the rounded hillocks pointed to the ground, the sharp end to the sky. She said it was an omen.
The perfect heart gone catty-wonkus. Doomed. I still have the topsy-turvy heart, but now it is ragged. Bits have cracked off and float, tiny pigment clouds, around my calf.
I grew up in the desert where you’re always spotting lizards with a partial tail or no tail at all. Lizards have break-away body parts. When jeopardy looms, snap! The predator is left with a bit of tail and the lizard is spared. But that’s not the amazing part. The amazing thing is that the severed tail grows back, good as new. If you chopped some body part off of me, it would be gone. Bloody stumpville. Phantom limb. I read that lizards can grow new tails because their nervous systems are so primitive. The cells haven’t specialized so they can be anything they need to be and regenerate like crazy. My cells are, apparently, too specialized. They hold onto their damage, confused, stuck. When they do repair, I scar.
My broken parts are not primitive enough for resurrection.
When he thought that he had broken her, he went to town for supplies. As his car disappeared down the unpaved road, she rose from the patch of dirt she called a garden, climbed the steel gate and ran to a farm where she had once seen an old woman. She cut across a cow pasture to the farmhouse.
“I live down the way. I was wondering if I could use your phone?” She asked. The lady reached out and gently took her filthy hands. She turned them over and looked at the broken nails packed with Texas soil, touched the cuts and scrapes, then looked up into her bruised face. The touch of the old lady’s hands made her want to cry.
“Of course you can, you poor little thing.” The wrinkled hands released her and pointed toward the house. “The phone’s in the kitchen, help yourself.”
The house smelled like pickles and coffee. Light filtering through the gingham curtains gave the white enamel appliances the look of giant marshmallows. The Sheriff was listed inside the front cover of the thin phone book. She could hear the ticking of a clock in the next room as she dialed the number.
The Sheriff didn’t seem too concerned about her kidnapping, beatings and the threats to her family’s lives. She could hear it in his voice. “How do you know this man?” he asked.
“We went out. You know, dated.” She turned away from the little table. “Before, that is.” She knew it was no use to tell him about the friend from high school, the one who introduced her to Ken in the first place, then tricked her and brought her to Texas and traded her to him for a half-kilo of cocaine. No use to tell how she’d begged her friend not to leave her there at the old cattle lease on the very end of a road to nowhere.
“And you live together now?” The deep voice on the phone accused her.
“I guess.” What was that in his voice? “But, like I said, only because…”
“Then it sounds like a domestic dispute to me, little lady.” The sheriff sounded chipper. That was the word, chipper. Clearly she hadn’t explained it correctly. “No, no, he’s going to kill my family if I try and get away.”
“How old are you?”
She realized this was a bad idea. If Ken even suspected the nice woman outside knew anything, he’d surely come here and kill her. The lady was old and alone—an easy target. “Twenty,” she said.
The sheriff laughed. “Well, you have a lot to learn about men. We say a lot of things in the heat of an argument, little lady.”
The thought of the sweet old woman murdered made her flinch. “It’s not funny. He’s going to kill me.”
“Oh, I doubt that. You’re just angry,” he continued. “But if you insist, you can come down, swear out a complaint and I’ll send a man out to pick him up.”
“That’s right. We might be able to hold him overnight. Let him cool off.”
“Overnight?” She knew that putting Ken in a cage for a few hours would shred whatever was left of his sanity—maybe she could get away, but they couldn’t. She remembered those first days when she fought him hard, kicking, biting and scratching. The time when the taste of her own blood in her mouth made her stronger. The time before he showed her the map. It was on the back of a manila envelope. She knew what it was the second he held it out to her. It was a map of her neighborhood, back home, in pencil and ballpoint. The route her baby brothers and sister walked to Duffy Elementary each day. The times her dad left for work. She couldn’t protect them, so she traded her life for theirs.
“Why don’t you just think about it? I’ll bet you two just kiss and make up tomorrow. Take my advice, if he has a short fuse, just don’t rile him.”
“What if I kill him?”
“What if I kill him in self-defense?”
“That’s serious talk, little lady. This is Texas, you kill a man and you’ll burn in the ‘lectric chair. Ain’t no self-defense about it. If you don’t like it then you’re free to…”
She pressed her middle finger down on the button in the cradle. It was silent, but for that clock and the pulsing drip of a faucet, weeping.
I couldn’t say his name, not for years. It was just three letters, but I was like a stroke victim learning to speak. I got my atrophied will around other three-letter words; sun, ton, run, gun, gun, gun. The night terrors diminished a little each year. Eventually I got therapy. Post-traumatic-stress syndrome, that’s the official name, with multiple head injuries, lacerations, broken jaw, blah, blah, blah. Only the Marines don’t pay me a pension for it. I didn’t get a purple heart.
I still bump my head a lot—other body parts too, a shoulder, an elbow, my toe. I read somewhere that people like me—who have spent a lot of time living outside of their bodies—don’t have an accurate sense of how much space they take up. Somewhere in my sense of myself, I’m tiny—a child, an elf, an invisible rabbit. So I keep knocking myself around.
She stared at the big knife on the drain board and wondered how long it would take a person to bleed to death. She’d read once that if you cut straight up, along the veins, that it went the fastest.
It didn’t say if it hurt.
The chicken blood seeped from the carcass into the sink and trickled down the drain. She knew the easy way out. He liked the barrel of his forty-five in her mouth, cocked, while he slammed, half-limp, into her—daring her, cursing her. She could loosen her hand from the ropes; reach the trigger at the right moment.
Hell, even aspirin would kill you if you took enough.
Death was no longer a nightmare threatened by Soviet missiles, a man with candy waiting in a car on her way home from school, or a slasher on Creature Features. It was a sweet dream of quiet safety. It was freedom.
But, she couldn’t do that to her dad. He’d blame himself for her suicide. And so her heart continued to beat.
“This is Pamela.”
“I found you.”
“Who is this?”
The wall tilted toward me until it hit my shoulder. I pressed into it. “How did you find me?”
“Your dad. I told him I was an old friend.”
Out of the electric tangle of thoughts one bobbed into consciousness. “Where are you?” I stretched as far as the phone cord would let me and flipped the deadbolt on my front door.
He said, “I can’t stop thinking about you.”
“It’s been twenty years. Leave me alone.”
He said, “I think about you all the time.”
I had stopped looking over my shoulder after the first couple of years, the years where I never knew if he might get out. In those years I slept with the lights on and carried a gun and practiced my aim on paper cutouts of him. I moved apartments and cities, but I never moved home. I couldn’t go home to the family on the manila envelope map. I was too ashamed. Their daughter was dead—traded in.
The desk sergeant said they couldn’t arrest him for stalking unless he called me three times. He had only called twice. The sergeant said they had a file on him, a big one. Homicide cases never close. Said he couldn’t give me any information though, “It’s illegal.” He spun the glowing monitor on his desk toward me and walked away. It was all there: date of birth, social security number, and last known address; all that words could tell. I already knew the rest.
I bought a pistol. A .38 caliber revolver, revolvers are less likely to jam when you have to fire multiple rounds. I had been paying attention. During the mandatory three-day waiting period I called in sick at work, kept moving, a phantom. He knew where I lived, so I couldn’t go back to my apartment. I called the post office in Central Texas and gave them the rural route number I’d gotten from the police computer. His postman described the house. I drew a map.
Now, I knew where he lived, I had a gun; we were even. He was no longer out there, somewhere, lying in wait, in my brain, jangling my nerves. I was hunting him.
In Texas they call back-roads “FM” – farm to market. They have a number after, to distinguish them each from the other, but they’re most all the same. I stood in the mud, skeeters buzzing my ears. Blood drying where they got me and I’d got them. Blood don’t dry fast in this humidity. The gun in my pocket was slick with damp and sweat. Everything in Texas is damp.
A millipede marched its zillion shiny legs up the toe of my boot.
I clicked the safety off and on, off and on, a beat without a tune. The screen door slammed, his cowboy boots slapping the plywood apron of the shitty doublewide. I watched him in his obliviousness. Ken. Ken. Ken. The name of the beast. He looked the same as he had always looked: long hair parted in the middle, eyes shadowed by heavy brows, a crazed messiah, Jesus gone bad. I lifted the revolver, lining up the front site with the back. My left hand steadied the elbow of my right. “Bam,” I said, and released the hammer.
The shiver up my spine didn’t ease—primitive cells morphing, starting anew perhaps? The millipede arched, airborne, off the slick leather as I walked the distance back to my truck. It landed in front of my boot. I resisted the urge to crush the creature, leaving its black guts on my sole. “It’s picnic time for teddy bears, those little teddy bears…”
At least that’s how the movie-in-my-mind ending goes. In reality I don’t speak like my parents were first cousins and shooting him would have only turned me into him. Even in my fantasy, he wasn’t worth going to prison for. I just needed to know that I controlled my own destiny—my own resurrection. In real life, the events after I bought the gun and drew the map went like this:
Before I drove out to his trailer house to stalk him, I called the place he had been sent twenty years before—the VA hospital lockdown in Temple, Texas. It had taken him many months to kill everything that was me, but when he had, when I stopped fighting back, he lost interest. Ken had become obsessed with a new woman, a rich cocaine customer. He kidnapped her and her six-year-old daughter. She jumped from the moving car somewhere in New Mexico and he was caught and quietly committed; her family didn’t want the publicity of a trial. I walked away from the farmhouse prison.
The VA doctor on the phone said he knew who I was; Ken told him I was his first wife. I explained to him who I really was. He didn’t seem surprised, but the doctor couldn’t help me. Ken was his patient. Tears and snot and anger flowed onto the payphone. That wasn’t good enough; I had taken it from the sheriff, all those years ago. But that frightened young girl was dead. I wasn’t going back. “Tell me the truth.”
He finally acquiesced. He told me that Ken was dying, he couldn’t hurt me anymore. Cancer had eaten him alive. In all the years I’d imagined him dead—I had never imagined that he would be murdered by the cells in his own body, run rampant, specialized for one purpose—to clean the world of a human stain who dreamed of a death within a mountain of corpses of his own creation.
I went home that night and emptied the pistol, carefully removing the cartridges, and dropped it into an empty shoe box in the top of my closet. It was good to be in my own bed and I considered reaching for the novel on the nightstand, bent pages marking the spot where I’d abandoned it days before. Instead, my hand swept up to the lamp and clicked off the switch. I slept in the dark.
Do No Harm
reprinted from Silence Kills
I hadn’t looked into a mirror in a long time; I had no reason to see myself. I was not someone I wanted to know. But in his eyes I saw my reflection. In the horror and the disgust, I saw what he saw.
“My god, what happened to you?” He stood just inside the exam room, exactly where he had pivoted after closing the narrow wooden door. He asked the question as if the answer would determine whether he would stay or leave.
I hesitated, confused, afraid. “I, ah, broke my jaw.” He wore leather shoes. They stepped toward me. I felt him lift the sleeve of the cotton gown the nurse had given me. I tried to tell her it was just my jaw, but she insisted I take off my clothes and put on the gown. I had become a person who did not argue.
“Every nine seconds in the United States a woman is assaulted and beaten. Four million women a year are assaulted by their partners. Every day, four women are murdered by boyfriends or husbands.”[i]
My posture was so hunched that the gown fell open in the back. That had become my bearing, curled to protect my stomach and face, eyes down, invisible. I could feel him looking at me, even as I looked at my bare feet. He half-moon walked around me–moving the gown, prodding a little as he went–because the heavy exam table blocked him from circling. I sat on the end like when I was a kid on the edge of the diving board, waiting to jump in. I felt small like that, my bare feet dangling.
“Domestic violence is most prevalent in women 16 to 24.”[ii]
“Who did this to you?” He touched my jaw for the first time, not hard, like the heavy steel of the .45 automatic that had left it dangling, knocked loose. I could still talk, which kinda surprised me; I just wasn’t sure what to say. So I lied.
“From the look of it, you’ve been ‘falling’ for a long time.” He said, “falling” in that sarcastic way that popular kids use to be mean to the unpopular ones. He was right though, I knew. It had been a long time, although I can’t tell you how long, even now, looking back. Then, I had no time, I had nothing to mark time by, no reason to know.
He asked me who did it. I asked him for help. He kept asking, in that voice that said I was wasting his time. I told him I was afraid. I told him that I couldn’t tell him why. I don’t know how long this went on. I remember crying. I remember the way he looked at me.
“Treating battered women tended to evoke more negative emotional states than treating patients with infectious disease. Both [primary and non primary care physicians]exhibited negative feelings when confronting battered women.”[iii]
He walked to a phone hanging on the blue-green wall. The cord was tangled. He lifted the receiver. “I’m calling the sheriff.”
I looked up into his face, his eyes. “Please, please don’t call the sheriff,” I begged him. I didn’t tell him, but I had called the sheriff once. I told him I was being held in a farmhouse by a man who was going to kill me. He’d said in his Texas drawl, “It sounds like a domestic dispute to me, little lady.” He told me I had a lot to learn about men. He said, “If he has a short fuse you’d best learn not to make him mad.” I told him about my family, how he planned to kill my little brothers and sister if I got away. He said maybe they could hold him overnight. Overnight. I hung up then.
“Victims of domestic violence are reluctant to report abuse. Women very reasonably fear retaliation…”[iv]
But that was not the only reason I didn’t want him to call the sheriff. Ken, the man who owned the pistol so clearly imprinted on my face, was a few steps away in the waiting room, high on cocaine, surrounded by women and kids waiting for immunizations or whatever people wait for in small town doctor’s offices in rural Texas. He’d tried to get into the exam room with me, but the nurse in the small clinic refused. Before he went back to sit down he squeezed my arm, looked at me then glanced at the waiting room. I looked at them, the innocent ones, and knew what he meant. Before he agreed to take me to a doctor he’d stuffed a knife as long as my forearm, in a leather sheath, into one ostrich-hide cowboy boot, the pistol that did this into the other and another pistol into the back of his jeans, under his suede jacket. He had a real flair for arming himself. He dropped extra clips into his pockets. He was not going to jail, even on the outside chance that any man in rural Texas would think that he deserved to be there.
“In 2000, 1247 women were killed by an intimate partner… which accounted for 33.5 percent of the murders of women Women are most likely to be killed when attempting to leave the abuser. In fact, they’re at a 75% higher risk than those who stay.”[v]
The phone made that off-the-hook beeping sound that throbbed in rhythm with the pain in my head. But he didn’t hang it up. “If you won’t report the man who did this to you, I won’t treat you.” He was angry, but I knew he wasn’t angry because I was a skinny twenty-year-old kid covered with bruises and burns and scabs, crying and begging him to help me even though I couldn’t tell him why I wouldn’t talk to the sheriff. He was mad because I was wasting his valuable time. Because I wasn’t worth that time. I wasn’t worth helping.
I don’t remember what he said after, “I won’t treat you.” Maybe he didn’t say anything. I just remember how I felt. I don’t know what I expected. I knew no one doctor could save me, I wasn’t a fool, but maybe walking in there I had hope. I was still a person. Walking back to my captor, my jaw still displaced, still in pain, denied the most basic human compassion, I had no hope. That doctor confirmed what my abuser had told me over and over: I wasn’t worth the air it took to keep me alive. I deserved what I got.
“Many battered women experience social, institutional, and provider barriers to obtaining help from the healthcare system for… domestic violence.”[vi]
After that I stopped fighting back. I stayed with him because I could see no other place for me. I could never go back home to my family, whose lives I had put in danger by once dating a madman, to school, to friends, to the shadow of a life I did not deserve. I resigned myself to being whatever he told me to be: his girlfriend, his property, his whore.
I fantasized about suicide like some women fantasize about a trip to Paris–with true longing. I never asked anyone for help again and no one ever offered.
“In 1998, 30,575 Americans took their own lives… The researchers found a strong connection between intimate partner violence and suicidal behavior…”[vii]
If there had been a “Least Likely to be Victimized” category in my yearbook, my school picture would have been there, showing a blonde in a hippie dress with an SDS fist button prominently displayed on it. Although it is a fallacy that race factors into the battering of women, or that women from the middle and upper classes are somehow immune to abuse, I was also a tough cookie, a liberated, self-aware, politically-active kicker of metaphorical asses. I would never let a man hit me.
And I didn’t, at first.
I met Ken through a girl I had known in high school. Amy and I hadn’t been close friends, but she was a stoner and I was a political radical, and in those days that was enough to make us both outcasts–counter-culture friends by default. I’d lost touch with her when I’d dropped out of high school and hitchhiked to Boulder, Colorado, when I was 16. After a year of working at an FM underground radio station and having adventures, I returned home to get my GED and attend an alternative college.
I had high hopes for college, and life in general, but the reality of working a crappy full-time job, paying 100% of the costs of school, living with parents who required I baby-sit my younger siblings to earn my keep, and going to school at nights and on the weekends was just beating the shit out of my idealistic dreams of adulthood. Responsibility sucked. Poverty sucked. Anonymity sucked.
And then Amy called. It was my nineteenth birthday and I didn’t have a date, or enough friends or money to rate a party. She had the solution, and he would be there at seven to pick me up.
The moment I saw him at the door to my parent’s house, I was uneasy. It wasn’t his long hair, parted down the middle like those velvet pictures of Jesus, or even the cowboy boots, skin-tight Wranglers, huge silver buckle, western-cut jacket, or felt cowboy hat in his hand. Although the combination of those things in a big city seemed odd, it wasn’t enough to dissuade a girl in a serious dating drought on her birthday. It was his eyes. Deep-set, dark, evil eyes. Pull the wings off of doves, follow you around the room, scary eyes. I looked beyond him, at a huge black Pontiac with black tinted windows and new dealer tags hulking at the curb.
“Ken Cummings, ma’am,” He tilted his head as if he would have tilted his hat, like John Wayne, if it hadn’t already been in his left hand. “Mighty pleased to meet you.” He revealed a dozen yellow roses from behind his back. “Happy Birthday.” He extended them toward me, and I opened the screen door.
Roses. No boy had ever brought me roses. Of course, he was no boy. He must have been near thirty. Amy had told me he was from Texas and that he was rich, although I assumed at the time that one meant the other–everyone from Texas was rich. He was in business with her “old man.” I knew what kind of business, the only kind that brought men like this to a border town like Tucson: dope. I didn’t care though. He was supposed to take me to a fancy restaurant, and it was one night. What could happen?
I’d never been to such an expensive place. On the way we’d smoked a joint while listening to quadraphonic sound in his cushy, velvet upholstery, so I was starving. He ordered for me. I didn’t think anything of it, since I wouldn’t have ordered the most expensive things, and he did, so happy birthday to me. He lit my cigarettes with a gold lighter and opened the doors, even in the car, though he had to kind of jog around to beat me to it. He almost wrestled the waiter to pull my chair out for me. I knew enlightened woman didn’t allow such nonsense, but he was from Texas, and being liberated wasn’t getting me anywhere lately.
I ordered a Slo Gin Fizz, even though I didn’t drink, because I thought it made me look more grown-up and sophisticated and even though I was underage, the waiter never asked me for ID. Ken called me “ma’am” all night, which was kinda creepy, and after dinner he opened a little amber glass bottle and offered me cocaine. Cocaine, rich man’s speed. Everyone knew that it wasn’t addictive, so I said OK. I liked it. I liked everything about the night, except for him. He gave me the willies.
He talked some about Texas and a lot about Vietnam. He really hated “Gooks,” but I felt sorry for him, being sent to that unjust war and not being educated about the true nature of the conflict. I explained it to him, because that’s what I do, I explain things so people can see how misguided they are, especially about politics. He nodded like a bobble head, eye’s stormed over, like he wanted me to shut-up but was too polite to tell me.
I waited for the obligatory hand to stray “accidentally” onto my exposed leg or around my shoulders, but it didn’t happen. I prepared an excuse for not wanting to go to his apartment, but he never asked. He didn’t try anything. He just jogged around the car in front of my parent’s house to beat me to that door handle–although by then I knew I was supposed to wait. I didn’t want to put him into goodnight kiss territory as I squeezed by him to get out the car door, but he didn’t try for the kiss. He just took off his hat and thanked me. I beat-feet to the front door and vowed never to see that freak again. But by the next weekend, after I’d ignored a couple of his calls, I couldn’t remember exactly why I shouldn’t go out with the rich guy who was so polite. He had so much, and I had so little, I deserved to be treated nice. And so it started.
Over the next few months, the rare times I saw him were always the same: he took me to great places, got me high, never got fresh, and I ignored the voice I my head that said I should be afraid of this guy. The only thing that changed was that from the second date on, before he dropped me at my parent’s house for the night, he would press a little amber bottle into my palm. My present. My payment.
Finally, one afternoon he asked me to go with him to someone’s house. Only it wasn’t a friend. It was a Mexican dope dealer. They argued, Ken pulled a gun on him, and the world spun out of control. I wanted to get away, I wanted to go home. He took me to his apartment instead. That night was the first time he paraded his weapons, a padlocked closet full of them, and told me the story of how he had fragged a young lieutenant in Nam and got away with it. He laughed. He acted out the scene with a machine gun-looking weapon which I no longer recall the name of. He hated greenhorn officers telling him what to do. The second time he killed one they sent him stateside, to a military hospital in Corpus Christi for a few weeks, then they gave him a medical discharge. He was too dangerous to go back to Vietnam, but not too crazy to be released into the population. He was ready for his new life, although he missed killing Gooks. “Semper fi motherfucker.”
I told I didn’t feel well, that I needed to go home. He hit me hard enough to knock me down. Then he raped me on the floor where I landed. I fought him until he got that rifle against my neck, his weight bearing down on each end of it. I needed both hands to keep it from crushing my windpipe, and even then I couldn’t get enough air to struggle. I honestly can’t remember the details after that, I just know from the bruises and where I hurt that he did a lot more to me than I can remember.
When it was over he cried like a child. He let me leave the next morning, pretending I was only going to school. I wasn’t about to call the police on a maniacal drug dealer–that was a death warrant. So I called Amy and told her what happened, told her to keep him away from me. She apologized profusely and agreed.
A few weeks later she called and told me that Ken had ripped off the Mexican Mafia for a kilo of cocaine, and they were looking for me because I had been with him at someone’s house and he had identified me as his “old lady.” She said she felt terrible because I would be hurt when they found me. She said she felt responsible, so she had an offer for me. She and her old man, who had also been ripped off by Ken and had to leave town, would pay me a thousand dollars to accompany her on a quick run to Houston. She and I would fly in for one day and fly right back. And I’d get enough money to go somewhere safe.
Her boyfriend was waiting with a car in Houston. I didn’t even ask how he got there. I wasn’t suspicious. As we drove away from the city, instead of into it, he had a rational explanation. So when we eventually pulled up to an old white farmhouse at the very end of a long dirt road, off of a series of narrow blacktop roads through the East Texas pine forest, I wasn’t even paying attention. It wasn’t until we walked up the steps onto the porch and the door opened that I figured it out. Ken paid Amy and her boyfriend one pound of cocaine, approximately half of the stolen kilo, for me. I begged them not to leave me. On my knees, in tears, I begged them.
They never looked back.
I did eventually escape. By then my abuser had lost some of his violent fervor for me, I was not the pretty, self-confident, know-it-all he had abducted to punish for the crimes of all sinful women, but an overweight, compliant shell, deadened to all emotion–including fear. My abductor had stopped threatening to kill my family, and I didn’t care if he killed me. He needed money and sent me to work. Ironically, the job I found was as a receptionist in a doctor’s office. Ken took my paychecks, but he couldn’t take what I was really getting from my job: confidence. The doctor, who knew about the abuse and avoided the subject, and the rest of the people I came into contact with at my job, treated me with respect and dignity, and that reminded me what it was like to be a person. The doctor helped me with an advance on my salary co-signing for the utilities for an apartment, the location of which he and the staff agreed to keep secret as I prepared my escape.
“50% of the homeless women and children in the U.S. are fleeing abuse. The amount spent to shelter animals is three times the amount spent to provide emergency shelter to women from domestic abuse situations.”[viii]
Then my abuser abducted another woman, a cocaine customer of his, and her six-year-old child. She leapt from his car somewhere in New Mexico. Although she also knew her attacker prior to the abduction, and that had been the criteria quoted by the sheriff for not helping me, she was in her thirties, and from a prominent local family. I suspect no one told her it was only a “domestic dispute.”
Ken went from jail to a forced 30-day commitment in a VA hospital lockdown, which turned into a twenty-year incarceration. He was never punished for what he did to me.
I suffered for many years with debilitating headaches, asthma, colitis, allergies, paranoia, depression and vicious night terrors and was later diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
“Women who are battered have more than twice the health care needs and costs that those who are never battered.”[ix] “Up to 64% of hospitalized female psychiatric patients have histories of being abused as adults.”[x]
I was too ashamed to return to my family and had no money for, or understanding of, therapy. For years I self-medicated my depression, insomnia and shame with drugs and alcohol.
Some years later, my best friend, who is paraplegic, called to tell me that her boyfriend had beaten her up. She was at the emergency room, in her wheelchair, bleeding. He was at her house. By the time I got to her condo, a two-hour drive, I had acted out a hundred times in my head the scene that would take place. I had checked and triple-checked the weight in my pocket.
His car was out front. I silently thanked god. I don’t know what I would have done if he’d left on his own, I was so pumped-up. When he answered the door, I walked in calmly. He never looked down to see what was in my hand until it was too late. I didn’t want to kill him, I wanted to make him soil his pants. I wanted him to know what it felt like to be helpless, to fear for your life.
And I did. With a pistol shoved up into the soft flesh under his jaw, I made him believe. He wept and begged me not kill him. I made him promise to leave and never come back, told him that I would track him down and kill him if he did. I told myself that I was doing it for her, but that was only partly true. I did it for me. I did it for the man who had killed my hope and left me scared and damaged. And I didn’t feel bad about it. She came home from the emergency room and we got high and celebrated his extraction from her life. I had saved her. I was a superhero.
I had told this story dozens of times before it finally dawned on me: normal people don’t stick loaded guns into other peoples throats. I knew there was at least one gun in her house, what if he had called my bluff? What if he had overpowered me and shot me? What if I had shot him? There were many righteous responses to her situation which did not necessitate brutality–at least not by me.
I was not free of Ken just because my body was free; my submerged rage had a tripwire that was turning me into the twisted fuck that had taken me by force all those years ago–right down to the pistol and the little amber bottles of cocaine. Many years of my life had corroded under the weight of the pain I could not bear.
I sought out treatment for my addiction and rehabilitation for my burnt soul and was fortunate to find free, community-based therapy groups that allowed me to address the PTSD and root causes in a supportive manner. Almost all of my associated medical conditions resolved by themselves over my years of treatment.
I no longer tell the story of what I did to that man. I am no longer proud of it. I no longer own a gun.
In my second year of therapy I had been told to pay attention to how I was feeling–and without drugs it was hard to dodge those feelings. I realized that I always got depressed around my birthday, but I wasn’t yet old enough for my inevitable decay to be the cause, so I started to practice the techniques the therapist taught us. I sat through the insomnia night after night and wrote in spiral notebooks, just stream of consciousness stuff. “I feel like shit. “Life sucks. I don’t know why I feel like crap.” Until it came out of my pen, the story of the doctor who turned me away, I didn’t make the connection. I’d turned 21 unable to chew, subsisting on what I could get through a straw, in pain–the pain in my jaw and head, and the pain in my heart where hope had once been. That was my special birthday, the official beginning of womanhood. I had been captive for almost two years then.
Many women never get the help I got, and their low self-esteem traps them in the cycle of abuse and addiction even if they escape the initial violence.
“The silence was described as collusion between the abused women and other members of society: The unspoken agreement between battered women and other members of society not to disclose or address the battering.”[xi]
The shame and silence that surrounds abuse fuels the problem. In spite of changing laws and education, incidences of Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) continue to increase. And women continue to suffer in silence, invisible to the rest of us. Since 1993, when the American Medical Association launched its landmark “Campaign Against Family Violence,” violence against women and girls has escalated. The free programs where I got help lost their funding and were closed.
My story was unique only because of the way I ended up there and not what happened to me once I was being battered. Now, with the education a person gets from watching TV, I would know that I could call the FBI. That traveling a girl over state lines–even if that state is Texas–is a major crime. The kind of crime for which they hold a person for more than one night. My life was forever altered not just because a homicidal Vietnam Vet targeted me, but because I could find no help, no hope. No reason to live.
It is caring health professionals that need to be the frontline of protection for battered women. It is not just women that suffer, but all of us. When the fabric of civilized society is rent, we all feel the split. The British Medical Journal, in 2004, stated that: “Intimate partner violence is a major public health and human rights issue.”
Sadly, protecting women is a role that many doctors are loath to play. In a study of Australian general practitioner attitudes towards victims of domestic abuse, one rural female doctor expressed a common sentiment about the effective treatment of battered women:
“You often don’t want to be too good at it because you get too many of them … you might find people start referring them to you.”[xii]
By ignoring or humiliating patients who need help, by embracing the silence that is their legacy in a society that blames women for their own abuse, battered women will continue to be injured and killed–and their children will perpetuate the victimhood and violence they have seen and often experienced.
Physicians need to understand their role in this cycle and practice the words of Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, who admonished physicians to make a habit of two things: “to help, or at least do no harm.”[xiii]
[i] Women’s Rural Advocacy Programs, National Statistics about Domestic Abusletswrapetswrdvinfo/dvinfo/stats.htm
[ii] C.J. Newton, Domestic Violence, An OveTherapistFindertFinder.net, February, 2001 Domestic Violence, An Overview
[iii] Rabin S., et al, Israeli Medical Association Journal, 2000 Oct; 2 (10): 753-7
[iv] C.J. Newton, Domestic Violence, An Ove.net Mental Health Journal February, 2001
[v] Women’s Rural Advocacy Programs, National Statistics about Domestic Abuse letswrapetswrdvinfo/dvinfo/stats.htm
[vi] M.A. RodriguezQuiroga and H.M. Bauer, Breaking the Silence, Archives of Family Medicine v5(3) March 1996
vii2″>[vii] Center for Disease Control, Injury Fact Book, www.cncipcv/ncipc/fact_book/26_suicide.htm
[viii] Women’s Rural Advocacy Programs, National Statistics about Domestic Abuse letswrapetswrdvinfo/dvinfo/stats.htm
[ix] National Organization for Women, Violence against women in the United States, www.now.org/violence/stats.html
[x] Women’s Rural Advocacy Programs, National Statistics about Domestic Abuse letswrapetswrdvinfo/dvinfo/stats.htm
[xi] McCauley, MD, MPH, et al, Inside Pandora’s Box, Journal of General Internal Medicine, 1998 August ; 13(8): 549-555
[xii] Taft A., Bro, Legge D., General Practitioner Management of Intimate Partner BMJse, BMJ 2004; 328:618 (13 March)
[xiii] Hippocrates, Of the Epidemics, written in 400 BCE, translated by Francis Adams, http://classics.mit.edu
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