As a child, she’d had three fathers. All “abusers.” All “animals.” Her
own father had been hard to live with. He used to beat her always, and
my grandma, too.
Once, he beat Mom so bad she wet her pants. He dragged her up the
steps by her hair and threw her in the tub with her clothes on, calling
her a dirty pig. She was twelve. I was well into my teens, maybe sixteen,
when Mom told me this story, and I felt an overwhelming anger, hate,
and helplessness. I told her that if I ever met the guy, I’d punch his throat
in, make him shit his pants, calling him a dirty fucking pig the whole
She said I was like my father. I told her, “Damn right I am,” but she
shook her head. She wasn’t giving me a compliment.
The last year my brothers and I lived with her full-time, I was still
a kid; I was eight. We didn’t know about her childhood. We only knew
that she was either in the darkness of her room or somewhere alone, and
that when it came time to eat and there was nothing in the fridge, she’d
get overwhelmed and find reasons to scream or slam her bedroom door,
or—early on—shell out half-hearted beatings to try to control us. But
they only ever left us laughing.
Then, when we were down to a cabinet full of green beans and tomato
sauce, my mother handed us food stamps and sent us to the gas station
for frozen dinners and root beer. We loaded bags—filling them with
candy, with Butterfingers and peach rings and Skittles—and bowed our
heads at the counter as we handed over those big paper ones and fives.
Getting outside was a victory, and we swallowed down the candy before
we got back home.
I hated those trips. I used to linger around the magazine aisle pretending to read until that perfect time when the store went suddenly
empty. I’d slide up to the register, quickly pay, and be out the door.
But one day, Mom gave me a twenty-dollar stamp and sent me for a
gallon of milk and a carton of eggs. “And bring me all my change,” she
said, because we liked to snag a buck or two of the real cash you’d get
I waited outside the front doors with my hands in my pockets, whistling. I was waiting for the rush to pass.
When the parking lot was empty, I whipped inside, grabbed the milk,
the eggs, a Reese’s cup, and a Coke, but as I darted to the counter, this
tiny old lady tied me to it. We shared a glance, one that asked who would