Voices Unheard 1

December 5, 2018

Voices Unheard

My name is Tina Yates, you’re average young girl with a gift, no, a curse that has followed me through my whole life. I never thought I was a particularly interesting; but it’s seems people found me, somehow, weird. My parents didn’t know what to do with me since I did not conform to their rigid way of life, my talent more frightening than blessed. One Sunday morning I sat quietly on an uncomfortable bench, three rows back, as I did every week, since I can remember. There were no assigned seats, but families automatically sought out their regular places without complaint or comment. The benches had once been padded but time and wear made them unserviceable for several years; they were in sorry shape, having been passed down from another church, that didn’t want them. When Heartland Bible Church got them, Pastor Williamson insisted God would be with us, despite the absent of padding, bringing us to a higher consciousness and purpose, minus the comfort of our butts.

“Rise above the pain and discomfort of life,” he would chant in a holier than thou voice. “Feel the presence of the Almighty in your heart. Through Him we will be redeemed, saved, our meager shell nothing more than a vessel for our souls.”

Our souls may have been at peace but other parts were becoming considerably, worn and flattened. My thirteen-year-old butt felt sore after pastor’s persistent postulations, ranting on and on about Jesus dying for our sins. Had I sinned? I think not. But pastor claimed we were all sinners and needed to beg for forgiveness.

I was not alone as I looked at the handful of children looking equally uncomfortable. Pastor was not an exceedingly charismatic person; though he studied constantly, attempting to make his sermons filled with impact, fear of God’s wrath. Inspiration did not always spring from within him, limitations and failure to complete his education stood squarely in his path to righteousness. He relied on inspirational books and religious seminars to enrich his sermons, lest the congregation bore of his one note tune.

Certain telltale symptoms of his latter self-education stood out like a sore thumb. Once returning from a retreat, where he learned ‘The Method,’ pastor sermonized strictly by the book. The Method was nothing more than speaking on any subject, making three separate points during the sermon. The person teaching the seminar did not believe the average person could remember more than three points, the attention span of believers often challenged. So every Sunday, Pastor Williamson made his three points in his sermon, no more and no less, the few listening, nodding their heads.

It became a game, after awhile; my friend and prospective boyfriend, Charlie Barns, we’d watch each other during the pastor’s oration, seeking out what would become obvious to us. Each time the pastor made a point, we held up a finger, then another and finally a third, which meant, the sermon was winding down. The game went on for almost a year, the pastor making his three points and Charlie and I holding up fingers at the appropriate time. My mother and father hadn’t caught on until we started to giggle. I thought even God would run screaming from the church listening to such drone and dribble. Pastor Williamson’s vague three points never inspired; there were times when I think the pastor was reaching for those three points, having difficulty finding more than one or two. My mother took me aside and asked what I was giggling about. She told me it was wrong and unchristian to act that way. That may have been so but I couldn’t stop laughing the next week when Pastor Williamson cranked out his three points with nothing relating to the subject in the sermon.

Being associated with a hardcore bible thumping church is not the point of my story; that was incidental, a mistake at birth to parents, who saw life in black and white, no shades of religious gray. Perhaps I did not see what they saw or have the faith to believe in things I couldn’t question. Pastor Williamson constantly reminded us to accept things on faith, questions were not allowed.

I was born in the wilds of Bend, Oregon near the edge of the town, living there for about ten years of my early life. Both of my parents had been concerned about the “counter-culture” people in the area, who opted to eat organic food and do things that were good for the earth. The same people chose to experiment with religions not native to America, a frightening prospect for some. My father believed these people could only be a negative influence to me, reason enough for my dad to get a new job, that took us all to Minnesota, where a Bible church dedicated to fundamentalism awaited us. I was too young to have much of an opinion about the so-called Hippie’s alternate life style; I rather enjoyed the bright clothes and happiness that seemed to come from these people. But off to the middle of America, whether I chose it or not.

Settling in was hard at first, a new place and new people; even the weather was different than Oregon. I pouted for a while about leaving my old home but adjusted with time. My dad said he preferred the mind-set of these fine, God-fearing people, who believed in the right religion. They had few opinions that strayed beyond the norm, listening to their religious leader without question. Truthfully, none of that bothered me. At the age of ten, I didn’t have opinions about much of anything. I did, however, find the place rather flat and bland when compared to my beautiful Oregon.

I hated the hot muggy Minnesota weather, becoming bored with the over-starched attitudes people had in the community. They were nice enough, friendly but lacked an openness I experienced in my former home. One frightening event caused me to look upon our new home with a jaundice eye; we had to be on the look out for tornadoes during certain times of the year.

The starchiness of the adults was reflected by others; even the other girls were weird, going around quoting the bible, condemning sin. To listen to them talk, one felt the world was sitting in the midst of hell, the people waiting to be consumed by fire, the devil drooling to torment us. It was a mystery how these girls could talk about sin, yet acted like they were not accountable, though several lied, cheated and were generally mean. Darlene bragged about stealing stuff from the market, while Evelyn boasted about peeking at the boy next door with naughty thoughts, thoughts that were definitely a sin. I’m not sure what was worse, the catty girls or mosquitoes the size of hummingbirds. A good swat could eliminate a mosquito but the malicious babble of my contemporaries could never be exterminated. The girls made fun of me and called me a hillbilly, a hick and even an Oregon whore, which couldn’t be farther than the truth. They viewed Oregon as a wilderness filled with strange, sinful people. I became depressed and disillusioned with the idea that I would ever have friends.

My salvation came in the form of Charlie; his parents were Unitarians, whatever that meant. Down to earth, Charlie possessed the good and bad most boys had without the meanness. It didn’t bother him that I came from Oregon nor did it bother me that he was from Minnesota; it was like we came from nowhere and nothing mattered. Except for Charlie, the boys pretended to be good but were really jerks whispering snide remarks behind my back. They lied, cheated and did every despicable thing, one can imagine. Cleaning up their act for Sunday did not change their actions the following week.


Brush with the Devil

I guess I should back up a bit and tell you how my life’s turmoil began, not that I ever knew it was anything but normal. My grandma, Nana, once told me, “Some of us are given special gifts. The gift can be a good thing but also a burden.”

I didn’t know what that meant but she was a wise woman and I loved her more than anything. People don’t understand a love like that; it’s different than loving your parents. It’s a special love beyond the cookies, ice cream, pretty clothes and special things. I guess it would be wrong to say I did not appreciate those things but Nana was a woman I never had to prove anything to. Looking back, I think she knew all along about my gift.

Of course, I loved Papa, my grandpa, too. He had been the one who taught me to enjoy reading, giving me books before I could hardly walk. Papa, a workingman all his life, had serious thinning hair and a strong build. He smoked cigars, which Nana would not allow in the upstairs part of the house. My memories of Papa were of him sitting in a chair in the basement, leisurely puffing on a cigar, often not lit, mostly chewed. He like White Owls and Dutch Masters the best but would smoke an off brand now and then; I got all the empty cigar boxes as toys. In spite of the different brands, they all smelled the same to me, stinky and strong. I suppose he could tell the difference, though I couldn’t. I have the memory of that smell in my head and think of him every time someone smokes a cigar, funny, how smells do that. My memories are far sweeter than the actual smell, of course.

I was such a terrible reader at first. ‘Run Spot, run,’ didn’t endear me to literature until Papa found something to pique my imagination. I remember looking at the first book Papa gave me, The Swiss Family Robinson. We were in the basement, when I confided in him how I did not like to read. Schoolbooks were boring and I couldn’t see much sense in reading.

“Well, well, Tiny Tina,” he declared. “A pretty girl like you needs to be smart too; reading will do that. Those are just schoolbooks meant to give you a lot of facts and teach you to see words. But words are more than that; they take you away from here and send you all over the world without ever taking a step. Facts aren’t a bad thing, though; just not always terribly interesting,” he said, casually chewing off the end of his wet cigar, spitting a small piece into a cardboard box. “You like it when people tell you stories?”

I nodded.

“Well, reading is like that, except you can tell yourself the story anytime you want,” he continued, rolling the remainder of his cigar between his fingers. “Ya don’t have to wait for mom or dad to do it; you can read yourself a story any old time. Your imagination will do the rest. Ya know, I only went as far as the sixth grade but I always read books and learned from them.”

He reached behind his chair, sorting through a few books he had stored on makeshift shelves between the studs in the basement.

“Now here’s a great story,” he declared. “This is a good adventure, lots of interesting things in it. You read it and tell me about it when you’re done.”

“The whole thing?” I whined. “This book is bigger than anything I’ve ever had to read. That’s not fair.”

“Tina, do it for me,” he answered calmly. “Take your time and imagine what its like in the story, no rush.”

Gads! This was worse than having to do a book report. But I knew Papa gave me this book with a lot of love; I could feel it, almost like he said to me out loud. That was the beginning of many books Papa gave me and I soon began to love reading. My dad was less enthusiastic. He claimed I read, too slow to possibly enjoy it. He was wrong. When I read it, I imagined myself in the story, being the lady or the man character. Sometimes I would forget who I really was and had to read it over again. I was part of that story; it was like waking up in a dream and still being in it.

Once I thought I was having a dream. I heard Papa laughing and talking to me like he was there. Of course, when I looked around, he wasn’t there.

The next day I heard the terrible news; Papa died. I was nine then and cried for a long time thinking about him. Every time I looked at my copy of The Swiss Family Robinson tears would leak from my eyes, his words lingering in my memory. I felt sad to think of my first real book and Papa puffing on his unlit cigar, almost like he was there, but not really. In my sadness I heard a voice in my head; inside of me, Papa told me he was okay. Dying wasn’t such a bad thing; Papa had told me that same thing, years before he died. I heard him, even while he was gone. My dad said it was ridiculous claim I heard him and I shouldn’t say such things.

“Death is the end of it all,” he announced with conviction. “That’s when God decides if you go to heaven or not. Papa didn’t believe in Jesus, so I don’t know where he will go. We will just have to pray for him.”

That kind of scared me. I worried about Papa; he was too nice and never did anything bad to go to hell. Some people spoke of a limbo, like being a ghost or something for people who didn’t believe. Did it really matter if Papa didn’t believe in Jesus and wasn’t Christian; would Jesus keep him out of heaven? Would he haunt the earth, never to see heaven? The nasty girls at church said Papa would surely go to hell for not believing. They were always mean and stupid, so I paid no attention to them. I prayed for months that Papa would go straight to heaven. Somehow, I knew he would.

As a baby, I was pretty normal, my parents making over me, like most. I can’t remember those years but browse through the photos of those years. When I was about five, something seriously changed in me. I started to answer my parents before they asked me anything. All the hippies in the neighborhood thought it was cool, giving all sorts of explanations for it. Meanwhile, my parents grew concerned I had some sort of mental illness. I would answer the front door before people would ring it or knock, even know who it was; pick up the phone before it rang. I never heard the bell or buzzer but knew someone was there. I knew when my brother and sister were in trouble, before any words were spoken about it. But mostly, I could feel their feelings, everyone’s feelings. I never had to ask how they were; I knew. My dad pegged me as an anti-social child because I never asked people, how they felt. Why should I have?

By the time I was ten and we were about to move, I could feel the sadness of some of the neighborhood people. My dad felt relieved to leave the place and my mom felt unsettled. My older brother and sister were devastated; though they said little, their fear of my ever-powerful father kept them silent. Dad was from the old school, where children were seen and not heard. Emotions were supposed to be private matters and not discussed in any family forum. Discussion was unnecessary since I already knew everything about everyone.

“I sure won’t miss these dirty hippies,” said my father, his teeth drawn in a thin neat line of disgust. “They do all those drugs and don’t even believe in the real God, just some animal idol. I don’t get their crazy music or their wild clothes. All they talk about is peace and some stupid eastern religions that don’t matter.”

He was wrong about all of it. I knew these people and they we as clean as any of us. As for God, I felt or sensed they knew God just as well as the people in our church. They just looked at God in a different way, a way my father didn’t understand. Believing in God wasn’t easy for me; I was never sure but didn’t want to share that doubt with my dad. It didn’t seem likely, God could only be found in a church. It would get pretty crowded squeezing all people into one church, I would think. But I felt something was out there watching over us all. Maybe Papa was talking with God and put in a few good words for us. Nice thought.

My father brought me to a few doctors about my strange behavior. I could feel his anger, almost his words as he stood grinding his teeth in front of several doctors. I did not share his uneasiness regarding me; I felt fine. It troubled him to have me do things before I was supposed to, reading his mind, you might say. So rather than continue to do things that caused him anxiety, I decided to silence the things in my head, act like everyone else; that way he wouldn’t be irritated all the time. It didn’t help having these numerous visits to the doctor; spending money at the doctor’s office was a waste when prayer and a good session with the bible would probably do the trick.

“I wouldn’t worry about it Birl,” reported the doctor with a firm voice of resolution. “It’s just kids, imagination and who knows what else. She’ll grow out of it, I’m sure.”

I didn’t, of course. Pretending to not know was something is near impossible. I isolated myself from most of the kids because I knew what they were thinking and most often, I was hurt by their thoughts. I wasn’t as pretty as my big sister or was I as clever and athletic as my older brother. I was sort of the ugly duckling of the family with no talent and few opportunities of becoming any better. There wasn’t much of a chance of me becoming a swan, either. My sister had always been thin and my brother very muscular. I was short, a little on the chubby side and sort of plain of face, a fact the girls liked to point out. The sibling rivalry thing from my brother and sister didn’t help. Kids are so cruel and uncivilized. Come to think of it, my dad was not much better, always critical of me.

“Why couldn’t you be more like your sister, Tillie,” he would rant. “She’s pretty and you are just plain ordinary. And your brother is a popular boy who plays sports, good at it too. I swear your friends are no better than you, heathens, all of them. That Charlie boy isn’t even a Lutheran, though I’m not sure they believe in God.”

Everything seemed to revolve around being a in a bible church, first, then possibly a Lutheran with my father. My mother didn’t seem to care much about what my dad had to say, opting to stay out of the religious battle.

Her comments were, “Your father is so concerned for your future, Tina. He really doesn’t mean anything bad by it. Maybe you should try a little harder to make him happy.”

Mom’s statements always involved my dad’s happiness and never mine. I was being double-teamed by my own parents.

Although my siblings were thought to be perfect, there were plenty of things I could tell my parents about them. Brother and sister were hardly perfect; several things could not be discussed in polite company. I wanted to tell them so, but in the end, it seemed petty.

For instance, my older sister, Tillie had a boyfriend, who was not a bible church member or a Lutheran. He wasn’t even a Christian. Father never said anything about that. She also lied about spending nights at a girlfriend’s house. She would sneak off with her boyfriend whenever an opportunity arose. I was pretty sure she was having sex with this boy. Tillie never had to say anything; I just knew in the way I always knew things. Her feelings were very strong; I couldn’t help hearing them. I knew she hated the family and had powerful feelings for her boyfriend. I think she knew I was aware of these things and resented me for it. I couldn’t tell her how I knew and wasn’t sure I didn’t understand why I did.

There were certain subjects never brought up in our house. Politics was taboo because father was a stern Republican; no other views would be tolerated. Personal feelings were considered a weakness and not open to discussion. Sex was not a subject in my house, the result being a warped sense of human relationships. I sort of understood the mechanics of it but no specifics. Perhaps that was not a bad thing. Ignorance about sex was praised almost as much as Jesus in our house.

“The children don’t need to know about sex until they’re married,” he’d bellow. “Temptation is a sin we can avoid by reading the bible when the devil knocks on our door.”

My brother, Tom, Mr. Jock, was very involved in sports, or so he pretended to be. His favorite sport was hanging out with the other boys drinking beer and smoking pot. In some ways I couldn’t blame him. It allowed him to escape the house and get as far away from religious lectures my father liked to spout off. Dad didn’t care too much about Tom’s absence, as long as Tom earned his sports letter from school. My father was blinded by the hope of talent scouts looking for young men to play professional sports. Tom was more inclined to be a professional drunk and pothead.

My talents were not in the same realm as my brothers. In second grade, Louise Nettlebaum, a classmate was too embarrassed to ask to go to the lavatory. Louise was, what the boys called, a skagg because she was kinda weird and skinny, shyness only leaving her open to more ridicule. I could sense her discomfort and the fear of being pointed out in front of the class. I immediately shot my hand high in the air, waiting to be recognized by Miss Blair our teacher.

“What is it, Tina?” asked Miss Blair calmly.

“I think Louise needs to ask you something, Miss Blair,” I returned confident that Louise’s problem would soon be solved.

“If Louise needs something, she will ask, thank you,” said Miss Blair firmly. “Louise is there something you wish to ask?”

Louise shook her head from side to side wishing not to draw further attention.

“Now see, Tina,” replied Miss Blair in her righteous, teacher way. “She has nothing to ask. I think its best to pay attention to your work and let others speak for themselves.”

A few minutes later, under the silence of study, a trickle of water could be heard in the classroom. There were no water faucets in the room. Poor Louise could no longer hold her bladder and peed in her chair. As predicted the boys took note of this unfortunate situation and laughed, whispering out, “What a baby. Skagg!” The boys finding yet another way to mortify the girl. Miss Blair sat up in her chair demanding silence with the rap of a ruler on her desk. She quietly waltzed over to Louise’s desk, carefully escorting her out of the classroom. The damage had been done and I could feel the awful pain Louise felt. Miss Blair shot me a look that suggested this incident was my fault. It wasn’t but my parents did get a phone call from Miss Blair that evening.

And so, it continued, my ability to feel what others felt. Similar situations cropped up over the years. I was chastised for each one. My only escape was to say nothing and admit to nothing. For the most part, it wasn’t too difficult with the small things that passed through my consciousness. But important things continued to crop up, challenging my will to be quiet about it.

Tillie spent a week crying in her room in the fall of that year. She had broken up with her seven-month boyfriend. Mom and dad didn’t know she had a boyfriend and figured it was a silly dispute with her best girlfriend. That wasn’t an unusual thing in my house; my parents never had a clue about what was going on with any of us. My brother Tom was getting so out of it from drinking and smoking pot, he starting to fail his classes. As for me, I was just plugging along being average me, with all my red flags flapping from what I could sense and still remain silent.

Tillie’s tears were spurred on by more than her breakup; an unexpected pregnancy began to flower. It was only a matter of time before it would become too obvious to hide; she hadn’t any idea of what to do. I felt kind of sorry for her, even though she was not always kind to me. I could feel her grief and fear as if it were my own, the torment, astronomical. She didn’t have to tell me but her boyfriend dumped her as soon as he found out about her condition. Guys are such jerks about stuff like that.

To complicate matters the guy in question was an illegal alien from Central America. He worked at the Moose Lodge part time and a local pizza place making minimum wage while flirting with all the cute girls who came in. Tillie did not want to admit it but her boyfriend had more than one girlfriend. She had seen more than one girl touching his shoulder or hanging out at the drive-in. There was some fascination with a boy from a foreign country, I never understood.

I guess Tillie thought he was sexy because he was different, exotic. We didn’t have many non-white people in out town, good Scandinavian stock. Sweet talk and good looks works wonders with girls let alone one from another country. Several other girls in our town had spent the night in his one room shack down by the railroad yard. I could sense their romantic ideas concerning the shabby place. I guess, when we’re young, taboos seem more enticing that foreboding.

Anyway, Tillie was getting desperate, her thin waist thickening, clothes beginning to become too tight. Before long she’d have to buy new ones or wear sweat pants all the time. The financial condition of the family did not allow for any shopping sprees, an explanation necessary for most purchases. Magically, neither of my parents noticed her weight gain; this was not something you could keep a secret for long. I felt Tillie’s worry eating her alive, her emotions spilling into mine.

I remember the Saturday when all hell broke loose. I opened my eyes that morning only to get a terrific rush of feelings, words in my head saying the same things over and over, mixed and jumbled, anxiety, anger and list of other emotions engulfed me. I glanced over to where my sister slept, gone, the room cold. I shivered, involuntarily. My eyes closed, trying to sort out what was going on.

“Oh, my God, “ I thought, reading the feelings and the thoughts. “She finally told my mom and dad.”

I could hear Tillie say she wanted to kill herself, no out loud but in my head. It was a favorite expression of hers; Tillie was such a drama queen. This time is was real; I could feel it. I could hear my father thinking; he wanted to beat Tillie within an inch of her life. My poor mom was thinking more charitable thoughts and feeling sorry for Tillie. Mom blamed herself, for not having that little talk, parents are suppose to have with their maturing teens.

As much as I hated the idea, I was going to have to get up and face the family soon. Staying in bed would only make things worse, another reason for my dad to punish me. I slipped the terrycloth robe over my flannel pajamas and went down to face the mess my sister had created. I really didn’t think it was such a bad thing; a baby was okay once they got a little older; mom often said that. But my dad was thinking only of what people at church would say. He cared less about what happened to Tillie, only his standing in the spiritual position of our church. That was pretty selfish. I kept my mouth shut, avoiding the trouble I might stir up.

Reaching the bottom of the stairs, I was met by my mother, a finger over her mouth, requesting silence.

“Be very quiet, Tina,” she whispered. “Your father is upset and we don’t want to make him angrier; you know how he gets”

I did know how irrational my father could be. He had the habit of blaming everyone in the house for anything that made him unhappy. He tended to level his anger at the wrong person, feeling justified because he was the injured party. I can remember how unfair I felt when he would turn his displeasure toward me. I tried to stay strong but ended up crying most of the time.

There was fear in my mother’s body and soul, many conflicts about what my father might do to Tillie or me. She was afraid he might hurt me, hanging his disappointments in life around my neck. During his outbursts, he would refer to me as a mistake, the child that never should have been. I never knew what that meant until I got a lot older. Mom, of course, denied I was anything but a wanted, loved child, another miracle of life. Originally, my brother and sister were supposed to be the limit of our family numbers. Three years after my sister was born, my mother became pregnant with me, no miracle according to the books I read. I found out; I was not planned but a result of some spontaneous result of lust. Considering Tillie’s condition, lust must run in the family.

Tillie’s condition was hidden those early days, she and mom waiting for the right time and place to spring the uncertain surprise. Mom knew almost as soon as I did, choosing to say nothing to me about it. Dad never used the “P” word, pregnant, the entire time, referring to my sister’s situation as his problem. One would think the problem was hers, not so in our household. Every problem was categorized, processed and passed around; blame put upon anyone who might come in contact with it. My dad blamed me for not finking on Tillie about her, supposed overnight stays at the girlfriend’s house. Tillie never told me anything, so I really didn’t know for sure. As much as I tried to block it, I suspected something was amiss because of the feelings I was getting from her. My father didn’t buy that and used the strap on my behind.

My dad mustered up enough cash to send Tillie away for a few months, Canada, I think. He told everyone in the church it was a special finishing school designed to polish a young lady’s manner.

“Tillie is the apple of my eye,” he told his friends. “This finishing school will do her good and will put her in good standing when she goes to college; colleges look hard at a young woman’s character.”

I knew the truth, of course. She was going to finish off her pregnancy. Most of the people in our church believed my father generous to do this for Tillie, especially since I knew she had no ambition or desire to raise her expectations in education or society. She wanted to quit school and become an airline stewardess and meet a lot of cute men. Men would adore her and shower her with gifts for expertly serving coffee and tea. She had read it in somewhere in a magazine. Frankly, Tillie couldn’t carry a cup of coffee two feet without spilling.

Tillie would not miss out on her schoolwork during the polishing period, the institution equipped with tutors and certified teachers for that specific reason. Years later, my sister told me about her experiences there. It was a horrible place, akin to a prison with lecherous male aides trying to have sex with her. No one was allowed to leave the compound, which was walled and topped with barbed wire, not that a pregnant woman could climb the slick faced wall. The locked gate required two keys to open and no one person was allowed to have both at any one time. There was a bed check every hour and some surprise checks in between. When not studying or sleeping, everyone girl was required to work in the laundry or the kitchen, the matrons quite cruel. The only free access the young women had to anything was the restrooms and the chapel. It was a forgone conclusion, being pregnant required frequent trips to the facilities. The chapel offered certain immunity from work details if you were smart and quick enough to plant yourself on your knees before the matrons found you. Never a kind word was uttered regarding the institution.

My sister suffered those months, unbelievable hardships and treatment, her lot for engaging with a boy in activities she should have set aside.


Another One Bites the Dust

I knew before anyone, my brother, Tommy junior was in big trouble. The feelings I got from him were odd, his unspoken words making no sense. He wasn’t happy nor was he sad. He wasn’t afraid of our father, who would kill him if he knew what Tom was up to. Though he managed to make all the baseball practices, his grades were plummeting into the pits, repeating another year of high school, necessary. Mom made excuses for him, intercepting warning notes from school and keeping dad from finding out what was going on. Tommy was stupid and didn’t stop at smoking pot but moved to more exotic drugs, when a friend offered them to him. Boys being what they are, Tom boasted, he could take more drugs than the other boys. The results were not something mom could hide anymore.

Our plain black phone rang one Friday evening, a week before Thanksgiving. Dad went to the hall to answer it; he made it clear he would answer when he was home, no one else. Tillie had begged for a phone in her room a year before; he didn’t believe in having more than one phone in the house.

“Yes, I’m Thomas Yates,” he answered formally. “Yes, I believe he is with his friends from the ball team. They like to go out and have a pizza after late practice. Why do you ask?”

There was a pause before my dad answered again.

“Uh, no it can’t be possible. You must have the wrong Yates. My Tom is a letter man, top of his class.”

There was a long silence as the party on the other end continued to detail the scene. By the look on my father’s face, it wasn’t good.

Tom had broken his right ankle, several ribs and dislocated his shoulder jumping off the Stop-N-Shop roof. Witnesses said he had been doing cartwheels and handstands prior to his questionable dismount off the roof. ‘I can fly!’ was followed by a thud as the ground came up to smack him in the face. The scratches on his face healed fast enough; the rest took several weeks. The doctors couldn’t isolate the drugs Tommy swallowed but thought it wise to have him start a drug program as soon as possible.

Without hesitation my father reached into the savings account, extracting considerable sums of money to send Tom to a private drug rehab center to avoid embarrassment in church. There were a few words about tightening our belts and not wasting anything. Truth of the matter, it was a waste of money sending Tom anywhere; everyone in town knew the real story.

Once again, my life was hell; I was the only target for my dad now that the family had thinned out. I wouldn’t have minded if my father sang my praise, the one child that hadn’t screwed up, not in the cards, I’m afraid. As expected, I took the blame for Tommy’s drug problem as well as Tillie’s pregnancy, though I had nothing to do with either incident. What could I have done to keep Tillie’s legs together and my brother’s mouth shut? Mom was sympathetic but never sided with me when dad was in a tirade about something. I could hear what she was feeling. She was terribly afraid; dad might leave her and then it would be mom and me. I knew it would never happen; my dad’s loyalty to mom was beyond reproach and his dedication, as a Christian wouldn’t allow it. Even so I could tell her because then my ordeal with he devil would start all over again.

Tillie came back home in the spring of the next year. In some ways I was glad to see her but I knew a lot things had changed. She was still pretty puffy, retaining a little fat from the childbirth; mom said that was normal. Nothing in her closet fit and she grumbled continually.

“Look at this,” she screamed tugging on the skin around her middle. “God! I look like some old fucking woman. My butt is huge and I got hemorrhoids! The asshole nurse wouldn’t give me any painkillers.”

We weren’t allowed to swear, at least not in the house. Tillie returned with a mouth that should have been washed out with a bar of soap. I never swore except to say ’damn’ once. Father jammed a bar of soap in my mouth and made me keep it there until I threw up; then he got mad at for soiling the rag rug in the bathroom. It all ended with soap and a leather strap. I swear I was beginning to get calluses on my butt.

Tillie cried a lot that spring. Dad didn’t buy any clothes for the ‘apple of his eye.’ If she needed something to wear, she’d have to do with one of mom’s old dresses. That didn’t go over very well. He did, however, instruct her to get in shape. He also let her know, except for school, she would not be allowed out of the house. I could feel her frustration and anger, her unspoken words, the worst ever. My sister left home that summer, bound for some unknown place, a note with a simple goodbye. A few weeks later Tommy departed the drug rehab clinic without authorization; he left in the back of a laundry truck, the driver unaware. The director couldn’t be sure of Tom’s destination; other inmates claimed he mentioned going to Los Angeles with the other escapee in hopes to sell drugs and get high, his future uncertain.

Mom did not take any of this well, a dark cloud hanging over her entire being; my mom’s depression was shared by me, my empathic ability impossible to shut down. For my father, the world was turned upside down, bringing an end to his hero worship of my brother and sister. His pessimistic view on life now switched to me, believing it was only a matter of time before I did some stupid. It wasn’t something he needed to worry about; I was different person with more sense than either of my siblings, their failings an example of how unique I was.

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