Hillbilly Svengali

The summer the hillbilly svengali came to live with us in our doublewide, I was ten years old, and there were storms.  Rain mixed with tiny wet frogs fell from the sky, leaving tiny green corpses on every inch of earth and asphalt long after the rain had been sucked up by the soil and returned home to the clouds. My father shooed away my questions about the frog storm, not wanting to be pulled away from the Cubs game, or whatever else was hypnotizing him, so I was left to puzzle together my own meaning, which only left me puzzled, until I got to know the woman who would serve to solidify the evil stepmother archetype that lived in my subconscious. I later decided that the frog storm was an omen, a sign that signified the coming of evil. Barbara showed up on a Saturday afternoon, just a few days after my older sister, in an effort to be a helpful daughter, urged my father to pull himself out of his brown leather recliner, and get out and meet someone. His night out yielded a woman who would prove to hammer the final nails into the coffin that held my childhood.

It was her voice that first made me pay attention, coarse and decorated with a Tennessee twang, it sounded like gravel rubbing up against sandpaper. She was so friendly and eager to get to know me, that I didn’t mind it when she moved in with her two dead sons just 2 weeks after she met my father. She kept Mickey, who was 16 when he was killed in a car accident, in a silver urn; he lived on top of the TV.  Alan was stuffed into a photo album, preserved in pictures; he wore a powder blue tuxedo on the day of his wake. Alan died of childhood leukemia, and camped out on the living room coffee table.  Barbara urged us, in her simple way, to call her mom,” ya’ll can just go right ahead and call me mom, if ya want,” and while my brother and sister did, I just couldn’t. She wasn’t my mom, and even though she took me shopping and bought me shiny black patent leather Mary-Jane’s the day after I met her, I wasn’t even tempted to call her mom. 

She sucked on her buckteeth while she smoked long, skinny, minty cigarettes, her skin was red, flaky, and scaly, and she wore tight polyester pants, men’s pocketed t-shirts, and a brown shoulder length wig to spare us the frightening site of her thinning stringy hair that was stuck to a red and scaly scalp.  She would dig at her skin with her long oval shaped nails, causing her loose skin flakes to liter our home.

Almost immediately after she and my father eloped, the rules were laid down. #1 Any grade less than a B on your report card would buy you 8 weeks worth of grounding in your room, coming out only to exercise your bathroom and kitchen privileges.  #2 If your bed wasn’t made before you went to school in the morning, you had to come home and make it, and then stay in your room until morning, enjoying the same privileges as the 8 week version  # 3 If you made your bed before school, after school, you were told to stay outside until sundown #4 Our home phone number got changed, and we weren’t allowed to know the number. We could make outgoing calls only; these could last no more than 5 minutes, and had to be in the living room where everyone could hear. Pretty soon, money started missing from my father’s wallet, and so we would all get super grounded until someone confessed, no one confessed, because none of us had stolen any money from my father.   Eventually we were let out of our rooms, even though no one came forward.

My clothes started going missing, and one morning I woke up to a huge bleach spot on the left pocket and leg of my new Jordache jeans that my grandmother had just bought for me. I loved these jeans; I loved them too much I guess, because as I would come to understand, loving things was a sure way to have them snatched away. Barbara went out of her way to try to help me fix my jeans, she bought fabric dye and we dyed them 6 times, never able to cover up the big white blob that kept bleeding through the dye. She said about the spot, “oh, you probably spilled some perfume on them.” It clearly wasn’t perfume. A. I didn’t own any perfume, and B. The jeans were still wet and reeked of bleach the morning I woke up and found them ruined. I knew it was her. I knew she was the one who stole money from my father, over and over again, and I knew she was to blame for all of my favorite things disappearing, my clothes, our pets, ( 2 of them we found dead, 1 of them just went missing) and finally, my father.  I knew these things, and I only spoke to two people about this knowing.  I told my sister, she knew too, and I told Barbara’s daughter, Janie, who was 15 years older than I was, and lived in a house down that street that my grandmother paid for.  It never occurred to us to go to our father, we were scared, maybe he was in on it too, even though we both really didn’t think so.  Our brother was always away from home riding his Italian ten speed around town, he made himself scarce..   

I had gotten close with Janie, I went there after school, and spent most of my time on weekends at her house. She was nice to me, and I grew to trust her as a confidante, when I told Janie my suspicions about her mother, she said, “I’m going to tell you a story, but if you repeat this to anyone, I’ll deny it, because she’s my mother, she’s my blood.”  When Janie was 16, she went into her parent’s room where they were both sleeping, and woke her mother saying, “Mom, I need some lunch money.” To which her mother replied, “you’re daddy’s wallet is right there on the dresser, go ahead and get some money.”  As soon as Janie had her father’s wallet in her hand, Barbara woke Janie’s father, saying, “Wake up! Look at your daughter, she’s stealing from you!” 

A few days after Janie told me this story, I’m in the car with Barbara, we are picking up one of her grandson’s, and waiting outside. She say’s, “little girls who talk too much get themselves into trouble, you know.” I’m looking out the window of the white cutlass supreme my grandmother bought for my father, a red cardinal is sitting on a telephone wire, and below him the thick bermuda grass is  go-light green,  big cypress trees dissect the setting sun. The sound of the car’s heater hums in my ears, while a monster sits next to me, I don’t look at the monster, and I don’t comment on the monster’s words. I just stare out the window, writing Duran Duran over and over on the cold window with my finger and watching squirrels run up mossy trees.  That night I will wake up screaming, but no one comes to check on me, because I do this all the time now.

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