Recalibrate: Ch 4 – Bad Reputation

Being the outsider—the city girl from Charleston—I had the fun toys, the funky music, the strange clothes, and the smart mouth. I spent the first twelve years of my life somewhat secluded deep in the hills thirty minutes outside of Charleston, three hours south of here; but still, I was considered far too citified for these folks.

Mom sold that land after dad died. I was twelve and he was…gone. Now it was only the three of us.

Yes, there was a baby brother too. Five, he was small and sad and forgotten. He lingered around the edge of our clique watching us with an innocent curiosity, wrapped in a melancholia. I was his amateur parent-like figure, sympathetic, ultimately unschooled. I intuited his hurt; I, unfortunately, didn’t know how to help him. I gave him the occasional love an older sibling gives a younger one, but nothing could replace the want of not just one parent, but two. Abandoned, I felt the hole at the center of his world and knew there was little I could do to ever fill it. I failed. Over and over again, I tried and failed.

In the mountains, Natalie and her family grew and canned their own food and used an outhouse that reeked of shit and had creepy crawlers in all corners. I sat halfway off the pot and gripped my pants barely pulled down so if one of those big black spiders started towards me, I was ready to run, ass hanging out and all. And several times I did. I wasn’t the only one. We personally witnessed Ben scream like the little boy he was and fall ass-backward out the door. We laughed so hard we cried, and Ben got so constipated, Aunt gave him an Ex-Lax. He had to go then.

There was one wood burning stove for the entire four-room house that coated everything with black dust, even our toothbrushes. Since the only well water came through a spigot in the kitchen sink, we took baths in the creek, unless we were told to take a whore’s bath in the bedroom.

In the summer, we used the attic as another bedroom, which we climbed to through a makeshift hole in a downstairs closet. The attic—so small we could barely stand upright—managed to fit two single thin mattresses that sat on the floor on opposite sides, and homemade shelves for what little clothes we owned. A big hole in the wall facing south served as our window and had a nice all day sunshine that we curled in like a cat on the floor while reading. We left it mostly open throughout the summer, except when it rained. We covered it with a big piece of plastic that stank like wet socks when the sun hit it later. The raindrops sometimes slapped against it so loudly at times, I put my Sony Walkman earphones on to muffle the noise. Other times, we turned on the music on my black boom box to drown out the sounds and danced as unobtrusively as we could without causing the cheap plaster to fall beneath our feet. The last time we had a two-party dance rave, Aunt and Uncle found their bed covered below in the cheap white dust and large crumbs that looked like Aunt’s cornbread. We got an earful from uncle and an eye roll from Aunt.

In the winter, we closed the attic off and moved downstairs where all four of us slept in the same room; the boys in the bunk beds and us girls in the double bed. Baby brother slept on the hard lumpy sofa in the living room. During the night when the fire burned itself out, the house got so cold that frost formed on the inside of the windows like paint. We dressed in rubber boots and cheap parkas to go to the outhouse where we waded through four to six feet drifts of snow and wind and cold that made the tears and snot freeze on our faces. Often times, we stooped beside the house and peed in the snow. The next day, we pretended to eat that yellow snow like a lemon snow cone.

Of our small clique, we ranged in age from fourteen to twelve, oldest to youngest: Trevor, Natalie, me, Cody, Reese, and Ben; typical pasty white hillbilly teenagers on the lower end of the class spectrum.

In the small seven-room middle school down the road that held barely eighty of us, I received a few popular points I never got from schools back home, for a little while at least, until the novelty of my eccentricity wore off. I figured it was when another new kid from Hawaii showed up and pointed out the dirt on my neck; something I must’ve missed from my whore’s bath. My face flamed as the fickle cruel kids around me laughed and pointed. I tried to shake off the shame, but some things don’t wash off so easily. It was okay for a boy to have dirt on them; that was expected, but a girl with a dirty neck was nasty. My reply eventually was a curt ‘fuck off’, which got me a week of detention during recess. This was nothing compared to the month’s worth I got when I refused to memorize the 23rd Psalm. This ain’t church, this is school; why do I need to memorize that, I demanded. My questions went unanswered; my sass did not. The indoctrination and radicalization started early. And in a public school.

The only things I remembered learning from that dog-awful school was the Gettysburg Address and how to find the square root of something, which I quickly forgot. The perpetually pink pear-shaped irate principal-teacher spent most of his time in the office dealing with the other rugrats. He prattled on about what each one did in detail, like when little Jimmy—‘the white trash kid from up the holler’—finger painted poop all over the boy’s bathroom walls. Perhaps if the school district had enough money for paints, the poor kid wouldn’t have had to use his own feces to create art. I sympathized with the kid; we artists do what we must to create. Regardless, the stories were always about the poor kids. I realized early the principal was a bully and a redneck snob that hated dealing with ‘the poor white trash kids’ basically because he kept on about it ad nauseam. Apparently, our little clique didn’t fall into that category for him. The redneck and hillbilly social hierarchy was a confusing maze to manipulate for a poor kid like myself.

There were times that awful man laughed at my sass and called me ‘cute’. This made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. Like with Uncle.

Uncle said for a girl I had a mouth that didn’t know when to quit. My sassiness got me into lots of trouble where, up here, a child was supposed to be compliant and silent, especially a girl. Told many times that I was obnoxious for speaking out, that my opinions were unwanted and I should keep them to myself, I often shrugged in reply and said ‘not my problem.’ Uncle continuously threatened to beat my ass but didn’t. I kept pushing, watching him, daring him. The cousins stared at me shocked from my loose tongue and obstinacy never once standing up for me, scared of the large battle-worn wooden paddle used to threaten us all into submission.

Uncle didn’t touch me in front of any of them. Only mumbled something incoherent and changed the subject. When I was in proximity to him, I made sure to know where he was, always, in the house, outside, anywhere within a mile of him. Experience taught me to never be caught alone with him, especially when I slept. It hadn’t stopped him then either. I waited and watched. I knew immediately when he woke. He was tall, bulky, greasy blond with pink skin and beady blue eyes. A nightly ritual, he made his way to the kitchen for his middle-of-the-night glass of thick yucky bovine juice, probably to counteract the twelve-pack of Old Milwaukee he consumed nightly. His ugly bulk lumbered through the house like a vacuum sucking up my peace and dreams. Wide awake, adrenaline and cortisol rushing through me, I tensed ready to take flight until he waddled back to his hole. I hated him, but he was necessary. Like a scab.

© 2018-2019 Pamela Gay Mullins

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