The Impoverished Gentlewoman

A '60s woman lost in the woods.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Forbidden Childhood

There should always be an element of danger in growing up. With me it was more rebellion-anything that would strike back at my parents or capture their attention. I spent alot of summers in Princeton, West Virginia and stayed with Aunt Polly (just Polly to me. A chain-smoking,nervous woman who basically lived on coffee),her abusive husband Harold and my cousins Bobby and Christie.
I literally worshipped Bobby. He had dark good looks with dimples like his mother. Christie was younger and a pest(a demonic Shirley Temple). She had to do everything we did ("She'll tell on us if we don't take her" Bobby had explained). Our more innocent exploits were eating sugar sandwiches in the dead of night. "goddammit" we would hear my aunt in the morning,"they got in the sugar again". Bobby would always wink at me when we escaped retribution.
But one night was different. Bobby was very serious (what was he then? only eight) and even nervous. But very determined. "where are we going?" I asked. "To trade comics" he said and so there we were in the eerie quiet, each carrying a cache of comics. Where, though? Was there a comic book trading store open just for kids when all the adults were asleep? It was exciting.
It was a big, ramshackle house on a hill. Not a good neighborhood, I noticed. But unlike the houses in our neighborhood, it was alight and noisy. Bobby just opened the front door and walked in. In a long hallway of stained linoleum,a kid around our age approached. He had a sweet,elfin face and if he hadn't been so dirty (that sour smell associated with unwashed clothes that smacked of parental neglect) he could have been described as a cute kid with a blond crewcut. He gave us each a strong handshake and said "howdy, come on in". Even sourpuss Christie was charmed. The house was full of people. Who I assumed were his grandparents were actually his parents. There were young men in their twenties and late teens. No crewcuts here, but long & slick with sideburns. They ignored us, either involved in a card game in the next room or drinking from one of the bottles of liquor on the kitchen table. A little later, a group of them left and peeled out of the front yard in one of their cars. I found out later that most of them were in and out of prison on a continuous basis. The mother was frying chicken and potatoes and offered us some but Bobby wouldn't let us. Instead his elf like friend opened the fridge door and pulled out bottles of pop. Pop! In the middle of the night! I picked my precious Dr. Pepper since they didn't sell it in Florida at that time. We went to his room where stacks of every comic you could think of were waiting for us. Finally the exchange was made. When the boy gave Bobby a few for free and Bobby shook his head no, I remember him saying "No sir, I got plenty".
We finally were walking home a bit later than planned. The house looked asleep to me but Bobby sensed something. "Shit. Daddy" he said. The blows came as soon as we opened the door. Harold used a belt (my father hit me too but used his hands) and gave me a glancing blow, then shoved me away. I realized he hadn't meant to hit me at all because my father would have killed him (he had 4 inches and a muscular build on Harold). He had a reputation for being a fighter in those days. Mostly bar room brawls I assume. What a lovely legacy! But he was legendary for being able to hold up a car while someone changed a tire. I was always doubtful of this & felt it was just brawn after all-big deal. But the summer I was 13, in Virginia, he did it while a group around him shouted encouragement. In a strange way, I was proud. So I never told him of Harold's mistake. I'm sure Harold was glad. Christie was barely hit, enough to make her cry. Poor Bobby received the brunt. Aunt Polly never came out.
The next day I stood next to Bobby as he threw rocks and broke all the windows out of a vacant house (at least I hope it was vacant). We didn't speak and I silently followed him home. Sometimes I wonder about that little boy in that crazy house. I hope he made out okay. Now I can view that experience akin to a mention of the Jukes family in an old psychology 101 textbook. Despite the danger, it was still fun. Kids understand that.