Read an Excerpt
FEAR THY FATHER
My Perfect’ Dad Made Life A Living Hell
Yesterday I returned to my hometown. It was a warm summer day and I drove my rental car into the little town and stopped at the first building. Carl’s Service Station.
Yes, ma’am,” said the young man, pushing his cap farther back on his head and smiling at me. What can I do for you?”
Fill the tank, please,” I told him, hoping he couldn’t hear the fear in my voice.
No, it isn’t fear, I told myself, just uncertainty. You learned long ago to conquer your fear.
I stepped out of the car and ignored the leer on the young man’s face as his eyes took in my tan legs below my snow-white shorts. Do you have a restroom?”
Sure,” he said, nodding toward the door, his eyes taking in the rest of my body. I knew how I looked and I was used to the way men looked at me. You’ll have to get a key from beside the door. We have to keep it locked.”
I smiled to myself and headed toward the door. Things hadn’t changed here. You always had to have a key to use the less than spotless bathroom at Carl’s.
Who’s Carl, anyway? I asked myself as I carefully used the facilities and washed my hands. When I lived in Clarksville, the place had been run by an old, gray-haired man. Maybe that was Carl.
Carl still around?” I asked the kid.
Carl?” he said, a frown on his face. Aw, the sign. No, there ain’t been no Carl here since I been here.”
I paid him and pulled away, the old knot of fear tightening my stomach muscles. I beat my fist on the steering wheel and told myself that I was a grown woman now.
I had nothing to be afraid of.
I passed the dry goods store, the jail, and the police station. A lone policeman lounged by the door, his eyes following me as I drove down the street. I knew he made a mental note of the out-of-town license plates.
Mary’s was still the only restaurant in town, its windows still flyspecked, with what looked like the same dirty, red-checkered curtains. The post office looked like the only new building in town and it wasn’t much bigger than a good-sized bathroom. The school, with its pockmarked yard, was empty, three yellow school buses parked inside the fence. A few houses sat back from the street on each side and in one yard, a teenage girl was washing a car. She glanced my way as I passed and then went back to her job.
I slowly counted the houses I passed. At the eighth one, I saw my first sign of any activity. Five or six cars sat in the driveway, and people lounged on the wide front porch. Heads turned and eyes stared as I parked my car and got out. My knees were weak and I longed to jump back in my car and bolt madly from this place.
I didn’t want to go in.
I took a deep breath and went around to the trunk. I pulled out my suitcase and lugged it up the walk. Not a man on the porch offered to help. A sob caught in my throat. It’d always been like that for me in this town, at this house.
Nobody had ever tried to help me.
The years rolled away and I was six again, coming home from school, walking slowly, reluctantly up the walk, my book bag bumping against my legs. Fearfully, I stared at the house, wishing desperately that my mama were home. Sometimes when she was home, my daddy didn’t hit me so hard or make me clean and re-clean the bathroom because of some imagined sin.
Cathy,” my daddy said, holding open the screen door, get in here! What the hell you doing standing out there on the sidewalk?”
Yes, Daddy,” I mumbled, hurrying past him into the house.
I checked your room this morning and it could use a good cleaning. I suggest you get it done before your mama comes home.”
Yes, sir,” I mumbled, hurrying down the hallway. I knew my room was spotless, but I also knew that if he said clean it, then I had to do it.
Changing into some old clothes, I got a bucket and some water. He handed me an old rag as I lugged the bucket down the hallway, trying not to spill a drop. I could feel him behind me and I cringed, trying not to hold my breath. As I went through the door, he stuck his foot in front of me and I went down, spilling the water all the way across the hardwood floor. The small rug in front of my bed was instantly soaked
What’s the matter with you?” he snarled, setting his big foot in my back and pushing my body into the floor. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a child so clumsy.”
I knew what was coming and I knew there was nothing I could do about it. I lay waiting for his big hand to slam into my buttocks. I gasped, trying not to cry out. Crying out only made the punishment worse. Three more times his hand hit my bottom, jarring my whole body. Tears sprang to my eyes, but I bit my lip to keep from weeping.
Jerking me roughly to my feet, he stood me up, his face only inches from mine. His eyes were wild as he shook me a few times. Get this mess cleaned up. You hear me?”
Even at six, resentment was a bitter taste in my mouth as I thought about how unfair it all was. He’d deliberately tripped me so that I’d spill the water so he could spank me. Later, he’d humiliate me in front of my mother by telling her how clumsy and stupid I was. Deep in my heart, I believed she knew that he was the cause of my accidents,” but I tried not to think about it. After all, she was my mother and she loved me, but she also knew that my father didn’t love me, and I’d learned to live with it.
I sat in misery at the table that night as he explained what had happened to my mother. She just looked at me with sad eyes and shook her head.
The next day was Saturday and the pattern was set. My mother did the housework while I helped. My father liked everything spotless.
Cleanliness is next to Godliness,” he used to quote, although I found out later that it wasn’t even in the Bible at all. He had many other sayings he quoted from the Bible that probably weren’t really in there at all, but a six-year-old couldn’t know that.
My father was a great churchgoer. We dressed in our finest and went to Sunday school and church on Sunday mornings and Sunday nights. He was a deacon in the church and was well respected by everyone. I understood that. He was a different man on Sundays at church than he was at home through the week.
He always acted so proud of his daughter and his wife. My reasons for living,” he’d say, smiling fondly at us both and ruffling my hair with the same hand he’d used to twist my arm before we’d left the house. God has blessed me with a fine family and I give thanks for them every day.”
Mom would look down at her shoes and smile shyly. We always sat in the second pew from the front, with me in the middle. I was never allowed to look at the hymnals or write on anything or even fall asleep.
Many Sundays my father was asked to pray. He could bring tears to the eyes of the congregation with his long, eloquent prayers. They would rush to him afterward, wring his hand and tell him how much they’d enjoyed his prayers.
You must be so proud of your father,” many a teary-eyed matron would say to me. I’d just nod my head, trying not to grimace from the pain of his big hand squeezing mine.
Sunday afternoons were spent in more cooking and cleaning while he watched the ball games, and then back to church that night. Nobody ever even suspected that he was a different man at home than he was when we entered the doors of the church.
My father was the local postmaster and my mother was secretary to the mayor of our small town, so we were well known to everybody. Our house was in a good neighborhood, and my father drove a good car. I never knew if it was because I was a girl and he’d wanted a boy, that my father mistreated me. He didn’t like my mother very much, either. He continually told her how stupid and ugly she was, and how, if it wasn’t for him, she wouldn’t be working in the mayor’s office.
Earl would fire you in a minute if it wasn’t for me,” he would snarl, making my mother cringe.
Earl Hunter had been mayor of our small town for as long as I could remember. Mr. Hunter and my father were good friends. We all went to the same church, and Mr. Hunter was also a deacon. He and his wife, Emmylou, had three boys. They never visited our home, but we all attended church functions together. The Hunter boys were rough and rowdy and Mrs. Hunter had no control over them whatsoever. When they got out of hand, my father would laugh uproariously and tell my mother and me that they were just boys being boys.
But I had to sit quietly between my parents or stand patiently by their sides as my father talked endlessly to other people. If I fell asleep or moved, he’d move toward me and his hand would settle heavily on my shoulder, and I’d know that I was in for it when we got home.
My only outlet for keeping my sanity was school. I liked school. There, I learned to read and do math and color, and I learned history. There was no way that my father could keep me from learning. Any attempt to intimidate the school system would only have made him look foolish, and he was always very careful not to look foolish or mean in front of anyone but his own family.