Dad took me for a little drive one night. In my ten years, he had done that only rarely. I didn’t question it. I was out with my Dad, special for the moment. We traveled east on what I now know was California Highway 20, a dark and deserted road after nightfall. I remember nothing of the ride, other than feeling small, tiny. I had always felt little with Dad — there wasn’t room for me; his will and wants took up a lot of space — but as I replay that night, I am a waif, swallowed by the seat, barely able to see out of the car.
I’m standing outside a house I’ve never seen before, bathed by the light coming through the open front door. Dad is straddling the threshold, beckoning to me, pulling at the cold air between us. He’s drawing me toward a woman standing about six feet inside the house. She is facing me, smiling nervously. She is a stranger. His eyes are smiling, his lips are moving; I hear nothing. I know that I’m being introduced to a very special person. Special because she is special to Dad.
His warmth and excitement for this woman are obvious. He is giddy, like he’s showing me his new bike. His enthusiasm tells me that I should be nice, happy to meet her. I don’t know her, but I am already jealous of her, for my mother and myself. I want what she has. Dad never looks that way when he speaks of me. I don’t remember him dragging anyone over to meet me. Mom seems only a burden to him, weak and old. We are facts of his life. This woman is the highlight.
Her name was Carolyn, a woman in her mid-twenties. I wanted to please Dad by liking her, but I couldn’t. It took all I had to breathe. I wanted this important person to like me, but most of all I wanted her to stay in her world and leave me and Dad in mine. As my father went on, I kept an eye on her. I was repulsed and drawn. I did not want to be infected like Dad was, but I wanted to know how she did it. What was it about her that held Dad’s attention so completely? I couldn’t see it. To me she looked willowy and plain, hair brown and limp, face pale, posture poor. Held against Dad’s exhilaration, her nervous apprehension intensified her mousy appearance, but I was a tough audience, far preferring the woman who’d been given the part before her. I think my father saw a young, idealistic, and vulnerable woman with a genuine sweetness about her. That sweetness would sadly fade over the years, washed away by the tempest of Jim Jones’ character.
Her home haunts me. It was very different from ours, cabin-like. Everything was wood and seemed old. You entered through a large, square room with the dining area on the right, and the living room in the back. There were three doors — one to the kitchen, one to her roommate’s bedroom, and one to hers. Everything seemed hard and straight and covered with books, photos, and artwork. There was no television. An odd painting that sparked conversation about someone who cut his ear off screamed at me to get the hell out of there. The house was well thought of and cared for. To me it was dank and stiff. I felt lost and alone. The place was excruciating in its unfamiliarity, made worse by the bone-felt knowledge that I — that he — did not belong there.
Carolyn didn’t seem very happy to be there, either. We visited anyway; my father would settle for nothing less. We ate dinner, and I struggled with every bite. I had no appetite and found all the green, raw, gritty combinations in front of me strange. I was used to the well-cooked, simple recipes that we’d brought with us from the Midwest. I sat there pushing and nibbling my food, shrinking into my chair while the rest of the world loomed.
I’m sitting on the sofa outside of Carolyn’s room, into which they have just retired. I am left there to sleep. I stare straight ahead, helpless and lost. Muffled voices slither behind the closed door, rustling, breathing, heavier and heavier. For a moment I wonder if there are animals in there.
No, it’s them.
I pull a pillow to my sunken chest. I hunch my shoulders further, draw my feet close and my knees high. I bend forward, bury my chin, my face, and squeeze.
I don’t know how long it was until she sang, a sweet, tender, unfamiliar melody, the lyrics inaudible. It smoothed and baked the walls of the hollow inside me, making it a more permanent place, a place to reside. Without such a place to take the torment, I could not have slept that night.
Come along, son. This is good for me, so it’s good for you. She lifts me up. She strengthens me and brightens my spirits. I feel so young! You’ll see. I’ll be the Dad you need, now that I’ve found what’s missing. Look at how different I am already. This is good for us.
Carolyn! Look at how much you mean to me. I’ve brought my son to meet you. Look at what a great father I am. See how alike Stephan and I are, how precious our bond is. Look at him! Isn’t he handsome and bright? Look at what you and I can create together. Not only can we make one of our own, you can have this one. You will be his mother.
She will be your mother.
A few days later, I found myself sitting next to Mom on the edge of her bed. She had just risen from hours in traction, an attempt to alleviate the chronic back pain that plagued her. She’d had those traction-weights strapped to her ankles, dragging her vertebrae apart, on the night of our slumber party at Carolyn’s.
We sat facing her bedroom window in silence, unable to enjoy the sunlight that splashed across the lawn to possess the lace curtains. Mom was suffering beyond her physical discomfort. She sat leaning forward, with just the balls of her feet and toes touching the ground, her head and shoulders drooped, chin nearly touching her breast. I remember her hands most clearly. They were in her lap, palms up, fingers bent — limp and frail. They looked like two dead birds. My mother whimpered helplessly as if they had just died in her care. Tears flowed into her lap and onto her hands, and her nose ran. Except for a rare blink and quivering lips, she was motionless.
I carefully put my hand on her back. It rested there, noncommittal and confused. I had seen her this way more than once, but had never known the cause. My father claimed that Mom was a very emotional woman, perhaps a mentally ill woman. I couldn’t find a way to both believe him and believe in her, and I didn’t want to do anything that might cause me to lose either parent’s love. I wanted so much to make Mom’s pain go away, because her hurt was mine, and because it kept her from giving me what I needed. But I knew I couldn’t take it on. And I didn’t want it.
I was still hung over from my night at Carolyn’s. Dad’s eyes, Carolyn’s voice, their smiles, their breathing, their smell, were crawling all over me. My well-mannered participation, my acquiescence, had me by the throat. I needed to separate myself from Dad and his actions. I wanted desperately to get rid of my guilt and find a way to carry his. His image — my world — warped and canted. My fingers grooved its soft clay as I slid slowly over its edge.
I somehow pushed out enough words to ask Mom what was wrong. She cleared her throat, dragged the back of her hand across her face, and turned to fix her reddened eyes on me. “Your Dad told me where you went the other night, honey.” She pulled herself up a little and gazed outside. “He told me about Carolyn. about them. I know you all slept there.”
My breath ran to my throat and stayed there, forcing a swallow that I knew would give me away. I couldn’t hold it. It was loud and wet to my guilty hearing. My eyes blinked rapidly and my shoulders drew up and in. My body was betraying me, and I was sure my mother could feel my shame. Her eyes stayed on the window, seeing nothing. She told me that she had just spoken to Dad, that he had magnanimously shared the events of our evening with Carolyn, infinitely generous as always.
I stared at her in disbelief. I didn’t think he could do such a thing. I thought Mom might suspect us, but I couldn’t believe that he would actually be so cruel as to tell her about it. I told myself that she had to be making it up in order to get me to confess.
“No, Mom,” I said with a liar’s whine. My eyes dove to look at anything but hers. The hand I had offered her was now full of her bedding, pulling at it to secure myself against the fall that had to accompany the adrenaline pushing up my insides. I needed to conceal my guilt. More importantly, I had to protect my Mom. I hadn’t stopped them, hadn’t pushed Carolyn away and pulled at Dad until he returned with me, hadn’t broken into that room and thrown myself between them. I had failed to make known my heart’s moaning: Don’t hurt her. Don’t hurt my Mother.
But I had helped to make them happen Not only had I been polite and quiet, but there were moments when I had even felt special. Dad had brought only me, talked to Carolyn of his special love for me. I had been too afraid, hurt, and proud to act, and Mom was suffering as a result. I’d been hiding since Dad brought me home, spending even more time in the woods and my room than usual. I felt soiled, terrified that someone would surely smell the betrayal that dripped from me.
Mom had no energy to argue with me. She silenced me quickly. “Carolyn sang to him after they were together.”
No no no no no no no no no. I felt myself growing weaker as she breathlessly hummed the melody. I was sick. Her noise would give away my hiding place, expose me to the unspeakable. I wanted to stop her. But I was pinned down.
Mom’s humming faded, and I thought I heard her growl. She then started as if wakened from a daydream — a nearly imperceptible twitch as she caught herself. She pulled her shoulders back, delicately turned her palms down to rest on her thighs, regaining the regal posture that came so naturally to her. She turned to me with frail majesty. “I’m sorry, honey. Are you okay?”
I nodded slowly, stared at nothing. My mind had begun its desertion. I don’t remember how I got the rest of me out of there, how Mom and I parted. My heart and mind left before my body did.
Like most parents, my father wanted to keep me out of harm’s way.
When I was four, my parents told me never to wander away from our home, which was in a lower middle-class neighborhood of Indianapolis. “We have to keep you close so we can watch out for you.” I understood. I wanted them to watch out for me, but when you’re a great soldier or fearless brave, you forget these things.
It wasn’t long until an adventure carried me the half block to the nearest street corner. I was drawn in that direction by a candy store that was another block away. That place held bounty unrivaled anywhere in my world. I had scarcely begun the trek across that last concrete expanse to Mecca, when Mom scooped me up and spun for home, clucking in my ear all the way. She had a way of squeezing me just right and touching her lips to the downy flesh behind my ear while whispering between gentle kisses: “Stephan. Gandhi. Jones, you must never leave.”
I don’t know how Dad found out about it. I can’t imagine it was the first time I had strayed, and Mom may have gone to him, concerned. Whatever the reason, Dad realized that I wasn’t getting the message. So he came up with a solution.
Dad and Jack, his loyal lieutenant, took me to the street corner. It felt good to be walking between them, holding their meaty hands in mine. I hoped we were going on a walk to get some candy from the best place on earth. We turned the corner, and a thrill began to climb my spine. Then we stopped.
Dad turned and crouched, forearms on knees. His face — his round, dark eyes, strong jaw, and full mouth — were all there was at that moment.
“Stephan, something awful happened.” He looked at my feet, then his hands. “One of the children in the neighborhood, a boy about your age, tried to go to the store by himself, and two men carried him away and cut off his penis.”
I took a step back and grabbed myself with my right hand, squeezing that part of me which had brought so much relief and pleasure. Dad turned to Jack, who was standing next to him. “Isn’t that right, Jack?”
Jack just looked down and nodded. “Mm, hmm.”
I was a slave to the image of a little flesh-covered stump, with a hole in its center, and the monsters that had made such a thing. There was no blood, no pain, only meanness and loss. I didn’t think of the carnage, just the abduction and the aftermath. I could feel the evil of such a thing.
I squirmed and coughed. My mind jumped from the stump to the men. I could see them hovering over me, wanting a piece of me. Men like that would be unshaven and filthy. They would scowl and never speak; they would grunt and grab and shove. Men like that couldn’t be stopped if they wanted your penis badly enough. I didn’t wonder why they would do such a thing. I understood that they did it because they could, because they wanted to.
“Where are they now?” I whined, looking about furtively.
“Don’t know, son.” My father glanced at Jack, then back at me. “They never caught them.” Then he must have looked closer, because he changed. His faced relaxed and his eyes glistened. “Don’t worry, honey, they can’t get you if you stay at home.” He smiled his big, beautiful smile and swept me up as he stood. I held on tight as he carried me to the store. Candy would make it all better.
Our house in Indiana had a big backyard. There was nothing in it. It looked like an empty lot — dirt and dead grass. A six-foot, wooden fence ran on the right side. Separating our yard from our neighbor’s on the left and from the alley that ran between all the backyards along that row was a four-foot chain-link fence. It was just you, your playmates, and your imagination out there.
Those fences were a big part of our play. We climbed them, used them as base for tag, threw rocks at them, and bounced balls off of them. We pushed against those boundaries, and Dad didn’t like it. We were vulnerable at those fences, especially the one in the back. So Dad outlawed fence climbing and showed us a spot on the wood fence, about ten feet from the back, where he struck an invisible line. We promised never to go beyond it. We really tried, but you never know where boy-play will take you.
One gloomy day, on the front edge of dusk, my brothers and I were all playing in the yard. Lew, the oldest, was about seven at the time, and had a boy and girl from the neighborhood over to save him from playing with Jimmy and me. We didn’t miss him; like all good five- and four-year-olds, we were happy tormenting each other.
Lew and his playmates were getting dangerously close to the boundary. They were standing in a circle, tossing a ball between them. The trio shuffled around the rear of the lot, moved about by errant throws and poor catches. A combination of the two sent the ball between Lew’s legs. His eyes never left it as it skittered toward the back fence, stopping ten feet shy of it. He couldn’t see what I saw.
Creeping toward the gate was a hulking, hooded figure, draped all in black. Its shoulders were distorted and broad. Its arms hung straight and in front, its odd torso reared back and rocked slightly side to side as it shuffled forward.
It’s carrying something, something heavy enough to drag the bend out of its arms.
“Lew,” Just a whisper in my head. The monster is nearly at the gate, its weapon — a rock — is at its shoulders.
“Lew,” Louder this time, but my voice stays frozen with the rest of me. The black shape’s at the gate; the rock held above its head. I cannot remove my eyes from this thing, or the sound from my throat.
“Lew!” This time it’s a voice outside me. Another child is screaming. “Look out!” My big brother spins in time to see those billowy, black arms heave the stone in his direction. He is stuck where he stands. The rock hits the ground five feet from him. The impact seems to bounce him free. He leaps and twirls, his muscular legs churning the instant his feet touch earth. He looks back once, and then I lose him off the edge of my vision, which is fixed on the creature as it makes a clumsy, but hasty exit, like a drunk-driver fleeing an accident. I’m not breathing, don’t need to. The ringing in my ears nearly drowns out the thumping in my chest and throat. “What? Why? Wowww.” I’m slack-jawed as the words careen about my head.
There is a sound, familiar, way back in my consciousness, fighting with my fascination. I know it’s for me; it’s getting closer.louder. I’m grabbed at the shoulders.
So many times I had watched Dad fall on the floor or pass out in a chair, claiming one health disaster or another, only to consume a heavy meal or converse normally soon after. One day he was at home with none of his regulars to impress. As usual, he was only half-dressed, wearing a pajama-top and well-worn briefs. He loved showing off his legs, which were naturally muscular.
Everyone in his inner circle must have somehow escaped him that day, because he didn’t have a phone attached to his ear. He wasn’t passed out in bed “meditating,” and he needed attention. Usually Mom was good for that. Although he rarely had time for her, he knew she craved his attention, and he was always pleased when she would get upset over a recent indiscretion or transgression of his. His response to her despair was mixed, however. While Mom’s sorrow told Dad that she was still in his grasp, her disapproval was one of the things he hated most. But in lieu of her approval, he would take what he could get. It was very important to Dad that his actions and presence mattered somehow to Mom.
But on this day, she would not be his source. She was fed up. She had cut Dad off, would give him none of her energy. To my father this was the worst kind of attack, as he had little or no sense of self beyond what others — especially women — thought of him. It was as if he didn’t exist.
So on that day he started placing himself in Mom’s path any way that he could. His questions and requests were a nuisance to her and she showed it. This was more than he could take. He was starved for acknowledgment, but it had to come from an adult, preferably female. He took no notice of my interest in him. It was expected that his child should love him. His ego couldn’t use what I was offering: a boy, watching, wanting, worshipping.
When he dropped, I was terrified. My Daddy was dying again. My heart pummeled me; my throat stuck in mid-swallow; a quiet whine was my only voice, my only breath. Come on, Mom, save him! He just lay there in the front hall of our Redwood Valley home, reaching for her, gasping the words: “Insulin shock.” I didn’t recognize the flash of disgust in her eyes before her instincts kicked in, and her expression and movement became urgent and purposeful. She was, after all, a nurse. And she was a wife. Duty before anything. She couldn’t evaluate, only act. That’s not all. Mom wanted, more than anything, to be wanted by this man, to be of use to him. That always came through, and Dad counted on it.
My mother went down on one knee beside him. He slowly bobbed his head and shoulders off the floor and pawed at her arm. She stabbed his hip with a syringe. He eased almost immediately. I think guilt hastened his recovery. In minutes, he was on his feet, held there by Mom and Esther. Lew, Jimmy, and I hovered around him, offering a lift and hold where we could — as much help as three boys could give. Dad was pleased to be the center of our universe once again.
After we’d eased him into his recliner, I fell back, rubbing my palms down the fronts of my thighs, like you would with an old pair of workpants to remove grease or slime from your hands. I stood there, hunched, shifting from foot to foot, as Mom and Esther rushed and fussed about, grabbing pillows and blankets to stuff around him, directed by his moans, grunts, gestures, and looks. Once he was all tucked in, Dad asked for food, and Esther set to work immediately. He then took a moment to straighten himself. He stroked and patted his hair, adjusted his sunglasses, and then beckoned to us, his distraught subjects.
I held back, saving my moment with Dad for the last. “You okay, Ee-fi-yone?” I loved it when he used his nickname for me, condensed from “The Fat One,” the title he’d given me when I was a chubby baby. I nodded as he took my hands. My downcast eyes were wet.
“I’m sorry for the little scare, honey.”
I looked at his face. It could be so kind and gentle. It was all I wanted. “I’m okay.”
He wiped a tear from my cheek with his thumb. “There’s so much on me.” He licked his slightly pursed lips, his tongue barely visible as it slid from corner to corner. “This is why I need you and your brothers to listen and help out. I just can’t give any more.”
In that moment, I would have done anything for him. I fully intended to be the perfect child in order to preserve the warmth and relief I was feeling.
There was always a payoff to those scenes for me. It was one of the main ways that we showed love. There was touching and eye contact and crying, followed by words of appreciation and encouragement. It made our lives interesting. Even when I knew he was acting, I went along, because there was attention in it for me. It brought us together. At the very least, he was faking that he needed me. The reality is that he did need me. Dad needed all of us, and his dramas were the only way he knew how to say, “Look at me. Love me. Aren’t I special?” So, even as the crises became increasingly ridiculous to my growing sensibilities, a waning part of me always counted on those final moments when he received us and we got to show him how awful it would be to lose him, and he let us know that we were special.
It was losing its luster, though. Seemed like we were always fearing for our lives, or his, or both, and I was growing tired of it. My hardening eyes had glimpsed the buffoon, had spied the brat who took the tummy-ache-for-attention to new heights.
I started as a little boy feigning illness — hot water on thermometers, raspy voice, droopy eyes, just the right amount of whine and whisper to melt a mom’s heart. I did it for the nurturing it would bring. I did it to get out of doing what I didn’t want to do. Then the real thing came along.
I had some blood in my underwear, and because Mom was a nurse and had some idea of what such a thing could mean, she didn’t let our doctor dismiss it. She insisted that all possible tests be run, that all possibilities be examined. Turns out the doctors were right. The blood spots were no big deal — a congenital narrowing of my urethra that could be easily fixed. Worst symptoms were a narrower, faster, and farther flowing stream when I urinated, blood in the underwear, and some discomfort while urinating that had been present as long as I could remember – and unnoticed until pointed out. But Mom knew these things rarely traveled alone. More tests. I was already feeling the specialness of my condition, enjoying Mom’s increased presence and attentiveness. Then they found something: A blockage of the flow of urine from my kidneys to bladder, which had already damaged some of my left kidney.
A couple of procedures, a few surgeries, some scars and tubes, and a lot of pain later, and I was fine. Sort of. Being the center of attention had really grown on me. Mom had fawned over me, and Dad seemed to have approved of the way she cared for me. He showed some concern himself. My infirmity brought them closer to me and each other than I’d seen in quite a while. Things got better the more uncomfortable I got.
First they sent me home with a catheter, a tube running from my bladder to a bag strapped to my leg. The doctors figured that if they could carry the flow of urine past the problem, it would clear things enough for my body to correct the problem itself. Being an extremely active kid with a tube sliding around in my penis, clinging to the inside of your bladder by a ball that was inflated once in there was miserable at times. But I was in heaven because I was special and cared for without condition.
I had a love-hate relationship with the whole process of fixing my plumbing. No matter how excruciating the previous experience was with the last treatment or surgery, I always looked forward to the next. Once under the knife, needle, or tube, reality, fear, and dread would set in, but a shot of Demerol always took care of my greatest terror — after they held me down and stuck me.
From the time I found blood in my underwear to the correction of my congenital deformity (three surgeries and countless x-rays, procedures, and catheters later), Mom was there. For every needle, tube, catheter, cut, wait, touch, and recovery, she was there. She spent many a night in a chair next to my bed, long after I was clear of surgery and out of danger. This worked fine for Dad because it kept her out of his hair and allowed him to rationalize his own absence. He showed up at the hospital occasionally, but it was usually in time to make me eat my food, no matter how nauseous it made me. But he was there just for me, and he and Mom were together. To me, that they were in the same room without any other people, and with a common purpose — helping me — looked like we were a family again, like everything might be okay.
Dad was faced with a dilemma: The son of the “All Powerful” falling ill. He first described my infirmity and pain as punishment for my willfulness. Then, when that seemed harsh, and probably a little damaging to my young psyche, Dad declared that my trials were necessary for my growth as a leader. Finally, when the efforts of the best doctors money can buy prove successful, Dad took credit for my healing by saying that I had learned enough.
I hated him for that.
I was around twelve the first time I took more than enough Quaaludes to kill me. I didn’t want to die. I just wanted to be telling the truth when I told Mom that I didn’t feel well enough to attend the regular Wednesday night marathon meeting.
I snuck home across the two-hundred feet of paved parking lot and popped a couple of the capsules from the full bottle I found on top of Dad’s dresser. I waited a minute and, having felt nothing, downed a couple more. Nothing happened in the next few breaths so upped my dosage to six. In this fashion, I brought the total to fourteen in short order before examining the bottle, which instructed the user to take one capsule thirty minutes before bedtime.
Well, I figured from this discovery that I might be stretching things a bit. So, still quite sober, I walked back to the temple, eased my way back inside, risked the exposure of crossing the auditorium, and slipped up behind Mom where she sat behind Dad on the small, carpeted, plywood platform we called The Stage, and whispered in her ear as Dad droned on,
“Mom?” Her eyes never left Dad, and that serene, warm, faithful-servant expression did not falter as she leaned toward me slightly.
“What’s an overdose of Quaaludes?” I was appropriately calm in my delivery. We were both aiming for the appearance of handling “Temple business”.
“Oh, three or four I guess. Why do you ask, Honey?” Mom was more concerned with us remaining unnoticed by Dad and his congregation than she was with what I was telling her. That, combined with her coping-disconnectedness at meetings and my tendency toward eccentric curiosity, blinded her to the red flags of the moment.
“I don’t know. Just curious.” It took everything I had to not gargle the words.
My only exposure to overdose was through stories of dead heroin addicts, so to me overdose meant death. I had just learned that I’d taken three times the amount necessary to end my life, and as my heart raced and throat clenched, I stepped back with a half-smile, reversed my path to the door and, once free, ran to the empty house I’d just come from. Of course, all that did was to speed up the progress of the poison and isolate me from any assistance. I was in big trouble, equally terrified of death, and Dad’s and his followers’ response to my stupidity. My run to the house was an attempt to escape the latter.
Fortunately, my brother, Tim decided to play a little hooky too. When he came through the front door, I was standing at the base of the stairs, three strides in front of him. I didn’t think about the odds of his arrival before I blurted in a whisper to conceal my words from the shame that had oppressed us for as long as I could remember,
“Tim! Go tell Mom I think I OD’d on Quaaludes.”
His eyes widened, then he spun on his heels and ran from the house.
I did not move. I think I hoped that if I stopped, so too would the world and the sleep death that was creeping up on me. That was probably the only smart thing I did that night. Mom came barging in the door moments later. Never in my life had I been more relieved to see someone. When she entered, she was already in emergency-nurse-mode. Gone was the pleasant blankness that helped her endure Dad’s monologue meetings. I was sure that if anyone could save me, it would be she.
I still couldn’t move, but there was a part of me that wondered what all the fuss was about. I felt fine. Maybe I had taken something else. Maybe the bottles were marked wrong. What I really believed is that the stuff couldn’t touch me like other people. I was the kid who could open the door in a moving car and not fall out, even though Mom was certain that I would. I could catch snakes and alligator lizards and not get bitten despite — or in spite of – many warnings to the contrary. I could walk and run on the roof and not fall through, and then defy gravity further by running full tilt off its edge, hit, roll, and run. Adults clearly didn’t know what they were talking about. They were limited, fragile creatures. I could run, tightrope, and leave spikes on the railroad tracks and never come close to being hit or causing a derailing. And yet they warned with great authority. I could run barefoot everywhere and never step on glass. I’d stepped on nails and not lost my leg, or my foot, for that matter. I’d hurled my bike over rickety ramps without a scratch, let alone landing in the broken, bloody heap predicted by my elder guardians. I’d played football directly after surgery and lived to tell about it. I’d done just about everything they’d told me not to do without once fulfilling their prophecies of doom. These grownups either did not know what the world or I was made of, but I couldn’t help but take note of the look in Mom’s eyes. It was time to listen, but not without some resistance.
She strode up to me, her eyes on mine the entire way. She still had to bend a bit to bring her five-feet-seven-inches down to my level as she placed her hands firmly on my shoulders, while barking orders to my brothers who had scrambled in behind her.
“Get Esther. Boil some water.”
Her green eyes grabbed mine.
“You took Quaaludes?” She was severe, not angry. I gave her two quick drops of my chin.
“How many, Stephan?” My chin dropped again and stayed there. I turned my eyes up at her.
“Fourteen.” Her hands never left my shoulder as they swept me sideways through the kitchen door.
“Sit down, Honey. Just relax.”
“Mom, I’m okay. I feel fine.”
“Good. I want you to do what I say.”
Mom sat me at the side of the dining table and went to work. In what seemed like no time at all — by that time I could very well have been losing my grip on time and space — Mom returned with a pot of lukewarm coffee and a bottle of syrup of ipecac, made for the express purpose of emptying the stomach. She spooned some ipecac into me, followed by her finger and had me vomiting in no time. There were still a couple of capsules in what came up. Then she held the pot of coffee to my mouth and said, “Drink this.” I had already resisted that nasty ipecac a bit, but now I was adamant.
“Mom, I’m okay.” I’d never drunk coffee before and the black stuff in my face didn’t look or smell at all ingestible. I grabbed her wrists, which she deftly freed with a move I’d still like to learn.
“Stephan, drink this or I will find a way to get it in you.” You’d have to know the levels of headstrong and ornery of which I was capable to fully comprehend the look and bearing that made me grab that pot and down it in one breath.
Mom kept her eyes on me as she shot her left hand behind her, palm up.
“More coffee, Esther.”
“Jesus, Mom. You got me pouring it in and outta me.” There was another pot in my face. I could not see the point. I felt fine. Mom moved the pot closer to my pursed lips. I threw my head back to avoid it and it wouldn’t stop. It kept rolling until it snapped back at my spine’s limit. When my eyes returned to level they beheld a very different world than they’d just left. “Oh, shit” were the last words I formed that night, and they never passed my lips.
Everything hummed and reverberated. Light felt more like sound and sound was ooze. I tried to talk without a thing to say. What came out of my mouth matched what I was hearing.
“Wa Wa Wa Woo Woaow.”
I could only make an O with my mouth, expanding and contracting at best. My tongue was a free and separate being. The last words I could make out before blackness were Mom’s. A cavernous, “We’re losing him.”
I remember bits of getting slapped and hollered at in the car. I remember a propped up exchange with a doctor at Ukiah General Hospital, eight miles from where my trip to la la had begun. He talked; I babbled and lurched. Then all of me said, “no more.” My mind rallied as best it could around an idea that can be best stated as, “You can beat me, punch me, scream at me, I may never wake up, but I’m going to sleep.” I rallied my every jellied ounce to this cause and forced my back through the hands that held me upright on the examining table. I remember falling, but not hitting. I entered blackness, then it entered me.
In my very next instant my eyes opened to throbbing and thickness. I think it was me that turned my head to the right to see Mom sitting by the bed I was glued to. She was always there when I needed her, and sometimes when I didn’t. I remember most the whiteness of the place. My surroundings and I felt unreal. I was uncertain of who, where, or how I was, but Mom’s presence told me that I would be okay.
She greeted me with the softness and strength of the perfect nurse. She knew that I was through it. She knew how to watch the gauges and check the signs. That was handled. When I awoke, her concern was the fragile child who she believed had just tried to exit a life with her. Shit, I wasn’t fragile; I was glad as hell to see her weary face. Dad was there somewhere too. I knew it instantly. It was something about Mom’s carriage — an apprehension, a slight distractedness. He was also in the air. He affected people and places, and I always had my maybe-this-time-radar going: Maybe this time he’ll place me on top of his list of to-dos, make me the most important person to influence. Maybe this time he’ll notice what a good woman Mom is, what a good family he’s got. Maybe this time he’ll pull himself from in front of the viewfinder and place there those that adore him. Maybe this time he’ll keep it simple and safe. Maybe we’ll all be enough. Maybe we’ll all heal together. In an instant, with just a whiff of Dad, all that hope could flood me, then settle and pool and stagnate in my chest and throat.
The only other thing I remember about that particular escapade was the board meeting at the hospital. As a condition of my discharge, Mom and I sat in a room much too large for the furniture and the people in it, and fielded questions from about eight concerned psychiatrists and physicians who were lined up behind three tables that were directly in front of us. The 14 Quaaludes made it a little hard for them to buy the I-didn’t-mean-to-OD-story I was giving them. Neither Mom nor I bought the everything’s-okay-at-home story we told. But they let me go home anyway.
Once I got a taste of the attention I got after that first overdose, I had to try it again. I took a bunch of Quaaludes at least two more times, each time “confessing” to having taken more than I actually did after my strategically placed and timed suicide note led Dad or Mom to my easy to find body.
After my second “attempt” I made the ride from Redwood Valley to a San Francisco hospital (again to avoid local airing of our dirty laundry) with my brothers slapping me around — with a little too much verve – to keep me awake.
It was torture, but it was attention.
My last pill-gulping episode grew out of my desire to skip a weekend bus trip to Los Angeles. I again wanted to be truthful — and realistic – when I said that I wasn’t feeling up to the trip, but then thought that while I was at it, why not go for the big dramatic bang: note, body, the works. Dad upped the ante and pumped my stomach on the spot.
Joyce, the same nurse who’d dressed my self-inflicted wounds, shoved a tube that was attached to an impressive looking machine up my nose and into my stomach while demanding that I swallow in assistance. Then they sucked me dry. I was pretty sure I hadn’t taken enough barbiturates to kill me, but I didn’t resist because this was attention.
After each bout with Quaaludes, Dad was more irritated with me than the last. It was never very hard to find his pills though. I think he knew what was going on. Like father, like son. If you want to be important in your world, make it up. Dad’s life was nearly one fabrication after another, and I was following in his footsteps. Our entire sense of self lay in how we were perceived and received by others. We had to lie to the world so we could lie to ourselves, lie to ourselves so we could lie to the world.
Dad would take my brothers and me to a motel when he wanted to be with Carolyn in a family way. On one of those occasions, they all went to the movies without me. I think I stayed behind so I could rip Dad off. Because as I was rifling through his stuff in search of money, I uncovered some of his razor blades and decided to create some drama and place myself right in the middle of it. I thought it would be a good idea to injure myself, fake my own beating.
I cut my head repeatedly with one of the blades, cut my arms and neck, and then pounded myself in the face a few times for added realism. I claimed that while taking a walk I had been attacked by a man wielding a club with razor blades somehow imbedded in it. I don’t remember what I speculated his motive to be, but I offered up some lame scenario. I knew even then that I wasn’t believable or believed, but I counted on the probability that they would find it hard to believe that someone could be screwed up enough to mutilate himself in order to be more interesting.
They could have thought that if they weren’t sure, they had to give me the benefit of the doubt, or they might have been worried about the damage it would do to such a sick puppy if they humiliated him by calling him on his bullshit. I think they just couldn’t bear the thought of watching me dig myself deeper as I tried to convince them of the truth of my claims. Dad may have gone along because he needed people to do the same for him.
I would fake only one more attack on myself, and that was in Jonestown. I could tell that they were on to me, and I didn’t want to cast doubt on my previous faked beatings, because they were served up to promote my image as a tough guy. On more than one occasion I had made myself the evidence of a brawl, my recounting of which always ended with something to the effect of “You should see the other guys” with multiple attackers being key to the drama.
I pounded myself around the face and head until my nose bled, my knuckles were bruised, and my lips and left eye were swollen. It was always my left eye because I couldn’t effectively assault myself left handed. On the rare occasion that I had a real scuffle, I would sometimes dramatize it by finding a bathroom where I could increase the damage.
The razor blade method came form my impromptu response to a rock smacking into the windshield of Dad’s bus, on which I was a passenger returning from one of our regular weekend trips to the Los Angeles Temple. Dad immediately shouted for us to take cover and for the driver to take evasive action. It looked to me like the rock had bounced up off the pavement, but I was all for the drama.
I ducked into Dad’s compartment at the back of the bus and cut my back with his razor blades. Joyce, dad’s number one nurse, never questioned how such clean, shard-free, lacerations got on my back without a mark on my clothing. I don’t think the window even shattered; it just cracked. Dad was happy to make a casualty out of me. Joyce probably thought it was just another set up — that Dad had administered the cuts — so she dutifully dressed my revolutionary battle wounds.
I always felt that my audience knew something was fishy, that all or some of them weren’t buying what I was selling. It was enough for me that they acted like they believed me. The appearance that it was true to them made it true for me. It became reality. And it didn’t matter much what they thought of me, as long as I was the center of their attention as they thought it. This is how Dad and I worked. It’s why his antics so outraged me: his behavior was mirror for my own. I didn’t like seeing how stupid it looked, didn’t like facing my own ridiculousness and diseased thinking.
I could not stand — but hoped — that people would follow such sickness.
Carolyn, still Dad’s mistress and most trusted servant, called me to Dad’s cabin to subdue him during one of his lapses into his past life as Lenin. It quickly became a chance to knock him around a bit. It struck me that Carolyn was angered by Dad’s remarks, which was strange if she really believed he was truly a previous incarnation who suddenly found himself in a wholly unfamiliar time and place. Even if she thought he was delusional, anger would not have been an appropriate response to Dad’s abusive language and irritating antics. It seemed to me that Carolyn knew Dad was full of shit, but was willing to put up with his games in exchange for the power and purpose she believed he gave her.
I subdued Dad. He gave me a speech, through gritted teeth, about what a shame it was that a strong, brave, young man like me was a lackey for agents of the Czar – namely Carolyn. I allowed him to escape, knowing he’d run into the bush, because running in the other direction would take him into town. I knew that a swamp lay just inside the bush line. As I hoped he would, Dad stumbled into the mire. It wasn’t the quicksand of the movies, but acted like it for the first three or four feet. I stood at the edge, happy to watch Vladimir get himself out of this one. After all, I was the enemy. The great Bolshevik would never ask for my assistance. Just as Dad’s shorts were about to get all muddy, he started and snapped around, swiveled back and forth as best he could with his calves and feet locked into the earth, and assumed his best befuddled countenance.
“Wha?!” He looked about dramatically, looking very much like a man with very short legs whose feet had been glued to the ground. Then, quickly and quietly, he whispered, “Where am I?”
I swear. That’s what he said. I think Dad watched too much Captain Kirk during his many “strategy sessions”.
He wrung himself pretty good to get his eyes on me where I was intentionally standing directly behind him. He teetered there, arms splayed like a marionette with torso turned and feet dragging and lagging.
“Stephan, is that you?”
“Yeah, Dad. It’s me.”
I shifted my eyes off to the left of him and gazed for a moment into the dark, verdant world that terrified him. I wanted to laugh. I wanted to cry, for me and for him. I wanted to grab his fucking head and shove it under the muck that held him. I wanted to hold him. I wanted him to hold me.
“Ya wanna hand?”
In the second episode of Lenin Comes to Jonestown, Dad cocked and leveled a loaded .357 at me. I was enraged by his carelessness. I knew he had no clue how close he was to blowing me away in the interest of keeping his life interesting, which made it more infuriating. I could have tolerated it better if there was intent, but that it was all a game rubbed in my face, the fact that my life had been one scene after another just like the one before me. From her place behind Dad, Carolyn could see that I was tweaked, and tried to calm me by pressing down the air in front of her waist while giving me her best pleading look.
I barely glanced at her. I growled as I whispered, “You fucker,” and moved toward him. He knew that what I had in mind would not be fun, and scrambled into his cabin, slamming and locking the door behind him.
I silently pulled myself up by the outside rafters to his cabin so that I could watch him over the wall. Thinking he was unobserved, Dad quickly unloaded the gun. So that he could brandish it dramatically without wasting his son, I guess. Strange thing for Lenin to do with the enemy so close.
“Emergency! Emergency!” A shrill voice shot out of every speaker in town. “Father’s dying!” Our town doctor, Larry, a couple of nurses, one of them Joyce, and a couple of Dad’s closest aides all scurried up the path to Dad’s house. A stream of the jaded fell in well behind them. I didn’t move.
I watched them all do their duty and then turned back to Mark, who was waiting to see what I would do. I smirked and said, “Mm hm.” I placed my hands on my thighs and shoved myself to standing. “Father is dying. I guess we better go see about the remains.”
We strolled in the direction of the small hill on which Dad’s home was isolated from the rest of the buildings in Jonestown. As we approached the cabin, we could see Dad’s security force and other “trusted servants” milling about on the path that led there. All, but the few who were still trying to please, had stopped thirty feet shy of the cabin. We all greeted each other like small town factory workers arriving to work at the same place for the thousandth time. Some of the men were chatting and laughing; others just stood with pocketed hands and blank faces; a few seemed perturbed. Only the devoted and ambitious by the door looked at all concerned. I walked over to Billy and Bruce Oliver, ignoring the insecurity and envy that their physiques and charisma always stirred in me. They put on their best troubled look as I approached.
“Hey, brothers, what’s the prognosis?” I knew I had them on the verge. “Do ya think he’ll live?”
They fought back smiles and did an exaggerated turn away. When they’d gathered themselves enough to turn back, I said, “He’s probably healing himself as we speak.” The brothers were spared an irreverent outbreak of the giggles by the medical team as they wearily bumped their way out of the house, tugging our attention in that direction for the first time. Joyce’s eyes found me in the gathering and she said, “He wants to see you, Stephan.”
I got it right away. This was another reconciliation attempt, with a lot more at stake. It was just like when I was a kid and Dad would create some kind of drama in order to make up with one or all of us, bringing us all together, and the focus back on him. Dad was again reaching out the only way he knew how. He was trying to make peace with me, but this time it had to do with more than approval and affection. This time he was trying to rein me in. I was making serious waves and it looked particularly bad coming from his son.
I loved it. It pleased me to know that I was shaking Dad’s tree enough to warrant such a production. A part of me still wanted Dad’s attention any way I could get it. And, although nearly everyone knew it was all a ruse, I felt special at being summoned by the King. While disgust ruled me, I still liked feeling everyone’s eyes on me as I headed for the door that Joyce had just closed on her way out.
I took one step inside, closed the door behind me and looked around to see who was with us and where. I spied Carolyn to my right. Dad — and only Dad — was on my left. He was propped up in his queen-size bed — the rest of us were sleeping in bunk beds and rafters — covered by a sheet up to his waist, where his plaid pajama-top took over. He had a pretty good death-bead scene going except for his ever-present hat and sunglasses adorning him, icons of his idiotic vanity.
I stayed where I was and gave him a smirk bordering on sneer. I looked over at Carolyn again. She stood frozen like a three-year-old in front of a television. Two oily strands of hair had escaped the bun behind her head and were running down one side of her grim face. Her only movement was her eyes, which passed from vacant to apologetic as they drifted to rest on me. When I looked back at Dad, he was doing a pretty respectable weak beckon with his right hand. I just watched him pawing at the air, a ghost of the very same gesture he had offered me at my first introduction to a much more energetic and hopeful Carolyn Layton nearly nine years before.
“Come here, Son.” He said with just the right amount of strain and syrup. He dropped his hand from its useless motion and patted the edge of the bed that ran along his right.
“Sit down.” I glared at his hand, identical to mine, but without a mark on it. I hated every inch of him, his every movement. I was sick of his fraud.
I walked slowly over to the bed, paused and resumed my scrutiny of that hand as it continued to pat the bed. Like so many times before, Dad was being conciliatory and loving as best he could. I just stared at the hand until he moved it to rest on his belly next to his other one. I sat down at the foot of the bed, as far from his hidden wrinkles, colored hair, and painted side-burns as possible.
He reached in my direction. ” I can’t touch you. Come closer.”
I dropped his limb with one shot by deadpanning, “No, I’m good right here.”
His tongue lolled outside his mouth with just enough purpose to wet his gray and stretched lips. The whites of his eyes glowed through his dark glasses as he glanced at Carolyn without moving his head. She went into the next room immediately.
“Stephan, I have so much on me.”
“Teri did this to me this time. She’s not been heard from in days and we believe she’s defected during her latest mission.” He inserted a drunken pause for effect. “We think she may have left with Mark Lane. He was the one who was assisting her with her infiltration of the Concerned Relatives.”
“Fucking bitch,” I thought, “Play the dedicated soldier, set the standard for sacrifice and deceit, help set up our misery, and then bail with the first man after my father who shows any interest in your scrawny ass.” I was so angry at Dad’s revolutionary game and all its players that I couldn’t begin to empathize with Teri’s need to escape. I couldn’t allow her the possibility that Dad’s hold had finally been broken as it was with so many others of late. She was still a part of the evil enemy, tied to one end of a string that ran straight to Dad, a string that he had tugged expertly until she had learned to tug back and join the strange, reciprocal puppet show that was the Temple elite.
“She knows everything, Son.” He was almost whining. “She knows where all our money is, and how to get to it.” He was choking on his despair. “She knows our strategies. Hell, she created some of them.”
I blankly replied, “What do you want, Dad?” I could hear Carolyn shuffling about in the next room as I stared out the window to his right.
“I was going to ask you the same thing, Stephan.” He inched himself up on the headboard. “I feel like I’m losing you too. I don’t know what you want from me. You’re so handsome and athletic, I don’t understand why you’d feel threatened by me. So what if I can fuck better than you.”
I wanted to kill him. The look I gave him would have made that very clear to a rational man. He just looked at me with that toad-countenance unique to the inebriated. Then, as if someone threw up a cue card with “thirsty” written on it, he reached for a glass of water on the nightstand. He probed about until he had to look over at what he was doing. Even then his fingers tapped about, precariously tipping the glass before he almost inadvertently snagged it and brought it on a wide arc to his face, bouncing it off his chin before finding his mouth. He gulped audibly and put his sleeve to his mouth to dab the water that had escaped at its corner. I stood up and snatched the glass because I couldn’t bear to watch him try to put it back.
“I’m being attacked on so many fronts, Son. It’s just getting to be too much.”
I set the glass on the nightstand and sat back down.
“Stephan, I don’t know if I can survive another one of these attacks.”
“That would be nice,” I thought. I just looked away, and then Carolyn walked up with a syringe poised. I looked at the syringe, then him, then her face. It was blank but for lips closed so tight they were white. Dad either mistook my disdain for distrust, or he was still reading his lines. “Don’t worry, Son, it’s just vitamin B12.”
Carolyn moved in and did her thing in a way that made clear that Dad had received many an intravenous vitamin shot from her, then she slipped back over to her station on the other side of the room.
In the few seconds he had left before he was lost to the barbiturate called B12 that was running his veins and his life, Dad slurred, “You know it’s okay to cry, Stephan.” I assumed he meant over his troubles and illness, that I should feel sorrow over his loss, mourn the tragic emperor.
As the drug cocooned him, just as his eyelids were about to seal him in, I stared through him. “I don’t feel like crying, Dad,” I said.
Any sign of the man’s heart were long buried under his need to control and escape his worldview. My love, my heart was as lost to me as was his. I could not have accessed a fond memory had I tried. I know that I had worshipped the man like any boy does his father. I know that he had loved me. He had shown me. More than any other, Dad taught me that men could be soft and affectionate. He had been my best example of playfulness. He had given me a good dose of right and wrong, an attention to justice. But that was all lost to me in that moment on his bed. Lolling before me, as if long lost at sea, was the man who’d strode about my childhood in charge of and charged by everything. The man who had been larger than life, was now a waste of life, to me.
I got up and headed for the door, looking at Carolyn out of the corner of my eye. I meant only to check where she was, but an oddness about her made me turn and look closer. She was crying. Her face knotted and wet, she tottered like a weary sentry in a lost battle. She looked straight at me. I didn’t think she was crying over Dad’s tragic scene. I had just watched her shoot him up with something she had to know was not good for him. I felt that in that moment she realized that she had gone from queen to lackey for a junky. Maybe my reaction to Dad’s show had popped her bubble, because everything about her whimpered,
“Look what we’ve become.”
A wisp of compassion stole past my guard before I quickly gathered enough hatred to look her up and down, turn and walk out the door.