Friday, June 22, 2018
When they met the man, they didn't know he was a monster. They thought he was just the guy who had rented the campsite right next to theirs. He was not a Suddenly Crazy type of monster. He was a Watching and Planning type of monster, the worst kind because they seem like everybody else, right up until the second they do the monster thing.
There were four Bakers on that camping trip: the mom, the dad, Michael (who had just celebrated his 10th birthday a few days before but who still seemed about five years old) and their second to youngest, 11-year old Michelle.
The monster, who was in his early twenties, took a dislike to the family right away. This raised no red flags for the Bakers, as they were so used to getting this reaction everywhere they went. The monster was different though: his dislike didn't take the form of dirty looks and snide remarks--it took the form of him making angry remarks about Michael and about the family in general, right to the faces of the Bakers. Then it got worse: he made verbal threats to physically harm the family.
I hear you wondering: Why didn't they leave? Why didn't they move to a different location, or better still, why didn't they get in their car and get the hell out of there?
That detail is a blank space in this story.
Maybe they'd gotten a ride from someone else and didn't have a vehicle of their own to take off in. Maybe they'd paid a lot for the campsite and had promised their kids for weeks and weeks. Maybe they didn't really believe the monster would hurt them; no one who disliked them had ever hurt them before.
How the Bakers reacted, I can't say. What I know is on that first day, the afternoon passed, and night fell, and the Bakers went to bed. The monster went to bed also, full of hatred for the family. What I think is this: he hadn't decided NOT to hurt them; he was deciding HOW to hurt them. If he beat them up, that hurt would be temporary; they would heal. I think he tried to figure out a way to hurt the family in a permanent way, one that would hurt and keep hurting for the rest of their lives.
On the second day of the camping trip there was a grand barbeque. Nephews and cousins and friendly chatter and running around and hotdogs and potato salad and ice cold pop. At some point Michael needed to use the bathroom and that was why when he was ten (but really much more like a five year old, due to his delays) he set off for the campsite bathrooms by himself.
I imagine him walking away. I imagine the echos of dozens of neighbors and the phrase they used to say about the Bakers: They don't watch their kids. I hear the sound of angry Mr. Middy saying: Mark my words, someday something's going to happen to one of those kids. It would be easy to place blame on the parents. Certainly, later on, a lot of people did. They didn't say so out loud, but they did.
But the kid I was (and at some level, deep down, still am) wants someone, anyone, to for once be kind to this family. Maybe there was a reason Michael was alone when he walked away. Maybe it had nothing to do with whether or not they kept an eye on him. If this family had been a wealthy one, that's the kind of thing people would say, so let's say it. Let's be human. Let's remember how random the world can be on any given day.
Maybe the mom or dad had planned to go with him and had told him to wait one second and Michael had just gone off alone. Maybe one of them had started to go with him and someone spilled her pop, maybe some kid fell down and scraped his knee and started to holler. Maybe Michael wanted to go by himself and felt proud he could do so. It was broad daylight, in the middle of the day. Maybe his mother thought it was safe.
Whatever the reason, he went off alone.
The monster watched Michael walking off alone toward the bathrooms, and followed him inside.
Wednesday, June 20, 2018
I'm trying something new. This is a new story, still in progress, and I'll be adding to this story, little by little, until it's done.
I remember the first time I was amazed by my mother. I was in the first grade and had a friend from my class over to play. Her name was Jenny and she had truly noteworthy speech problems. I don't know if she was ever diagnosed properly, and it's pretty unlikely she would have gotten any speech therapy, but on that day she was terrifically excited to share some news.
"I fodeeyed a roke!"
She had told me this several times, each time looking excited and hoping for some reaction from me. I had no idea what she was saying, so she just kept repeating it, hoping. My mother came into the room and Jenny tried the sentence on her.
"I fodeeyed a roke!"
And my mother, without missing a beat, repeated back to her:
"You swallowed a rock?"
"Yeah! Yeah! I fodeeyed a roke!" Jenny was thrilled someone finally got this story.
Her family lived on the outskirts of our neighborhood and every day they had two things working against them: they were poor, and people hated them for being poor.
They would have denied this, if asked, but it came across loud and clear in a million little comments muttered under the breath of the grownups, and in the tone of voice they seemed to reserve only for this family, the Bakers.
Unlike most of the other families, who had moved into new or almost new houses, the Bakers had an older house that had once been white with green on the bottom. Many painting seasons had passed the house by, so each year the white grew a little dingier. The lawn didn't really look like a lawn but a burned brown field, scattered here and there with clover and dandelions.
Years later, when we were in the fifth grade, Jenny would comment to me about how she hated how ugly their yard was.
There was a row of rosebushes next to their back fence. "But those roses over there are pretty," I offered.
"Those. Those are from the funeral," Jenny would say, and her voice would drift off a little, like there was more to say but she couldn't think of what.
Her father was much older than her mom, and he was on disability. He spent much of every day sitting in a chair in front of the TV, wearing an old man back brace. Her mom was enormous and plain, with light red hair always pulled back in a bun. She never wore a trace of makeup and had the quietly pleasant look I associated with church people.
There were five kids in the family and they always looked neglected and underfed. They were thin, only kind of clean, and their pants were always too short and worn out at the knee. When we were younger, only the parents seemed to notice these things, but as we grew older, the other kids noticed them too, and they avoided Jenny, and started wearing the same look of disgust their parents wore.
The neighbors objected to almost every detail of them: their worn out house, their burnt lawn, the kids who wore rags, the father who didn't hold down a job. But the thing that bothered them the most was that they didn't watch their kids.
Maybe this really was the thing that offended them the most; maybe it was the thing that didn't sound petty and so they led off with that one and added the other complaints as details to add to the case. Often the topic would turn to the Baker's youngest child, a boy named Michael who had developmental delays.
Of course, we didn't call it that back then. I don't remember what term was used, but the general observation was the child seemed much younger than his age. He was blonde and had the eternally happy look that many mentally challenged people seem to have. He viewed everyone as his friend.
One neighbor, Mr. Middy, seemed to despise the family more than anyone. He lived up the street from the Bakers and had to drive his car past their house every time he left or came home. He had two blonde daughters who resembled dolls more than children, and Mr. Middy had noticed the Bakers allowed their son to squat and move his bowels in the front yard.
"Like a goddamned dog! He CRAPS in the front YARD like a GODDAMMNED DOG!"
He repeated this complaint often, to anyone who would listen. It outraged him to think that his daughters might witness this spectacle and be scarred for life. He marched right over and complained to Michael's mom.
"We think he saw the dog do it and sometimes I think maybe he's pretending he's a dog too," she told him.
She told Mr. Middy this in a voice full of reason, like it made perfect sense and was kind of cute.
Mr. Middy would also comment to his neighbors about how the Bakers didn't watch their children but when he talked about it, he frequently added an ominous note: "You mark my words, someday something's going to happen to one of their kids."
And so their lives went on like that for awhile. Their kids went to school and had to sit next to well dressed kids, and they didn't get invited to anything, and the teachers took one look at them and didn't bother. The kids got older and felt how poor they were and they took it, day by day, with the same quiet peacefulness their mother had.
The other grownups hated them, but they seemed to fear them a little too. Or they feared looking at what they viewed as their worst nightmare. Maybe they feared poverty might be contagious, like a cold. Or they feared their kids might get used to the way that family lived and find it acceptable and set out to be just like them.
Then, for once, something happy was going to happen to this family. That's probably what they thought. They were going to a family reunion, and an actual campsite had been reserved. There would be tents and cookouts and hiking and friendly faces. In fact, it was probably the first time this family had gone anywhere, or had reason to pack anything in preparation for it. It must have seemed thrilling; for once, they were going to get to do what everyone else got to do, and they'd get to know how that felt.
But of course, it went bad right away.
Sunday, July 23, 2017
Monday, July 10, 2017
Saturday, July 1, 2017
Sunday, May 14, 2017
In honor of the holiday, I thought I'd share an excerpt of one of the stories from my first book, Green Shoes Mean I Love You. It's about my mother, Linda, and her long held belief that if she went to Hollywood, she'd become Elizabeth Taylor.
The Disappearing Liz Taylor
I asked my mother about the whole Making Liz Taylor Disappear theory. It was probably foolish of me to ask and yet I couldn't resist. At first I thought she meant if she went to Hollywood she would be an actress LIKE Liz Taylor or as famous AS Liz Taylor. This frustrated my mother who explained she wouldn't be LIKE Liz Taylor or ANOTHER Liz Taylor--she would be THE Liz Taylor.
"There's only ONE Liz Taylor!" my mother scolded me. "There's never going to be ANOTHER Liz Taylor!" (tone of voice: My God, who raised you)
"So you would be her, the one and only HER?"
"How would that work exactly?" I asked her.
"What do you mean, how would it work? She'd disappear. I'd be her."
"OK so Liz Taylor would just be gone?"
"No she wouldn't be GONE, she'd be right THERE. I'd be HER. I swear, sometimes it's like you just don't pay attention."
I tried a different angle. "But the first Liz Taylor, Liz Taylor Number One, she would be gone. And you would be there, you would be Liz Two."
"Yes!" (smiling happily at the thought)
"But what happens to Linda?"
"What do you mean?"
"Well Linda becomes Liz Two so who takes the place of the original Linda, up here in Seattle?"
"I'm not sure. That part is a mystery."
"OK so as long as you stay up here, as long as you don't go near Hollywood, Liz Taylor Number One gets to stay Liz Taylor."
"So that's awfully nice of you to stay here so she gets to stay her."
"Yes that's true."
"But if you went there tomorrow--"
"Is she aware of this?"
"I don't think so."
It was one of the most pleasant conversations I ever had with my mother.
Amie Ryan is the author of essay collections GREEN SHOES MEAN I LOVE YOU and STARFISH ON THURSDAY and the Marilyn Monroe biography MARILYN: LOVED BY YOU. To learn more, visit https://www.amieryan.com