CAPTAIN PREDATOR

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It’s been one-thousand seven-hundred and seventy-seven days. Four years, seven months, and twenty days. 

He got to me on October 6, 2016, but when the other flight attendants began to share their experiences, his trail of offenses reached back seventeen years—at least of those who spoke up.

The allegations were shocking—after all, we worked for a highly respected private aviation company, a leader in the industry. We flew the rich and famous, the powerful players in Hollywood, professional sports, and the political and financial movers and shakers of the world.

How could a monster like this be at the controls of their airplanes?

                                                           ***

My sleep is pierced now and then with a recurring nightmare. It goes like this:

A force slams into my chest and crushes all the air in my lungs out through my mouth that stretches open in a dry scream. My eyes bounce open and freeze.

There are rolls of whiskered fat topping a white shirt collar that is under a dark navy blazer with four stripes at the end of the sleeves. A pin of yellow gold wings shimmers over where a heart should lie beneath.

My eyelids are fixed wide open like the ones on a vintage doll when brought upright from its nap and my eyes begin to feel dry and cold but refuse to blink. The hulking predator who just swung his arm around my neck clasps his fists beneath my chin. He flexes, squeezing and wrenching until the left side of my face is touching the right side of his. He pants damp beer-soaked breath through locked jaws.

He knew that I left the lobby bar to get away from him. I walked faster than my usual stride and was shocked when seconds later he stepped into the elevator when I turned to push the floor button just as the doors were closing. The other crew members still sitting at the table likely assumed he went outside to smoke. Instead, with perfect timing, he overtakes my pace and traps me.

He insists that I join him in his room for another drink and I refuse, spurning him. His fury becomes a hissing grenade. The bottle of gin in his flight bag was the pin being pulled and with my rejection, the bomb explodes. He grabs my left buttock and claws with such force that I yelp in pain, stunned as he seizes me into a side headlock. 

He’s shouting what he likes to do to “boys”—profane things that he likes to do to “boys”. I assume he is using the word as slang for consenting men, but his tone is one of desperation—even self-loathing. 

His arms tighten as he constricts my neck inside his elbow, “You’re the only one I’ve ever said that to. I’ve never told anyone else!” and I understand that if he is ever confronted with what he has just said, he’ll know who betrayed him.

He’s probably lying—it doesn’t make any sense. We’ve only met once or twice before. Why would I be the only one he confides in?

 But this is the way a criminal sociopath wields power: he convinces his victim that she will never be free from his watchful eye. That if anything gets back to him, he’ll come for her.

He spits and slobbers as restraints on foul, repressed demons break and become undeniably real, his rage breathing them to life and then. . . silence.

A swift blow strikes the base of my skull, and it cracks like an egg. The weapon feels like a jagged chunk of ice with sharp edges, and it is lodged in the wound that now burns cold.

Piercing aches radiate over the back of my head spreading fever on my ears, along my temples, and across my forehead while I hear my brain sloshing in cerebrospinal fluid until the swelling and pressure around it is so great that the rocking becomes gentler, gentler still, then nearly imperceptible, until it halts. The remaining unshattered cranial plates cradle it in a silent embrace. 

The bones at the top of my neck—the atlas and axis, cervical vertebrae one and two—sting fiery cold, like a toxic injection of menthol, and I stay still as the vision of their scaffold-like structure upon which my head rests and pivots flashes in my mind. Are they broken? Are they crushed? Or are they still intact? Are they keeping my head from–?

 Then I feel my head jerk sharply backward, hyperextending my throat, breaking the ligaments where my ears and jaw meet. A final clutching, guttural protest gurgles and groans from my larynx, until all goes silent with an abrupt unmistakable crack! The vertebrae that supported my head have collapsed. It has torn away and is now detached from my spine, rolling slow and controlled, down the back of my body, until it reaches my sacrum. There, it drops to the floor and breaks open, and all its contents of brains, blood, and mucus ooze out.

But if my broken head is on the floor, how am I looking at the scene? If my head and brains and eyes are there on the floor, the fluids and tissue beginning to congeal, then with what eyes and brain am I processing this vision?

Here, where reason overtakes the subconscious, my sleeping eyes open and I’m fully awake and able to separate from the dream. My head throbs. My stomach rolls and my intestines spasm. I lie still and wait for the room to stop spinning.

                                               ***

This is the way I relive the night that Robert Jefferson* attacked me. His upper back, shoulders, and trapezius muscles were broad and bloated with layers of fat rendering a kyphotic appearance. His deportment was one of perpetual aggression, like a cobra readying to strike, accentuated by his growling face as it lurched low and forward.

I was sleeping soundly when the nightmare brought his hair-covered, muscular arm near and thrust it under my chin. His furrowed forehead separated his hairline from disheveled eyebrows that were a chaos of wiry gray and white hairs protruding from their follicles like masses of condemned men struggling to escape. They emphasized the eyes that leered for opportunities to violate. 

He had a reputation, and it generated a pair of dubious nicknames: Captain Nekkid, and the more sinister one—and more fitting—Captain Predator. His offenses became common knowledge among crew members over the course of twenty years. Unofficial briefings were given to flight attendants new to the group—by other pilots in whom previous victims had confided.

“Have you met Robert Jefferson yet? Be careful with Robert Jefferson.”

“No, I haven’t flown with him. Why?” I replied when it was my turn for the orientation.

The captain and first officer exchanged knowing looks that held a mix of annoyance and disgust. They shook their heads as they lowered their gazes to the floor. Both seemed to be thinking, “We need to tell her.”

“Someone needs to tell her.”

“I don’t want to talk about it. Maybe he will.”

“You’re the captain. You brought it up—you tell her.”

“You’re the First Officer. You do it while I order fuel.”

But instead of elaborating, they both asked, “Got any coffee yet?”

Eventually, Robert Jefferson’s name came up again and the nuances took more shape. The side-eyed sighs found a voice. The stories had similarities and differences, but the message was consistent: Don’t go anywhere alone with him, especially if there is alcohol involved. And whatever you do, don’t go to his room alone.

“So, if everyone knows about him, how does he—I mean, why hasn’t he—” struggling to form the question, “why, if his actions have been known about for so long and by so many, how has he not been stopped?”

“Oh, he has been reported,” one captain told me. “But nothing happened. He’s got friends in the office. Or he’s got something on someone that keeps it from going too high up. No one really knows, but somehow it always went away. There are a lot of stories out there but I’m not sure how many actually reported once they saw someone else do it with no results.”

He remained free to keep preying.

As he flexed his arms around my neck, I was sure it would snap and began to envision how I would collapse in three steps, recalling how the camels I rode in Saudi Arabia lowered themselves to the ground on front legs that appeared to have two knees. First, I’d bend at the waist and my chest would come to rest on my thighs. Then my knees would give out and my entire body buckle and fall, folded in a trifold: chest to thighs, hamstrings to calves, butt teetering on ankles before I topple over

I expected this because mine is not a good neck. Severe scoliosis that formed in my teens left it leaning to the right and reversed the natural cervical curve. The disks are squished on the wrong side and cause constant pain. The surgery that was planned to stabilize it never happened, not after the excruciating one that straightened fifteen inches of the spine below it.

All the disks between my shoulders and waist were removed and replaced with cadaver bones. Titanium rods were screwed into both sides to support the fusion—my X-rays look like an erector set.

While in his grip with my arms hanging at my sides, I tapped my fingertips to my thumbs thinking, “Okay, I still feel them. That’s good. Try to keep your head square with your shoulders.

Face straight ahead. Don’t let him twist you at the neck—a snap could kill you.

Who will find me lying here? Hotel guests? Employees? How long? Would I be dead?

Alive, but paralyzed? Who will call Tim—how will they tell him?”

There was no one around. I could think of only one thing that could change the situation, and it wasn’t until months later that I realized that what kicked in was something learned in flight attendant training.

Hostage Negotiation 101: Neutralize the tension—make the hostage-taker believe that you’re on equal footing, be sympathetic to his concerns. Make him see you as a person who understands him instead of an adversary.

Calm him. You need to calm him. It’s the only way to redirect this. Say, “It’s okay. . . I have a lot of gay friends.”

No, no, not that. He’ll think that you believe he just told you he’s gay but he’s a big macho pilot—if he thinks that’s what you heard he’ll want to put that genie back in a bottle. He won’t have that. Say something more neutral. Say it calmly. You have to calm him.

With purpose and clarity, I said, “It’s okay. . . to each his own.”

I wasn’t sure how it sounded as I tried to help him release the anger that consumed him and to not feel that he had just boxed himself into a corner with a whole new identity—an identity that led him to violent exasperation.

It worked. He wasn’t expecting my tone and, in his confusion, the tension in his arms relaxed just enough for me to duck out of his hold and, as if directing passengers in an emergency, began shouting commands at him.

“Go! Go to your room, Robert! Go to your room!” I stood with my feet shoulder-width apart to gain balance in my dizziness and extended my right arm parallel to the floor holding it straight and strong, and pointed past him to an unknown destination.

He was stunned and motionless as he stood watching me, contemplating his next move.

I don’t even know if this is his floor. Keep making noise to scare him away.

 Shit! I wish someone would come out of their room! Someone has got to be in one of these rooms! Someone, look out your door!

Just keep yelling. Stay in this position and you keep shouting commands until the threat is over—just like in emergency drills.

No one will believe me. It will be his word against mine. They never believe the victim really fought.

“Go! Go! Get away! Go to your room! Go!”

You haven’t said, “No.” They’ll ask you if you actually said the word “No”. If anyone is in these rooms hearing or watching through their peephole, they must be able to say that they heard you say, “NO!”

“No! No! No! Go to your room, Robert Jefferson! Go!”

The scowl that was there as he nearly broke my neck transformed into bewilderment. He seemed to be thinking, “Is she really that mad? What the—does she really mean it?”

He took a few slow steps away before stopping to look back.

 Stay solid. Don’t move. Hold your arm straight and keep pointing. Don’t let him see you weaken. Keep yelling. Don’t stop until he’s gone.

“Go! Go! Get away from me! Go! Go!”

And he did. I didn’t move again until reached the room at the end of the hall on the right,

opened the door and it clicked loudly behind him.

My own room was nearby. If I went there, it would only take him seconds to get to me and force his way in. I ran back to the elevator and pressed the down button, listening for his door. This time, I made it inside alone and was relieved to find Ray, one of my pilots, still sitting at the bar watching a game.

“Hey! You’re back!” His face began to fall as he read mine. “Are you okay?”

“I don’t know—no—something happened.”

Ray stood up, grabbed his beer, and indicated to the bartender that we were moving to a table. During those few steps, my head was scrambling with words to organize and recount the events that had occurred in the ten minutes I was gone.

 I told him everything except for what Robert yelled out—it pounded in my chest, but I could not raise the words to my lips. They simply would not form.

 I felt strangely obligated to keep that part to myself. Not to forget or hide there forever—but to not reveal it solely to destroy him. It was bizarre to know that I had the leverage to destroy him but for some obscure reason did not want to. At least not yet. Instead, there was this compulsion to keep his secret, to hide the shame that his desperation exposed.

It would be many months later before I recognized this as Stockholm Syndrome, a response to a traumatic event that involves feeling sympathy toward the offender.  Robert Jefferson divulging that he had homosexual tendencies did not offend me—it offended him—and I didn’t know what to do with that.  

“You have got to report him,” Ray said soberly. “He does this. They know he does this. You’ve got to–”

“They won’t do anything. That’s all I’ve ever heard when it comes to him—that he has been reported—that people have tried to do something, and then. . . it just. . . nothing. Nothing. Why would this be any different?”

He lowered his gaze to the table, gathering his thoughts. When he spoke again, his voice was pleading.

“This is what he does. . . but this is worse. It’s escalating. Are you okay?”

“I don’t know,” I said, “I can’t think. All I can think of is the company, the company— and I hit a dead end. I just want to get home tomorrow. I’ll think about it then.”

“Are you going to tell Tim?”

“No.”

“That’s wrong. You’ve got to. He’ll support you. He’ll be really upset if he finds out later—I know I would be.”

“Maybe. I’ll think about it. I probably will. You’re right.”

“What can I do? Are you okay?”

“I don’t know. I just need a minute.”

“Let me walk you to your room. I’ll make sure you get in okay, and I’ll stand outside your door for an hour or so until maybe you can get to sleep.”

Ray paid his tab, leaving an undrunk beer on the table. We walked in silence.  

When we reached my door I said, “Ray, it’s okay. Thanks for walking me but you don’t have to stand outside here. I’ll be okay,” I said.

“Are you sure? I don’t mind.”

“No, really. We both have flights home in the morning and I’m just going to crash. I think his crew has an early trip—he’ll be gone before I have to come downstairs.”

“Are you sure you won’t report this? I’ll help you call.”

“I will,” I said, half-sure. “I just need to think, get home, talk to Tim. But thank you. Thanks for being here, for the support. I’ll be okay,” I lied.

***

The next morning my thoughts had already begun to scramble. Getting to the airport on time and going through the process of checking my bag and navigating the TSA drill—tasks that are as routine as making a cup of morning coffee—demanded focused concentration. I had to constantly reorient myself as I walked to my gate, blanking out every few seconds and confused by my surroundings.

At home the following afternoon, I was determined to ignore it. Tim didn’t need to be hurt with it when I could just deny it, tamping it down until it didn’t matter.

While chicken baked for dinner, we settled into the sofa to watch TV, clinked glasses of red wine and as I looked at him everything changed. Fearing that harboring this kind of secret could lead to problems between us, my resolve weakened.

I took one sip of wine and turned to him and said, “Something happened.”

                                    ***

Of course, Tim was gobsmacked by what I told him and wanted me to report but understood my skepticism in getting help. We danced around it.

Foot surgery conveniently provided a few months off work. I swam in denial and avoidance. When I returned, if his name ever appeared on my crew brief, a company app was at my fingertips to call in sick.

There was another personal issue consuming me. Six weeks before the attack, I filed a guardianship and elder abuse case against my father’s much younger spouse after we were informed that he had been critically ill and in a nursing home for weeks before reluctantly allowing her daughter to inform my sister Lora and me.

The circumstances were outlandish. They sold their home as well the Kansas farm Dad inherited and bought a home sixty miles away without telling us or any friends.

An asset search revealed Cindy’s name on three recently purchased cars for her two daughters and a granddaughter. She closed the joint marital bank account that held the money from the farm sale and divided the money into multiple accounts, including one that she put her younger daughter’s name on. She began construction on an addition to the new home—after my father was incapacitated and beginning to incur nursing home costs.

The half-million-dollar proceeds from the sale of the farm were being rapidly depleted.

During one of many hearings, the judge listened as an exasperated probate court attorney warned that Dad would soon be needing to qualify for Medicaid—an uphill battle for a couple who cleared $750,000 on the farm sale less than two years before.

Twenty years earlier, shortly after she and Dad married, Cindy concocted a bizarre claim that she was being poisoned while he was away on business trips. Though they lived in rural Oklahoma and more than two hours away from the nearest relatives, she attempted to convince my father that members of his family were responsible. She resurrected this absurd tale nearly every time we saw one another at obligatory holiday get-togethers.

Lora and I were determined to get to the bottom of what was happening to Dad. When a heavy metal test returned alarming levels, my lawyers consulted with the prosecuting attorney’s office and asked me to file a police report so a detective could be assigned, and an investigation would be initiated.

This fight crossed the miles from my home in Pennsylvania to the Midwest. It would be long, expensive, and mentally and emotionally grueling. Establishing a rapport with rural Missouri law enforcement was already proving to be a Sisyphean task.

Many of my weeks off work were spent traveling to Missouri for court dates and spending time with Dad, who was under strict supervision by nursing home administration to prevent him from having unfettered access to him. As a family friend and sitting judge said to me when told about the poisoning, “She’s got to be stopped. I hate to be crass, but at this point, it would really behoove her to finish the job.”

Reeling from Robert Jefferson and my father’s abuse case, I bolted awake every morning while it was still dark. The clock glowed between 4 and 5 AM.

When I imagined entering another court case that would cause more stress, I crashed and burned. The prospect of stepping out on yet another ledge where I would hold the burden of proof was unbearable.

                        ***

A year later, Hollywood ogre Harvey Weinstein’s reign of sexual terror collapsed when multiple women came forward with credible allegations of rape, threats, and career-crashing encounters with the media powerhouse. The #MeToo movement exploded with testimonies of offenses that spawned decades.

As the Weinstein story grew more legs, the episode from a year earlier boiled just under the surface. I knew it was a terrible misstep on my part not to report it and the longer I waited, the less relevance it held. 

At least, that was my feeling until hundreds of other victims rose up and revealed not only assaults, but episodes of threats, bullying, and harassment. The validity given to reports of inappropriate touching and unwelcome advances—far less severe offenses—helped change the lens through which I viewed my experience.

One evening I was sitting on the floor of our office and Tim was at his desk. We compared the similarities between Robert Jefferson and Harvey Weinstein—how they preyed upon, threatened, intimidated—and how for years, others were complicit and accommodated them. I recalled the troubling things Robert said.

“Boys. He kept growling that he liked to fuck boys. He said it three times. I thought he was just using slang. . . diminishing that he liked to be with other men.”

I remembered our flight attendants who are gay males. Some are strong, fit men who could defend themselves. But there was one I met in training who came to mind. He was no taller than me and slightly built.

The thought of Robert stalking and trapping him brought the new realization that while everyone thinks he only does this to women—we always have our radars out—the men wouldn’t see it coming.

“Oh, God. Oh, no. It’s not just our women flight attendants who are at risk—our guys!”

“Oh, Sweetie,” Tim said, at a new loss for words in the year-long ordeal.

“I have to report. I know they’ll think I’m just jumping on the Me Too bus, but it’s not that—I never thought of it this way until now!”

Regret and frustration bored into my throat, and I felt like vomiting.

“I’m doing it. I know it’s been a year. I know I should have already. I can’t stand the thought of him getting to another one because of me. He may have already. I may be the reason someone else is dealing with this awful shit.”

“It’s the right thing to do, Sweetie. I’ll completely support you. Whatever we need to do.”

“He’s got to pay,” I said.  

                                    ***

With the help of two flight attendant union representatives, Jill and Darcey, I filed my report through a conference call. Over the following several weeks, reports trickled in from earlier victims—some no longer with the company—who learned there was a new active investigation. Darcey stated, “This thing just exploded.”

About a week after I filed the report Janet, the Human Resource Manager in charge, called to update me on the proceedings.

“We finally decided that we had to move on to the next step and bring him in for a hearing—they (multiple claims) just kept coming in.” The sound of shuffling papers covered some of the shell shock in her voice as it cracked. “There’s just . . .there’s just so many—it’s hard to keep them all straight.”

One flight attendant was on a layover in Hawaii when he swam around her and untied her bikini while she stood in the chest-deep blue waters of Waikoloa. As she sunbathed by the pool, he told her he was going to his room to look out on her while he masturbated. He returned later to share the details.

 Another brought leftover food from the flight to the hotel and offered to set up a buffet in her room.  After they both left, she went to bed. Hours later, she was awakened when he crawled under the covers, unclothed—he had helped himself to her key earlier as she served him dinner.

She screamed and ordered him out. He threatened, “If you tell anyone, it will be your word against mine, and I know people. I can make your job here great with long layovers in nice places, or I can make it miserable. You’ll work harder than anyone else.”

One couldn’t find her room key after having dinner with both pilots and had to go to reception to get another one. When she opened her door, he was in her bed, naked and waiting for her.

More than one suspected that he drugged them. They remembered sitting down for a cocktail and then nothing more until they awoke sick and unable to recall the night before, but insistent that they had not drunk enough to black out.

 One woman’s voice trembled as she told me of vomiting in the lobby of a European hotel on the morning after.

Another reported that during a stay in a particularly luxurious destination, he wanted to “show her a great view” and running ahead of her on the beach, disappeared into a cove of lava rocks. She rounded the corner to find him standing there naked.

 She marked it up to boorishness, and when her crew agreed to meet in Robert’s room for a drink before dinner, she dismissed her concerns.

 But the crew of three dissolved to a party of two when the first officer never appeared. The evening unfolded with her alone with Robert. She has no memory of those hours until, like the others, she woke up naked and nauseated.

Later as the first officer fueled the rental car, Robert turned to face her in the back seat and said, “I called scheduling and got us another three days here. And you are going to be my bitch.”

Shaking and sickened, she raged back at him, “The only bitch will be your wife when I call her!”

 Terrified, she hid in her room the entire rest of the trip.

                        ***

At his disciplinary hearing, Robert Jefferson and his union representative faced the chief pilot, administrators, and corporate attorneys as allegations from over a dozen accusers were presented.

 Three weeks after filing the report, I was in Missouri for another court date. On my way to see my father at the nursing home, Janet’s name appeared on my phone, and I pulled over to stop to answer the call.  

“Daphne, I just wanted to let you know that it is over. Robert Jefferson faxed in his resignation this morning. He will never do this to anyone here again.”

“Why wasn’t he fired? He gets to walk away with nothing on his record! A fat severance check? Was he paid to go away?” It wasn’t enough. After speaking with so many other torn and humiliated women he had tormented, I wanted revenge more than ever.

“No, he was not paid to go away. He will receive what his contract entitles him to with over twenty years here, but it’s not a large severance—certainly not compared to what he’s losing,” she said. “And contractually, we had to give him the chance to resign instead of being fired. He put it off until the last minute. The fax was here when I came in this morning.”

“Janet, one thing I learned through the last few weeks,” I said, “is that he knew he had protection. He got away with this for years because there were people who helped keep these stories from getting to your office before now.”

She was listened and let me talk.

“There were men inside those office walls who knew—and he knew—that he had protection.”

“Y—y—yes,” she affirmed with a sigh.

Her admission surprised me, and I felt validated, finally, by an administrator who would not lie to me.

“Am I under any kind of confidentiality restrictions? Am I allowed to talk about this?”

“You are absolutely not under any restriction, and I hope you do talk about it—as much as you are comfortable talking about it. The flight attendants—and all employees—need to know that this will never happen again. It will never be ignored or tolerated again. They need to know that they will be listened to and protected. So, no, you go. You tell. You are in a unique position—I hope you use it.”

                        ***

Dad died October 5, 2019—one day shy of the third anniversary. There’s been no justice and I’ve begun to write his story.

Now one thousand, eight hundred and twelve days have passed since the attack. Four years, nine months, and twenty-two days.

It’s time to write “Captain Predator”.

The Hitman’s Protégé

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Also published in the Pearl S. Buck Literary Journal and www.onceaguard.com  

     

            You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories.

  If people wanted you to write warmly about them,

they should have behaved better.  –Anne Lamott

2004

They were fighting again, my father and the brain-rattling nuisance he married against the advice of all who knew her—and there were legions. The families who seeded the cluster of small southwest Missouri towns in Christian and Stone counties mingled and married into one another for generations. Our grandparents and great-grandparents had farmed and worshipped together, and some of my earliest memories involve going to her former in-laws’ nursery, where every spring, Mom bought mixes of brilliant marigolds to liven up the front yard and vegetable plants for our garden.

Cindy had little inspiration to work—that’s what husbands were for, as her ex-husband’s family said, openly discussing their experience with her. In that marriage, when her first daughter started kindergarten and she was under pressure to get a job, she got pregnant again instead.

Shortly after the younger daughter started school, she sent them both off one morning and left a note on the counter that read, “I’m sorry, girls, Mommy can’t take any more.” She drained the bank account and moved to Florida for three months.

Now she was forty-seven and married to my sixty-seven-year-old father, who became an over-the-road truck driver to supplement his pension after retiring from the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Money was still tight and the job was exhausting for him.

“She’s put on some weight, so I got her a credit card to order some clothes and she ran the damn thing up so high, dammit—I cut her off so now she says she wants a divorce. I guess we’re splitting the sheets, she’s flying the coop!”

“Do you want me to come back there and help with an attorney? Keep you company for a couple of weeks?”

“Well . . .yeah. Could you do that? And I don’t know what half this shit is on this bill. Do you know what a ‘match dot com’ is?”

In the background, Cindy screamed, “No! Noooooo!” A desperate, guttural bellow like an animal with her hind flank fatally caught in the clamped jaw of her predator.

“Hold on! Hold on!” Dad said and there were sounds of a struggle as he responded to her rushing him trying to wrestle away the phone.

“Dad? Are you okay?”

She continued to wail protests to prevent him from hearing my voice.

“Yeah, you there? What is this? What is ‘match dot com’?”

“That’s a dating service—is that really on your bill? She’s on a website to meet other men, Dad. You need to get out of this now!”

“I’ll call you back, Daph. I gotta go.”

Her shrieks became increasingly panicked. She was reacting not only to the cauterization of her spending but was furious that I now knew what she had done. She despised my sister and me for our interminable ties to our dad—a reality over which she held no leverage.

Not that she didn’t make the effort. Within the first years of their marriage, she tried to convince him that she was being poisoned at their home in rural Northeast Oklahoma while he was out of town driving the rig.

She alternately accused my sister, Lora, and Uncle John, Dad’s younger brother, and me. The three of us, she alleged, were trying to kill her by sneaking into their house and depositing poison.

It wasn’t just a one-off episode either. She retold the nonsensical yarn for the next twenty years every time any of us were together, be it Christmas dinner or an occasional afternoon visit. Much like Scheherezade lengthened her life by keeping the king rapt with continuous stories, Cindy kept her story alive by keeping it freshly aired.

I often pretended to believe her as she spoke. I reacted with Oscar-worthy expressions of feigned concern until one day the desire to exact a small degree of psychological revenge was too great to resist. Dad sat in a leather armchair and stared out a window pretending to be interested in a flock of crows pecking at the ground.

“So, Cindy, just so I remember right, how were you being poisoned?” I asked, having heard the story a hundred times already. But hell, what child doesn’t enjoy hearing the best part of a story over and over again?

“With arsenic,” she began in her soft Missouri hills sing-song tone. “I kept going to the hospital with heart failure and they finally figured out it was from chronic arsenic poisoning.”

“Mmm-hmm. But how was the arsenic getting to you?”

“They were injecting my Coke cans. They were getting into the house and injecting my Coke cans in the pantry.”

“And why would you drink flat soda? I mean, any puncture in a can and it loses its fizz. You can taste it in the first sip,” I persisted, poking the pathologically lying bear.

Her expression changed as she narrowed her eyes and pressed her lips, creating three thin, grim slits in her bloated face before she answered.

“It was the tiniest hypodermic needle,” she said, gesturing a pinch with her thumb and index finger. “It didn’t make it go flat. The hole was so small.”

“You guys lived in the middle of nowhere—I wouldn’t be able to find that house again if my life depended on it. Who would—why in the world would anybody do that?”

Her breathing quickened at my unexpected challenges. She stirred in the recliner perpetually affixed to her ballooning backside.

“How should I know?” lurching forward as she thrust her open palms skyward and shrugged her shoulders to her ears.

“And where does someone even get arsenic? Didn’t they take that out of rat poison some time back after a bunch of wives poisoned their husbands with it? Like when they put something bitter into antifreeze so it would be tasted?” That hit a nerve.

“I don’t know, Daphne!” She snapped, shifting in her chair as her fingers squeezed the armrests. Displeased with me, she scowled.

Delighted with myself, I smiled. Dad lowered his eyes to the floor, pretending not to hear any of it.

The day after the Match.com explosion, Dad called. Cindy defended her subscription to the online matchmaking with the contention that members of our family were stalking her, and she was using the site to try to entrap them. After I described the vastness of dating websites—like finding a needle in a haystack—he admitted the absurdity of her explanation and that he knew she was lying.

“She comes up with the damnedest, cockamamie things—but what am I supposed to do? She’s mentally ill and she’s my wife. I’m supposed to take care of her.”

2015                 

The isolation turned sinister when Cindy convinced him to sell the Kansas farm he inherited from his father. The poor girl from Spokane, Missouri, was flush with more cash than she ever dreamt possible. She found a house on eighteen acres neighboring her daughter’s secluded property sixty-five miles away and moved “to where family could help” with my father as he declined—without telling any of Dad’s friends or family. We only learned of the move when I requested a welfare check after he missed a meeting with a friend and couldn’t be reached on the phone.

The deputy reported that when Cindy came to the door, she said that Dad had nothing to do with us—that he hadn’t for years—and I was only trying to reach him now because he was dying, and I wanted money. It couldn’t have been farther from the truth; I had no knowledge of any illness and enjoyed a lucrative job traveling the world.

My stepsister Carrie’s response to my outreach was that her mother had gotten Dad a new phone and was setting it up—clearly a ruse to drop the numbers of everyone Cindy wanted to cut him off from: Lora, me, Uncle John, and my nephew.

I kept trying to reach him and just as I was about to give up, he answered, delighted to hear from me.

“Well, hi, Honey! Whereabouts in the world are you?” He loved aviation and hearing about my overseas trips.

“Dad, we had no idea how to find you,” I said, pressing him about the welfare check.

A door slammed behind him—she was home.

“Honey, I’ll—I’ll have to talk to you later. I’ll talk to Cindy and see if we can’t come up with some arrangement.”

“What do you mean, some kind of arrangement? You have to ‘arrange’ to talk to your daughter?”

He began to sound more agitated.

“I—I gotta go now, but I’ll talk to Cindy and see if we can’t make some arrangement. Let me see what Cindy says.”

He sounded torn and cautious, pained at the separation from his daughters and fearful of the woman who was about to erupt after returning home to find him speaking to one of them. I remembered an ominous statement he made during a conversation some months earlier.

“She’s already told me she doesn’t like for me to talk to any you out of her earshot,” he said.

“She’s gonna kill you one day, Dad.”

                                                ***

For someone who put significant efforts into silencing others, Cindy was a prolific storyteller and the stories she told planted the seed that eventually sprouted our outlandish suspicions. The Oklahoma Coke Can Caper was just the beginning.

In the brief period between leaving her first husband and marrying Dad, she worked as a ticket seller at the Wayne Newton Theater in Branson, Missouri, and from there a splendid narrative of hillbilly mafioso was borne.

One night, as the story goes, the theater seats were filled with vacationing veterans and retired grandparents, when local mafia members stormed through the doors and kept everyone trapped and terrorized for hours.

“They made me go around and collect everyone’s cell phones so they couldn’t call out for help. I had to go between the rows of seats where everyone was lying on the floor and keep them calm.”

There were obvious questions that I should have asked at this point like, were they wearing pin-stripe Zoot suits and shiny wingtips? Or had they gone for a more local look with Wal Mart overalls and Boxcar Willie T-shirts? And had they tried any of the backwoods stills? There are some lovely vintages.

But I didn’t ask any of those questions. I was trying to picture how in 1995, the Missouri Mafia imprisoned a theater full of 50-80-year-old Bible-toting, flag-waving, RV-dwelling tourists while my stepmother—the self-proposed comforter-in-chief—navigated an obstacle course of canes and wheelchairs to collect cellphones from people trying to lower themselves to the floor in bodies riddled with hip replacements and arthritic knees.

I never have figured out what she snorted with a moonshine chaser after that donkey kicked her in the head; there is no Branson Mafia unless you count the KKK, and in 1995 Branson, the person most likely to have a cell phone and Mafia friends was Wayne Newton himself.

                                               ***

During our final pseudo-congenial visit before their secret move, Batshit Nellie regurgitated her oft-told tale of stage IV uterine cancer, one of her more elaborate chronicles. The latest news was, alas, they could do nothing more for her but keep her comfortable with morphine.

She refused to allow my father to speak with her doctors but remarkably offered her own detailed account of what occurred during surgery.

“When they cut into me,” again with the saccharine-soaked lilt, “they found that the cancer wasn’t just in my uterus. It had spread all over my abdomen. They woke me up and asked me if I wanted to do chemo and radiation and I said no, no, I wouldn’t bother. So, they put me back under and finished the surgery.”

Gobsmacked, I looked at my father, who lowered his eyes to the floor.

“I—I don’t think they do that, Cindy,” I said, relishing a repeat occasion to wave the bullshit flag. “No doctor is going to allow someone so freshly under general anesthesia to make a decision like that.”

She snapped back. “No, Daphne! I said, they woke me up!”

“Right. So, you’re lying there on the operating table, with your belly splayed open, and they brought you around, and you felt no pain, and carried this conversation.”

“Yes. People with MS don’t feel pain normally like other people.”

Ah. Now she had MS. She also had a bad mitral valve and needed a replacement from a pig—what would have been a waste of a perfectly lovely swine—two brain aneurysms, thick blood, diabetes, adrenal tumors, and heart failure from arsenic poisoning.

“And my brother is sick with his lungs hardening, so since I’m in total organ failure—except my heart and lungs, which is really odd because I started smoking when I was eight—I’m trying to go ahead and donate my lungs to him.”  

There was a brief stare-down, each of us daring the other to flinch.

Finally, I said, “That is some of the looniest, damnedest shit I ever heard in all my put-togethers.”

 She glared at me through narrowed eyes.

With the Lord as my witness, I wouldn’t be surprised if she said she stood at the back door and watched a watermelon hatch a litter of three-legged kittens.”

2016

It was 3 AM in late April when I woke up in Washington, D.C., to a text from Carrie, my stepsister of 20 years, and I knew that it was going to be unwelcome news.

 “So, you need to message as soon as you possibly have time. Important.”

The last time I heard from Carrie, she didn’t know “what the f— was wrong” with her mother but that she was always sick with a new and worsening malady.

That was true and she often replicated someone else’s recent health trouble. As underwent tests that ruled out MS, she was diagnosed with it. Soon after Aunt June was diagnosed with breast cancer, Cindy said she had it too. When she professed that her cat detected her uterine cancer, a story was circulating on the internet about how a woman’s cat obsessively sniffed and obsessively kneaded her belly shortly before her cervical cancer was found.

But her most insulting, egregious hijacking of another person’s tragedy was as my own childhood best friend lay on life support with complications following childbirth. For two weeks, as neurologists ran electroencephalographs, her newborn was placed on her chest during the tests hoping to detect changes in her brain activity.

Deliriously jealous that Dad was also devastated, Cindy barked that she coded the day she delivered Carrie, but that when they put the baby on her chest, she “came to,” an account her former husband’s family vehemently deny.

  At the end of her email, Carrie promised that if anything happened to Dad or that he was unable to make a call himself, she would be sure to let me know.

But she didn’t. She didn’t let me know that in early March my seventy-nine-year-old father fell and broke his hip. He required surgery and a three-week stay in a rehab facility until he was strong enough to go home.

“And he was getting around really well with his walker—he could get up some speed!” she said with a laugh as I listened, stunned at her chirpy delivery.

“Mom said she didn’t really think he was hurt, but he just kept not getting up, couldn’t get up. So, she finally called the ambulance.”

He fell? He wouldn’t—couldn’t—get up and she delayed calling for an ambulance? How long did she stall? Once she did call for help, it would take over half an hour to reach them because of their remoteness. He was an hour away from the network of friends and providers he had known for fifty years.

“Anyway, he had been home for less than a week and one night after dinner he started

saying he couldn’t breathe. We just thought, ‘Oh, here’s Ivan again, saying he can’t breathe, he can’t breathe,’ but he kept getting worse, so Mom finally called the ambulance.”

“You were there? You were there seeing a seventy-nine-year-old man saying he can’t breathe, and you delayed medical attention?”

A few seconds of silence passed before she continued, ignoring my questions.

“He had pneumonia and after a couple of days in the hospital, he went to a nursing home. Oh, and he also has late-stage Parkinson’s.”

“Late-stage Parkinson’s, a broken hip, rehab? How long ago did all this start? Why are you just now calling me?” I screamed at her, no longer interested in holding my rage. “Your mother is a liar! I know she’s done something to him! I know it!”

There was again an uncomfortable silence before she said, “Well, she just told me that it was time to let you guys know.”

“How kind,” I said. “Carrie, thank you for that,” and hung up hoping the sarcasm was unmissable.

I dreaded telling Lora. Since she still lived in our hometown, the task of dealing with our noxious stepmother was likely to fall mostly on her. To better size up what we were about to walk into and better prepare her, my first call was to my nephew Denver.

As soon as he was off work that night, he drove the hour north to Bolivar to see his grandfather. Theirs was one in an extensive line of relationships fractured by Cindy’s slanderous allegations of theft, what Dad referred to as her “very active imagination.”  

He called as he left the nursing home and over the chimes of his truck’s ignition, sobbed as he described the painful visit.

“It’s so bad. I never thought I’d see him like that. He didn’t even know me at first but once he did, he wouldn’t let go of me. It’s happened so fast. He didn’t look like himself at all.”

“She’s done something to him. I know she has. First, she squired him away to the middle of nowhere without telling any of us—or any of his closest friends—now he’s in this condition.”

“He’s so frail, so pale. He’s just barely there,” my nephew wept.

“So, I need to come quickly?”

“Yeah. If you want to see him one more time, you need to come.” I booked a flight for that weekend.

Cindy knew that Dad had promised Denver at least two guns that held sentimental value—a pistol from his Marine Corp days and the old rifle that he taught his only grandson to shoot with.

A couple of days later, she called, asserting that the entire gun collection was stolen by a man who helped her and Dad move from Sparta to Fair Play, though she admitted she never confronted Clint with these accusations, nor did she file a police report. Instead, she alleged, multiple boxes of guns and ammunition—some still in their original packaging—vanished, and though she could have guided law enforcement directly to the individual she claimed took them, she declined to report a cache of stolen weapons.

The story fit a habitually absurd pattern; she often invented outlandish tales of victimhood, then aired them in a syrupy-sweet voice that she must have felt absolved her of the sin of the lie. The gun caper was quite a performance—I heard it. My nephew had the presence of mind to hit the recorder on his phone when she called and began to spin her yarn.

 She would be enraged—and terrified—if she knew that the recording still exists and could be easily shared. She’d be mortified to learn that Clint and I have mutual friends and that on one of my trips back to the area, we met for lunch and communed over some of her batshit crazy stories.

“I’d do anything for your dad, but I’d just as soon never see Cindy again. She’s crazy,” he said.

“I thought of something the other day that I think connects a few dots and may explain some of the things she’s done. I think she’s ripped a page out of an old story. She does that. She borrows other people’s lives and makes them her own. She knew what scared him, what got to him.”

“What happened?”

I told Clint about a grueling ordeal that my family went through when Dad was a young guard at the Medical Center for Federal Prisoners. It started before my birth and ended shortly after, but there were frequent references to it throughout my childhood. As the years passed and I grew old enough to ask for details, Dad shared much more—including media reports—about it.

 In the late 1960s, he got into a kind of kerfluffle with an inmate named Harold Konigsberg, a Mafia hitman from Bayonne, New Jersey. Konigsberg was the worst of the worst—he walked shoulder-to-shoulder with the operatives responsible for Jimmy Hoffa’s disappearance. When “Kayo” (a nickname he earned through his boxing chops) was mentioned, other mobsters winced—he was too vicious even for his own kind.

Dad tried to play it cool, refusing to wither under Konigsberg’s threats and attempts to intimidate him. Frustrated, the convicted murderer did what Mafia men do—he started making threats against our family. After a visit from his wife, the guard escorting him saw that he had a bundle of photographs in his hand.

“What are those pictures of?”

“Fail’s house and kids.” He had hired a professional photographer to take pictures of our house, the car, and of us, if possible. The guard reported it to the warden and the photos were seized during a contraband search of his cell.

Konigsberg saw my birth announcement in the paper. He asked Dad, as he walked him out of the exercise yard, ‘By the way, how’s your baby daughter?’

 There were prowlers and hang-up phone calls all through the night. Mom was only 23 years old with two baby girls and often home alone while Dad worked erratic shifts around murderers with contacts on the outside. They were terrified and for months left the upstairs bedroom and slept on the floor on a mattress in the living room to be closer to Lora and me. Dad kept a gun under his pillow.

The situation at the prison reached a boiling point. Life Magazine did an expose on Konigsberg and published it when he transferred to Sing Sing. The article included an inset story about Dad’s tangle along with two photos; one of him standing in front of the prison, and one of the pictures that the photographer took of our house with three-year-old Lora peeking around a bush to smile at the man with the camera.

“Cindy knows about that history. She knew what got to Dad, what really scared him—and I think she consciously borrowed Konigsberg’s tactics with the stalking, chasing, picture-taking.”

Horrified, Clint said, “I wouldn’t put anything past that woman.”

***

Dad was inconsolable throughout the summer, his first few months in the nursing home. Fatigued by the painkillers pushed at him, complained constantly of his head feeling full—not a headache, but like his head had been pumped full of pressure. It was cerebral edema and he had low blood sodium levels, so his fluid intake was severely restricted, leaving him miserably thirsty all the time, pleading for something to drink.

Allergy season always wreaked havoc and he used nasal spray all throughout the year, but this time it provided no relief. He begged for the cooling spray over and over again, but the tears never stopped rolling down his face.

“My sinuses are on fire. Can I have some nose spray?” he cried constantly.

It was supposed to only be administered by the staff, and Lora and I staunchly followed the rules, for Cindy had slandered us to his caregivers and we were in constant fear of being banned from visiting. We thought it odd when there was a bottle in his nightstand drawer.

The depression and dementia led him to fixate on the Kayo Konigsberg years. He cried and cried, confused and despondent. It wasn’t that he had regressed decades and believed it was his current situation, but I had to keep explaining to him how long ago it was—that Konigsberg is dead, his connections are dead, the danger is gone.

“Dad, those guys are all gone now—we’re safe.”

“You don’t know that!” he’d sob, his face reddened and anguished.

“You don’t know guilt until you know you’ve done something that’s going to get your family killed!”

He remembered everything and he saved everything, copies of the magazine as well as newspaper clippings, which he sent to me in more recent years. The local paper did a series of articles after the story came out, a “story behind the story,” series to explain how southwest Missouri found its way into a national publication.

It was the most horrific experience of his life, and I believe that my stepmother repeatedly triggered him over the years. I also believe that whatever happened in the spring of 2016 that initiated his rapid deterioration was every bit as traumatic as his tangle with Harold Konigsberg.

                                               ***

Cindy had dumped him in the nursing home with nothing but sweats and thin, stained tank-style undershirts, and he hesitated at mealtime, embarrassed by his appearance among others in the dining hall.

“I feel like I’m wearing pajamas out in public,” he winced.

Lora and I brought all the clothes he wore throughout the last three and a half years of his life—shirts, pants, slippers, socks, sleepwear—and reviewed his closet every time I made the journey from Pennsylvania to Missouri to visit him and attend court hearings.

The staff and other residents commented on his remarkable transformation when he appeared in his new “real clothes”—a long-sleeved western shirt, jeans with suspenders, and a trucker hat.

“Ivan, is that you? Why, don’t you look like you’re feeling better!”

He’d stop pushing his walker and break into a wide smile, lifting his chest to stand a degree straighter with a hand raised to shake the hand of a passing man or wave hello to a lady.

After they passed and he returned his attention to his walker and the hallway ahead, they quietly asked, “Are you girls his daughters? He’s just radiant! I can’t believe how much he’s changed. When he first got here—he didn’t look so good. . .”

When it became too difficult to work the snaps himself, the western shirts were saved for days that Lora or I could see him and spend the time that his caregivers didn’t have. We kept several in his closet but filled the rest of the space with comfortable polo shirts and lounge pants.

He needed replacement clothes due to an ever-fluctuating waistline. Allergy medications left him fatigued, diminishing his appetite and he’d lose so much weight that he needed smaller pants. When the only things I could find were basketball pants that spilled over his shoes and created a dangerous tripping hazard, my mother—his ex-wife of twenty-five years—hemmed them with elastic so they fit snugly around his ankles.

 I once came to see him after his weight rebounded. His waistband cut uncomfortably into his rounded abdomen.

“Dad, you’ve been eating too much pie!”

“I reckon. The chow’s good here,” he smiled sleepily.

“Well, these pants are too tight around your belly.”

With scissors borrowed from the nursing station and him sitting on the edge of his bed, I snipped a notch in the fabric below his belly button.

“How’s that?”

“Still a little tight. Can you do a little more?”

I snipped into the next line of stitching.

“They’re still a little tight.”

Another snip, then another.

Little by little, I cut into the wide band until he exhaled with relief.

“Oh, that’s better. Thank you, Honey.”

When he stood to get into the wheelchair, his pants dropped freely to the floor.

“I feel a draft,” he said, and we laughed

***

By August, his physical strength and mental acuity improved tremendously. Lora visited frequently, and the staff allowed them to use the exercise room. Dad pushed himself on the stationary bicycle, riding for longer times and with increasing resistance. He made future plans—and shocking statements.

“Lora,” he said one day as he pedaled, “I want you and Daph to get me a lawyer. I want a divorce. I want you guys involved, in my life. I think Cindy did something to me.”

She called me that night and described how she encouraged him to share without her prodding or bringing up specifics from the past. Whatever he had to say, we wanted it to come from his own memories and not be influenced by ours.

“He said she gave him something to drink one day that tasted so bad he spit it out. There was another time he got so sick after dinner that he couldn’t do anything for a week. He knows she’s been lying to him for years—that he always knew it—it’s just that now he knows it was all to keep him away from us and the rest of his family.”

It was vindication but could only be enjoyed for a moment. We now had a whole new crisis to deal with.

I hired Charlie and Jesse Ankrom over the phone from Pennsylvania because they were the ones who could get to the nursing home first. Together they took our case, and I was thrilled to later learn that Charlie had been a prosecuting attorney before opening the practice with his son. Jesse met with Dad was comfortable enough with his level of determination that he filed the petition for divorce.

Patty, the Ankrom’s paralegal, called to tell me that Cindy had been served with the papers.

“Our guy that served her said her elevator doesn’t go all the way to the top. She opened the door and tried to stare him down, wouldn’t take the papers at first. He said, ‘Lady, do you have an attorney?’ ‘Well, yes,’ and he said, ‘I guarantee you, he’ll want to see what’s in these papers.’ So, she finally took them. He said there were a lot of new, expensive cars at the house. And some major construction.”

An asset search revealed over $80,000 in new cars registered to Cindy’s daughters and granddaughter, with her name also on all three. She also closed the joint banking account that held the remainder of the farm sale—$400,000—just four days after he was admitted to the nursing home—and built an addition onto the house.

We couldn’t shake off the things Dad said. The thought of him being often sick after they moved to Fair Play, the isolation, disorientation. How miserable he said he was. He continued to offer fragmented memories that left us more and more unsettled.

On a day when he seemed particularly sharp, I asked him about the things he had begun to talk about.

“Dad, you told Lora some things that you think happened to you. Can you tell me?”

“I had a potassium supplement I used in my drinks. It was different one day. It wasn’t a powder—it was like granules. It tasted so bad I couldn’t drink it. I think Cindy’s been trying to do something to me. She wants me out of the picture, to be alone.”

“Why?”

“Money. She was always making me change all the money around, get her cash out of the bank. She didn’t need it—she never went anywhere. I don’t know what she did with it.”

“Do you want to be tested? There are tests, things to look for.”

He looked toward the window and sat silently considering his options.

“Yeah. Yeah, I think we oughtta. Yeah. It sure is good to see you, Honey. So proud of you, and Lora, and Denver.”

                                    ***

The arsenic test was indisputable.

Dad’s value: 306.

The marker for abnormally elevated levels: 80.

When the Ankroms got the report, Patty called.

“Oh, boy, Daphne. The prosecuting attorney wants you to file a police report so they can assign a detective to open an investigation. I have a name and email for you to send it to.”

Charlie Ankrom called me to suggest putting the divorce aside and immediately petitioning for a legal guardian for Dad’s protection.

“I’m very, very concerned for Ivan’s safety. His wife is going to fight this, and the judge will set a court date for ninety days down the road. He’s not safe. If we agree to bring a third party in, our chances are better that we get an order that day,” the former prosecuting attorney said. “Again, I am extremely concerned about his safety right now.”

Of course, Lora and I immediately agreed to whatever would the most quickly put a buffer zone around Dad.

Charlotte Haden, the Cedar County Public Administrator, became Dad’s legal guardian.

                                                ***

I filed the report with Lieutenant Roger Barron who responded that he immediately went to the nursing home administration to protect Dad. When he stopped responding to my repeated inquiries, I reviewed the report with Lieutenant Hendrickson, who assured me that he was going straight to Bolivar Police Chief Mark Webb.

As it became clear that the end of Dad’s ordeal was nearing with no further word from Barron or Hendrickson, I emailed Chief Webb, who replied:

“Thank you for your email, Ms. Freise. I have contacted

my current investigations Lieutenant and advised him

this is a priority to find out what has happened?”

He had never heard of my father’s case.

                                                ***

The funeral director used the underwear, socks, Wrangler blue jeans, and black leather belt that I folded neatly and left with them in a plastic Target bag. All that was missing was a pair of his cowboy boots, but no one was going to see his feet in the casket.

We didn’t bother asking our stepmother to bring a pair of Dad’s boots for his burial and never again asked for his guitar, banjo, or any of the other instruments that his hands made sing all throughout our childhood.

We had reason to believe there was nothing left.

Charlotte said that when she went to the house to get some records, she saw an area in the yard that “looked like someone had been burning things,” which was remarkable because Cindy once claimed to me that she caught Dad outside “burning things.”

It wasn’t the only time she projected. She often told on herself long before an alibi or explanation was even necessary, so when there was evidence of recent embers, I figured Cindy was destroying documents and correspondence.

We knew we would never see his stainless steel mandolin, his most cherished instrument. It was a gift from an old Kansas neighbor, Wendell Brant, whose mother was the teacher at the old one-room schoolhouse Dad attended as a young boy on the Kansas prairie. But what made the mandolin so beloved was that Wendell was at the battle of Iwo Jima when those soldiers raised the American flag. That made him worthy of a hero-worship eclipsed only by Uncle John’s service as a Marine in Vietnam.

She likely disposed of Dad’s possessions, destroying everything of sentimental value that would have been graceful for her to offer to disburse between his daughters and grandson.

There is no blood in her veins. Only venom.

He was so still. Gone was the shallow breathing that made me wonder if he was hurting. There were no more gasps that made me worry that he was scared and suffocating. No begging for nose spray. No tears poured from his eyes after what was supposed to be a cool, relieving spray of saline solution, but instead left his sinuses on fire.

Is that where I failed him? Why didn’t I think of it then? Mucous membranes? It was 306. 306. Once he was in the nursing home, there was no vomiting, nothing to alert the staff to symptoms caused by something he ate. But somehow it was there. Forensic tests don’t lie.

He looked nothing like himself. He was way too powdery pink, too pasty. But it wasn’t the mortician’s fault. His skin tone probably would have worked better with the formulas if preparations had been started the day he died instead of 4 days later.

But there was all that business with coroners and a prospective autopsy . . .

There is no blood in her veins. Only venom. Those were Dad’s words.

The Marigolds of Sintra

Standard
Horse and carriage team at Sintra National Palace

As I open the window of my third story apartment in Sintra, a paradise on the outskirts of Lisbon, the sky has returned to blue and appears refreshed from yesterday’s announcement that summer is ending, and autumn is imminent: a steely gray torrential downpour.

The heavenly sky provides a backdrop to the National Palace of Sintra, spectacular and resplendent in alabaster stucco. Whispers of Mughal architecture are present in Moorish arches that frame half the windows on the upper story while others showcase frames of Spanish Gothic style. From this viewpoint, one of the palace kitchen’s enormous conical chimneys rises to scattered clouds of white and soft gray, perfectly obstructing the twin chimney behind it.

A pleasant, cool breeze invites herself into the flat and brings with her four flies, so I have a quick search for a flyswatter but fail to find one. Despite the absence of weaponry, they could not have chosen a less fortunate place. I haven’t cooked anything yet and have only a modest selection of produce in the minifridge.

Having realized their predicament, they hover about and circle one another indecisively in the middle of the living room and I am reminded of many layovers of the last twenty-seven years with my pilots and fellow flight attendants—a bunch of drunk, disoriented, and hungry travelers arguing over who was in charge of finding a place with a cheap buffet.

Down on the street, restaurant workers scramble to place tables and chairs on the cobbled walks as onions and peppers destined for omelets sauté in olive oil and rich black coffee percolates. Their aromas lick at the town to invite guests.

I watch three groundskeepers as they refresh a trio of small planting beds in the roundabout below my window overlooking the town’s heart center. They strike the ground with hoes and pry out small plants with caps of white flowers, and the smell of upturned dirt travels to where I watch from behind an ornamental iron rail that crosses the terrace opening. They work the soil and remove the spreading roots, but leave after planting a petite bushy plant with variegated foliage in the center of two of the beds. Grassy clumps edge the inside of the tiled-off patches of earth, and I don’t know why they are taking out the flowers but leaving the grass.

Three floors beneath me, a vast bed of orange and yellow marigolds adorns the corner on the south side of the triangular roundabout. The bed is about two and a half feet tall and is contained by round snug timbers that stand upright in a log wall. 

I was here a couple of months ago. In July, the beds were fluffy and prolific with blooms, but they would have been even more brilliant had someone regularly deadheaded the blossoms that were tired and shriveled. Spent blooms only task the plant by exerting its energy on converting the spent flowers into seeds.

Maybe it was a purposeful practice decided by the Sintra gardeners. Perhaps it is their agricultural preference to allow more seeds to form, drop and germinate, but I found it frustrating that they would choose that delayed gratification. If they were regularly deadheaded, the existing plants would flourish, growing and blooming, filling the beds much sooner.

Marigolds in July

Therefore, I asked a shopkeeper if he knew who maintains the landscaping in town. He indicated that he did not. Furthermore, the expression on his face as he shrugged his shoulders messaged that he didn’t care, or that the question had never been asked of him nor tickled his own curiosity.

I was tempted to furiously snap all the wilted, drying flowers and watch them sprout new ones over the following days, but thought better of it in case the Portuguese consider it trespassing or vandalism—in the same way that a common tourist should never touch the queen’s gardens in London. Still, I may have clandestinely snipped a few as I walked by anyway—the marigolds, not the queen’s flowers.

Now, in September, the marigolds look worse for their wear. Their volume has decreased considerably although the weather is still supportive. Much more of the dirt is visible as I look down on them because the plants have withdrawn or been thinned out. I should have saved them in July. They will soon be gone with the first frost, and never having reached their full potential.

I look back across the street to the sidewalk beneath the palace. There is a man tending to two horses hitched to a sightseeing carriage, waiting for a fare. The three of them claim the same spot where I saw them in July under a tilting tree that provides a generous patch of shade from the sun that reflects off the white tiles that line the street. The cooler temperatures are mercy for the man and his animals now that summer has passed.

The horse keeper wipes down the seats and bonnet of his carriage as he hums a tune that I hear between sporadic grumbles of tuk-tuk motors as the town is slowly coming to life after sleeping in late on a Wednesday. He then walks to the hind end of one horse and lifts his tail, examines what is revealed, then he lowers his gaze down the horse’s legs, and gives it a light playful slap on the rear before and walking around the back side of the carriage to the other horse where he repeats his steps. The tail is lifted, what is revealed is studied, and again the man looks downward, and as he slaps the horse’s rear, he shouts something that sounds like a mock-scolding, followed by lesser mumbling.

Only then do I notice the wide bucket that is suspended behind the horses’ backsides and wide enough to tail both of them. The man lifts a black plastic liner out of the bucket and carries it a few steps to one of two circular shallow waste dumpsters. He turns out its contents, shakes the bag three times to assist the evacuation, and plods back to where the horses stand.

Next to them sits a large concrete vat whose faucet juts out of the wall of the plinth where the palace sits. With a water hose that dangles from a square opening in the wall, he rinses the liner and returns it into the manure receptacle that hangs between the horses and his front seat on the carriage.

A man with his sightseeing horses and carriage.

One of the horses seems content or bored, or possibly both. It stands still and quiet. The other awkwardly nods her head and stomps her front right foot onto the cobbled sidewalk. A few seconds later, repeats her statement. She jerks her head up and down again and lifts her right back hoof in a half kick before stomping it into the sidewalk. They are clearly cared for, but still I feel a sense of melancholy, wondering what they are thinking about and what would they rather be doing.

Their keeper crosses to the roundabout’s median to chat with the gardeners who appear to be finished with their work. I hope he’s telling them to pull the weeds and tend to the marigolds.

But the gardeners do neither. The horse man returns to his team and one of the gardeners takes a bag of uprooted white flowers to the same dumpster that swallowed the horse waste. One of his partners surveys the weedy grass surrounding the leafy plant and presses a flat green disk into place at the edge of the bed. Then the three of them pick up their shovels and hoes and walk away, but not toward the marigolds. They are spared the same fate as the white flowers, for now.

If I could stay awake late into the night, I would go down to the street after the bars close and no one is around, and pinch the marigolds. If they show enough life to continue a few more weeks, they will be a brilliant accompaniment to many of the trees that blanket the hills as they assume their fall colors amid the wildly diverse flora of Sintra.

The Blue Room

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Also published on Once A Guard, Now the Guarded – A Federal Corrections Officer’s Journey from Advocate to Victim

The call to dinner was the regular punctuation at the ends of my days of untroubled 4-year-oldness, which were spent contentedly playing alone in my little bedroom while Lora dutifully attended second grade. I enjoyed learning and she enjoyed teaching me, so upon her return from school, she frequently bequeathed to me all her newfound nuggets of wisdom.

I was too tall for a booster seat but too little to reach my plate if I sat normally in the chair, so I sat with my legs folded beneath me and stood on my knees to lean into every bite. My long blonde hair dragged through the perfect pile of mashed potatoes that had been hollowed with the back of a large spoon to create the perfect pit to fill with salt-soaked brown gravy.

The only flavor on a plate that could compete with mashed potatoes and gravy was what lay next to it—green beans drowned in bacon grease, the nectar of the Hillbilly gods, so limp and tender that they were more easily scooped with a spoon, rather than fixed to a fork.

Nowhere in the world will I ever again delight in a more mouthwatering side dish. My house at 501 North Main Street will forever stand as the Sacred Chapel of the Most Holy Green Beans. By the time they ended up in the white Corelle cornflower dish, the high temperatures from the pressure cooker and the infusion of animal fat had turned them from the tree-frog green velvety pods we picked from our own garden with laborious itchiness to the color of a deep forest fern. Mom fixed them the way she grew up eating them—the same way Great Grandma Tatum taught her—with the snot cooked out of them so hard that they couldn’t possibly have any nutritional value left. Defeated, drooping, and boiled like a bad soul in Hell, they melted and fell apart at their seams and spilled out little brown baby beans.

Dad stabbed his slab of pot roast with a fervor that was dependable and mighty. His fork pinned it firmly in place on the plate and he sawed back and forth, squealing his knife against the plate with a force that suggested that he was not quite convinced that the cow was already dead and not about to escape.  

At the dinner table, Dad spoke a language that I heard nowhere else and did not understand. There were no “shysters and crooks” in Clifford, the Big Red Dog, nor any mention of “corruption and Watergate” in The Pokey Little Puppy. It would be many years before I learned that there were thinly veiled “thugs and mobs” in some of those Little Golden Book fairy tales, and I was thirty before I grasped that all the names in the Flintstones had to do with rocks.

My childhood bedroom was blue on blue with some blue added here and there, and on the side, a peppering accent of blue. Everything but the ceiling and windowsills was blue. Pale, my mother called it. Blue, it was. The little square room at the southwest corner of our house was an azure, night sky, sapphire, indigo cave. It is likely at the root of my fear of water and inability to learn to swim.  

One day, Mom hauled an old black chifforobe out to the back yard and painted it a shade between royal and navy, but some of the ebony still shone through the brush marks. After it dried and was deposited in my room, I examined it with all the scrutiny my four-year-old eyes could muster, alternately focusing on the streaks of black that still bled through and the areas where the blue was applied more liberally. It seemed unfinished. I wanted it to be one color or the other, completely black, or completely blue. In retrospect, it is likely that we didn’t have enough money for a second coat of paint, which resulted in a distressed “Shabby Chic” style that would today bring a respectable price from any fashionable soccer mom worth her salt.

The shag carpet that covered my bedroom floor was mostly cobalt blue with a bit of deep emerald green speckled in. Lora’s floor was dressed in the same kind of rug, but hers was a blissful pairing of red and pink, of which I was deeply covetous. Our carpets’ thick, curly pile felt ankle-deep and had the same scratchy, frizzy texture that vexed my Barbie dolls’ hair after I took them to the bathtub.

I had a Holly Hobbie card game. She was a young girl clad in a prairie dress with an apron of mismatched patchwork. Topping off her couture was a puffy, oversized blue bonnet that obscured her face, as she was usually illustrated from a profile perspective. My little girl mind enjoyed her little girl card game just fine—I felt sophisticated as I held my hand of fanned out cards and furrowed my forehead in the same contemplative scowl as the cigar-smoking, whiskey-slugging men on Kojak and Columbo. Grown-up cards scared me—they were too busy, too cluttered with shapes and numbers, but above all, I was terrified of the faces of the jack, queen, and king and how their squared heads turned to the side, emphasizing the nose and chin whilst their eyes seemed to bore directly into mine.

 Mom was a seamstress and co-owned a sewing store and, while I am confident that she never had the slightest inclination to decorate my room in a poker den motif, I am grateful that her store never tempted her with material covered in red and black ghoulish face cards. However, she must have thought that I really, really liked Holly Hobbie for she found bolts of a cotton-blend fabric emblazoned with her likeness. Conveniently, the background color was blue. Behold, curtains.

Ruffled at the top, ruffled at the bottom, and ruffles on the panels’ edges, the little prairie girl whose face I could not see taunted me every time I looked at the windows. The disturbing theme intensified when Mom found the same print on a quilted bolt of fabric. Then, not only did repetitive images of the little prairie girl stare down at me from two windows, but hundreds more of her suddenly manifested on my bedspread and crept all over me as I slept.

Enter the red-cased record player and spinning disks of sound that drowned out all bother and boredom. I turned to Olivia Newton-John for comfort and imagined that she and Glen Campbell loved each other like Sonny and Cher and that the pretty blonde lady with an angel’s voice and the Rhinestone Cowboy were out there looking for me, their little girl, who somehow found herself living under the rule of a silent, faceless Holly Hobbie Gang.

Clayton Fountain, Inmate

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Also published on: Once A Guard, Now the Guarded – A Federal Corrections Officer’s Journey from Advocate to Victim

Dinner at our house was where I learned the word “President”. It is where Dad furiously ranted about something called Watergate and continued into fuming and venting about “thugs and crooks”. I was about four years old when those events happened, and I had no idea what a Watergate but, and Dad’s tone of voice made it clear that I should not ask.

Other things my father talked about during dinner every night were almost always related to his work. Ours was not a loud, abusive environment with an overstressed parent who took out his frustrations on his family, but the dinner table was a place where he sometimes released his tension.

He was well into a lifetime career as a federal corrections officer and after getting his feet wet at the prisons in Lompoc, California and Leavenworth, Kansas—both notorious for hosting the worst of the worst—he settled down at the Medical Center for Federal Prisoners, or as he referred to it, “the Joint”.

Red-faced and slamming the spoon into the dish that held the mashed potatoes, his knife and fork squealed across the plate as stew from the pot roast splashed onto his chest.

“This cock-eyed Watergate!” He was careful to not use curse words around us and made-up phrases that allowed him to adequately express his degree of disdain.

“What in the Sam hill were they thinking?” I didn’t know who Sam was, why he had a hill named after him, or how it was connected to what Dad was so mad about. Adding to my confusion, our beloved beagle/shepherd mix was named Sambo. I worried that Sam was going to take the blame for something that an innocent dog could not have done.

Dad wasn’t a heavy drinker, but he did frequently have a bit of red wine when he came home from work. We didn’t have the proper stemmed wine glasses, and the first time I saw one at Red Lobster, I thought, “Boy, this place is fancy! I wonder how we can afford to eat here.” To top it off, Dad left a few dollars on the table when we got up to leave. I recalled the scolding I got and the tears in Mom’s eyes when I lost a little purse with a five-dollar bill in it when we went to Texas to see my uncle. I grabbed the money and caught up with my parents at the door.

“Dad!” I cried out in panicked urgency. “You left this money on the table!” I was so proud to have prevented the loss of two precious dollars.

He grinned and took it from me and said, “Honey, that’s the tip for the waitress. You give the waitress a little money at places like this,” and he walked back to where we had been sitting and replaced the money. The next time we went to McDonald’s, I left a few pennies on the table.

Whether the absence of formal stemware was because we were not elegant entertainers or to downplay the consumption of alcohol, I can’t be sure. Instead, he drank from a small etched-glass jar that an olive and pimento cheese spread came in. When the last of the spread was smeared onto a slice of Wonder white bread, Mom threw away the metal lid and washed the jars until she had built a nice collection. They were just the right size for a drink of water before going to bed or to wash down a pill.

I loved purple grape juice, but we rarely had it at the house. I salivated when at church the communion tray of tiny shot glasses full of the delicious nectar bypassed me because I hadn’t been baptized yet. One day, I sneaked a sip of deep magenta liquid from a glass Dad had set down and reeled from its bitter horror. What I thought was a rare treat of church communion juice turned out to be from one of those bottles he bought at the Brown Derby liquor store. He always gave me the miniature plastic bull that dangled from a wire around the bottle’s neck. After tasting it, I wasn’t even interested in them anymore.

Sometimes Dad would pour his glass of wine and lie down on the couch without bothering to change out of his uniform, a sky blue short-sleeved button-down shirt, and charcoal gray pants. With the TV tuned to the news, he lay down, and soon his eyelids began to slowly lower, but not all the way shut. He looked like he was sleeping but sometimes I couldn’t tell for sure.  Some of the whites of his eyes still showed like they were rolled back in his head and it didn’t look like he was alive, but not yet dead either.

If I dared to change the channel to watch Tennessee Tuxedo, he jolted awake and scolded me to change it back to the news. When I protested that I thought he had fallen asleep and was not watching, he asked me who paid the rent here. I didn’t know what rent was, but I knew the answer was not me, so by deductive reasoning, I concluded that if you don’t pay rent, you don’t change the channel to cartoons even if Dad looks like he’s dead and can’t possibly be watching the news.

One evening, Dad was anxiously pacing through the house. His expression was more intense than usual—this was more than a bad day at work or exhaustion from the routine of double shifts. I studied him as he stepped into the living room and took determined, heavy strides to the front door, stepped outside for a minute, then thundered back inside. He paraded past me and around the corner of the dining room and I heard his every step as he marched up to his and Mom’s upstairs bedroom.

“Momma, what’s wrong with Daddy?” I asked, stealing a moment when he was out of earshot.

“Nothing, Sweetheart. Daddy just may need to go away to work for a few days,” she said. “But he’ll be back, it will just be a few days.”

I didn’t understand why he would have to pack a suitcase and leave town. I knew where Dad worked– I often rode with Mom to take his lunchbox to him. That was usually when he was working in the guard tower at the end of the lane that led from Kansas Highway to the menacing brick prison building.

Working in the tower was a preferred shift and Dad was grateful when he got that assignment even if he did occasionally get bored. Tower duty was checking in visitors and employees as they came and went, and obviously, keeping watch for escape attempts. But the greatest advantage was that it was a respite from the brain-rattling clangs of the iron cell doors and the gut-wrenching—and often dangerous—proximity to the inmates.

Drawers creaked and slammed and his bootsteps announced that he was returning down the stairs. He was troubled, and so distracted that he didn’t notice me sitting on the couch as I watched him carry a small bag out the front door. I heard the door of his pickup truck slam shut and he came back inside.

The 5:30 national evening news was on TV, but he was too agitated to sit down. He glanced briefly at the images being broadcast. A large stone and brick building was on fire, and smoke billowed into the sky as the news helicopter hovered to film.  Next to the burning building stood a tall, narrow structure that resembled Dad’s familiar guard tower. The anchor man’s voice was somber as he struggled, unscripted, to explain to the country what was happening. Dad’s worried expression deepened before he turned away.

The black anvil-like rotary dial telephone rang, its clangor amplified by the mahogany cabinet it sat upon. Mom later thought to put a folded towel under it in a futile attempt to soften the earsplitting peal so that it wouldn’t wake Dad when he was sleeping after a night shift. Dad stomped to the dining room and picked it up.

“Yeah. Yeah. Uh-huh. Okay.”

The conversation was short and cryptic. Dad hung up and continued to pace back and forth through the house and out to the truck and back. Several more calls rattled the evening, and the last one before my bedtime seemed to calm him. A palpable sigh rushed through the house and out through the doors and windows.

Dad was still staring at the floor as he hung up the receiver. He looked up at me…then to Mom…and the color of his face changed as his scowling frown relaxed.

“We’re not going,” he said.

They stood staring at each other. Their shoulders fell, their bodies released the fear and sense of foreboding that had overtaken them during those hours that evening.

We didn’t talk about what happened or nearly happened. I don’t remember how I learned that Dad and some of the other guards from The Joint were perilously close to being sent to Pontiac, Illinois, to help contain a riot. It was considered the most dangerous prison in the system. Three correctional officers had been murdered, and fires started in a violent, well-planned attack that involved hundreds of inmates. The facility’s staff was completely overwhelmed. The siege finally ended when state troopers and local police armed with shotguns and teargas were brought in.

A few years later, on October 22, 1983, two Aryan Brotherhood gang members murdered a couple of guards at the prison in Marion, Illinois. According to court documents (Silverstein v. Federal Bureau of Prisons, No. 12-1450,10th Cir. 2014), as Officer Merle Clutts and two other guards escorted Thomas Silverstein back to his cell after a shower, the convicted murderer walked behind Clutts. He paused at a cell and put his cuffed hands through the bars, where another inmate quickly unlocked the handcuffs and handed over a large shank—a rudimentary knife. He charged at Clutts, shouting declaration of a personal vendetta against his keeper—he had accused Clutts of intercepting his mail, destroying his artwork, and other offenses—and stabbed him forty times.

Documents from the court proceedings (United States of America, Plaintiff-Appellee,
v. Clayton Fountain, Thomas E. Silverstein, and Randy K. Gometz, Defendants-Appellants) state that after the killing, Silverstein paced the prison corridor pronouncing to all the other inmates and responding guards, “this is no cop thing. This is a personal thing between me and Clutts. The man disrespected me, and I had to get him for it.”

Later that day and in a different area of the prison, Clayton Fountain staged a second attack that mirrored that of Silverstein’s—with assistance from other convicts to unlock his handcuffs, overtake his escorts, and supplied with a shank. Officer Robert Hoffman died in the arms of his own son, who was also a guard at the prison. Two other guards were injured in the assault. One was left permanently disabled and the other’s injuries were minor.

Various accounts allege that Fountain’s reason for attacking the guards was that he did not want Silverstein to have more murders to his credit than he did. One guard testified that he also overheard Fountain say to another inmate that “it would have been fun” for him to have killed Hoffman’s son also.

These horrendous attacks led to extraordinary measures to contain the country’s most violent convicts. A few days after Clutts and Hoffman were killed, the penitentiary at Marion, the replacement for Alcatraz, went into lockdown. The Aryan Brotherhood inmates had savagely killed two of the guards’ brothers and it was time for pay-back.

While most of the convicts were already held one to a cell, their lifestyles were completely redefined. The complacency that allowed Fountain and Silverstein to coordinate with other inmates and murder two guards ended with absolute and unquestionable clarity. The twelve to fourteen hours a day that an inmate would typically spend outside of his cell was reduced to an hour and a half. Socializing was all but terminated. For all but ninety minutes a day, the most violent, demented convicts in the country were caged in tiny cells that held only a sink, a toilet, and a concrete bench for a bed.

According to a 2013 interview of a former Marion Correctional Officer by Slate journalist Justin Peters, up to possibly 50 inmates bore ferocious beatings at the hands of guards “exacting a measure of revenge”. (How a 1983 Murder Created America’s Terrible Supermax-Prison Culture, by Justin Peters, October 23, 2013)

The new policies alarmed advocacy groups who scrutinized them as beyond the pale of humane and fair, even for a maximum-security prison. Inmates claimed that the stricter conditions exacerbated mental health decline and therefore caused irreparable damage that crushed any degree of rehabilitation.

Silverstein was sent to Atlanta’s prison but was deemed a threat there following a scuttle in which Cuban detainees facilitated his release from solitary. He was then sent to the new prison built in Florence, Colorado, the max of the max for the worst of the worst.

Fountain was sent to the MCFP, where Dad worked. Depending on which old news article or crime blog you read, he or Silverstein were alternately considered the most dangerous convicts in the country. In Springfield, Fountain lived the rest of his life in a cell that was custom built (Special Housing Unit) for him to accommodate extreme isolation and supervision. Select staffers were specifically trained to oversee him and his liberties were austere. Showers were limited to several times a week and he was only allowed out of his cell for an hour and a half each day, and three guards were required for his movement. Meals were slipped into his cell through a shallow opening in the bars near the floor.

The lay criminal-mind hobbyist may not be familiar with the name Clayton Fountain, but prison personnel and fellow inmates, once their paths crossed, would never forget him. His crimes were heinous, and the spree began when he was only 19. As his victims were fellow correctional officers—who should have never been so vulnerable to him—special disdain and fear were levied on him. Even with his restrictive quarters and handling protocol, occasional reminders were shared with the staff to never underestimate his ability to outthink and overpower them.

Almost a year to the day after the Marion murders, on October 16, 1984, a memorandum was sent out to all the corrections officers working on the ward that held Fountain’s cell. It was a dire warning from the warden who, in conjunction with a mental health case manager, feared that if past behavior was prescient, Fountain’s pattern of violence was ripe for re-eruption. Attached to it was a two-and-a-half-page narrative recounting his criminal history, written by J.R. Linton, Case Manager on the Mental Health Unit. It was dated December 7, 1983, so it was likely the intake brief compiled upon Fountain’s transfer to the MCFP. Dad sent me a copy sometime after he retired and started writing about some of his time at the Bureau of Prisons.  

J. H. Hayden wrote:

Dating back to 1974, Fountain has been directly involved in a murder or brutal assault of another person. This has occurred on an annual, or nearly so, basis. As you are all aware, it will be one year, at the end of this month, since he murdered one Correctional Office(sic) and seriously assaulted two (2) other Officers at the United States Penitentiary, Marion. His history clearly indicates that he is due to attempt another assault, even another murder if he gets the slightest opportunity. I also want you to know that Fountain is increasingly making comments and references, in his correspondence, to the effect that he considers himself a “warrior”, believes that he will go t a “warrior Valhalla” when he dies, and has also stated that he is a “cold-blooded killing machine”. He has also indicated that he will fight when he has the “element of surprise” and the situation is “on his ground” or to his advantage. He refers to US as the Enemy.

The bottom line is this:

       His past record indicates that he is due for a violent outburst.

       He is obviously psyching himself up for it.

       He is very capable of doing great physical damage.

       He will maim, cripple, KILL YOU if he gets the slightest opportunity.

Fountain came to Springfield around the time that I was in eighth grade. Dad, with twenty years in the Bureau under his belt and counting down to retirement, worked a lot of night shifts to reduce his interaction with the most dangerous individuals in our society. He was just getting home in the morning as I was leaving for school, and often napped in the evening before going to work. He also frequently worked double shifts from 4 PM until 8 AM, which exposed him to more inmate activity but limited duty with administrators around, and he liked to stay under the radar of “the brass”. There were weeks when I wondered if he even still lived with us.

A Letter to my 14-Year-Old Self

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Previously published in the Pearl S. Buck Literary Journal

Shut that closet door and stop looking at Dad’s guns. They are all too large for you to handle anyway. You can’t position a rifle at yourself and reach the trigger. You will just make a mess. The pills in the bathroom medicine cabinet may not work either. You may just make yourself sick or end up comatose.

You are only fourteen years old. You have no way of knowing what you will miss out on if you do this. One day you will wake up to the unnerving realization that had this been your last day, it would have been a tragic forfeiture.

Your pain is real, and it feels unconquerable, but you can get through this. It begins with this moment and when it is gone, you can get through the next one, and the next, and the next. One by one, if you follow them—think ‘one more day’—instead of succumbing to the blinding turmoil in your mind, you will come through this dark place.

You will not be a teenager forever. Your current troubles will subside and yes, they will yield to other nuisances and setbacks, as all lives impart. But you will learn that a diverging path is more challenging and the reward for navigating these curves is the added scenery and preparedness for the next twist in the road, You cannot begin to grasp the magnificence of the visions that lie ahead of you. Just wait until you see the bigger picture!

No matter how stuck you think you are right now, the wheel of your life is in motion. Every friendship, relationship and experience has the potential to change your trajectory beyond anything you can imagine, and when that happens, you will set upon another path to encounter others whose trajectory you are destined to affect. You must stay because you never know what impact you may have on another’s life, nor they on yours.

For in a few years you will fall in love, and you will feel adored and protected…until you are not. Then you will learn how strong you are when you sever the ligatures of a toxic relationship and leave the one who demeans and insults you. His words are flames that burn you, an inferno that consumes you until you are melted down to a dangerously thin frame. The taunting pushes and shoves that were “just playing”, the arrogant gloats and declarations that you will never leave him immobilize you for days. You would not, you could not. But you can and you do. You will never question your decision, nor will you grieve the months that you tolerated his scalding, dispiriting abuses. You left with the tools to extinguish any future immolation.

You will laugh and curse as you attempt to remodel your first home, a structure that was so fixer-upperish that it was barely worth fixing up. There will be times that you question your own senses—what business do you have taking on such a project? Squirrels play in the crawl space and get into the walls. They sound like fish in a bucket, flopping about. You try hanging your own kitchen cabinet by drilling screws through the back without fastening to a single stud. It breaks from the wall and falls, collapsing your ironing board and stack of books that it was propped upon. You are crying with laughter when you call a friend and describe the scene. His mother chides him, “Go help that poor girl hang her cabinets.”

You will smile at the thought of that dumpy old house on Jeffery Lane because it was your escape from the abuser who sneered that you were incapable of doing anything on your own. Yes, it was ugly—hideous—the fences shrugged, and the roof leaked. The fireplace was an afterthought, awkward (and likely dangerously) built into a corner of the living room so that it enclosed a window! The propane tank gauge was corroded and unreadable, so you frequently ran out. You hung wallpaper poorly and your attempt at crown molding looked like it was done with a chainsaw. But it was your soft landing when you leapt from the grip of the abuser.

And when it is time to move on, the Karmic wheel rolls right up to your front door. The shabby little house that you fear you will have to pray away is the palace that answers the prayers of a down-on-her-luck single mother.

When you were a little girl, you wanted to stay home from church on Sunday night and watch the Miss America pageant. Every summer brought two weeks of Bible School, learning memory verses and countless stories from antiquity on the other side of the planet. Old Jerusalem was just an ancient, unimaginable city in a story on thin pages of a heavy book.

But years from now, you will say a prayer at the Wailing Wall and the memories of youth will swarm and flit about like butterflies. Oh, the countless hours spent in church on snowy Sunday mornings and firefly lit, muggy summer evenings! The illustrations in your old children’s Bible come to life as you survey the craggy, rocky streets of the Old City, with its churches and temples. You explore the souvenir shops and enjoy the dance of price-haggling between merchants and penny-pinching tourists. When you return to the maze of streets, you draw your fingers along the walls built of stone in shades of sand and bronze that bled into one another like watercolors. The scene is monochromatic sepia except for the brilliant splashes of colorful flowers that spring from some of the cracks or spill over the top of the wall.

Green ivy cascades from the trees and blue aster reaches out from small soil beds inserted between stones. Bougainvillea bushes abound with dazzling fuchsia blooms. The branches arch over the top of the wall and reach to join the other flowers. They are perfectly manicured and pruned to discourage overgrowth. Visitors will not be scratched by prickly barbs as they admire the tree’s beauty while retracing the route that Jesus walked while the thorns tortured him.

With every step you will be mindful as you wonder, “In whose steps am I walking?” With each placement of your feet on the stones, you will imagine how others have stepped there. Who were they? Did they live peacefully here during that time, or were they rife with conflict and heartache as so much of the history of Jerusalem holds? What did they experience here hundreds or thousands of years ago? You look at the ground and create a vision. Are you standing on the erased footprint of a thick leather sandal worn by a powerful warrior? Or in the knee prints once made in the mud by a broken, collapsed slave?

But if you keep looking at the guns, this scene will not happen.

You are only fourteen. You cannot know that your future includes living in India and Saudi Arabia. Your adventures in these two wildly different cultures will challenge you on everything that you have ever felt or thought about humanity and the universe. The train journey from New Delhi to Agra will prove a pivotal time in your life. The impossible beauty of the Taj Mahal—as the poet Tagore described, “a teardrop on the cheek of time”—will cast her spell and create in you an unquenchable thirst for everything Indian.

In Mumbai, you will see a young girl carrying an even younger baby on her hip while she extends to you her free hand, begging for a rupee. There will be sandalwood incense making a futile attempt to mask the smell of urine and curry. Varanasi’s sadhus appear other worldly as they meander the winding alleys naked and smeared with gray ash. A bearded Shiva devotee with a mischievous smile and a saffron painted forehead squats at Dashashwamedh Ghat, the steps descending from the city street to the Ganges. He keeps his gaze fixed on you as he wrings the holy water from the marigold robe he is washing. He will continue chanting, “Ram, Ram, for it is his belief that if he dies with the name of his god on his lips, Lord Ram will whisper the secret of life in his ear as the soul leaves the body.

These visions will return to you often and it will be in those moments that you are the most aware of your heart unfolding in your chest. You will wonder why you feel passionately drawn to a culture so different from your own. What is the appeal of this continent, a history, a religion, and a people so unfamiliar to you? As a lotus flower’s root reaches far beneath the water’s surface and cannot be seen, your connection to India will be visceral and its source you may never understand. The mystery will be as thrilling as it is bewildering.

But you will never experience this wonder if you open the orange and white pill bottle with the Family Pharmacy label wrapped around it.

In Saudi Arabia you will spend a year feeling as though you have been dropped onto another planet. The men wear white long robes and red and white checked patterned scarves on their heads. Within a few weeks’ time though, you will decide that they appear familiar to you, and that it is your American colleagues who look out of place in their blue jeans and T-shirts.

You will be living in Jeddah, when two young princes suffer the heartbreaking loss of their mother, who was loved by the world. You will draw the curtains closed and sit in the dark with Karen and Deborah, sobbing while watching William and Harry follow Diana’s funeral procession.

A few days later you will be enjoying a delicious cup of sweetly spiced chai in the Pakistani quarter of Jeddah. Sami, your Bangladeshi-born friend will translate what the server says as he walks away from the table, patting his hand to his heart and waggling his head side to side.

“She looks like our princess. Our kind, dead princess.” And your heart will melt.

For the first time in your life, you will be subjected to discrimination and a lack of simple liberty that drives you to tears. There will be separate seating areas for women in restaurants, you will not be allowed to drive, and will be required to wear the abaya, the long black robe. You will laugh in the old Souq when you purchase a flamboyant hot pink one and taunt the religious police with your uncovered long blonde hair. There will be stores that display signs in their front windows stating, “No Ladies Allowed,” and you will be rendered apoplectic, but with time youwill reflect on the value of the occurrence. Yes, even this vile, fracturing moment will enrich your soul, for in no other place and at no other time, would you, a twenty-six-year-old white privileged American woman, face such a severe lesson in humility.

At fourteen, you cannot foresee that on a future 4th of July, you will take pictures from a camel’s saddle as you ride around the Sphinx and the great pyramids of Giza. A frail, old man with sun-weathered skin and a turban of white gauzy layers wrapped around his head approaches you. He peddles trinkets to tourists. His kind eyes meet yours and when he places a cheap resin beetle in your hand, he declares, “Gift for you! Now give me money!” It will be a talisman that you never let go.

You will spend hours exploring the Cairo museum, touching towering ancient statues that were carved before Moses walked the land. You will weave through endless aisles of glass cases displaying jewels, intricately painted pottery and papyrus sheaths. Astounded by the volume and ages of the bountiful collection, you will linger to read and reread the caption for each piece, and you send a prayerful thanks to your parents. It was a Christmas gift that you received when you were eight years old that ignited that yearning to learn of other cultures—a globe.

You will be horrified when within weeks of your visit a bus full of German tourists is

attacked as it is parked in front of the museum. Nine people are killed. Thirteen years later, a civil uprising called the “Arab Spring” overthrows the government and thousands of artifacts are lost to Tahir Square rioters, looters, and fire. You will be gripped by your memories and feel sorrow for Egypt’s loss, and grateful for the visions left in your memory.

One evening, you will see on the news a country whose name you have not yet heard, Rwanda. The whole world will learn about this tiny, central African nation when it erupts into an unspeakably savage genocide.

Two decades later, you will hike that Land of a Thousand Hills and marvel, unblinking, at the family of Silverback Mountain Gorillas as they wrestle and chase one another. They are so close that you can hear their breaths as they chew bamboo shoots that they snapped off at the ground. The babies playfully roll around, screeching and teasing the adults. The giant male grunts and rushes past you and your companions, protesting your proximity to his ladies and offspring.

You will spend a few days in an ivy-embraced white stucco cottage that was home to an idyllic American woman and read her personal journal. As you leaf through the red leather-bound book with her elegant penmanship, you will marvel at the whimsical courage that married her to a big game hunter and followed him to Africa. She became so enchanted with Rwanda that even when the marriage failed, she adopted it as her home and lived on their plantation for the rest of her life.

She was a nurturer and became friends with an anthropologist who would one day be famous. When the doctor’s emphysema or local tribal conflicts flared, she descended from her mountain camp in the higher altitudes. She wrote “Gorillas in the Mist” while resting in a bedroom in the cottage, next to the room you will sleep in.

Though in her 80’s when the genocide stormed through forcing a brief evacuation, the lady of the manor returned to her lovely acres of dahlias and daisies, and with the help of the UN, rebuilt the property into an orphanage. She became a mother to hundreds of parentless children, decades after her child-bearing years ended. You will love this story but that you get to walk in her footsteps amongst the flowers and sit at her table will make it so much more meaningful. A picture you take of the African plantation at sunset will be one that, of all your travels, you hold the most dear.

You will struggle in the city of Kigali as you go through the photos and dioramas of the museum that documents the genocide. You will feel the souls of the churchgoers who were killed in their perceived safe place as you walk past the weathered pews, left strewn with the dead’s clothes and possessions as a monument so that they are never forgotten. You will fall in love with the kindness and elegance of the Rwandan survivors. The serenity and grace that you find there will leave you astonished at the human capacity for resilience and forgiveness.

There is a spouse in your future who needs you to survive. When his family breaks apart and he is shaken to the core by the silent absence of his children and pet, you will be the one with whom he builds a future. You will sunburn on Caribbean beaches and delight in Broadway shows. Your disdain for cold weather will acquiesce to the majesty of snowy Swiss Alps when he takes you there at Christmastime. He will indulge your inner Hippie when you embrace yoga, meditation, and pink hair.

At 14 you cannot embrace this concept. You cannot see past tomorrow, but that is not because of stubbornness or “being a teenager”—it is perspective. It is understandable that the thoughts and fears that you cannot articulate are all-consuming and that you feel disconnected from the adults you try to confide in. You sense that they are growing tired of you, that they think you are being vain and unreasonable.

You feel that you have control over nothing in your life—you are an animal in a snare and there is only one way to stop this crushing feeling.

Exasperation flattens you when they say, “This is temporary,” and that, “You’ll get over it”. Your despair is compounded when your feelings are trivialized and dismissed. You know that they do not mean to sound this way, but clearly, they cannot grasp the gravity of your emotional state—and you desperately need them to.

What you need to know is this: They are not apathetic or unconcerned with your despondency —they have forgotten how it feels to be powerless. No one gets through adolescence without some tears. Almost everyone who has muddled through it to reach the liberating milestone of adulthood discarded the armor long ago that deflected their own daggers of teenage angst. They must be reminded that you are unable to see your situation the way they do. Your short fourteen years of life have not provided enough experiences to look back on to show you that it truly does get better, that there really is a good place waiting on the other side of this challenge. All you know is where you are now, how you feel now.

Here is what else you need to know: There absolutely will be evenings of gut-wrenching laughter with wonderful friends that you have yet to meet. You will read books that change your heart and beliefs. You will travel around the planet more times than you can count. You will sip a Moscow Mule across the bar from a former British Prime Minister in a swanky European piano lounge. You will pour coffee on a private jet for a former President—he takes it black and in his paper cup, not the china. You will discover Eton Mess in London, have pizza in Perugia, and roam Rome. Maybe you’ll even write a story or two. But you will never see any of this if you leave now.

Seek out what fascinates you and pursue it in your spare time. Notice the adults with whom you feel comfortable—teachers, friends’ parents, or neighbors. You may be drawn to them because of a common interest or talent. Take advantage of their age and experience to lead you to opportunities. Follow an issue as it evolves from one project into another that may seem unrelated—and then marvel at the journey. Learn as much as you can about other cultures and engage in thoughtful conversations that stretch your soul and vision. Devour books and see movies that do more than entertain, but also inspire and teach. These are the actions that nurture curiosity and dialogue, and dialogue nurtures compassion, which nurtures connection—a lack of which is precisely what brings you to this moment.

Be aware that at any time, there are many others like you who are confused, defeated, lost, and standing on the same ledge that you are. When you see them, I hope that you are confidently the one to help. It will be your time to talk them down, assuring them that you all have grand lives to look ahead to.

Thirty years from now you will be haunted by an epidemic of teen suicides. When that day comes, I hope that you remember the words that pulled you through your own dark times. You will know that those kids need a guide to that tells them that they have adventures to look forward to. They just must be convinced that there is a future and it can be more than mere existence. Life can be full of purpose and awe, as yours has been and you never saw it coming. One day you were on an ill-defined path just out of a rotten relationship and living in a slightly less rotten house, the next you were on your first flight to Paris. That was twenty-six years ago, and you are not finished yet—but if you do what you are thinking of doing right now, none of this will ever happen.

It is sobering to think of how many others have not walked away from the closet during the past thirty years, but instead reached inside, picked up the weapon, strung the rope, or swallowed the pills. Sadly, it is reasonable to believe that over the next thirty years there will be other fourteen-year-olds, 17, or even 10-year-olds somewhere looking in a closet. If you don’t walk away from your closet, they may not walk away from theirs.

 

The Overstayer

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Previously published in the Pearl S. Buck Literary Journal

I remember his eyes, the rims raw and red with fatigue and stung by air that was thick with sand and acrid, burning pollution. Tired and yellow where they should have been white, they held a deep copper-tinged gold ring around the brown iris. The tears welled quickly and steadied themselves for a few seconds before spilling over his lower lid and spreading, losing their edges as they bled into the veil of sweat that covered his face. He was an empath, this chai wallah, and from his tiny tea stall tucked between rows of dilapidated shops of aluminum scrap walls and crumbling plaster, his gaze looked over and beyond my shoulder. Fear and panic, defeat and grief all stabbed at one another in his expression.

I turned away from the shade of the awning and to the blinding street scene. Mid-day in midsummer Jeddah was unrelenting in its assault on the senses. The sun, unfiltered by even a passing feather of a cloud, showered steadily over the Kingdom and sucked up particles of pollution and dust from unpaved roads. Hundreds of billions of grains of sand that were carried in by long gone windstorms salted every surface. This area of the city, the Pakistani quarter that was home to many cab drivers, construction workers, and shopkeepers, was an undefined explosion of visual and respiratory pests.

A young man stood in the street, stopped on the order of two policemen who were gleeful with authority and hubris. Humble and submissive, he held his head low and his deep Persian skin glistened with the sweat that dripped from the wavy layers of black hair resting on his forehead. His fearful eyes were fixed on the ground just beyond his toes. Bony shoulders and a lean ribcage rounded forward to hug himself or to have a shorter distance to collapse with the next predictable slap on the side of his head. The long-sleeved button-down shirt he wore untucked was soaked and stained with several days’ wear. Threadbare khakis hung from his frame. He was a splinter of a man swimming in clothes and exhaustion.

The officers were not much older than their prey and while they had been deprived the gift of impressive height, thick beards and smug smiles camouflaged their shortcomings. The dull tan uniforms they wore were typically military and emblematic of the color of the desert. The sleeve’s green patch bearing the Saudi government insignia of crossed swords and a palm tree was reminiscent of the red armband and tilted swastika of Hitler’s Nazi party. It was a license to abuse their authority.

I asked my Bangladeshi colleague, Sammy, “What’s happening? What are they doing to him?”

“They have demanded to see his papers. His visa and sponsor papers. All the foreign laborers can be stopped anytime and asked to show their papers. If they cannot, they can be arrested and deported.”

“What do you mean, deported?”

Sammy squinted and took a draw on his cigarette as he leaned on the tea stall counter. He nodded to direct my attention to our surroundings.

“You see all these men walking about, having lunch and tea, standing out here in the sun? In the evening there will be even more hanging out here in the shops and streets. They live maybe 8 or 9 guys to a small apartment and try to work different shifts so they can take turns sleeping. The apartments have no AC so they stay outside as late as they can, so they aren’t all crowded inside together.”

My naivete and lack of comprehension was clear to Sammy. I was a 26-year-old flight attendant from Nixa, Missouri, with only 2 years of aviation and a few weeks of Saudi culture and residency under her belt. He was in his mid-50’s, a Bangladeshi- born flight engineer and business owner who emigrated from Pakistan to the US with $18 when he was in his early 20’s. We were testing the fates ourselves that day, by just socializing openly in public, a man and woman unmarried and unrelated.

He could at least blend in with the locals. His thick salt and pepper hair, dark olive skin, and command of Hindi and Urdu—along with a boundless ability to bamboozle and charm—rendered him a precious asset in Saudi Arabia. I, however, foolishly challenged my host country’s edicts every time I left my villa with my long blond hair uncovered by a hijab and my dazzling, if scandalous, hot pink abaya. Soon after arriving in Saudi for the year, we found common ground in deep conversations about human rights and religion. Later, these often occurred while smoking Cuban cigars on playground equipment.

I stole a glance at the chai wallah, and he shrank. He wanted to remain in the shadows and if the police were to notice me, he would draw their scrutiny as well. I froze. If they were about to cast a broader net in their harassment of these desperate beings, I did not want to be the one who exacerbated the scene.

Then there was noise, metal clanging on metal, a jingling, and a car door slam. Back on the street, one of the cops was bringing the laborer’s arms behind his back and placing handcuffs on him.  The “papers” that he had produced had not been satisfactory and the other officer wadded them, before throwing them to the ground and spitting on them. Both tipped their heads up high and heaved laughter. They had a bounty and they had an audience and it gave them insidious joy. Their subject was trembling and as they led him toward the government vehicle, his feet were heavy with dread and his legs nearly failed him. His knees buckled and bent, and he stumbled but his tormentors kept laughing as they pulled on him.

Sammy continued, his Hindi-laced accent requiring my concentration. The nature of his language had a melodic rising and falling of intonation and I strained to register the matter of his words against the sing-song nuance of his voice.

“Most of the people you will meet here are from other countries– third world countries. Many Saudis do not work. They get a stipend from the government and, especially if their own family is well-to-do, they do little. All these men that you see here–and most of the people that you see when you’re out in town and away from the hotel—came here for work,” Sammy explained. “Generally, the cabbies, manual laborers, and shopkeepers are Indian, Paki, or Egyptian, some African. Many maids and nurses are Filipino, and a lot of the schoolteachers are Egyptian ladies.”

I found the whole concept baffling. The occupations that Sammy mentioned were not those unique to Saudi Arabia such as specialized oil industry jobs with Saudi Aramco or engineering with Lockheed Martin. Jobs he named were common sources of livelihood in any society. I could not square why so many people would come to endure these less than desirable conditions for opportunities that existed in their own home countries.

“But why, Sammy?” I asked. “Why go through all this? What is different about the jobs here that makes it worth it? How is this better?”

“There are more people trying to get fewer jobs at their homes. So, they may not be able to find work. A three-year contract here– although the conditions here are rough—it’s better than they could do at home.”

My chest burned at the inequity of it all. Thinking of the choices that some people in this world had to make and suddenly realizing my privileged ignorance at its proximity to me was crushing. I wanted to shed my whiteness, my Americanness, my need-for-nothingness.

I asked Sammy, “So how does this work for them? How does this work from here?”

He said, “When you go shopping at the Souq, you will see these guys lined up at the phone cable office to wire their money home. What they earn here and send to their families sets them up to live better when they return. They may be paying for a parent’s well-being or a sibling’s education and hopefully there is still some saved when they get back there.”

My attention returned to the street to the captured man in cuffs. The officers continued to taunt and humiliate him, seemingly, just to occupy time. I was furious at their efforts to reduce his character, but I knew that interfering would have produced unthinkable consequences for everyone present.

“What are they going to do to him?”

“His visa is probably expired. He stayed undetected until now and maybe his sponsor will not pay his way home, so he may still be working but for lower pay. The sponsors know these guys will not complain because then their expired visas will be found out. The overstay fault will fall on the migrant worker, not the Saudi business owner. He may be arrested and thrown in jail until either the employer pays a bribe to get him out or he will have to wait in jail until the government sends him home, soon if he’s lucky. It is not good conditions, living in a Saudi jail. Overcrowding, sickness, heat, food, sanitation. Some men just disappear. Their families back home never know what became of them, why the money stopped coming, why they never came home.”

The gravity of this man’s situation sunk in and I became dizzy with the awareness that I was amid modern-day slavery. The chai wallah was silent. Sammy had just described his identical circumstances and we all knew that he could be met with the same fate at any time. This scene played out repeatedly many times before I came to work in Saudi and would likely occur many times after I returned to the US and my privileged blonde, white-skinned life.

The noises and kerfuffle quieted. Other brown skinned, cardamom and sweat-soaked men joined Sammy, the chai wallah and me as we watched the conclusion of the scene.

The handcuffed man was thrown into the back of the jail wagon about the size of a mail truck. Its windowless interior was empty but for him and the wheel wells. There were no seats, no benches, no dividers in the suffocating metal box—nothing to brace himself against or use to support himself upright for the ride. The two back doors were slammed shut and the jubilant officers flashed brilliant white smiles to the spectators as they got into their seats and closed their doors, igniting the engine and revving it noisily in a final flaunt of supremacy.

Tears burned my eyes and bile rose in my gut as they sped away, weaving and dodging from one side of the street to the other and back as I envisioned the doomed and broken man tossing and crashing violently against the walls of his dark, steel box.

 

 

All Grown Up

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This is the first Memorial Day with my father in the ground. The first Memorial Day that one of my parents is in a grave that needs to be decorated, and I cannot be there to do it. I am one-thousand, one-hundred and ten miles away, and it hurts to be missing out on this simple gesture — a punctuation at the end of the last few years of Awful.

I was there to hire a lawyer when he wanted to divorce the spouse who he suspected was harming him. I was there to buy the clothes that he liked, Western shirts with snaps, no buttons due to his arthritis. She left him at the nursing home with nothing but sweatpants and a few white T-shirts. He was embarrassed to go to the dining hall because he felt that he was wearing pajamas in public.

I was there to get the forensic tests that alarmed the prosecuting attorney and initiated a criminal inquiry. I was there to show the judge enough red flags to quickly rule in my favor and order him protection. I was there to find the bank account that she bled of his inheritance four days after he fell gravely ill.

But I am not there to bring him flowers today.

I bought him a phone so that he could connect to the friends and family from whom she gradually cut him off, systematically isolating him. I was there to file a missing person’s report when he could not be reached by calls or email. I was there to learn that she had moved my father, 20 years her senior, to a town two hours away, and kept it a secret from his loved ones. The group of retired federal corrections officers that met for breakfast once a month was missing him.

I spoke up for him at court when his lawyers failed to. I demanded to be allowed to advocate for him when his legal guardian refused to — and again the court ruled in my favor. I was awarded access to his medical records to scrutinize and found lies and inaction — and again the court ruled in my favor over his guardian’s objection.

And when it was over, during the four-day blur that followed his death, I chose the casket, a prettier and more expensive one than his guardian dictated. I wrote the funeral program, published the obituary, and ordered a glorious floral spray in autumn colors –he died in October, the same month as his birth. I procured the DD214 that secured his place of honor at the Missouri Veterans Cemetery, a basic record that his spouse and his guardian had refused to request despite my multiple pleadings over the course of three years.

I have not seen Dad’s grave since the day he was laid to rest. That evening, my husband and I went to see where he was buried. The gold, red, and orange flowers burst brightly against the dark fresh dirt. Grass certainly covers it by now. I have not seen the simple white marker that the cemetery engraved with his name, birthdate-hyphen-death date, Marine Corp, Korea, and the cherub emblem according to the form I filled out.

I filled it out. It is my name on the government forms, my signature, my address that the memorial certificate was mailed to. Nary a squeak of protest from the still barely legal spouse who had nothing more to gain. No proclamations of innocence nor demands to participate in his funeral. How quietly the guilty go…

The graveyard grounds are beautiful, well-suited for the final resting place of thousands who wore the uniform and traveled the world to make our own country stronger and safer. Far too many modest white markers stab the earth here, including one for my mother’s parents, marked with Grandpa’s service in France and Belgium.

Dad lies amongst those he revered the most for the rigors of combat and sacrifices that they endured, but he was spared during his enlistment. Still, I know that he was glowing with pride as he felt the Honor Guard ceremonially remove his casket from the hearse, stepping in time to the shouted commands.

Loved ones who live nearby will wander the bucolic field today to find their veteran’s graves. Kids will play hide and seek amongst the trees and white upright slabs, too young and restless to understand how the dead there were once young and restless as well.

Respectful grown-ups will daintily lay flowers on the grave of a parent, friend, or other loved one. Another layer of melancholy will fall on them at the sight of all the undecorated, unflowered stones. The cemetery caretakers will stake obligatory tiny flags on every plot but many of the dead will not feel the heat of green plastic stems melting in the sun and polyester roses that bloom perfectly fluffy, rain or shine.

I should be there, traveling along the picturesque road that winds by the river’s side where tendrils of creeping jasmine and tangles of trumpet vine cling to the oaks and elms. I should be driving under the shade of the dense canopy of those trees. I should be approaching the entrance to the cemetery with the handsome iron gates that close at dusk, tucking in for the night those who rest in its grounds.

I was there for all the other Awful.

 

 

 

A Fleecing in Mumbai

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The breeze is heavy with heat and stench. It carries particles of pollution and garbage, microscopic ashes from fires that never fully extinguish. Dark foamy water laps at the seawall, gagging on rotten hot fish.

I am smothering and squinting in the scorching India sun and my head throbs from the cacophony of horns and motors from cars, lorries and mopeds. Every moment in India is a violent assault on the senses.

The Port of Mumbai is home to the ornate Gateway to India, a monument that commemorates the first visit to India by a British monarch. King George and his Queen Mary entered the colony at this spot in 1911. Immense and ornate with intricate carvings, the stone arch and surrounding promenade is abuzz with tourists and darting children. Street merchants compete against their friends to sell their postcards, viscose scarves, and Rajasthan marionettes. Mocha skinned ladies with long black hair in plaits wear saris in every brilliant color and the metallic embroidery shimmers as the fabric floats in step. Its neighbor is the majestic Taj Mahal Palace Hotel that regularly hosts world dignitaries and celebrities.

“Miss! Miss!”

I heard her before I saw her. This is the most unpleasant thing about India—the moral conflict regarding beggars. It is impossible to deny a begging child, but there is a societal push to discourage supporting them on the streets in efforts to lure them into school. But I don’t have the time to get caught up in a flurry of distractors, 25 more pairs of outstretched arms, if others were to see me fill her hands, a lesson learned when I was based in New Delhi and Jeddah. I have an hour long road trip back to the hotel and am working an early flight to China in the morning.

“Miss!” She is striking in her bright yellow billowing chiffon salwar. Her black eyes are lined with kohl, giving her the appearance of a tiny, more mature woman. I dig in my purse for a few rupees.

“No! No! I don’t want money. But, can you buy my sister some rice? Are you Christian?”

And there is the hook. Oh, she’s good. She learned at a tender age how to ensnare White Privilege.

Her hand reaches out to me, cupped and open, like a baby bird’s beak, ravenous and trusting that feeding is imminent. She has a red string around her wrist, a Hindu symbol of a brother’s commitment to protect his sister. But she also has two colorful pendants hanging from a black strand around her neck. One is the Virgin Mary. The other is Shiva, the Hindu deity who creates and destroys the world. She’s got several of the world religions covered. Pretty clever to enhance her income at this popular touristy spot.

“Habibti, I really don’t have much time. I’ll just give you some money to buy the rice?”

“No. no. I cannot take your money. The store is very close. My sister is hungry. Please. Can you?” Her speech is melodic with the lilting Hindi accent and her little head gently wags from side to side as she pleads.

She seems desperate for food but determined to not take my money. I of course, cannot resist.

The store was not so close, and she led me through some alleys and turns and I am feeling foolish and anxious for continuing with her. I look back to take a mental picture that will find my way back if we go too much farther. There are fewer and fewer tourists and every turn finds an emptier and more narrow passage. Every time she senses my hesitation and reassures me, “It’s just right here.” We round another corner and she disappears; she has stepped into the store.

It is smaller than a closet. Really just a booth in the sprawling web of shops in this part of Colaba, its walls painted a bright, peeling robin-egg blue. The man minding it sees her and scolds her with a glare. She silently responds to him with a satisfied expression, like the retriever who drops the wounded pheasant at his master’s feet. His scowl softens and looks to me.

“May I help, Miss?”

I look at the girl and ask her, “What do you need?”

The question is interpreted as an open-ended offer. The modest request for a bit of biryani for her sibling expands to add a large can of powdered milk. She stands on her tippy toes and pulls herself up to put her chin on the counter and tilts her head to look at me sideways, measuring her catch.

“Ahn-yahn?” A sweetly sly grin slowly appears when she detects no opposition. The man puts an onion on the counter.

“Two, please, “ I add.

“Ool!” Emboldened and excited, her smile broadened, and she jumped up and down, Cooking oil for the burner stove.

“Okay, that’s good. How much?” I fumble with the tangled wad of cash in my bag, careful to not expose the entire amount or risk buying the rest of the shop’s inventory.

The man hands her a bag of rice and the onions and sets the oil and milk to the side for her return. She disappears running, heavy and gleeful with her booty.

Frazzled, I give him the charged amount and leave in a rush, clueless on the prices I just paid because I can barely add in dollars, let alone convert to rupees.

“You know what she’s doing with that, don’t you?” I turn to see a woman who apparently witnessed the transaction. She is also Western, possibly Australian, and her bobbed gray hair sticks to her sunburned neck and face, matted with perspiration. She looks like she belongs here, clad in her hippie-style flowing chambray skirt and white t-shirt.

“Well, it’s food. She’s poor. It will tie her family for a few meals,” I replied. The woman sounded annoyed by what she had seen. I wondered if I would ever sound so blasé and desensitized to a young girl begging for food for her hungry baby sister.

“She wouldn’t take your money. Asked you to buy things for her instead and took you to her family’s store. That big bag of rice? She will divide it into smaller portions and sell it. It’s their new scheme. They think it looks less like begging if they have you buy food rather than hand them money. The government is cracking down on the beggars in the cities, especially in tourist areas.”

I am momentarily offended. Well, that little…! I had lived in India for several months—I thought I was more street smart! How did I just get fleeced by a kid? Indian merchants practice liberal pricing on their wares. There is the Indian price that a local will pay and there is the foreigner price that is inflicted upon the naïve visitor. I am quite sure of which scale determined my purchases.

And then, the flush of punishing shame rains over me. I think of the incomprehensible disparity that lies between this impoverished little girl and the immense wealth of the client who brought me here.

I recall the untouched, obscenely expensive catering that I threw away at the end of the 9-hour flight on a fifty million-dollar jet. Perfectly picked, artistically shaped slices of fresh mango, cantaloupe, and pineapple arranged over ruffled green and amethyst kale on a silver tray, garnished with pink and white plumeria blossoms. A carton of 2% and skim milk and a liter of tangy orange juice. Brilliant, hand-painted dishes of colorful chopped vegetables for dipping ordered for, then left unconsumed by the single passenger on the flight from Athens to Mumbai. Tender sesame-glazed chicken skewers–10 pieces in tin foil for reheating. A quart each of minestrone, seafood bisque, and creamy tomato basil gourmet soup. It was all wasted and is only a representative portion of the food that found its way from the galley to a landfill that day.

In my grocery store in the Midwest, one hundred dollars would buy all the items to assemble the menu for this single flight, but the CEO who travels by private jet effortlessly pays one thousand five hundred dollars. One…thousand…five…hundred…dollars. Invulnerable to the growling beast of poverty, why would he care that the amount he paid for 9 hours of provisions would cover the cost of my sister’s rent for 3 months?

I let the Aussie get a few steps ahead of me but keep her in my sights assuming that she is going to the bustling harbor, and I need to be guided out of this mess of back alleys. I imagine the girl laboring at a small table in a cramped room separating portions of rice into smaller muslin bags, tying them off with a piece of green yarn from an unraveled sweater. She should be in school, but for the poorest families of India, even the smallest pittance of an income is indispensable. Dowries are costly and crippling. A man’s monetary burden of securing a suitable husband for his daughter begins at her birth. It torments the exhausted father like a vulture pecking and tearing at an injured, not-yet-dead cub.

As I approach the end of a building row, the alley widens and the chaotic clamor of car and moped horns welcomes me back to the cafes and shops of Colaba, where displays of postcards, textiles, and cases full of dull metal Bohemian jewelry lure souvenir hunters. The banging dishes and blaring Hindi music replace the quieter back alleys behind me.

The harbor’s paved open area in front of the Gateway is crowded with locals on lunch breaks, Asian and European tourists. Almond eyed ladies in a dazzling smattering of saris chatter as they pass by me, staring, smiling and I am treated to the endearing Indian head waggle that says hello, goodbye, I don’t know, and yes and no. A skinny teenage boy in a tea-stained white shirt rushes by, nearly toppling his tray of 5 cups of hot chai. He stops and rebalances it, checks for spills and continues with more caution toward the group of police officers standing close to the monument.

I turn from the Gateway. The colossal Taj Mahal Palace Hotel is before me. A grand ruby hued dome adorns the top of the magnificent edifice, an homage to the building’s inspiration. By day, she is beautiful. At night, her lighting is radiant. Glittering windows and a curved, fanciful façade separate the marble floors and crystal chandeliers from the filth of the city. Shiny onyx Bentleys and chrome clad Rolls Royce autos line the front, bringing international diplomats and top-level executives for high tea over which business deals amounting in the billions will be discussed. It is the most historic and opulent hotel in this part of Mumbai, where Bollywood celebrities choose to see and be seen, just because they can. Graceful bellmen emanate royalty from their white turbans, the front twist adorned with a tall peacock feather secured behind a large jewel. They are impeccably handsome in their magenta dinner coats with gold stripes at the cuffs and stand ready to greet guests and to open the palatial glass doors where beyond, everything sparkles.

Through the din of the bustling crowd, I hear her familiar shouts.

“Sir! Madame! Madame!” The kohl-eyed enterpriser in the canary yellow salwar kameez has already returned. She has selected a mature couple wearing straw hats and matching khaki pants to repeat her shrewd business acumen and bolster her cottage industry.

“No, no. I cannot take your money…” She follows her script and resumes hoodwinking her hunger away. The little shop with the bright, peeling, robin-egg blue paint is just a two-minute walk from here.

Ghosts of Rwanda

Standard

A palatial white stucco wall bore the hotel’s name at the entrance from the city road. Brilliant large cobalt blue letters declared a welcome to the De Mille Colline in colors that one would expect to see at a resort in the Greek isles rather than this place—Kigali, Rwanda. The wall divided the entry drive and parking lot awkwardly. At first, I thought it was an inefficient design that inhibited the ability to turn around in the parking lot without going all the way through the property. Then I realized that it was a security effort that modified how vehicles approached the hotel after the 1994 genocide. This was “Hotel Rwanda”, where hundreds of terrified Tutsis huddled for protection under Paul Rusesabagina, the general manager who had warm relations with the United Nations delegates stationed in Kigali.

Rwandans move with a poised, unhurried elegance. The bellman broke into a slow brilliant smile as he walked in graceful strides to greet me. I wondered how he managed to perform this way every single day in mid Africa in his heavy, wine-colored polyester dinner coat and pants. If he was too warm or uncomfortable, he hid it well. I felt unkempt and odorous and fully in the grip of jet lag after the previous day of flying from the east coast to Lisbon and on to Africa.

As I entered the lobby, the marble floor shone and reflected sparkling prisms of light. Majestic columns were wrapped in complimenting colors. An elegant and welcoming reception area allowed warm cross breezes that carried the scent of fragrant potted flowers. The whole back wall of the room was plate glass that yielded a gorgeous view of the hotel grounds which were enclosed by another glowing white wall, covered with vibrant explosions of fuchsia pink bougainvillea.

The swimming pool shone like a giant square blue topaz set in the middle of a yard of meticulously manicured emerald grass. The beauty and tranquility were disarming. There was a palpable, stark contrast between this scene and the horrors it hosted nearly eighteen years prior. During the one hundred- day genocide in 1994, this pool provided water for drinking, cooking, and bathing for the people who found refuge at the De Mille Colline. It gave and sustained life until it was too choked, too soiled from lack of maintenance and decay began. Once the water level was low and the remaining became unsafe to use, the pool became a cistern for waste when the plumbing was shut off by the predators who were always waiting outside the walls.

I wondered, how many hours of cleaning and rinsing, disinfecting did it take to breathe new life into these beautiful grounds? The scope of the atrocities it witnessed was unfathomable. Could every molecule of water that was present at that time—even after nearly two decades– truly be gone? The Indian poet Rumi wrote that every raindrop becomes part of the sea–the raindrop still exists in its individuality but at the same time is indiscernible from the wave that it rolled into. Was it forensically possible for every trace of those horrible days to be erased as far down as the cellular level? I wasn’t concerned with cleanliness or sanitary conditions. I wanted to respect the ghosts that I felt there. I felt their eyes on me, pleas to see and feel them, to acknowledge what happened to them and to not let them be forgotten.

I checked in with the front desk, but the room was not yet available, so I left my luggage at the concierge desk and reunited with Muzay, the driver who had offered to take me to visit some of the nearby memorials. Already overwhelmed with the weight of grief, I wondered why I felt compelled to experience such places.

The day was warm but not stifling. Stunning views revealed themselves as we drove to the edge of town and entered the openness of Rwanda, the land of a thousand hills, rolling and lush, blanketed in various hues of emerald. Coffee and tea plantations grew into one another. I was overlooking the source of the product that brought my client, a prominent US business man to Rwanda to meet with President Kagame for talks on exports.

We arrived at the first memorial, a small church with a tall chain link fence surrounding it. Muzay stopped the car and parked. I felt awkward, leaving him to sit and wait for me but I could sense that he did not plan to accompany me inside. In the eighteen years since the world witnessed the mind-numbing horrors, he had hosted many Western gawkers. I wondered what he thought of me. What is the psychology that plays into the ability to chauffer guests to the very scenes of the mass murder of your own villagers and family members? Which idea is the strongest or in what order do they occur for someone who has endured so much? Acceptance? Forgiveness? Peace? Strength? Would I ever be as good and strong as these people?

A small, bored looking man at the door of the church stood to greet me. He was sizing me up, evaluating who I was and what business I had there. Of course, had every right to do so, and every second was more humbling as I told myself, “Let him feel his authority. They have to be so tired and it must feel so insulting that their tragedy is often treated as a spectator sport.” I knew that though President Kagame is credited with stopping that rampant streak of violence all those years ago and went on to promote the “reunification of all Rwandans”, the survivors are still forced to share their country with those who killed their families. Differentiation of Hutu and Tutsi was banned after the genocide—all citizens are collectively Rwandans. And all Rwandans know that on any given day, they may be looking into the eyes of an individual that they had once seen wielding a machete.

I smiled at him and patted my right hand to my heart, a gentle greeting that is recognized in many Asian and African cultures as a sign of respect. His face softened and he began to recite his soliloquy, starting by gesturing to a bent-up mess of heavy iron bars, a tangle of metal that was what was left of the gate that secured the entrance to the church. It had been blasted with grenades to gain access to the terrified prey. As the violence heightened and the danger spread from all villages, government radio told the people to go to churches, that they would be safe in the churches with their families, neighbors, and local leaders. The reality was that they became fish in a barrel.

Inside, the pews were simple benches, made of wood like that of a picnic table that has been out in the weather for many years. They were short and pieced together at thirty-degree angles to follow the hexagon shape of the room. Piled upon them were heaps of clothes and shoes that had burned edges, rips, some shredded, some slashed. All were covered in eighteen years of dust at this preserved scene. Thousands of items littered the church. Dresses, shirts, skirts, wraps, pants, headscarves, shoes.

At the front of the sanctuary stood a podium bearing small keepsakes that were protected under a sheet of plexiglass. My attention was drawn to something resting against the dark scarlet lining, a piece that was the color of a robin’s egg, a bright sky-blue. It was a singular splash of pretty in the grim scene, like a lone twinkle in an otherwise starless night sky. I stepped closer to the podium in the dimly lighted ruins.

The lovely spot of blue was a child’s coin purse that was no larger than a toddler’s fist. It was shaped like a triangle that had the top point shaved off and replaced with silver trim and a clasp. The once glossy vinyl coat had dulled but a ruffle embellishment of the same material had held its shape. It had a few scruffs and scratches, and pea sized silver bead adorned the side of the purse in the center of the ruffle, the finishing touch like a kiss that blessed it.

Breath left me. Grief-laden breath heaved out of my chest and rushed toward the little blue coin purse with a force as though it believed it could reach the little girl who clutched it as the exploding grenades tore through the church gate. As if it could swoosh backwards through the years, blow its force into the church, lift and carry her and all those terrified people into the clouds and away from the bombs, guns, and machetes.

My chest hurt. My throat choked. I felt the sky collapse and the walls were squeezing in on me. Everything in the world felt fractured. Everything crumbled and dropped apart in pieces and particles. Everything except the baked mud and blood that attached these pieces of clothing to one another, piles upon piles on the pews, as inseparable as the souls of those who wore them.

I thought of the news footage I had seen at the time of these events of the people who were filmed by journalists, begging the world for intercession, begging the US to save them. Disbelief and fury conjoined. What is the power—or the weakness– that it leads societies to do this? To allow this? To ignore this?

I walked out of the church and toward Muzay and the car. A banner was stretched between two high posts above the gates just outside the church. Every April the government hangs thousands of them throughout Rwandan towns for 100 days to commemorate the genocide. Against a purple background, weathered white script read, “Never Again”. It flapped in the breeze noisily as air passed through the many rips and holes.