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.