1955 ~ On the Farm by Tina Mattern
I was five and a half years old when my divorced father moved the two of us from Boston to Portland Oregon to marry a woman named Delaine. The first memory I have of there is of the small grocery store where she worked.
The second memory I have of there is of playing outside in the street with her 3-year-old son, Danny, and some other kids. Apparently, I did something wrong because suddenly Delaine appeared out of nowhere yelling and backhanded me across the face—a foreshadowing of what the year to come would bring.
My father seemed to be somewhere else at the moment.
Within a short time, the four of us moved to Canby, Oregon, to a sheep farm.
In the long run, moving to the sheep farm with my father turned out to be mostly hazardous to my five-and-a-half-year-old health. Delaine hated me—I guess because I was my mother’s daughter, and she could tell right from the start that my father was still crazy about her. Just looking at me seemed to make her mad. It didn’t take me long to figure out I needed to become an expert on getting invisible.
I got pretty good at it too. In fact, after a while, I had to go look in the mirror to make sure I hadn’t disappeared for real, because aside from the attention I got from the sheep and the dogs, whole days would go by without anybody noticing me. Even my father would sometimes seem to forget I was around, though I figured that was only because he was so busy with the sheep and with keeping Delaine happy. I wasn’t the only one who had seen real quick that an unhappy Delaine was something to avoid. And from what I could tell, keeping her in a good mood seemed to consist mainly of his taking her drinking every night at the Spinning Wheel tavern up the road.
They took Danny with them because Delaine said he was too little to leave home, but I think it was more because he always threw a tizzy-fit when she tried sneaking out without him. And also, I figured she didn’t want to take any chances on me getting to play with him, which I was not allowed to do.
“Stay away from my god-dammed kid,” she said, which was hunky-dory with me; he only caused me trouble. But she must not have explained it very well to Danny, because every time I turned around, there he’d be, blinking those stupid cross-eyes of his behind his coke-bottle glasses, hair sticking up all over, thumb in his dumb mouth, wanting to play.
“Go away!” I’d say. He’d butt his head into my stomach; I’d push him down and he’d fix my wagon by crying VERY LOUDLY, all the way into the living room. I’d hear a bottle being slammed down on the coffee table and the dogs scattering. After that, I usually wore a couple of Delaine’s handprints on whatever part of my body I hadn’t covered up in time.
So, Danny spent most of his nights wrapped up in his favorite blanket, sleeping in the back seat of my daddy’s Valiant, outside the tavern. And I stayed home, alone.
Being home at night by myself was a little bit good, but mostly bad. The good part was that Delaine was gone; I didn’t have to sit with my back up against a wall so she couldn’t sneak up on me. And my worn-out ears got a rest from all the yelling.
But like I said, mostly it was bad.
From the time the door closed behind them, before they even drove off down the driveway, I was scared. Even with three dogs in the house, I was scared. For one thing, Judy and Petey only came up to my knees, and Pug was a Chihuahua.
For another thing, they were the biggest scaredy-cat dogs you ever saw in your life. When the Avon lady came to the door once, they hid behind me. So, I was pretty sure that if any monsters came to the farm looking for little girls left alone, the dogs wouldn’t suddenly turn into raging Rin-Tin-Tins to protect me.
The first thing I would do is walk around the living room making a bunch of crosses in the air, like I sometimes saw the good guys do on TV to protect themselves from vampires and werewolves and such. The dogs would follow me around, watching, and Pug would bark at the air wherever I put a cross, as if he could see them hanging there.
I never went into the bedrooms because there were closets in there, and everybody knows that monsters hang out in closets. Even the bathroom wasn’t safe; things could come up through the slimy brown drain in the tub, or the sink while you were on the pot and not paying attention. They never came when there were grownups in the house, but who knew what they might do if they found out a kid was home alone. So, I always waited until my bladder was so full, it felt like it might overflow into my legs. Then I’d run in, drop my drawers and hover in a semi-crouch over the toilet so I could keep an eye on the sink and tub drains. If “The Fast Pee” was an Olympic event, I figure I could have been a gold medalist those nights.
Once I had monster-proofed the living room as best I could, I usually kept my head busy by watching TV. Sometimes I fell asleep on the couch with the dogs, but I always woke up when the TV played the National Anthem and the bullseye took the place of whatever I’d been watching.
After that, I’d scrounge the refrigerator or cupboards looking for something to eat, which was usually pretty discouraging. Delaine wasn’t much for cooking, and half the time she forgot about buying groceries. Her and my father’s main meal was dinner, and that was usually at the tavern. I don’t know what Danny ate—probably hamburgers and fries or something on the way.
So aside from crackers and sometimes cheese, pickles and once-in-awhile, milk, I got by on dry Wheaties or peanut butter sandwiches, minus the bread.
Another thing I used to do to keep busy was to listen to Delaine’s record player. She would have beaten my butt if she knew, but I was careful to put things back the way I found them. She only had a couple of records though. The one I listened to the most was called, “The Shifting Whispering Sands”; it was the saddest song I ever heard. A miner was out in the desert looking for gold, but he died, and the winds blew the sand around and around him until there was nothing left but bones. I couldn’t figure out why anybody would want to sing a song that sad, but for some reason, I couldn’t stop playing it, even though it made me feel sort of sick inside and scared and really, really lonely.
And sometimes I cried and Petey would come over and lick my face. But I never knew for sure if he felt sorry for me or if he just liked the taste of my tears.
On one of those days when I felt invisible, I came around from the back of the barn to see my father’s car coming down the long gravel drive towards the house. He had been gone most of the day and aside from the mailman, who always stopped to say hello, nobody had spoken to me since dinnertime the night before. Even Delaine had looked right through me like I was a window.
“Daddy!” I called as he got out of the car. He waved and bent down to pick up a six pack of beer and a big bag of Purina for the dogs, who were dancing around his feet on their hind legs like circus performers. We had been out of dog food for three days because nobody remembered that they needed to eat. Except me, of course. I had been making them toast every day until I got too hungry myself and there wasn’t anything in the refrigerator except beer and some cottage cheese which had turned a pretty shade of blue all around the top. It didn’t taste very good.
Sometimes nobody felt like going to the store and since Daddy and Delaine and Danny ate out at the tavern usually, they didn’t worry about how much food was in the house. I guess they thought I could go next door to Aunt Irene’s and Uncle Ernie’s if I got hungry enough. But I was always too afraid to go out after dark.
“Get down, you crazy dogs,” my father laughed. “Yes, I got you some food finally.” He carried the bag onto the back porch and dropped it with a thud that shook the floor. Judy and Petey put their paws up onto his back as he kneeled down to open it, and Pug peed on the floor, he was so excited. “Damn it,” my father said, but he was still grinning, “Stop pissing all over the place, you idiot. There, food for everybody, okay?” He scooped handfuls into their bowls and stood back watching them dig in.
“They were very hungry, daddy,” I told him. “They don’t like toast as much as dog food.” Why, I couldn’t imagine. One time when we had run out of bread, I had tried eating Purina; I hadn’t liked it one bit.
My father popped the top off a beer and drank half of it down in 3 swallows. Then he picked me up and sat me on the washing machine. “Where is everybody?” he asked, looking into the kitchen and seeing nobody there. I shrugged. Then I remembered what I wanted to tell him, “Droopy, Tipper and Snoop are missing, Daddy,” I said. My father laughed, “Sounds like a group of lawyers,” he said.
I said, “My lambs, Daddy, I can’t find them anywhere.” Last week Pansy and Peter had disappeared into thin air too. I was worried sick about my friends, and nobody seemed to care. Daddy suddenly pulled me up against his chest and patted my back. “That’s a shame, honey. I hope they turn up.”
I leaned away from him and looked up into his face. “Could you maybe help me look for them?” I asked, hopefully.
“We’ll see,” he said. He wasn’t smiling anymore. Shaking his head, he looked at me for a long minute, saying finally, “You sure look like your mother.” Then his eyes got that dreamy, sad look they always got when he thought about my mother. He was looking at me and petting my hair, but I was starting to feel like a window again. I straightened up taller so that I was right in his line of vision and he could see me better.
“Do we miss her?” I asked, but before he could tell me, I heard a drawer slam behind us in the kitchen.
“No! No, he don’t miss that bitch, Do you, Daddy?” Delaine yelled, coming around the corner. “Get the hell out and feed them chickens,” she snapped. As I dropped off the washer and turned to scuttle for the door, my father went and put his arm around her, but she threw it off and grabbed a beer instead.
“I don’t know why I put up with you and that little snot.”
“I guess you love me, Del,” my father said.