My mom, Barbara Elise Fullerton, was born in 1959.
Her father was an alcoholic. Her mother cared a lot about looking good for the neighbors.
I never met either of them.
I know he was hurt in the Korean War. And that his injury was all the excuse he needed to be angry at the entire world. I know he drank heavily. Canadian Club whiskey. And that he smoked three packs of Camel non-filters every day. I also know that one of his favorite things in life was to get good and drunk, and then wail on his kids.
Mom never told me any of this, of course.
I pieced it together by listening in on phone conversations between her and her twin sister, my aunt Karen: the only member of her family Mom kept in contact with.
Unfortunately for Mom, her father was only the first link in a chain of abusive men.
The guy she skipped town with was twice her age.
And a manipulative psychopath.
I don’t think he ever actually hit her, but in some ways his kind of abuse was even worse.
First, he got her hooked on drugs.
Heroin and cocaine.
Once Mom was spending her days injecting speed balls, she probably didn’t even notice when her savior of a man installed padlocks on the outside of the doors.
She stayed trapped in that house for most of two years. She only got out because some nosey neighbor called the cops after spying Mom stumbling around the back patio with a needle sticking out of her arm.
After that, Mom lived for a while in a shelter for abused women.
She cleaned up off the smack and found work as a waitress.
Next came my father. An angry mechanic who spent most of his time pondering all the things that hadn’t happened in his life.
He was a mean drunk. The kind of guy who would sit in the corner and brood like some unstable, homemade bomb. And when the explosion came, it was always horrible.
He would beat her until she ended up in the hospital.
Always with some excuse.
I could never figure out why no one ever asked any questions.
It made me assume that what he was doing was OK, according to some unknowable adult way of thinking.
One of my earliest memories is waking up in the middle of the night to the sound of Mom screaming.
My father was yelling at her for making him feel stupid, I think. He always thought people were trying to make him feel or look dumb.
The yelling turned into the sound of her body being slammed against the bedroom wall. The bedside table crashed, shattering the glass lamp along with it.
These sounds scared me. But they were nothing compared to the sound of her yelling at him to stop. Screaming for mercy.
It was a noise that should have made any decent human being want to reach out and help the creature making it.
But not my father.
Her screams seemed to fuel him. He beat her until she stopped making any noise at all.
After the yelling ceased, my father headed to his favorite pouting spot: a plastic folding chair in the garage. He would sit there for hours, drinking Budweiser and yelling at the TV.
To get there, he had to walk by my room.
The thud of his feet on the floor made him sound like a troll out hunting human flesh.
He’d only ever hit me once, and that was for almost running into the middle of the street. But I wasn’t taking any chances. As far as I was concerned, there was no end to his cruelty. I hated him.
I wiggled down into the embrace of my Star Wars comforter.
He paused in front of my door.
I stopped breathing, expecting to hear the knob turn.
A million scenarios ran through my head. All of them involved my father’s face staring at me, possessed with violence.
Thankfully, the footsteps soon continued. Four of them before the sound of the garage door.
I heard the TV buzz to life and the splash of a beer can opening.
I quietly slipped out of bed and stood tip-toed in front of my door. My eyes squinted as I reached up and turned the knob with both hands. I cracked the door open to the smallest gap I could.
Sticking my eyeball right up to the opening, I saw the coast was clear. I slipped my tiny body through the door and closed it silently behind me.
My parents’ door at the other end of the hallway was cracked open. All the lights were dark, except for an eerie red glow coming from the bathroom nightlight.
For some reason, I crawled the length of the hallway.
When I reached the threshold of my parents’ bedroom, I pushed the door open. Just wide enough to crawl through.
The room was pitch black. But I soon could see the outline of the bed. The same one my father was always yelling at me for jumping on.
I heard a faint noise.
It sounded like a badly injured dog.
I half-saw, half-felt my way up the footboard. The blankets were everywhere. The mattress was exposed and seemed unwelcoming.
I lay quietly and realized that the awful whimper was actually coming from the floor, between the bed and the wall.
With both hands, I grabbed the edge of the mattress and pulled my head toward the precipice. Peering over the edge, my eyes came upon one of the two most awful things I’ve ever witnessed.
There was Mom. Her young, slender body, naked on its side. Crammed halfway underneath the bed. Her knees and head curled up against the wall.
There was nothing my five-year-old mind could think to say.
I silently lowered myself down onto the floor, head first. As I got closer, I could see that Mom was bleeding from her right eye. It was almost swollen shut. In fact, the entire right side of her face was puffed out like an allergic bee sting.
She jumped when I touched her stringy black hair.
She realized it was me and tried to compose herself, telling me she was OK. Struggling to breathe with every word.
I didn’t believe her. She couldn’t even sit up.
But I didn’t have anything else to believe either.
We stayed there and cried together for a long time.
Although Mom tried once again to avoid the hospital, her chest hurt bad enough that she was forced to check into the emergency room a couple days later.
My father had succeeded in breaking three of Mom’s ribs, four of her teeth, and the orbital bone of her right eye. There was a deep cut behind her ear, requiring more than twenty stitches.
Mom tried to tell the doctors it had been a car accident. This time nobody believed her.
They sent the police to arrest my father.
He did only thirty days. But I guess that was enough space for Mom to work up the courage she needed to leave him. We used the small amount of money she’d hidden away to rent a tiny, one-bedroom apartment on the south side of San Jose, California.
The physical wounds my father inflicted eventually healed, with few lingering effects.
But Mom didn’t smile much after that day. Not even when good things happened. She mostly met each new occurrence in life with the same sad look.
The same hungry eyes.
For years, I watched her sit at our cluttered dining room table. Smoking one cigarette after the other. Staring at the wall.
Sometimes I slipped into my room, pretending not to notice. But usually when I found her that way, I walked up behind her and put my arms around her shoulders. She would lean the weight of her head against mine and tell me that she loved me. That I was a good kid.
About the Author
Jake grew up in San Jose, California and has eight years of continuous sobriety. His new novel, Only the Devil Tells the Truth (Amazon), is about addiction, friendship, love, poverty, growing up, and the search for purpose. He writes in a compelling, gritty, minimalist style that makes his work hard to put down. His background includes personal hardship, scholarly achievement, and several humanitarian pursuits—all of which combine to make him a unique and powerful voice in contemporary literature.
Get one of Jake's short stories for free by visiting jakedparent.com.