Elmo

It all started with Elmo, truly the ugliest Lhasa Apso ever to exist. I had always had a love for dogs but had resisted getting one for the kids because I was having a hard enough time coping with just the two girls to raise. The added responsibility of a dog seemed over the top to me. But I was in the middle of my year of tears, having split from my second husband, feeling lost and alone, thoughts of an adorable lap dog to snuggle up to began entering my mind, causing me to cave, causing me to run to the library for some quick research, needing a dog that did not shed, finding myself on the wrong side of town at a pet store crammed with cages, looking into the big brown eyes of a bundle of fur the size of my hand. Elmo did not look big enough to be weaned but I knew he was meant for our family.

Elmo With Turd

When I brought him home the girls both ran and squealed in delight. It was clear that my visions of a lap dog to cuddle up to were out the window. This dog would never again be put down if I did not insist one of them take him out to do his duties. He actually managed to do his first dutiful turd right on the middle of Kelly’s bed. The girls were so thrilled with the magnificence of his performance that a picture of the turd with the offender was taken before Kelly took him on a walk in the neighborhood.

The very next thing that happens and it seems to happen almost instantly, is that Kelly comes screaming up the stairs and into the apartment: “Elmo’s dead, he’s dead, he’s dead, Elmo, he’s dead.” Kelly had bleeding scratches up and down her arms and legs. There were some deep gouges. I was terrified, images of terrorist type attackers in our little apartment complex flashing through my mind. It took what seemed like several minutes to calm Kelly down enough to tell me what happened. A bunch of cats, which seemed to her to be coming from every direction, attacked Elmo.  Kelly tried to rescue him from the attacking cats, getting herself attacked in the process. Later, I discovered that the cats were strays with kittens that were being rescued by one of my neighbors and Elmo must have been a threat to their little brood.

Kelly continued wailing for me to go find Elmo and would not allow me to take care of her until I found him. I wandered in the direction that she had walked with Elmo, wary of the attacking cats and thinking the worst about what might have become of the little bundle of fur after seeing what the cats were able to do to Kelly. I found Elmo under a bush. It did take some doing to extricate him from the thicket, and when I picked him up he was still shaking from the experience but there was not a scratch on him.

After bringing the unscathed Elmo home to prove to my daughters that he was indeed alive and well and after they were allowed to swoon over him a bit, I was able to get a better look at Kelly’s wounds. She clearly needed to be taken in for some medical treatment.

I went over to my friend Dee’s place to see if she would watch my youngest daughter, Daryl who was just six years old and needed supervision. I had never gotten a sitter for Daryl and Dee was the only person in the neighborhood I knew who owed me a favor. She owed me a lot of favors in fact. I had begun to drive out of the complex through the back, because if I left the usual way, Dee would more often than not see me pulling past her place and run out to ask me if she could ride along. Riding along for Dee meant that I stop at the various places for her to just do a little shopping or a few errands. I never got home in under two hours and in that time Kelly would be home watching her younger sister. My day and the things I needed to get done would be set behind schedule. When raising two kids by yourself, schedules are everything. I think Dee was just lonely and wanted the attention. She was in her early thirties, had a good job as a Dentist and she did own her own car. Fortunately, Dee was very happy to watch Daryl.

At the clinic, Kelly’s scratches were all cleaned and bandaged and she was sent home with pain killers but no stitches, the whole process took over three hours. When I got back to the apartment complex, I saw a police car with the lights flashing at the front office and when I got to my door there was a police officer waiting for me. I was taken to the office where I found my six-year-old in the custody of another officer. My youngest daughter, Daryl was grinning from ear to ear. I knew why she was grinning. Daryl is a very special child and has difficulty with many things but the one thing she knows and loves are police officers and police cars with lights going. She was the type of kid that after going to Disneyland and being introduced to getting autographs from Disney characters decided she wanted her autographs from police officers and had a small stash of police officer autographs by this time. The only thing missing was the siren blasting and her world would be perfect.

“I found your daughter with another kid smashing out windows in the complex with a baseball bat. She has been with me, in this office, for two hours now and there was no parent to be found. I was just about to pick up the phone and call child protective services. Is there any reason why I should not?” the officer demanded. I started with the story of the cats and taking Kelly to the clinic and Dee and that she should have been watching her. I knew I was not convincing and I was searching for a way to explain and making no sense. The officer looked at me skeptically, “We have been here for two hours and there has been no one looking for this child,” he interjected into my ramblings. It was then that Dee popped her head into the office, “Oh, there she is,” Dee said feigning exasperation. “I was wondering where she went off to.”  I was happy for her late appearance but wanted to strangle the woman just the same.

The officer was at least now convinced of my story but he started on a completely different tactic, “Your daughter just broke out several windows and does not seem to show any sign of remorse for what she has done. I am extremely concerned about her ability to understand right and wrong.” I looked over at Daryl who was beside herself beaming at the police officer, thrilled by the flashing lights on the police car coming through the window and dancing around the office, delighted by the entire spectacle.

How do I explain this one? Daryl had no diagnosis that could sum all this up for the officer. I had taken her to see many psychologists, a psychiatrist or two and councilors but the conclusion was that she just had needs and would take a lot of one-on-one work and would always have needs. Medications were tried but did not work. She was prone to extreme tantrums but was a very happy and loving child. In the end I just decided not to respond to the officer. He was both right and wrong. Daryl did have trouble always knowing right from wrong, but she did try to understand and by the time she was an adult she got it better than most people get it. She would always and forever remember this experience as the time her bat got taken away. In the end we were released with strong warnings about next time should this ever happen again.

After Elmo’s brief introduction into our family, which turned out not to be very off the mark on what life with us would be like, he stayed on with us for the next twelve years. We were the only ones that ever took to him. From that little hand sized bundle, he did grow into a cozy lap dog, taking turns with each of us in our needs, his hair never shed, his big brown eyes turned out to look in opposite directions and his teeth were extremely bucked. Most people who came to visit grew to hate how he nipped at their heels and growled at them and how he humped small children. But for us he was perfect. We learned to leave him alone when he was under a bed and learned to control his nasty edges but mostly we loved and adored him, thinking he was the best thing the universe could have ever placed at our feet. He has been gone for years now and we look at his old pictures with a bit of awe. How could we have found that ugly face to hold such unbounded beauty? “We were blinded by love.” Kelly recently explained. We were blinded by love.

Elmo

Longing

I used to long for the perfect man, the man I would recognize immediately as my soul mate, the answer to my loneliness, the man who complimented my finer points and I his. The problem was that I did recognize him. I recognized him everywhere. I even married him; I married him three times.  It was never the same man I recognized “as him”, but always a different face, a different profession, each time a completely different person. I would swoon at his feet. I would act coy. I would put on my smartest face. I would stumble all over myself to be seen, to be noticed, to make him love me. I found them all lovable, amazingly good-looking and kind. Each evening, alone, I thought over their words and the cute way they smiled at me, looking for evidence of their love for me. I would write in my journal: “Steve really is the nicest guy, I really do love that guy; I wonder if Dave will call me tonight, we had the best time last night; Jack just had a controlling mother, he’s got to sort a few things out, he will see that we are perfect together.”  Sometimes it would be years between this one and that one but other times it was only one day from one love to the next. My first marriage lasted less than two years, my second five years.

The truth is that I really was falling in love with the same guy over and over again. The guy I fell in love with was the one that made me work for his affections the same way that my Dad did. I fell in love the final time on the day Dad died, this time to a man who loved me back in the same way I loved him, openly and freely, no reservations. My third marriage is forever.

First Boyfriend

He was not someone who I would have picked out, not because he wasn’t good-looking – he was – it was just that it looked like he was trying to be good-looking. It was his clothes, mostly, that gave that appearance. They were never the things most of the guys wear – jeans, worn and tattered. No, he always wore black jeans or shirts with a yoke on them and a matching belt. He had moved here from somewhere else; maybe they dressed that way where he came from. It wasn’t like it was gawky or anything and it’s not like he stood out like a sore thumb for it, but it was just different. He sat across from me and behind me in my eighth grade English class.

I would never have noticed him if he hadn’t decided to leave his ID bracelet in my folder on the top of my desk during recess one day. We had two sessions in English every day. One was with Mrs. Theime and the other with Mrs. Boss, one teaching us grammar and the other literature with a break in between. It was when I came back from break that I found the bracelet, hidden inside my folder, causing my folder to bulge up funny. I was a little frightened seeing that bulging folder thinking that someone was pulling a prank on me. My worst horror was standing out; I could blush and wilt under scrutiny like nobody’s business. When I found the bracelet with his last name on it, I was a little confused. But things cleared up after class. He came up by my side, “Why aren’t you wearing it?” he wanted to know.” “You want me to wear it?” I asked. “Don’t you want to?” he responded and from then on I was his girlfriend.

The only difference after becoming his girlfriend was that now everyone in my class knew that we were together and he walked me to my bus everyday at the end of the school day. We never really talked. I never knew what to say and I suppose he didn’t either. It became something I thought about all the time though. I did not know the first thing about having a boyfriend but I thought it had to be more this. I had no idea about who he was or even where he came from. It was fun and exciting to have a boyfriend and I thought maybe I was the envy of girls who did not have one. My friends were asking me what it was like. What could I say? It wasn’t like anything. For several days we walked to the bus together and he politely said goodbye to me each time as I got on the bus. He was nice enough, anyway, and he was cute with that thick thatch of dark wavy hair and dark brown eyes, almost black even.

In the end it became too much for me. At break one day between Mrs. Theime’s and Mrs. Boss’ class I put the ID bracelet back on his desk. There was nowhere to hide it the way he had hidden it in my folder, so I just left in on top of the wooden desk. Later, my friend’s asked me why I had broken up with him. I said, “It didn’t feel right.”

First Job

I pounded on the locked and flimsy screen door, hearing the rattle of metal echo into the quiet of the morning on this little tree-lined street of old two-story white houses, each house with similar cement steps and metal screen doors.  After enough pounding to wake the neighborhood, I came to the conclusion that there was no one inside. I plop myself down on the front steps, brace my head up in my hands, waiting for something to happen, realizing that I may be here for a while. Maybe these people were just out somewhere and they would return soon giving me a very reasonable explanation for not being here.

This place is my summer job. Mom decided that I was old enough to work now that I was fifteen and found this job for me in this neighboring town through an ad in the local newspaper. In this small northern Wisconsin town of about 1,500 people the local paper runs anywhere from four to eight pages and is mostly advertisement. The ad was looking for a live-in sitter for five days a week with the weekends off and it paid $25.00 per week. That was more money in one week that I had ever held in my hand so I was intrigued yet just a bit scared. I had never lived away from home with strangers before and I was not what you would call your outgoing type, but rather more the type of person that hid behind her hair.

The first Sunday evening after being dropped off on this job was less than welcoming. I met the three older kids as they ran in and out of the room, racing around me as the baby was plopped in my arms by his mother. I loved the baby immediately, all chubby cheeks and squishy pink skin, a thatch of red hair on the top of his head and a quick smile. He was still in diapers and would take most of my attention. The room they gave me to stay in was off the living room and had no door, a string of beads, all the separated me from the TV and the chaos of kids. The Dad sat in front of the TV watching the news. I assessed the danger he might pose as he nodded to me when I was introduced to him. He seemed non-threatening enough. The mom rattled on about what I needed to know about the kids and their work schedule. I had the evenings free to myself, free to hang out where and do what I wondered.

By the time the mother was done explaining things to me and I got back to my room behind the beaded curtain, I noticed my suitcase lying open, the contents ruffled through. The little ruffians had taken every red cent I had in there, running off with it right under their parents’ noses. I was too intimidated to say a word about it though. The $25.00 I was going to make that week just got reduced to $19.00. The kids were nowhere to be seen at the present but they showed up later with their mouths and pockets stuffed full of bubblegum and candy, probably from the five and dime store five blocks down the street.

My duties included, taking care of the baby, watching the kids, keeping them out of trouble, keeping the house clean, mopping all the floors in the two-story house once each week and making supper every evening for the family. I had never been much of a cook and the mom needed to leave recipes with instructions for me to follow. She insisted it would be easy and I could learn. I was worried about the cooking, but I followed the directions and they ate what I made.

In the evenings I did the only thing I could find to do; I walked around town, stopping in the furniture shop, drug store and dime store while they were still open or I went down to the park at the end of the block and sat on one of the swings until it got dark outside. It was on that swing that I started praying to God. I prayed that there was some way that I did not have to work at this place. The only person I liked at all was that red-haired baby. The kids only found ways to mess up the house and torment me when they weren’t off finding mischief in the neighborhood. Before I had a chance to escape the house in the evenings, the mom rattled on about work and people I didn’t know and things I had no interest in. Her husband always plunked himself in front of the television set each night and I rarely heard as much as a grunt out of him. I wanted to be home where I had my own room and my own space and where I knew the people I lived with. I was lonely as hell.

On Friday, before my mom got off work and was able to pick me up for the weekend, a man dropped by the house. The mom sat on the front stoop with me as the three older kids jumped all over him. It was the first time I realized that these kids had a different Dad, their blond hair suddenly making sense to me. “Isn’t he cute?” The mom gushed at me. She was talking in a hushed voice and was gazing in his direction as she spoke. “Uhuh,” I mumbled thinking how completely weird this was. First of all, I saw nothing cute about this guy and what was she doing, getting all hazy eyed over a man she was divorced from when her husband was sitting about 12 feet away in the living room in his usual spot in front of the TV. My mom drove up to pick me up right after the kids left with their dad and I was never so happy to see her in my life. I said another prayer, asking for something to happen, anything not to have to come back to this place.

Now here I sit, this is the fifth week on this job and I am dropped off bright and early on Monday morning when they are supposed to be expecting me and there is no one home. Mom just dropped me and left for work. I don’t know a soul in this town other than this wacky family. I wonder just how long I will end up sitting here and what I can do, when a women walks up to me from down the street. Maybe she is a neighbor. “Are you waiting for someone?” She wants to know. I tell her about being the sitter. “I don’t know why no one is home.” I say “Didn’t you hear?” she asks. “They are both in jail and DES has the kids. They got into some kind of gun fight at the county fair last night. It was her ex-husband and her husband and her right in the middle of it. I don’t think anybody’s going to be by here. There ain’t no kids to babysit here.”

I put on an expression of shock and concern that a person should have on their face at this moment and did my best to keep the smile, that wanted to spread from ear to ear, off my face. In my head I just kept saying, “Thank you God, Thank you God, There is a God!” The nice woman was willing to give me a lift to the Post Office where Mom worked and that was the end of my first job.

 

Pam

Pam opens the door to her small apartment and I meet her for the first time. She is tall and lanky thin with wavy brown hair coming to her shoulders and has a quick, friendly smile. I think she is pretty. My friend Jerry introduced me to her, having known her through his brother and the motorcycle gang his brother ran with. Pam’s husband, the father of Penny, Pam’s four year old child, was in the gang and off somewhere cruising, leaving Pam and Penny home alone and needing a roommate.  I had just graduated high-school and landed a job at a pizza factory and needed somewhere to stay besides my parents’ home. As Pam and I introduced each other, I found out that Pam also had a job at the pizza factory. We could not only share an apartment but we could also take turns driving to work every morning. The deal was quickly made.

Pam was on welfare, so I had to write a note to the Department of Economic Security (DES) stating that I lived with Pam and we shared the rent but I bought my own groceries and she bought hers. I had to be at home at our apartment for the meeting with the lady from DES so that she could interview me to make sure we weren’t trying to pull a fast one on them. Pam would never cheat the system. She had too much integrity for that. I could tell that she was embarrassed to ask me to write the letter to DES and to have to ask me to be there for the appointment. I would never occur to me to think any worse of her for it. I was just so happy to have a buddy to live with. I needed a good friend at that time, the same as I needed air to breathe. I felt lost and alone with no direction, with no idea what life as an adult should look like and no idea of what I wanted for my future. Pam was a woman living on her own and making it. She was even making it with a kid in tow. I admired her.

At first Pam said she would not go out with me on the weekends. She said the she would rather just sit home with Penny, telling me she never went out. I was amazed and told her so. What was life except for living?  We were adults now. We did not need permission. We could make our own rules. We could have fun.  She was actually afraid to leave the house. I cajoled her, wearing her down, a little at a time, telling her that we could find things to do with Penny in tow, that it would be so fun, the three of us and I would help with Penny. She eventually consented, packing a bag of goodies to keep Penny entertained, and we were off, the three musketeers, taking on the world together.

That summer ran past like a dream, Pam and I working at the pizza factory, getting ready for work together every morning, pulling on own white uniforms and white thick-soled shoes that kept our feet from getting too sore standing at the lines all day long, talking about our lives on the drive to the factory, at lunch at the factory, on the way home and until we retired to bed at night. On the weekends we went to see bands that played in country fields and parks, dancing and getting high. We brought Penny along for the fun of running around and dancing in the grass. Every weekend there was something fun to do. We never left Penny alone with a baby sitter. We always went somewhere that she could tag along.

I don’t remember how it came out. I noticed that Pam had a couple missing teeth. I assumed that it was because of gum disease or a tooth problem or something dental going wrong. But she said it was from her husband hitting her. She never brought up her husband and I didn’t even know his name. It was weird to think about Pam being married. I had never laid eyes on the guy. I had heard he was somewhere in Colorado with the motorcycle gang. This was not the type of gang filled with teachers and accountants dressed up in leather.

I had encounters with this gang many times. They showed up in a bar once where I was hanging out and one of them covered in tattoos and leather, cuddled up next to me, dragging his nose ring up my neck as he recounted to me how he once killed a man and wanted to know if that thrilled me. I knew better than to bolt. I had been put in a scissor hold by one of these guys at a party once until I passed out. I was always saved by Jerry, who discovering me in distress would call it quits to my tormentor. Rocky was the leader of this gang of ruffians and Jerry was his brother. Jerry was the opposite of any of these guys, sweet and soft-spoken as butter, gentle and unassuming as a doe, but the gang never crossed him because that would mean crossing Rocky. At one party far out in the woods the gang showed up, taking over our spiked water melon, shooing us all to the edge of the woods. I always assumed Jerry somehow let on to where we were. They brought a woman along on the back of one of their bikes, calling her peachy cheeks, taking turns with her in the woods. Through the rest of the party there was always one of them yelling toward the woods something in the order of, “Are you done yet, it’s my fucking turn, get the fuck on with it.” I hid next to Jerry keeping my mouth shut.

I saw Pam open up during that summer we spent together. There was an edge to her that seemed to ease and relax over those easy summer days with the rhythm of the life we made together.. As the summer stretched on, we laughed more, played the music louder and danced more. We melted into each other in the way friends do when life is new and you get to figure it all out together. I left at the end of the summer to attend a technical college 45 miles away and had to move on. We were sorry to say our good-byes. I knew that I would always remember her.

The next summer I called Pam and asked to come by for a visit. She told me her husband was back. I was surprised, thinking that he was history for her, not understanding how she could take back a guy that left her stranded on welfare with his kid to feed and clothe. But I didn’t question her and she told me I could come by in an hour. She said to come by the back door. I found the instructions on how to park and how to use the back door strange, but again I didn’t question her. When I got there I saw her peeking out of the curtains watching for me and she actually pulled me into the apartment. When I got in and my eyes adjusted to the low light, I saw the bruises on her neck and face. She said I could only stay a few minutes because she was afraid he would come home and catch me there. The Pam I knew over the prior summer was gone. The old fear was back but now it was far worse. I tried to convince her to leave him in the same way I had convinced her the summer before to go out with me on the weekend. But I only saw the fear in her eyes grow the longer I stayed and the more I talked. There would be no more music and dancing in her life.

I left wondering what I could do. I still wonder.

First Love

My eyes rivet in place on him as if magnetized there – at the same time I don’t want to stand out like some type of gawking freak on a mission, so I hide behind corners and trees, following him around and when his path crosses mine I walk past him, nonchalantly, making as if I just happened to be there at the same time. It seems right that we should get together. We are the only two people from our school at this lake. Surely he would recognize me and find it equally a coincidence and an opportunity to start a connection before the school year. It would be our summer fling, our first love. It would be so amazing to come back to school and have summer love stories to share with my girlfriends. I would not be the same dowdy girl with no personality and little potential that left school for summer break. I would be someone if I had a boyfriend to be with when I came back to school. I follow and watch as he hangs around with his friends, locals from the area, he’s always easy to laugh, all tanned and in shape with blond sun streaks in his normally brown hair. When he’s out on the large wooden raft anchored just past the swim area, he can jump and twist dive in the lake with the ease of an otter, all that tan, sleek muscle glistening in the air.

My Aunt and Uncle have taken me on this week-long camping trip to Lake Mondeaux on the condition I watch my cousins for most of the day. The campground is on the other side of the Lake and it is time to return on the trail that winds its way full circle around the lake. I love to walk this trail, feeling the cool mud packed earth beneath my bare feet, avoiding the tree roots that crisscross along the way, enjoying the flicker of sun that manages to squeeze through the leaves overhead and dashes across my skin. I know this path by heart and feel that I could take it in the dark, knowing just where each twist and turn comes. On this path I can let my thoughts dream of this boy.  Back at the campground I am teased about where I was off to. Was there a boy I was chasing? Of course I am horrified to think my Aunt and Uncle know what I have been up to, not wanting them to read my thoughts, but the red,  that rushes up my cheeks, eventually covering my entire face, tells all. Even so, I refuse to acknowledge anything, hiding my embarrassment, turning to the fire, stoking some flames with a stick, making believe the fire is causing the blush in my face.

I take the long trail back and forth from the campground to the recreation area as often as I can, hoping to  catch a glimpse of him, seeing him in those cutoff jeans, frayed against his tan, hoping against hope that he notices me. I continue to torment myself, thinking only about him, his sun-streaked hair, his muscles as he dives in the lake and pulls himself wet and shiny back to the raft. I go to sleep in my tent each night, listening to the sounds of the crickets, imagining him holding my hand as we walk through the trees in Mondeaux Park stopping somewhere hidden in the branches to steal a kiss, imagining going to school in the fall and walking down the hall holding hands, laughing and sharing our secret stories of the fun we had at the lake.

The days stretch on and although I have managed to nearly jump in front of the guy, nearly tripping over him, getting more and more daring in my attempt to be seen, he never takes notice of me, never recognizes me. It is as if I am invisible. To him I am just another kid in the park, someone he does not know or care to know. Even so, when school starts in the fall and I get on the same bus as him, I think, then, possibly then, he will notice that I am the one who was also at the lake this summer. But even on the bus, I continue to be invisible to him. I am nobody to him.