Trigger warning: child abuse, sexual assault and violence
“Cuz Christy, if you ever show up around here, I’m gonna kick your ass. And you know I can”; her heavy emphasis upon “know” reflected her conviction that she had done so previously.
Struggling to appease her fury, I conceded “Baby Sandy. You can kick my ass. But I’m still a pretty good runner and I’m not sure you’d catch me. We’re both old women now.”
“Oh, I’d catch you alright and knock that fuckin’ useless head off your shoulders,” Sandy snarled.
“But why? I’ve just been trying to help. What did I do? I love you. Always have. Always will. I worry about you every day and night. I wonder where you’re sleeping and eating. Are you safe, happy? The questions keep coming. But I get no answers. Ever.”
Without hesitating, Sandy barked “Because you left. You fucking left us here.”
The worst part about this allegation?
It was true.
And I’d do it again.
Our lives were intertwined by the time she was born. There’s no pleasant way to put this, so I won’t try to obfuscate the truth with performative eloquence. I’ve tried to explain this shit decorously, using polite verbiage, but it never feels true; rather like someone else is describing my most basic truths after sucking out the toxin. But, without that poison, my life makes no sense.
Long before Baby Sandy was born, my mother’s sister, Carol, married an ex-con named Art. Only when I was well into my fifties and after I hired a private investigator to find Art did I learn that he was her fourth husband and the second convicted felon.
My mom’s name was Sandy and she was younger than Carol. Younger yet were their two brothers Ron and Ricky. Ricky was the youngest of the four in the Austin brood. When my mother was knocked up and my father evaporated like rain on a hot stone, my mom hopped on a Greyhound bus for Phoenix where she stayed with my Aunt Carol and her first felonious beaux. They all lived in Carol’s glimmering pink and steal-trimmed trailer which matched her pink car. As a kid, I’d look at those pictures and think Carol was well-heeled because she could afford to match her car to her trailer.
In exchange for letting my pregnant mom crash with her, Aunt Carol demanded that mom name me after her. And so, mom did. Some six years later when Carol would marry for the fourth time and then conceive a child with Art, an ostensibly reformed bank-robber, she named her first-born after my mom. To avoid confusion in appellations, my mom was Sandy and my cousin was Baby Sandy. I was called by my middle name, Christy.
I adored Aunt Carol with her teased, bouffant blond hair and exquisite white teeth. I later learned her hair was bleached and her teeth—like those of mom and grandma—were falsies. They all cleaned their teeth in a glass with fuzzy water and attached them to their mouths with pink glue. Carol and Art wore flared jeans and cowboy boots and rode about town on their motorcycle. They were the most glamorous duo of actual humans I’d ever seen.
One fall day they moved into the basement of our tiny home on Weiser Park in Ft. Wayne, Indiana. Mom explained that Carol and Art went “bankrupt,” which I didn’t understand at the time as I was in nursery school. Mom opined that this meant that they were “broke, in debt to their eyeballs, homeless and had nowhere else to go but our basement.”
Mom seemed almost smug about it as if she hoped these facts would dim my view of my aunt, whom I worshiped. But I was ecstatic that they went bankrupt or whatever. The two coolest people I knew were now living in my basement. Aunt Carol took me to nursery school in her pink, quilted housecoat with her hair in curlers. With narrowed—almost suspicious eyes—she’d take long drags on her mentholated Kools as she watched me walk through the doors of the Christ United Methodist Church. Once I was inside, she’d speed away, sometimes squealing her tires. The teachers gasped in shock. I was giddy with pride.
At the same time, mom sunk deep into a swamp of depression after my brother, baby Johnnie, was born “mongoloid.” He had a hole in his heart, and he couldn’t shit. He pooped into a bag attached to his tummy, which my mom changed often. It was always a putrid yellow or a faint green, like mushed peas. And then one day, he turned blue—again.
He died in mom’s arms while she was on the phone with the doctor who was adamant there was nothing he could do because Johnnie’s heart simply didn’t work. I watched her hang up the phone.
Mom was now a nullity.
Our kin felt discharged of some burden when Johnnie died, most of all my stepmonster, John. John and mom fought constantly with John accusing her of “sleeping around.” I had no idea what that meant but I determined it was bad. At the funeral, people expressed relief—not condolences.
If mom wasn’t working late into the night as a bartender, she was sleeping. John worked second trick at General Electric, which required him to wear steel-toed shoes. I learned to stay away from him because sometimes he’d kick me out of sublimated rage at his pitiable life. Aunt Carol got a job at a factory which left Uncle Art in charge of me and my little brother Joey. Unlike everyone else, Art played with me. Once, after school, he taught me to ride my bike. He sat me on his lap and told me preposterous stories that made me laugh so hard I sometimes farted right there on his lap. That made us both laugh even harder. He bought my first pair of dingo boots and flared jeans so I could dress like a miniaturized Aunt Carol. Sometimes it seemed he was the only one who loved me. There was no one else.
That’s how this all began.
One day, I was in the basement while mom was sleeping with Joey and John was working. Art, looking into my eyes, reminded me that he loved me most. He tenderly turned me over the back of the couch, slid my panties aside and inserted his finger. I froze from a combination of fear and, truthfully, pleasure. I felt like a puppy having her belly rubbed. I don’t remember how long it lasted. He told me that if I ever told anyone, we wouldn’t be able to have special time. I was six.
They eventually moved out and “special time” with Art became infrequent and limited to holidays and family outings when he would inevitably volunteer to babysit. We too moved to various rural hellholes around Fort Wayne, finally settling upon the bucolic town of Huntertown with an incorporated population of 3,000-plus pigs.
Two years later, Carol gave birth to Baby Sandy and they bought a small house-trailer on a few acres of forested land in Knox Indiana. When they moved in, we drove out to help them unpack and settle in. While Mom and Carol were in the back of the trailer, I spied Art amid boxes stacked high in the living room. He was changing Baby Sandy’s diaper. I surreptitiously watched from behind as he inserted his trigger finger into the innocence of my infant cousin.
I slunk away and told no one. Still not understanding that Art’s behavior was iniquitous, I felt jealous that Uncle Art was no longer my Uncle Art. Two and a half years later, Carol gave birth to Jack.
After Jack was born, I began to grasp the profound evil of Art’s ways. The more aware I became, the filthier I felt. Art no longer extracted silence by warning that I wouldn’t be able to see him. Now he extracted cooperation by threatening to tell my mother, grandmother, stepmonster and anyone else I loved or feared that I was a sinful little tramp who seduced him.
One day in the summer of 1981, mom declared that she was scheming to leave John. As much as I feared John and his violent loathing of me, I was panicked about how she would pay our bills. Mom was a high school graduate who unloaded boxes in the receiving department of Ayr-Way. Mom dismissed my alarm and assured me that she’d find another husband before leaving him….as if you could acquire husbands by collecting S&H Green Stamps.
She set about doing so with the determination of a baby rabbit trying to escape a fox. For an alibi, she’d take me when she went to The Picker, a Ft. Wayne honkey tonk. I slept in the backseat of her car while she did whatever she needed to do inside. While I coveted sharing this secret with her, I also despised her for it. Often it was cold.
A few months later, on my thirteenth birthday all hell broke loose. Some girlfriends came home with me for a celebratory sleepover. There were two notes on the kitchen table, which stood out prominently on the tangerine Formica. One was from John who wrote simply and sadistically “Christy, I killed your cat.” He didn’t say how or why. But I ran through the house screaming for my beloved, old cat. Smokey was not to be found.
Bewildered, I read the other, longer note from mom. “Christy, John went insane. He’s in the South Unit. I’ll be home later to take you girls to a movie. Follow the instructions on the pizza box and eat. Love, Mom.”
Several hours later, mom arrived to haul us to the dollar cinema where a dopey man met us. My mom introduced him as “Ricky Lee.” She leaned over and whispered perkily “You know, from the Picker!” She told us they’d pick us up after the movie. The pieces clicked into place for me and the girls. Now, the entire Huntertown Elementary would know that my mom was a slut, which isn’t very generous, but it is how these churchy bitches would describe her. I tried to view it more munificently: re-optimizing. I vowed that I would not get married. Marriage seemed like a lot of work for little money. I would find a way out of this shithole that didn’t involve hooking my fortunes to those of a shitbird half-wit.
By Thanksgiving mom was pregnant which was about two months before her divorce from John was settled. John was no longer voluntarily committed in the looney bin and had moved out and into a creepily dilapidated farmhouse around Albion that had no appeal other than it was far away from mom.
Right before Christmas break, mom informed me that she was spending those two weeks with Ricky Lee. Being a robust 13, I presumed that I’d be taking care of my brother at home as a prolonged stint at babysitting, which I did often while mom was out disporting with this moustachioed rube I nicknamed Chumley, after the Saturday morning cartoon walrus.
She corrected this misperception: Joey would stay with John and I would stay with Art and Carol.
I burst into tears and ran to the bathroom violently heaving up my lunch-time fish sticks. I hadn’t spent that much time with them in recent years. The last time I saw them was at grandma’s around my birthday. Art commented about my developing boobs and hollered that I was becoming a “brick shit house.” I presumed this exultation was obscene because he was. I begged mom to let me stay alone or with grandma. But she announced “grandma will be there too. Christy, it’s done. I’m not negotiating.”
Because Art worked as a lineman and was often on far-away assignments, he didn’t show up until two days before Christmas. When he arrived, his hands and nails were stained black from grease. As the hours of that day passed into night, I became anxious. I slept with Baby Sandy in her twin bed while Grandma slept with Jack.
I searched her room for something I could hit him with if he came in. I found Sandy’s steel Tonka fire truck, I placed it beside the bed, then fought to stay awake. The nightlight helped.
What felt like an eternity passed when I heard their bedroom door creak open followed by his heavy footsteps in the hallway. As he leaned in to do whatever he had planned, I whacked him with the truck and screamed like hell. Fazed, he scurried away.
Breakfast was awkward. We were all seated at the table, including grandma. Carol put oatmeal and toast before us, then interrogated Art about his bruised and bloody head. Unabashedly he looked straight at me and explained “Christy was having another nightmare. I heard her screaming and ran in. It was dark. I fell and hit my head on Sandy’s goddamned fire truck.”
Carol, glowering at me, asked “Christy, is this true?” I felt my face flush with humiliation. I remained stubbornly silent, eyes averted downward, and stirred my oatmeal. I felt lewd, smutty and ashamed in front of grandma. I wanted to run away…or die.
That was the last time Art abused me.
Mom married Ricky Lee a few months later in March. Joey and I weren’t happy and most of mom’s selling points proved to be bait and switch. For example, Ricky Lee did not live in that fancy trailer park with a pool off I-69 and he was as asinine as John. My brother Pork was born in July. About this time, mom and her siblings began wrangling over grandma’s deteriorating health. Uncle Rick now lived in Georgia. Uncle Ron and his wife still lived nearby, but they were leeches. They were effective extractors of dying peoples’ resources, including grandma’s. Art and Carol were fighting too and were scarce. But mom frequently spoke with Carol on the phone and had become convinced her sister was losing her mind.
In June of 1987, Art and Carol came to my high school graduation in Waynedale where mom and Ricky Lee finally scrapped the cash to buy a World War II-era house that was never meant to be permanently inhabited. Mom bought Kentucky Fried Chicken, which was probably my favorite food group. She also ordered a store-made cake which featured a prominent misspelling “Congratulations Valadictorian.” My high school sweetheart, Jay, came too.
Art had the temerity to ask Jay whether he preferred “breasts or thighs” in front of my mother, grandmother and second stepmonster, Ricky Lee. Jay, a religious fanatic, was mortified as was I. Increasingly emboldened by the knowledge that everyone knew what Art had done, I snapped “Yes, Art! We all know how much you like breasts and thighs because you’re a fucking pig.”
My mother scolded me and demanded that I apologize. I refused. I was incandescent with loathing. I was sick of pretending and exhausted with their pretending. I fantasized about dropping Art into an enormous blender and watching his body spin around until they became a pink foam.
I didn’t know it then, but my shitty world was already descending into yet more shit.
Grandma’s birthday was a few weeks later, on June 30th. Baby Sandy’s birthday was on the fourth of July. Because grandma was back in the hospital, on the fourth of July mom and I drove up to the Kendallville Hospital where we planned to meet Carol and the kids to celebrate both birthdays. Even though grandma was hospitalized due to morbid complications from her diabetes, she incorrigibly demanded one of Carol’s specialty cakes. Carol, unlike anyone else in our family, baked stuff from scratch. She didn’t even use Bisquick.
Carol, as was her habit, arrived hours late. When at last we received Carol’s call from the hospital reception, she insisted frantically that we come down to the parking lot.
On the black pavement, the smouldering June heat was immiserating. Carol’s eye makeup, which was usually an elaborate project with hand-drawn eyebrows, was wrecked from her frenetic sobbing. She resembled a rabid raccoon. The kids were dishevelled and had been crying too.
Carol explained “Late as usual, I piled the kids in the car and set off. A half hour into the drive I realized I forgot the cake and turned around.” As she wound her Cutlass Cruiser up the sylvan drive, they saw Art in the dog pen sodomizing one of Carol’s collies.
“When he saw us, he leapt out of the pen and came straight for our car. Wearing nothing but his damned dingo boots. I told the kids to keep quiet. He said he had been in the shower when he heard my dogs fighting in the pen. So, he leapt out of the shower, put on his boots and broke up the fight. He said this like we’re blind, dumbasses. I thanked him for taking care of my dogs, grabbed the cake and got the fuck out.”
Sandy, aged eleven, chimed in about the wet tip of her father’s swollen, red penis.
After recounting this staggering—yet thoroughly believable—tale, Carol turned to me and asked “Christy, what did Art do to you?”
I felt rage rearing up like an animal. I was a deeply truculent and disturbed young woman. Sometimes I fantasized about killing Art, John, Ricky Lee. Mostly I wanted to kill myself. I told countless guidance counsellors about the realities of my life ranging from Art’s dark deeds to the various perverse cruelties of my stepmonsters while my hapless mom usually did nothing except look on in sad futility. The consensus was that if I kept up my grades, I’d get a scholarship for college and I would be able escape. If I went to a foster home, I probably wouldn’t graduate valedictorian which was crucial to securing those critical scholarships. Even the doctors in the emergency room told me the same after I tried to commit suicide the first time. I was a ticking bomb that everyone kicked down the road like a can.
But now, Carol asks. Flummoxed and seething I growled “You know, Carol. You all know. You all fucking know.”
I ran up to grandma’s room and cried myself to exhaustion.
Mom came up and tapped me on the shoulder to leave. We passed the hour-long drive home in accusatory silence.
During the drive, I stayed focused upon my imminent escape to the University of Chicago which offered me more financial aid than Indiana University. I just needed to hang on a few months longer. I didn’t know it then, but I would also stay there for a PhD. I would never come “home’ except for weekends when I watched my mother die.
Once in Chicago, the unravelling spiralled.
In early October mom phoned. “Art raped Carol after she filed for divorce on account of the dog incident. He raped her right in front the kids.”
Several days later, Mom called again. “Art’s been calling Carol. He’s telling her he’s gonna kill her. The police won’t do anything until he shows up at home or at work. I told her, Art is going to kill you. You have to get a gun and kill him first. You will go to jail. But your kids will still have a mom.”
Mom was right in her assessment and advice. But Carol was paralyzed with fear.
Every shelter refused to take her because Jack was eight. So they hid at the home of a high-school sweetheart who still loved Carol. But staying for long was untenable: the kids were missing school and it was increasingly difficult to find someone who would take care of her four Pomeranians, four Collies, and horse, with a homicidal, maniacal rapist prowling around the property.
Against all counsel, they returned to Knox.
On November 22nd, on the very day she was supposed to go to court for the rape case, Art snuck onto the property through the back and beat her to death with a broom in the very dog pen where he raped her dog. He arranged her naked, macerated body in the straw like a bloody snow angel for their children to find.
When Carol didn’t pick up the kids hours after school ended, everyone became anxious. A school administrator drove the kids home and was there when Sandy and Jack found their mom. Within a few minutes the phone rang. Jack picked up the receiver and heard his father explain “your mom deserved what she got.”
Sandy and Jack moved in with mom, stepmonster #2, my brothers Joey—who now went by Joe— and Pork and my derelict stepbrother, Marshall.
It was tumultuous. The kids and their vast needs strained mom’s rocky marriage to Ricky Lee. From afar, I learned that Art did unspeakable things to both children for years. They often spent nights in the forest behind the trailer when Art came home drunk and violently quarrelled with Carol. Sometimes they’d hide in their neighbor’s corn field. These were their sanctuaries.
Art was convicted and eventually spent 30 years in jail. But the kids and I were broken albeit in different ways and to varying extents.
I was able flee the fucking shithole and, against the will of this intemperate universe, made a life as far away as possible. I went to Pakistan, India, Iran, Los Angeles, Washington D.C. Anywhere but Fort Wayne. They couldn’t escape.
Jack eventually married a drug-addled harridan who gave him the rage-filled fights and cortisol bursts his brain craved. Jack joined the Indiana National Guard and it seemed, for a brief while, that he’d survive. One night, while fighting with his doped-up wife in his truck with their infant son in the back, he pulled out his gun and blew his brains out. The scrambled contents of his head sprayed his widow and son.
Sandy meanwhile sought out various losers on whom she squandered the considerable sum of social security payments that my mom saved and remanded to her when she turned eighteen. In the summer of 1993, mom was dying from metastatic melanoma. She now stared blankly as her brain was ravaged by the untreatable cancer. I came in from Chicago every weekend to be with her despite the protestations of Ricky Lee. Sandy, who lived nearby, nosed around only when she wanted money. I wanted to kick her oddly white teeth out of her selfish skull.
If I had been wiser or more aware, I would’ve understood that Sandy was consumed with mental illness. She wasn’t telling us outlandish fictions; rather, they were her truths.
After mom passed, Sandy married Bob. What Bob lacked in intellect, he made up for with patience. They fought like hell and Sandy frequently thrashed him. My brother Joe worked with Bob at a factory. Joe believed Sandy was in good hands or, at least, in the best hands possible considering her intolerable violence and mendacity.
A decade later, Bob split. He tolerated her whooping him. But when she began punching and kicking their kids, Bob had her arrested for assault and had a restraining order issued. Sandy could not see her son or daughter or come anywhere near her erstwhile home. He divorced her. The court ordered Sandy to pay child support which was ludicrous: Sandy had been an incompetent stay-at-home mom who tried—but failed—to home-school her two heathen children despite being illiterate and innumerate. How would she get or keep a job? She couldn’t and didn’t and began living in her truck.
A year later, Joe spotted her truck in the Scott’s parking lot up in Waynedale, where she slept at night. Sometimes Joe had the police check on her at Scott’s. There was little else we could do. I was working in Washington DC and felt useless. Because I was.
Eventually she lost her truck, which cradled the contents of her desolate life. It had her cats, her paintings, her family photos. We have no idea where the truck went. A few weeks later Sandy disappeared.
In the spring of 2017, I received an email from the Indiana Department of Corrections. Art was out of prison. They refused to say where he went, so I fruitlessly hired a PI to find him. The hillbilly rumor mill was more productive: I learned he returned to his hometown of Rome City. But the trail went cold.
About a month after Art’s release, uncle Rick and Aunt Theresa watched Baby Sandy trudge up the driveway of their home in a Klan-festooned area northeast of Atlanta. Sandy claimed she walked from Indiana. It was hard to believe but Rick said her face was sun-baked deep red, she was filthy, stank like a barn animal and her clothes were rancid. After a few days of cleaning her up, they put her on a bus back to Ft. Wayne, lacking any other inspiration. They confirmed she was out of her mind and frequently babbled about a secret community of forest-dwelling hobos who coronated her as its queen.
Upon getting off the bus in Ft. Wayne, she was arrested for numerous crimes, including absconding from child support payments.
That’s when she called me.
I wanted desperately to do something. I fantasized about getting her medicated and going through therapy as I had for so many years. I concocted scenarios of her getting occupational therapy and becoming what we’d all recognize as functional. Perhaps one day she could see her kids without scaring the shit out of them.
Baby Sandy agreed to go to an ER to get a check-up because, at some point, her hand was injured. Since she liked to paint, this motivated her. That’s how we learned she was schizophrenic.
In an improbable turn of events, which only buttressed my absurd optimism, I found a residential treatment facility that would accept her despite her violent criminal record. She stayed in a hotel near Joe’s house until a space become available. Ludicrously, I was intoxicated by the hope of her becoming well.
Patti, the woman who ran the place thought she’d seen it all. But Sandy offered a few surprises. When Patti came to fetch her from the hotel, she had to ensure that Sandy had no weapons—particularly with her assault record. According to Patti, Sandy had been living in a forest on the outskirts of Ft. Wayne. Resourcefully, she made a shiv out of some animal’s rib which she used for various tasks. Sandy went ballistic when she learned she had to give it up. Patti promised her it would be in the safe and that she’d get it back when she left. Unarmed at the home, Sandy collected large rocks in her room to defend herself, which Patti removed weekly.
Patti tried for months to cajole Sandy into participating in the home’s treatment activities. Sandy was tricky. She deployed countless ruses to avoid seeing a shrink which I wanted her to do because I convinced myself that Sandy would be safer for herself and everyone else in a court-ordered institutional environment. To get this court order, I amassed evidence of the risk she posed to herself and others. It wasn’t hard to do for the simple fact that she was, in fact, dangerous as hell. But the psychiatric assessment was most important.
After the fourth month, Patti explained “Sandy, I’m not running a hostel. If you are not going to begin the path to wellness, you can’t stay here. Others need and want these resources to get well.”
At Patti’s suggestion, I called Sandy and begged her to accept treatment. Sandy now lived in an alternate world in which her father hadn’t abused us and killed her mom and in which her brother hadn’t murdered himself. She was adamant that a sinister stranger had stalked her family for years, abused us, and killed Carol and Jack with the same gun. She oscillated between wanting to hunt him down to kill him and hiding from him in the woods. She couldn’t do either in this home.
Sandy yearned to return to her forest. For her, this was not homelessness, rather a safe place.
She confided in me about the secret gathering of hobos who lived in the woods where she decamped. She told me plaintively “most of y’all think I’m crazy. But they worship me because I can catch, kill, clean and cook varmints with my hands. I can make weapons from wood or bones. I fixed my own truck when I had one. I can start a fire, sew, beat the fuck out of anyone—like you. Cuz, you don’t understand. The hobos worship me. I am their queen.”
That night, after we hung up, Sandy collected her shiv and walked out of the home. No one has heard from her or of her since.
Eventually, I acquiesced to Sandy’s logic. In an institution, she would always be vulnerable to predators and more so with age. If she were medicated, would she become more docile and less able to “kick their asses”?
I niggardly conceded that the forest was her refuge. A sanctuary.
During moments when I was honest with myself, I had to accept that the fantasy of helping her “get well” or “become normal” or “functional” was always about me finding a way to assuage my guilt for failing her, Jack, Carol, myself and everyone else Art damaged. Had I said something the very first time I saw him touch her, would things be different for any of us? Would mom or Carol believe me had I tried? It was always about me impossibly attempting to make right a concatenation of colossal wrongs.
Most nights, I try to imagine Sandy ensconced in the woods where she dominates man and nature, surrounded by her loyal subjects who are in awe of their masterful queen.
C. Christine Fair is a professor within the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. She studies political and military events of South Asia and travels extensively throughout Asia and the Middle East. Her books include In Their Own Words: Understanding the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (OUP 2019); Fighting to the End: The Pakistan Army’s Way of War (OUP, 2014); and Cuisines of the Axis of Evil and Other Irritating States (Globe Pequot, 2008). She has published creative pieces in The Bark, The Dime Show Review, Clementine Unbound, Awakenings, Fifty Word Stories, The Drabble, Sandy River Review, Sonder Midwest, Black Horse Magazine, Furious Gazelle, Hyptertext, Barzakh Magazine and Bluntly Magazine among others. Her visual poetry has appeared in Awakenings, pulpMAG and several forthcoming pieces in Abstract: Contemporary Expressions, The Indianapolis Review, Typehouse Literary Magazine and PCC Inscape Magazine.