Nonfiction by Cindy Skaggs
They talk me into Twizzlers from the vending machine before we head back to the silver minivan that rides low under the weight it carries: boxes, crates, computer, blankets and pillows, toys, and a hamper, all crammed into the backseat in under an hour.
Stacks of horse blankets six deep, factory wrapped in plastic, make a seat of sorts in the back of my father’s sedan. The top blanket is unwrapped to make it more comfortable, which it does not. It itches. We slide with the movement of the car, blanket against plastic, bumping and sliding along Interstate 70 as the tires slapslapslap on the blistering asphalt and the soft tar patches crisscrossing it.
The honor of the passenger seat goes to the oldest—my sister this trip—and it protects her somewhat from the broiling blasts of air coming through the windows creating a whirlwind in the backseat of the car.
Dad’s car has no air conditioning. It has a radio he won’t let us use and a backseat he uses to haul horse equipment, except when he’s hauling us.
The plastic from the horse-blanket seat snaps in the wind, and my hair whips around like loose hay. By the end of the day, the wind will spin knots into my hair the size of walnuts that I’ll wash out in the chlorine of whatever small town, roadside motel with matchbox-sized pool he stops at. There will be a café and pie a la mode, but not for hours.
Dad passes a tractor, then immediately forgets the blinker that click-clicks with annoying regularity for the next hundred miles. After the first few miles we don’t hear it much above the snap of plastic and the rush of hot air. When Dad gets tired, the car drifts to the right before he jerks awake and the car snaps back between the lines. At random intervals, Dad will sing Old Man River, but just a few bars. He doesn’t know all the words and even the words he knows come from the land of misfit music.
Old Man River, you make me shiver.
Is that phrase in the song? Is it a song?
It’s annual torture.
August, with the car like a convection oven and the grasshoppers and the never-ending blacktop with stops at odd-intervals visiting Dad’s side of the family.
Too many states, too much time, too much Kansas.
Every year, same trip, same route, same forgotten song. When we get a bit older, when my sister stops coming and it’s just Mike and me, Dad eases up on the dawn to dusk push for progress. He makes stops at roadside attractions that exist only in the Midwest. There is the twoheaded calf, the largest ball of twine, and Prairie Dog Town. These sideshow stops blend in my mind, with their air conditioning, and Mentos, and gift shops with faux cow pies and mock rattlesnakes and postcards, as if you need proof you’ve been there. I don’t know if it’s proof or remembrance, but I still have a ribbon of postcards in a box somewhere in the garage.
Even on the later trips, when I am oldest sitting in the passenger seat and we make more stops, the radio is silent and the windows still down, snapping my hair into a frenzy. I curl onto the front floorboard and rest my head on the seat and try to sleep away the time on the road, then I will be up half the night, Dad snoring over the hum of the window air conditioner, watching late-night movies on the no-cable TV at a motel with a cute name we will forget by morning.
I hate Kansas.
The East-West route across Kansas on I-70 is four hundred and twenty-four miles. The average summer temp is 90 degrees, but the record is 112. If I didn’t know the record was set in 1954, I’d swear I was there.
It takes six hours, driving the speed limit and making no stops, to cross Kansas. It took longer with Dad, because the speed limit was 55 and we had to turn north at some point to head into Nebraska. Same heat, different day.
That was years ago. This trip it’s a simple east-west route, straight through, starting in the Midwest, through Missouri and into Kansas, but I’ve built stops into the plan, but not too long, not too often.
Rick Springfield blares on the car stereo. Loud, because I need mind-numbingly loud. I play the CDs in order, from the first comic book bubblegum pop album to his marriage is falling apart album, to the newest (not including the Christmas album), found on the Internet because they don’t sell it in the United States.
These are the only CDs I brought, the only albums I took. They are the only me things that fit inside the packed to the ceiling minivan. The cats can’t find a hidey-hole to burrow into, so they sleep on the almost empty passenger seat or on my lap, covering my Capri pants in orange hair. It’s the least of my worries.
We have a hard deadline, somewhere safe to be on Thursday. D-day, I think, as we put distance between our van and the place we have to leave.
No time to stop unless the kids need it. I remember the no-bathroom-breaks of annual treks through hotter-than-hell Kansas, so I stop when they need to, but the kids don’t stop much.
Good travelers, they have a DVD player and air conditioning to keep them occupied.
They have made the trip to Colorado every year, from wherever we were stationed to home, once a year to visit family and go to Santa’s Workshop. Ethan is in a car seat and Grace in a booster. Too young for their little lives to fall apart, but the stuff in the rearview mirror makes it necessary.
We make it through the urban areas and suburban sprawl, and into the green hills of Missouri before we stop. Potty break.
I prefer the cleaner, franchise truck stops, packed with semis and RVs and family cars on summer vacation. No one knows me here. We fill up on gas and junk food before pulling onto westbound I-70. The kids might take an afternoon nap watching a Disney movie, and I can make it several hours without stopping.
It’s Dad’s Push for Progress all over again until my eyes start to droop. I remember Dad’s drift and the snap-jerk that pulled us back onto the highway. I pull into a rest stop. The kids are sleeping, headphone-covered heads drooping over seatbelts, tilted to the side at an angle that has to hurt. The cat on my lap opens one eye when I lean the seat back, car and air conditioner running, doors locked. I close my eyes.
I haven’t slept a full night in months, but the lull of the highway does what situational exhaustion could not. I sleep twenty or thirty minutes, until the slam of a car door jerks me awake. We are not alone on this little island off the interstate.
The cat glares when I pop the seat into the upright position. He moves to the passenger seat to lie down on his twin brother.
The kids are quietly watching a movie, letting me sleep. How do they know I need it? How much do they know? We use the bathrooms and take a quick jog around the rest area to wake up. They talk me into Twizzlers from the vending machine before we head back to the silver minivan that rides low under the weight it carries: boxes, crates, computer, blankets and pillows, toys, and a hamper, all crammed into the backseat in under an hour. It is a work of art, really, how much I fit onto and under that third row of seats. In the way back, behind the last seat, there was room for luggage and a litter box. All part of the plan.
I had finally executed the Great Escape from the kids’ father. The God-as-my-witness-soon-to-be-ex who my sister calls Little Hitler, partly based on personality and partly on the Hitler mustache he sported when we were married at too-damn-young-to-know-better. Hereafter I call him Invisible as if to relegate him to a nether-region where I do not have to acknowledge his existence and he has no effect on mine.
The plan was hatched in the cramped and dim office of the Victim’s Advocate in a beige and brown building belonging to Air Force Family Advocacy. In fifteen years and six bases as a military spouse, a dependent, I had never heard of Family Advocacy. I didn’t walk into their offices on my own steam. I was sent there after a medical appointment.
The paperwork in the military runs together, a blur of required documents you stop reading after the first or second appointment. That day, I made it three or four questions down a photocopied page covered with small type and yes or no checkboxes, answering by rote, before I stopped.
Check yes or no:
Does your spouse blame you for how he feels or acts?
Does he keep you from spending time with your family and friends?
Does he intimidate or threaten you?
Does he threaten to take away or hurt your children?
Does he grab, push, pinch, shove, slap, or hit you?
Yes, yes, yes, yes, no.
I answer in my head, but I don’t change the checkboxes.
He didn’t hit me. Wasn’t that the bottom line? I would leave if he hit me, but that excuse was high school skinny. It was anorexic.
Physical violence was not the end-all-be-all. It was not the line in the sand. He had taken pieces of my soul with each passing day until I felt less than invisible. I didn’t know who I was anymore. A ghost of my former self, I didn’t know what normal was anymore. I needed someone to tell me.
I didn’t check yes or no. I didn’t commit. Instead, I wrote it out.
How do I know?
That single question propelled it from my passive hands and into the machinations of the United States Air Force bureaucracy. Mandatory reporting required the doctor setup a next day appointment with Family Advocacy. If I missed the appointment, the matter would be taken through Invisible’s chain of command. He would have to answer questions. I didn’t know if I wanted to go or if I wanted to address the ‘he-doesn’t-hit-me’ questions, but I was certain I didn’t want him to know I had reached out for help.
The crash of breaking glass, a sound-effect from the song on the stereo, pulls me back to the here and now. Nowhere Kansas, I-70, just me and the kids and Springfield’s “Honeymoon in Beirut” on the stereo. Fighting, like war, with military troops and tanks.
The music is less art and too much reality this time through. It’s hard to hear, but I don’t turn it off. Can’t turn it down.
We passed The Lake of the Woods outside of Kansas City earlier in the day. It had been one of those random relative stops on Dad’s route, but today the kids and I continued down the highway, passing signs for Prairie Dog Town, one of those sideshow stops Dad eventually made at our instigation. The sign advertising the two-headed cow has been replaced with one for a sixlegged steer. The kids don’t see the signs, they’re too engrossed in the DVD of the moment.
The muffled thumps of the soft tar patches invade the cabin, despite the closed windows and music on the stereo. I want the inside of the minivan to insulate me from the realities of the Kansas Interstate—and from the serious risks of my planned escape—but the car can only quell the heat and dull the sounds; it can’t keep them at bay forever.
The kids and I are traveling through the Bible Belt now, surrounded by square plots of crops I don’t recognize, green, a foot tall, and stretching for miles in every direction. The fields are littered with tractors, metal storage containers, and billboards we once used to play the ABC road trip game.
Amidst signs for motels and fast food are black and white signs with judgmental quotes signed “God” by some egotistical group that dared to put His name on their words. I want to raze the signs of the Religious Right, of which I once considered myself, which offer platitudes that cannot buffer me from reality.
Leap and a net will appear.
What rat bastard planted that unrealistic seed in the fields of Kansas?
There were no safety nets. Not after today. A friend offered one, months ago, but I choked on it.
“You can have the basement if you need it,” she said. “It has a separate entrance. Two bedrooms. No one would know you were there.”
Too choked up to answer, too amazed by the offer and the reality that I might actually need it, I consider.
“As long as you need it,” she pressed. We were speaking on the phone, so I had no visual cues, but she sounded so maternal and kind, which is always my undoing.
She’s one of a small circle of friends that met every year at a writer’s conference. I like her, but it’s been years, before my daughter was born, since I’ve seen her or been to a conference. I don’t know from her tone if the offer is real or a really nice—but empty—offer. Somewhere along the way I’ve lost my compass and I have no idea how to read people or their motives. Just telling her about my situation took an act of faith.
“I’ll keep it in mind,” I say, my throat tight with tears I cannot let start.
My friend is a writer. Famous. A name you would know.
No one would suspect I was hiding in her basement.
I considered it, what it would be like to live on the run, hiding in her basement. A reallife movie of the week. The fantasy of escaping into a new identity fed my imagination. We’d dye our hair and take different names. We’d exist as shadows, not really there, not anywhere, but at least we could heal in a city where no one knew us.
Should I have taken her offer? It was a close thing. Escaping into the world of a privately funded protection program. It was the warm fuzzy I dreamed about on those nights I was too afraid to sleep. But getting caught meant losing the kids. The fear of it kept me immobile.
The plan was not hatched in one day in one meeting with Family Advocacy. I went weekly to meet with the Victim’s Advocate, Rene, who took copious notes I mistook for care and concern. “I really want to know how he figures out where you are all the time,” she says, after I play a voicemail from the night before.
“You left Debbie’s at 9:08,” Invisible says, “It’s now 9:15. Where are you?”
“I want to know, too,” I answer, but I don’t tell her that I fear he has the neighbors watching me, that maybe he has a GPS tracker in the van or maybe he has the house bugged? I don’t tell her these things because they sound paranoid, but that doesn’t make them less plausible.
“You have a form of PTSD,” she tells me after a few weeks. She explains that living in constant fear has created a warlike environment. She gives me a checklist of possible symptoms that I view with disgust. Hypervigilance, insomnia, inability to concentrate, numbness, fatigue.
Do you feel afraid? No shit.
Do you wonder if you’re the one who’s crazy? Why do you think I’m here?
Do you feel emotionally numb or helpless? Every damn day. Right this minute. I would leave the office, but it wasn’t about me anymore. The signs the children exhibit are enough to break through the numbness I’ve felt for too long.
Grace, this beautifully extroverted child, has begun to withdraw from her friends. She plays alone in the basement. Ethan, a loving six-year-old boy, has begun to hit his best friend, to haul back his fist and ram it in his buddy’s pudgy face. This rage he is beginning to feel is more than I can allow. It brought me here. It brought me to reality.
I couldn’t stay with Invisible anymore, but I didn’t know how to leave.
These thoughts kept me up at night. Insomnia? Hell, Rene didn’t know the half of it, and she’s concerned enough as it is. Still, she won’t prescribe a sleeping pill, because if he does try to kill me, I should probably be awake for it.
And I thought the insomnia was bad before.
“This is probably your father’s fault,” she tells me one week.
The amplified screech of a scratched record sounds in my head. “What?”
It is the first time my voice turns sharp. It was like a slap that brought me fully into the moment.
“He left when you were young,” Rene explains in her best counselor voice. “You didn’t have an example of a positive, loving marriage relationship.”
“That’s bullshit,” I say, but it’s almost a whisper. I want to shout, but my throat constricts. I hate her for saying it. I don’t want to write it even now. “Blaming my father is a cheap-assed way to excuse the hell my life has become, and I won’t—” The sobs start. I won’t let her lower my father to that level.
The tears are near constant in her office because it’s the only safe place to let them flow, but this is a record even for me. My words are unintelligible as a stack of Kleenex tissues forms a mountain on the desk between us. I won’t endure a link between my dad and Invisible. I won’t let anyone do that to my memories, but I don’t tell Rene, I just wipe the torrent of tears on a tissue and remember the other time someone tried to absolve me of responsibility in this way.
I had played truant most of the eighth grade before an innocuous administrator busted me. I had actually considered him a friendly but harmless sort of adult that prevented food fights in the cafeteria. He called my mother, set up a “session” in our home, to confront me with my transgressions.
“It’s to be expected,” he said, “after losing your father.”
I hated this man, more than I hate Rene. He used the Dad card to excuse my truancy and promote me to the next grade. I’d rather repeat the eighth grade than stick Dad with the blame for my piss-poor judgment.
The no-tell motels off the highway scare me. It’s where Dad would have stayed.
Somehow, they were always clean and attached to a café that served homemade fruit pies. The waitresses joked with him, flirted a little, and gave him an extra scoop of ice cream on his apple pie.
But the Dan-D-Motel and its cousins that sit off the highway in small towns across the Midwest are no place for a woman traveling with small children. The street level access with exterior doors and windows are about as secure as a teenage girl going through puberty. Not to mention the tiny bathrooms that match the one from Psycho down to the vinyl shower curtains and tiny bars of soap.
No. No quaint off-road Psycho-magnet motels for me.
They are all that I can afford, but I have enough worries to keep me awake at night. Enough worries to keep me hypervigilant on the drive. A day into the Great Escape, in the middle of Nowhere Kansas, and I still keep an eye on the rearview mirror, looking for a tail.
Invisible had left that morning on a one-week business trip. I let the kids sleep while I overstuffed the minivan with kid necessities but kept the garage doors closed so no one could see inside. Pulling out of the garage was the risky part. The Victim’s Advocate had warned that leaving someone of Invisible’s temperament was the most dangerous part.
The plan was to get to family a thousand miles away before he found out we were gone, but if he had anyone watching, there was no way to hide the pillows and blankets that lined the glass in the tucked-in spaces in the back. The nosy next-door neighbor who moonlighted as Invisible’s spy kept such close tabs on me that I couldn’t pull out of the driveway without Invisible knowing, but the spy’s kids had told me, playing in the driveway one evening, that both parents were going away for a week. It could be a trap, I was paranoid enough to worry about it, but it could be a serendipity.
The neighbors appeared to be gone when the kids and I left, packed to the rafters. As a precaution—who said hypervigilance was a bad thing—I drove the long way around the city before joining I-70. The roads were rural enough to make certain I wasn’t followed, but I worried about GPS trackers and listening devices as I drove through Missouri and into Kansas listening to Rick Springfield and telling the children nothing of import.
The day has been the longest in my memory, starting with the predawn escape from our garage and ending at twilight when we pull off the Interstate. The road trips with Dad taught me that if I rolled down the windows, grasshoppers or crickets or cicadas—some sort of insect— would chirp in a loud chorus that drowned out the sound of plastic snapping in the hot wind. The kids and I keep the windows up, the air conditioner on and Rick Springfield blaring, as we turn off the main street and into the parking lot of a large anonymous hotel with locked side doors and indoor hallways, elevators and an indoor pool.
Day one down.
Cindy Skaggs holds an MFA from Pacific Lutheran University’s Rainier Writing Workshop and an MA in Creative Writing from Regis University. She is the author of seven novels. Her essays have appeared in Progenitor Art & Literary Review, Soundings, Wanderlust Journal, and the Fredericksburg Literary Art Review. She resides in Colorado where she is a college English professor.