From the author: Jane's brutal past haunts her and her brothers.
Really? Okay. Honestly, I’ve always wanted to be a psychiatrist’s soundtrack, so knock yourself out. I don’t know what to tell you. If you’d talked to me before the fire, I was pretty sure I had it all figured out. My life, I mean. I had that all figured out. That was before my brother Egghead told me my brother Jack was homeless.
No, Egghead isn’t really his name. His name is Jason. Egghead is what Jack and I have called him since he was a baby and he had no hair. No, he’s not super smart.
Okay, so you need to know about my family. Our mother is a clinger. She built a web made out of the stickiest guilt and we children fought hard to untangle from it. I was born with a good knife and I slashed my way out, but the strands of the web keep pulling me back when I should most stay away, because I’m pulled in by the urge to fix everything. Which is how my childhood was spent. Fixing everything.
I call my mother, with absolutely no affection, the Spider.
Yes, write that down. While you’re at it, underline it three times in that little notebook of yours. Do that.
There’s three of us and the Spider. There was my dad, Frank, but he’s gone now, in a dead guy kind of way. My younger brother Jason, AKA Egghead, right? He’s had a job for almost a year, an all-time record for him, and he’s living in low-rent housing with the Spider, taking care of her now that her health is really bad instead of pretend bad. You know, aging, as opposed to undiagnosed depression and faking episodes of illness when your kids aren’t obedient enough. The Spider is a great believer in Munchausen’s Syndrome and its uses. Egghead needs to live with the Spider, otherwise he’d be homeless. In spite of our past, Egghead and the Spider get along well. He blames the Spider for nothing. He blames Jack, who screwed him for most of his childhood and adolescence. Yes, I do mean the physical act.
My episode, note my finger quotes, is all about Jack. Jack was beaten by our mother, fucked by our father, and found ways to creatively express his anger and fear by taking it out on his younger siblings: beating me and fucking Jason. Mind, I see my whole family as a seething, festering pool of cess, bubbling and belching filth into the air. Typical small town family. Good times. Jack lived with the Spider until recently, sort of a mutually dysfunctional agreement.
One day, Egghead popped by my house. Edgar, my husband, and I live in a typical ranch in a nice neighborhood. Egghead has a rusted out mini-van, so I’m sure the neighbors thought I was doing a meth deal.
That was meant to be funny.
Anyway, Egghead sat at my kitchen table when he told me, drinking a bottle of Coke, his dirty fingernails wet with bottle sweat. “Honest to God,” he said to me, “her face shattered when Jack hit her. It sounded like the car that rear-ended me last year.” Crunch. Crack.
Yeah, that bumper was still broken, right outside in the driveway. “That’s it then. She’s finally going to do it.”
“I think so.”
“You know what happened the last time.” And the last time. And the time before that.
“This time she’ll do it. She needs plastic surgery.”
I nodded and sipped water. The last three times, before I had broken it off with everyone but Egghead, she and Egghead had taken a restraining order all the way to court. She backed out every time. The first time I called her.
“How could you do that to Jason?” I yelled at her. Whenever I talked to the Spider, I forgot to use my indoor voice.
She sighed like the martyr she wanted to be. “Jack has no place to go. You know I would do anything for you kids.”
As upset as Egghead was those three times, he couldn’t bring himself to cut the Spider off. When you’re used to watching a train wreck all your life, your eyes stay on the track.
Besides, the official family scapegoat was Jack.
You know the term scapegoat, right? I read it in a psychology text, so I figure you ran across it in school, right?
Moving on. Over the course of time, I avoided all the family stuff. For Chrissakes, I am the smart one. I went to college and can fake normal on a pretty good day. I’m married, and I have a very successful job, and a successful marriage, and by God, I’m a success. I mentioned by the time the Spider got a court order against Jack for breaking her face, I’d already walked away. Hubs and I didn’t want to keep dipping our toes into the pool of domestic violence, and you know, tough love and protect yourself, so we avoided them all. Then you still feel like shit, we all do, but there it is. Save yourself.
Jack is technically what they call a bad guy. He was married for about a minute and he beat his wife. No, I don’t know the details. I don’t even know her. Jack’s violent, he’s a bully, and he wants to call all the shots. I was hoping for jail for him, because that’d be a good place for him to end up. Three squares, warmth, a nice controlled environment.
I liked him when we were little, before Frank and the Spider started abusing us. Jack and I were tiny kids on the beach, making a sandcastle, Egghead not too far away on a blanket. I’ve been thinking a lot about the girl I was since you and I started talking. I think about Jack too.
When we were really little, Jack and I would play house. I wanted him to be the dad, but he had different ideas.
“I want to be Mommy,” he said. He wrapped the floral apron I borrowed from the kitchen drawer around his waist.
“No!” I stamped my foot on the floor. “That’s not how it works. You can’t be Mommy! Only girls can be Mommy!”
“I’m the mommy.”
He pretended to cook and I wrapped a tie around my neck and came home from work.
The difference between Jack and me? I made choices not to become like our parents. The thing about Jack is that he’s a coward. You want to know how I know?
Jack is concerned about one thing: saving his own skin. The question isn’t why he wouldn’t be. The question is why aren’t Egghead and I as messed up as Jack? Egghead is pretty messed up, but not in Jack’s league. Like I said, I can fake a good normal.
There was this time when I was nine that Jack had scarfed the last of the cookies the Spider had made, and, woah, was the Spider mad.
You never knew when Spider would go off. We got home from school and we were all hungry, starving by seven o’clock. Any other day, she wouldn’t have cared about the cookies. That day, she and Frank had a fight, I think. I don’t remember about what. He went to his night shift at the gas station, and we came home from school straight into the lion’s den.
The Spider snapped at us about the house being gross and about how the dining room table was piled up with dishes for five days and how we never helped around the house. She started to clear off the table to make room to make dinner, clanking pots and pans around. Then she saw the lid was off the cookie jar she had made way back when she took ceramics class, one of those few precious items to survive our bad behavior and her own tantrums. It was a teddy bear and the head was screwed off at the neck. The headless bear was empty. God only knew where those last four cookies had gone. She went ballistic.
“Ungrateful!” was what she yelled. For all the Spider’s faults, she never used bad language and still doesn’t. She beat Jack with the nearest thing she could grab, a dirty wooden spoon. He howled, begging her to stop, and he raced outside, the broken screen door spanking the doorframe. Then she turned to Egghead and raised the spoon. I got in front of Egghead and backed away from her. She herded us out the door and then we heard the lock click.
We waited in winter weather with no coats. I knocked on the door, but the Spider wasn’t answering. “We gotta go back in,” I said. Both Egghead and I knew it was Jack. “You gotta tell her.”
“I didn’t do it,” Jack said quietly.
I knew it was a lie. Egghead knew it was a lie. Jack was going to let us freeze.
“Tell her,” I said. “We gotta go back in.”
“No,” said Jack. “No. It wasn’t me.”
I breathed in deep. The breath I let out fogged in front of me, a cone of cold, ice in my lungs and veins. I knocked on the door again. This time the Spider opened it, anger etching every age line on her face like carved ice. “What?” she spat.
“I did it,” I said. “I ate the cookies.”
She grabbed my hair and pulled me inside, beating me with that wooden spoon, whipping me about the legs, on my back, across my arms as they came up to protect my face. I cried but I didn’t shout. That made her hit me harder.
Somewhere in the background I saw Jack and Jason come inside. Mission accomplished.
“You stand in this corner!” she yelled at me. “You don’t move until I tell you to.”
“I did it,” said Jack. His voice shook.
The Spider sagged. “You did?” She looked at Jack.
Jack stood statue still.
“No.” I cried as quietly as I could.
That was the end of the fit. We finally had bologna sandwiches and chips for supper and I had the largest scoop of ice cream, the Spider’s way of doing penance. Jack didn’t get beaten. I was angry he didn’t look out for us, but I didn’t mind taking one for him. I knew then I could never trust him to take care of us again.
Egghead called me about a month ago. Because of the restraining order, Jack could no longer live with the Spider. Egghead moved into her apartment like some sort of nurse enforcer.
“So, where’s Jack?” I said, sounding as casual as I could.
“I don’t know and I don’t care.”
“Does Mom know?” My mouth always has a hard time saying Mom, because I never think of the Spider as Mom.
“No.” Egghead sighed. “She’s worried about him.”
“She would be.” I rolled my eyes at Edgar, who smiled back at me. “It’s kind of cold out there.”
“Yeah. The homeless shelters are a joke. But like I said, I don’t care.”
I get that. I do. When Frank died, I wasn’t happy, but part of me wanted him to die. Egghead hated Jack. It was only natural.
I didn’t tell you that the Spider knew Jack was fucking Egghead, did I? She didn’t do anything. She let it go on. Years later, it turns out, she knew about Frank and Jack. About Frank and me. There’s got to be a special place in Hell for people like that.
When I hung up the phone, I turned to Edgar.
“I have to go. Egghead thinks Frank is homeless.”
“Oh babe.” Frank wrapped me up in his arms. “What do you want to do?”
Tears came from nowhere and I was angry that I was crying. “I gotta go look for him. I don’t know what I’ll do. Keep him in the garage, maybe? Get him some help? I don’t know.”
What was I going to do? Try to help him sign up for social programs that he wouldn’t follow through on? Give him some money, like a band-aid, which would do nothing to cover the gaping wounds of our childhood? Put him out of his misery like a rabid dog? At close range, I could be a pretty good shot.
Maybe try an institution.
Yeah, I see the irony in my current situation.
You might be asking yourself the big question: given all that I’ve told you, why on earth would I go looking for this guy? I don’t have a good answer for you. Maybe the idea was that I could be Jack. There for the grace of God go I. I don’t believe the grace of God line at all. Here I am still trying to fix things.
I took the day off work and loaded myself in the Elantra. Every shelter I went to, I tried to describe Jack, but I had no pictures after his high school one, so my search didn’t work well. Des Moines in winter outside, underneath bridges and in boxes, is damned cold. I ate lunch at Subway and thought about the last time Jack and I really talked about anything besides the Spider.
It was at a McDonald’s shortly after Frank had died. Jack and the Spider were fighting and I had come to smooth things over.
“I think she’s crazy. I think we should sign commitment papers and put her away.”
Ah, the old commitment argument. Well, he was probably right. She was probably crazy. “Maybe both of you would benefit from some counseling, getting some help.”
Jack rubbed a French fry in ketchup like he was stubbing out a cigarette. “You know, when I was a Navy Seal, I had my psych evaluation done. There’s nothing wrong with me.”
Listen, I want you to understand that Jack was never a Navy Seal. He was kicked out of the National Guard. Kicked out. I believe in his time he has been a Navy Seal, an undercover narcotics cop and a website programmer. He gives himself exciting Biker nicknames like Shadow. He lies compulsively.
I filed police reports. I visited shelters. Dead end after dead end. I left my contact information where I could, I had a good cry, sobbing about being helpless, and then I returned to my normal life.
My life. Where Egghead calls me once every four months, where I don’t talk to the Spider because she endangered all of her children by staying married to Frank the rapist, who died of a stroke in 1993. My life, where I live with my family of choice. It’s a good life. I am damned lucky. When you come from my background, usually what you do is go out and look for the most dysfunctional partner you can find, and you relive the traditions. I’m lucky ‘cause I didn’t do that.
I see what you’re thinking. You’re thinking I haven’t dealt with all my issues.
Current evidence bears you out. I hope you aren’t too smarmy about that.
One fine spring day, three months after my fruitless search, a hospital called me while I was working. “Jane Smith?”
My parents had a thing for alliteration. At least my last name wasn’t Doe.
“I’m calling from Metro Lutheran. Your brother is in the hospital here.”
“No. Jack Jenkins. He had your information, so we called you.”
That hot feeling of panic spilled into my gut, acid in the back of my throat, the thing that always happened when I could feel myself getting on the train that had no brakes, the pace of my childhood life. I took a deep breath, braking, getting control, slowing down the train.
“Okay. What’s wrong with him?”
I was already running through a mental list. Hit by a car. Cirrhosis. Gunshot. Pneumonia. The asshole gene had finally gone terminal.
“Burns,” said the medical voice on the other end. “He’s been in a fire and has some serious burns.”
“Yeah, okay.” The woman on the other line must have thought I was a total jerk. I had gone into that singsong voice I use when I try to pretend that everything is okay, to gloss everything over. “I’m about two hours out, but I’ll be there as soon as I can be.”
Then I made a quick call to Edgar, and he wanted to know if I wanted him to go with me, and I said no, not yet, let me look at the situation, and he asked if I was sure, and of course I wasn’t sure, but I lied and said, yes, I’ll call you when I have more information.
On the drive there, I rehearsed what I was going to say.
“So, Jack, sorry we haven’t talked in eight years. It’s just that when I found your teenage Internet porn up on my computer eight Christmases ago, I thought you were a scumbag and I wanted to kill you…”
Or maybe, “How dare you! How dare you call me! How dare you choose to be like Frank!”
Or even, “Jesus, stop lying. For once, just tell someone the truth, about anything.”
All of which would be really shitty things to say to someone who’s homeless, has been in an accident and was horribly disfigured.
Hospitals are, well, hospitals. I’d never been to a burn ward. I checked in at the nurses’ station, and they took me to Jack’s room. A policeman stood outside.
If I hadn’t thought of him as a stranger before, I knew he was one now. Burns covered more than seventy percent of his body, they said. His face was shriveled and raw, and the rash of flames moved up and down his arms and legs.
“We’ve given him something to dull the pain,” the nurse said.
“This is pretty serious,” I said, stating the obvious.
“Seventy-five percent of his body.”
“Why the police?”
“He set the fire.”
“Is he going to live?”
“We’re doing what we can. You can ask the doctor more.”
I sat down in the vinyl chair across from him. His skin was jagged and puddled, strange pinks and reds, pools of mottled skin. The hospital smelled like Pinesol and plastic, but he smelled over the top of that. Once I found hot dogs in a bloated plastic bag in a park shelter by the barbecue, rancid and strangely sweet. He smelled like that.
I flipped open my cell and called home. We had a conversation, Edgar and I. He was on his way before I hung up.
Then I sat back in the chair. Jack’s eyes opened and the lids were swollen and ponderous, raw. That must have hurt. He whispered.
I would have touched him, but that wouldn’t have been wise. Emotions were complicated. Distaste, disgust, pity. A super big dose of pity, which I concentrated on. “You just rest.”
“Fires,” Jack said, “are the gateway to Hell.”
Which of course would be right.
But that’s not it at all, and that’s not why we’re talking.
If I had just jumped into the real story, you wouldn’t understand anything at all, and you asked. “Tell me about your childhood,” you said. Just like Sigmund Freud, or Thomas Dolby pretending to be Sigmund Freud. I did the next best thing. I told you about the results of my childhood.
You look puzzled. The question for you is why, right? I’m the balanced one. At least I keep saying so. How could I end up here, talking to you?
I’ve been thinking about that a lot, and I don’t have a clear-cut answer. I didn’t believe in any of that afterlife stuff anymore. I used to, as a Baptist kid, be a firm believer in Heaven and Hell, but I took one Bible study too many, and, for me, perverse human being that I am, it made me believe less in God. So, when I said that Frank should go to Hell, what I meant was that if there were a Hell, and if it was a place that punished the wicked, wouldn’t that be the perfect place for the souls of people who raped their own children, or their brothers?
That’s just too simple. There isn’t a hell any more than there is a heaven. I like the idea that you make your heaven here, on Earth, with the ones you love, and that hell can also be made on Earth. In my lifetime, I’ve experienced both heaven and hell right here.
“Can I get you anything?” the policeman outside asked me.
“Don’t you have to stand guard?” I asked.
“He’s not going anywhere,” said the policeman. “You want a cup of coffee? Anyone you want to call?”
“I called my husband.”
The policeman nodded.
I fidgeted in the slick vinyl chair. “Where was he staying?” I asked.
“God’s Gift. On Southeast Fourteenth. I can get you in touch with Mike Scanlon.”
After, I left the hospital and hunted Mike Scanlon down. This guy, he was like an undercover religious guy. He was walking the walk, out there on the street taking care of people, not some fat cat politician pretending that being rich and Christian at the same time was simpatico with hippie Christ, who I’m down with, divine though I do not believe him to be. Mike was a Christian who wore second hand clothes and had a scruffy three-day growth. His hand was calloused and rough when he shook mine.
“Great guy, your brother. Shame about what happened.” Mike offered me a Styrofoam cup of bitter coffee that had been brewing for maybe two weeks.
I blinked. “Great guy? We are talking about Jack Jenkins, right?”
“Yeah, okay. Maybe I know a Jack Jenkins you don’t. Jack was a pretty hard case when he came to us, but he was turning it around. Jack asked Jesus to save him. He cleaned himself up and served up meals. He’d talk to his old buddies during the free meals and try to get them to understand about Christ’s forgiveness. Every church service he’d hand out the hymnals, and he’d started volunteering for Habitat during the day. He asked us if he could join our staff. We were thinking about it. That's the night he set the place on fire.”
“Now that’s my brother Jack. If he has a good thing going, he’s got to destroy it.”
“Sure. I can see why you’d think that. But it wasn’t simple like that. He talked to me before he bunked down for the night. Said your dad was a sinner, like he’d been. Jack said if he could be saved, surely your dad could too. I said there was always a chance, and some interpretations of the Bible suggest salvation even after death.”
I almost dropped my cup. “Forgiveness?” I laughed. “All you have to do is ask, and poof! all the harm you’ve done is washed away. No one has to make amends. No one is responsible. Thank you, Jesus.”
Mike set his jaw. Damn it, if he didn’t read my bitterness like a book.
“Mrs. Smith,” he said. “I’m not going to tell you to forget all the harm that has been done to you and your brothers. If we follow Christ’s example and we forgive, we save ourselves and others from Hell. If we don’t forgive, in a way, we put ourselves and others there, and that makes us abusers.”
“No.” I fell into the singsong voice. “They put themselves there. And I didn’t put myself in hell, thank you very much.”
“Try to think of it this way,” Mike said. “You didn’t deserve to be abused, and you forgave yourself for where you came from. So you’re good. So did Jack, eventually. Forgiveness makes more forgiveness. With a true change of heart, people do make amends. That’s why Jack, misguided, set that fire. He was trying to reach your father, I think. He thought his example might help your father find his way.”
Edgar, who’s more religious than me, might have said something similar. I didn’t have anything to say to Mike afterwards in response. I drove around until my gas-is-empty light came on.
“Fires,” Jack had said, “are the gateway to Hell.”
I wasn’t sure after that if he was unconscious or just ignoring me. His lidless eyes stared at the ceiling. I watched him breathe. I called Jason, but as usual, his voice mailbox was full, and I couldn’t leave a message. That meant I would have to keep trying to actually catch him answering the phone. The doctor came in to see me about Jack, and we talked about skin grafts and costs. I assured him Jack had no insurance. The doctor decided to worry about that later. It would be touch and go for a while.
More go than touch. Later in the night, Edgar took me away to a hotel. The hospital called me there to let me know Jack had died.
I curled into a ball and shook with sobs while Edgar stroked my hair and shushed me.
The Spider wanted us to spend a great deal on the funeral. Edgar and I decided that since we were paying for it, and since it was what we planned for ourselves, that cremation was the more economic alternative. Guilt shot out of the Spider’s spinnerets, trying to catch one of us, but it couldn’t find purchase. Egghead felt horrible and relieved at the same time, somewhat like I felt back when Frank died after a six-week stay in the hospital. Frank had been rotten to the core and I was relieved when he was dead. I should have felt more that way about Jack, I suppose, but I could remember a Jack that Egghead couldn’t.
I think Egghead hoped I’d make up with the Spider. I couldn’t. Jack was the family scapegoat, and now that he was gone, Egghead thought everything was okay. I still saw the three of us as victims of horrible parents, and I could not forgive the Spider. This was a quarrel of its own, and that was pretty much it between me and Egghead and the Spider.
So Edgar and I returned to our lives, and if this were where the story ended, it would be another blip in the long saga of family dysfunction.
I can’t forgive Frank. Egghead can’t forgive Jack. Jack forgives all of us, maybe, including the man who might be in Hell. It looked like what Jack was doing was trying to live his faith. He could see the difference that embracing religion had made in him. Couldn’t he take that message to his father?
I found myself visiting the rubble where God’s Gift had been, embers and ash, the fire department making damned sure no gateway to hell was still open. And yet, as I looked into the ruin, into the darkness, what I saw made me rethink everything. That night, I called Edgar, and told him I’d be home tomorrow, that it’d gotten too late, and I was going to get a room and be back in the morning.
I stopped by a local CVS and bought razor blades, and the rest you know. And no, before you ask, I wasn’t trying to get to Frank. I was pretty sure nothing could change old Frank, and he’d stay in Hell anyway. I was trying to get to Jack, because I saw something in the darkness at God’s Gift, a glimpse into Hell, a little boy sitting at the feet of our rapist, a little boy who had worn the shell of the adult he’d become at the end, but inside he was again an innocent. He’d been forgiven by God and his anger and madness had been swept away. He wanted that for his father.
My anger and madness are still here. I couldn’t see Jack staying in Hell for Frank’s sake, waiting for Frank to change. That’s a lot like being beaten for cookies you didn’t eat.
What? Will I try it again?
. . .
No. It was a moment. But these scars? I’m going to have to live with these scars for the rest of my life.
This story originally appeared in Mosaics 2: An Anthology of Independent Women.