After the big fight at the holiday party, Bram called me and told me he was old enough to legally drink and asked if I wanted to meet him at Peyton Place. It was snowing buckets and the roads were icy as hell, but I went and met him. He told me he no longer wanted to be a philosophy major. He was considering going to seminary to become a Lutheran pastor. I nodded and wished him luck. I said I could never be a pastor or a pastor’s wife. Bram said I could at least give it a try and I told him I didn’t think they let agnostics become pastors. Or wives of pastors. The conversation moved on.
I didn’t have a sitter, so Monica and Nick had to come with me to workcalls and summer theatre until they were big enough to stay home alone. Once, Farrah put Monica in a box in an attempt to make her be still. Monica became our radio, switching songs when Farrah would shout NEXT! The kids roamed all over the building and probably got into things I don’t want to know about. Sometimes they brought their friends; sometimes we brought AJ and Kelsie. I used to joke that Monica and Nick were raised by me and Campus players.
The kids were usually around for the parties at my house. I had a few rules: No one went into the kids’ rooms unless they were invited. No one played with toys without permission. No one was mean to Nick or Monica: this was THEIR house. People mostly behaved and kept their drinking under control until the kids went to sleep. Someone brought a guest once and I had to kick her out because she called Monica a bitch while talking to someone else. When I told her to get out she protested that she hadn’t said it TO Monica. I told her I didn’t see a difference and told her to get out of Monica’s house.
I had next door neighbors who took a real dislike to me before they even moved in. They bought the lot next door to mine with the intention of moving their house onto it. But they had to ask permission of the neighbors on either side before they moved the house. When Mr. Lentz came over to speak to the owner of my land, I was sitting on the bottom step of my front porch, barefoot, playing with our kittens. When Mr Lentz asked me if my dad was here I said “No.” Because he wasn’t.
Mr Lentz asked if my mom was here and I said no, because she also was not. He asked when they would be home and I shrugged and said, “I expect they’re home right now.”
Then I took pity on him and stood up–all 4’10’ of me. I said, “Hi. I’m Michelle. This is MY house. I’m the owner.” I held out my hand for him to shake. He did not shake it. Because he didn’t shake hands with women? Because he didn’t see the humor in my joke? Both? He asked if he could move his house onto the lot, I said of course, and he never forgave me for poking fun at him.
He called Animal Control and told them I left my dog chained outside without shelter, food, or water in the summer and the winter. I had to show the officers Casey’s dog house and her giant water bowl and then bring them inside and show them her well used bed and tell them she was never outside if I wasn’t home. The fourth time the officers called about a welfare check on the dog I told them to tell the person LYING about me that the next time Animal control visited me, I’d take the dog out in the front yard where all the neighborhood kids could see and shoot her.
I didn’t own a gun or even know how to use one and I loved that dog to death. I never ever would’ve hurt her. But the calls stopped.
One day I was lying on the couch with a migraine. I got a lot of migraines back then and I had to lay down or be sick. I always laid on the couch in the living room with a cold cloth over my eyes so I could be available to Nick and Monica. They’d usually go outside to give me quiet, but I could hear them playing so…it was the best we could do. There was no other adult in the house to turn to when I got sick.
This day, I could hear a woman’s voice outside–it sounded like she was right under my living room window. I got up and stepped out onto the porch. Mrs Lentz was pulling up the weeds and crabgrass growing in the cracks of my sidewalk and up next to the house. I asked what she was doing and she said she was pulling weeds so my lawn would look better. I said, “OK. Well, have fun.” And went back inside and laid down. Weirdo.
Mrs Lentz told all the neighbors I was too high to come help her pull weeds. There are several truths here: I didn’t care about the weeds and the crabgrass. We lived outside the city limits and I didn’t have to keep my lawn nice. I believed trying to keep a nice green American lawn in high summer on the North Dakota prairie was a waste of time and resources. I’m not a lawn person. The Lentzes were lawn people and they got very upset when I didn’t cut my yard. The thing was, I cut the lawn almost constantly. We lived on a half-acre lot. I was 4’10’ and weighed 95 pounds. I had a cheapass lawn mower, not a riding one, not a self-propelled one. It was one step up from a reel lawn mower.
Because I’m so short, it could take up to 20 minutes for me to get the mower started. Go ahead and laugh as you imagine me pulling the starter cord thingy up over my head. Laugh–I know you want to. I’d have to get the kids to help me hold the mower steady and everything in place while I hauled on that cursed pull. Once I finally got it started, I would mow for as long as my legs, back, and arms could take it. It took me about 5 days to mow the lawn and then it was time to start over. Fuck it. The lawn could go a few weeks between cuttings. And I STILL don’t understand what’s so terrible about crabgrass.
If I hadn’t been feeling so bad, I would’ve told Mrs. Lentz I liked the weeds, to mind her own business, and to GET OFF MY LAWN.
The Lentzes convinced the neighborhood I was a terrible person: a slutty, immoral divorcee who did drugs and was so terrible the neighrborhood kids weren’t allowed to spend the night with my kids. Those kids could play in our yard though, so I was the one taking knives out of THEIR kids’ hands, telling them we don’t call each other names in my yard, we don’t cuss in my yard (pretty rich, coming from me!), we don’t throw rocks or steal toys or hit animals…but sure, I was the immoral person in the neighborhood.
When I started having Campus Players parties, the rumors got going again. Everyone parked in my yard so we weren’t a nuisance and we were outside town, so when I say there was a house ‘next door’, understand you could still put an entire house between me and my closest neighbor.
One night we had a rather unusual CP party. Very few people were drinking because we’d decided it was Game Night. Several people were in the dining room playing poker, there was a dice game in the kitchen, 2 separate games of Uno in the living room. Some people were in my room watching Star Trek with Nick. We didn’t have any music going, because, well, Dan had taken the stereo. The TV was on, but quiet, ‘cause no one was watching. Anyone who was drinking was of legal age and they were really just sipping so they could play. The rest of us had pop.
A knock came on the door and no one had to scramble into hiding because of underage drinking. I opened the door up immediately to a cop who said they’d received a noise complaint. I was confused. So was he; he hadn’t heard anything walking up to the door. I invited him in and he walked through the house with everyone greeting him. The poker players invited him to join. He didn’t even bother to card the drinkers. He thanked me, told us to keep it…down? And left.
I knew who’d called in the complaint and I was thrilled they’d decided to do it this night of all nights. Fucking Lentzes.
The Fourth of July after I met Farrah, Summer Theatre had the day off–a very rare and unusual occurrence. Company and crew members split for parts unknown. I couldn’t take off with any of them because I’d promised Nick and Monica fireworks. We hadn’t been able to have a real July 4 celebration in years. Farrah had nowhere to go either, so we decided to grill hamburgers and hot dogs and set off fireworks in my yard.
I have no idea where we got the grill. I spent what little money I had on fireworks and used my food stamps to buy meat and buns. Farrah brought the charcoal; she may have brought the grill too. I forgot to buy punks to light the fireworks with. Not wanting to have my kids running around with fire in their hands, I lit 2 cigarettes and handed them each one to use as a punk. I wasn’t worried they’d smoke them; Nick and Monica HATED that I smoked. Besides, I was right there with them.
Farrah forgot to get lighter fluid and the briquettes would NOT light without it. There was a cabinet above my fridge that we called ‘The Stash’ where half-empty liquor bottles left over from Campus Players parties resided. Farrah asked Nick to run inside to the stash and find the highest-proof liquor he could and bring it back to her. She explained about proof and how to find it. Still holding his cigarette, 9-year-old Nick ran inside. He came back out with a giant bottle of Vodka. Standing on the porch, he held up the bottle and shouted to Farrah to ask if this one would work, just as Mr Lentz drove by. Nick saluted him with the cigarette and jumped off the porch to run over to me and Farrah.
I’m kinda surprised the Lentzes didn’t call CPS on me. Maybe they were afraid I’d threaten to shoot the kids in the front yard.
When Dan left, the father of the super duper religious family across the way came over to tell me that if I needed help with any big decisions, I should feel free to come discuss it with him first. Like big purchases, or y’know, anything like that. I told him I hadn’t realized that god had given him an extra brain in his penis and shut the door on him. His wife told me she wished she could help me but since I wasn’t a Christian…
The single guy across the road came over once and cut my yard with his riding mower and then stood there in front of me all sweaty and pudgy and old and asked me for a date. I turned him down. He never cut my yard again.
I think about my neighbors back then, all self-proclaimed ‘good Christians’ (I call them Xtians to distinguish them from people who really practice Christ’s teachings), all the good Xtians who gossipped and bitched and called the cops and animal control instead of asking if they could help. We were dirt poor–although I have friends who were even more poor. I remained thin because we were living on food stamps. I didn’t eat lunch. It took all week for my bone-skinny little body to mow the yard. Shoveling in the winter was a family endeavor, with none of us big enough to shovel for long. No one came over and asked if they could help. No one brought extra food or asked to take the kids off my hands for a few hours. My yard was mowed on the expectation of a date. Why didn’t anyone help?
In the original Star Trek series in the award-winning episode “The City on the Edge of Forever,” Kirk’s love interest asks him if she can help. He replies, “”Let me help.” A hundred years or so from now, I believe, a famous novelist will write a classic using that theme. He’ll recommend those three words even over “I love you.””
Let Me Help.
I think about all the things that happened to me and Tonia and Sean when we were kids and all the people that were there to see it: grandparents, friends’ parents, teachers, police, all the strays, neighbors, our own parents. Why didn’t anybody help?
I’ve heard people say abused children don’t talk about the abuse out of shame. I can’t speak to the reasons for ALL abused kids, but I can tell you I never asked for help because I didn’t think I’d get any. All these people around us. Why didn’t anybody help us?
My dear friend Linda, a true Christian (and not an Xtian) tells me, ‘acts without words are useless. The bible teaches, “Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.” James says that having faith without works is like telling a poor man to be warmed and clothed without actually giving him something to warm or clothe himself.’ Prayer without action is meaningless. Prayer to make a show of how much you care without action is a sin. “Thoughts and Prayers” are as useless as the breath expelled to say the words.
Linda would try to tell me I wasn’t alone and I could get help if I would ask for it. She didn’t know that my life had taught me to know better; to expect less. Yet Linda tried to help. My Xtian neighbors settled into their gossip and disapproval, hurting my kids because they thought they knew I was a bad person. I think of all the friends I’ve kept throughout my life and they are all people who have pushed past my armor and insisted on helping me even if they didn’t know why I needed help.
But where was the help for Baby Michelle, Baby Tonia, Baby Sean? When you’ve been mocked, teased, whupped, and gaslit all your life, you become suspicious of kindness. I always wonder what people want or what they are about to do when they are kind to me. And if the kindness turns out to be sincere, I’m overcome with gratitude and overtaken with tears. Because of this, I often have very flat reactions to kindness. I don’t want people to notice me suspecting them, and I certainly don’t want anyone to see my weepy overreaction to someone putting change in my parking meter while I was away.
I ‘rage cry.’ I hate it. When I get very angry but I’m trying to stay calm and rational, my eyes start leaking. No sobbing–my body doesn’t even try. My eyes just leak. It’s embarrassing and infuriating. I’ve read that this type of crying is your body trying to comfort you in stressful situations… How sad is it that I have to try to comfort myself?
Sean and Tonia were both married and divorced twice. Tonia had three children by three different fathers. Sean had a son from his first marriage and daughters from his second. I was married three times. Tonia and Sean inherited Richie’s problems with alcohol. All three of us inherited Jesse’s poor mental health. I suffer from anxiety and depression and I have a hard, shellacked veneer of anger I present to the world. I trust very few people.
And I wonder who we would have, could have, been if only someone had helped.