By Spencer Harber
No one knows what it’s like.
To be the bad man.
To be the sad man.
Behind blue eyes.
It finally clicks, I’ve had it. No more excuses, it’s time to go. Michelle hurriedly packs the kid’s bags in agreement. We’ve visited for nearly a week. A week punctuated with melancholy, suppressed memories, familial pain and unhealthy interaction. I load our things in the car, without a backward glance, and just like that–the rich green alfalfa field and golden log house, I called home for 25 years disappears behind me.
I propel our rental car in a daze. Fleeing, speedily, I motor our family down the dirt road that cuts its way through the sagebrush covered foothills. Putting distance between us and this place is my only concern. Michelle clenches my hand, with courageous support, as the car fishtails along the symmetrical washboards of the road, adding a dramatic sense of urgency to our escape.
The vibrations of this old road, which I’ve traveled for years, keeps the noise in my head silent. As we hit the pavement of the highway and cross the threshold to civilization, the car stops shaking. We are all, however, still shaking. The noise from the tires transforms from a rolling crunch to a calming hum, allowing my pesky inner voice to ask, “are you sure about this?” Yes. I’m sure. I have all the loving support I need; I’m done with this shit.
Our family of four travels southbound on Highway 93 on our way to Boise where the airport awaits to take us far away from here. Why had we come? A sense of obligation? A child’s hope that things would somehow be different? That my family would somehow be functional? Perhaps it was my naïve desire for acceptance. Some misguided need for them to see me on my own terms, with my own family, and somehow feel a sense of pride? I now feel foolish for all these thoughts.
The voice in my head asks, “should I say goodbye to Mom?” I careen my neck to see the parking lot of the Fish & Game. Mom’s place of employment of 30-plus years, to find that her car is gone. Still holding my hand, in loving support, my wife asks, “Is she there?” I shake my head, as my eyes pull focus back onto the highway towards town, the inner voice tries to sooth my decision by telling me “she’s probably at the parade, you’ll find her.”
Our girls have been sitting quietly in the backseat attuned to what Daddy and Mommy are trying to do. No matter what, they have proved time and time again that they are the staunchest survivors of life’s difficulties.
We arrive in Salmon, a small town located in central Idaho, surrounded by rugged mountain landscapes and inhabited by staunchly self-reliant, rugged people.
It’s July the 4th 2012 and the old-fashioned town parade highlights everything good about small communities. It’s quaint and sweet—the tractors, and high school kids on floats. A couple hundred people are in attendance, unconsciously waving flags while small children run into the street collecting rations of thrown smarties and saltwater taffy.
“We don’t have to stop you know, Boise is waiting with open arms. Just send them a text, you are justif…” Just then, I spot my uncle’s fireworks booth which sits outside of his cellphone business, (prime real estate) off the main street, next to Salmon’s most popular and only modern attraction: Burger King. I pull the rental car in and park. I tell Michelle that we will just be a minute, I want to say goodbye to my favorite Uncle.
My aunt is facilitating the sale of fireworks as she sees our family arrive and greets us with a smiling hello. My uncle comes over and shakes my hand just like he always has, dating back to my earliest memory of him, when I was probably six. We talk about our plans as a family and I tell him that we are heading back to Japan to get our house packed for our next move to Germany, where Michelle’s career as an international English teacher awaits. As usual, in the cool and collective style of “UR” he expresses his support with such affirmations that I temporarily forget about my impeding worry, and the acid in my stomach is neutralized through the normalcy and supportive response of this beloved uncle.
My aunt is taking pictures with the girls as they excitedly throw poppers against the pavement, shrieking in joy at each tiny combustion. Michelle, ever vigilant to the situation at hand, looks at me and says, “You should go look for your Mom, I’ll wait here with the girls.” I agree and tell her I’ll be back in 10 minutes, so we can go.
My Mom was, and still is, a beauty. I’ve always loved her. We supported each other through numerous occasions where, he, unloaded his raucous fits of rage upon us. Once bright and vibrant as a newly bloomed sunflower, the years of mental and physical abuse suffered, in order to keep the status quo, wilted her flower until it matched in resigned subjugation the rotting blackness of her husband’s soul.
Both Mom and I stayed with him through multiple altercations including name calling, hair pulling, hitting, and his favorite for me and my “mouth” — strangulation.
The names I was called varied. He had a plethora of hurtful terms aimed at “putting me in my place.” I was commonly bellowed for as, “Tubby”, “Chubs”, “Mouth”, and “Dumbass.” These “terms of endearment” confirmed my existence in the family.
What hurt much more than the belittling name calling was the physical hatred expressed in the regular choking, which cut off the air to my brain, and left me gasping, dizzy and sometimes unconscious. My amygdala jumps in caution as I involuntarily recall a traumatic memory of choking inflicted on my nine year old self. I was savagely strangled for the audacious crime of peeking in a box of crayons before Christmas.
The back of my head had been shaped by being slammed up against several backdrops, including but not limited to: walls, cars, and horse trailers while he suffocated me with those cold, gnarled, vice like hands. I was forced to look into those eyes even as the air from my windpipe was cut. What I saw in his eyes, for me, his child, was pure and unadulterated hatred. I never knew where this hate came from, and my child-self assumed that I was worthless and not entitled to his goodwill. Often before losing consciousness, I faintly heard the muttered threats and wishes for my demise that punctuated my childhood. Choking seemed to be his favorite form of interaction with me.
There was always the constant threat of being mercilessly whipped, with the old thick leather belt, which he kept hanging in the closet for the express purpose of discipline. Hearing him yell the words “BEND OVER AND TOUCH YOUR TOES” still makes me cringe. He always stepped into his swings to deliver his message with maximum impact. It was as if he wanted the belt to beat my soul from the outside in. When I jumped up in white hot agony I would often get thrashed against my back for standing up and not taking it like a man.
I tried often to make friends with him to avoid beatings, but always to no avail. At eight years old, I was backhanded so hard across the face that the blow launched me into the air. I landed flat on my back, knocking the air out of my body. This response was elicited, for buddying up beside him while lightly teasing Mom that she couldn’t fish as well as us. She smiled at the joke, and the next thing I remember is being on my back looking up in disoriented shame while hearing him proclaim, “That is your mother, she deserves respect.”
She deserves respect.
The irony of his words is a bitter pill. My mother was and is a prisoner. My mother was brutally beaten for being a part of our small community theater where she often played the lead actress. She could really sing and relished the creative outlet. She enjoyed the attention from the community and was regarded as a talented performer. The sad man would pick fights with her, jealous of all the attention she was receiving for her performances. Over the years I witnessed hair pulling, hitting, teasing, and continuous name calling for any number of imagined “offenses.” I do not wish to imagine what happened alone between them, when I was not present. Over the years she has endured physical and mental torment which has forced her into hopeless submission. Eventually, she quit performing and organized her life in an unsuccessful attempt to avoid his wrath.
Mom and I bonded through the degradation suffered at the emotional whims of the sad man.
Fast forward to the strange events of the night before, which set our current escape in motion; when I bore witness to how far my mother had gone in order to cope with her circumstances, living in a prison of abuse.
Michelle and I were tidying up in the kitchen after dinner, when Mom came down stairs wearing a very conservative, ugly night gown that was three sizes too large, covering everything from her neck to her toes, without showing a shred of shapeliness. My eyebrows raised in a haunt when she told me that the gown was “Oomom’s”- the mother of my mother. Oomom had passed away eight years prior to this bizarrely depressing fashion show.
Mom came into the kitchen to fill a large ceramic wash bowl which seemed to match the washbowls of old, in the days before indoor plumbing. She then took the bowl over to where the sad man was sitting in his recliner.
The sad man sat on his plush throne staring at an arbitrary T.V. show with his typical scowl. It’s a look that has set for so long that it has permanently disfigured his face with deep wrinkles that burrow into his cheeks where the corners of his mouth have been pressing downwards for decades. His forehead is forever furrowed in annoyance while he sits angrily perturbed for having to exist in this form, in front of the people living in his house.
Mother kneeled in front of him. What I saw next was appalling.
She picked up the sad man’s crusty and decrepit cloven hooves, and placed them into the washbowl where she proceeded to wash. Carefully, gingerly she wiped dirt and grime from his disgusting feet. Never once did she look up, but kept her eyes lowered as she engaged in her gruesome task. As Michelle and I watched this spectacle, with petrified confusion, we felt trapped in a time vortex that took us to some backward Puritanical subjugation. The sad man’s face never acknowledged this gesture, in fact, his steel blue eyes never came away from the screen. He sat slumped in paralyzed misery, vaguely disguised as lordship–as if, this act of servitude was owed to him.
We went to bed shortly after witnessing this act. Later Michelle correlated the strange spectacle we witnessed to its biblical allusion. Mom was acting as Jesus did when he washed the feet of his disciples, washing away the sad man’s sins. She hoped somehow to wash away this man’s sins, and with it all the pain, and hurt his existence had inflicted.
My wife and I could not endorse this behavior. We couldn’t shake the eerie discomfort of watching the continued degradation of a beaten woman. So far gone was my poor mother that I don’t believe she had any thought for herself, or ability to comprehend that she would never wash away his pain, anger, hatred, or self-loathing. She would never save the sad man for he did not wish to be saved. His existence was one so bitter he could only communicate through the pain of others. As much as it hurt me to admit, I could do nothing for my mother and it was time to go.
But not before trying to say goodbye.
My search continues.
I expeditiously shuffle through the dense and festive crowd of locals, keeping my head down so as not to get noticed while sidestepping a unique mix of Salmon “lifers,” various hard candies, and the omnipresent pyramids of horseshit. No sign of Mom, but I run into my dear friend Denise, a motherly figure whom I admire and love.
After a hug and some small talk, she compassionately speaks straight to my soul in a way no other “Salmonite” has, expressing her fondness for the people here, but adding that many circles lack the compassion and emotional fortitude needed to acknowledge the way the rest of the world operates.
My inner voice interprets our frank chat as, “They’ll never understand you, just go and be yourself for the sake of you and your family.” I am so touched that I tear up and hug Denise while the parade provides a continuum of background noise. I finally have spoken permission to leave this place.
I start the small trek back to the car. The noise in my head is abruptly silenced by the arrival of the upcoming demolition derby participants, each clamoring for the crowd’s attention. The processions of once dead cars, now welded together with spare parts, sloppily tagged with spray paint, and nurtured with gasoline, are brought to life for both the sake of hometown glory, and the proverbial key to seemingly everlasting happiness for the winner of the contest: free beer.
Each of these metal bodies is inhabited and operated by its own Dr. Frankenstein. Powered with Fords, GMCs and GEDs this gaggle of motor heads collaborate their cubic inches together in order to ignite a chorus line of rip-roaring power burps while ejaculating toxic fumes into the once fresh mountain air. Their mechanical screams for praise disorient me to the point of nervousness, but I endeavor onward.
Finally, I arrive back at the fireworks stand where a large group of other locals is congregating and chatting–what Salmonites call “bullshittin’” or “shootin’ the shit.”
My brother shows up with his wife and three young kiddos, who are all playing with the girls, throwing poppers, laughing, and carrying on. My brother asks me about my plans and is a bit shocked that I am leaving town, abruptly. My brother is a good man, with a sense of humor, but lacks the sensitivity needed to understand our situation. I tell him we are looking for Mom to say goodbye, so he puts in a call—to someone, I’m not sure who.
I am talking to my uncle when the real fireworks start.
The sad man’s signature dirty blue Dodge diesel roars up, careening onto the sidewalk where 20 plus people scamper to get out of the way.
This sad man made a living, during my time with him and presently, by drilling wells–some 30 years, now. The trademark of this career is that you’re constantly covered in a grimy amalgam of dirt, clay, assorted greases, and diesel fuel. His other signature was his black cowboy hat. He always, and I mean ALWAYS, wore this thing. The hat almost comically matched his personality and outlaw reputation.
Years of hard labor punctuated his strained gait. Multiple back, knee and shoulder surgeries and arthritis plagued the sad man’s physical being. His huge and heavy calloused hands have been torn and patched together with duct tape a thousand times over. The softness of my neck will never forget the galvanized steel grip of those hands. Choking incidences dictated my strict attention. If I was to survive I must not fight back. I had to try to relax my neck under the pressure of those vice like hands. The only aspect of his battered countenance which kept him upright was the prideful male ego borne from the western code that plagues the sensitivity of men with the words, “cowboy up.”
Infuriated, in a complete rage, the sad man rushes toward my uncle and I. He digs his dirty index finger into his bottom lip shoveling his Copenhagen out onto the pavement. He then uses that same finger to ferociously demand my attention by pointing it directly at my head as if it were a loaded pistol, then wordlessly signaling to me that we go away from the crowd. “You, here, now” –is a silent command that everyone heard. I am instantaneously mortified and enraged by his behavior.
I know we aren’t going to talk, (the man has always been incapable of conversation), I also know from years of training that I am about to be publicly abused. Misplaced guilt and shame well up in me, as if I were a beaten teenager, yet again.
My normal instinct is to oblige, but just then a miracle happens. I feel empowered enough to stand my ground, directly replying “No, if there is anything you need to say to me, you can do it right here in front of me.” I am terrified. I actually said that to his face!
We were now in new territory. I made a stand. To this day I am not sure where I found the strength, in that moment, to end a lifetime cycle of abuse with him. Perhaps it was the presence of my wife and kids, and my need to protect them from this. Perhaps it was all the eyes on this spectacle. Maybe I had just reached my breaking point.
He thrusts his barrel chest against mine and gets right in my face. His eyes are blood-shot crimson and boiling. His scowling face is highlighted in a red fury indicating the years of alcohol abuse. His tobacco breath smells like a rotting corpse and overpowers my senses. He growls, “Do you have any idea what you’ve done?”
He is trying to provoke me and it is working. The adrenaline is running its intense course through my body, tensing my muscles. Fight or flight mode is in full possession of my facilities. I growl back in the affirmative, that I know what I am doing. I am getting us the hell out of here.
He pauses for a brief instant, possibly startled. Almost immediately the familiar face of disgust reappears and then it happens. He inhales deeply and spits directly into my face.
The velocity of the Copenhagen-infused slime sends my head reeling backwards. It is in my eyes, my nose, and my mouth. This has to be what death smelled like. If dark seething hate has a smell, this is it. My eyes water with emotion and stinging, searing pain. I am unaware of the sharp intake of breath all around me as the bystanders watch this macabre drama unfold.
Unbelievably humiliated, I am set off, I’ve really had it. The moment has arrived. The vessel of decency that had carried this relationship over thousands of miles of ignorance has finally docked itself in the harbor of indignation. I rear back ready to kill or be killed. A thousand instances of soul shattering abuse are about to rear their ugly heads and I would kill.
I push him—hard. My uncle moves like lightning between us and his deep voice warns, “SPENCE, don’t…”
The old bull starts circling the young bull as we look to square off with one another. My peripherals sense a growing crowd, I hear children crying among the gasps of the other adults, but this was secondary in this moment. My focus is on him.
Thirty plus years of verbal and physical abuse suffered at the hands this sad man had come to a head and exploded like a volcano. I would rather he hit me again than spit on me. In fact, I beg and egg him on, taunting him so that he would have to punch me. I stick my chin out, pointing at it, as if to say “right here asshole, put it right here.”
I am out of my mind with fear, anger, and confusion. My adrenals help me communicate my disdain in a prominently shouted F*CK YOU! Internally, the impact of these words is the same as if I had given humanitarian aid to ten thousand desert dwellers. Honestly, it feels amazingly liberating to have him know that I am through and that I will stand up for myself.
He looks at me, astonished. Like the dark Emperor did when he oversaw Luke fighting Vader, in pure hatred, as if to say “good, let the hate flow through you.” I had watched a lot of T.V. growing up in an attempt to stay out of this man’s way.
He utters a dumbfounded, “Are you for real?” Separated, now, by a safe distance with my favorite Uncle between us, I proclaim that I am as real as it gets. We are still shouting in inaudible guttural grunts, circling, waiting for a moment to strike.
After what seems like an eternity, but is in reality only moments, the sad man turns his back to me and gimps back to his trustworthy blue Dodge, fires it up, and revs it, as if to drown the noise of this hellish mental torture. He leaves in a sprayed shower of dust, careening out, just as he had come in.
I am shaking uncontrollably as onlookers do their looking, children communicate through cries, and family members shake their heads in united disapproval over what has just transpired.
Michelle and the girls rush to my side to provide aid in the form of hugs and a napkin to wipe the spit that is dripping from my face. I assure them I am alright, though I feel eerily electric and far from alright.
My brother, and his family are supremely upset, and rightfully so. No one should have to see that, let alone children. I try to tell him goodbye though he barely musters enough energy to reply and half hugs me while looking away as if to say, “get out of here.” Abuse in our family in not something you defy. He does not approve.
I walk over to the Burger King bathroom to wash the spit off of my face, still shaking. The stench of putrid soul decay is forever tattooed deep into my epidermis, reminding me that this nightmare has played out into a reality.
I look into the mirror and brave a smile. Just then, a clip from the movie, American Beauty airs in my thoughts. In the movie, upon realizing his wife was cheating on him, Kevin Spacey’s voice mouthed the line promising, “No, no…you…don’t get to tell me what to do…ever…again.”
I gather myself and try my best to put on a nice face when walking back out into the world of rugged landscape and rugged people. My stunned family finishes saying our goodbyes, loads back into the rental car, to trek back to Boise and onward to Japan.
Mom never showed up. We tried calling, but no answer. I thought she would send an email to ask if we were alright. I was sure she would hear about what had transpired. It’s a small town, after all.
Nothing. No text either. In fact, we weren’t to hear anything from her for over eight months. You don’t defy abuse from the sad man was the message I received—loud and clear.
Driving in stunned silence I realized that I was now freed from years of humiliation. I felt free of the guilt and shame for existing as an imperfect human.
I was now independent of my namesake family; freedom forever timestamped on July the 4th. Now and forever my personal Independence Day.
I haven’t spoken to anyone in that family for close to five years.
Some four months after the spitting incident while visiting Prague for the first time, I observed the gloomy Czech tradition of beggars perched upon their knees, hands clasped in a prayer, and head bowed down, so as not to look anyone directly in the face. The beggar’s single paper cup, dug from the trash, precariously balanced, on the uneven cobblestone and anchored with couple of coins to keep the cup from blowing away, in the harsh East European wind, broke my heart in its testimony of their melancholy existence.
The spectacle personified a synopsis of the heart’s condition.
I thought of the sad man.
What once beat boldly with braveness and gargantuan goodness–a human life–is now demoted to begging on the street. With knees shamefully bent to the cold, stained rock, I can see the sad man looking up with those, steel-blue eyes, glazed now with tears tugging on the coattails of anyone decent as if to cry out:
I was once good
I can’t bear the end,
I want to wake up fresh,
I want my heart and mind to mesh,
Through this strange visualization brought on by the beggar I wonder if the sad man would ever want my forgiveness? Her forgiveness? His own forgiveness? Did he even acknowledge wrong doing? It must have hurt him. Even raising my voice to my beloved wife hurts me and I am truly ashamed.
I am deeply moved and quickly empty the contents of my meager pocket into the beggar’s cup, walking confusedly on.
After writing this I called my Mom. She answered. She sounds good. She’s still with him. I have come to accept that she always will be.
I like to think that the man who beat me, who beat her, who made me hate myself, who made me hurt, so badly I wished to die–feels sadness. I like to think he is sad. I like to think he wants help but doesn’t know how to accept the love we tried to give. I like to think I will not be him, despite my anger, I like to think…
It’s time to start a new chapter.
Spencer Harber works in personal health practices. He offers a combined 18 years’ experience in a variety of healing mediums. He is a certified coach through the International Coach Federation (ICF) and holds both a Master’s of Arts and Post Baccalaureate Certificate in health & wellness coaching. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in Complementary & Alternative Health and is a certified massage therapist. Spencer is a registered teacher with Yoga Alliance USA, after completing yoga studies in Rishikesh, India. As a healer, he has crafted a unique massage practice utilizing acupressure, aromatherapy, Reiki, and myofascial release allowing patients to get reacquainted with their bodies. Through yoga, he works with clients to heal any number of disorders. With the medium of plants, he has found health through nutrition. Writing has opened new doors allowing Spencer to share and coach through the written word, as well. He is currently following his passions for uniting humor and wellness together in a variety of forms.