Thursday, April 30, 2015

ASHES



Unedited excerpts from my memoir


I was sixteen that autumn and surrounded by danger. My parent's marriage was disintegrating. The tension was so acute that it had become completely beyond the realm of human endurance. 

My father was intent on ripping the last remaining remnants of our lives to shreds, and he did it with such incredible diabolic precision that any semblance of reality was expunged. His violence - which on a good day was unbearable - had increased to alarming realms of maniacal desperation. He lurked in the shadowed agony of his own delusions, waiting with the raw anticipatory patience of a hungry animal, looking for any reason to attack: to pounce and kill.

My mother and I existed under the distorted cloud of his insanity, catering to his every whim, forever terrified of accidentally doing anything that would trigger the next explosion.

The nights were the worst. Darkness magnified the fear and perpetuated our sense of helplessness. My father guzzled beer religiously, but at the time I never fully realized the effect it had on accelerating his anger. The only positive aspect was that the alcohol would eventually make him sleep. Slouched in a kitchen chair, in an impossibly uncomfortable position, his hideous snores would be the signal that we could relax - at least for awhile.

Mom and I would try to sleep during these rare moments of respite - but we always slept lightly and fully dressed, prepared for the next inevitable battle. I slept with a butcher knife under my pillow, but it only provided a false sense of security. I knew full well that if I ever tried to use it against my father, he'd kill me with it.

When he'd suddenly awaken in the post midnight hours, he would be refreshed and ready to resume the violence. He not only derived sadistic pleasure in the beatings, but also in chasing us out of the house and locking the door. Mom and I would shiver in the chilly yard, cowering in the shadows, praying that he wouldn't come outside to look for us. Sometimes we'd sneak into the garage and sit in the car with the doors locked, waiting until dawn.

My father always kept the keys to the car so we couldn't get them. One night my Mom somehow managed to procure the keys. We hastily packed a few things and sneaked out to the garage, which was separate from the house, far back in the yard. The risk was great, but it was our only chance of escape.

I lifted the heavy wooden garage door, then got in the car as Mom started the engine. She hadn't yet backed out of the garage when my father appeared - literally out of nowhere. He opened the car door, twisted the key, and ripped it out of the ignition. Before we could even think, he grabbed a large can of gasoline and began dousing the car and the garage, while shouting that he was going to burn everything and that we'd never get out alive. I frantically made my escape, ran to the house, and called the police.

Within minutes, police cars surrounded our house and everything was illuminated with bright searchlights. I only remember fragments of that chaotic scene, but do know that it ended with my father utilizing his well-rehearsed repertoire of charm and lies. He was calmly laughing off the incident, and blaming it on his wife and son who were troublemakers - always hysterical and crazy.

Those were the days when family violence was never discussed publicly and cops couldn't care less about women's rights. They were always on the man's side - at least that was my consistent childhood observation. My father inevitably won. Always. He was emboldened by the fact that he could get away with anything. And after the cops left, things always got worse. Mom and I would be severely punished for causing all the trouble.

That was the angry autumn of endlessly raging brush fires. We lived in a small, sleepy California town nested in the hills between Orange County and the city of Riverside. The dry, fierce Santa Ana winds were raging and fires were igniting everywhere. By late September the hills near our town were ablaze. By early October, the fires multiplied and we were literally surrounded by them. There was no way out. 

There was danger within and danger without: my father and his volatile, unpredictable temper, and the uncontrollable raging fires. The desert winds shrieked, making the house tremble. The air was so dry and the smoke so thick, that my sinuses were ravaged and I had severe headaches. It was impossible to go outside. 

Then the ashes began to fall, thickly and swiftly, like a hellish storm of surrealistic snow. Everything was covered with gray ash - the streets, the yard, even the astonished palm trees. The sullen landscape was buried in it.

In early evening, at sunset, I ventured outside to timidly survey the scene. The world as I once knew it had vanished and was replaced with an incredibly vivid ethereal crimson glow. The red disk of the setting sun had melted into the enormous lake of fire on the horizon. Everything was covered with ash and drenched in a thick smokey haze of angry red. I could actually feel the heat of the approaching flames. 

I was mesmerized by the magnitude of the unholy scene, and completely unaware that I was being anointed in an unrelenting rain of unblemished ash.




Five years later: another California autumn, in the Hollywood hills. I'm in the upstairs bedroom of a Spanish-style mansion built in the 1920's. Drowsy from little sleep and too much Sangria. Lying in a tangle of damp sheets and a subtle confusion of deepening shadows. It is nearly dusk, on an impossibly hot and breathless September evening.

I glance at my companion who is asleep, gently exhausted, breathing calmly in the abstract sweetness of dreams. The tempting body of a classic Greek sculpture, the deceiving face of an archangel.

Outside, far beyond the open wrought-iron windows, the hills are ablaze with autumn wildfires. They are slowly descending, moving closer at a leisurely pace. There are no Santa Ana winds tonight. The smokey glow of amber and gold has touched the window and is innocently illuminating the bedroom wall. 


I gaze abstractly at the blood red candles flickering in the alcoves, the porcelain vase of dying flowers, and the silver crucifix tarnishing with age on the unblemished wall.

And I think of a long-ago autumn fire in a small rural California town......and I remember my sense of absolute helplessness and isolation.....the unrelenting terror that my father unleashed.... the feeling of impending doom that surrounded me as I was unwittingly anointed in raining ash......

....and in the sudden pang of an emotional moment, I yearn for the innocence I once knew - - a purity of body, if not of soul..... and I realize that this present sin, and the multitude of my other sins, are a desperate attempt to expunge the painful past and to cling to an eternal yet unattainable hope.

I snuggle closer to my companion and derive immense satisfaction at the very receptive response....and I kiss the sweetly tender lips of an archangel, whose words of love and reassurance whisper against my own lips like the promise of a prayer.

In the presence of the softly smouldering night and the silent shower of eternal ashes, we are securely ensconced in the moment - oblivious to the raging fires around us.




This is completely unedited. Please excuse any typos.


14 comments:

  1. Jon, I do believe you've found your pace, artistic distance and effective use of your considerable descriptive powers. Keep this up and you'll not only have a great memoir but you'll be an accomplished juggler too. I will now grab the laptop with both hands and hang on. That's a compliment.

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  2. Unfortunately your story of violence was all too common then--women and children were often captives of the father. I am glad you got out alive.

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  3. Powerful. I could actually visualize you and your mother in that car, so close to freedom.
    The surrounding wildfires you described, and later, the ash fall sounds both menacing and beautiful.

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  4. My Dad used to disable the alternator of the car so we couldn't escape. During the times he didn't we would push the car down the street and wait to start the engine out of earshot. And despite receiving help to leave him many many times, my Mom always went back to him, taking us with her.

    I remember watching "The Burning Bed" ... that was the first time I realized that it wasn't just happening in our house.

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  5. The immediacy of your writing is so penetrating that I hardly dare read what you're going to say next - but I will.

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  6. It seems men often have the last laugh when the police are called to check out a family dispute. Your childhood was tragic to say the least. And your surroundings ready to ignite in an instant had such an impact on who you became. I daresay this book within you is taking shape and coming to light at long last. You have opened a vein. Let the words flow.

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  7. You're writing style is mesmerizing Jon. I can't imagine the trauma you experienced growing up and yet I want to read more.

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  8. Jon, the emotion in this is so raw, and the writing, wonderful. Parts of it, I could relate to on a personal level, and the rest, you made me see and feel.

    You're right about how men used to get away with horrible things in the old days. Wives and kids didn't seem to matter, and it wasn't just the police who behaved that way, either. Even when I ran to the police in the middle of the night, filed a report, and got my father arrested, it turned out the judge knew him from childhood, so the court appearance was a joke. He was sent home with a slap on the wrist. No, I lie. Not even that. He was just sent home, where he continued doing the same old stuff. It was horrifying.

    Keep writing!

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  9. This is a real horror story. I can’t imagine living under those conditions at age 16. I guess what amazes me the most is that you wound up taking care of them in their old age. After such experiences as you describe, I would have never had anything further to do with a father like that.

    There is no way I would choose to live where the risk of fires and landslides are so great.

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  10. This is so powerful and yet as a piece of writing it is great - I love how you have tied together the idea of burning and heat. What a horrific adolescence you had.

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  11. Thanks for sharing such a personal thing. I agree with all the kudos above. Hope going thru it again in order to write it down wasn't too traumatic for you, and perhaps was instead somewhat cathartic/healing. ~~~ NB

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  12. Jon,
    Every time I read of what you had to go through with your father in your youth my heart just breaks for you. I experienced a similar family situation only once when I was visiting my cousins Jackie and Charlie. Jackie was about two years older than me and Charlie two years younger. Their father was an abusive alcoholic. I never saw their father sober once. While we were visit (my Mother and their mother were sisters), their father came roaring down the stairs all red faced and screaming that he was going to kill them. Both Jackie and Charlie went running. I could tell this wasn't the first time their father went after them. What an awful thing for children to endure. Both Jackie and Charlie today are kind and loving adults. Charlie never had kids but Jackie did. He also has grandkids. I am amazed at how some people who have endured such horrors from their childhood can reach adulthood sane and not crazy like their abusive father.
    Thank you for sharing although I know this must be very painful for you.
    Ron

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  13. Wonderful descriptive writing. Sad for what you and your Mom had to endure.
    Sheila

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