At six years old, I couldn’t discern my father’s intentions. Nor could I understand his actions. Twenty years later, a therapist would provide me with the word sociopath as a descriptor. That helped some.
I was sitting on the grass with my younger brother Randy; we were in the front yard of someone’s pretty little white house in Florida. I wish it were our house, but it was a friend of my mother’s, yet another good Samaritan providing safe haven from the oft-violent, unpredictable George Dennis. The little house was much different from our low-rent property with the cat-piss rugs and the dead palmetto bugs in the cereal bowls. At this moment, the world extended only as far as I could reach; blue sky, white clouds, green grass—the contrast turned way up, the colors impossible, everything close enough to breathe on. I was playing with a truck or a rock or something, oblivious. Randy and I had been dropped here in haste, like canned goods unloaded from the car. But I don’t know why. To a six year old, details don’t stick; it’s still all about the moment, only as far as you can reach.
I’m not sure how long we sat there in our own little worlds, but without warning or sound, three feet away, I saw Randy float into the air, leaving a small buttprint in the grass. I turned my head to get a full view; yup, he had disappeared. But he was not floating. He had been sloppily scooped up by someone who was trotting him down the long, manicured lawn, away from the house my mother had disappeared into with her friend. I watched the figures continue to shrink in size until they reached the curb. There, a large sedan was idling. The back door opened from within, and Randy was tossed inside. The door closed, a trap. Then the figure turned and began walking back up the yard. My turn.
For years, I was convinced I was unique because by the age of 4 or 5, I had already experienced complex feelings like sharp panic and dull dread while my peers were still throwing simple tantrums at the toy store. I don’t think of myself in those unique terms any longer—as I aged, I finally saw that we are all broken in big and small ways. But even at this tender age, my flight response kicked in as I saw the figure approaching me, and I can confidently say it was a well-practiced response, one that had already served me well on many occasions. I knew none of the particulars—who this collector of children was, who sat behind the darkened windows of the car, whose house was serving as the safe haven this week—but I did know I was alone and I needed to run. On my feet, that’s what I did.
Even though I’m desperately trying to characterize myself as a world-weary, jaded preadolescent, the truth is I was a scatterbrained six year old. My flight response may have been practiced, but there was no logic or planning behind it. There’s probably some Freudian diagnosis to explain why I simply didn’t run inside the haven/house to cower under momma’s skirt—that sort of response is something a more normal kid, living under more normal circumstances, would do. Being abnormal in just about every way, I instead turned a sharp right and began vaulting over property boundaries—the small brick fences, hedges, and flower beds of strangers—my little legs carrying me to some unknown destination far away from the danger. But in many ways, this was a regular Tuesday.
Alas, this isn’t a race I would win. In the background, underneath my heavy breathing, a growling voice from the car: “Get him!” I looked to my left, towards the road paralleling my path, and the ominous sedan with the darkened windows was effortlessly rolling along, matching my Olympian stride. I heard heavy footsteps falling in the grass behind me. I don’t know how far I had gotten, but I was already out of breath and slowing down.
Then, just like my brother before me, I was suddenly no longer making contact with the grass. I was flying, my feet kicking at the air in front of me, my heart pounding from fear and sprinting. The children-gatherer had caught me, scooping me up like a sack of potatoes. Who was this? Though I had still not yet seen his face, he hauled me over his shoulder and started trudging to the curb where the car-door-trap waited. It opened as we approached. I was tossed in, door slamming after. The groceries had been delivered.
Ultimately, no surprises here: My dad was behind the wheel, arm draped over the back of the bench seat and glaring at me, his hair blacker than ever and his face red with irritation. Randy was deer-in-headlights still to my left. The front passenger door opened and Rick, my 13-year-old brother (and dad’s unwilling, but effective, kidnapper) hopped in. I immediately grabbed the door handle to escape. This time, duh, I might run directly into the house where my mother was likely weeping at her friend’s kitchen table. Or maybe I’d run to a nearby house and hide under the couch. Or maybe–Dad barked fearsomely: “Don’t touch it!” He reached toward me, not to hit me, but to slam his hand down on the door lock. He never hit me.
We drove away, somewhere, only to be returned to mother a few days later following half a dozen telephone calls to the police, the reissuing of a restraining order, and a series of angry confrontations. Once I hit adolescence, crap like this was just one episode in a never-ending string of bland Lifetime family dramas. As much as I hate to drag this old chestnut out, the chess game analogy works so well–pawns, calculation, control, defense, capture, sacrifice–with lots of threatening, smacking, and hiding thrown in for good measure. These days, I imagine seeing my mother exiting her safe haven to find only an empty yard, children gone, the grass impossibly green and the sky impossibly blue, the contrast turned all the way up. It must’ve been devastating–“checkmate” as far as my father was concerned.