By Autumn Shah
My mom says she was under a spell when she married Kris Chapman.
She thought he looked like the dashing actor, Omar Sharif. But really, he looked like an evil sorcerer or a villain with his black-wire mustache and his potent blue eyes set deep beneath bushy black eyebrows. He stole away the little magic we had in our lives at that time. We were no longer allowed to jump in our mother’s bed at five a.m. and tickle and cuddle, there was no more dancing on the living room furniture with her to Barry Manilow and the Kinks and there was certainly no more falling asleep on the couch to Twilight Zone or Benny Hill.
In the short time since my parents divorced, we had collected stray animals and created a family of guinea pigs to fill the void left by my dad. I didn’t understand where he’d gone or why, but I expected him back in our lives any day.
Until this dark wizard appeared.
I walked behind my stepfather, trying to conjure the power to burn a hole through his head that would shoot out his eyeballs and fry his brain. He plodded down the street with his chin jutting forward, his shoulders sloped. My four-year-old sister, Lenore, and I dared not walk too close to him for fear he would remember we were there.
We reached Revco Drug Store and my sister and I waited outside the glass door while Kris paid for a newspaper. As he came out the door, he rolled it up and put it under his armpit. Without a word or glance at us, he walked on.
We cut a diagonal line through the Kroger parking lot, crossed Robinwood Avenue past my elementary school–closed for the summer–to the Jolly Pirate Donut Shop on the corner of Broad Street.
The bakery was small and narrow with no more than a dozen stools at the counter. The display case under the register held the more expensive and seasonal donuts like the red, white, and blue sprinkled éclairs for Independence Day. The display of donuts behind the counter was lit like some kind of heaven. We could only hope, each visit, that he would buy us one. It came with a price though. A donut here meant we would be reminded of this kindness over the next couple weeks. It meant we’d have to balance on the tall, wobbly stools and inhale cigarette smoke and old men’s complaints.
We sat at the counter that faced the donuts and the register and Kris spread out his newspaper. He separated the classifieds and set the rest aside. Then he flicked the paper open to the want ads. He scanned the paper up and down and then gave a muffled snap with his fingers that brought me to his side. I stood on the rungs of his rickety stool and looked over his shoulder at the print. He smelled freshly showered, of the same shampoo we used.
“Full Time Lot Porter. Must have valid Ohio Driver’s license,” I read.
“Go to the next one,” he said, taking a slurp of his coffee.
“General Warehouse Worker Wanted. Looking for experienced warehouse worker for distribution center in Grove City. Starts at…” Even though I was almost ten, I stumbled over big numbers like $22,850 and $18,700.
It took me a while to wonder why I had to read to him. On a day I felt particularly petulant, I complained to my mother about it.
“He can’t read,” my mother whispered to me. Something in the tone of her voice told me she was just as astonished as I was.
How could an adult not know how to read? I wondered. And why would my mom marry such a man? Had he used a cloaking spell to hide that fact from her? I think she hadn’t known before they were married. My mom was an avid reader and taught me to read before I started kindergarten. She had a whole huge wall shelf that my dad had made for her. It was full of romance novels and books about kings and queens and witches.
I decided to teach him to read. I wanted to help him get a job. If he got a job he might be nicer to us, I reasoned. At the very least, he wouldn’t be around as much. He must have tried to learn how to read before because I found some adult readers in one of my mom’s dresser drawers. They looked like baby wordbooks except that they had pictures of adults at the post office or grocery store. The words were written in large letters as if the reader were blind as well.
I don’t know how we arrived at this arrangement–he must have been desperate– but one day, after my mom left for her job as a nurse’s aide, he pulled a chair up to her vanity and I stood at his shoulder. Pantyhose and satiny underwear hung out of half-open drawers. I had the best intentions, but the sound of his voice mispronouncing vowels and stumbling over consonants left a queasy feeling in my stomach. His breath was ragged with effort and his face pointed in concentration. Before long, he got angry and frustrated at himself and slammed the book shut, then tossed it across the room with a curse.
He finally found work at a bowling alley. Sometimes my sister and I had to go with him. The place was thick with cigarette smoke and smelled of dirty feet. We sat for hours listening to the rumble of the balls as they rolled down the polished lane, the crack of the balls hitting pins and the loud racket as they fell and were swept away. We wanted so badly to see behind the scenes of the door he disappeared through and we asked many times.
“I’m not getting fired just so you two can get your jollies,” he said.
As much as I wanted to know how that machine worked, I definitely did not want him to be out of a job.
One day though, he skirted the rules by letting us peek inside the door to look around. It smelled less like the sweaty feet and stale cigarettes on the lanes and more like wax and machine grease. It was dim. I could barely make out the parts of the machines and conveyor belts that made all the whirring and clattering and that performed such miracles.
Despite my hatred for him, when he bestowed a kindness upon us, I felt a glimmer of hope. I thought I could be the one to charm him into liking us. I tried to do everything he expected of us. I stayed out of his way and took care of my sister so he wouldn’t have to. I got his socks for him when we were ready to go out the door or I said something nice about him to my mom when he could hear me. Much later, my mom would reveal to me that he didn’t like kids anyway, that he “got fixed” right after they married, without telling her.
Lenore and I had been sitting at the kitchen table as his prisoners for what seemed like hours, unable or unwilling to finish every bite. The canned green beans grew darker, the smoked sausage cold and rubbery. It may as well have been tree bark and slop staring at us, waiting to be eaten. I gave my mom dirty looks for heaping the food on our plates to begin with. She gave us sympathetic looks across the table between directing glares at Kris Chapman.
“Them mashed potatoes weren’t cheap. The butter your mom had to put into it, that didn’t cost nothing,” he said. “You don’t clean your plate, you owe me something.”
As if he had paid for the food, I thought. It was my mother we hardly saw because she worked so much.
I tried to evoke the hidden powers I was sure I must possess to cause something nasty to happen to him. Maybe I could make him choke on his Salisbury steak or accidentally fall back in his chair while swallowing a roast potato. Or maybe Kris didn’t know about those sneaky bones that mom always warned us about, telling us to chew our chicken well because some of them are so tiny they could get caught in your throat and poke right through your gullet.
Meanwhile, Lenore began smooshing her mashed potatoes under her plate. I tucked my mashed potatoes under too, pasting them to the sides, careful that Kris did not catch on. Lenore looked sideways at me and smiled, a sparkle of hope in her eyes. Next thing I knew, she was taking big bites of her green beans.
She wiped her mouth with her napkin and then asked, “Can I go to the bathroom?”
Kris looked at her, “Number one or number two?”
“Number two, I think.” She knew that if she said Number One, he would most likely make her hold it until after dinner.
“Hurry up,” he said. “You’re eating this no matter how cold it gets!”
I continued to pretend to take bites, sometimes managing to force a nibble more into my mouth. When Lenore came back she was actually walking lighter and I had hopes that this dinner would go easier for her than the usual nights.
After several minutes, Lenore asked to go to the bathroom again.
“What for?” Kris Chapman asked.
“I still gotta go,” she said.
“If you aren’t back in two minutes I’m dragging you off,” Kris growled.
She scampered up the stairs, napkin squished up in her hand. I looked at her plate again and I realized what she was doing. My stomach clenched and my face went hot. She was doing it all wrong and she was going to get caught. If you wanted to flush food down the toilet like that you had to make it good and make it only once. And, you had to leave some on the plate to make it look believable.
Kris looked over at her plate, too. He scraped his chair back from the table and got up. I heard the toilet flush again. I looked to my mom, but she was concentrating hard on her food.
When Lenore came down, Kris was waiting at the bottom of the stairs for her. He grabbed the napkin out of her hand and smashed it in her face. She struggled and started crying. Kris dragged her back to the table and jostled her into her chair. He went to the stove and got the pot of green beans and slopped more on her plate.
“You’re going to lick that plate clean!” he said as she cried harder.
I was nauseous at the thought of another bite and it took willpower to even put the sausage in my mouth. But just a glare from him forced me to go against my body’s will. I felt like I’d vomit but I mechanically thrust the food into my mouth and chewed. I knew when I was beaten.
Not my sister though.
Lenore continued to do her best to wait him out. At those times, I hated her for making us all wait at the table for her to finish. Just eat it, I implored with my eyes. I glared at her, I kicked her under the table. Eventually, I lapsed into my imagination and made up stories about things happening outside the kitchen window. I’d make designs in the thin layer of gravy left on my plate.
As I made up stories in my head about how I’d take a potion and grow up and get out of here on a black horse, Lenore’s head drooped lower and lower and her eyes closed until her cheek lay in her mashed potatoes. I stifled a laugh even as I also felt sorry for her. Kris got up quietly and my mother and I watched him warily. He stood right behind her and shoved her further into her food then whacked the side of her head so that she whipped her head up, stunned.
My mother flung her fork down and stood up. “I’m a grown woman, I will not be made to sit here like a child!” She ran from the table crying, leaving us alone with him.
My mother had snapped down her napkin and stomped away, many a time. But this time, seeing her cry frightened me. I was also confused and angered by her words; it was us she should have been upset for. And why did she get to walk away while we had to stay and somehow will the withering food to disappear?
One night, after a dinner alone with him, spent avoiding eye contact and eating every bite in silence, he put us to bed and waited for my mom to get home from work. We waited for her too. I started to drift to sleep when we heard a noise that could have been our sputtering Toyota pulling into the driveway. Lenore sneaked out of bed and crept toward the stairs, watching to see if mom would come through the front door. Kris barreled out of the bedroom next to ours.
“Did I tell you to get out of bed? What do you need your mom for anyway? Get your shit back in bed!”
He swung my sister around by the arm and pushed her away from him, down the stairs. I’m not sure how far she fell because I was cowering under our covers. Mom was always telling us to be careful around those stairs though because they were steep and the wood was slick.
Kris retrieved her and threatened her not to tell Mom and then he tossed her back in the bed where she slammed against me. The guinea pigs in their cage on the dresser chirruped in alarm and, I imagined, sympathy. Unfortunately, it wasn’t my mom come home and I was too afraid to ask Lenore if she was okay. She lay beside me, stiff in her angry silence. I pretended to be only half awake, ignorant of what had just happened, wishing I could spirit us away.
I was ashamed that I hadn’t helped, ashamed that it was her and not me.
One spring, mom, Lenore and I, took an airplane a long way to visit my mother’s family in England. I had the time of my life, politely slurping warm soup after nippy walks along the North Sea and climbing narrow, spiraling staircases of medieval castles where real kings, queens and villains had lived. Kris wasn’t part of our life the whole ten days we were there.
When we came back our house looked and sounded very different. Our rent-to-own refrigerator and stove were gone because he hadn’t paid the bills for them. Worse, there were no excited whoops and whistles from the guinea pigs. All our guinea pigs–moms, dads and babies–were rotting in their cages. He hadn’t fed or watered them while we were gone. My mother wailed and moaned and wouldn’t let us in the room.
Later that evening, little mounds appeared under the massive oak in our back yard.
Afterward, instead of explosive arguments, there was a frigid silence in the house. My mom often stayed in her bedroom with the door closed and Kris milled about, his stubborn chin thrust forward. Lenore and I stayed outside during the day, playing throughout the neighborhood, loitering at friends’ houses as long as they’d have us. One day we trudged home and there was a different feel about the house. It felt more open and airy, more vibrant. He was gone.
Mom refused to answer questions about him and never talked about him again. We were warned never to mention his name. We never knew what became of him or how my mom she had finally rid herself of him but we were not all that curious about it either. We were too elated to care.
Lenore and I jumped on the couch like we used to and mom turned up the volume on Barry Manilow. In the early mornings we sailed into her bed and cuddled and giggled, in and out of sleep until the sun came up. At dinner, we ate only as much as we wanted, unable to believe the change in our fortune.
For a while my sister and I waited for him to reappear. We exchanged ominous looks every time we heard our mother in hushed conversations on the phone. But when enough time had passed and he did not materialize, we realized that the spell had finally been broken.
About the Author
Autumn Shah lives in Dublin, Ohio, a suburb of Columbus where she is a stay-at-home mom of two girls. She is an emerging writer; with an essay published in Toasted Cheese Literary Journal and several essays and fiction writings currently submitted to various literary magazines.