Helter Skelter

oil on canvas paper-2007

He jammed my thumb in the door. I think I was five and we were at Meme’s house on Social Street, across from the brick building that looked like a military base. The brick was coppery and the windows were framed in some kind of intricate verdigris stone. There was metal wire in between thick window glass plates and you could never see in. I never saw anyone go inside or come out of the building. While my thumb was warmly bleeding down my hand and arm, I looked at the  chipped blue paint on my Meme’s porch, revealing weather-beaten grey boards that looked like massive, dead chunks of Weetabix. The wooden slivers stuck up all over indicating that no one could afford to care about this building, or the lime green and dusty yellow apartment buildings around us. The street was dry and the sun faced it, all the time. There were bits of burnt lawn in front of that brick building, but mostly everything looked parched, even the electric poles; their heavy black lines, sagging in the humidity. Cars drive past quickly. I always imagined they were driving to the better, shady neighborhoods, where the Maple trees were succulent and smiling and smelled green and inside the nice houses, people ate eggs for breakfast at a table and there was a pitcher of orange juice, sweating in golden sunlight. Like in some places, the sun is friendly and in this place, the sun was stinging and there was nothing pretty about it.

When would you ever need to drink an entire pitcher of orange juice? In those nice people’s houses, did they just throw out the juice they didn’t drink? A half-gallon is probably how much it would take to fill a pitcher like the ones in those commercials, where kids have clean and pressed outfits, and there’s actually time to eat breakfast before the dad goes to work and the kids go to school. How come the sun is so bright so early? Sometimes, I can’t find my shoes in the morning when we’re getting ready to leave. It’s not that our apartment is ever messy, ..sometimes it is, but mostly it’s that my head is messy. I’m always thinking about other things, like money and food, and my dad and my brother and sister and watching my mother look chronically panicked and angry.

Pieces of my thumbnail got crushed off. He was on the other side of the door so I stopped feeling anything. I couldn’t tell if he was trying to open it or close it more on my thumb. Sometimes, I think my dad was behind me, but that’s because of the picture we still have of him holding up the 50 lb. bluefish on this porch. I think I am alone. I can hear my Meme yelling in French, calling him a shit head or something like that. I remember merde. I can see the metal moving parts of the door jamb sliding over the parts of my thumb and out of the socket of the door frame. I can see the black, residual smears of door grease in the corners of the fixtures mixing with my blood and thumbnail bits.

In the kitchen was a black fridge and the round table with the sticky plastic tablecloth covered in painted images of plums, grapes, oranges and dark green leaves. My thumb is in a bowl of something, throbbing and my free hand is tracing the leaves while Meme sings the French song. I don’t feel like singing, but I like the sound of her nervous tune. He’s left us alone and is in the living room building a house of cards. I never understood how he did that. Even though I was young I understood drugs and what they did to people. Other relatives would comment my whole life on how I was always so quiet. “You never hear her.” “Are you in here? You’re so quiet.” “What a good child. She never makes a peep.” That’s because I was always listening, to everything anyone and everyone said. I don’t know why it made sense to me. I don’t know why I understood that the smell of burnt plastic was equated with his drugs; like the street being tarred mixed with a cigarette filter and the oil from his face in his mustache, lips and teeth. He kept some of the drug things in a rusted Sucrets tin. It was mostly always in his pocket or on a windowsill.

photo by author-2014

The living room of my Meme’s house on Social Street is probably in no way how I remember it, though it might be. He was sitting on her red and gold floral sofa (she took it to the Blackstone house after this), at a low wooden and glass coffee table, stacking the cards without shaking at all. The room was round, circular, with baby blue walls, ornate finishings, painted in fake gold and had two exits; one into the little kitchen and one into the front sitting room. But what I remember being above is really the best part, a domed ceiling covered in paintings of angels, like the ones in the Sistine Chapel, only bad. Cherubs. My Meme was obsessed with cherubs. She had a brass and glass curio full of tacky, angelic figurines and soaps in the shape of fat babies with wings that smelled like a Canadian nursing home. They were covered in dust in a wavy, porcelain clamshell, along with conch shells and pink, glycerin snails. We never used them but I played with them when I would hide in there. Can you believe this domed ceiling over him and his house of cards? I remember light too, so maybe there was a round, stained glass window. Those are common in old parts of New England, and especially Blackstone and Woonsocket. You could find yourself living in the shittiest neighborhood, like the empty house on Farm Street, and discover a little stained glass masterpiece in your stairwell or bathroom. My dad’s house now, which was Meme’s before, has rectangular and octagonal stained glass accents, complimented by a gloppy DIY paint job. It’s brown. The stained glasses are reds and oranges and blues, all deep jewel tones with very thick, black leading and geometric design. The glass is rippled, as if it’s chronically melting but never disappears.

Those houses were not originally built to be welfare apartments. I think it was my mother who once told us, while we were driving through a good neighborhood, that all the houses in Woonsocket used to be for very wealthy people. That our apartment was actually only meant to be one wing, or section of a big mansion. And that’s how all the apartment houses were originally built; the old ones anyway. Our apartment on Lincoln Street was just the normal projects; those cardboard pieces of crap that they built in rows all the same and charged $14 a week or something like that. The only good thing about living there was that Ollie’s Pizza was in walking distance and I used to paint on the red wooden fences that separated people’s ‘back yard’. It wasn’t a yard, just splotches of tar leading to some weeds and a giant stone wall. At the very top of the stonewall, probably three stories up, directly across from our back kitchen window, was a vicious dog on a staked chain. He barked all the time. Our clothesline ran from that back window, next to the fridge, all the way to the top of the stone wall where that dog was tied up. Sometimes I dreamt that the dog could run along the clothesline and get into our house and attack us in our bedroom. It was right next to that window. I would dream that he’d claw through my Smurfette poster and eat my baby brother and then claw up my face before I could fight back. He never did. But he could have, and who would have stopped him? His name was Roland.

So there he was, sitting with his house of cards, sort of anxiously muttering to himself while he stacked. He did this constantly. ‘Yowza, yowza, yowza, ak, ak, ak. Gah, gah.’ He never really said actual words that I recall, except for the warnings, which were clear as day and locked safely away in some cabinet in my head that has never actually opened. The rest of the time it was these pressured mutterings and laughter, for which there had been no jokes. No one else ever laughed, since most often following the laughter was some kind of ranting and storming and beating and my Meme’s bloody chin, or a crushed thumb, or something else broken. His hands didn’t shake while he stacked. His cigarettes were next to him, but he wasn’t smoking them. I was fairly certain, at times like this, standing under a cherub painting, and god-light in the tacky French room with velour furniture and a pedophile, that I was invisible. Meme, Roland, maybe not even God could see me. I could see me, from across the room, or above the room, or through the walls from the alley in between the next house. There was also a lounge chair. The chair. The furniture in the sitting room at this house was blue, I think. It didn’t move with Meme to the Blackstone house. Nothing happened in that room except later, while my thumb was still throbbing, and wrapped now in some gauze from the one bathroom, we watched Helter Skelter. I think I’d had a bath because I remember my hair wetting the back of my nightgown and playing with an elastic band, as if I meant to tie my hair up but instead, was sucking the shampoo taste out of the ends while curling myself into a little warm ball on the corner of the couch. I stared at Meme who was eating cheese popcorn, her thing she made. It was regular stove popped popcorn, covered in this orange powder. I used to love it, but it probably made me sick. She was in her own chair watching the t.v as if we were watching a happy show, like Lawrence Welk, and not some psycho murder story. There were two people locked inside a bad hula hoop, wearing turtlenecks in a dark room. Roland kept laughing while I continued to mute myself with my own wet hair. I think it was Easter because I remember the wicker baskets on the hutch in the front bay window. I could smell that plastic Easter grass, and the sugar from jelly beans and white chocolate bunnies. I only liked white chocolate for the longest time. The chocolate bunnies were hollow and I liked the cracking sound they made when you punctured their surface with a tooth or a gentle finger. I think I liked the sound and smell of the cracking more than I liked actually eating them. I would also feel very sad for them, like I was hurting them by breaking them, even though they were hollow and couldn’t feel anything.

*names have been changed

6 thoughts on “Helter Skelter

  1. One of the reasons I keep coming back to this blog is that you’re giving us a viewpoint that Hollywood appears to avoid like the plague. You know, the kind of Hollywood films, and especially the “family type” films people force you to watch on buses and planes even here in Australia, that can make you puke. This kind of American fantasy world where shiny families live in enormous mansions that stay miraculously clean and tidy (maybe they have nocturnal house-elves?), and have four cars in their garage, and food appears without anybody apparently cooking, and nobody looks dishevelled getting out of bed in the morning, and words like “honey” and “sweetie” are thrown around like confetti is at weddings.

    And that’s just the backdrop, and I think that’s actually the most repugnant thing, and the way it is just taken for granted in those films, because most Americans live very differently, and there’s a lot of poverty in America, and here’s this excessive material culture unremarked upon, in the background, and kind of held up as “normal” or at least aspirational… and that creates a lot of problems. It’s like these “family movies” do covert product placement for a sort of entitlement culture.

    And the subset of Americans whose outside, material lives do resemble what is in these movies often seem to think that any critique of an excessive lifestyle is jealousy, or envy, or carping, etc. (And of course, hidden behind those glittery facades you often find hidden domestic abuse, just like anywhere else… it’s just that people of means can hide it better, and tend to be deferred to and overly esteemed based on the contents of their bank accounts, rather than their hearts.)

    The plots of those “family movies” are usually innocent and unremarkable enough, although of course they lack depth (like the characters do) and create unrepresentative impressions of what life in the real world is actually like, kind of like some of the “tidied-up” children’s fairy tales (the original Grimm is, by contrast, quite gruesome, and Anderson far more realistic than what his material was beaten into by others).

    I am really starting to see links between this kind of “prolefeed” (to borrow Orwell’s concept) and the high prevalence of mental illnesses in contemporary Western societies. In dysfunctional families, a facade is displayed to the world, which is very different to what is really going on behind closed doors. In dysfunctional communities, societies, organisations, you name it, a facade is similarly displayed to the world which is very different to the actual reality. Do you think that the one leads to the other – that family patterns are carried on into the “bigger world” according to the same warped patterns? Or that families emulate the dysfunctional patterns and fantasies of the wider community / society? Or is it a two-way street?

    Coming back to movies: Some American movie makers, of course, have addressed that bugbear about facades in movies, with gems like “The Stepford Wives” and “Pleasantville” and “American Beauty” and “Secretary” – and they even did a version of “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” that outshone the Scandinavians’ own excellent production. (Always looking for movie recommendations, by the way.) And Australia gave us gold like “The Rage in Placid Lake” as well as a lot of drivelly stuff that bootlicks the mainstream Hollywood playbook (just call us the 51st State, our politicians are always doing obeisance to yours and many ordinary Australians aspire to that Hollywood facade and engage in celebrity worship).

    Anyway, thanks for keeping it real, and for recording narratives of the sort that need to be widely heard, and widely thought about. There is something to be learnt from this. It’s genuinely excellent reading.

    Best wishes from the Southern Hemisphere.


    • Thanks Sophie-Charlotte πŸ˜‰ (beautiful name choices by the way. I couldn’t agree more that Cherilyn is a personal hero for her honesty and transparency. It’s voices like hers which continue to give me the strength to keep writing.) I love movies! And yes, I prefer my films to have plot lines of substance too. A little fantasy is nice but something that makes us think is even better. I love that you know the original Grimm fairy tales were bloody messes! Haha. I dove into an independent study of fairy tales in graduate school and sometimes learned more about human behavior and history right there in the children’s section. I’d started going there as self care from my first practicum and then the wheels started turning. We started ‘whitening’ and homogenizing people long ago and stripped stories of good lessons and values in the process. I will have to research the Orwellian concept of prolefeed, but agree there is a strong link between social facades, media images of ‘normal (often violent)perfection’ and mental illness. I 100% believe that dysfunctional family patterns are the micro of the macro and Pinocchio is proof! Lying sets us up for failure while honesty sets us free. But it’s much harder to profit from self-actualized masses since they believe they have all they need while our current media love$ convincing us we’re one perfect outfit or lawn decoration away from an ideal image. πŸ˜‰ Of course, the system requires us to feed it and we do. Our desire to be loved and fit in is a powerful driver. In scripture (the book of John I think)there’s a scene where these perfect people called Pharisees suddenly realize the truth of Jesus but they agree to keep lying to the public so as not to upset the idol-makers in the market, idol makers were basically like corporate sponsors today: they make lots of jobs and money. American film and even writers can attempt to tell stories to write about lies but we don’t break out of our patterns because of an unspoken Social Contract (Rousseau) and fear of a kind of tribal death. How could any of us condemn the same world-family who feeds, houses and clothes us? This is the trick of social change from the inside out. I haven’t seen The Rage in Placid Lake but will check it out. So you see similar themes at work in Australia? Thank you as always for making me think Sophie! All this good stuff spurred by one bad memory πŸ˜‰ ps I will fix the other comment. Have a free-thinking free-willed free-spirit day!


  2. The Australian movie was a cult type movie which hardly made a blip on the cinemas, so you may not find it in a video library in the States. With luck maybe in the “World Movies” type sections. My husband reckons there’s a good chance it’s online on a movie streaming service. Anyway, we saw it again recently, after I’d come across Cherilyn’s “Narcissism 101” and it was really fun with that added perspective. I went, “Oh look, a hippy narcissist and the spouse is probably an enabler.” Very amusing, since hippies normally have a reputation for being more in touch with real life than the general population in the rat race, and for prioritising relationships. This film kind of points out, in a farcical way and not as its main point, that these sorts of problems crop up all over the place, even where you might not have expected them. I guess a human is a human, no matter what costume they wear…

    Thanks for mentioning Rousseau, I’m going to read up on him again, it’s good to have an excuse to open up those dusty philosophy texts again. We heard a lot about him even back in senior high school, what with Australia and the South Pacific colonised by the English and his social commentaries on that. I think it’s fascinating to look at ideas like the Social Contract and see where they might apply, micro and macro. For some reason I was always a bit less susceptible to herd mentality than average, and looking back that’s actually been very liberating. I guess as Cherilyn would say, the scapegoat is the most likely to get away and live well – it’s easy to be wary of the herd if they are head-butting you in your formative years, but it also works the other way – you’re more likely to be head-butted if you question herd mentality.

    If you ever want more supporting data for your own micro and macro ideas about how family dysfunction affects social dysfunction, the current Australian government makes a fascinating study ;).

    But yeah, Australia has problems with this insularity that I also see in the US, where there is this susceptibility to say “Our country is the greatest / best / etc etc in the world” and the volume and passion with which that is said seems to me to be inversely proportional to the amount of other countries and cultures the person speaking has actually been immersed in. It’s that facade thing again – actually there is really ugly stuff going on at home, but there is this pretence, this fantasy, this conspiracy of alleged wonderfulness.

    Every time we have wildfires in Australia, someone in the media will trot out that thing about “Australian mateship” as if in other countries people are automatically less neighbourly, less kind to people in need when there is a wildfire than Australians. And it’s such bollocks, and that facade of superior compassion (part of “superior everything”) seriously annoys me, it’s really insulting to people from other countries. Actually, Australia has a lot to learn about community and caring from some of the other countries it likes to imagine it is better than…

    Best wishes as always!

    Liked by 1 person

    • You make me laugh! πŸ™‚ I will definitely check out the movie. Last night we watched The Woman in Gold; based on the true story of a woman who survived the holocaust and with the help of a lawyer friend, retrieved 5 paintings from the Austrian government. My husband and I got into a discussion about slavery and exploitation of all kinds of people throughout history. I probably should have written but I’ve been fighting the most relentless cold. Anyhow. I think Cherilyn is right; the scapegoat likely has the best chance for a quiet escape, and to be head-butted haha. Pride and shame are brutal barriers. The film does a good job portraying this. It’s a tiny bit contrived since you can’t condense the retribution of genocide into a two hour story but regardless, it was good. I’m a fan of Helen Mirren.
      Your description of superior compassion cracks me up! Every country, team, religion and whoever else does this. ‘I’m so great by association with this right thing!’ I can’t stand team sports, so silly. And yes, bollocks! To all of us. We all want to be loved and valued, that part is real and ok but attempting to out-nice or win our way into love…well, it doesn’t work. Vulnerability isn’t popular. Humility-how will get I noticed? Sigh. I hope you’re well ‘Sophie’. You’re welcome to email me. πŸ™‚


  3. Hmm, I can’t seem to find a contact email for you. On the other hand, I think you probably have access to the registration emails for your site – if not, let me know! Cheers from “Sophie”. πŸ˜‰

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dear ‘Sophie’ it’s a miracle readers even found me haha. I think my email is now linked to the site. πŸ™‚ I don’t think I’m able to see registration emails but it’s possible. My 5 year old niece is media savvy!


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