– Non-Fiction by Ellen Black –
Caleb was a sweet boy, with black hair and freckles, whose left leg was in a brace, causing the other kids to taunt him without mercy. Caleb’s best friend, Josh, was a slightly built boy who was always sick with asthma. Because of his appearance, most of the kids at school decided Josh was gay. Therefore, Caleb had to be gay, too. To me, these boys were just lonely outcasts who, unlike me, had someone to help keep the scary at a distance.
I was pretty sure that neither of these boys’ fathers beat them or crawled into bed with them at night, although—like my father—both men had been naïve enough to have joined a violent, right-wing religious cult, in a small East Texas town—population 313. Despite this one mistake, and unlike my Father, who was trying to blot out my existence, these fathers never seemed intent on destroying their sons. I envied Caleb and Josh. Often, I saw them laughing with their fathers on those Saturdays everyone in the cult was trapped on the compound’s grounds, in day-long church services that melded our brains into some kind of goo-like substance. Why did they luck out in the father department? Maybe my being a rambunctious, inquisitive girl had something to do with why my father seemed determined to destroy me. The cult leader did teach, after all, that women and girls were not as loved by God as his men and boys. Hey, maybe God was the one who was gay?
Caleb and his sister, Annie, had recently moved to our small town. A place where liquor stores and Protestant churches interrupted the tall, still beauty of the pine trees and their special Christmassy scent. The biggest attraction of the town, though, was the religious cult that had been built on 130 acres of land just east of the city limits. The leader, a portly, white-haired, spectacled man—looked far more like an advertisement for marshmallows than a lecherous man obsessed with power, money, and sex. He’d built his compound replete with a church, gymnasium, lake, non-accredited college, and a school for cult kids, ages 6-18. When Caleb and Annie joined this school, I had already been its prisoner for eight years.
The leader had started this “school” for his followers’ children saying he had done so to keep us gullible-for-Satan kids safe from those heathen children out in the world—you know, the ones who went to football games and ate pizza and watched The Brady Bunch.
So what if the cult’s parents had sacrificed the last of their income to pay for this private school—it’s not like Mr. Culty Pants was going to give away an education consisting mostly of Bible study, Phys Ed, and spankings for free. His flock had to earn this reward for their children by paying tuition. It was not enough that the cult parents were already giving away thirty percent of their income in tithes, as Leader Man had instructed, letting them know God had decreed the standard ten percent tithe was not enough to keep the church running, even as he was living in great wealth, with multiple homes and private airplanes.
We kids were stuck in an environment that taught little, but fostered a subculture of violence. We lived under the cult leader’s proclamation “the Devil was in all children and had to be beaten out of them.” Not only was I lucky enough to have a father who believed in following Mr. Culty Pants’ rules implicitly, but I was also a girl who, despite my fear of everything—from God to my father to damnation—somehow couldn’t keep my tongue sufficiently still. Questions and comments burst forth, like a flood ripping apart a dam. My chatter created thunderstorms inside the such-a-special-school-you’re-lucky-to-be-allowed-here school. Teachers spluttered rain and shot lightning scars from their eyes, all because I wasn’t full-time capable of being quiet. Goodness knows, I was definitely cavorting with the Devil when I accidentally knocked the pencil holder off my desk in third grade or left my sweater in the girls’ bathroom after PE, in the fourth grade. These were sins that warranted my being paddled by my teachers for the pleasure of God.
Over time, I became more like a broken Jack in the Box, unable to wind up or make loud sounds. A strange-looking thing that no one really knew what to do with. As a teenager, I spent most of my time trying to be invisible, but even when it’s silent, a Jack in the Box is just too peculiar not to be seen. Odd girl out, I wished for friends almost as much as invisibility.
Annie longed for friends, too. She tried her darnedest to befriend all the girls in our class. But, because she was new and different, the self-appointment “darlings” of the eighth grade deemed her a weirdo. These stuck-up harpies, with their not-cult-approved tight skirts and sheer lip gloss, had fathers in Leader Man’s inner circle. So they could get away with fitted clothes and tainted lips. They made fun of Annie even when she could hear them, not caring about her crestfallen face or embarrassed blush. They could do whatever they wanted because they were special girls and God loved them almost as much as he loved the boys in the cult.
One day, the
anointed ones caught me talking to Annie in her hippie clothes, which I’m sure
were handed down from her slim mother. Annie’s mom now wore faded housedresses
and did the best she could with the meager salary her husband brought home. The
cultie’s mean girls decided that since I got along with Annie, the best plan
would be to convince me to hurt Annie. After all, who could hurt her more than
a friend? From this day forward, these nasty girls would surround me whenever I
was alone. They menacingly hissed at me, letting me know if I didn’t say
something mean to Annie, they were going to beat me up. As I cringed, all I
could think was,
“Surely, between my father and the teachers in this school, I’d exceeded my quota of beatings? Right?”
I didn’t want to get beaten up by the popular girls; I wanted desperately for them to like me. However, despite my still-strong desire to fit in and please, I was also sure I wanted to be friends with Annie, who could have been painted by Titian, what with her beautiful red hair and translucent skin.
For weeks, I managed to double-speak my way through the popular girls’ minefield conversations, letting them think I was working on a plan that would destroy Annie, all the while talking to her like she was my best friend. Hell, she was my only friend and I cherished the time I spent with her at school. Oddly, I sort of impressed the popular girls, too, because they thought I was just softening up Annie before my big bring-down. These shrews were so positive I was going to do their bidding, they never even bothered to ask me for details about how I was going to destroy Annie.
Annie’s family always seemed happy, and they were incredibly kind. Annie’s Mom went out of her way to invite me over to their peeling-paint home, filled with mismatched furniture and the smell of something always baking, be it cookies or bread. She hadn’t been in town long enough to know that, even amongst the crazy cult folks, my father was considered a violent lunatic, not quite right in his freckled, auburn-headed mind. She didn’t know my father rarely let me out of our house, because he was convinced that, were I to go anywhere else, except for the cult’s compound, then I would immediately have sex.
How could this frail-looking, yet still beautiful woman know I received almost daily reminders from my father, his foul breath clouding my sight, that I would never be allowed to hang out like those other kids in the cult? He was appalled at how lax their parents were. Weren’t they listening to Leader Man’s sermons, in which he extolled the demonic nature of all children—be they babies in irritating diapers or teenagers longing for a peek and a giggle.
One day, though—no one will ever know how—Annie’s Mom managed to wheedle Dad down to a stature most closely akin to a simpering wimp and he agreed to let me go home with Annie one afternoon after cult school. I couldn’t have been more thrilled had the circus come to town and kidnapped me, letting me hang out with all the animals, and maybe, if I were lucky, wear a shiny costume. As long as they didn’t make me do any trapeze work—that was almost as dangerous as growing up in the cult.
However, I’d barely gotten settled in at Annie’s place, hanging out with her in a bedroom that was as sparsely furnished as mine, but unlike mine, alive with stuffed animals and 45 records and dime-store trinkets, when my father showed up to get me. Had I even been at Annie’s for a full hour? As my eyes slid to a cheap white clock, I realized I’d only been at Annie’s for about twenty minutes. I guess Dad was back in his Ellen-is-getting-ready-to-have-sex mode and had to hurry up and come get me. I never understood why Dad thought I was such a sex fiend. First, I was shy beyond definition and who did Dad think I was going to have sex with, especially at Annie’s. Her father was at work. Was Caleb my purported fuck buddy? Didn’t Dad know that Caleb would be busy (allegedly) with Josh? I guess Dad figured that only he was allowed to touch me.
Annie and her Mom were as shocked as I was when Dad’s knock banged the rickety screen door to and fro. We all ran startled to the front door, where Dad bellowed it was time for me to go. Right then! Not one minute later! I was so upset at the ending of my new beginning, I couldn’t move—was rooted to the floor, as if I’d stepped into super-strength molasses. Annie looked confused, while her Mom did her most-charming best to talk Dad into letting me stay for supper. But, he was adamant. I had to get my school books and leave immediately.
Then, I saw Annie’s Mom do something I’d never seen anyone do with Dad. She kind of flirted with him. Oh, it was all very, very innocent, and I had no delusions that Annie’s Mom wanted my disgusting father. However, seems Annie’s Mom had recognized that my father’s ego, which was about the size of Philadelphia, might be persuaded should she engage in conversation that would make him feel like the Samson he thought himself to be (always forgetting that Samson had been done in by a woman).
I watched in amazement, as Annie’s Mom worked Dad, even making him blush at one point, his freckles becoming more prominent on his pale skin, with a dusting of rose overlaying them. Annie’s Mom flitted right up to the line of unseemly, but did not cross it. She cocked her head to the left and let her eyes plead innocently, while continually reaching up to mess with her hair, knowing its fullness, despite being unkempt, might distract Dad from his mission. Annie’s Mom wasn’t able to talk my controlling father into letting me stay for supper that night, but she worked an even more flabbergasting miracle, asking Dad for a favor. Good thing I was stuck in that invisible molasses, because if not, I’m sure I would have fallen when Dad agreed, saying he’d let me attend a sleepover that Annie’s Mom said she’d been planning for all the girls in our class.
What? Really? Was this true? Had Annie and her Mom really been planning this get-together or did Annie’s Mom think of it on the fly? I wasn’t sure, nor did I care, because I was going to be set free from my father for one long, delicious, life-altering evening. I didn’t even care that the popular girls from hell were going to be invited. Surely, they wouldn’t come. After all, Annie lived in the really poor part of town, where all of the houses showed their age, just as openly as my father showed his anger.
Boy, did these bitches surprise me when they all showed up for Annie’s party. I was as stunned as field mice I’d seen being lifted away by hawks as a mid-morning snack. These girls were willing to come to the “weirdo” redhead’s party and eat her Mom’s food and have fun; but, they weren’t willing to be her friend? There went my night of nirvana.
From the moment these murder-my-dream girls appeared, I became so nervous and fidgety, I could have been mistaken for someone who actually did have ants in her pants. I wanted nothing more than to hang out with Annie and talk and eat bologna-and-cheese sandwiches and stuff myself on chips—food we never had at our home, because—despite my father being a model of narcissism and knowing he was a man above all other men—he couldn’t bring home a paycheck, and food was always scarce. However, because fear had constricted my throat, I could barely choke down a bite.
Every now and again, I would forget about the boa constrictor wrapped around my neck, I would ignore the snake stares coming from across the room, and I’d talk with Annie. But then, I’d catch the eye of one or more of the reptile girls, and I’d remember what they were expecting me to do.
When Annie and her Mom started dancing, being the Girl Without a Plan, I found a corner in the living room and did my best to hide while listening to the ‘60s soul music Annie’s Mom had spinning on her old record player. Despite her constant urging, Annie’s Mom couldn’t drag me out to dance. I was too terrified. Worried that if I danced, the popular girls would tattle to my Dad on me, especially if they figured out I had no plan to harm Annie.
Dad was a teacher at the cult school; hence, the reason he seldom brought home a paycheck. The cult had convinced him that working for free, whenever possible, was what God and Leader Man wanted. If Dad were to find out I’d been wiggling to “jigaboo” music, I knew I’d be in for one of his finer, more welt-inducing whippings on me. I was pretty sure the popular girls knew this, too. Dad’s beatings left too many marks and his cruelty had become something of a legend in the cult.
The only thing my father hated more than the thought of my having sex with some man (or boy), were black people. He would constantly rant about how inferior they were. He said they had a special smell that would rub off on your clothes if you got too near their darkness. It didn’t help that Culty Pants Leader taught that black peoples’ brains were so small, they couldn’t even imagine the glory of God. Therefore, they would not be allowed into his Kingdom of Heaven until well after Jesus had returned, and he and Leader Man twinkled the righteous—those in the cult—upwards, like falling stars in reverse. At this point, God would grant black people one thousand years to figure it out, and after that, if their tiny brains were too small to understand his glory, they would be thrown into the Lake of Fire, where the unrepentant sinners—you know, rock ‘n rollers, and pagans, and the like—would be waiting for them, roasting away.
While I propped up a corner and prayed I would soon choke to death, Annie and her Mom danced. This lovely woman smiled and waved at me, while the harpies sidled up, reminding me how I’d “get it” if I didn’t do something outrageous to hurt Annie’s feelings before the party was over. They insisted I make her cry. If not, I’d be the one crying. Little did they know that inside, I was already sobbing.
When not making the popular girls believe I thought the party was stupid and letting them think my plan was in place, I would spend some brief-snatched moments with Annie. As time grew older and I became more worried, I was more than a little surprised when all of the popular girls gave it up and danced. At one point, I was sure my mouth fell open when one of these girls actually danced with Annie. Maybe this shrew had a plan of her own to hurt my friend?
It was during this horrifying moment Annie’s Mom came up to me and said, “Ellen, I really want to thank you for being friends with my daughter. Your friendship means the world to her.”
I didn’t know whether to faint, cry, or just stab myself. I didn’t deserve such kindness. I was just a big ol’ stinkin’ coward who couldn’t admit I liked Annie. The boa constrictor around my neck tightened. Tears were close by. I proffered a weak smile and “thank you,” wishing I could disappear into the kitchen, find a large knife, and empty my intestines on the scarred tile floor.
After this exchange, I can’t remember anything about the rest of the night. Somehow, I lived through it. The next time I saw the popular girls at school, they made sure to tell me I would NEVER be their friend, because I had failed to hurt Annie. I was too exhausted to point out that they seemed to have had fun at Annie’s, so why hurt her. I decided I didn’t care that I’d never be a part of this popular girls’ clique. I just listened to them rant at me, my eyes focusing on a crack in the sidewalk, where small tufts of grass had broken through the concrete.
Despite knowing that the popular girls were done with me, I avoided Annie. I felt too guilty about having not stood up for her with the popular girls. When I ran into her at school, I would stop and banter with her a bit. I was always nice. But, I tried very hard to be anywhere she wasn’t. After a while, I got so good at avoiding Annie, I don’t even remember her finishing junior high with me. It’s like she just disappeared, one day, without warning, like all who fall victim to serial killers, disappeared from laundromats, bars, or malls. Not Caleb, though. I’d see him all the time, more often than not, whoopin’ around with Josh.
One day, near the end of the school year, I saw Caleb and Josh coming out of the woods that blanketed the west side of this alleged educational refuge. They didn’t see me as they walked up a somewhat steep hill. Between Josh’s asthma and Caleb’s bad leg, they weren’t making the climb at any great speed. However, they were laughing. They had leaves and sticks in their hands, and despite the rips and gashes in their worn t-shirts, they seemed happy. It didn’t matter that one of them was considered a gimp or that the other one was never sure when breath would leave his fragile body forever. It didn’t matter whether anyone thought them more than just good friends. Nothing mattered but that moment and the fact that they were sharing it together.
My heart beat with such fierce affection, I would have given them a perfect world—could I have figured out how to create one. I then thought about Annie and my love-filled heart broke a little, because I realized how much I missed her and wondered whether we could have created a perfect world of our own, had I been as uninhibited as Caleb and Josh.
About the Author – Ellen Black
Ellen Black’s poetry has been published in the Timberline Review, Triadæ Magazine, Crack the Spine, Crannóg magazine, South Ash Press, Illya’s Honey, The Smoking Poet, ¡Tex!, and Eclectic Flash. In 2005, Ellen won first prize in a poetry contest sponsored by a Dallas-area library, and in 2009, Ellen was one of the Pat Conroy “South of Broad” essay contest winners.
That same year, www.killingthebuddha.com published a first-person narrative, “Heathen Color,” which provides a glimpse into a day of five-year-old Ellen’s life, as she survives the religious cult into which she was born, and how her longing for a forbidden item—lipstick—resulted in a tiny moment of crime.
In 2017, 101Words published a flash fiction piece written by Ellen. In 2015, Ellen won the Willamette Writers Paulann Petersen Prize for Poetry, and this year, she won both First and Second Prize in the 2016 Women Inspirational Poetry contest. Ellen was then asked to blog for the WIPC, which she did for a year. Now you can read Ellen’s blogs at her own website: www.EllenBlackWriter.com. Ellen is also querying a memoir she wrote about surviving the cult, entitled Shake That Cream. She collaborated with Daniel Burgess, (formerly an editor at Scribner) to strengthen and tighten her manuscript, which has legally vetted by Tom Barron of Thomas C. Baron Law Offices, in Dallas, Texas.
A two-time VONA/Voices Fiction Fellow (2015 and 2017), participant of Christina Garcia’s Las Dos Brujas (2017), Fellowship at the Cullman Teaching Institute with Salvatore Scibona (2017), and Tin House Craft Intensive participant (2017 and 2018) Member of M. Colleen Cruz’s writing group for teachers who write, based in Brooklyn since 2004.
Did you like this non-fiction piece by Ellen Black? Then you might also like:
The Red Jeep
No Pain, No Gain
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Recipe for Saying Goodbye
To check out all the non-fiction available on Dreamers, visit our non-fiction section!
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