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A Day at the Fare

One Woman’s Welfare Passage



Copyright 2019 Pamela M. Covington

Published by Pamela M. Covington at Smashwords







Smashwords Edition License Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your enjoyment only, then please return to Smashwords.com or your favorite retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.


Apex Dawn Press

P.O. Box 3601

Hampton, Virginia 23663-0061

www.apexdawnpress.com


Copyright © 2016 by Pamela M. Covington


The events of this story are described according to documentation and

the author’s present-day recollection and understanding of actual events.

Physical addresses have been altered and the names of certain entities

changed in order to respect their privacy and peace in this unmanageable

information age. You’d likely appreciate having the same done for you.

This book has been written to enlighten readers and neither the publisher

or author intended any harm to the actual persons portrayed.


All rights reserved. This book, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced

in any form or by any means mechanical or electronic, including recording,

photocopying or by any other information storage and retrieval systems,

currently known or hereafter invented,

without written permission of the author.


Cover design: J. Cameron McClain

Cover concept: Pamela M. Covington


ISBN-13: 978-0-9980979-1-6


Library of Congress Control Number: 2016916060

This book is dedicated to

my father, George “Skip” Covington,

who instilled in me the value of self-reliance,

and my mother, Mildred Covington,

who would not allow me to be only average.

Also to my two children,

my positive contributions to society,

and my firstborn, who remains a beloved mystery.


Peace, Love and Honor to the late Watson T. Ingram, Jr.

Many thanks to

Roslyn Collins, Regina Gilbert,

Eugene McAvoy, W.W., Lisa Simmons,

Stacey J. Cameron,

Billy, Lynn, Gary and Loretta Cunningham,

Patricia Williams, James R. Thomas,

the late Jack D. Hunter,

Florida Community College at Jacksonville

(Florida State College at Jacksonville)

University of North Florida

Troy University

Hampton University


And especially to

those persons who shaped my story.

Table of Contents

Prologue

1 Before the Show

2 The Arrival

3 The Plan

4 The Search

5 Close… But No Cigar

6 Under the Big Top

7 Prize Ribbon Blues

8 Let There Be Lights!

9 Out of a Hat

10 Tickets, Please.

11 Holiday Surprises

12 The Line

13 In the Balance

14 Sensations

15 Daily Features

16 Lose Some, Win Some

17 The Juggler

18 The Disappearing Acts

19 Presto! Change-O!

20 Next Stop!

21 Everywhere a Sign

22 Exchanging Presence

23 Abracadabra!

24 The Dunk Tank

25 Around and Around We Go

26 Now Showing

27 Last Stop!

Postscript

About the Author

A Day at the Fare

Prologue

and where she stops, nobody knows.



Huh? You’ve got to be kiddin’ me!

In November 2010, a white envelope bearing the return address of the State of Florida Department of Child and Families (FDCF) found its way through the mail slot of my Virginia home. I had long ago buried the memories of the three years I subsisted on welfare and the program’s agencies were a big part of those memories. As far as I knew, we were through with each other.

I pitched the rest of the mail to the desk, snatched off my smudgy eyeglasses and ripped open the surprise envelope. The account number at the top of the enclosed letter stood out like a thirty-foot neon sign; it was the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) case number assigned to me and my children back in 1983. The address below it referred to me as Pamela Willoughby, my first husband’s last name, which I hadn’t used—or seen—in decades. My eyes fluttered to a line item showing a balance of $412. I put my hand to my chest. The timing of the letter was uncanny; I had just been laid off from my steady job of thirteen years as a training instructor.

The statement read:

“You have not paid the amount you owe to the Department of Children and Families. This debt is for an overissuance of food stamp benefits. If you do not pay your debt or take other action described below before 60 days from the date of this letter, the Department of Children and Families will submit your debt to the U. S. Department of Treasury (Treasury) for collection.”

I went back and forth between reading the line item and its accompanying warning. The letter continued with a slew of additional possible consequences for not complying, and it provided instructions for making payments. Lastly, it said that if I needed to know more about the bill, or my rights, or if I believed an error was made, I was to contact them.

The past due debt resurfacing the way it did probably meant that the agency’s technology had finally caught up with me by way of my Social Security number. The best I could do was to call them, mention the recent loss of my job, make a monthly payment arrangement, and pay it using money I would be receiving from my unemployment insurance.

After the initial shock of the notice subsided, I thought back, and dredged up a faint memory of some type of debt to them possibly remaining. As a welfare recipient and community college student, it had been my responsibility to inform my caseworker of any change in income so that she could reduce my family’s food stamp benefits. I suspected that some of the money the letter said I owed was because of my failure to report the grants and student loans I received for Fall semester 1985. I had chosen not to. It didn’t make sense to me at the time—volunteering to receive less help was counterproductive to getting back on my feet. How could we have too much food? And what about the fact that the school loans, which they also counted as income, required me to repay them? It was as if the agency was punishing me for working towards achieving independence.

The letter started me thinking back to that time in my life, painful as it was to do. In 1984 the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services defined poverty for a family of three as having an annual household income less than $8,460. Even with the food stamp benefits, welfare check and child support, my and the boys’ resources had added up to less than half of that. I was struggling day to day just to survive, while trying to somehow create a better, more secure future for myself and two children as quickly as I could.

Before trying to figure out how to squeeze yet one more bill payment from my newly diminished budget, I sat down with that confounded letter in one hand and my mouth covered with the other, shaking my head. I kept reading it over and over and planned to make the call to FDCF as soon as the astonishment of it had tapered off. Seeing my old name decades later, still associated with that same 10-digit case number, plucked me out of the comfort of my home office and thrust me back into the harrowing conditions that once defined my existence as an unfortunate welfare recipient.

1

Before the Show

Never say “Never.”

Whether referring to a good or a bad circumstance,

don’t make the mistake of believing ‘it’ can’t happen to you.


My independence was something I prized. After leaving home at age seventeen, I had always worked and provided for myself. Welfare was a handout that other people took. I never expected to find myself in need of it, let alone in 1983, because life in Savannah with Watson Ingram Jr. and our boys was financially very secure.

We lived on Whitaker Street in a large Victorian-style house adjacent to Forsyth Park, a lush, thirty-acre area spanning a number of city blocks. The park was both a center of activity and a source of peace. Runners ran along its paths, while tennis players dashed about on its courts. I often went there to roller skate. Aged trees draped with wispy Spanish moss overhung the old-timey streetlights lining the park’s borders. At night, slivers of light would peek through the branches and the moss would cast eerie shadows on the sidewalks as it waved in the gentle wind.

Even when I was at home, I was in the park. The second-story porch overlooking it was like a box seat at the theater—but much bigger. It was my living room, and I spent many hours out there. Day and night, whenever I could: me, my plants, music, and at night, candles. I still remember the sweet and blissful fragrance of wisteria that flourished in the park's private garden, and how, from up on the porch, everyone's voice diminished as it traveled on balmy Georgian breezes.

Sometimes, passersby would slow down on the one-way street to stare at Watson and me as we walked up to the front entrance of our home. We guessed they wondered if it was possible that black people lived there, or if we were just the hired help. At first, we laughed about it, but eventually tired of the scrutiny. As a response, we fell into the habit of lifting our heads high, putting on ginormous, cheesy grins, and waving to those people who had problems believing their own eyes. Their astonishment made us even more proud to live in the highly regarded neighborhood, which was a substantial upwards move compared to where we had stayed before we’d decided to live together.

Working hard had rewarded us. My studio—I was a radio announcer at WSGA, a Top 40 radio station—was located mere blocks away, in downtown Savannah. Watson was an aircraft mechanic, working on privately-owned jets at Gulfstream Aerospace, in the nearby city of Pooler.

Even Watson’s job had come about as a result of hard work, though in this case, most of it was on my part. Before his employment at Gulfstream, he had spent his evenings at home grumbling about the low pay, the working conditions, and how badly his days went at the City of Savannah’s Public Works automotive warehouse. Tired of seeing him miserable, I mentioned his aviation skills to several people at my church. One of them, Vincent, who worked at Gulfstream, said he might be able to assist Watson somehow—but he wanted to meet him first.

The touchy part was to reach out to Watson without upsetting him. That required delicate treatment. I first had to encourage him to socialize. Other than for work or an occasional trip to a store, he seldom went out in public. He dressed up on even rarer occasions, and for the meeting with Vincent, I thought it best he wear something besides his routine camouflage clothing or military fatigues. I admired the way his more stylish outfits draped from his lean, but muscular build and how the other colors set off his bronze skin— the few times I’d witnessed it. But I wouldn’t push it; Watson never cut his hair. It was always in a freestyle form like Don King’s. If I had a chance to, though, I was going to subtly suggest he leave behind the toothpick he usually dangled from his mouth and twirled between his teeth.

The afternoon I went to tell him about Vincent, he was in one of his withdrawal periods, slumped against the headboard of our king-sized bed, surrendering to the television what little sign of life was in him that day. He hadn’t spoken a word all morning. When he shut down like that, it made for tense times. It was both sad and scary that I could never tell where his mind was on those days. I hesitated about interrupting his solitude. Perhaps a new job doing something he liked was just what he needed, but maybe telling him about my conversation with Vincent would piss him off.

I hopped in bed alongside him, rested my arms on his shoulders, and kissed his handsome cheek. He was still locked inside. I opened with “Hey, honey,” hopeful that he wouldn’t lash out at me for being an unwanted distraction. It took a moment, but without so much as looking at me, he returned a subdued “Hey” that sounded safe enough. In keeping with his mood, in my softest voice, I shared the news about Vincent and his offer. I waited, biting my bottom lip. How is he going to react? Is he about to go off? He withdrew his concentration from the TV and leaned my way. My chest tightened.

“Yeah?” he said. “Did he say anything about how much experience they wanted?”

It was such a relief to get that as a response. “No, but I could tell while we were talking, that he was interested in you,” I said. Dare I keep going? Well, he’s reacting well so far. Why not?

“And he wants to meet you.”

“Uh-huh.”

I knew that was a lot to ask of him. Not wanting to press the matter, I kept my appeal short, making sure Watson had the time to consider everything the suggestion meant. If I overwhelmed him, he might go back inside himself—or the TV. When we had been quiet for too long, I turned around and in a flirty way, straddled his lap. He sat up straight. Then clutching my hands together, I asked, “Sooo, are you gonna maybe think about goin’ to church with me next Sunday?” I had wanted that for a long time, anyway. It was another thing we could do together and it might ease his state of mind a bit.

“We’ll see. Umma think about it.” As noncommittal as his response was, I was still glad for it. At least he wasn’t snapping about it or saying no. And by week’s end he was in the closet picking out some business clothes.

Vincent had someone review, right away, a job application that Watson had filed with the company months before I introduced the two of them. Just three days after his conversation with Vincent, Gulfstream called Watson for an interview, and the following week he started working there, finally using the skills he had acquired in the Navy. At home, he appeared happier: talking more, seeming more at ease and not mumbling or lugging himself around like unwanted dead weight. At least for a while.

* * *

Our two incomes enabled us to decorate the house to my taste. I loved comfort and elegance! The oversized living room and larger master bedroom adjoined to form the main living area, and between the rooms, two ceiling-to-floor bi-fold sections of heavy, white wooden doors could be closed to section off the rooms from one another. White ornamental molding framed extra-high ceilings and black marble fireplaces adorned both rooms. We painted the walls yellow-gold to highlight the sun’s radiance beaming through the ceiling-to-floor windows and reflect on the high-gloss, hardwood floors.

Watson built open shelving along the kitchen’s longest wall, and I added the decorative touches of handcrafted pottery along the top shelf. A tall, rustic, hand-carved candelabrum from Mexico stood as the centerpiece for the circular cherry wood table. Sewing was another of Watson’s many talents. He could sew as well as the most skillful seamstress, and he topped off our kitchen project with beautiful hand-made curtains. Their earth-tone floral fabric accented the room’s salmon hue as they framed the view of the manicured courtyard below.

The yard’s curvy sidewalks and blooming mimosa trees were the view from my study. It was an ideal scene to gaze down upon from a room I used for inspiration. I spent countless hours in there reading, drawing and typing. Many times I would leave a window open so I could inhale the perfume of the trees’ dainty pink flowers. The sweet, calming scent wafting through the second-story window, and into the room, was almost mystical.

We had three cars parked on the other side of the courtyard’s boxwood-lined borders. I had my light metallic-green 1972 Buick LeSabre, and Watson had a deep green 1956 Ford F-100 pickup truck and a 1973 copper tan AMC Javelin. The truck was his daily transportation to and from work, while the Javelin was more of a hobby for him. He maintained and repaired them all and I spent a lot of time out in the courtyard laughing and talking with him as he tinkered, and the boys ran around.

Several pieces of classic Victorian furniture had been left in the house by the previous residents, and we gladly used them. There was a dark oval-shaped table with a white marble top and chunky legs curling upwards from its base that took center stage in the cavernous foyer, and in my study was another wood table, thick and wide with an embellished scroll pattern, that I used as a desk. A cushy pink living room set with ball and claw feet, wide arms and curvaceous high backs had been given to us. It was sturdy, but needed resuscitation in the form of an upholstery job, and within a month or two, we’d had it redone in navy blue velvet embedded with symmetrical flecks of gold—an ideal accompaniment to the sunlit color of the room.

Everything about our house in Savannah exuded beauty and comfort. Watson, the children and I didn’t want for anything. There was always plenty of delectable food and great music. I enjoyed entertaining our family and friends.

I was able to keep myself up quite well. I had a dressing room, two large closets of voguish clothes, lots of accessories and could afford to have my hair done whenever I wanted. I had begun a series of dental visits to restore the health and appearance of my teeth. As a child my dental hygiene had consisted of nothing more than a toothbrush and toothpaste, and as a young adult the result of such minimal care was pain and embarrassment.

We enjoyed our family life. My son Cedric was from a previous marriage, but no one could tell because of the fatherly way Watson treated him; he was happy to assume the role. Six-year-old Cedric was the person who had introduced me to Watson; we were living in the same apartment building on Park Avenue when one summer afternoon he rushed into our apartment and pulled me by the hand to “come and meet the nice man from next door.” Watson invited us over for dinner and we enjoyed each other’s company so much that he and I began seeing more of each other. He and Cedric had hit it off well since. They spent time fishing and crabbing together, and hanging out under the hoods of the cars.

Sharing the good life with Watson, I decided it was the right time to have our second child. Our baby was a joint decision, created in love, and I expected that it would add a bit of zest to Watson’s life. In fact, I’d never seen his face gleam as bright about anything as it did when I told him I was pregnant.

In preparation for the baby, we painted the boys’ room a pastel mint green. We shopped for the nicest baby things, from crib to high chair, clothing, diaper bag and carrier. Watson doted over me during my pregnancy, frequently inviting me to sit at the kitchen table while he cooked for me. He would often bake plump, fluffy biscuits, and like a dog anticipating dinner scraps, I’d sit there with my mouth watering, waiting for them to come out of the oven. Sometimes on a seafood day he would buy a bushel of live blue crabs and dump them into the bathtub, fetching them out one-potful-to-be-steamed at a time. Whatever we didn’t devour during the meal, he would hand-pick and freeze for later.

I was happy to continue working up until the last day of my pregnancy in order to help with the cost of all the preparations. It was the one advantage of having a pre-planned Caesarean delivery. After Devin and I returned home from the hospital, Watson always made sure we had whatever we needed each day before he left for work. After six weeks I returned to my job, but was laid off just two months later.

Like most new parents, we felt that nothing was too good for our baby. I breast-fed Devin and even freeze-stored breast milk to send with him whenever he stayed with a sitter. I made sure his baby food was never store-bought, and instead, using a blender, I prepared it fresh every day from the same foods the rest of the family dined on at mealtime. As Devin grew older, he began to associate the sound of the blender with feeding time, and once he was big enough to sit in his highchair, he would pound on the chair tray as soon as he heard its motor whirring. It was especially funny that when I used the blender to concoct fancy cocktails for guests and he heard the sound of it, our baby would stop whatever he was doing and raise a fuss. Then everyone would joke, “What have y’all been giving that baby to drink?”

* * *

Thanks to Watson’s job and our good finances, holiday meals in Savannah were like a smorgasbord. The Thanksgiving of 1983 was no exception. Watson enjoyed cooking and was very talented at it. And I had no problem letting him take the lead—I was satisfied just helping him out. He went all-out for our annual feast, preparing baked salmon with oyster stuffing, freshly-made crab patties, macaroni and cheese, collard greens, baked-from-scratch biscuits (my favorite), and a flaky apple cobbler topped with vanilla ice cream. The four of us sat around the table engorging ourselves, and giving thanks for a meal which, like the house, was a magnificent and bountiful spread.

Life in Savannah was comfortable as could be, but what started as idyllic slowly changed. Watson and I began to have relationship problems. He had a problem but I loved him so deeply that I hung in there, hoping we could work it out. On his good days he was everything to me: friend, lover and my children’s dad. He was an excellent provider. Our domestic needs were taken care of well beyond the basics—as long as I could live with the frightening and often lonely uncertainty of his worsening behavior, and by the time he’d asked me to marry him, I was already too afraid of him to say yes.

2

The Arrival

Don’t fear the unknown.

If you’ve exhausted the possibilities of the known, have analyzed

them over and over—and they’re not good—don’t be afraid to try

the unknown. That’s where the unlimited possibilities are.


The whole of my identity sat eight floors down, on the other side of the building, under a gray sky in a parking lot that echoed. It was December of 1983 and everything I had left was now crammed inside a rental truck and my tired Buick.

I would have had some consolation if I could at least glimpse out of the hotel room window and see my stuff sitting below, undisturbed. Instead, I was facing a rancid-looking, near-empty swimming pool, and worrying myself sick about whether or not our belongings would still be there come morning.

I didn't know what part of the city we were in. It was just some hotel off I-95—the first one I saw. I needed sanctuary and I needed it right away, and that place seemed as good as any. At least that's what I thought.

Earl, an ex-boyfriend from my days before Watson, had always said he’d be there when I needed him, and he had kept his promise. He and one of his friends, Mickey, had helped me load my car and the small Jartran truck, then he drove us from Savannah to Jacksonville while Mickey followed in his pickup. I’d chosen Jacksonville because, for safekeeping, I thought it best to put some distance between Watson and me. I’d visited the city before and had thoroughly enjoyed it. But even though I knew exactly what I was doing, and believed what I was doing was right, I still spent most of the two-and-a-half-hour ride in the passenger seat questioning myself. How am I going to pull this off by myself? How long will it take for me to get settled in? And then what after that?

I clung to Devin, then one and a half years old, sitting snug in my lap and sharing my seat belt. Cedric, nine, was sitting on the floor, between the cab seats. I was in a daze, as if peering from a great distance behind my own eyes. My stomach was tangled in knots, and my tears fell in silence. Earl kept talking to me, reminding me why I was doing it. Why I had left to begin again. That helped a little, almost. He had always been a gentleman. The main reason why we’d gone our separate ways was because I was growing as a person, trying to improve myself, while he was constantly in trouble with the law. Plus, I had wanted to get married and have another child. He told me he didn’t. Still, we remained friends. I was happy to see he was finally doing better in life and was very grateful for his help, when I needed it most.

As we drove closer to the highway entrance, I felt like Lot’s wife in the movie "Exodus." There was a scene where, during the couple’s escape from the burning, crumbling cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, she was warned to not look back. She did, though—and was turned into a pillar of salt. I didn’t look back. It might have finished me off.

I knew I was good at surviving, but I was about to put my skills to the test. I had two kids and was heading to a large, unfamiliar city with no friends, relatives, job, or credit. What I did have was $900 in cash, our personal possessions, and a lot of trust in myself.

I had no awareness of how much time was passing during the ride, or the miles we were covering. I noticed little except the bumping and squeaking of the truck that accompanied the tinny sound of the dashboard’s AM radio. Earl wasn't saying much, aside from asking me every now and then if I was all right. “Uh-huh,” I would say, having chosen to keep my pain inside. Cedric had dozed off.

Somewhere along the highway, Devin broke the silence with a piercing scream and jerked me out of my hazy thoughts. I shifted into a mother’s frantic mode and began scrambling to find out what was wrong. As I squirmed around, I realized that my every move was making him holler more, so I put one arm around him and locked myself stiff. Keeping my head still and holding my breath, I turned my eyes downward. Devin had somehow managed to get his finger stuck in the truck’s spring-loaded door handle, and since he was strapped to my lap, I couldn’t reach the handle or the seat belt without also moving him. The stressful events of the day had already emptied me out. I lost it.

“Oh, God!” I shouted. “His hand is stuck! Please, Earl! Stop! We’ve got to get his hand out! Stop the truck! Please, pull over! Pull over—now!”

Devin and I were now crying in unison. I couldn’t see the end of his index finger. I was praying he would be okay, and stared down at the door handle, my mind terrifying me with thoughts of what might eventually emerge. The incident struck me as an omen, and once again I started second-guessing what I was doing—by having moved out. Afraid that my baby’s finger might be broken, or worse, crushed, I was ready to blame myself.

In the few seconds that it took for Earl to pull the truck over, I realized that someone would have to open the door handle all the way in order to free Devin’s finger. That would first put more pressure on it and make it hurt even more. I didn't have the nerve to do it. Before I knew it, Earl was outside my window, making a circular motion with his hand, signaling me to roll it down. He then reached over and without warning, pulled open the handle. Devin let out the yell I expected, but his finger was finally loose.

The conflict and fear within me about my decision to leave Watson had exaggerated the scene. The only sign of injury on Devin’s finger was a red pinch mark. At most, his finger was going to be sore for a day or two.

We soon stopped our crying, and I collapsed back into my seat and pressed him tight into my chest. As the truck crossed the lumpy gravel shoulder back onto the highway, Cedric peered up from his seat on the floorboard, and patting Devin on the back, offered him a few brotherly words of comfort.

The solemn trip didn’t appear to faze Cedric much; he leaned against my seat, intermittently yawning and linking together his set of Barrel of Monkeys figures. He had grown to accept moving as a way of life. He was born in Buffalo, where we lived until he was three, then we moved to Savannah. After that, my two radio announcer jobs sent us back and forth for a while between Savannah and a tiny rural town named Ridgeland, in South Carolina. Cedric was a difficult child to deal with from early on, and I had considered whether or not he was likely to make the challenging situation we were heading into even more challenging.

It was tough to be calm, strong, or focused, and I was turning my hand every which way, biting my cuticles raw as the hours and miles went by. I was physically and mentally exhausted. Maybe I would feel better after some rest, I thought. Maybe my mind will be less cloudy. That’s why I insisted we stop at the first hotel off the highway.

After the long drive we all needed a rest stop in the parking lot. A time-out. So we took it. After a few minutes had passed, as if in slow motion, Earl reached over and turned my face towards his.

“Listen, Pam,” he said softly. “I know this is hard, but you did what you needed to do. And I know that it hurts, but you’re gonna be all right. Girl, you’re gonna get through this.” He patted my hand.

“Just keep your head up and stick to your plan,” he said. “You know what you’re doing.” There was certainty in his deep voice. Having lived together for four years, before his marriage to Wendy, he knew me well. He was my hero of the day—with his handsome, lanky, chocolate brown self.

Earl went inside the hotel to register for my room, while I sat there, disoriented, trying to envision how things might go from that point forward. Mickey came over to my window, leaned inside and also spoke words of encouragement, telling me that he admired what I was doing because he knew it took a lot of courage, and that he was glad he could be there to help. I thanked him, we chatted a bit and minutes later, Earl strolled out of the front entrance. I reached through the window and gave Mickey a hug, and Devin waved “bye-bye” to him as he turned towards his truck. Earl opened the driver’s side door and grabbed our bags from inside the cabin.

“You’re in Room 418,” he said. “You ready?”

I couldn’t answer that. My voice would have broken up. I nodded yes.

“Here. Let me help you,” he said. He came over to my door and opened it, gently holding onto the top of my arm, safeguarding me as I climbed down, carrying a worn-out Devin.

The four of us made way to the lobby and onto the elevator: Earl and me and the boys. I had hooked my arm around Earl’s as tightly as I could, yet each step down the lengthy hall was loosening me from him, and my old life, and tying me closer to a new and startling reality. The constriction in my throat increased every time I swallowed. As he put the key into the door, I finally released him from my grip.

His scan of the room lasted only seconds. He stopped to wrap me in a prolonged hug and I cried aloud, knowing I had to let go of him because it was time for them to leave. He and Mickey’s lives were in South Carolina. I had to rebuild mine in Florida.

He pulled back and then he said it. “Pam, honey, we’ve got to be gettin’ back. I promised Wendy I wouldn’t be too long.”

That statement was like a death sentence; expecting him to pronounce it didn’t make accepting the words any easier when they came. “Are you sure you’ll be all right?” he asked. I heard his keys jingle and, in an attempt to distract from what the noise meant, I busied myself with unzipping one of the bags on the bed.

“Yeah. I guess so,” I said. How else can I respond? I was where I had chosen to be and it was time to muster every iota of bravery I believed I had. Still, it was a big struggle and inside I was putting up a good fight to stop me from regretting what I had done. I couldn’t help constantly reminding myself of the truth. I had left the best man I’d ever had, given up my home of financial security and material comforts, brought myself and my children to a strange new place, and declared my determination to make it—somehow.

Earl was on his way out the door. “Girl, I know you can do it. If you need me, you know how to get in touch with me, but I’m gonna have to cool out for a while.” He meant as far as his wife, Wendy, was concerned.

I kissed him good-bye and watched him leave, my despondent tears falling on the dirty carpet. I felt voluntarily abandoned, but it was no time for weakness. The choice had been mine to make and I’d made it. So there we were, about to spend the night in an outdated smoky-smelling hotel room with pale pinkish-grey walls.

After Earl had gone, I kissed Devin’s finger again, and asked Cedric how he was doing. While they snacked on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches I had brought along, I plopped down on a bed, just for a minute. I needed time to regroup. In my stillness, I thought it through all over again.

It wasn't that I didn't love Watson. Or that we didn't love each other. But the Vietnam Syndrome (now referred to as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), finally became more than I could endure. Too often, when I needed him to function as head of the household, his mental distress overshadowed everything else. He would spend hours, or even days, in a state of withdrawal: staying in one room, losing himself in the TV and not speaking. I was never angry with him about it—only afraid.

I was annoyed with the government, though. Bills from the Veteran’s Administration for medical services he had received had come to the house. What else did they want him to give? Besides suffering from PTSD, he had also been exposed to Agent Orange, and still had shrapnel lodged in his body. After having sacrificed as much as he did, I couldn’t understand how the government had the audacity to charge him for anything.

How disturbing that such a good man had gone to war and come back a different person. I’d read letters he had written to family members before Vietnam. The handwriting and vernacular were recognizable to me as his, but the personality conveyed was vastly different. His words were uninhibited, expressing feelings of happiness, confidence, warmth, and love. His mother, sister and brothers all talked about how much the war had changed him. Part of Watson died in battle. It was replaced with melancholy, apprehension, coolness, and distrust.

Watson had the changeability of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and I never knew which persona was coming home from work. To coax him to communicate with me, I had to first feel him out to make sure he was in a receptive mood. Sometimes he would ignore me. Other times he would give me a hostile look that signaled he didn’t want to be bothered, and that if I persisted, I would piss him off. When that happened, I’d back off again, scared.

When he was his normal self—the Watson I fell in love with—he was affectionate, accommodating, and humorous. At those times, I felt fortunate to have him and the comfort and security he provided us, but despite now working at a job he loved, and having a family who loved him, his “normal” periods began occurring less often, and lasting for shorter periods of time. On a regular basis, I cried and begged for him to seek help, but he always refused. Over time I began to worry that our lives would end as a gory newspaper headline: "Man Kills Wife, Kids, Self." By the end of our two and a half years together, I lived in terror of him.

In one incident, Watson went into a suicidal state. He began talking about “gooks” and mumbling a bunch of bizarre words and series of numbers. Those, he said, were secret things that I should know in the event of his death. Then he guzzled a full bottle of vodka—Watson seldom drank—and said he was going to drive off in his truck and kill himself. Though I knew he might become violent, for his safety, I threatened to call the police if he dared get behind the wheel. I called Buddy, a Vietnam vet who was a close friend of Watson’s as well as being our landlord, and asked him to come over to help me calm him down. It took us a couple of hours, but after a conversation between them, Watson’s coherency returned and Buddy and I were able to talk him out of his frenzy, convince him to surrender the truck keys and persuade him to go to bed.

One evening I saw Watson go from laughter to tears in seconds. I watched him transform from a calm individual to what I perceived as a soldier psyched up for combat. That day I was “the enemy,” in his mind. I had somehow triggered him. How, I’m not sure to this day. Perhaps I pushed him too far with my pleas to talk to me, and to consider undergoing the therapy he needed. For whatever the reason, he went from an intense silence to screaming for me to leave him the hell alone. Then, he went berserk.

I didn’t know what it was that was happening. It moved in with the abruptness and velocity of a tornado. He sprang from the chair, eyes popped in an insane gaze, and began flailing his arms around in the air and shouting unintelligible things. He was ranting about “the enemy.” Puzzled and wanting to help him if I could, I stood by and listened.

But then he pulled out a handgun. From where, I don’t know. Before I could see it coming, he slammed it into the left side of my face. I dropped to the floor and lay there in pain, horror-struck, unable to move a muscle. Afraid to, if I could. I had no recollection of how long it took the tornado to pass: not many minutes perhaps, before he came back to himself, realizing what he had done.

Once Watson had recovered, he fell down on his knees and sobbed over me, calling my name and apologizing again and again, as he slid his arms under my limp body and lifted me off the floor. He placed me on our bed and I lay there, still rattled from the impact, as he iced my face and wept with regret. He curled up next to me and stayed there all night, his arm around my waist. For days I wore the telltale gun-shaped bruise with shame, staying indoors and icing it, waiting for it to fade. I was lucky my jaw hadn’t been broken and I knew that the next time I might not be so fortunate. I adored Watson, but after he hurt me I realized my first obligation was to keep the boys and myself safe from harm. In order to do that, I would have to do the unimaginable. The children and I would have to leave.

The following months were torturous, as Watson became more unstable and, in secret, I planned my departure. My marriage to Cedric’s dad had ended in divorce, and I hated the idea of leaving the father of another of my children. I had hoped the boys and I would help Watson become more stable, or at least motivate him to seek professional treatment, but we didn’t, and with his PTSD worsening, the boys’ wellbeing had to take precedence. By age seven, Cedric had already exhibited frequent problematic behavior at home and school. I’d tried everything I could to correct it, sitting down with him and reaffirming my love, taking away privileges and letting him know how concerned I was about the direction in which he was heading. And I prayed for him all the time.

* * *

I got out of bed tired because the night before I could only pretend to sleep. But it was early morning, Watson had left, and it was time. Through the kitchen window and the cloudiness of my eyes, I watched as he backed his truck out of the courtyard and turned the street corner. This time his choice not to say good-bye as he left for work had spared me some uneasiness. The pretending was over and, as disturbing as it was, my reality demanded I keep my emotions in check and carry out my plans. My idea was to pick up the moving truck and the tow hitch, and then return to the house to pack up as fast as we could. Knowing how explosive Watson could be, I grew more faint-hearted by the minute as I fretted about the possibility of him coming back home and confronting us before we were finished loading. God forbid! What will I—or he—do if that happens? As I waited for Earl and Mickey to get there, I collected the cardboard boxes I’d stashed in the crawlspace of the house and the trunk of my car, then frantically began packing my things in the study. When I thought I’d heard the sound of a car parking alongside the courtyard, I stood back from the window and took a look. There were two vehicles out there: Mickey’s white Chevy pickup and Earl’s light blue LeBaron. Oh my God, we’re about to get started! I guess I’d better head on downstairs.

Earl had told Wendy about my move and she had driven him from Hilton Head to Savannah. She knew her husband and I’d promised to remain lifelong friends no matter what, but he was all hers now and they were building their lives together. I imagined she welcomed the news that I was about to be a little further out of the way. I respected their situation, was grateful to have his help moving and made it my business to thank her before she drove off. Mickey would drive Earl back home.

I’d reserved a truck with Jartran because their location was the closest to the house. Mickey kept an eye on the boys while Earl and I went to fetch it. As soon as we got back, we headed upstairs where I began directing the two men from room to room, pointing out what was to go in the back of the truck and what was to stay in the house. As they hauled furniture down the stairs and to the front hall, I started grabbing my and the kids’ clothes and tossing them onto the seats of the car. While in the house emptying drawers and closets, multiple times with arms full, I stopped and ran over to the kitchen window to look for any sign of Watson before going back outside. Then, while in the courtyard filling up the car, more than once I skipped to the edge of the curb and scanned up and down the street to make sure he was nowhere around.

My chest was squeezed from the work and fretfulness of the many mad dashes, but after I’d finally loaded all of our clothing, I hoisted about thirty boxes of record albums down the stairs and slung them on top of the soft mounds. The Buick was now jam-packed from the dashboard to the back window and from ceiling to floor, but I was still able to wedge in several small kitchen appliances before pushing closed its doors and going back upstairs.

I couldn’t bear the emptiness I had created in the house. I hated that some hapless circumstance had caused me to run away from the sweetest man I’d ever loved. Nothing was fair about it. Detaching the children from Watson seemed a wicked deed and leaving behind the financial security I’d grown accustomed to was too bad to be true. If at that moment I would have released the soulful wail that ached to escape me, what energy I had left would have been depleted, my resolve weakened and my thoughts further tangled. Instead I conceded how awful the sneakiness felt, but reaffirmed that for my and the kids’ safety, honestly, like it or not, staying in the house was no longer an option.

My thoughts had confounded me, despite my efforts to keep a clear head. Hours had passed and I wondered if any of the neighbors had been watching us load up. I was ready to high tail it out of there. Clammy with sweat and expecting my knees to go flaccid at any second, I craved reassurance. I picked up Devin and raced down the steps to go chat with Earl and Mickey. They still had a couple of things to make room for in the truck, so I headed to the back yard once again to scope if the coast was still clear. As I travelled the pathway alongside the house, I was immobilized by the sight of Watson walking up. I stopped so hard that one of my feet kicked up dirt. Our eyes met. His face was scrunched with puzzlement.

“Pam? What’s goin’ on?” he asked. It was the most he had spoken to me in days. With the truck backed up to the front steps, the open cargo hold displaying its contents, and Earl and Mickey shifting stuff around, no truth could be avoided.

I was caught off guard by the level-headedness of Watson’s tone and crushed by the look on his face; there was no sign of anger—only dismay. That we’d cross paths while I was in the process of moving out was the toughest moment I had hoped wouldn’t happen. Earl, Mickey and Cedric had stopped what they were doing to watch Watson and me, so he motioned me to step inside the hall with him where we could talk in private.

Holding Devin closer, I shook my head from side to side. “Watson, I’m sorry. I just can’t do it anymore. Things are too scary, honey. I just can’t,” I said. “I’m too scared all the time. It’s making me a nervous wreck and I’m worried about the kids.”

For the first time in a long time he seemed to be listening to me. Our eyes made intimate contact and his were pleading for me to say something more, but I couldn’t. His unexpected return had me in too much shock and, knowing how quickly he could snap, his poise startled me, considering the scene he had come home to face. All I could do was snivel, cuddle Devin and hang my head low while I anchored myself against the wall.

“Are you sure that’s what you want to do? he asked. I knew that it was, but felt uncertain about how best to express it, not wanting to deepen his hurt. I paused to choose my words carefully.

“Yeah. I just don’t think I have a choice anymore, Watson.”

I sighed, then, in a manner as caring about him as I’d always been, I explained to him my leaving had nothing to do with him as a person, that I appreciated so much of what he had contributed to my and the children’s lives, and that I wasn’t leaving him for another man or to belittle him in anyway. I stressed that the only reason I was moving out was because I was afraid that one day, during one of his violent bouts, he would hurt us all. I also mentioned the many times I’d begged him to go get help and how his grumpy responses to my pleas led me to stop trying to convince him. Watson went silent on me again and as I waited I planted a kiss on Devin’s cheek and rocked him as a comfort to myself.

“Okay, Pam,” he said. “Okay. If you think that’s what you need to do.”

I lunged at Watson, wrapping my free arm around his neck, he embraced Devin and me, and I accidentally set loose my captive wail. If ever I had cried my heart out, detached it from my very person, it was then. Is this really happening? Am I really doing this? Leaving him? Oh, my God. Yes, I am, and it’s hurtin’ like hell.

Watson started apologizing for how troubled our relationship had become and confessed that maybe he should submit to treatment after all. As much as I wanted to believe he would, I’d remembered several times that he’d said that, yet he hadn’t scheduled the first appointment. I had no reply. With things quiet again we stepped back from each other.

“Well, if you’re gonna do this, hold on just a minute. I’ll be right back,” he said and then disappeared up the stairs. I had no idea what I was waiting for, wasn’t sure that I should wait, and probably wouldn’t have if it wasn’t for how composed he seemed about the whole thing; even having said he was sorry. Assuming he went to use the bathroom and was coming back down to say good-bye, I crept over to the front door held open by a cinderblock and leaned out, nodding to Earl and Mickey that I was okay. They had finished loading and were waiting around to see what was transpiring between me and Watson, who I could hear coming back down the stairs.

He reached out to me and said, “Here. You’re gonna need some money.”

I thought I was imagining things, but still I reached out. He placed a number of one-hundred dollar bills in my shaky hand and I was even more astonished. Not only did he seem to accept my reason for leaving, but he was also willing to support my move.

Why couldn’t he always have been rational like this? Why did it take me deciding to leave to bring him back around? To start him talking again? To get him to accept that he needs help?

I thanked Watson and then in disbelief unfolded the $600. Together with the $300 he’d given me the day before to shop for groceries and other items for the house, I now had $900 with which to begin my journey. We hugged, we cried and then we separated. Having braved such a tempest of emotions, my head continued to spin as I tightened my grip on Devin, staggered out the front door and joined Earl and Cedric in the truck for the woeful ride.

* * *

But all my painful recollecting wasn’t changing what was going on at the moment. I stood up from the hotel bed wanting to do something. It had been a long road trip, and we needed to freshen up. I went into the bathroom, perched sideways on the tub, turned on the water and held my hand under it as I waited and waited for it to warm up. Now what? The continuously cold water was my first trial since leaving home. Wound up all over again, I called downstairs.

“Front desk.”

“Listen,” I said, “This is 418. I’m not getting any hot water in the bathtub.”

“You have to let it run. Let it run for a while. You will see what happens. Just let it run and the water will get hot,” the man said.

“Okay.” I hung up, not really satisfied, and resumed waiting. It was at least ten minutes before the water reached a temperature warm enough to do us any good. Oh, boy, Pam! You’ve done it now. These are the kind of things you’re gonna have to deal with.

Once the boys were clean, I took my turn. The hard-earned bath did what I hoped it would, washed away some of the tension, and I was now looking forward to at least the comfort of clean sheets on an unfamiliar, but welcome bed. They were clean, all right, but as soon as I turned down the covers, a couple of big cockroaches scurried from underneath them.

Ewww! It was the last straw.

Already I was missing the comforts of my charming Victorian home and I began to fear that in terms of hardship, maybe I wasn’t seeing anything yet. I pounded my fist on the nightstand. Damn it! I can’t deal with this! I don’t want to.

I had just been through one of the most emotionally blinding days I’d ever experienced in my life, and wasn’t about to put up with a bunch of nasty-ass bugs in my hotel room. Because of the creepy sensation the sight of them scurrying across my bed left me with, I would never be able to fall asleep. I called the front desk again, explaining to the clerk what had happened and he said he would be right up. Breathing raggedly with flared nostrils, I was pacing the floor. How can I have any patience, at this point? Cedric saw my frustration.

“You okay, Momma?”

“Yeah, honey, I’m just a little upset right now, but we’re gonna straighten this out. We’re not even gonna try to sleep in here,” I said. I scooped up Devin and let him ride on my hip as I continued walking around the room in circles, anxious for the comfort I had trusted I would be paying for. In about five minutes, a stocky man of Indian descent with smooth raven-black hair, dressed in tan slacks and a sky-blue shirt with some kind of logo on it, was at my room door carrying a bulky cluster of keys.

“I’ve come to take a look,” he said. I gestured for him to enter and pointed towards the bed by the window. A straggler of a roach made haste as he pulled the linens off and threw them to the floor.

“See?” I squealed, jumping back from the bed. He stepped back too, his facial expression changing from aloofness to concern. I sensed compassion. In front of him stood a trembling, red-eyed young woman, clinging to her baby. Maybe he had assumed the young man who registered would merely be using the room for a night’s fun. But he had met the room’s real occupants. Perhaps he could relate us to a wife and children of his own. Surely he can do better than this for us.

The man’s eyes met mine. “I am sorry. So sorry,” he said and then offered to put us in another room. He said he’d call me after checking to see what else was available. Before I was even finished repacking our belongings, the phone rang and he told me to meet him upstairs at Room 822. I instructed Cedric to look after his brother, grabbed one of our bags and made a beeline for the elevator. Stepping out on the eighth floor, I saw him standing at the door of the new room and I walked towards it, slowly.

Enter: new leeriness. Can I trust him? He had seen I was alone. I hadn’t noticed many other people in the hotel, either. I felt exposed, standing next to him as he opened the room door. What if he pushes me in there with him and locks the door? How will I get out? Fight him off? What about my boys downstairs by themselves? I readied myself for anything.

“Come. Come. You look at this one,” he said, keeping his distance by staying out in the hall. I curbed my breathing and took calculated footsteps into the larger room, making sure to keep my hands free. It smelled a lot fresher than Room 418, and the rich green and gold-flecked wallpaper at the heads of the beds was obviously new. I also noticed the softness of padding underneath the carpet. When the clerk suggested I check the first bed, I turned down the sheets and saw no signs of life. I also checked the second bed, as well as what turned out to be a cleaner, more brightly lit bathroom. I was glad for the improvements, though I was worn out and ready for the whole room thing to be over.


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