I’ve always known that monsters were real. When I was five years old I asked my father to tell me a scary story, so he told me about the first house he lived in alone, down the road from his parent’s farm in Springport County, Indiana. Daddy heard a “clip-clop clip-clop” on the tin roof and went outside to see who was up there.
It was the devil, a half-man half-goat with big horns curved down in a spiral. He threw daggers down at my daddy and my daddy dodged them and through the daggers back. He laughed at my pops before he vanished, and from then on I knew a nasty old demon could pop up from under your bed or when you were shampooing your hair with your eyes closed in the bath. My mother (who was a Catholic) assured me that my daddy was sick and that demons didn’t bother little girls. God talked to my daddy a lot too, told him to do things like steal cars. Other voices told my daddy that my mommy and sister and I were playing tricks on him.
I’d cry and ask with him to tell us what “mind games” were so that I could make sure he knew I wasn’t doing it. I was almost positive I wasn’t doing it. But if I was being bad, I wanted to know how so I could stop.
Sometimes he’d give my older sister and I a few dollars or some change and tell us not to come home ’til our mommy was back from working at the nursing home.
On those lonely days with no place to go, we’d sit in the library with the books for hours. Depending on how much money we had, we bought lunch from the vending machine filled with snacks at the civic auditorium and sit in the grass and while the little girls in their leotards pass us by on their way to the community center gymnastics class. Sometimes my sister would show me gymnastic tricks in the grass and white ladies would call us to come inside for class and we’d sit there quiet and shaking our heads feeling embarrassed for being there. When we came home those days, little bones cold and achy from walking so many hours, my mother would be angry with him. She would hug us tight then make sopita from scraps of things and tiny alphabet noodles while he sat wounded, in his dark corner of the living room, menthol cigarette smoldering in his yellow nicotine stained fingers and drinking Natural Ice from a stein filled with ice.
He was good to us too sometimes, telling stories about his Huck Finn childhood, swinging from ropes, building rafts and fishing poles and great big tree houses high in the branches of the forest behind my Grandma’s corn field. He always told me he loved me more than anything in the world and it made me shy, embarrassed that my daddy could love me so much.
Sometimes God talked to Mommy too. And when god told her the wrong things and made her do funny things, a strange thing happened: Daddy got better. He knew how to take care of her. Like on Halloween when we found mommy wandering around the streets in her underwear and daddy put her in the car and put the clothes on her we’d brought with us. I don’t know how he knew she would be naked when we found her; I think God probably told him. “Do you want daddy to take you trick-or-treating or do you want to go to your Abuelito’s church and stay with Sister Lupe tonight?” Daddy asked me very seriously. “Trick-or-treating?” I replied doubtfully, knowing what it was I should say and feeling Halloween slip a little further away. “You know Mommy needs daddy to take her to the hospital right?” I heard myself say that I wanted to go to the apostolic church where my Abuelito was a minister.
When Sister Lupe took me into the church, all the other kids stared with envy at my costume- a green silk dress with pearls and a pair of mother’s size nine pumps. “You’re a fancy lady” my mommy assured me, stroking my hair that morning as she put my costume together. I didn’t know that when she hung the pearls around my neck she had not slept for nearly two weeks. The grownups at the church didn’t seem to care that my mommy was sick and I could feel their disapproval. The rest of the night they told terrifying stories about young women possessed by the devil after playing “Ouija board” or summoning the “Bloody Mary” in mirrors. One by one the little children were called up to the pulpit after the puppet show sermon to receive a piece of hard candy, only they forgot to call my name and I was sure it was because I was wicked for celebrating the devils holiday. I plugged my ears tightly and fell asleep on the hard wooden pew until midnight, when the service was over and my Abuelito finished his sermon and carried me out.
My daddy left our tiny village when I was seven because it was too much city for him. He was a farm boy and there were too many people in town. He flew home to Indiana before Christmas, after mommy got better. She went on disability and it was nice when she could stay home with me. She was happy to stay home and bake bread and write poems about God and embroider. It was so wonderful when she would read to us and make tortillas and pack our lunches for us. There was nothing better than when mommy was on disability. When she went back to work she got sad again, working six or seven nights a week, sleeping most of the day until it was time to go back to work again. Sometimes she just couldn’t get out of bed and it was very lonely in the house. It was always dark and there was more fancy food in the house when she was working. I began to eat a lot of the new fancy foods like cookies and salami and canned ravioli and this helped to ease the ache of loneliness. I became fat and lonely. The harder mommy worked, the sicker she became.
I went back to visit Daddy almost every summer and Christmas until I was sixteen. I saw Daddy once more when I was twenty-one. That was the last time before he got burned. I came out for his birthday in August and he got so excited I’d come to see him he began to act out. He ran away from home where he lived with my Grandma and drove his car into someone’s yard. He decided that it would be safer if he just took a nap and slept the booze off but, when the cops found him he had his fly down and he hadn’t been wearing any underpants.
My daddy didn’t see no reason why he should be getting arrested but the police said he was flashing them his penis and they beat my old daddy up till he was black and blue and cut up all over. I wasn’t expecting to see Daddy all tied up to a rickety old hospital bed when I walked in his room “No one told me my fly was down!” Daddy spat mad as hell as he sat up straining against the clanking restraints.
“There were four of them little fucks and they was getting their rocks off on beatin’ me up!” My daddy growled angrily. I knew without any doubt that my daddy wasn’t a pervert and what he said about them cops was true.
I asked the admissions nurse to tell me who’d done this to my daddy and she brought in one of the cops that had been hanging around waiting for Daddy’s paperwork to get processed.
She led in a mousy young man only a few years older than myself. “This is my father… what the fuck did you do to him? He says you did this to him!”. Seeing all those bruises all over Daddy’s legs made me so angry I felt like I could kill someone.
“Your father was ra, ra resisting arrest and exposing himself to us” stuttered the officer looking horribly uncomfortable, his unkempt eyebrows and thin moustache waggled ridiculously as he protested and never before had I felt so fierce.
Next to me lay my father, helpless and abused, angry and humiliated. The restraints that secured him to his bed rattled as he spat again,
“You little shit! The four of you assholes getting your rocks off on beatin’ the shit outta an unarmed man! I was tired, I pulled over to take a nap!”
The little cop looked back and forth between us startled and without saying another word, he left the room; I think he realized we didn’t have the right to an explanation. I managed to negotiate with the head of the psych ward and his psychiatrist to have him released, so we could enjoy the rest of our vacation together.
Shortly after I went back home to LA, he was institutionalized and was not released for two more years.
Then a few month’s after his release the cops woke me up, pounding on my front door at four in the morning. “Ofelia Del Corazon?” I peered at them through the chain and opened the door reluctantly; terrified they’d come to bust me for my half-hearted attempts at being an Ectasy dealer. But when I opened the door the officer only looked sad for me. “We have a message from your grandmother. She needs you to call her.” He handed me a wrinkled piece of paper with my grandmothers name and phone number scrawled on it.
See, I’d changed my phone number without giving it to my Grandma (we all called her “Mamaw”) or Daddy. My dad had been going through this thing where he thought he was a warlock and I was always half playing into it, believing it and enabling him to engage me in his psychotic fantasies (like when I agreed to perform a telephone exorcism of my apartment) so I had to distance myself for a while for the sake of my own mental health. I spoke to Mamaw scrawling notes on a sheet of paper: words with meanings I could not comprehend. Fifty-four percent burned, third and fourth degree burns. Fourth degree?
I hadn’t known that fourth degree burns existed. “It’s when the tissue comes off. ” said Mamaw, her voice hollow. I listened to her scribbling the nearly indecipherable notes I would keep for years, reading them over and over again when I needed help reminding me that it was all true.
Mamaw had a plane ticket for me and I spent the rest of the morning in the airport bar replaying the image of my father’s cigarette tipping out of the flimsy aluminum ashtray and setting the little house ablaze until I was so drunk I could only feel the dull ache inside me.
“You’d better not drink anymore,” warned the bartender. “They might not let you on the plane.”
Mamaw and my two white aunties met me at the airport. My Mamaw kissed me and I smelled the gin ‘n’ tonic she always sucked out of her Big Gulp. “Make me one for the road, babygirl” she used to tell me when she was getting ready to head into town.
Already hung over, I got behind the wheel and we headed for Fort Wayne, to the burn unit where they’d airlifted Daddy. I sat eight hours in the waiting room before the nurses showed me how to scrub and suit up like a surgeon before going into Daddy’s hot little room. The front page of the New Castle Bee had run a picture of my daddy coming out on a gurney. I stared at in the waiting room but even the terrible photo in the paper of daddy with his clothes all charred onto him and what looked like a plastic bag inflating around his face couldd not prepared me for what I saw. My father’s head had swollen to the size and shape of a soccer ball and his ears just weren’t there any more. Blood formed pools in his eye sockets and when they filled up rivulets of blood ran down his ruined monster face and so it always looked like he was crying.
I was ashamed for fearing my father’s disfigurement and I secretly feared he would roar and jump up like a zombie from the horror films we had always watched together. Sedated and under heavy pain meds, the burn team took him off his anti-psychotics. He was going through withdrawals but the doctors said that because his body was in a state of shock and his liver was in such an advanced state of Cirrhosis that his no frail body could not handle all the antibiotics and pain meds on top of his regular medications.
As the first of kin, I had to sign consent forms almost constantly “Can we do this? Can we do that? Can we stretch pig skins all over his body?” Still in shock I answered “yes” every time. I did not care about pigs or their skins or the Animal Liberation Front–I only wanted my daddy to live.
I cried, sure that he was having terrible hallucinations all alone inside his head. For four weeks, I sang and read my terrible poetry to him. It was through reading him the love poems I had written for my girlfriend that I told him I was queer. I was afraid that he would not know all of me, and I was desperate to come out to him before he died. I imagined his life-support would falter and his vitals would go all screwy when I finally told him I wasn’t a straight girl. But nothing happened, the machines continued to beep and push his chest up and down and I felt that he took it quite well. I went home while he was still in the hospital and got the call for the funeral later in the week.
“Are you afraid of monsters?” I often asked my Daddy when he tucked me in.
“No, Baby.” he would always reply.
“Then what are you scared of?”
His answer was always the same. “People.”
“But why, Daddy?”
“Because it’s people that hurt people, baby.” I was never satisfied with his answer but he promised me that one day I would understand.