My parents weren’t abusive, at least in the traditional sense. Our abuse came in the form of things like “chores” and “enforced limits on screen time” and “Get the hell out of the house you’re driving me nuts.” My parents may have looked kind to the outside world, but behind the closed doors of our home, they were tyrants: we couldn’t stay up until 4am on school nights, they wouldn’t let me eat ice cream for dinner and, perhaps worst of all offences, they made me go to school and learn.
Once, while on a trip to Arizona, I stole away into a phone booth after finding out I’d not be able to purchase a fourth package of chocolate gem donuts. I flipped the yellow pages until I hit C and looked up the number for Child Protective Services. I probably would have dialed if I’d had change.
Worst of all, my dad would save projects—big projects—for the weekend. Like tearing out the carpet in the dining room or cleaning out the attic, or clipping my toenails. I’m convinced he came up with these ideas sometime Sunday night after we’d gone to bed. I imagined him sitting in his study, his hand furiously scrawling on a piece of paper. A solitary lamp glows in the room, it throws light against his face, casting his features in a dark, crazed light. He runs a hand through his hair and crumples up a sheet of paper before discarding it into a giant bin of similar looking pieces of paper. Then, an epiphany would take hold. He’d get an idea, he’d write with renewed intensity then hold the paper back up and regard his work. A grin would creep up the side of his face and something would overtake him, a feeling that starts as pride but turns into pure happiness. The chuckle starts small, something creeping out from his chest, then the laugh moves to his belly and before he can help himself, a maniacal laughter takes hold. His eyes grow wide with glee, a savage grin on his face as he fully appreciates his idea to ruin his son’s weekend plans.
Then he’d wait. He’d wait for me to come home. He’d wait for me to get off the bus on Friday, but he wouldn’t tell me then. There was a better moment, something sweeter to relish.
I’d ask him something like, “Jon invited me to sleep over tonight, can I go over there after dinner?”
Often times he wouldn’t be facing me, he’d be cleaning or paying a bill or reading a book or watching TV. I couldn’t see his face, but I imagined that grin playing at the corners of his mouth again. He’d take a breath and say something evil like, “You can after you clean your room.”
He might as well have said, “You can after you comprehend Calculus” or “When the sun explodes, sure.” Because there was no way I’d be able to clean my room in the short span of seven hours. Who’d he think I was, Mary Poppins?
This went on for roughly 18 years. I’m still reeling and my counselor says sometimes trauma never really goes away.
But the worst of it came without words, instead in the form of a pile.
I’m not sure who invented bark dust, but I’d like to know who hurt that person so profoundly that they’d feel the need to come up with something so criminal. I know it doesn’t say so in the bible, but I assume part of the whole “Lake of Fire” and “Hell for eternity” includes shoveling bark dust for Satan’s side yard.
As with the room, there was never warning of the bark dust’s imminent arrival. As a child, I thought this was all part of my father’s way to break me. As an adult, I know it’s because if I knew it was coming, I just wouldn’t have come home. Bark dust would be my origin story for being an orphan. I’d walk into the orphanage, a stick over my shoulder with a handkerchief tied around the end. Inside is an apple and a harmonica.
“Hi there,” I’d say, making sure the dirt was smeared in all the right places on my face. “I ran away from home to escape a bad life.”
The woman behind the counter wears those pointy glasses from the 60’s, with the little gold-looking-chains that run along the side so she can rest them around her neck, her name is probably Vernice or Beatrice or Elanor, and her wardrobe hasn’t been updated since her first marriage. She raises an eyebrow and consults the list from a clipboard:
“Evil step mother who’s trying to steal your inheritance for her own daughter?”
“I’m a boy.”
“Whatever. Did they sell into slavery?”
She’d drop the clipboard and give me an exacerbated look. “Well, what is it?”
My lip would tremble, I wouldn’t be able to hold eye contact as the words come flooding out, “He has me shovel bark dust on the weekends. For hours. I lose the best of the daylight and I get splinters and it’s hot and uncomfortable. Also I only get allowance once a month.”
In my imagination, Vernice or Beatrice or Elanor or whatever her name is, shuffles around the counter as fast as her little slippered feet can take her. She gives me a big hug, despite her cool demeanor, and tells me it’s going to be OK. I get sent off to a new family in Moscow where everything is made of concrete so I wouldn’t have to mow or weed or, more importantly, shovel bark dust ever again.
But I never got the opportunity to do that, because, like I said, my father would just throw it on us. I’d be sitting on the bus, talking with my best friend, Jon, about all of the cool things we were going to do that weekend. We’d round the final corner to my house, and from the high vantage point of the bus, I’d be able to make out my front yard. And there, sitting at the end of the driveway, was an ungodly amount of bark dust.
It was approximately 50 feet high and 100 feet wide. An inordinate amount of bugs would be crawling through it. Spiders, beetles, ants, my little brother; all creatures that wanted to sink their fangs into my skin. It was so large it had its own microcosm. I don’t know if there’s a measurement for coarseness of bark dust, but it was akin to 1-Grit sandpaper. I think their way of harvesting an abomination such as bark chips was to drill a hole in a tree and shove in a stick of lit dynamite then pick up the blown apart pieces and sell it by the yard. Each piece had a dagger-like sliver hiding somewhere on the surface. It looked relatively harmless, but the second I’d pick one up, it was as if I’d played volleyball with a porcupine.
And my father would be standing out in front of the pile, a shovel in his hand and another sitting on top of the bark dust, waiting for an occasion such as his eldest son getting off the bus after a full school week
Our two hearts would sink, because Jon knew the bark dust was meant for him as well. Our two families were close, so things like manual labor were often shared between our houses. Weeding, shoving bark dust, cleaning, mowing the lawn—we shared this activities as if each other’s homes were our own.
And so we’d exchange a glance, the two of us, knowing our weekend was over; we’d been sentenced to three days hard labor. We’d exchange a glance, the two of us, like two brothers going hand-in-hand into the abyss.
I’d get off the bus, my dad would ask me how my day was and say something like, “It’s good to see you.” But my petulant ears wouldn’t hear it, because I knew what was going to follow.
“Put on some crappy clothes and help me out with this bark dust.” He’d finally say. “We’re gonna get a head start before Jon and Phil come to help out.” Phil being Jon’s stepdad.
I didn’t have a choice, so I’d go in dutifully. But I’ve never walked so slow in my life, like a prisoner crossing the Bridge of Sighs in Venice, Italy, I knew my fate was sealed and my freedom was about to end.
I’d walk through the door and my mom would say something like, “How was your day?” and “It’s so good to see you!” and “Dinner will be read in a few hours.” and “Did you see the bark dust pile outside?”
As if I could miss Mt. Barkatoa.
I’d dress myself as slowly as I’d walked to my room. By the time I’d made it back to the bark dust, I’d been able to shave off a neat thirty minutes. If it’d been my choice, I would have left the house a different day of the week than the one I’d entered. I’d be wearing my crappiest clothing, but I wouldn’t change my shoes. This was on purpose.
Because, before another thirty minutes of hard labor, my mother would poke her head out of the window, a scowl on her face and a menacing finger pointing my direction, and shout, “Hey! Don’t work in those shoes! Those are still new, get your crappy one’s downstairs.”
I’d throw a make-believe tantrum, including phrases like, “But mahhhmmm……” and “Who cares?” and “Ugh…” But inside I’d be taking a sigh of relief. Having to go back downstairs and “find” my crappy shoes would shave off another fifteen minutes. I’d shove them under a pile of dirty clothes, and make sure to look damn near everywhere else, until a parent would come in and ask just in the hell was I was doing. I’d throw the clothes in the corner and hold up the shoes as if I’d struck gold and say something like, “Found em! Wow, it’s always the last place we look, huh? Anyway, let’s get to work now that I have my shoes. Let me just run to the bathroom really quick.”
In the meantime, I know Jon is doing the same back home. They were running late, and that was by no accident. Both Jon and I have an intimate understanding for the Polish prisoners who’d sabotage the Nazi war machine by creating defective munitions. We’d be doing everything in our power to work as little as possible. Just because we weren’t going to be able to play video games for twelve hours straight like we’d wanted to, didn’t mean we were going to go quietly into the night.
But eventually they’d show up, driving in the old ‘82 Ford F-150 Jon’s Grandpa had gifted his family. Jon would get out of the passenger seat. Though it was almost always inevitable, our families combining chores like shoveling bark dust, there was a small bit of sadness when the other would show. As if I were a Prisoner of War, and seeing my friend being taken through the same barbed-wire gates I’d marched through. I gave a look that said, “They got you too, huh?” And though we were happy for each other’s company, we wouldn’t wish the fate of shoveling bark dust upon our worst enemies, let alone best friends.
By the time we actually started, dinner would be just around the corner. As kids, we were both sure we were being so sneaky. I had perfect confidence that my parents had no idea I was just trying to buy time. I think that’d be hard, to be a thirty something adult and have your 10 year old child treat you like you’re an idiot; because there’s no way I moved that slowly when doing something I wanted to do.
But my parents were usually kind, if you don’t count the pile of bark dust on the weekends. They’re human, and I know I drove my father nuts with my passive-aggressive ways of dealing with things. My dad would rather have a knock-down and drag-out fight because then it’d at least be in the open. Both parties could apologize or none at all, but there’d be no guessing to how everybody felt. For better or worse.
The irony is that if we’d worked hard—I mean really worked—for a couple of hours, we would have finished shoveling the bark dust and had the rest of the weekend to do whatever we pleased, or maybe it’s not ironic, but instead the simple truth of being a child. We had no foresight.
Meanwhile, my father would spend his whole weekend with us, working right alongside us tearing down the 50×100 foot bark dust pile one shovel-load at a time. Growing older, I realized I may have been dramatic; my father probably wasn’t sitting in his study thinking of ways to ruin my life.
Years later, after all of the kids had moved out of the house and away, after my parent’s divorce, my dad got a new home. This was a condo, but a nice one. It was new construction, right next to the local Safeway, in an area we called the Divorcee District because so many of our separated parents ended up in those units.
The condo was in a great condition, but the outside was something to be desired. So my father got to work. I came back a couple months later to visit and drove up to my father’s house. I noticed his front area looked nice. Fresh. New.
He had gotten new bark dust.
I was a bit confused. All of his free manual labor had graduated high school and started their own lives. I must have been smiling when I asked him, “So, how long did it take you to shovel that all by yourself? I bet you missed Jon and I.” Nodding to the new bark dust in his yard.
He look at it an raised an eyebrow. “Shovel it? No I didn’t shovel it. I just had them blow it all in when they drop it off. It’s like a reverse leaf blower, it just kinda dumps it out. Only took ‘em 15 or so minutes start to finish.”
My eyes were wide, “Wow, I wish they had that technology as when I was a kid.”
He gave me that look again, “Oh, they did. I just didn’t want to pay the extra $50.”
I blink hard.
“What?” He says, when he sees my expression. “Oh, come on, if you spent half the time working instead of dragging your feet and going inside to ask mom for some more water it wouldn’t have been so bad.”
He walked away with a perfectly straight face, betraying nothing of his feeling. I imagined him closing the door to his new study, in his new condo in the Divorcee District. The second the door clicks shut, that same grin explodes, he does a fist pump and pulls out a long going list entitled, “Times I Ruined Nick’s Weekend” and checks off the entry: “The Long Con.”
My parents weren’t abusive. At least in the traditional sense.