from Sleep Walking: A Memoir

by Kelly Rothe

1969
Cocoa Puffs

I remember all of this like a dream: Our metal trailer chilled by glacier lake winds the day we moved. My dad’s size fourteen footprints, dusty Converse stars going in and out of rooms, in and out. Toys silenced, crated in corners.

I am Rose, a blue-eyed towhead toddler, sitting in a high chair amongst loud voices and banging screen doors. I am quiet, dropping Cocoa Puffs on a newspaper-strewn floor, sweet brown milk dripping down my chin. Soft chubby legs dangle as I watch Peter, my nineteen-year-old German-Irish father, going in and out. He has a sharp nose, pointed ears, and a thick flame of wavy red hair. I fuss as he walks by, lanky six-foot-two strides. An auburn-freckled arm swipes me up and sets me on the floor without missing a step. I totter to a box and unpack cups. Dad ushers me away. I walk by a starred Formica counter, past a bathroom with a pink ceramic tub, and into my parents’ room. I climb up bedcovers to a mirror and see a baby who moves like me. We reach and touch cold hard hands. I pull away, stick out my bottom lip and yell; the open-mouthed angry-eyed mirror-baby scares me. I bury my face in pillows.

Marcia, my pregnant mom, lifts me over her baby belly, carries me back and sits me in the high chair. I fill my mouth double-fisted, crushing the Cocoa Puffs on my face.

“Marcia,” my dad says, scowling. I gag and spit them out.

“Marcia,” he says, slamming the screen door with a high-pitched metal screech. Bang. Bang. Bang, as it closes. I gather handfuls of chewed cereal to my mouth. Gulp. Gone.

Feeling hot, I throw the cereal bowl and it falls, crashing to the floor. My belly tightens. I taste sour chocolate. Thick frothy chunks fill my mouth, and cocoa acid bubbles burn my nose. I choke through sobbing breaths.

“Marcia,” my dad says, chest and head flushing red as he comes back through the door. “I told you not to feed her that shit.” He jabs a sharp finger at her.

My mom stops packing and looks at me teary-eyed, and then down. I have heard she graduated high school a sassy barefoot fighter, but a year later, she no longer has energy to fight.

She pushes silky brown hair behind her ear and lifts me to a large metal sink. She lathers my head, my face, my belly, and then holds my chin up while she sprays warm water, running down my head and back to rinse. She wraps me in a fluffy towel and, walking the narrow hall, lays me with the mirror-baby, and leaves. I cry and look away, where window sun warms me. I hear waves lap on pebbled shores and wind in willow branches, a soothing rattle. Boxes and footsteps fade away. I close my eyes, my baby body heavy with sleep. I dream.

I dream through forty years and twenty moves: my dreams a curious white amalgam of loud voices and silence, dirty family footprints, and sour chocolate. How do I wake up?

1971
Candy

I remember green-eyed peacock feathers, hardwood floors, and sun shining through a large bay window onto a record player. Mom was shucking peas from a muddy spring garden. To this day sixties music and earthworms take me back to the Finger Lakes, upstate New York, my childhood home. Before I started having nightmares.

I am three years old sitting cross-legged on a threadbare oriental carpet in our living room, singing The Beatles. My small hands pull records from sleeves, balancing the center hole on one finger like Dad showed me. No greasy fingerprints! I reach on tiptoes to set it down, pick up the needle, and count shallow black grooves: “One, two, three, four, five, six!” I play the song over and over twenty times, until I can hear what sounds go with what letters, until I know it by heart: I am the eggman. They are the eggmen. I am the walrus, Goo Goo G’JOOB. I know walruses; they walk with carpenters and eat oysters. My dad is a carpenter. Goo Goo G’JOOB.

I dance silly, singing “I’m cryyyyyin” trying to make little brother Justin laugh, but this morning there are only tears. His face is cracked, red, from scratching scabby skin until it bleeds. Mom rubs on Eucerin cream until he looks like a marshmallow.

I see Grandma Raymond’s horse through the window. “Mommy! I go play with Candy.” I run through the back screen door, a squeak against metal springs before she even answers. I grab handfuls of grass as Candy walks toward me, nodding her head, snorting hello. She lips my hands and chews, wet frothy greens. “Hi Candy! Good morning!”

Candy is yellow, like French’s mustard, with a coal-black mane and tail. My fingers touch gray velvet nostrils: freckled mossy mounds of pimpled hair. She puts her nose to mine and breathes warm earthy hay. My mom told me that’s how horses talk. I climb into her pasture to scratch her long face and pet the soft fur behind her ears. She rubs me with her huge head, knocking me over in the mud. I get up laughing, my skirt and knees damp and dirty. Candy pricks her ears forward, turns, and walks to her house barn. I follow.

We pass a ladybug-covered stump, so I stop and let them crawl up my arms. I scoop handfuls and shake them off to flutter hard little wings, a dark hum around my head as they fly. Mom says red ones are good for the garden, but we have to kill orange ones. I run to catch up with Candy who’s trotting along a lane of yellow dandelion flowers. Mom mows our yard into neat green rows. She hates dandelions, but I think they’re pretty so I sit down and pick a few.

“Momma had a baby and its head popped off!” I giggle and flick yellow heads into the mud puddle at my feet, sending out circles, growing bigger and bigger until they reach an edge of deep cracked dirt. Milky stems fill my lap so I make a sticky crown, just like mom showed me. I stand and put it on my head: a princess of horses, mud puddles, and dandelion fields. I pick a bouquet of fluffy white ones and march, blowing wish seeds in the wind. When I hear thunder I run in the barn to Candy and try to hug her, but she won’t stop eating. Dad told me animals care more about food than anything else.

I want to go home, but it’s raining; I see only wet blackness outside and I don’t know where I am. Dad says I don’t pay attention. I sit on the barn floor and cry, my head on muddy knees, drying snot on my skirt. I can’t breathe, just like Justin. Dad says he’s a crybaby and can’t keep up. I don’t like it when Dad picks on him. He blows snot bubbles, Mom yells at Dad and then Mom cries in the chair. I don’t like her to cry, but it makes her eyes look pretty. I wonder if I can keep up. Dad never told me I couldn’t.

“Hey there,” I hear. “What are you doing in here”? I look up. It’s a bald, whisker-faced farmer. He’s wearing blue-jean overalls, bib pulled tight on his hard round belly, skinny stick legs, boots covered in hay and manure. He steps forward and looks down at me, pinching Redman chew between his lip and gum. He looks mad, then smiles and bends down close, one knee on the floor. He reaches out, touches the dandelion petals stuck to my legs, and brushes them off, one by one, with his dirty dry fingers. I smell dog breath, like when Yuri eats a dead animal. I turn my face away; that smell makes me gag. The farmer spits a long stream of tobacco juice beside me. I see my dandelion wishes float in a sour brown puddle, stomped in muddy farmer footprints along the barn floor to the door where I came in. The farmer pulls my knees apart and I push them back together.

“Now you let those legs apart girl. I ain’t gone hurt you.” He pulls them apart again.

I whimper. He pokes his dry dirty finger between my legs. It burns like mom’s iron: a red-hot sting. With his other hand he pulls himself out his pant flap. I’ve seen my dad do that when he pees outside. But my dad never did what he did next. One hand cutting between my legs and the other rub, rub, rubbing himself.

Horse hay and farmer blur, my stomach turns, I’m in a boat barn, rocking unsteady waves. I slump through a dark wet spinning world and hear him say, “Better not say a word or I’ll hurt that pretty young mama a yours.” Then feel a dark silent hum, and my brain is blank.

This is what happens when a child is deflowered. Remembering that timeless moment is like trying to remember a nightmare: details slipping from a glance, overlapping convoluted truth and lies. Beauty becomes threat.

The next thing I know, I am lying on our living room couch, dizzy and confused, lyrics sneaking through a deep hot restless sleep,

Crabalocker fishwife
Pornographic priestess
Boy you’ve been a naughty girl
You let your knickers down.
I am the eggman. Whooo. They are the eggmen. Whooo.
I am the walrus
Goo Goo G’Joob.

1985
Bang, Bang

What was it like, Maria? Behind closed doors in your little white house?

You paused after getting off the school bus, taking slow steps up your driveway, when other kids ran.

A shy towhead, with fine white threads framing a smooth fifteen-year-old face. You were pale, but pretty.

I wonder if it was worse being ignored or teased, Maria, because no one was mean to you until you dated Marty, a senior with a curly brown mullet and tight Wrangler jeans. He showered at school after early mornings working on the farm. We noticed the rosy glow on your cheeks and your inspired art posted in hallways. We saw Marty lift, squeeze, and swing you around, so happy you loved him. We knew you snuck out at night to ride around in his red Mustang.

That was when girls started whispering about you, they stuck chewed gum on your art, and boys called over the lunchroom chatter, asking you to ride in their cars.

I remember you in art class, smelling of oil paint, charcoal, and calligraphy ink. One day you walked by my table, hiding a small private smile, wearing hand-sewn clothes and black China flats. Next to me, Jill said, “Nice shoes, Maria. They’re only like a whole year out of style.” Jill cut her waist-long hair into a stylish bob the week before. You turned to look at her, Maria, and then you looked at me: no anger or hatred, just sad blue eyes. I said nothing. You blinked and turned away.

“Maria, your art is gorgeous and so are you,” said Sadie. Everyone knew Sadie’s brother chased her with an axe the day she told his classmates to call him Goober.

None of us knew what it was like for you at home, behind closed doors in your little white house.

I only remember a hallway filled with silent students, and how my limbs turned to lead the day we found out your dad shot you in the chest when you climbed in your bedroom window. He shot you dead, Maria, and then he shot himself.

Kelly Rothe, an Integrative Family Medicine, Hospice and Palliative Care physician in Burnsville, North Carolina, has embraced “being a citizen of the writing community.” She hosts the authors’ lounge each September at the Carolina Literary Festival and has had articles published in Asheville’s Plough to Pantry magazine.

About From Sleepwalking: A Memoir—“Cocoa Puffs” is the first chapter in my memoir. Because a child uses different word choices, gestures, and cadence during each developmental stage, writing the chapter has been a rich challenge. “Candy” required years of freewriting the five senses from myriad perspectives before I found light in the darkness of this traumatic scene. “Maria” was a fifteen-minute piece written in response to the prompt “write a note to someone no one liked,” an exercise in Abigail DeWitt’s “Writing as Healing: A Creative Prose Workshop.”

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