A New Life
And then it was over. Afterward, she stroked the cooling skin of Mark’s face, thinking, He always loved my hands. Kind of wrinkled now, but he always said they were beautiful.
Annemarie celebrated their 27th wedding anniversary by polishing off an entire bottle of Krug Brut Vintage 1988. It was probably the most expensive bottle in Mark’s extensive wine cellar. She did not know how much he had paid for it, but when she Googled “expensive Champagnes,” she came up with this one, so she pulled it from its shelf, dusted it off, and placed it in the kitchen freezer. Fifteen minutes later, she brought it to their bedroom, uncorked it, and, after waiting a few moments, filled a crystal Champagne flute. Then, sitting on a chair next to her husband, she held the glass up high and said, “Happy anniversary, Mark.” Mark did not respond, not that Annemarie expected him to even make an involuntary movement. For six dismal months, after falling into a deep coma, he had been kept alive through the use of technology. A feeding tube, an intravenous drip, and a ventilator worked around the clock to maintain the barely perceptible life signs that kept Mark Morris alive, if you can call it that, Annemarie thought.
She sipped the Champagne; she would have preferred a martini, but felt she should acknowledge their wedding anniversary by imbibing Mark’s favorite alcoholic beverage. Every year, on their anniversary, before Mark grew old and skeletal, they had sipped Champagne at a fine restaurant. Then, for the past two years, as Mark fell into the abyss of illness and, eventually, dementia, and could no longer leave the ranch house, Annemarie would sit by his bed on the evening of their anniversary and sip Champagne and toast him.
So many years in this bleak wasteland, she thought with a combination of grief and resentment. Twenty-five years of her life, her coffin-like existence, in this cold, barren house whose echoes reminded her each and every day that she was nothing more than a small, insignificant adornment, an appendage to the life of Mark Morris. That was not to say that Mark had not loved her. He had, with all of his heart; in fact, if any part of his consciousness was still functioning, he probably still loved her. But, except for their first two years, when they lived in New York, and the first year in Arizona, Annemarie had felt like an assistant or an afterthought in the Mark Morris Enterprise of Life.
A few years before, when their son Roger had graduated from college and moved to Boston, Annemarie once again tried to convince Mark that they should relocate back east. As he had in the past, he said that he would never leave his home in the desert and wanted to die there. Once more she thought about leaving him and returning to New York, but she did not do that. Besides the fact that she would have had no money if she left him, it seemed cold-hearted and selfish to pick up and abandon her increasingly ailing husband. In addition, Roger would never have forgiven her if she were to do that. Roger, along with Mark’s son and daughter from his first marriage, assumed that Annemarie would care for their father in the home that he loved, until he died.
So she stayed with Mark at the ranch that he had never gotten around to naming. Thank God for that, Annemarie mused. After a while he could no longer walk; then he stopped talking. Within days he fell into a deep well of sleep from which it was obvious he would never awaken. Despite the fact that Mark’s once-robust body had shrunk and became frail, Annemarie believed that his will was strong and he would probably remain alive for a long time. At that point, Annemarie began to do what she had not done in years: spend days and evenings in bed with men she met in hotel cocktail lounges. After a few months of that she began to feel sick when she returned home each night. She knew she was living an embarrassingly decrepit version of the life she had lived before she had met Mark, and she did not like that image or the cold, relentless shame that weighed down her soul. She felt like a fool, a middle-aged fool, thinking, I can’t begin to imagine how many men I’ve gone to bed with from the time I first ran away from home. What was the point of it all?
She looked at the machines that kept Mark’s body alive and listened to the whirring and slushing and shushing and sighing sounds they made. It seemed to her that all of Mark’s organs were now outside of his body, occupying a space on the floor next to the bed. She knew that those cold mechanical devices, with their innumerable wires and tubes, helped to create and maintain a mirage, a pale imitation of life. The man she knew and had once loved was long gone.
As she looked at the thick electric cables with their chunky male plugs connected to the special female receptacles on the wall next to the bed she smiled grimly. She fondled a hard, warm plug and worked to convince herself that pulling it would be doing Mark an immense favor and performing an act of love. At the same time, it would allow another life, one that had long been held hostage, to flourish. She held the plug firmly; then she loosened her grasp. She looked at him and sobbed.
She was a few months shy of 54; he was 85.
Annemarie reflected on the uneven path she had traveled during her five plus decades of existence. She thought of the Herndons, the husband and wife who had claimed to love the baby they had found in their barn one warm July evening and with whom she lived for the first 15 years of her life. They had been strict, severely religious people whose daily conversations were heavy with dire phrases lifted from pages of the Old Testament and warnings shouted by Brother Isaiah during the grim, weekly church meetings that they attended. The Herndons were harsh, but no more so with Annemarie than with their four natural daughters. And, what about those hardscrabble young women? They had always called Annemarie their sister, but she never believed it. She lived in the house, but she was alone.
She learned how to sit through the ponderous evening prayer sessions and pretend to accept the daily reminders to “act like a daughter in Christ.” She also taught herself to endure the nightly “sacred time” with Father, who said that he was “mightily concerned” about the perilous state of her mortal soul. He had first taken her hand one night at bedtime when she was nine years old, and brought her to the barn. It had been a chilly November evening, and all she had on was a flannel nightgown, so he had carried her over the frosty ground to a secluded corner of the barn and put her down. After lighting a coal oil lamp, he started to lift her nightgown from her, but she resisted; in a reassuring whisper, he told her that she must obey him. She complied. She also, as he instructed, removed her under things. Then he told her to turn from him and kneel on the straw. He explained that she was possessed of a deadly imperfection on her soul. Unlike her sisters, Annemarie had a vivid, unrestrained imagination. From the time she had been old enough to understand the basic concepts of Father’s bleak brand of evangelical religious faith and the themes of the gloomy Sunday sermons delivered by Brother Isaiah, Annemarie had regularly transformed those ominous warnings about fire and brimstone into sweet fairly tales with happy endings. Each time she finished telling one of her charming tales, Ma would drop her eyes to the floor and her sisters would look uncomfortable. At first, Father explained that interpreting the Bible as if it were a collection of fables was a sin, and he warned the child not to do that again. But she smiled and innocently persisted.
In the barn that first night Father stood behind the shivering naked child and said, “The Book of Job says, ‘naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither: the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.’ I have stripped you of your earthly garments, Ruth, so that you may be humble in the face of the Lord. He will strip you of the cloak of your willful pride so that you may learn to obey Him.” Then he instructed the child to ponder the verse that he had just recited and the warning that he had given to her and ask the Almighty to help her repent and mend her ways. As he said that he silently stared at her bare back and buttocks.
She did not know what to do but was smart enough to understand that she had to remain still and pretend to reflect, although she did not know why Father thought that was necessary. After a few minutes, still on her knees, she turned around to look at Father. He looked troubled and unsure of himself. After a few seconds of thought he told her to dress. Then he said, “This will be our special time each evening. You will pray and reflect and repent and I will keep watch over you. After a time, I will decide whether or not you have risen above your sinful ramblings.” Then he picked her up and carried her to her bed.
The next night, after she had kneeled and pretended to pray for what she felt was a sufficient period of time, she started to turn around to look at Father. He quickly spun away from her and shouted in a frenzied voice, “No! Do not do that. Not until I tell you to do so.” A short while later, Annemarie heard him moan softly and then fuss with his clothing. Then he told her to stand and dress herself, admonishing her to keep her counsel about their “sacred time.”
One evening, three years later, shortly after her twelfth birthday, at a point in time when Annemarie’s body had begun to mature—which allowed her to avoid the nightly ritual for a few days each month, because Father would not touch her when she was “unclean”—she did what, over the past few days, she had anxiously decided to do: she steadfastly refused to go to the barn with Father. She held tight to the headboard of her bed and said, “No! Never again. I’m too old. I’ve been too old for a long time!” Father’s eyes were red and he growled. “I’m good. I’ve been good for a long time. Why do I still have to do this?” When Father reached for her arm she bit his hand. He viciously smacked her face. Then, with one hand, he grabbed the back of her neck and with the other he grasped one of her thin wrists and pulled her loose. As he dragged her across the bedroom floor, her sisters, who had never asked what she and Father did in the barn, cried, and Ma begged Father to let her be. As he pulled the girl down the tall staircase he loudly proclaimed that the Lord would curse them all for their lack of faith in His Word.
In the barn, when Annemarie refused to remove her nightgown, Father smacked her again and again, and then he pulled it and her underwear off her and told her to turn from him and kneel. Although Annemarie was furious and determined to end this humiliating nightly ritual for once and for all, she understood that defying Father would not work, for he would, if he had to, beat her into submission. Her anger was not based on the fact that this man, the one who had helped to raise her, used the sight of her naked body to help satisfy his sexual yearnings. Their purported relationship meant nothing to her; she thought of him as a twisted, foul, hypocrite. Neither did the sexual aspect of this nightly act upset her. In fact, by this point in her young life, Annemarie was totally incapable of embarrassment or squeamishness in reference to sex. For the past few months, she had used her hands every so often after school to satisfy the erotic needs of a number of older boys in exchange for small amounts of cash, which she used to buy candy and soda and ice cream to supplement the skimpy meals provided by the Herndons. Each night, as she knelt on the straw of the barn and pretended to pray, she listened, recognizing all of the sounds: the rustling of clothing, the soft moans, and the barely perceptible splat of semen hitting the straw that covered the ground.
What horrified and infuriated her as much as having to endure this grotesque ritual was the fact that her sisters and Ma knew that something had been happening to her in the old barn for all of these years, from the time she had been a small, innocent child, and they had never asked about it or done anything to stop it. Do they know what this has done to me? she wondered hundreds of times each day. At that point in her life, at the threshold of womanhood, Annemarie fully understood that Father used the guise of intense religious fervor and the threat of eternal damnation to willfully cast her in the role of a whore so that he could satisfy his lustful urges.
The next night, when Annemarie refused to go with him, Father repeatedly smacked her and then he dragged her to the barn, where he stripped her naked, bound her hands and feet with rope and tied her loosely to the stall where the cow slept, saying, “Abraham bound his son Isaac because he loved the Lord. I bind you because I too love the Lord and I must teach you discipline. If you act like an animal, defying me and playing the role of harlot with the boys in town—Yes, I know of that—I will treat you like an animal.”
After Father had energetically spent himself he left Annemarie as she was, naked and bound in the drafty old barn, suggesting that she pass the night reflecting on her disobedient nature and her sinful ways. She curled up on the dirty straw, shivering and crying, more from anger than from fear. She looked at the shovel, pitchfork, and other tools that were nearby, trying to decide whether she could use one of them to cut the rope that bound her. Finally deciding that she would not be able to free herself, she gazed at the cow. Overcoming her revulsion, she crawled as far as the rope would allow her, over feces and urine-soaked straw until she was as close to the animal’s warm body as possible. Then she closed her eyes and dreamed of her real home.
The next morning Father grimly shook his head as he examined Annemarie’s filthy body. Then he untied her, told her to dress, and walked her to the house, saying that she should clean up and dress for school. As she did as she had been instructed she thought, as she often had over the years, about how to escape. After she had washed her body at the bathroom sink, dressed, and swallowed a few bites of breakfast she went outside with her sisters to await the school bus. She was silent, with her head down, angry, desperate, and feeling utterly humiliated, as the others whispered about boys at school who they liked.
At lunchtime, Annemarie weighed her choices: she could remain with the Herndons and continue to live this horrid life; she could try to convince Father that she had truly repented and no longer needed “sacred time,” although she knew that he still needed and wanted it; she could take a kitchen knife and stab him while he slept; or she could run from the ghastly household. Although she was resourceful and emotionally mature, she knew she was not prepared to run off and fend for herself. Despite the fact that she hated Father she doubted she would be able to kill him; besides, if she did that, Ma and her sisters would call the police and tell them what she had done. She resolved to convince Father that she had finally gotten over her sinful ways.
For the next week, she was sweet, loving, obedient, and compliant. Father did not need to bind her—she willingly accompanied him to the barn and remained on her knees after he had told her to get up, explaining, “I feel Jesus, Father. He is right here, in my heart, and I don’t want to end this special time just yet.” On the way back to the house each night during that period of time she told him that she saw Jesus everywhere she went and that He had cleansed her soul. She stayed in the house every day after school, helping Ma and doing her homework and reading, and kept away from the boys who had gotten used to the feel of her hands in exchange for a few coins.
When the nightly “sacred time” continued, Annemarie asked Father how much longer they would need to engage in that special ritual. With an expression of disgust on his weathered face, Father said, “I see through you, Jezebel, as I have before. I know you are attempting to deceive me into believing you have abandoned your sinful ways. You are a wicked temptress and a filthy, polluted harlot. Now, remove your clothing and kneel so that the Lord may judge you.” Later that night, while the others were asleep, Annemarie filled her knapsack with food, a jug of water, and the few dollars that she had saved from her business with the local boys. The next morning, when she and her sisters exited the bus in front of the school, she lagged behind and then she walked quickly toward the adjoining woods. Once she was deep in the forest Annemarie slowed down, sat on a soft, inviting leafy spot, and thought. Then she walked several miles to a major road, where she held out her thumb. A few vehicles passed without stopping. When she spotted a state police car she ran into the woods.
An hour later, a police officer and a man dressed in a green hunting jacket found Annemarie hiding under a fallen tree. After questioning her at the police station, they called her parents. All the way home in the pickup truck Father remained silent. Once they were in the house he brought her to the basement, where he undressed her, placed a burlap feed bag over her head, tied her to a wooden support column, and whipped her with his belt. She refused to cry or ask him to stop. Once he had finished she heard the familiar sounds behind her. Hours later, after untying her and removing the feed bag, Father told Annemarie to dress and go to the kitchen. There, he told his wife, “This sinful girl must be watched. She will no longer go to school. If they send the sheriff you will tell him that I will educate her at home. If she runs away again, woman, you will be held responsible and you will be punished.”
Annemarie did attempt to run away a few weeks later, after the others were asleep, but Father, hearing the stairs creak, jumped out of bed, grabbed her, and dragged her to the barn, where he beat her mercilessly. Then he undressed her, tied her to the cow’s stall, and satisfied his sexual needs a second time that night. Then he left her there.
When Father brought Annemarie to the kitchen the next morning, she saw that Ma’s face was bruised and swollen and she was walking with a limp. Although she did not love the woman she felt guilty that her behavior had caused Ma to suffer. As she lay in bed later that day, sore from the beating she had suffered, Annemarie decided that she had to put up with Father’s abusive behavior for a while longer while she developed a more thorough plan of escape.
Even though Father submitted a home schooling plan to the county he never provided Annemarie with any lessons beyond the nightly prayer sessions. He did allow her to read the books that he had bought over the years, because they were “not offensive to the Lord,” such as Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, and Little Women. Annemarie read for hours each day and dreamed of living a life such as the ones depicted in the books.
A few weeks later, when Father was sure that Annemarie would not attempt to flee again, he allowed her an hour each day to take walks. She used those occasions to meet boys. She saved all of the money that she earned in this way, knowing she would need it in the future.
On her fifteenth birthday, an occasion that the family ignored, as they did all birthdays, Annemarie decided she was now old enough and strong enough to take a stand, one that would shock Father and, hopefully, convince him to end the nightly humiliation. She went willingly to the barn that night and stripped off her clothing without being told to do so. Then she faced him and ran her fingers across her firm, flat abdomen and over her full breasts. Father stared hungrily, but then he said, “You mock me and you mock your Creator. Do not touch your filthy body thus. Turn away and get to your knees and pray harder than you have before so as to bring about your redemption.”
She did not move. Instead, she said, “You’ve force me to strip and you’ve stared at my ass every night for all these years while you ... I’ll be polite and say masturbate. Isn’t that a sin? Aren’t you just a dirty old man pretending to be holy? I want this to stop now! I won’t do it again!”
He approached her. She held her ground. He smacked her across her face. She ducked under the next blow, stumbled, and fell near a pile of tools. Grabbing a pitchfork, she held the business end toward him. Then, feeling bold, she poked it at him over and over again, nicking his outstretched hands. She backed him into a corner and held the sharp tines of the pitchfork inches from his face.
“Will you leave me alone? Say you will, or I swear I will drill this pitchfork into your goddamned ugly face and rip it to a bloody pulp.”
Father put his hands to his sides and looked down.
“Say it. Say it now.”
Still looking down, Father said, “I will leave you in peace.”
Annemarie backed away, threw the pitchfork to the side, and bent down to pick up her nightgown and underwear. Father grabbed her from behind, swung her around, and slapped and punched her over and over again and threw her down. Then he tied her to the cow stall, saying, “No good Christian is obliged to honor promises made to a sinner such as you.” Then, although she was facing him, he unzipped his pants and completed the last rite of their “sacred time.”
The next morning, when Father brought Annemarie to the house, it was clear that something was wrong with her arm. He drove her to the local hospital, where an x-ray revealed a fractured ulna. After her arm had been wrapped in a plaster cast and she had been fitted with a sling, a social worker asked her how she had been injured. She told about the beating, but did not say anything about “sacred time.” Father was picked up at home and taken to the police station, where he was questioned for an hour and then released. Annemarie spent the next two months in a shelter for abused women and girls, where, for the first time in her life, she felt safe and at peace. A young sheriff’s deputy named Nat drove her to school and brought her back to the shelter each day.
One afternoon, a few days after the cast had been removed, as Annemarie exited the school and looked for the deputy’s car, she was horrified to see Father’s pickup parked by the curb. Ma was sitting in the driver’s seat, looking straight ahead; Father was not there. Then, out of the corner of her eye, she glimpsed him running toward her from a nearby alcove; before she could flee, he roughly placed a hand over her mouth, grabbed her around the waist with his other arm, and dragged her to his truck. Pushing her in and sitting next to her, he told Ma to drive.
After they had traveled a short distance from the school Father took his hand from Annemarie’s mouth and warned her to be quiet. They continued in heavy, ponderous silence until Ma stopped the truck at the side of the house and shut the engine. Father grasped Annemarie by the arm and pulled her from the truck. He took her knapsack from her and brought her to the kitchen, where Mary, Sarah, and Naomi were waiting. He told the girls to take the knapsack to their bedroom and stay there. Then he told Ma to leave the room. After she left, he said to Annemarie, “Your sister Abigail should be home soon. She waited at the highway for that deputy to tell him about a car that hit a tree down the road a piece and to say that a dead man was in it. That gave me the opportunity to pick you up. Thus, we had to lie for you. You will not live with strangers and you will not defame me in court. Remember: the wrath of God is powerful and not to be denied.”
Seizing Annemarie’s hand, he growled, “Now, come with me, Ruth, and witness the consequences of your sinful ways.” He shoved her out the door and told her to sit on the bottom step of the porch. He remained in the house just behind the screen door. A short while later Annemarie heard the sound of a car and saw a cruiser coming up the road. It turned into the entranceway and stopped in front of the porch. Nat, the young deputy, stepped out, placed his hat on his head, felt for the revolver at his side, and, after looking at Father behind the screen door, approached Annemarie. He asked whether she had been hurt. She said that she had not. Then, looking at the doorway to the house, he said, “Mr. Herndon, you have violated the law. Ruth is not supposed to be with you. In addition, one of your other daughters told me about a fictitious motor vehicle accident. I will be filing charges against her and you. I will be taking Ruth.”
Father slowly opened the screen door and stepped onto the porch, a shotgun at his side. In one unhurried, composed movement, he brought it to his shoulder, aimed, and fired. Annemarie, reflexively cringing from the sound of the blast and the sensation of pellets cutting through the air above her head, threw herself down. A few seconds later, lying on the dirt, she lifted her head. Nat was on the ground three feet away, in front of his cruiser, his head a raw, bloody, unrecognizable mess. Without thinking, Annemarie shot up and ran to the nearby deep woods, where, hidden from sight, she climbed a giant oak tree. From high up, she watched, sick to her stomach, as Father dragged Nat’s body and then, with Ma’s help, lifted it into the trunk of the police car, after which he closed the trunk and drove the car from the farm, with Ma following in the pickup truck. As they were leaving, Abigail returned. Her sisters, who had been standing on the porch waiting, came down. Then the four girls used shovels to scoop up from the dirt in front of the house what Annemarie assumed was Nat’s blood and other matter and place it in an old oil drum between the house and the barn, after which they dropped in wadded-up newspapers and poured gasoline from a red can into the barrel. One of them lit a match and threw it in. Bright red flames erupted from the can and thick black smoke poured out. When the wind blew in her direction, Annemarie smelled the smoke, knowing it contained burnt specks of Nat’s blood and skin. As the fire burned the girls raked the dirt out front and then they returned to the house.
At dusk, the Herndons returned, and Father searched the woods, at one point, standing below the tree in which Annemarie was hiding. Later, she saw him enter the house. Then, a police car pulled up and parked. Two officers knocked on the door. They remained on the porch talking to Father through the screen door. He held up his hands as if he did not want them to enter the house. After a while, the officers drove away.
Annemarie, still in the tree, strained mightily to ignore the frigid air, the numbness in her fingers and toes, and the powerful need to urinate. When the house lights had been out for what she imagined was an hour she stiffly made her way down from the tree, squatted and urinated on the ground, and then moved stealthily to the porch. She eased open the front door, looked around, and then tiptoed to the kitchen, where she guzzled two glasses of water and wolfed down the remains of a loaf of bread, after which she pulled a razor-sharp carving knife from a drawer. She emptied the family’s savings from the mason jar that Ma kept hidden atop the refrigerator, thinking, This does not come close to paying for what you’ve all put me through.
Upon exiting the kitchen, as Annemarie approached the staircase she heard a harsh eruption of snoring. She froze, peered into the front sitting room, and saw Father asleep on his rocker near the front window, the shotgun on the floor beside him. The only break in the darkness of the room was a sliver of moonlight reflecting off Father’s hairless scalp. Looking at the staircase and then at Father, she ran a fingertip along the sharp blade of the knife and flicked the razor-like point with a fingernail, all the while imagining that she was shoving it into his throat. After staring at the sleeping form for a few seconds Annemarie cautiously ascended the creaky stairs to the bedroom that she shared with her sisters. She waited at the doorway for a moment, looking, listening. None of them moved or spoke, so she entered the room, took her knapsack from her bed. Then, bending down, she retrieved her wad of savings and her mother’s pink towel from its hiding place under a floorboard beneath her bed. After placing those items, along with the knife, in the knapsack, she slipped down the stairs and looked into the dark sitting room. Father was not there! She pulled the knife from the knapsack and, holding her breath, stood against a shadowy wall near the coat closet. She held the knife at her side. She was sure everyone in the house could hear the rapid, heavy thrumming of her heart. As she stood there, frightened but resolute, she considered slipping out of the house, but there was something she had to do first. She heard the sound of water running in the kitchen sink. Then silence. She looked at the door to the house, wondering whether she should run out now. A moment later she heard Father’s slow, clomping step moving in her direction. He entered the sitting room, holding the shotgun, and looked through the window and then at his wristwatch. Then he walked to the staircase, passing within a few feet of Annemarie, who was pressed against the wall in the darkness of the foyer. Father slowly made his way up the stairs. Annemarie heard the door to the bedroom where he and Ma slept open and then close.
She was not wearing a watch and she was not able to see any clocks from where she stood, glued to the wall, so she counted seconds. When she reached 600 she slowly and cautiously moved from the wall and looked up to the top of the staircase. Then, turning, she opened the coat closet, where she knew Father kept his wallet, taking all of the cash that it contained. She grabbed her coat and hat, after which she walked back to the foyer and stared at the head of the stairs again, holding her breath, listening. The house is silent as death. As frightened as she was, Annemarie still had to will herself not to climb those stairs and plunge the knife into Father as he lay in bed.
Annemarie slipped out the door and kneeled before one of the tires of Father’s truck. She thrust the knife into it and twisted. She moved to each of the other tires and repeated the assault. She laughed as she imagined Father gurgling in agony and frantically putting his hands to the ragged gash on his skinny neck. As she pictured the spurting of his blood, the hot blaze of dark liquid shooting into the air and splatting heavily on the ground, she giggled with feverish delight and satisfaction.
As Annemarie stood up she felt hot and sweaty and drained. She threw the knife down to the ground next to one of the flat, dead tires. Then, breathing deeply, she turned to look at the house, and thought, “I should give them one more parting gift.”
After three days of walking and accepting lifts and three nights of eating the least expensive food she could buy and sleeping in fields or in cheap motels, Annemarie had traveled almost to the border of Illinois. She was relieved to be so far from the Herndons because she assumed the police were looking for her. She did not have a destination in mind, nor had she planned on traveling in any particular direction, but as long as she increased the distance between her tired body and the house in which she had been entombed for 15 years she was pleased.
In response to the questions asked by the farmers, truck drivers, salesmen, and others who stopped when they saw her thumbing a ride, Annemarie said that she and her father had been driving to be with his dying mother, her grandmother, who lived in Wheeling, West Virginia, when his car broke down in the middle of nowhere. He had instructed her to keep going, hoping she would be able to get there before it was too late. When people who picked her up expressed concern about her being on her own Annemarie assured them that she knew how to take care of herself, saying, “After all, I just turned 18. I know. I know. I look younger. It’s okay. My father loves me very much and trusts me on my own.” Then she would smile, and they would take her a few more miles in the direction of her dying grandmother.
Realizing that, despite her woman-like body, her face revealed her true age, Annemarie purchased make-up and lipstick at a pharmacy in the first town at which she stopped in Illinois. She landed a job working the counter in a ramshackle diner in that hamlet. The owner, Gus, who was also the cook, believed Annemarie when she said she was 18. He felt that hiring the pretty girl might help his business. When she said she did not have enough money for rent (having spent what she had taken from the Herndons) he said she could sleep in the storeroom until she found an apartment or a room she could afford.
After three very dull weeks in the little town, a regular customer named Dan Morgan asked Annemarie out to the movies, and she agreed. Although she had never dated she knew how to handle boys. However, Dan, who was in his early thirties, was tough to control. All through the first 20 minutes of the movie, he kissed her and repeatedly put his hands on her breasts and attempted to push them up her skirt. After fighting him off, she said, “Wait ... wait until we’re in your truck. I’m too nervous here and I’m embarrassed,” at which point, he sat back in his seat and watched the movie.
Although she had not wanted it to go that far, Annemarie lost her virginity that night in Dan’s truck right outside the gates of the town dump. It was painful at the beginning, but once that part was over she liked Dan’s caresses and his burning passion. She also enjoyed the fact that by using her hands and her mouth and her sumptuous body she was able to wield power over him, if only for a few frenzied minutes. They went out again a few days later. At the end of the evening, sitting in Dan’s truck and kissing, he suggested they go to her room at the back of the diner. Annemarie said that it was small and airless and not conducive to lovemaking, adding that she hoped to rent a better place soon. When she asked whether he wanted to bring her to his house, he said that his mother would never allow that, so they had sex in his truck again.
He was handsome and loving and always bought presents for her.
They saw each other three or four times a week for a bit over two months. One evening, when Dan picked her up at the diner at the end of her shift, she could not help but notice the gloomy expression on Gus’s face. She thought about that all night. The next morning she asked him whether she was making a mistake with Dan.
After hesitating for a few seconds, Gus said, “Look. You’re a nice girl. You’re young and real pretty. Why do this to yourself?”
“Do what, Gus? What am I doing?”
“You mean you don’t know?”
“No, but I think I’m beginning to get the picture. Tell me, please.”
“He’s got a wife and kids. I thought you knew.”
The next time they went out, Annemarie asked Dan again about going to his house to have sex.
He said, “I told you my ma wouldn’t like that.”
“Your ma or your wife?”
With a dark smile, Dan said, “Right. My fat wife wouldn’t like it.” Then he started to explain that he had never loved the woman but had to marry her, and that when his children were older he would leave her. Feeling hot and smothered and unable to breathe in Dan’s truck, Annemarie fumbled with the door handle, but he grabbed her arms and pulled her to him. He kissed her and reached under her skirt. She bit his tongue, turned, and managed to unlatch the door and run to a dark alleyway, where she cried and shook and choked. Dan did not follow her. The next morning, just about the time she was due to start working, Annemarie packed her belongings and walked to the bus station. She did not ask Gus for her last few days of pay. She boarded a bus heading east.
Annemarie found her way to the next small town, where she acquired a job working in a grain and feed store. The owner hired her after she said that she had lived on a farm for her entire life. She had just enough cash from her last job for a deposit on a ramshackle room above a bar. Four months later, bored and restless and unhappy, she took a bus to another town. She did not know what she was looking for, but each time she made a move, it was always in the direction of the sunrise.
Six months later and many miles further east, Annemarie, who had not found a job in weeks, realized that she did not have enough cash for a motel room. She became panicky because the weather had grown bitterly cold. She would not be able to sleep out in the open, so she walked to a major road, hoping to hitch a ride to a town with better prospects. A bit before sunset, a car stopped. The driver, a large, mild-looking man with gray hair, introduced himself as Reverend Towler. After asking Annemarie the usual questions about where she was going and why she was alone, he said that he would take her to where he was headed, Columbus, Ohio, but would not be able to go that far that night because he did not like driving in the dark. An hour later, he stopped at a motel at the outskirts of a gloomy-looking town just over the border in Ohio, where he booked a room with two beds. He apologized, saying that he could not afford two rooms, adding, “I am a man of the cloth and a servant of God, child. You need not fear. We will sleep in separate beds like brother and sister or father and daughter. If you are uncomfortable with that, you are welcome to sleep in my car.” Annemarie, who had grown fearless during her months on the road, said the arrangement was fine with her.
After a meal of roast chicken and vegetables, coffee, and ice cream, which Annemarie, who had not eaten much in the past two days, gobbled down and thoroughly enjoyed, Reverend Towler led her to the room and said he hoped she would be willing to recite evening prayers with him. She politely declined, saying she would rather take a shower. Luxuriating in the hot water and enjoying the smell and feel of the fragrant soap, she hoped the man would be finished with his religious devotions by the time she came out of the bathroom. After toweling her body dry and combing her hair, she put on the only clean clothes she had, an old sweatshirt and a pair of jeans. She entered the bedroom, dropped her knapsack on the floor next to one of the beds, and looked at Reverend Towler. The minister, who had changed into blue flannel pajamas, was sitting on a straight-backed chair, reading from a large, black Bible, occasionally dabbing at his eyes with a handkerchief. He blew his nose and then returned to the Bible. When Towler saw her, he stopped reading and smiled sadly, explaining that “the word of the Lord inspires me and reminds me daily just how sinful and unworthy I am.” Then he asked again whether she would pray with him. Seeing no easy way out and not wanting to offend this man who was providing her with shelter, Annemarie reluctantly assented. He gestured for her to approach; when she did he reached up and placed the fingers of one hand on her forehead and recited, “May the ever-loving Lord God of Hosts and His Son the Redeemer Jesus Christ bless you and keep you from sin so that you may enjoy the blessings of Heaven.” After smiling benevolently at Annemarie he motioned for her to kneel. She looked around the room and then at the minister. He smiled sweetly and said, “Here, child; kneel here, before me, so that I may bless you again when we have finished.”
She told him that she would rather not, and remained standing, but, to be polite to this holy man, she bowed her head, closed her eyes, and held her palms together. As Reverend Towler recited what he called a blessing for those “whose road is broken and rough,” Annemarie figured she may as well try to pray, reach out to God, thinking that after all she had been through, she certainly needed the help of the Lord. Perhaps, she thought, this pious man would be able to help her to feel the presence of the Holy Spirit.
Towler read a passage from Psalms and then one from Proverbs, periodically stopping to sniffle. Annemarie kept her eyes closed and, in the warm, still atmosphere of the little room, began to think that for the first time since she was a small child, she did feel close to God. As the minister’s strong but sugary voice reverberated, Annemarie felt that she was being transported to a different, higher, sweeter, more satisfying plane of existence. After a while, with her eyes still closed, she heard the sound of the Bible closing and then thump as Reverend Towler placed it on the table that was next to his chair. The room was silent; she remained where she was, still reaching out to the Holy Spirit. In a small way, she felt transformed and elevated, but unworthy.
“Now, open your eyes, child, and allow me to bless you again,” Reverend Towler said, reaching up to her forehead and pressing both of his warm thumbs against her cool skin. Annemarie felt a pleasant tingle that traveled from her forehead to her abdomen and down to her toes. She closed her eyes again and gently pushed her head against his fingertips. She wanted him to keep his hands there forever; she hoped he would embrace her with fatherly affection. When had anyone done that—embrace her? Dan? Yes, but his embraces lasted only as long as his erections did, so that did not count. She suddenly felt flushed and guilty and dirty as she thought of her sinful entanglement with him. She wished she had not given in to that cheating man. The boys she had touched when she was younger? No. They had never held her. They had wanted the same thing as Dan, but she never went anywhere near that far with them; besides, she had always demanded money before she agreed to reach down and fondle and stroke them, so those episodes had been business transactions and not situations involving embracing. She did not remember Father or Ma or her sisters ever embracing her or displaying any kind of physical affection toward her or speaking to her or, for that matter, to each other, with loving words.
When Reverend Towler dropped his hands to his sides, Annemarie opened her eyes and smiled at him. She did not move. He remained seated, looking up at her with fatherly affection. Then her smile turned to a deep frown and her face darkened and tears came to her eyes.
“What is troubling you, child?”
“I ... I have done bad things, Reverend.”
“We are all sinners. That is the lot of man.”
“I feel so ashamed.”
“Do you want to talk about it? I would like to bring you comfort.”
Annemarie stared, unsure about what to do, how much to say. The minister placed his hands on her wrists and gestured for her to kneel in front of him. As she knelt, he withdrew his hands and sat back in his chair. She looked up at him and then at the table next to his chair; it held his big black Bible, a corncob pipe, a large pouch of tobacco, his wallet, car keys, some unopened correspondence, and a letter opener whose handle was in the shape of a cross.
“Speak, child. I cannot believe that one so young could have committed any but the most trivial sins. Tell me, if you would like, but understand that I do not have the power to forgive you of your sins. Only Our Lord Jesus Christ can do that and only if you truly repent.”
“I ... I don’t know where to begin.”
“Tell me what burdens you the most,” Towler said, smiling at Annemarie and gently patting her head.
“I don’t know if I can. I have lived a bad life. I am so ashamed and torn up inside. I sometimes wish I was dead. I’m … soiled.”
“We are born pure, but when we are old enough to understand, Satan finds us, and we engage in transgressions.”
“What can I do?”
“Open your heart to our Lord and Savior and ask for forgiveness.”
Annemarie, still kneeling, told Reverend Towler about her affair with Dan, explaining that, even though she did not know he was married, their behavior was still sinful and the memory of it burned her very core.
“So, you are not a virgin,” he said in a severe, harsh voice.
“No. I wish I was. I truly do, but there’s more,” and she told him how she had, on numerous occasions, taken money from boys in exchange for using her hands to grant them sexual gratification.
“That is the sin of onanism. Boys do that on their own. It is worse that you did that for them—and for money. You are nothing more than a harlot, a prostitute, young as you are.”
At those words, Annemarie began to cry. She wished she had not told this good man about her whore-like behavior. Now he would not embrace her, would not comfort her. He might even banish her from his room. She knew she deserved it, and she was truly sorry. As she knelt before Reverend Towler she thought about her numerous transgressions and then how Father had repeatedly forced her to kneel in the barn as he gratified himself. No. I will not tell this good man about that degenerate behavior and I will not talk about the other thing I did before I left. She put her head down and cried and shook and choked. Then she reached out to him, eventually placing her hands lightly on his knees.
“You are not the innocent young woman I thought you to be.”
“No,” she replied between racking sobs, “but I want to be good. I want Jesus to forgive me and I want to live a good life.”
“You will have to follow the commandments and obey the laws of the holy church if you want to be absolved of your sins.”
“I will. I’ll do anything.”
“Pray hard and ask for the strength to be obedient.”
“I will. Oh, thank you,” she said, as she withdrew her hands and crossed them over her chest. She closed her eyes and rocked on her knees and concentrated on asking Jesus for forgiveness of her many sins. Then she opened her eyes, looked up lovingly at Reverend Towler, and reached for his hands. She held them and kissed them over and over again and then she held one of them against the soft skin of her cheek and smiled sweetly at him.
Towler yanked his hands away and, glaring at her, spit out in a rasping voice “Go! You pollute me by your presence in this room. I wish I had never taken you in or touched you or allowed you to touch me.”
Overwhelmed with hot shame and a powerful wave of crushing grief, Annemarie looked up helplessly at Reverend Towler. She wished she could go back to the moment before she had confessed to him—even better, to the time when she first met Dan, or further back, to when Father first brought her to the barn, thinking, If I knew then what I know now, I would have slashed his throat.
Then, in a towering rage, Towler shouted, “You are a temptress and a filthy harlot. You ruin men’s lives.”
“No. I’m not. I’ve done bad things, but I’m not a bad person.”
“You are. Now, you are using your womanly ways to tempt me.”
“No. I would never—”
“You are, but I will resist your evil. Go! Get out from here and live in the gutter, where you belong, where, one day, mongrel dogs will find your corrupt body.” Still on her knees, Annemarie looked up at this man whose heart was filled with the spirit of the Almighty. His face stiff, he glowered at her. She was unable to move. He reached down and pushed her, but she grasped his hands and, choking with tears, she held them. He pulled back. Then, as his face transformed from an expression of disgust and fear to one of great agitation, he froze, staring, as if he was standing on a ledge, looking down into an abyss, afraid to move.
“Can’t you help me? Can’t you reach down and help me?”
After a long moment, with his eyes focused on her, Towler sighed. She reached up to him again. He grasped her hands and, trembling, brought them to his face. Annemarie was surprised and uncomfortable, but then, as he held her fingers to his warm face, she relaxed and smiled. Then he quickly brought her hands down and pressed them to his lap. Annemarie gasped and pulled her hands away. As she began to stand he grasped her shoulders in his strong hands and held her down.
She shrieked, “Don’t. I’ll go.”
He whispered, “No. Wait. Stay. Do not go! I am weak, but this is a blessed moment for us. Share in it with me. The Good Lord comes to us in many forms and bestows many gifts upon us that we may know Him and glory in Him. Stay.” She tried to loosen his hands from her shoulders and stand up, but he held her in an iron grip. “Stay as you are.” Then, relaxing his hands, he whimpered, “No. Stand up. Go away. Go! Do not tempt me with your filthy womanly ways.”
As she began to stand he pulled her down again, whispering, “No. Stay, my dear. It would not be a sin! You will not spill my seed, as you did with those boys who paid you. I am not married, so it is not the sin of infidelity. This will be a joyous occasion. You are not pure, so why not share this moment of pleasure with me?” As Annemarie pulled back from Towler, his vise-like grip on her shoulders held her, preventing her from rising. She cursed herself for not having kept the carving knife she had used to flatten the tires of Father’s pickup truck. She could almost feel it in her hands. She would smile as she plunged it into the man’s belly and then push it in deeply and twist it over and over again.
Glancing at the table, Annemarie shot out a hand toward it. Quickly letting go of her shoulders, Towler grabbed her arm at the same moment that she managed to seize the letter opener. She broke free of his grasp and then, using both of her hands and all of her strength and forcing herself partway up at the same time, she pushed the sharp point against his chest. As he began falling back on his chair she collapsed onto him. The table also fell, spilling its contents to the floor. Annemarie pulled loose from the man and let go of the letter opener. She frantically scrambled to her feet. He grabbed her ankle and pulled her down to the floor again. She kicked out at him and broke his grip, quick-crawling away. Then she stood up and ran to the door, but he managed to get up and grab the back of her sweatshirt. She shook loose and ducked under him and bolted back to the overturned chair and table. He turned to her and stood at the door, feeling his chest and then looking at his hand, surprised to see that it was wet with blood. He wiped his hand on his pajama top and, his wide-open eyes terrible with the red light of righteous wrath, he began walking toward her. She snatched the letter opener from the floor and held it up, the sharp point in line with his chest again. The splotch of blood on his pajama top was spreading, forming an ugly red flower-shaped blemish. As he lunged for the sharp weapon in her hand, he stepped on the Bible, slipped off, and crashed into her. They fell to the floor again. He howled in pain, put a hand to his neck, and screamed as a glob of blood spurted out and spattered onto the floor. Quickly sitting up and tightly clutching his neck with both hands, Towler looked at Annemarie in astonishment. Then, after pulling away his hands and looking at them in horror, he clamped them back on his neck. A steady stream of blood dripped from under his hands and between his fingers, down his arms, and, within seconds, formed a sickeningly large syrupy-red puddle on the bare floor of the motel room. Towler looked down and gasped and tried to stand, but became dizzy, and sat down hard again. He whispered, “Please help me. I don’t want to die.” Annemarie looked at the man and became alarmed. Her head spun and her back hurt. She was not sure she understood what was happening. Then she saw the cross-shaped letter opener on the floor, the first inch of its sharp tip coated with blood. She had no sympathy for the man, but she hoped he would not die. After she had scooted a few feet further away she picked up the letter opener and then hesitantly crawled back to him. He was breathing heavily, straining to stanch the flow of blood. Holding the sharp point of the letter opener against one of Towler’s cheeks, Annemarie told him to calm down. Then, using her free hand, she pried his wet, sticky fingers loose and examined his neck. She saw that the flow of blood had begun to diminish. The wound was not as serious as he thought. Still holding the letter opener and looking him directly in the eye to assure herself that he was too frightened to attack her again, she opened his pajama top and looked at the wound on his chest. It was a small puncture. Standing up and moving away from him, she ripped a handful of pages from his Bible, placed them on the bloody spot on his neck, and told him to hold his hands over the paper. Then she walked to the bathroom, grabbed a towel, and returned to him. She wrapped the towel around his neck, saying, “It would be best for you to close your eyes and lie still until the blood stops flowing. If you move around you’ll bleed to death, and if you try to touch me or follow me I’ll kill you. I swear I will. You know I will.”
After dragging a blanket from one of the beds and covering Towler with it, Annemarie plucked his car keys and wallet from the floor, grabbed her knapsack, and ran out of the room to the parking lot. Even though she had never driven a car she had watched Father do it. She started Towler’s car and drove very slowly for a long while along dark, deserted country roads. Each time she spotted a police car she worried that she might be stopped and questioned and brought back to her home town to be punished. She was especially concerned that since she had not put on make-up or lipstick after her shower at the motel she probably looked her age. As she became tired and increasingly anxious she looked for a place to spend the night, eventually stopping at a diner parking lot, where she closed her eyes and slept.
In the morning, Annemarie put on make-up in the diner bathroom and then she sat at the counter. As she ate breakfast, she glanced now and then at the car in the parking lot. A man next to her at the counter introduced himself as Jim and started talking, saying that he was on an extended sales trip, which was boring and unpleasant, but he was glad to be away from his wife and “passel of children” for a while. They chatted. Then, as Annemarie finished eating, she looked out the window again, and saw two police officers examining the car. She choked on her coffee. Jim held her glass of water up to her; she grasped it, sipped, and then, looking out again, saw that one of the police officers was talking into a phone in his car. The other one was staring at the diner.
She touched Jim on his arm and, smiling sadly, said that she was in trouble and had to get away immediately. Looking nervously excited, the man hesitantly asked Annemarie whether she wanted to travel with him. “Yes. Thanks. I would like that—as long as we leave right now.”
“That’s great. I’ll take you with me for as long as you like.”
“Thanks. I’ll walk out the rear door. Meet me there.”
Annemarie sat low on the front seat of Jim’s car as Jim drove from the parking lot. A minute later, Annemarie sat up, turned her head, and looked behind her. The road was empty.
“So, you don’t care where you’re going?” he asked.
“No. Running from a real angry, crazy boyfriend.”
“Well, I’m not crazy and I never get angry. If you want, you can stay with me for a while, maybe my whole sales trip,” adding that he would pay her generously for her time and companionship. Even though Jim was nice looking, Annemarie decided she would not do what he had suggested. Then, growing cold at the realization that all she had was the twenty-three dollars in Towler’s wallet, she turned to Jim and said that she would be willing to stay with him for a day or two, as long as he would be willing to drop her off further east. Happily nodding his head, Jim said that he would be pleased to do that.
Two days later, Jim told Annemarie that she made him very happy and he wished he had the courage to leave his wife so that they could stay together, “if you would have me, I mean.” She smiled and said that she had to keep traveling.
She hitched rides and took buses and wandered for the next three years, working odd jobs, occasionally living with men, from whom she asked for money, sometimes stealing small amounts from their wallets, always traveling east, although she did not know why. She lived with a couple in their fifties, Betsy and Ralph Connover, in Brookville, Pennsylvania, for six months. In exchange for room, board, and spending money, Annemarie agreed to assist the woman, who suffered from advanced Parkinson’s disease, and clean and cook for the couple. One night at the end of her first month, as she emerged from the bathroom, wrapped in a damp bath towel, she found Ralph Connover waiting in the hallway. He joked about how he so desperately needed to use the bathroom that he had almost barged in on her. Then he said, “I guess you wouldn’t have liked me to do that with you in the shower.” Annemarie smiled coyly and walked to her room. She kept the door partly open, waiting until she heard Ralph emerge from the bathroom. Keeping her back turned, when she guessed he would be passing by her room she languorously opened and then dropped the towel to the floor. She stretched her slim, shapely body and, still with her back turned, she slipped into a nightgown. Then, engaging in a darkly satirical bit of theater, she knelt by her bed in prayer. When Ralph entered her room and knelt next to her she did not move. He touched her arm. She turned to him and said, “I’ll do what you want, but I need a lot more money than what you pay me. I’ll still take care of Betsy and I’ll cook, but I won’t clean anymore.”
When Annemarie left the Connovers she continued to travel east, working at menial jobs in a number of towns and villages across Pennsylvania, with no final destination in mind. Eventually, she found her way to a fishing village along the banks of the Delaware River in rural southern New Jersey, where she worked in a luncheonette. When she grew tired of the job and that sleepy town, she traveled to Cape May, where she found employment in a souvenir shop, but the least expensive apartment she was able to find gobbled up most of her pay. After just a few months, Annemarie walked to the bus depot and, as she scanned a map of routes, she smiled. She purchased a ticket to New York City, where she hoped to find the life and the home for which she had searched for so long.
Now, so many years later, Annemarie sat next to Mark in the bedroom of their desert ranch, listening to the hum of the ventilator and other devices. Then, looking at her husband, she raised her Champagne glass again. Holding it in mid air, she turned to a window and focused on a series of echoing thunder claps in a distant part of the surrounding hills. She wondered where the storm was, hoping it would come their way; she had always loved the sound of rain as it hit window glass. Then, looking at Mark’s pale, limp face, which was grotesquely distorted because of tubes and wires and strips of adhesive tape, she thought about the transiency of life. She remembered how virile and strong and vibrant and happy he had been during their first years together and how much she had loved him. Then she looked at her hands, the hands that he had always admired, and wondered how many years she had left before they began to look horribly wrinkled and frail, with easily bruised paper-thin skin. Whoever thought of this system of life, with aging and slow death, should be shot, she thought, and then she smiled. It would be so nice if we all could live long, happy lives and then receive a notification from wherever, saying, “Your time on Earth is drawing to a close. Put your affairs in order.” It would be good to know that death would come soon and it would be quick and painless and not leave you looking like a piece of fruit that had been left out in the sun for a week. Wouldn’t that be nice? Wouldn’t the idea of a long, happy life without cruelty and sadness and disappointment be lovely?
Then, tumbling down to reality, Annemarie choked back a sob as she thought of her disappointing years with Mark. Of course, he had been disappointed too. He had every reason to believe that the young woman he had married and then brought to a luxury apartment in the best part of Manhattan and with whom he had a child would remain in love with him and fulfill his every desire for all of their years together. She knew that her feelings had changed for reasons other than her unhappiness regarding living on the ranch in the desert. With a spasm of guilt, she chastised herself for her many infidelities and for the times she had not offered Mark the physical affection and lovemaking and comforting warmth that he desired.
I did try most of the time. It’s just that, as he got old and then fat and flabby, I could not bear to have him touch me. Even though he never mistreated me, I could not help but see Father. How unfair of me, as if I haven’t changed, gotten old too.
She looked at Mark and felt remorseful. Then she wondered: if he were to miraculously spring back to life right now and once again have the raging vitality and robust libido of the man she had married, would she be able to become warm and moist and loving and would she be willing and able to satisfy his every desire, as she once had? She hoped she would, but she knew she would not. They had traveled down a desolate, dusty road for too long, where, in a very real sense, they had parted ways. The warmth and joy that they had experienced and the love they had felt for each other were far in the past—part of another lifetime. Her feelings for him were as dead and desiccated as the desert stretching around them, and she would never be able to bring them back to life.
She sipped her Champagne and listened to a much louder, much closer, more threatening crash of thunder. The house vibrated in tune with it. A moment later, light rain began hitting the windows of the bedroom, quickly increasing in intensity, and then the storm was upon them. Lightning lit up the sky and explosions of thunder shook the house. A fusillade of intensely angry raindrops and tiny hailstones exploded against the windows. Annemarie looked at Mark and then she shivered. The machines were working as they should, breathing for him and hydrating him and feeding him.
Annemarie wiped tears from her eyes. Then, looking at her husband, she smiled and said, “Happy anniversary, dear. I hope you can hear me. I hope that, wherever you are, there are saddle horses and clear skies and wide open ranges.”