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Drew Ewing, 19 Aug '12

                                        "PUT ON A GOOD SHOW"

        The place had a smell to it, urine, sweat, dirt, little kids and guilt. The carpet was patches of colors and threads all of them covered with brown and red stains. Every flat surface was littered with bald Barbie’s, broken toy soldiers and matchbox cars.
        
        There was a noise to the place. It was a cacophony of kids laughing and playing, screaming and crying, parents yelling and cussing, and the whispers of the supervisors amongst themselves.
        
        This place was the highlight of my week. It didn't matter if I was there to see my mom or other times to see my dad. Sometimes my grandparents would join and sometimes friends of my siblings would tag along to hang out. The fun wasn't in getting to see my family or even to play with other kids. The fun came in the two hour intervals of safety because we all had to play pretend.

        We had to pretend that everything was okay. We all knew this was a facade we put on for those who were watching us with their long noses and clipboards, scribbling down my family’s ugly little performance. I didn't much care what they wrote, but I knew my parents cared because it was their way of keeping score.

        My parents split when I was in fifth grade. And every day after that their lives became a game and their children were the way they kept score. There were six of us, two boys and four girls some of us with red hair – six little points. The youngest of the kids couldn't understand what was going on. They just ate their melted candy bars and drank their Kool-Aid. But, I knew this was a game. My parents would calculate their moves carefully before each visit. And they would spend the rest of the week tallying the points up and readying their next gambit to be played out over their next two hours on stage.

        I don't think they knew that I understood what they were doing, but I kept their dirty secret away from my siblings. I didn't get to see my sisters much and seeing them smiling and laughing was enough. My brother was quiet and kept to himself until one of the girls begged for his attention.

        I think the girls believed this was normal, though we hadn't lived a normal moment – ever. My parents got married very young, because my mom was pregnant with me. I don't know if they were pressured into tying the knot or if they deluded themselves all on their own.

        Had my parents not married, I imagine I would have been an only child. I wanted to be alone, not so I could be spoiled, but because I wanted the rest of them to be spared.

        I may have felt safe during those visits but I was angrier than anything else. I was angry because I didn't think my siblings understood that this wasn't real. Kids weren't supposed to visit their parents in a center under the scrutiny of people with degrees and ideals of what families should be. It wasn't normal to be boxed into a disgusting building with dozens of other families all scattered in tiny corners. It wasn't normal to say good bye to each other after a couple of hours and be forced to not see or speak to each other for another week.

        I was angry at those who watched us. They believed my parents were good people, people who loved their kids. They didn't see that both of my parents were award winning actors. And the watchmen with their clipboards were too stupid to see the curtain.

        There were times I thought some of the social workers saw it, but were too scared to admit it, because the truth was messy and they were encouraged to clean up the mess and move on. There would always be more messes, hundreds, and thousands more waiting to charge in and deposit their own stains on the already wretched carpet.

        I pretended to enjoy the packed lunches my mom had made, of foods we couldn't stand, but she was convinced we all loved. And I would eat the lunches of hamburgers and pizza my dad bought. My parents showed their lies in different ways. My dad did it by trying to buy us all out, like we were his little employees and if he could throw enough money on the blood then it would all be cleaned. My mom showed it by telling everyone how much she loved us and stories of how much she sacrificed to be a mother.

        Every weekend we would spend two hours with my mom and then two hours with my dad. What I didn't understand was no matter which one we saw first and who we left with, the girls would cry whenever either of them walked away. I wondered what the social workers thought. Their tears were painful for me, I didn't understand how they could cry just as hard over either parent, and because they expected me to cry with them. I never shed tears at those visits. I knew what those visits meant. It was a game and we would never be more than pawns to be sacrificed.

        After we left the visits my mom would bad mouth my dad and try her damnedest to show us how fake his efforts were. My dad would tell us how insane my mom was and how she needed help and how we would never ever be safe with her. I believed them both. Not because I loved them or because they were grownups or even because they were my parents. I believed them both, because they were both finally telling the truth.

        I wasn't sure what my siblings thought about enduring those visits. I never bothered to ask, I feared they wouldn’t understand, and they would start asking questions and I might be tempted to tell the truth.

        So on those Saturdays I would put on a smile and go on with the show. I told my parents what they wanted to hear, and did my best to keep my siblings happy. For two hours we would eat meals that we had long grown tired of. We would play with someone else’s toys and listen to the stories of how much they loved us and how hard they were working to take us from the other parent.

        Whenever either of them talked about getting close to having us all to themselves, the thought terrified me. Not because the pizza and ice cream would end and getting all the toys we wanted would be over. It terrified me because I knew what would really happen when no one was watching.

        I don't have to tell you that my parents weren't model people or even passable human beings. They hit their kids until we had black and blue marks and some of their beatings would even draw blood when they lost control. They would neglect feeding us breakfast or dinner for days at a time. And if any of us complained, we would all be hit even harder. At the time I figured this is what all kids lived through.

        There were many nights I would lay there wondering what other kids were doing and what their parents were like. I would fall asleep in dirty sheets in an empty room wondering what my parents had for dinner.

Comments · 3

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  • Drew Ewing said...

    This story is a lightly edited (for readability) stream of consciousness piece I wrote a couple of years ago. I never intended to submit this as a flash fiction or short story anywhere, but my wife tells me I need to be more honest with the voice inside me when I write. So here I am taking the chance and posting the most deep and honest thing I think I have ever written.

    • Posted 5 years ago
  • Anthony Blackshaw said...

    This is wonderfully told Drew.

    • Posted 5 years ago
  • Rachel Anderson said...

    Now that I've gotten to your comment, I understand why it felt like I was listening to someone tell a story that isn't really being "told" (the repetitions, the over-explanation, the in-depth personal narration, etc).

    It's really hard-hitting. I laughed when I read your first line. Thinking of a place smelling like guilt just seemed laughable to me...
    I didn't fully understand the gravity of the situation 'til I got to the end. You really know how to hook a reader, Sir Ewing. Great job.

    • Posted 5 years ago