Note: Linked endnotes go to a Google document.
There was a young girl whose heart was a frown
‘Cause she was crippled for life and couldn’t speak a sound,
And she wished and prayed she could stop living,
So she decided to die ...
‘Cause she was crippled for life and couldn’t speak a sound,
And she wished and prayed she could stop living,
So she decided to die ...
When I was in first grade, just three years earlier, Mom, climbing stairs, suddenly stooped over and vomited. But what came out wasn’t food, but blood. Lots of blood. She swooned and collapsed, falling backward down the stairs and breaking her back. She made it to the emergency room just in time: her stomach was moments from bursting, so full of blood was it.
She died on the operating table. Four times.
The local hospital had no idea what was going on with her, so she was transported to
sixty miles away, where she
would spend the next ten months in intensive care. In the meantime, teams of
specialists from all over the country poked and prodded and tested her in every
imaginable way—and in unimaginably invasive and painful ways. A theory finally
developed as to what was ailing her. She was likely suffering from
polymyositis, what was then considered a very rare adult muscle disorder. We
were told in effect that she had a form of muscular dystrophy, a disease that
normally attacks children. Denver General Hospital
Mom had to learn how to walk again. Eat again. Breathe again.
She had to take some 70 medications every day, and would until her death fifteen years later in 1984.
She had to live with the fact that a horrible terminal disease was eventually going to take her prematurely from her children.
And she had to deal with my father, a drunken, philandering, bigoted, avaricious and bloated tyrant who forever refused to acknowledge her sickness, claiming she was “faking it,” and who humiliated and raged at her and us, his five kids, every chance he got.
No matter how you look at it, Louis Helbert, Jr. was a genuine monster. Mom had no one to protect her from him: my two older sisters were drug users and, for not so mysterious reasons, sympathetic to him. My younger brother and sister and I were far too young to do anything about what we saw happening around us.
In retrospect, we were the most dysfunctional family in the entire Country Club Estates neighborhood. Perhaps in all of northern
Colorado. In my childhood, my siblings and I
were witness to and recipients of regular physical and verbal abuse from dear
ol’ Dad; two of my siblings engaged in incest; one had had multiple abortions
by the time she was eighteen; another was discovered sleeping with her high
school math teacher; one participated in a robbery and was, for a short time, a
suspected accomplice in the grisly murder of a young woman whose body was found
in an irrigation ditch just a couple of miles from our house. It was no secret
that the Helbert family home was an easy place to score dope, and at
bargain-basement prices: after all, my sisters and brother often competed with
each other for sales!
In 1972, at ten years of age and living in this hell, I knew only two things: that I loved Mom, and that I loved Connie. Beyond that, it was deuces wild.
My bedroom was at that time next to Shelly’s, my older sister. She was playing Jimi Hendrix on her new record player a few days after Christmas when I heard familiar, heavy footfalls coming down the stairs. It was Dad. He marched by my bedroom where I lay on my bed reading a book on astronomy. At the entrance to Shelly’s room he roared, “Turn that shit off right now!”
I heard her say something—something I couldn’t make out except for its tone, which was snotty and petulant—and then I heard a great screech and then a jarring, punctuated crash. And then Shelly was shrieking, the shrieking getting abruptly louder, as though she were on fire and racing to get into my room.
She wasn’t on fire. Dad had her by her long dark hair and was dragging her caveman-style down the hallway towards the stairs. In his other hand was a baseball bat. He’d used that, as it turned out, to smash her new record player to pieces. He dragged my sister up the stairs where, with more shrieking, he presumably punished her further. I didn’t really know; by that point I had closed my bedroom door and sat shaking on my bed, the astronomy text completely forgotten.
It was like that in the Helbert household. Violence, abuse of every kind, self-medicating, more violence, more abuse, more doping.... I remember reading the Bible that year, cover to cover. I remember the guilt I felt. Guilt—because every night when I went to bed, I prayed that Lou would divorce Mom and abandon us, his family. I blamed him for everything I saw happening around me day after day; I blamed him for the sense that at any moment it could be my turn next, which it was on occasion, and to watch myself very, very carefully. By the time I was ten years old I could melt into the woodwork, even while sitting at the dinner table. When my father noticed me, he, incredibly, took me to task for not being more like my siblings.
“You spend all your time in your goddamn bedroom,” he growled menacingly one day. “What the fuck are you doing down there, Shawn? You could make some friends, be more like your older sisters.”
When I told him that my older sisters were drug users and were in constant trouble at school, he backhanded me and bellowed, “Well, at least they aren’t turning into a fag like you! You could learn something from them! It’d do you some good to light one up or sneak out of class! Make a man out of you! At the rate you’re going now, you’ll never get there! All you do is sit in your bedroom and read those goddamn books! That’s all you do!”
“Those goddamn books” were given to me by Mom, who had long since noted my desire to learn more about astronomy and about snakes and amphibians, and so fed my curiosity by surreptitiously buying me books on them. My father never bought me a single book—but had no trouble threatening to take them away from me.
“I oughta burn every last goddamn one of ‘em,” he snarled one evening after dinner. “You’re turning Shawn into a fag, Virginia.”
Mom’s name was Kathleen. Lou had renamed her “
after the doctors told him she could no longer have sex, not without
endangering her life. “ Virginia”
came from “virgin.” From the time she left the hospital after her initial
ten-month stay until he deserted the family in 1974, he never called her
anything else. For a long time I thought it was her real name and that
Kathleen—Kay—was a nickname.
I ended up hiding my most cherished books, including the one on American Indians that Connie gave me. I worried about them constantly; I worried Lou would discover them.
He found other things of mine to destroy instead.
As I alluded to earlier, I was fascinated by reptiles, snakes in particular. I could recite facts and figures about snakes to you, everything from various species to weights and lengths and habitats and poisons and what they preyed on. I loved looking at pictures of the big pythons and anacondas; there was (there is) an intense dignity about them.
Since I lived in the country, I had all sorts of fields in which to explore for the snakes indigenous to northern
They were, by and large, hard to find. But garter snakes are common there, and
when I caught one, I’d keep it in a ten-gallon aquarium on my desk in my bedroom
and study it. Sometimes I’d get lucky and find two. In the winter of 1972,
during Christmas break, I had four such snakes, all collected the previous
summer. All lived in the same tank. I’d given them names.
One early January day, as the recent snowstorm melted under the warm caress of chinook winds, I came back from another of my explorations to find my father looming in the driveway, glowering at me, a shovel in his hand, the tank my snakes lived in at his feet.
Without a word he kicked the tank over. The snakes, freed, tried to find shelter away from the exposed, barren, cold cement. He raised the shovel.
I screamed, “NO!”
He brought the blade down on the first snake with a sharp clang, cutting it cleanly in two. As I stood there, horrified, watching its two halves flop and bleed, he did it again and again ... and again, and again, hacking with a rapid mindful military order at all of them. I could do nothing but shriek and jump impulsively with each sharp clang. Each strike of metal on concrete echoed like a rifle report off our barn across the driveway, lost itself in the fallow, silent, snow-lined fields across the county road, in the wind blowing indifferently through the trees. The snakes flopped as they died; they twisted and writhed, curling protectively about themselves and bleeding. Lou kept hacking at them, hacking and hacking. He finally brought the shovel down on the aquarium, smashing it, the glass scattering over the driveway and the dying and dead snakes.
Mom had heard my shrieks and was now standing at the front door. She screamed, “Louis, what are you doing?”
“I’m teaching this little shit a lesson!” he yelled, not looking back at her.
“Stop it! Stop!” she ordered, tears in her eyes.
“Get back inside,
This doesn’t concern you. I’m going to make a man out of this little fuck if it
kills him. And frankly I don’t care if it does.”
But his attention was firmly on me. “Come here!”
My dad was a huge man—over 6’2” in height and nearly 300 pounds. I was utterly terrified of him. I did as he asked. I approached him, blubbering, sickened, so aghast at what I’d just witnessed that I knew it would stay with me the rest of my life. Whatever punishment he was about to dole out could not possibly compare.
As I came within reach, he grabbed me by my shirt collar and slapped me, hard. The slap sent stars of shooting pain through my vision. I was choking from his grip, but somehow still managed to scream.
“Stop bawling, you little baby!” he bellowed over Mom’s helpless cries. The smell of stale bourbon washed over my face. He slapped me again, then again. Mom screamed at him to stop, still too weak to attempt to come unaided down the ice-covered stairs to my rescue.
“I said stop bawling!” And he backhanded me, this time so brutally the force of the strike loosed me from his grip. I struck the ground partly on my butt and partly on my back. My upper lip was bleeding; my front teeth felt loose. My wrists throbbed with the impact on the cement.
He picked up the shovel and threw it at me. The handle cracked hard against my skull, sent more stars arcing through my vision. It spun away into the yard, where it lay still, the silver blade covered in snake guts.
“Clean this fucking mess up; and if I ever catch you with snakes in the house again, Shawn, I’ll use that shovel on you!”
He went inside, dragging Mom behind him.
Some of the snakes were still moving. They were still alive. Barely, but, yes, alive. They twisted and writhed, slower and slower, on the cement. I remember one, its eyes. They were looking right at me, as if to say, “What did I do, Shawn?” And then the little guy—he was barely five inches long—went still. Shaking and nauseated and wounded so deeply that it felt exactly as though I’d been the one hacked into pieces, I crawled around on my hands and knees, weeping uncontrollably, collecting pieces of dead snakes. Garter snakes release a powerful scent when threatened: a rich musky odor meant to dissuade potential predators from pursuing them. The entire driveway was thick with it. My hands, too. Two of my fingers were bleeding from cuts—the shattered glass of the aquarium was everywhere.
Sobbing, I took the snakes and buried them next to the large cottonwood tree just outside the front yard fence. I sat next to them for a long time before going inside.
The house was quiet as a tomb.
I went downstairs to my bedroom, where I stayed until dinnertime. I couldn’t stop crying, even though I knew crying would earn me more punishment.
It didn’t matter anyway.
At dinner Lou slapped me again.
“What the fuck did you do with those snakes?” he demanded. “I told you to throw them away!”
I lied. “I did throw them away!” My upper lip was bleeding again.
Lou grabbed me bodily and, dragging me out of the dining room, hauled me into the master bedroom. He sat on the bed, turned me over his knee. With one hand he tore my pants off, his black belt already unlooped from his pants and at the ready. He brought it down on the bare flesh of my bottom. I wailed. He whipped me without a word, with a silent rage that tore at my spirit. I don’t remember how long he went on, but when he finished he threw me off his lap, then kicked me in the ribs. He must have searched the big trash bin out front and found no mutilated snakes inside. But instead of saying that, he stepped over me and stalked off while my older sisters rode Mom for indulging my desire to learn about anything by means of books. He left the house soon after and didn’t return before I’d gone to bed.
I hobbled downstairs, my body aching. I stayed there until morning.
Mom never said anything to me about what had happened that day—but I could tell it really killed her inside that she was helpless to do anything about it. I remember being terrified about having pets of any kind from that day forward; but after that day Lou lost interest in me altogether, as though by beating me he had judged me unworthy of any attention whatsoever, positive or negative. He never learned of my relationship with Connie; in fact, he never bothered to learn anything of his son after that beating. In fact, he would admit many years later that he didn’t remember hacking up the snakes, or, for that matter, much of anything of my childhood. I had been forever relegated to second place behind his real son, Ezra Brooks.
In the eight years following I would become one of
Colorado’s greatest all-time age-group
swimmers. Lou never once attended a single swimming meet to watch me earn all
the glory coming my way. That following summer, after I had seen Connie for the
very last time, Mom took me to Brush’s Pet Shop, which was next to Woolworth’s,
where I would meet Iggy, the baby iguana she would buy me, and who would be my
companion for the next twenty-one years of my life.
I think it was Mom’s way of saying she was sorry for not being able to help me that day. She ended up loving Iggy as much as I did, especially in early 1974 when, while sitting atop her head while she stood at the stove, he struck out at Lou as he approached her from behind. Iggy’s tail cracked across the bridge of his nose, breaking it instantly. I witnessed the entire thing, and managed to get my beloved green friend back downstairs to my bedroom before he could get to him and take a shovel to him, which he threatened to do both before and after getting out of the emergency room. Both his eyes were black and blue and filled with lightless rage, but his apathy toward me ultimately won the day. He skulked off to work; and then, just a month later, he left Mom for a much younger woman, filing divorce papers immediately after.
My prayers had finally been answered.
It took me a long time before I finally decided to include swear words in this essay. They felt so out of place, so removed from my reality with Connie, with Mom, that I feared the essential points of this telling—young love, spiritual awakening, the childlike sense of wonder at all that is, the angelic purity of youth and the unvoiced aspirations to maintain that purity forever—would be crushed under their bluntness. But to exclude them would have watered down my day-to-day reality with Louis J. Helbert, Jr., and thus would have painted a dishonest picture of him for you.
As I said, Louis Helbert was a true monster. He was vile. And despite his intimidating size, importance to the community of
Fort Collins (more than
half of which was self-inflated and imaginary, I’d warrant), he was in the end
a very small, pointless, helpless, hopeless, useless sot who thought himself
worthy of the title man.
But he was never a man. A man has integrity. A man is honest. A man is decent. A true man is not a bigot or a homophobe or a womanizer or a child beater. When it comes to dear ol’ Dad, the use of the word man is mistaken. Louis Helbert never had the courage to know and grow in love. And it is my thesis, and forever shall be, that he who does not possess that courage cannot be a man, no matter how much testosterone courses through his veins. In like manner, the same holds true for women. A woman can claim the title of such when she attains the courage to honor her sex, and not before. True love, as I have stated already, is rare in this world; thus are the number of people able to claim manhood or womanhood in any real or authentic way.
J. Krishnamurti: So can the mind—again we must come back to this point—can the mind understand the nature of pleasure and its relationship to love? Can the mind that is pursuing pleasure, an ambitious mind, a competitive mind, a mind that says, I must get something out of life, I must reward myself and others, I must compete: can such a mind love? It can love sexually. But is love of sex the only thing? Why have we made sex such an enormous affair? Volumes are written on it. Unless one really goes into this very, very deeply, the other thing is not possible even to understand. We can talk endlessly about what love is and what love is not theoretically. But if we use the word love as a mirror to see what is happening inwardly, then I must inevitably ask whether it is pleasure in its multiple forms? Can a man who has got into a top position through drive, through aggression, through deception, through ruthlessness—can he know what love is? Can the priest who talks everlastingly of God, who is ambitious to become a bishop, archbishop or whatever it is—to sit next to Jesus ...
Allan Anderson: To sit on the right hand of God.
J. Krishnamurti: So can such a priest who talks about it know what love means?
Allan Anderson: No, he thinks he can with reference to something called a higher love which is based on denial of a lower one.
J. Krishnamurti: That’s just words.
Allan Anderson: In that conflict there can be no love.
J. Krishnamurti: So our whole social, moral structure is immoral.
Allan Anderson: Yes.
Language is the most powerful instrument available to humanity. My “father,” Louis J. Helbert, Jr., used language as a weapon, to destroy, to tear down, to humiliate and degrade and minimize and shame. And when his damning use of language failed, he’d raise his fists or use his belt or a plank of wood or his slipper or a pipe wrench or fishing line or a switch torn from nearby brush. For me to exclude his swear words would be to honor his use of the English language by my considered omission of them. And I cannot and will not do that.
Whenever I need to leave it all behind
Or feel the need to get away
I find a quiet place, far from the human race,
Out in the country
The fields surrounding our home were my dear friends. I spent whole days in them, milling about, exploring, or simply doing nothing. There were hiding places: irrigation ditches and wide patches of high, dry weeds, or the sheltering shade under a distant cottonwood tree. I’d find a spot and sit and hide.
After my pet snakes were killed, I spent many hours next to where I'd buried them, apologizing to them over and over again. The cottonwood tree just outside the property of our house was the oldest in all of
the literal mother of all other cottonwood trees there. It was some eighty feet
tall and had a very wide, gnarled trunk, and I could hide there, facing County
Road 11, away from the furious, blurred eyesight of Lou. For some reason he’d
never look for me there, though in reality it would’ve been easy to spot me
should he simply walk to the end of our driveway and glance right. But he never
did. The snakes were buried just next to the trunk. I’d sit there, and I’d
place my hand on the little mound of earth under which they lay, and I’d try to
shut my mind off. Larimer County
But I couldn’t. Not for a long time. Not for years. As Christmas vacation, 1972, came to a close, my mind kept turning to Connie. I couldn’t wait to see her again. I missed her so deeply it hurt in my ankles. I longed to be next to her, to see her smile again, to feel her shoulder touch mine as we sat on the sandbox wall.
I thought about what it would be like to have her here, sitting with me. What she would say to comfort me. Or, perhaps, like so many recesses, she’d say nothing at all, and I nothing in return.
Nothing ... and everything.
“I had no idea. I'm so sorry.”
I had spoken without really hearing myself say the words, almost as if I’d merely thought them. I was dumbfounded and felt woozy with staggering loss and disbelief and a spiking outrage that threatened my very ability to reason. I had choked the words out, my eyes clenched shut.
“It’s okay,” she answered. “You couldn’t have known. It’s over now. He’s gone.”
She had spoken quietly, almost whispering, as though to speak louder would alert him—I could clearly see him in my mind’s eye—to her presence and bring him back.
“Are you okay, Shawn?”
Was I okay? Good grief! I could feel the wet tracks of fresh tears down my cheeks, and struggled to compose myself. My ear ached. I discovered I was pressing the phone to it with almost manic strength. My abdomen trembled as though I’d done an hours’ worth of sit-ups.
“No,” I said. And then I added bitterly, “Another one lost.”
“I’m sorry, what?” said Connie, her voice like a dying chime. I was pressing the phone into my skull because I wanted to be closer to that voice. I wanted to be just a foot away from it. Just like it was when we wandered aimlessly about Tavelli Elementary’s playground three and a third decades ago.
“Nothing,” I said after she asked after me a couple of times. “Nothing. Tell me more. Tell me everything.”
I gritted my teeth and sniffled and bowed my head and waited. My ear throbbed even harder.