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- PEN America Prison Writing Award Winners: 2022
John Adams was awarded an Honorable Mention in Nonfiction Memoir in the 2022 Prison Writing Contest.
Every year, hundreds of imprisoned people from around the country submit poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and dramatic works to PEN America’s Prison Writing Contest, one of the few outlets of free expression for the country’s incarcerated population.
Momma used to say that Daddy was a good man before he went to Vietnam, but I never believed her. It was easy to doubt Momma; she lied to herself as much as anyone. Not malicious lies, never those, just the little gray lies it took to keep her sanity.
She said he came home from Vietnam sick, but he never looked sick to me. I’d been sick, so sick I couldn’t even drink water without barfing. If Daddy was sick, it sure didn’t affect his appetite none, he ate his meals like a starved pig. How sick could he be? Momma said it was a different kind of sick, that it was hurting his head, making him mean. Said we needed to forgive him when he hurt us and keep on loving him no matter what, but I couldn’t. I’d never loved him to begin with.
They say a five year old child doesn’t know right from wrong, doesn’t know how to hate. Yet I went down on my knees in earnest prayer every night, pleading with God to take Daddy away, but not with golden wings to Heaven…That was for nice people and nice people don’t hit. I had a crystal clear picture of what I wanted God to do with Daddy: It was the image of my Golden Retriever puppy after Daddy crushed her head with a baseball bat. I remember the blood all over the kitchen floor tiles and the smell of copper. But what branded itself into my dreams forever was the shiny white eyeball lying against the wooden table leg. I don’t recall the words I used in my prayers, but I remember quite well what I wanted from God; I asked him to pop Daddy’s eyeball right out of his head.
So it doesn’t matter what they say: a five year old knows it’s wrong to wish his Daddy’s head would explode, and a five year old can know hate in its purest form.
It wasn’t always hell, living with Daddy. He wasn’t stable enough to always be anything. It wasn’t like he beat and tortured me every day. But he couldn’t stand the sight of me and the rule was simple: When Daddy was home, I was to stay in my bedroom. I didn’t really mind. Far from being a prison cell, my bedroom was a sanctuary, a place he rarely visited. There may have been times I wished for an existence outside of my bedroom, but the desire was dulled by my love of safety.
Despite a desperate loneliness in that bedroom, I never had an imaginary playmate. Either the idea never occurred to me or my imagination was too dim, which is a shame because loneliness carries its own brand of hurt. I spent many a moment yearning for a companion. I cried a lot, pleaded with Momma, and even once overcame my terror of Daddy to initiate an interaction. I asked him with the promise I’d be as quiet as a mouse forever, if he would consider getting me a brother or sister. I half expected him to smash me for having the audacity to speak, but in one of his rare moments of humanity, he told me he’d see what he could do. That I would even risk his wrath in such a way spoke volumes about the desperation of my loneliness. Yet despite the depth of my longing, not once did I ask God for a sibling. Somehow I believed it was a one shot deal with the silent, unseen God. Only one heartfelt wish granted per person, and my hate was much stronger than my loneliness.
Even with diligent effort I couldn’t escape Daddy’s fury with any kind of regularity because in truth, I really was a worthless brat. People told me I was a bad boy and I believed them. I wet my bed, I broke things, and I left my bedroom a mess. I ruined unadorned walls with crayons…Oh yeah, I knew I was a stupid little bastard who deserved every beating I got. But that didn’t make it any easier to accept.
Every once in a while he would really lose control and hit me very hard. He’d break something inside me and then we had to go to the Bad White Place. Daddy almost always said he was sorry when we had to go there; he even cried a couple of times and begged me to forgive him. I’d nod my head; whatever he wanted, I’d do.
I do not remember all of the trips to the Bad White Place. But I know I dreaded it so much I’d sometimes barf on myself with just the knowledge I was going there. Everything there was white. The walls, the doors, the floors, the sheets, and the bad people all wore white. The place even had its own odor, a chemical smell…! labeled it white.
Then the bad people in white would hurt me. Not like Daddy: His flavor of pain was unexpected, quick as a pulse. Their pain was steady and concentrated. Sometimes they hurt me so bad everything in my head would become bright white. I feared them so much it couldn’t occur to me that the bad people in white wanted to heal me. I just knew they were tricky and evil because Daddy had told me so. I also knew if I told them anything other than I fell down the stairs, the bad people in white would take me away from Momma and lock me in the white room. I really didn’t want that.
One time I was so scared, I refused to say a single word to the bad people in white. One of these was a huge bald man with a beard. He wore one of those rubber worms around his hairy neck, with the very cold metal he kept touching my chest with. He had a tiny, soft voice which seemed weird in a man of his size. The big man smiled a whole lot and his pants weren’t white. God he seemed so nice. But I was still hurting and damned determined not to say a word. Besides, even I knew evil could wear a smile.
He joked and gave me pieces of candy that I pretended to save for later. He told me about his seven children who would just love me and he even leaned on my lap and begged me with shiny eyes to please, please tell him where I hurt. How could he help me if he didn’t know where I hurt? It was so hard not to speak to him, I almost broke a couple of times, but then I’d picture the white room.
So I said nothing and the doctor finally gave up with a huge sigh and he ordered them to x-ray my whole body. Afterwards he explained that he would have to re-break two bones because they hadn’t healed right. He said that was four broken bones all together and asked how was that possible?
I think I stayed at the Bad White Place for a number of days that time and everyone there thought I was deaf because I didn’t talk. On the day I went home I became convinced I had made a mistake with the big doctor; as I was dragged out the door by Mamma’s hand, I saw him shouting at Daddy. It was the only time I ever saw Daddy look scared.
Then there was the time that I and a younger kid were peeing against the apartment building and I decided I’d pee on my friend for fun. I got him good and he tried to get me, but he ran out of lemonade. We laughed, but his momma didn’t. She called my momma and, when I saw the look in her eyes, I knew I had made a serious mistake.
It was the first time I ever remember her discussing one of my bad deeds with Daddy. She should’ve known better than to point his anger at me. I heard him let out a roar and stomp to my bedroom to fish me out from under the bed. He punched me several times and then he hurt me real bad. This time my chest kind of caved in and I could hardly breathe. When I tried to cough, blood came out.
Back to the Bad White Place we went and it must’ve hurt more than ever before because I can’t remember anything, except the men in black. It was the first time I had ever seen any up close. They wore black from head to toe with lots of shiny metal things, and their guns seemed bigger than my whole body. The men in black were nice, but they were still frightening to me. They tried to talk to me while two of the bad people in white stood to the other side of my bed and Momma was nowhere to be found. I kind of wanted to talk to the men in black, I figured black was the opposite of white, so how bad could they be? But they were right there being friendly with the bad people in white and all four of them were asking me questions, telling me no one would hurt me if I told the truth. If I could have only spoke to the men in black alone, it might’ve changed my life. Unfortunately, because they sided with the white, I stuck to my story about those pesky stairs.
When Momma and I got home, He was gone. I very much wondered where he went to and when he’d be back, but I wouldn’t tempt fate by asking Momma and she didn’t volunteer anything. Oh, but what a sweet time that was! I had Momma to myself and I felt so loved and safe. Momma never hit me. If she did, I have no memory of it. It wouldn’t matter anyway. After all, Daddy had raised the standard of what I considered being hit. She spoiled me and gave me almost anything I wanted, except for maybe hugs. Momma never was a touchy-feely kind of woman, but she was the only one in the whole world who loved me and I knew it.
Everyone was real nice to me then; babysitters, friends, and neighbors that rarely came when Daddy was home. I watched a ton of television, something that was usually forbidden and I refused to go near my bedroom. I was allowed to stay up late and sleep on the couch for awhile. It was a grand time in my young life and I lapped it up the way a puppy does an ice cream cone. I’m not sure how long bliss lasted, but everything returned back to normal when Daddy got home.
The scariest thing about Daddy was that I could never tell when his demon was coming and it turned me into a clumsy dolt much of the time I was around him. His rage always seemed to catch me off guard. His nice guy and demon switched back and forth with no pause in between. I believe life would’ve been unbearable if his demon hadn’t taken a vacation periodically. Had there been no human moments, it’s possible even Momma would’ve left him. His nice guy broke out once in awhile though, and I may have forgotten at times how much I hated him. Maybe.
There were seasons when Daddy became Mr. Outdoorsman and it was healing for all of us.
He’d take us to Pikes Peak, outfitted with backpacks and full of camping gear, even a mini-backpack for me. We’d take a couple of days to hike to the peak and I’d sometimes explore far ahead on the trail. On top of Pikes Peak we’d eat sweets from the tourist restaurant and take pictures. Sometimes he was so nice; he’d strike up easy conversation with people along the trail. I don’t remember him ever hurting me on a camping trip or while cycling. He had a two year love affair with bicycles that consumed his family, and we rode many miles without so much as a glimpse of his demon.
But seasons changed and then there’d be no thoughts of hiking or cycling. His demon would again dominate our days and back to the bedroom I went. There were nights he would call for me and the sound of my name brought me close to wetting my pants, which I knew was unforgivable in Daddy’s eyes. I never had a clue of what to expect and I always hesitated, though I had little choice but to go to him.
Some of those times he’d greet me with an orange pop and I knew it was only lecture time. There was relief in that discovery but no enthusiasm. His lectures went on forever. He’d talk on something, and it would lead to something other. Then he’d get lost and voice his assumed wisdom about anything. For hours he’d ramble till my eyelids weighed a ton. I rarely understood what he talked about, but I learned to time a good nod and always look attentive. His instability kept me off balance. I knew he hated me to the pit of his soul, but Daddy always seemed to forget that during his lectures. He’d speak of me being Quarterback of the Denver Broncos and what I should do with my money when I became filthy rich. He told me I could do anything, become anybody I wanted in life if I worked hard. And I’d wonder, did he hate me really? Right then, it seemed like he was playing a good father and loving me. And I searched his eyes; was he teasing? Could he possibly love me? I never knew.
Daddy’s night calls weren’t restricted to lectures or beatings. Sometimes we’d walk the city when it was asleep, in search of goodies. That’s what he called them, “goodies”. And I agree wholeheartedly. We’d find a bounty of goodies picking through grocery store dumpsters. My favorite was always the pastries, pies, donuts, cakes, and cookies all sealed in unopened packages! It amazed me that the stores would throw away so much, because it was perfectly good food. Didn’t Momma always make me clean my dinner plate because people were starving in the world? Hadn’t I been denied some of these very same goodies for lack of money? And any night we went, we’d find enough sealed food to fill our cupboards many times over. Sometimes he found furniture goodies to put in our apartment and he’d be so happy. Those goodie hunts were a pleasure and Daddy’s greatest legacy. The ability to find free food is what eventually helped me escape him.
The longest eight years of my life were under the rule of an unpredictable monster. He came close to killing me several times, but I feel he came close to loving me several times as well. My conscience never punished me for hating him. Maybe because for every time I wished him dead, I wished a hundred times more that Daddy would love me.
Purchase Variations on an Undisclosed Location: 2022 Prison Writing Awards Anthology here.