How Low Can You Go?

I’d visit RW’s home often before I could drive. I’d hitch a ride with a friend or walk the 5 miles from Ellsworth Avenue to the woods of Herndon. RW’s out of control father would yell from the porch and wave his bent-barreled Colt .45 at me as I walked up the dirt path.

Get out! Ya hooor! Slut!”

Robert W. always dashed outside & wrestled the pistol from his father’s grip, cursing.

Damn you, old man, gimme that gun! You’ll shoot yourself.” RW easily wrestled the gun from his father’s hands every time.

I’ll kill her!”

Strangely, nobody was ever afraid of being shot. Mr. P had horrible aim. I can’t recall how many times he pointed his pistol at me. 10 a month? 20? Each time, RW fought with him, saving my life. My hero!

After the insanity died down, RW & I would laugh nervously. Then we’d head down a dirt path which led through thick, tall lilac bushes, away from the P’s house. The family lived there until my friend Sheila & I convinced Mrs. P she’d be better off on social security, in Section 8 housing, away from her violent, crazy, drunk husband.

Sheila me on roof 1968

Bob took this photo of S. & me tanning on the roof of my parents’ home in Great Falls, Virginia. In the 60s. Nobody knew tans could result in skin cancer! Orange juice cans made our wavy, frizzy hair stylishly straight for a few hours.

Shelia had taken business classes at Langley High. She did the paperwork for Section 8. It took nearly six months but finally, one sunny Saturday, we helped move Mrs. P and her younger children from the old house to the new place. It was a clean apartment with three bedrooms,  living room, small but serviceable kitchen and one bathroom.

There were eight buildings in the complex, all made of rough brick and mortar. Each apartment had a balcony, except ground floor ones, which had small patios. There were out-cropping stones at the edge of each wall corner. I remember this because Robert W. told me,

I could do better masonry than that!”
He’d apprenticed to a stone mason the summer he was 15.

One late night while Mr. P was at work, Shelia, I, & RW’s siblings moved the family into the new apartment. Cameron, Jon, Danae and their mother lived there at first. It was perfect for four people.

You’re In The Army Now!

Following his older brother’s example, Robert W. joined the Army before his mother & the younger kids moved into the new place. I was still at my parents’ home, working & taking a few courses at a community college. Robert W. got a week’s family leave in November before shipping out to ‘Nam. At his birthday/Thanksgiving dinner party (he was born T’giving day), Mrs. P & I begged RW to leave the Army. 

It was scary enough when Al was over there. We didn’t want RW to risk his life, too! Mrs. P needed him. RW always made great money trimming trees, doing construction and working other odd jobs. So he moved in with his Mom & the younger kids. His employers, impressed with his skills & how hard he worked, agreed to pay him cash under the table.

Dad shouted at me one June Saturday after a huge argument about the war:
If you want to protest, that’s your business. But I work for the government, so you can’t live under my roof while you’re doing all this commie stuff.”

I snapped, “OK! Fine!”

RWP letter from boot camp

Letter RW wrote me from boot camp. I drew all over it during a fit of hellish insomnia, hallucinating that my coloring would end the war.

Leaving Home

When my parents, sister and brother left for grocery shopping and baseball, I stuffed a suitcase full of clothing, 2 LPs, (“Jesus Christ, Superstar” & Jimi Hendrix’s “Band of Gypsies.”). I also packed a pocket-book I’d sewn from rough canvas, on which I’d embroidered a large scene of a farm with sunshine flooding over it in silk threads. The wallet was full of cash from my last paycheck. Avon & Mary Quant make-up filled a bag (which I’d sewn out of royal blue velvet) inside the pocket-book. There were colored pens and drawing paper in the big satchel. My trusty tape recorder was slung over one shoulder. I set out, hiking toward Mrs. P’s place.

I was super manic that day, singing loudly along with a mixed tape of super groovy soul hits I’d recorded like “Aint’ Too Proud to Beg.” I waved at field workers on my way to Mrs. P’s place. They shouted “Woo! Baby!” at the tanned teenager boog-a-looing down the road.

Before moving into Mrs. P’s apartment, I was a frequent visitor. So were other “throw away” kids. One 15 year old used the kitchen table for his chemistry set—making PCP & other drugs to sell. I kept telling him he should study medicine and go into research but he made ton of money with his designer drugs. Why bother with med’ school?

Mr. P would show up at random times, screaming wildly from outdoors. He wasn’t sure at first which apartment the family lived in but knew that they had moved to what in England is called ‘council flats.’ So he’d run from building to building, yelling
My wife is in there! Bitch! Whore!”

The younger kids & I peered out of the balcony windows at the old man whenever he showed up, hollering. He was forty-eight at the time—so damaged by alcohol, he looked sixty five. We’d shout “Go home! Nobody wants you!”

Often, Mrs. P, RW & I were at work after forcing the younger kids onto the school bus. That was an exhausting task. RW would carry each kid, kicking and screaming, onto the bus. So we’d miss the old man’s stalkings. However, neighbors complained.

Do something about that crazy man! He was here all morning, yelling!”

One night, finally home after a long day of classes in Art and History at NOVA community college, & working 4 hours at Lum’s, I put on a big pot of water to boil. We barely ever had anything to eat besides tiny frozen fish which looked like minnows, generic spaghetti noodles and white bread. Mrs. P also got slabs of government-issued cheese, which we kids devoured in the first few days of each month.

So this night, I put water on to boil, then went in for a shower. Robert W. was exhausted from his cash under-the-table construction job. He stretched out on the Goodwill sofa. Mrs. P was cleaning apartments, the job she had the entire time I knew her. She worked from six o’clock in the morning until seven at night or later just to put meagre food on the table.

The younger kids were out playing with friends. Teenaged Cameron often hung around at Lake Anne, swimming with pals.

Wrapped in a thin bath towel, I walked to the room I shared with twelve-year old Danae. We slept on twin mattresses on the floor. After kneeling down to put “Jesus Christ” on the portable record player, I breathed in the overture’s melancholy tones. I didn’t have the energy to play along on my over-used flute. I dug around in my rucksack, realizing I’d have to wash my few clothes soon. That meant a long walk to the laundromat.

A zillion things raced through my mind—missing my sister, ending the war, Robert W. being AWOL, FBI showing up at my parents’ home, threatening my mother with a “full dossier” of evidence that I’d committed felonious acts, beautiful flute fingering for “Jesus Christ,” how to get money for the next quarter of college . . .

RWP's mural

RW painted murals on the wall of his bedroom during his Thanksgiving Army leave. 

The Crash Pad

My cashier’s job at Lum’s Tavern didn’t pay enough to help with rent & food in the “crash pad” plus pay for tuition, books, art supplies & school cafeteria lunches. That made me feel worthless. I wanted to contribute.

My sister called often to beg me to come home but Mom had said “Hell No.”
Mother despised me. All these thoughts tortured my fever
èd brain.

In nothing but bikini underwear, I leaned against the rough wall. Judas sang, “Damned for All Time.” I was Judas. I had not kept my vow to eradicate Vietnam’s horrors from the earth. Voices haunted me, shouting:
Only YOU can end the war! Do something!”

Amidst the sound of scratchy static, like when a radio is between two stations, I could hear the hateful chants of the voices which had haunted me for years.

I’d covered my body with magic marker drawings: a map of Vietnam, faces of dying soldiers, hearts, swords—then tried to scrub it off in the hot shower with Ajax powder on a Brillo pad. I thought this magical ritual would result in headlines in the Washington Post:

War Ended!”

Thoughts of sex upset me, too. Although I lived in the same place as RW, we’d never gone “all the way.” He and I had been together since we met at Lake Fairfax Park that summery day at age 14. When we were 15, I made a Declaration on a scroll of art paper, writing with purple choke-berry ink & a Quill pen I from a found goose feather:

We the undersigned vow never to have sex until we are 21 or married.”

RW & I signed that document, not realizing how rough it would be to keep our vow! He used to joke, “It’s Hard. It’s really Hard to keep that stupid vow.” I got it & used my hands to make him feel better. But it wasn’t like The Real Thing!

Once, Mrs. P asked, “Have you & RW done it yet?”
“Everything but,” I joked. She laughed & hugged me. “Good Girl!”

Dating/Going Steady/Dad’s Rules

During times when Dad made me stop dating RW & go out with other guys, RW dated other girls. One was the most beautiful teenager in Fairfax County. Her father was called “One lung.” Due to chain-smoking, he’d had one lung removed.

He was the Sheriff of Herndon, Virginia. His daughter was tall & elegant. Soft, taffy-coloured hair fell to Levi-slim thighs. Azure blue eyes with long dark lashes made her look more beautiful than Cheryl Tiegs. She had a low, sweet voice. I’d met her when RW, my brother, Al, Shelia & I were playing pool in a redneck bar in Herndon.

I say redneck being half redneck all my life. I’ve always had a good deal of The Old South in me. Dad named me Dixie Elder so that on files, my name would be written Elder, Dixie (Old South).

So this girl & I had met. I never hated her for seeing RW. For sleeping with him. She adored him. Her sad eyes told a tragic, Shakespearean story whenever RW & I walked down the street, together again. I always felt like apologizing for taking him away.

But then Dad would insist “No going steady!” And I’d have to call one of the McLean guys for a few weeks of fighting off their advances. During those fake break-ups, RW would call the Sheriff’s daughter & bring her flowers & candy.

RW also dated another girl. I did hate her. She was, to me, Trash. She used poor grammar, yelled (well, I did too but my grammar was impeccable). She was a bleached blonde & always wore skin-tight shorts with super high heels & a skin tight t-shirt. She had huge bosoms! I always wanted to be bosomous but that never happened for me.

One Saturday, I drove over to the P. house. RW & I had been “broken up” for two weeks, at Dad’s command. As I walked up the rickety steps, I heard laughter coming from the room where a big TV was playing. Her laughter! That fake, high-pitched girl shriek.

Oh, RW, you are SOOOO funny!”

I breathed Year of the Dragon Fire. Bashing at the painted-on window, I got it raised up enough to squeeze my skinny body inside.

Get the hell outta here, Bitch!” I yelled. She jumped two feet in the air & ran for it. RW burst out laughing. His brothers & sister screamed: Dixie’s Back!”

Crazy Old Man

Despite loud music in my bedroom at Mrs. P’s, I heard yelling. Gee, my voices were exceptionally strong.

I peered out of the window-door, leaned over the balcony and shock! There was Mr. P, pistol between his teeth like a pirate carrying a sabre. He was cursing out of the side of his mouth.

Whores! Bitches! I’ll kill ‘em all!”

This was worse than an hallucination! He climbed up the bricks, grabbing onto balconies and brick outcroppings as he went, old work boots lifting him up and up stone and mortar.

Help! RW!” I screamed.

My valiant beau rushed into the bedroom and looked where I was pointing.

Shit! You crazy old bastard!”

I’ll kill ya!”

RW jumped onto the balcony & kicked at his lunatic father’s hands. Robert was hanging onto the balcony’s railings with young, strong arms.

I stumbled into the kitchen in a daze & saw the spaghetti pot bubbling wildly. Barehanded, I grabbed it off the stove. Heedless of burning pain, I carried it into the bedroom. Stepped out onto the balcony and, like a Medieval warrior heaving boiling oil, poured the contents onto Mr. P’s drunken head. He fell three stories, screaming vile curses all the way. He landed, sprawled on his back, arms akimbo, a human swastika.

RW rushed downstairs and grabbed the gun up off the grass.

Get your scrawny ass home and never come back!”

Mr. P picked himself up and limped toward his broken-down car. We never saw the old man again. Mrs. P and, Robert, the kids and I were safe for the time being.

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