Oh, there were rumors buzzing around our family all right, like flies to a cow pie on a hot summer day. It’s like the game of Gossip where a group of people sits in a circle and someone whispers a word or a phrase to the person sitting next to him. That person whispers it into the ear of the next person, that person to the next one, all the way around the circle. When the last person says aloud what he thinks he heard it is completely different from what the first person said. This is my first telling of what happened that summer. Make of it what you will.
Back in the 50’s life in my home town was a blend of Mayberry and Pleasantville. I was a happy kid; didn’t know any other kind of life. Some people probably considered us corny, not much help for that, though. There wasn’t much to do compared to city livin’ I guess, but that didn’t make much difference to most of us, since small town folk don’t care much for life in the fast lane. On Main Street (THE main street, which was otherwise known as “town”, as opposed to living on a farm) there was a movie theatre, a roller skating rink, a swimming pool, a park, and a diner, and a grocery store on one side of the street, a post office, a gas station, a library, and tavern on the other. Aside from the tavern there wasn’t much going at night but, there was a 10:00 o’clock curfew nonetheless that was strictly enforced by the town cop. Folks didn’t lock their cars, or their front doors, neither. No one would even think of robbing his neighbor. People watched out for each other which was either a good thing or a bad thing, depending on who you were. Sometimes it was helpful to know everyone but it could also be a case of “busybody”, one of those idle gossips who thrive on sticking their noses into other peoples’ business. As a kid it was hard to get away with anything but then I was a good girl, not given to trouble like the kids that wrote graffiti on the buildings in town, or soaped windows on Halloween or dragged main in their parents’ cars while drinking alcohol. I was probably considered a goody two shoes by some; as I went to Sunday school AND church EVERY Sunday, which was pretty much my social life. Bad things happened to other people’s family, not ours, at least not until that summer and I’ll tell you about that shortly. Until that day, as far as I knew, there were no scandals in my family, like out-of-wedlock pregnancies, alcoholism or any other disgraceful behaviors that were fodder for gossip. If there was anything of the sort it sure wasn’t discussed. Guess was kinda’ protected back then, now that I think about it. But I digress. I was going to tell you of an exciting summer.
The year was 1956 and school was out, had been for a couple of weeks and the thrill of summer vacation was already beginning to wilt. On the day in question my cousin Josie and I were hanging out at her house. Being typical teen-age girls of that decade we spent hours listening to music, talking on the phone, or lounging in each other’s bedrooms. This particular morning we were watching American Bandstand as we had every Saturday morning since school let out. Just as Dick Clark announced the dance contest, Josie yawned. She stood and stretched, then lay back down on the floor to stare at the television. “I’m bored! Mom’s working tonight and Jack is off on another business trip. I don’t feel like staying home alone. Wanna’ sleep outside in your yard tonight?” An outside sleepover? Really? That had been MY idea a couple of days ago, an idea that she scoffed at, having city girl’s aversion to insects and grass, which are factors if you’re sleeping outside. In fact, Josie disliked a small town altogether. I don’t know what she would have done had we lived on a farm. I can’t imagine her milking a cow or feeding chickens. Josie was, shall we say, a mature 15-year-old. Raised in Los Angeles she and her mother had moved to our town in the middle of the school year, who knows why. I think it had something to do with her mother re marrying after Josie’s dad died. Josie didn’t like her stepfather much. (I’ll tell you about that in a bit.) According to Josie life in southern California was a teen age girl’s dream, full of beaches, cute boys, and fast cars. I wasn’t envious that she had dated. It was her self-confidence that was hard for me. I was also jealous of her long blond hair. Worse than that she had the perfect figure and dressed to show it off. I was a late bloomer and at 14, I was still a skinny bookworm/ tomboy with brown braids and freckled face, taller than most of the boys my age. Jeans and T-shirts that was me.
Josie dubbed me her best friend, a dubious honor (I think I was her ONLY friend) but she was my cousin and that counts for something, being family and all. Josie confided in me, but I wished she would have spared some details, like how her stepdad always touched her, real sneaky like. He would “accidentally” touch her breast when she they passed each other in a doorway, for example, didn’t matter which doorway. He liked to stand real close behind her when she was standing at the sink washing dishes. What was really creepy, he came into her bedroom at night and lay down beside her and make her touch his… well, you know. He even tried to go All the Way with her. I never found out if he actually did or not. She got red in the face when she talked about that part and got real quiet. I didn’t want to pry but I did ask her didn’t her mother notice what was going on? Josie said that he always made sure her mother was either out of the house or in the other room when he got “friendly.” Josie was easy to get along with as long as she got her way. Honestly, I couldn’t figure out why she wanted to hang out with me. We were so different. I would rather read any day and not those teen magazines, either, the ones she bought for me about wearing makeup and attracting boys. I wasn’t much into socializing but I pretended so I could fit in, whatever that meant. What would I do if I actually attracted a boy? I must confess I was a tad curious about the opposite sex, but not anxious to rush the growing up part.
Josie liked a greasy fellow whose name was Dan. He was good-looking in a James Dean wannabe sort of way, a Rebel with a Cause. She was forbidden to hang out with him but she would sneak out and meet him all the time, which wasn’t that hard, ‘cause her Mom worked and her stepdad wasn’t home that much either, he traveled on business. Anyway, like I said, Josie liked having her own way so the word no was not something she paid attention to. Dan was about 21 and lived with his twin brother in a double wide trailer just outside of town. I had never laid eyes on either of them; they were high school drop outs from way back. I am not sure what either of them did for a living but they were notorious trouble makers and came into town on the weekends; generally raised a ruckus at the tavern. I didn’t understand Josie’s attraction to Dan. He was kinda’ old for her, I thought.
The sun had long set by the time Josie and I set ourselves up in yard that night. We were laying on top of our sleeping bags, counting the shooting stars and listening to Elvis on my transistor radio. (I didn’t have a thing for James Dean but I loved Elvis) when Jose sat up. “Let’s do something.” She grabbed my radio and turned it off. She reached under her pillow, made a great show of opening a pack of cigarettes. ”Want one?” I shook my head. “Come on! Don’t be such a dud!” Ok, so I had no backbone. I admit it. I lit up, took a puff and hacked for several minutes. I took another puff. My eyes were watering and I felt sick. I pointed out that it was after curfew and there was no point in going anywhere. “Oh, yes, there is. I told Dan we would meet him by the bridge down by the river. He said he’d take us for a ride in his new car. He’s bringing beer, and…she winked at me, “his brother is coming to hang out with you.” I didn’t think this was such a good idea, but my curiosity got the best of me. Besides, if I didn’t go with Josie, she’d for sure go without me and there might be worse trouble. Little did I know. “Let’s go,” I said, stubbing out the cigarette.
By the time we reached the bridge I had changed my mind several times about this excursion. I’d rather be home listening to Elvis. Still, this could be fun I thought to myself. Who cares if we were out after curfew? It was exciting to break the rules. I had never been by the river at night. It looked black and mysterious, and a little spooky. Josie and I sat on the rocky shore for some time, smoking and talking. The night was quiet except for a dog barking in the distance. Josie told me that Dan had pressured her to “put out” or he wouldn’t hang out with here anymore. She said she would go only so far, and no farther. At least an hour passed and I was literally getting cold feet when I saw the glare of headlights coming towards us. “Down!” Josie hissed. “I’m not sure it’s Dan. It might be the cop.” It would not do to get caught out after curfew. “It’s them. Hi! What took you so long? ” She flung herself into Dan’s arms as he got out of his “new” car, a battered blue station wagon. I wasn’t very impressed with the way Jose and Dan were kissing and groping one another. Embarrassed, I stared at the ground. “Climb in girls! It’s party time! Hey, Josie, grab your cousin and let’s go!” Dan was unsteady on his feet. He leaned on Josie as he put his arm around her and guided her into the car. She gestured impatiently at me as she climbed in beside Dan. I ignored my misgivings, (to this day I don’t know why I got in that car) opened the back door, and slid in beside a tall man. His face was shadowed by stubble, and his breath reeked of beer as he put his arm around my shoulder. His cologne did nothing for his body odor. “I’m Steve,” he slurred in a deep voice. “I already know who you are. Your cousin told me all about you. Nice to meetcha!” He shoved a can of beer in my direction. “Here. I opened it for ya!” I played along and took a big drink. The beer was warm and tasted like, well, I didn’t know what, but it was awful.
“Damn. The car won’t start.” “We must of run outta’ gas. Guess we’ll just hafta’ stay here and party.” Dan grinned at me over his shoulder and scooted close to Josie. There wasn’t much conversation and pretty soon they disappeared from view on the front seat. It wasn’t long before I heard heavy breathing and a zipper being unzipped. “That’s enough, Dan! Stop! Please! Stop!” Josie sounded scared. Steve grabbed my arm and pulled me toward him, pressing his wet lips against mine and tried to force his tongue into my mouth. The stubble on his face scratched my cheek and I pulled away. “I have to go now.” I tried to sound bold but my voice came out in a squeak. “ Josie? It’s time to go now. Let’s go home.” Steve shoved me down onto the seat and thrust himself on top of me. “Get off me!” I shouted and pushed him. He grunted and shoved me back down. He was very drunk. Josie sat up, her hair in a wild silhouette. She was crying. “Let me out!” Panicked, I groped for the door handle. “Relax! Don’t fight!” What happened next happened so fast and is still fuzzy in my memory. Steve slapped my face, pinned an arm around my back and groped at the zipper of my jeans. I scratched his face with my free hand and he let go of me. I twisted out from beneath him, fumbled for the door handle and pushed. The door wasn’t locked and I fell out of the car, stumbled to my feet and bolted across the road. Headlights glared in the distance as a police car sped up the highway, lights flashing and siren screaming. This wasn’t the town cop, this was the county sheriff. I scrambled up the hillside through the tangled underbrush. I willed Josie to follow me, but she didn’t. My heart thumped so hard I thought it was going to burst right out of my chest. I headed for a stand of big trees on the hillside and hid behind the largest tree, squeezed my eyes shut, and waited, shivering despite the warm summer air. My parched mouth tasted like moldy hay smells. Every limb was cramped, even my fingers. I heard voices but couldn’t make out the words. Finally I heard a car drive away and I was alone in the empty night. I poked my head out from behind the tree. There was that stupid blue station wagon sitting there, its headlights still on. I wanted very badly to be home. I took a deep breath started the walk back on wobbly legs. What happened to Josie? Matters had gotten way out of hand.
When I got to our yard every light in the empty house was on, the garage door open, the car gone. I went inside. The room was spinning and suddenly nauseous I glimpsed at myself in the mirror in the hallway. My nose was crusted with blood and there was a bruise forming on my upper arm. I wanted to lie down and somehow made it upstairs to my bed. “Honey, wake up!” Gentle hands on my shoulder. Was it morning already? I rubbed my eyes and sat up to see my mother sitting at the foot of the bed. My head throbbed and I stared at her through half-opened eyes. “What on earth happened to you? Where were you girls? We went looking for you.” The phone rang sharply from the living room. “I’ll be right back.” My mother left the room to answer the phone. I was sick with dread. “That was your Aunt Lela. Where’s Josie? The men you were with were arrested. Why were you with them in the middle of the night? What on earth is going on? I hated that hurt look on my mother’s face. “We’ll talk later.” She patted my arm. “I’ll go make you some mint tea after you’ve cleaned up.” Mom’s answer to most situations was to make tea. She wasn’t much for confrontation, always trying to smooth things over. Mostly she let Dad handle the problems.
My parents and my aunt spent the day looking for Josie and finally called to say she was at the police station the next town over, not in jail, but there until she could be brought home. I was to stay put. The day crawled by. I felt slightly better after a shower, wanted badly to nap but I couldn’t shut off my mind. I kept remembering what happened. They didn’t arrive until late that afternoon and when they came into the house Josie’s eyes were red rimmed and puffy. She was pale and wouldn’t look at me. Dad called us all together into the living room. I sat near my mother on the couch. Josie sat alone, perched on the ottoman at the foot of the easy chair. Aunt Lela looked wretched, sniffling and blowing her nose. She leaned against the wall by the door with her arms folded, and my dad paced. One thing about Dad, the quieter he is the angrier he is. He said absolutely nothing for what seemed like forever. I wondered what story Josie had told. I tried to make eye contact with her but she stared at the floor, her face sullen. The clock on the fireplace mantle ticked loudly.
“What do you think about all of this, Christina Louise?” Uh oh. The middle name thing. My dad finally spoke. “Let’s hear your version. What happened last night?” “Better tell the truth, Honey,” My mother’s voice was very soft. She reached over and put her cold hand over mine. The words tumbled all on their own. It was hard to admit I had done something foolish and potentially dangerous. My childhood was slipping away. Dad had little to say except to explain his interview with the county sheriff. Josie and I were minors so we were still under the supervision of our parents but the charges against Dan and Steve were more serious; charges of contributing to the delinquency of a minor, statutory rape, disorderly conduct, assault (fist fighting at the tavern) and being drunk in public, not to mention driving while intoxicated which is what occurred before they met me and Josie at the river. What I really didn’t like is what I wasn’t told, what I found out later (in the newspaper, mind you, no one in my family was talking) about Josie’s stepfather; about him not coming back from his business trip on account of being arrested on charges of child molestation and rape in another state, not to mention what he did to Josie; things that he told her NOT to tell, well too late for that now, Buddy! Truth officially got out, and your you- know-what is grass now. You’ll spend lots of time in prison.
Poor Josie! There are those who would say that she had asked for it, that she was too wild. Maybe she seemed that way but I know now that underneath she was scared and unsure of herself, really mixed up. I mean, it wasn’t her fault her stepdad was such a creep. I still can’t figure out why she went with Dan, but maybe she was just confused seein’ as how her real dad wasn’t in the picture. I plain don’t know. Let’s just say life was different from then on. Things went by in a blur for a while there. My parents put me on restriction for the rest of the summer, for one thing. I had to make a statement at the police station and go to a hearing. This all happened after a doctor’s examination. You’d think they’d let me have a woman doctor, but instead I got this cranky old guy. No disrespect intended. Now that was humiliating, let me tell you. The general feeling he gave me was that I had done something wrong. I was simply naive’, that’s all. Sure, I made a bad choice by going down to the river that night, for getting into the car with that jerk. I was lucky nothing worse happened to me. I felt bad for Josie, poor girl.
So that’s what happened the summer of 1956. It seems to me that we women are at a disadvantage in this world. We’re the ones that get blamed when things like this happen and get bad reputations. Once a girl’s reputation is ruined that about does it for her, especially in a small town. I am not sure if my reputation was tarnished or not. It probably was, but I know what really happened and that’s what matters. My parents believed me too, that helped. Dan and Steve were jailed and they can rot there, for all I care. Josie and my aunt moved back to Los Angeles that fall. No one heard from them for years; no letters or phone calls either except when Josie’s baby boy was born in the spring of 1957. She gave him up for adoption. It is an odd feeling to know there is a part of my family that I have never seen and may never meet. I wonder where he is now and what he looks like. Is he happy? Is he aware that he is adopted? All these unanswered questions but there is one question that I have yet to ask. Maybe no knows the answer to this one either, or wants to know. But I wonder. Who is the father of the child? Somehow I don’t think this story will ever get straight, just like the game of Gossip.
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