The cold mist was quickly turning to a hard rain, causing Sandra to pull her fur around her shoulders tighter. As she walked the uptown sidewalk she had walked so many times before, and under far different circumstances, her troubled mind began to wander…
He always hit her in the same place, hard to see but easy to put her Merle Norman over in a pinch. When he was done, he lit up a Marlboro next to her Virginia Slims and the cheap motel room began to fill with an acrid smoke. Her eyes began to water, but she inhaled to distract herself. Sometimes, when the men left, she would light up another cigarette. On these occasions she didn’t smoke it; she simply pressed it to her skin. The burn took her to a place of physical sensation that few things did anymore.
When someone asked her age, she was instructed to say, “Why, it was just my nineteenth birthday.” She’d had quite a few birthdays this year.
When Sandra got off the bus from Tuscaloosa, she had the five dollars she’d stolen from her step-father’s wallet and a tattered canvas bag she found at a tag sale once for a dime. At the bus station, a sharp dressed man with a Yankee accent offered to buy her a room for a night and a cup of coffee. The rebelliousness of the act sounded delicious. Momma never did let her drink coffee…
Present Day, 1964
The coffee cup was warm in her hand after being out in the rain. Mr. Jones sat across from her with an expectant look on his face. She pulled the crumpled twenty dollar bill from her purse and he handed her a five in return. She’d kept the councilman happy again and so coffee was on him. Sandra decided to have a second cup.
The coffee lay on the cheap bedside table, cold and undrinkable. She sat up with tears, not sure what she’d done, but full of the knowledge it wasn’t what the nice girls did. Mr. Jones had been so kind. He’d helped her secure an apartment when she was underage and didn’t have the money. He let her work the front desk a few mornings a week at his modeling agency so she could make rent. He even took her to a lovely restaurant for dinner once when she’d let it slip it was her 16th birthday.
Yes, Mr. Jones had been so nice. He also seemed so lonely. So, when she asked him one afternoon if there was anything she could do to repay him…
That’s how she started on her road to destruction.
One month, she was unable to make her rent. A bright yellow eviction notice was taped to her front door, as though it were her judge and jury. That’s when he told her about all the other lonely men in town and maybe there were faster ways to make money…?
She cried the first time. She showered for two days. She made rent six months in advance.
The councilman wanted another meeting. His meetings usually only took a few minutes…She didn’t notice the dark sedan across the street from Councilman Johnson’s office or the blonde with the camera. Sandra got in her red Chevy Impala and drove it over to Chuck’s Service Station to refill her tank. It was a lovely day for a drive to Tuscaloosa.
Every few months, she got in her car and drove pass her old house. Her momma still lived there; she still got a crisp twenty in her mailbox once a month and didn’t know its origin. With 3 kids and a deadbeat husband, she didn’t question it.
Her mother had once been a beautiful girl during the War, in love with an airman overseas. They got married in a whirlwind and he even made it home after the War, a hometown hero. Yet, the things her Daddy saw awakened him in the night. If the ashes from her momma’s cigarette lingered too long, he began to cry and they didn’t understand why. One day, her daddy picked up a bottle of cheap whiskey and he didn’t put it down until his Ford ran off the road and into the creek.
Sandra’s momma met her step-father at a diner she waitressed in. He was charming, he was kind, and he swept her off her feet. He said his name was Richard. After they’d married, she found out his name was David and he’d been married and divorced four times. No one told her that once she was swept off her feet, he’d hand the broom back for her to clean up his mess. In less than five years, he has given her three more children. Unfortunately, David never gave her any money.
Her little sister was crying and her stomach was empty. David has spent Momma’s grocery money on cigarettes and a poker game that he didn’t win. Sandra waited until he fell into his afternoon stupor and stole a one dollar bill out of his wallet. None of her siblings were hungry that night.
Momma looked too thin and she knew it was because of the lung illness eating away at her. She began work at the factory to support her brothers and sisters. They couldn’t afford the hospital, so she went to the free doctor the state sent in once a month. All they gave her were medicines to make her sleep her days away until the end came for her.
She could see her two sisters on the porch, wearing her old dresses. They were too thin too. Sandra knew they’d quit school to work at the factory with Momma. Her brother was cutting firewood to the side of the dilapidated clapboard house. David was at the bar.
On so many occasions she dreamed of writing her momma and telling her she was okay, but she stopped before she mailed the letter. She stopped before she got out of the car. She didn’t want her momma seeing her like this.
Momma looked her over and made her put on a longer dress. She often said, “We may not have money, but we have respectability.” Sandra never wanted to tell her they had neither. She simply changed her dress because it made her momma happy. When she went to school, she always knew what she was missing. The Dunklin sisters dressed like every day was Sunday. The boys knew her clothes were hand me downs of hand me downs. She came home every day to make supper. Sandra put the Crisco in the skillet to fry the chicken they’d killed that morning. David walked in at the same time. Some of the grease splattered and singed his arm. Before she knew it, her head hit the wall. Her ribs felt like a car hit them. Then she noticed the blood. That’s when she knew… she had to leave.
David never hit any of his kids. He had hit Momma once. He hit Sandra every. single. day.
She began her drive back to Birmingham, stopping at Chuck’s for more gas when she got into town. If she were a different girl under different circumstances, she might notice him. He had blonde hair, green eyes, and a smile that got him out of trouble since he was a little boy. He certainly noticed her. He noticed her car at the motel even though she had an apartment. He noticed her caked on makeup that hit ugly bruises. He noticed the scars on her arms in summer. But most of all, he noticed her smile.
Mr. Jones was waiting for her when she got home, an angry look on his face.
“Why, yes, it is.”
“Do you know what time you were supposed to be here?”
“So, Sandra, you’re a smart girl, but you know what happens when you disobey.”
She made her way inside, grabbing the belt from her coat closet.
Sandra knew if she was going to leave, it would have to be now. Momma was at work. Her siblings were at school. David was sleeping one off on the couch. Slowly, she made her way past the squeakier of the floorboards and grabbed his wallet. There wasn’t much. She took the first five dollar bill she saw and her bag, and left the house. She made her way to the bus depot, where she conned a couple into buying her a bus ticket with a story that would make Hemingway proud.
The couple knew she was lying, but she was thin and bruised. They believed wherever she was running to was better than where she was running from.