Call Me Master by Kate Sheridan

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He ate mustard straight from the jar, guzzling big sloppy spoonfuls like they were chocolate. Now here’s a man who’s not boring, I thought. In that instant, Cupid fired his bow and lodged his poisoned arrow in my heart.

Dan was a lot of things, but boring was not one of them. Later, I learned the value of a little boredom. But at the time, I was bored by everything. By my goody-goody boyfriend Ted, a preppie who longed for a woman with bigger breasts. By my inability to leave him. By our life together.

“Call me master,” Dan ordered the first time we slept together.

“Master?”

“Yes. Do it.”

“I’m not calling you master.” I laughed. He didn’t.

“A women’s libber, huh? You need discipline.”

“Like a dog?”

Did I see the spinning fan blades? I did. Did I back away? I did not. Instead, a mouse transfixed before a coiled python, I froze. For the next seven long years I obeyed, relinquished my will. I’d been hobbled by boredom, before. It was a relief to surrender to inertia.

Within a week, I’d hitched my wagon to this handsome bucking steed, and Ted was happily, guiltlessly chasing after the D-cup-wearing women of his dreams.

Within a month, Dan moved in with me. Six weeks later, Ruth and Tom arrived and, at age twenty, I was a stepmom, of sorts.

Dan’s first job was at a daycare “keeping kids from putting beans up their noses.” He was fired soon after getting his first paycheck; I never asked why. He spent the next few months in bed with a six-pack, reading, or playing two-handed chess with himself at the kitchen table. My gardening business was then the sole support of a thirty-year-old chess champion with a master’s degree in mathematics, an eleven year-old boy who needed new shoes and a kindergartner with matted hair.

“Maybe you could be a bookkeeper,” I suggested. “Or teach at a private school?” Surely that college degree could be put to use.

“Bookkeeper? Teacher? I don’t think so.”

Every evening after work I stopped at the store and got two six-packs. Our “drinking tackle,” Dan called it. I’d have a couple while cooking dinner, and he’d polish off the rest. Sometimes, his thirst not yet slaked, he’d hit the bars once the kids were down. I’d often be awakened by the honking of the horn. He always made it home, but once he cut the engine he’d pass out, falling on the steering wheel.  

After months of my entreaties, Dan got a job at Fisherman’s Wharf selling kites on the street. On busy weekends, the kids and I helped out, retrieving tangled kites from trees and making change for tourists. On breezy days, the kites nearly sold themselves. On windless days, he used his children as props, grabbing Tommy by his feet and shaking him until his shirt fell down around his armpits.

“See this kid?” he’d roar to the corn-fed family from Topeka. “See his bony little ribs? This boy is hungry!”

Half-amused, half-alarmed, they’d tug the wallet from their pocket, count out bills and take the kites — and story — home.

Dan spent half of what he made in bars. One night the California Highway Patrol called. “The vehicle was weaving all over the road, ma’am. We’ll let your husband drive himself home,” they told me, (it was 1980) “but you should come get the girl.”

After Dan got fired again, he returned to bed, consoling himself once more with booze, books, and chess. Things got tight, then desperate. At the grocery store, I wrote bad checks, hoping to have the funds in time to cover them.

After my pick-up died, Dan’s VW bus was our only transportation. It sported a hole the size of a basketball where he’d cut the clutch pedal free after rear-ending our neighbor’s van. Once we got it roll-started, the muffler threw up sparks behind us. Reverse and fourth gears were gone; the heater, wipers, and brake lights didn’t work. But stuffed with trash and tools, oozing fluid from fermenting lawn clippings, it got me to my gardening jobs.

Desperate times called for desperate measures. I would never have hired someone like Dan. But apparently no one else would, either. In response to my pleas, my lover — former Wyoming state chess champion, one-time Ph.D. candidate, sockless feet and unwashed hair — joined me in my business.

“Who is that man?” a client asked me.

“Oh, just a new hire.”

I was never one of those girls who dreamed of getting married. But Dan thought it was time. “Let’s shit or get off the pot,” he proposed. No bended knee, velvet box, passionate kiss, or loving hug.

I guess I’d better, or he might leave.

My family took the news with fortitude. The first time he met him, my dad had said, “He’s a nice boy, Katie, but not someone you’d want to marry.” Now he seemed resigned.

I told my mom the news.

“To … Dan?” she said.

“Who else?” Years later, she confessed the hope she’d clung to in the moment between her query and my answer.

We were married in the Berkeley Rose Garden. Dan showered, shaved, brushed his teeth and hair. He wore a shirt so out of character even I — ever oblivious — noticed. Purple batik, painted with a hummingbird sipping from a flower. He trembled as he said his vows. What’s he so afraid of? 

We changed into jeans for the reception. With my brother at the wheel, we rode in folding chairs in the bed of my resurrected pick-up, “Just Married” scrawled along the sides. The U-joint clanked loudly as we climbed a hill. It was only getting worse. Gotta get that fixed.

If I’d thought to plan my life, if I’d had hopes and dreams, things might have been different. Instead, I let myself be blown along by every puff of air that came my way. Carol, my former sister-in-law, remembers “You were so in love with him.” But that wasn’t how it felt. I was just a moth. Mesmerized by that burning flame, I only sought the warmth. Incineration was not my plan. I had no plan.

The kids went to school, came home again. I made dinner, they did homework. Dan read to them at night from the Old Testament. No gentle Jesus, meek and mild for him; his God hurled thunderbolts, sent plagues of frogs and pestilence. The kids listened eagerly for their favorite passage, then shrieked in unison with their father: “A burning, fiery furnace!”

Ruth, the younger, was popular, spending nearly every weekend at the houses of her friends. There was no reciprocation. Of course. “Disheveled” was a generous description of my husband. “Wild-eyed” wasn’t far off base, either. Then there was our crowded rental. The rototiller in the living room. Hubcaps overflowing with cigarette butts. The sheets I used for curtains sagging at the windows. I understood why parents wouldn’t let their kids come.         

Tom was a loner, a cartoonist who loved Sherlock Holmes. Every morning he made his bed, each week he washed and ironed his button-down shirts, he got his hair cut once a month. When Dan drove him to school, he asked to be dropped off blocks away.

My husband loved the downtrodden. I’d find him drinking beer in the living room with an unwashed stranger, a hitchhiker picked up with the promise of a meal and couch. Once the lights were out, I’d lie awake and listen hard. Ruth at nine so pretty, grown men already stared at her.

Dan had a soft spot for pregnant women, too. Though he’d given his first wife a black eye when she’d been expecting. “She didn’t want to leave me, not really. It was for her own good.”

She shouldn’t have pissed him off.

He badgered me to have kids.

“Do you good to have some young ‘uns,” he said. I think he hoped to cinch my ties more tightly.

I tried to have a child for him, but our fragile fetus saw what lay ahead and fled the scene. I bled, sickened, and nearly died. In bed at the hospital, I passed in and out, in and out of consciousness. I loved it there. The nurses so solicitous, the peace and quiet interrupted only by the squeak of rubber soles upon the shining floors.

I tried to leave once, loading the car my father had given us with books and clothes, stacking my prized record collection on the back seat. Dan watched me from the porch, arms across his chest, an amused smile curling one corner of his mouth. Weak-kneed with relief, I saw my freedom, my real life, glimmering nearly within reach. Expecting threats, wrath, a show of force. I paused, thinking of Tom and Ruth as I squeezed past him with my final load. Wondering how they’d fare without my sheltering wing.

Dan snatched my glasses off my face as I passed, dropped and crushed them under his boot.

“You didn’t think you’d get away with this, did you, Katie?”

“Let me go!” I pleaded.

“I’m not stopping you.”

Without my glasses, I couldn’t drive. Defeated, trapped, and helpless, I gave up. Later that night, the darkness compounding my blindness, I unloaded the car. The next day I begged my husband to take me to the optometrist. A few weeks later, I got new glasses, and I stayed.

My world shrank and stiffened as my friends and family drifted away, disappointed, perplexed and repelled. After Dan’s family had had enough, it was just the four of us.

Then just two. That summer, our sixth as a couple, the kids went to their mother’s in Wyoming. Once they left, Dan did the one thing I never would have predicted. He quit drinking. He’d never said he thought he drank too much, or mentioned cutting back. Nor had I connected his problems — our problems, my problems — with his drinking.

Thrilled, I quit, too. I whipped up fancy beverages— grapefruit juice with flavored syrups, ginger ale with grenadine — after work. Whereas before I couldn’t wait for him to pass out so I could have peace, now we stayed up late and talked.

“I’d like to go back to school, finish that masters. Get a desk job, maybe learn to program. I know I could learn to use computers,” he mused.

He seemed to like me better. “Let’s make love in the garden tonight, sweetheart.” Who was this man? I could love this guy.

Dan’s good mood was infectious. Things I hadn’t known I’d wanted started to seem possible, my own dreams emerging like seedlings breaking earth. We’d make some friends, do fun things with other couples. I envisioned parties, hikes, and picnics. My husband was so well-read and witty, when he chose to be.

The kids returned a week before the start of school. I wondered what they’d think of their new clear-eyed, sweet-tempered father. But before they’d quite unpacked their bags he came home drunk, shouting “The drought is over! Ruth, bring me a beer!”

As suddenly as it had begun, the reprieve was over.

Things got worse. Before, Dan drank beer, mostly after work; now it was whiskey all day long. He stubbed his cigarettes on the furniture, fell asleep and set the chair on fire, wet the bed.

Now I couldn’t bear this life I’d so carelessly, passively acquired. The school year started. Winter threatened. The days and months and years stretching out before me in a vast and sterile desert. I hadn’t known what I wanted in life. Now I did. It wasn’t this.

One night, drunk after a day in the city, Dan insisted on driving home. The kids and I refused to get in the car.

“Please, Daddy,” Ruth whimpered.

“C’mon, Dan,” Tom wheedled. My stepson called his father by his first name.

Glowering, my husband dropped the keys in my palm and got in the passenger’s side, slamming the door without a word. We were on the freeway going sixty, maybe seventy in the fast lane, when he yanked those keys from the ignition. The steering wheel, turned slightly to the right, locked. I hit the brakes as we cut across three lanes of honking traffic before stopping on the shoulder. I rested my forehead on the steering wheel as the kids whimpered in the back.

“Now who’s the bull dyke, Katie?”

Afterwards, I played and replayed the scene in slow motion, the ghastly movie if the wheel had been turned left. Instead of right. The concrete divider smashing through the fragile shell of our broken family.

I knew then that boredom wouldn’t kill me. But life with Dan might.

A couple of days after the incident on the freeway, I asked Tommy how he’d felt about our brush with death.

“What the hell does it matter how I feel?” He was enraged, madder than I’d ever seen him. “I didn’t choose any of this.”

I didn’t choose this, either. Not really.

There came an evening that winter when I couldn’t bear the thought of cooking dinner. The prospect of all the meals I’d cook, would keep on cooking to the end of time, the dreary parade of pots and pans, greasy dishwater, and soiled napkins made me want to go to bed and pull the covers over my head.

Dan didn’t push me. I should have noticed that.

“Let’s get pizza then,” he said. But the charade of acting like a happy family, in front of other, real happy families made me want to cry.

“You guys go. I’ll stay home.” I followed him out the door to show I wasn’t difficult.

My husband stepped into the VW van, the kids following. “Get in the bus,” he said. It wasn’t a suggestion. He turned the key and the motor purred to life.

“No.” Now I was being difficult.

He opened the door and stepped down, leaving the engine running as he marched over.

“You’re not coming with us?” His whisky scent washing over me.

“No.”

“Sure about that?”

“Yes.”

“I hate to do this, Katie.” An eager lift to his lips belying his words.  

Raising his hand like a benediction, he slapped me gently, almost lovingly. As if teasing me. Then his eyes narrowed, his gaze sharpened, and he lifted his palm again.

The second blow nearly knocked me to the ground.

Something tugged at me from deep inside as Cupid returned his filthy arrow to the quiver.

Dan spun away, hopped in the VW, let off the brake, and ground the gears. The little van popped, jerked, and sputtered down the hill.

When they returned a few hours later, the kids went straight to bed. Dan was jovial.

“You missed some great pizza, sweetheart,” he slurred.

“If you ever do that again, I’ll leave,” I said.

“Zat what you think? You’ll just leave?” His tone was affectionate, as if humoring a small child.

The next day he stayed home drinking all day. When I returned from work his mood was savage.

“You think you wear the pants in this house?” he snarled. “You think I’m pussy-whipped? Huh? Huh?”

I tried to step past him but he blocked me. I was glad the kids weren’t home yet.

“No, Dan, I don’t want to wear the pants. I don’t think you’re pussy-whipped.” I could hardly bear to say that ugly word. I started dinner, hoping food would pacify him. But he was gone, to the bars, I imagined, before the kids got home.

“Bitch! Come out here!” I jerked out of sleep with a jolt, hugging the covers tight round me. What time was it? I looked at my watch. Just after two. Closing time. “You think you’re so tough!” I should have locked the door. I heard Dan’s heavy tread as he stumbled up the steps, the slamming of the front door, then the bedroom door. My husband lurched into the room and tore off my blankets, yelling “Get up! Get up!” Raging, he yanked me out of bed before I could comply and slapped my face so hard my neck snapped.

“Get out!” he screamed. “Get out!”

And I did. First from that awful house, then from that awful marriage. I’d learned there are much worse things in life than being bored.

Meet the Contributor

kate sheridanAs a career landscape designer and contractor for forty years, Kate Sheridan wrote “Dig This,” a landscaping how-to book, published by Sasquatch Books in 2003. Her entry “Garden Thief” won first prize in the 2021 Streetlight magazine essay / memoir contest (to be published in the summer edition). She recently completed a memoir entitled UNCLAIMED BAGGAGE about caring for her estranged mother in dementia.

STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/walknboston        

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