This week’s piece Is Life Worth Living or Should I Blast Myself?, first appeared in the blog Poe Man’s Dreams which narrates some of the miseries and experiences of everyday life for people with few resources. This particular story is an account of being a juvenile delinquent and having to live with a family who had a multitude of issues. Check it out below.
(In case you’ve missed it, we also posted Exhibit A from the same author a few weeks ago.)
Trigger warning: Accounts or discussion of suicide, sexual assault, self-harm, drug abuse and physical abuse
The day the Towers came down I was planning to ride to a city 45 minutes away to pick up my friend, Javier. He had been sentenced to six months in a halfway house for a B&E, and this was his first weekend pass. I stayed up late the previous night and woke up the next morning, looking forward to seeing him. The jarring scenes from the TV in the living room confused me at first. Was this in the Middle East? No? New York? What the fuck is going on?
The family I lived with at the time explained to me what the news was saying. My first thought after realizing what was going on was about being drafted. Two weeks shy of my 18th birthday made me a prime candidate for whatever massive, national retaliation was inevitably coming to whoever did this. But there wasn’t much time to dwell on it, Javier still needed a ride. So we packed into the 1987 Ford Econoline and went on our way.
The trip itself was a bit surreal. No one talked, so the entire trip was narrated by press conferences of the Bush Administration on National Public Radio. Regardless of the fact that we were several hundred miles away from the attacks, we could see the effects. Gas prices had tripled. Corresponding with a mass rush for fuel, this meant very long lines and even some stations running out. Grocery stores were packed with people buying out necessities. You couldn’t find bottled water. Nationwide, of course, all flights had been grounded. D.C. had been hit. The only jet trails in the sky were that of Air Force One and its fighter escorts coming from U.S. Strategic Command in Omaha. There were all sorts of unconfirmed rumors flying around, both on the streets and in the media. Had a plane been shot down?
Many local rumors took root, too. We heard that there was a possibility the correctional system in the state was on lockdown because of the attacks. Fortunately, this wasn’t true and we were able to pick up my friend after some delay. When we arrived back home, I was glued to the TV, smoking joint after joint, and writing raps about the coming wars, detention camps and increased government surveillance.
As the days, weeks and months rolled by, the initial fear at the possibility of a draft became hope. Dying in some faraway land battling ‘terrorists’ seemed more noble than what felt like the inevitability of suicide.
All my life I been considered as the worst
Lying to my mother, even stealing out her purse
Crime after crime, from drugs to extortion
I know my mother wished she got a fucking abortion
She don’t even love me like she did when I was younger
Sucking on her chest just to stop my fucking hunger
I wonder if I died, would tears come to her eyes
Forgive me for my disrespect, forgive me for my lies
At age 17, I was a two-time high school dropout on supervised probation. I had already stormed out on two jobs, spent a short time in a juvenile detention center, been arrested or detained at least six times and been questioned by authorities for all sorts of things, from targeted vandalism of a cop’s home to stealing and selling off boat motors. I earned my first assault charge by throwing punches at my mom’s boss as he attempted to physically stop me from leaving a Wal-Mart with stolen merchandise.
A habitual weed smoker and pill popper, most of the day I stumbled around stupefied, accomplishing nothing. Being absolutely disrespectful and hateful to everyone who wasn’t in my little crew of friends, my parents were at a loss on how to deal with me and my younger siblings were scared of me.
The trajectory of these difficult teenage years reached a climax of sorts on a morning in the Summer of 2001.
Still living with my parents, I got up from a Vicodin induced hangover and went to the garage, where I had hidden a half gallon of the cheapest, most toxic tasting vodka on the market. But looking for it produced no results. Assuming one of my parents had discovered it and thrown it away, I confronted my dad in the kitchen. While looking back on it now, it is unclear, at that moment in time he appeared to be incredibly drunk. He claimed to have downed the rest of the bottle, saying this with a look on his face that expressed a desire for confrontation. Words were exchanged. I threw a chair, he threw fists. I swung back, he pushed me against, and almost out, of a second story window. A friend who had stopped by to see if I was home ran up and pushed my dad off me and I ran out of the house screaming, blood running from my arms and tears streaming from my face. Having no idea where to go, I eventually got cornered in an alley by police, arrested and charged with my second assault.
I was now de facto homeless, the first (but not last) time this would happen. To avoid having to sleep in the street, my crew of friends directed me to the family of a mutual friend. The Riles family.
The Riles family was sort of notorious among us. One of their sons and two of their daughters hung out with us frequently, but they were seen as ‘white trash’ and rumored to be absolutely filthy people. The mother, the matriarch of the family, had more than a few disturbing stories about her and, in my mind then, existed more as a myth than a real person.
Moving in with them, what started as a temporary alternative to sleeping on the streets slowly became long-term. To make things worse, the rumors about filth were true….true beyond anything described to me.
The family consisted of the dad, mom, 3 sons, 2 daughters and grandma. The grandma and her deceased husband had once owned a porn theater in a city nearby, and this was the main income for this whole family for years. When it folded, they then had to rely on the dad for income. That worked for a couple years, until he fell during a painting gig and shattered his legs and hips. He hadn’t worked since. They sold their main home and moved into another property, which was technically not legal to reside in year-round. It was a summer home on the river intended for light usage. Even then, it was probably against the law to live in. There existed no running water and no heat. The main source of electricity was a mystery to me, but it was distributed in the house through a chaotic, intertwined, snake’s pit of extension cords.
Drinking water was obtained by filling empty laundry detergent bottles and milk cartons from a sink at a laundromat. This was also where the water for the way too infrequent family baths came from. The toilet was used and its contents were scooped into a Rubbermaid tub, which was subsequently dumped into the river when filled. But what made the place truly unbearable was that the family hoarded cats. There were so many of them, some had no names and their origin was disputed or unknown. Several of them were actually feral and were drawn to the house by the free cat food scattered in the back yard. Adding up to at least 40, these cats shit everywhere. On the living room floor. Under the couch. All over the yard. In the overwhelmed litterbox. None of it being ever picked up, there were piles so old they resembled gray chunks of petrified material.
The filth was a defining experience living here. The stench was unavoidable and a resident in its own right. I was able to dodge it a bit as I slept and mostly hung out in a broken down RV right next to the house. Obsessively cleaning it sometimes multiple times a day, all animals were banned from it. To keep my body clean, I started a campaign of ‘guerrilla showering’, which meant breaking into my parent’s house, sneaking into campgrounds and locker rooms for the purpose of a shower. While the filth was horrible…there was far worse happening here.
This can’t be life, this can’t be love
This can’t be right, there’s gotta be more, this can’t be us
One of the sons, Jason, was the oldest and came from the mom’s previous marriage. Jason was in his late 20s, developmentally and physically disabled and in dire need of real support. The family mainly kept him there because of his SSI checks. He was mostly non-verbal and often expressed his feelings with punches, slaps, bites and headbutts. Being 10 years older than me, this had to be taken seriously.
His younger brother, Ricky, who was around my age, constantly antagonized Jason, sometimes crossing over into abuse. Ricky would push him down, slap him, lock him in his room and burn Jason’s arm with lighters. Every so often when locked in his room, Jason would soil himself and then out of anger, smear it on the walls. On more than a couple occasions I saw his face shoved in it to “teach him a lesson”.
The most sympathetic figure in the house, no doubt, was the grandma. She suffered from Alzheimer’s or dementia, and yet was the most ‘normal’ person in the house. The family made her sleep in a bed right next to the disgusting bathroom. As some of our elderly do, she wet the bed pretty frequently. The mom would take her sheets and clothes once or twice a week and hose them down with river water. The smell was suffocating, but I never said anything about it or made any sort of face around her, out of respect.
The grandma never quite understood who I was, alternately thinking I was her Vietnam veteran son on disability or just a nice stranger. One night she woke up and tried walking out of the house, saying she needed to get to her husband, who had been dead for 7 years. The first time this happened, not knowing what to do, I woke the mom up. She stormed over, grabbed the older woman roughly by the arms and shoved her back into bed. She then proceeded to smack and hit her own mother.
As grandma yelled out in anguish, “Who are you? Why are you doing this to me?”, I swore to myself never to alert the mom again. From then on, if the grandma got up, I brought her back to her bed. Even if I had to do this several times, so be it.
I smoke a blunt to take the pain out
And if I wasn’t high, I’d probably try to blow my brains out
I’m hopeless, they should’ve killed me as a baby
And now they got me trapped in the storm, I’m goin’ crazy
The family was unquestionably run by the mom. With both Jason and the grandma’s SSI checks coming in, she technically provided the bulk of the income and took advantage of this. Almost everything was determined and decided by her. Any resistance was met with thunderous mood swings and frightening temper tantrums. She manipulated members of the family, playing them off each other, to get what she wanted. I myself was probably most at the mercy of her. The main reason I was able to stay there was because she said so. She provided food, cigarettes and weed. The latter two were the most important as they became a vital part of my attempt to cope with my situation. But if she became irked at me, she stopped providing me with these things. This became more frequent and more complicated as she started expressing an attraction to me.
Merely 17, having a 43 year old woman make unwanted advances, licking my ear, grabbing my dick and pulling my hand onto her tits was something I wasn’t really equipped to handle. A lot of this happened in full view of her family, too.
When I finally turned 18, it got even worse. She lavished me with birthday presents with the expectation, pretty much explicitly said, that these unwanted advances would then be accepted. When they weren’t, she began sneaking into my RV to touch me as I was sleeping1. There was very little I could do to get away from her, as the property was isolated.
All of these horrors combined felt like they were about to crush me. Some days I tried avoiding everyone and didn’t use my vocal chords at all. I couldn’t leave. I couldn’t make the insanity stop. So I turned to a ‘solution’ that provided short-term benefits at long-term risk: crank.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, a meth epidemic swept through the Midwest. Apparantly starting in meatpacking towns, workers who were required to work long hours doing tough, dirty work started taking it to make the day go by easier and the work seem less taxing. From the meatpacking towns it spread out like a wildfire, mostly in rural areas and medium sized cities. Meth was relatively easy to make, relying on readily available ingredients and supplies. ‘Mom and pop’ operations sprang up all over the place, supplemented by a flood of Mexican product made in ‘superlabs’. For a time, it was easier to get dope2 than it was to get cigarettes, if you were underage. Until now I had stayed away from it. But that quickly changed.
It seems like a cliche now, but a lot of people’s older brothers sold crank on the side or used it. My best friend at the time had a brother named Andrew who did both. One weekend, he and some of his friends showed up to the door of my RV for the purpose of ‘smoking me up’. Initially this was interpreted as meaning pot, but it actually meant crank.
Reluctantly, I smoked a couple foils and entered a different world. Chain smoking cheap cigarettes and pissing out as much Gatorade as one could drink, writing raps became my one mission. While everyone else played cards or dice for 12 hours, I spent half of a day filling a notebook with rhymes. When everyone decided to leave, Andrew spotted me a half gram and I shot right through to Monday with no sleep. Three entire days completely awake, with nothing to eat. This was the escape I was looking for.
My first experience with crank left me reeling though. As the next weekend came and went, and then the next, with no crank, I began to panic. When I realized reality wasn’t going to be escaped from anytime soon, my mood soured.
Halfway giving up, I ignored the many cats who attempted to gain entry to my RV. No longer did I obsessively clean it. Sleep became a refuge for me, and I artificially induced this refuge my regularly taking lots of sleeping pills. Worst of all…I stopped pulling away when the Riles mom came into the RV at night and just let her do what she wanted, staring at the ceiling and waiting for it to be done with.
With little chance of escaping, plans for killing myself began to be drafted. Writing a fairly long and rambling note to my mother, I downed 19 Tylenol PM’s with a glass of vodka and waited for the eventual fade to black. Around 1:30 AM I woke up to the Riles mom smashing her right breast against my mouth. Putting my hand on her head, I grabbed her hair and whipped her down off my bed.
“You’ll fucking pay for that, mister…”
I think that’s what she said. Not entirely sure, because the pills kicked back in and my eyelids sunk.
My life is all I have
My rhymes, my pen, my pad
And I done made it through the struggle, don’t judge me
What you say now, won’t budge me
Cuz where I come from, so often
People you grew up with, layin in a coffin
But I done made it through the pain in spite
It’s my time now, my world, my life
The next day the mom told the whole family that I tried to overdose to get back at her. That I was an ungrateful little boy who hated her even though she had done so much for me. The daughters were noticeably angry at me.
That night the decision was made to slit my wrists. But this seemed like a scary and painful thing to do. Maybe a test run first? Finding my sharpest pocket knife, and putting a medium sized amount of pressure on the top of my left hand, I sliced a straight line. Then another line. Then another. About 5 minutes into it, the word ‘HATE’, dripping with blood, was present. It hurt. A lot. There’s no way slitting my wrists was going to be an option.
What saved me was this red-headed kid named Brian I went to school with who moved in about this time, for reasons forgotten now. Although we were never that tight in school, the shared misery of living at that house made us good friends. He was a cook at restaurant, and a part-time weed dealer. Having a 1989 Pontiac 6000, he would make sure I got out of there and into town whenever he did. He also flipped the balance of power in the house. Being the main source of weed in a house full of stoners does that. We both talked immense amount of shit about them to their face and made plans to move out. Brian promised to let me stay at the apartment he was saving up for.
The mom finally left me alone, thankfully becoming disinterested in me, put setting her sights on Brian. But he handled it way better and wasn’t at her whim like I had been, so she stopped her advances pretty quickly.
Two events concluded our stay at the house. The first was my RV catching fire because of some curtains that had drifted onto a touch lamp. While I almost always turned the lights off when exiting the RV, on this particular instance shutting the door hard turned them back on.
As I was downloading Nas songs off Napster and Brian was rolling a blunt in the living room of the house, we noticed smoke rushing past the back window. Racing outside and looking into the RV, we could see a set of curtains and a 3 foot section of the wall on fire. Brian went into the RV to try and put it out, while I grabbed jugs of water from the kitchen. When I got back, he burst out of the RV and onto the ground, coughing violently. There was too much smoke. I ended up having to break a window to pour water in and finally the fire was put out.
Most of the next week was filled with crazy theories and accusations by the mom about how we had set the fire on purpose to ‘get back at her’. For what, she couldn’t say.
But the final straw came when cats started dying.
Over this same week, a couple of cats here and there started to come down with a mysterious illness. It was like their motor functions were malfunctioning and then ceasing altogether. They would collapse, sideways, periodically moaning. The mom had a near breakdown. She pushed us, crying and screaming about how we were feeding her cats meth. To this day, this is the craziest thing I’ve ever been accused of.
Brian went right into town, signed a lease, came back, picked me up and we were gone.
So in conclusion, we all seem to stumble, planning our own demise
Forgetting the big picture and making it wallet size
So to what is important in my life, I apologize
I promise to stay faithful, focused and sanctified
The horrors of that house became a hilarious, yet sad, joke among my crew of friends. In an all too rare display of creativity, I made a couple 4-panel comics called The Riles Chronicles that everyone thought were great. They were even hung up in the apartments of a couple people I knew. Someone at long last called the Department of Human Services on them. Jason was taken away by the state. The grandma died (RIP). The Riles family ended moving into town, where they remain to the best of my knowledge.
I ended up reconciling with my parents. My dad and I have never talked about the day we got into a fist fight. A military draft never happened, and although I flirted with enlisting, there was another path for me, thankfully.
I haven’t spoke to any of the Riles since I left. Brian and I remained good friends until around 2007, when we had some problems. I haven’t seen nor spoke to him since.
After a couple of years, the jokes and stories about the family mostly stopped. I tried to forget about it. Moving away, both from my crew of friends and the region itself, the experience got buried deep inside me. About once every year or two, I recollect most, but not all, of this experience to (almost always) a female I trust and then the story drifts off again.
This is the last time I will tell this story.
- 1.Years later, I would learn that, yes, males can be sexually assaulted and, yes, these incidents constituted sexual assault. I’ve never told anybody about these incidents, though, and this is the first time I’ve even put what happened in writing.
- 2.‘Dope’ is a generic term that applies to whatever drug is in fashion, it seems. At that time, ‘dope’ meant meth.