Explore O:JA&L’s Buttonhook Press offerings on Amazon.
Subscribe to the O:JA&L YouTube channel.
Become an O:JA&L Member through Patreon.
Follow O:JA&L on Facebook.

Ericka Russell

Burning Alfalfa Fields

Guilt by Ralle

My aunt and uncle’s basement was Ohio State themed—scarlet and gray, not red and gray—and looked like a pediatrician’s waiting room and examination room all in one. There was too much seating, the TV was so old it sat crisscross applesauce directly on the cheap carpet that engraved legs and knees with highways of knotted threading. The wallpaper was juvenile, everything matched too closely, and the footballs, baseballs, and basketballs didn’t know if they wanted to look like clip-art or be taken more seriously.

This was the basement where we were caught. There was a spare guest bedroom in this basement, attached to the living room, but it feels far off, like going down a tube slide before you can see the opening. This was the room where we were caught. There was a bed, frumpy in age and made more of box springs than cushion, the comforter smelled like it was stored in drywall. This was the bed where we were caught.

It sounds archaic, like it was some torture chamber and not the basement floor of my aunt and uncle’s yellow one-story house in the middle of nowhere in northern Ohio farmland, surrounded by cornfields, dyed blue ponds, and mailboxes that looked like largemouth bass or red barns or mini versions of the house it belonged to. The basement of the house with Tuscan cobblestone cottage art, FAMILY in various fonts, sizes, and colors, and sheer white curtains in every window. Beaded rosaries and roses braided from dried palmetto leaves hung from frames on the walls. Just another humble version of Catholic hand-me-down standard.

This was procedure: I’d do what he wanted and then we would do what I wanted. Tumbling around, this was the moment we were caught. I don’t exactly remember, but the aftermath is insurance. Waiting around in the garage for my parents to get there. My aunt’s parents were told as well, and I remember thinking if this was so bad and evil, why would they spread it like gossip, not like a secret?

By the time my parents traveled from Bowling Green to Ottawa, I had sweat off entire layers of my skin cells. Up until this point, the secret of the molestation had felt like the circle of life. Natural, familial, coming-of-age. Very young, I learned from my father, “You have to do things in life you don’t want to do.” So, I did things in life I didn’t want to do, I waited them out, then I got what I wanted: a playmate, access to Legos, someone to jump on the trampoline with.

Eventually, we loaded up the Tahoe. My mother was yelling, taking who to blame and reorganizing it, denial by a new chain of command. Of course I don’t remember correctly if her rage was only on me or if her rage was predisposed for me in all the ways girls and women attract blame like they are the center of gravity and still bewitched for it.

I’m trying to explain with limited vocabulary and nonexistent self-advocacy (my therapist’s favorite panacea: “Protect your peace” repetition) that this was an arrangement. That it wasn’t my idea. That, had aunt Mel walked in sooner, she would have seen my shivering, plucked goose skin. My mother hears only the silences after my blubber talk. I am a telemarketer’s script, filling in moments of dialogue to allow her next iron-hot tangent.

I don’t remember anything my father said, if he said anything at all, until we’re home. Eighteen years later—the memory just now turning the age of consent—and I can still feel my dad holding me up as I hang my body over his arm in defeat, in disbelief, in the first domino of failure in my life. An abomination. A sinner. A fault line.

In the byway from the garage to the front door, in the laundry room with linoleum so old it looked like it’d seen too many funerals, My dad said, “I love you, Ericka. I love you no matter what. Ok?” He spanked me so hard I could have flown across the hallway. I did.

The betrayal smelled like Yankee Candle car freshener, rubber floor mats, and burning alfalfa fields. Even my body betrayed me. I wet the bed constantly—research shows this as a normal, reactionary occurrence and further research finds a concurrence of bedwetting and serial murder, but I’ve seen nothing dedicated to unhinging the genetic jaw clamped on familial molestation. I got UTIs often, sitting/sleeping in wet underwear, wiping wrong, hiding in my wet pants until they dried. Crying on the toilet, my only reprieve was cranberry juice and my step-grandma pouring cold water down my butt so I could clench my teeth and release my bladder.

I have all this evidence, I carry it around in my back pocket. I juggle it with violence incites violence, with families back then (and now) never had the tools to address such an aortic, bloody stump of an issue, with boys will be boys, with the fact that molestation paints my bloodline—both sides (who would have thought?), with, really, nothing could have made that moment right, that nothing was right to begin with, and that I have to accept that I am collateral. I am a statistic that has never been counted. I am an imaginary number.

We call it Catholic guilt: the guilt of existing, for being human, for not praying when your grandma texts you to pray for someone you don’t know who died of pneumonia after a knee replacement, for feeling a little tingle in the place that draws the line between human and animal, id and superego. I do have Catholic guilt, but this guilt is something different. Something I learned by induction.

I could tell you all the ways I’m not good enough. What I’ll tell you instead—why I will never be good enough—is a much shorter story.


About the writer:
Ericka Russell is a writer of fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry. After obtaining her BA at Ohio University, she received her MFA from Western Kentucky University. Ericka Russell now pursues college instruction, photography, and outdooring.

Image: Guilt by Rallé (contemporary). Oil on board. No size specified. 2009. By free license.

OJAL Art Incorporated, publishing since 2017 as OPEN: Journal of Arts & Letters (O:JA&L) and its imprint Buttonhook Press, is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation supporting writers and artists worldwide.

Become an O:JA&L Member through Patreon.