Curtain World

Author: Kirby Wright

A girl experiences psychological fallout when her abusive father beats her two older brothers. One brother tries rescuing her by creating a fantasy world in which she can escape.

My father called my kid sister Holly his �Go-Go Girl� because, whenever rock music played on either the TV or the radio, Holly would start gyrating like a caged dancer at a Go-Go Club. She was only four but she would shake her head and body just like Goldie Hawn on Laugh In. She even had her auburn hair cut short like Goldie and there was no stopping her once she heard the music. My mother would stand beside Holly and ape her moves; this made Holly dance even more furiously, as if speeding up somehow defeated what she perceived as a challenge.
Not long after Holly became the official Go-Go Girl of the household, my father began exhibiting behavior that he later admitted signaled the beginning of a nervous breakdown. He was a litigator at a top firm in Honolulu and had decided to become a land developer in his �spare time.� When he got home in the evenings, he flew into irrational tirades that shook the foundations of the home. He beat my big brother Ben with a belt for �ruining his appetite� by eating an Eskimo Pie before dinner. He whacked me for not picking the mangoes off the tree the second he told me to. My mother didn�t escape his wrath either�he reprimanded her for not buying him the right brand of rat poison and he told her to lose some weight. She tried defending us when it was beating time but that only infuriated him more. Ben told my mother to stay out of it and let us take our licks because all their arguing only delayed the inevitable.
The only one my father didn�t bug was Holly, but the fallout from his conduct was enough to break her spirit. I witnessed this break the afternoon my father beat me for telling my mother she should divorce him. After my father left my room and my cries had subsided, I searched for Holly. She wasn�t in her room. I looked in the bathroom she shared with my mother, the kitchen, and then the dining room. No Holly. I finally found her hiding behind a chair in the living room. Her body was convulsing as if she was being shocked by electricity. I picked her up and held her. �It�s okay, Hol,� I said, �my spanking�s over.� She continued to convulse until I turned on Gilligan�s Island and told her I was once marooned on an island and that I was Gilligan�s second cousin.
* * *
Before entering Kindergarten, Holly started cringing whenever our father walked by. She had given up her Go-Go dancing and she would reluctantly give my father his �big kiss-o wiss-o� on the cheek when he demanded it after getting home from work. In the morning she picked at her breakfast and on several occasions she had to rush to the bathroom after swallowing her first spoonful of Captain Crunch. I sensed a fear in her, not the kind of fear that eventually makes you want to fight back but the kind that makes you retreat inside yourself to hide. It was different for me because there was resolution in feeling the whip of the belt�pain washed the fear away and replaced it with hate, and I used that hatred like bricks to shield my soul from him. Holly was tortured by her fear that our father would one day come for her despite my pleadings he would never harm her. I saw that fear spread through her like a cancer.
* * *
I wanted to rescue Holly from our father but running away from home with her was out of the question because we lived on an island. I knew he�d track us down. But I also realized there were other ways to escape, ways to distance yourself from fear and pain by using the imagination. I�d become an expert at removing myself from the house by entering the world of fantasy through books. Some of my favorites belonged to the Tom Swift Series, adventures such as Tom Swift and His Triphibian Atomicar and Tom Swift and the Visitor from Planet X. I complimented escapism through the written word with excursions out to our twilight lawn, where I gazed at the planets, moon, and stars through a refractor telescope. I would often take my eye off the lens and watch my father through the glass doors of the living room. That�s when I pretended he was another boy�s father.
I picked up Holly one night after dinner and told her I was taking her on a trip to another planet. She was wearing shorts and a Tinkerbell top. I carried her into the master bedroom and turned on the light. Two sliding glass doors overlooked my father�s ti garden and, on either side of the room, there were salmon-colored curtains drawn open to give my father his view. The only time the curtains were pulled together was when my parents locked their bedroom door after The Ed Sullivan Show.
�We�re going to Curtain World,� I announced and lifted Holly up and held her against my chest. I carried her past a bureau wedged against the bedroom wall. The bureau was stocked with bottles of perfume, jars of face creams, and a picture of my parents sitting in a booth at the Tropicana Casino in Las Vegas. A plate glass mirror mounted on the wall behind the bureau gave the illusion there were twice as many bottles and jars.
I parted one of the curtains, pressed my shoulder against the edge of the fabric, and turned so the curtain wrapped around us. It was like being inside a pink cone and the fabric smelled like a blend of all my mother�s perfumes. I twirled counterclockwise and held Holly close so she wouldn�t fall. The more I twirled, the tighter Holly held on. I quit twirling when I started feeling dizzy.
�We�re here,� I said.
�Where?� asked Holly.
I parted the curtain and stuck my head out. �Curtain World.�
Holly released her grip and stuck her head out too. �Is it fun?� she asked.
�Unusual,� I replied. I told her that if her feet touched the ground she�d have to stay behind in Curtain World and that I�d never see her again. �Wanna drive?� I asked.
�Yes,� she said.
�Then I�ll put you in the driver�s seat.� I swung her around and held her in front of me, so that her legs looped over my locked arms and her back was cushioned against my belly. I held her beside the bureau and we studied the collection of perfumes and creams. �One of the creatures squirts sweet-smelling liquids on its skin,� I said. �Then it looks in this mirror and admires itself.�
�Gross!� Holly said.
I held up my right hand and told her she was control of where she wanted to go in Curtain World. If she pushed forward on the hand she would go forward and if she pulled back she would go back. Pinching the thumb steered her right and pinching the pinkie steered her left.
�Where do we go?� she asked.
�It�s up to you,� I said, �but the creatures are down this narrow hallway ahead of us.�
Holly pushed the hand forward and pinched the pinkie and I floated her down the hall. We passed photos of my mother in her wedding dress, one of my father in his major�s uniform from World War II, and family pictures that were blow-ups of the ones used for Mele Kalikimaka cards. The smiles looked forced and the bodies were stiff.
�These creatures take pictures of themselves,� I told Holly, �then stick them up on the wall.�
�Yuck,� she said.
We continued down to the end of the hall and entered the kitchen. Ben was sitting on a swivel chair in the typing nook. He had on white drawstring pants and a tank top. His bare feet rested on the carriage of my mother�s antique Underwood. He was on the phone talking to his friend Wayne about some �righteous girl in history class.� Ben and I were both sophomores at Punahou School because he�d been held back.
�This one talks to fellow creatures through that thingamajig,� I told Holly.
�Yes. That�s how they communicate when they�re not in the same room.�
Holly pushed the hand forward until we were within five feet of Ben. He continued to talk as if we didn�t exist. His blond hair was down past his ears and Dean Doole had given him the choice to either cut it or face suspension. We watched Ben stick a finger in one of his nostrils.
�Hey, creature,� I said, �picking a winner?�
Ben took his feet off the typewriter. One of his heels accidentally struck the keyboard, causing the keys to jump. He swung around on the swivel chair and gave us the finger.
Holly pulled back on the hand and we left the kitchen, took a sharp left, and entered the dining room. My mother was busy reading the Obituaries in the Honolulu Star Bulletin. She wore yellow capris and a white blouse. I knew she was listening to Ben�s conversation by the way she took her eyes off the paper and stared down at the table. She was a former Miss Massachusetts and she kept her blonde hair in the same flip style that had won her that contest all those years ago. She had been going steady with the Boston College quarterback but she fell in love with my father because he was a good dancer and was going to Harvard Law School.
�What are you doing, creature?� I asked my mother.
She took her eyes off the table and smiled when she saw me holding Holly. �My,� she said, �that looks like fun.�
�We�re taking a ride, creature,� I said, �into your world.�
�And I�m the driver,� Holly said.
�Welcome to my world,� my mother said as she returned her attention to the Obituaries.
�Are you reading the death notices, creature?� I asked.
�How long do creatures live on your planet?�
�Oh, I�d say about seventy years, on average.�
�Do the female creatures live longer than the male ones?�
My mother nodded. �Usually.�
�What do you eat?� asked Holly.
�Lamb chops, rice, and lima beans.�
�It loves reading about dead creatures,� I told Holly.
�Yes. That�s its pastime. And it likes staying up late at night eating secret chocolates and guzzling tea.�
�Okay,� my mother said, �that�s enough.�
Holly pulled the hand back, pinched the thumb, and we veered into the living room. My father was lying on the couch in his khaki shorts and a V-neck T-shirt. He had a ruddy complexion and a five o�clock shadow. He was starting to get pudgy from a lack of exercise. Someone at a party had said he was a dead ringer for the actor Ernest Borgnine. His hands were folded across his chest and he was watching Laugh In. Instead of laughing, he scowled during the skits. �What a god damn jerk,� he said when Henry Gibson appeared on the screen wearing a green suit with a big yellow flower stuck in the lapel.
�It watches tiny creatures on that tiny screen,� I told Holly.
�It�s like a zoo!�
�Just like one,� I said. �Watching that box makes the creature happy and sad. Then it goes to sleep for eight hours, wakes up, and shaves hair off its face.�
�Then what?�
�It eats a poached egg, drinks coffee, and goes to work in a salt mine.�
�Jeffrey,� my father said, �don�t you have any homework to do?�
�This is my homework, creature.�
�Move away,� he said, �you�re blocking my view.�
�It�s turning mad,� I told Holly. �Better say goodbye to the creature.�
�Goodbye, creature,� Holly said.
My father shook his head. �I�ll creature you.�
Holly was starting to get heavy. �We must return to our world,� I said, �or we�ll run out of fuel and have to remain in Curtain World for the rest of our lives.�
�No,� she said and pushed the hand forward.
We headed back down the hallway. When we reached the master bedroom, I swung Holly back around and held her against my chest as we ducked inside the curtain. I started spinning clockwise. �We�re going back to our own planet,� I told her and she hugged me as we spun. When I started getting dizzy, I stopped and parted the curtain. I could tell Holly didn�t want to let go because I had to pry her hands off my shoulders.
�It�s okay, Hol, it�s okay,� I said, �we�ve returned safely to our own world.� I put her down on the tiles next to the bureau.
�I don�t like this world,� Holly said.
�How come?�
�It�s not really safe,� she whispered, �not safe at all.�