Marley lay curled up on her sofa bed, reliving the Gladys debacle at work earlier in the day. The depression she’d been battling since adolescence weighed her down like the heavy quilt draped over her. A thick, dark fog of despair left Marley feeling small, inconsequential, and incompetent as decades of insults rumbled through her head: Drop out, lazy, quitter, worthless…words too often hurled at her by her father, mother, and siblings during her troubled childhood. The dressing down she’d received from Gravel Gertie joined the noise in her head, feeding her paralyzing insecurity. All she wanted at this moment was to hide from the world, bury herself beneath her late grandmother’s quilt and entomb herself within the cramped, one-room efficiency attached to her parents’ modest West Phoenix home.
Built as an addition to the house ten years prior to accommodate her now-deceased grandmother, the efficiency had a small vintage refrigerator and a short kitchen counter with just enough room for a sink, a toaster, and a hot plate. A small lamp on the bedside table and the faint glow of an alarm clock radio’s illuminated flip numbers provided the only light in the room. The sofa bed, pulled out as it was now, filled the room completely. All that separated the space from her parents’ living quarters was a sliding glass door, the lock on which was broken, and a sheet she’d hung over it for privacy.
Moving out of her tiny, childhood bedroom and into the efficiency was the first step in her plan to break free from her parents. With its kitchenette and separate entrance, the efficiency provided a modicum of independence. Marley couldn’t afford her own apartment, at least not yet, so this was the best she could make of an intolerable situation. But without her own place, true independence escaped her.
Marley felt for the crucifix hanging beneath the flannel of her pajama top and burrowed deeper beneath the patchwork quilt.
Her brother, Philip, and his wife, Lovita, both of whom had recently found religion, were forever evangelizing to Marley, beseeching her to accept Jesus Christ as her savior. “He will change your life for the better,” they told her, time and time again. “Jesus will accept you and love you even when no one else will,” Lovita promised after gifting Marley with the ornate, gold-plated crucifix—a gaudy reminder of Jesus’ unconditional and never-ending love. Marley cherished the necklace; garish though it was, she wore it always. Whenever she felt worthless and unlovable, which she did most of her waking hours, the necklace offered a shred of reassurance, even if it was merely symbolic.
Marley fished the crucifix out from the neckline of her pajama top, white-knuckling it, as she lay otherwise motionless beneath the quilt, staring blankly into the nothingness that was her life. Her eyes blinked at the sight of a book sitting next to her alarm clock on the bedside table, and the handwritten note taped to the book’s cover. Gold lettering on the book’s spine spelled out, “The Good News Bible.” Along with the crucifix, the bible was a gift given to her from Philip and Lovita but, until now, Marley had largely ignored it. She picked it up and held it beneath the lamp. She re-read the note for the umpteenth time, this time, aloud:
Give Jesus a chance.
— In Christ, Philip & Lovita
Marley set the book back down, dismissively, and sank deeper into her bed, her eyes still fixed on the book, as if boring a hole through it. Change her life for the better. She pondered her life, what there was of it, asking herself when and how it had gone so terribly wrong. She began to take inventory of her life, starting with the people closest to her:
Marley’s father, Ralph, was an unfulfilled artist forced into a life of drudgery as an accounting clerk in order to feed, clothe, and shelter his wife and growing family. He took to drink early on in the marriage and never stopped. The first pop of the beer tab happened as soon as he got home from work—just after breakfast on weekends—and he’d drink until he passed out on the living room sofa, always while wearing only his boxers, the legs of which often fell open, exposing him before Marley’s mother’s mad rush to throw a bathrobe over him and spare the kids the vulgar sight. The drunken Ralph, nearly naked, drenched in sweat, and snoring so loud the neighbors could hear, was a constant fixture in the Fahlstrom living room—not the kind of place you’d dare bring friends home to. Good nights were when he stayed passed out until morning, until it was time for him to leave for work. Bad nights were when he’d awaken from his stupor in a fit of rage, usually set off by the most trivial of matters. A loud noise, for example, would cause him to explode from the couch and charge, like an angry bull, at whoever was near, fists flailing, mouth twisted and snarling, screaming a flurry of obscenities directed at everyone, yet at no one in particular. During one such rage, four-year-old Marley was so terrified, she hid in the bathroom laundry hamper. Her four siblings made a game of hide-and-seek out of the situation, turning trauma into family fun-time, running from room to room, calling out, “Where’s Marley?” Marley’s entire childhood, she recalled, was spent tiptoeing on eggshells, speaking in whispers, and shushing one another so as not to wake up their father. It was like living in a minefield.
Marley’s mother, Louise, an insecure and painfully shy woman, was a former WWII navy enlistee who, for the era, married late at 31. She’d thought she’d never marry. The relentless teasing she suffered in high school because of her freckles and frizzy red hair left Louise with a disabling inferiority complex. Louise’s life took a 180-degree turn, however, the day Ralph, a widower with a young daughter, Dahlia, walked into the Downtown Phoenix Social Security office where she’d been working as a secretary ever since the war had ended. Ralph’s dancing blue eyes, flirtatious smile, and quick wit won her over; they married at the nearby courthouse just two months later. Soon after, at Ralph’s insistence, Louise left her job to become the iconic stay-at-home mom of the 1950s. She bore Ralph four children in seven years:
Jane, Louise’s firstborn and favorite child, was as plain as her name might suggest. As the oldest, the burden of looking after Marley often fell upon her young shoulders, causing Jane to resent her baby sister. But greater than her resentment was her jealousy. Squat and swarthy like their mother’s Germanic ancestors, and topped with frizzy, brown hair, Jane envied little Marley’s fair complexion, blue eyes, and the long, ruby-red locks that often drew gasps and praise, even from strangers on the street.
Three years after Jane, Louise gave birth to towheaded Mitchell whose chronic asthma as a child and sexual deviancy as an adolescent did nothing to endear him to Louise.
Just two years later, Phillip came along. With brown curly hair and freckles to rival his mother’s, Phillip was good-natured and athletically gifted, traits that gained him favored status, alongside Jane, with Louise, and with Ralph as well, whose lost dreams of sports acclaim found vicarious renewal in his youngest son.
Last and youngest of Louise’s brood was Marley, born a short and stressful thirteen months after Phillip. Upon Marley’s birth, Louise kicked Ralph from the marital bed, telling him she was through having babies. From that day forward, Ralph slept on the living room couch. Not long after, Louise fell into a permanent state of postpartum depression, a condition deepened by Ralph’s alcoholic rages, and by her own abject sense of entrapment and lack of fulfillment.
Marley’s half-sister, Dahlia, was fifteen years her senior. To a young Marley, Dahlia was a willowy mystery who spent little time at home. When she was home, she seemed to Marley ethereally removed from the rest of the family, as if she existed on a different, higher plane. Dahlia possessed a gift for artistic expression, inherited from her father, and a quiet intellectualism that was absent in the other family members. Physically, she differed from them, too. Unlike the sturdy-boned Scandinavian stock the rest of the family sprang from, Dahlia was slender, graceful, and delicate. Most of all, what set her half-sister apart from the rest of the family was that Dahlia noticed and tended to Marley, who otherwise felt invisible and neglected by the rest of her family. But Dahlia married and moved away when Marley was still quite young, leaving a gaping void in Marley’s small world. The day that Dahlia left, what little beauty there was in the Fahlstrom household, left with her.
With Ralph lost in his addiction and Louise numbed by depression, affection was non-existent in the Fahlstrom household. Rarely were there displays of affection between husband and wife, even rarer between parent and child. Growing up, “I love you” was a phrase completely foreign to Marley. The only tangible connection she had with her family members was that of blood. Otherwise, they were but a sad collection of strangers living under the same shared, tar-and-gravel roof.
As the youngest, Marley became the bane of her entire family, serving as a convenient scapegoat, the thorn in their sides, the problem child, the bad seed. As a baby, she was not content to be left alone, caged inside her crib, wholly ignored until driven to climb over the rails and throw herself onto the hard tile. Left bruised and screaming on the floor until someone finally came to check on her, she received only a tongue-lashing instead of the nurturing affection she so desperately sought. It was Marley who wet her pants, not for lack of self-control but for never having been properly toilet trained as a toddler. It was she who threw temper tantrums, wailing at the top of her lungs in a piteous bid to be heard, if not seen. And it was she, Marley, who eventually withdrew to her bedroom, rocking herself for hours in a big wooden rocker, all day and into the night, day after day, in a frantic effort to soothe herself. She’d learned early on that throwing tantrums only drew her family’s scorn and alienated them even more. She found company in the old creaking chair and comfort as it rocked her gently back and forth, as any good mother would rock a newborn—just not Marley’s.
Perhaps it was during those long lonely hours, quiet except for the creaking of the rocker, when depression crept into her life. By the time she entered high school, with the onset of teenage hormones, the depression that had long lingered within hit her with the force of a wrecking ball. Being a cheerleader likely exacerbated things, as it made her uncomfortably popular—she hated being in the spotlight and hated, even more, the back-biting and petty jealousies that came with it. Her shyness was mistaken by her peers for conceit, making her a target for jokes and jabs, flung more often than not from those she’d thought were her friends. The social discomfort and sense of not fitting in gnawed at her, feeding her insecurities and stoking her burgeoning depression, making it difficult, if not impossible, to get herself out of bed some days. Just three months before she was to graduate, she dropped out.
Her parents—Louise especially—blew up, cried, ranted, and raged at her for weeks afterward:
You’re a drop-out! A loser! A disgrace and a failure!
What are you going to do with your life? You can’t live with us forever!
You’ll never find a job without a diploma! You’re going to need a husband to take care of you, and you don’t even have a boyfriend!
To escape her parents’ seething hostility, Marley retreated to her ten-foot by ten-foot bedroom where she locked herself away. Her days were spent listening to cassette tapes—Graham Nash, Jim Croce, Cat Stevens; nights she spent watching her second-hand, thirteen-inch, black and white television. She immersed herself in shows like Maude, Sanford and Son, and Good Times—all shows her father refused to watch on the console color TV that dominated the home’s living room. Blacks—niggers, as her father called them—and strong, opinionated women were not welcome in Ralph’s house. Ralph’s favorite TV show was the one show Marley couldn’t stomach to watch: All in the Family. It was impossible for her to find the humor in the show’s patriarch, Archie Bunker, as he too closely resembled her father. Ralph’s bigotry, disdain for feminists, and dismissal of any sociopolitical ideology left of Attila the Hun both embarrassed and infuriated Marley, often leading to arguments which, fueled by her father’s inebriation, devolved into violent screaming matches that always ended with Ralph charging after Marley with raised fists. All the while her mother would sit silently by, reclined in her La-Z-Boy, never attempting to intervene or defend Marley.
The ever-widening rift between her and her parents drove Marley deeper into her depression and increasingly isolated within the hundred-square-feet of space that was her refuge. She’d emerge from her room only to use the bathroom or for late-night forays into the kitchen to gorge herself on sugary comfort food—the cookies, candy, cupcakes, and colas that overflowed the family’s cupboards. With the binging came weight gain which her father mocked her for—You’re getting fat as a pig!—depressing Marley even more. She perceived herself as fat and ugly and would often force herself to vomit after a night of binge eating. She couldn’t do anything to fix ‘ugly’, she reasoned, but she could control her weight by sticking a finger down her throat.
Contrary to her own perception, to outsiders Marley had always presented as pretty, what with her enviable red hair, blue eyes, and a toned body shaped by years of gymnastics and cheerleading. But, now, at 23, Marley didn’t feel the least bit pretty; she just felt alone and lonely. All her high school friends and cheerleading squad mates had stopped calling when she dropped out of school. Most had married after graduating or had gone off to college, while Marley went nowhere and did nothing. The only people left in her life were her parents, unavoidable since she still lived with them, and her well-meaning but religion-obsessed brother Philip and his wife Lovita.
Her oldest brother, Mitch, whom Marley did her best to avoid, married right out of high school after knocking up his teenage girlfriend, Sarah. The couple, now with two young sons, bought a house within just a few blocks of their parents’ home.
Her sister, Jane, who married at seventeen to the first boy who would have her, now lived in California and came back to Phoenix five or six times a year on the pretense of visiting her parents; the real reason for her visits was a secret she shared only with Marley.
Her half-sister Dahlia, still married to her community college sweetheart, Keith, kept herself busy with two young daughters while Keith delivered mail for the U.S. Post Office. Keith was an avid hockey fan; and so, by default, was Dahlia. Both spent much of their free time following the local hockey team, the Phoenix Roadrunners.
When Marley was twenty-one, Keith and Dahlia invited Marley to a hockey game. Marley knew nothing of the sport, nor was she particularly interested in learning, but she relished a night out, away from parents.
Inside the arena, as Marley followed Dahlia and Keith down the steps leading to their seats, the teams were on the ice, warming up. One player, a Roadrunner wearing jersey number ’14’, skidded to an ice-spraying stop and looked up into the stands in Marley’s direction. Wondering what had caught his eye, Marley turned to look behind her. When she turned back around, he locked eyes with her and wouldn’t let go. Marley flushed; heat rose in her face and her knees grew weak—it was all she could do to make it safely down the last few steps and into her seat. As she sat, he skated up to the rink’s edge, removed his glove and pressed his hand to the safety glass, locking eyes with her once again. Goosebumps rose on her flesh and the warmth in her face burst into flames. A white-hot bolt of electricity coursed down the length of her torso then exploded like a stick of dynamite between her legs—a sensation utterly new to Marley—causing Marley to gasp and shudder. She looked frantically at the crowd around her to check if anyone had noticed. To her great relief, no one had, but there was no relief for what was happening between her legs.
Marley tossed beneath the quilt, trying to shake off the memory of her handsome hockey player. It had been two long years since that day in the stands, yet the pain of the lamentable events that followed still felt like a knife in her ribs. She reached out and slapped on the clock radio—a little music to drown out the critical words trumpeting in her head and to distract from the heartbreaking memory of unfulfilled love.
The music offered no solace. Donna Summer’s mournful refrain of Last Dance served only to twist the knife further into Marley’s ribs. The repressed desire she’d buried within her heart those two years ago rushed into her groin and reignited the want between her legs. As tears began to fall, Marley thrust her hand into her pajama bottoms to assuage the ache of her throbbing flesh. As she pushed herself to orgasm, a moan escaped her mouth…
Crash! The efficiency’s sliding glass door slammed open—
Marley’s hand froze in mid-motion, as did her entire body.
—The privacy sheet flew inward as in burst her father, dressed only in his boxers and an open bathrobe, exposing his gelatinous beer gut.
“Dad!” Marley yelled, in protest.
Her father shifted awkwardly and waved a hand to signal his embarrassment at the unfortunate timing of his intrusion. Finally, he blurted out, “Phone call!” then rushed out, leaving the sliding glass door wide open.
Marley lay in silent state for a long moment, too mortified to even breathe. The threat of self-asphyxiation finally forced her to expel the breath she’d been holding; she gulped in several deep breaths in an attempt to recover her calm.
After collecting herself, Marley followed her father through the slider and into the family’s kitchen where the only phone in the house hung next to the refrigerator, mounted on a yellow-painted brick wall. She glanced at the teapot-shaped clock hanging over the stove: 9:45 p.m.
Marley picked up the receiver and tentatively answered, “Hello?”
“Marley? This is Ed Hook. I’m throwing a little party at my place tonight and thought maybe you’d like to come.”
“Ed who?” Marley asked.
“Ed Hook. Sergeant Hook,” he said.
“Oh!” Marley replied. She looked at the clock again.
“So, would you like to come over?”
After the initial shock of Hook’s call, let alone his invitation, Marley recouped her senses, admitting to herself that she was in no mood for partying, especially with her supervisor. If she’d learned anything at all from her time working at the animal shelter, it was to never again party with one’s boss. Besides, she was genuinely tired; the lousy day she’d had at work had taken a toll on her, both physically and emotionally.
“It’s kind of late for a work night,” she said, begging off.
“You can come in late tomorrow if you want. You have my permission.”
“Thanks, but I’m really tired. I was just about to go to bed…”
“Come on; it’ll be fun. I promise,” pleaded Hook.
“I’m sorry, Sergeant Hook. Maybe next time, though?” Marley said, faking a tone of promise.
“Sure. Fine. See you tomorrow,” snapped Hook, who then abruptly hung up.
Marley looked at the receiver, bewildered, before returning it to the cradle.
“Who was that?”
Marley turned to find her mother standing behind her, wearing slippers and a housecoat and smoking a cigarette. Her crossed arms and anxious rocking back and forth on her heels signaled the passive-aggressive hostility Marley had come to expect from her.
“It was my sergeant from work,” Marley answered.
“From work? What did you do? Are you in trouble with your job already?”
“No,” replied Marley, miffed at her mother’s assumption. “He called to invite me to a party at his house tonight,”
“A party? Kind of late, isn’t it?”
“That’s what I said.”
Her mother took a wet drag from her cigarette. “Are you going? It wouldn’t hurt you to go, you know.”
“I told him ‘no’. It’s a work night; it’s late, and I’m tired.”
“You’re twenty-three. How do you ever expect to find a husband if you don’t put yourself out there?”
Marley had heard it all before. Louise’s vitriolic diatribe disguised as concern over Marley’s lack of any future without a man to take care of her. She turned her back on Louise to block the onslaught of criticism she knew was coming and retreated into her efficiency. Before closing the sliding door, she gave her mother one last withering look and uttered the two little words guaranteed to shut her mother the hell up: