Kim Barnes: The Wages of Sin (A Personal History of Economics)

I.

I am ten when the older boy from our little fundamentalist church places a dime in my hand and says that I can keep it if I’ll let him touch my knee.  We’ve been playing hide-and-seek and have taken refuge in the parsonage’s stairway, a steep and secret ascent to the slope-roofed bedrooms.  Dusky light filters in just short of the top landing.

I’m the daughter of a gyppo logger.  I live with my parents and younger brother in a shotgun shack surrounded by larch and red cedar in the Clearwater National Forest of Idaho.  We pull our water from the small spring that runs outside our window.  The indoor plumbing freezes in winter and runs dry in summer so that, more often than not, we trek to the outhouse to do our business.  No TV but a little console hi-fi that my parents bought on time and on which we listen to the radio stations skipping in from Texas.  My father hunts no matter the season.  We eat the venison right down to the bones.  A bag of dried brown beans gets us through the hardest winter.  While my schoolmates collect baseball cards and Barbie dolls, I collect the pastel tabs of Holsum wrappers, the prices stamped in ink.  With two dimes, I could buy a loaf of soft white bread.

It hasn’t yet dawned on me that what this boy wants is some part of sex—a word that is never spoken from the pulpit but comes veiled in euphemisms:  necking, petting, fornication.  Along with such words come dire warnings of fire-and-brimstone punishment, but I have no real idea of what the words mean.  Other than a book illustrated with gray diagrams of the human reproductive organs that my mother has left on my bed, I have never been instructed in sexual matters of any kind.  I don’t know that women have orgasms; I don’t know that men have orgasms.  What I know is that a girl who ruins her reputation will never have a husband, and that a woman without a husband will never have anything.  We are the daughters of Eve, a danger to ourselves and those around us.  Our temptation of man brought the whole world to ruin.

The boy sits beside me, waiting.  My skirt is tucked, my legs together.  I pull my knee socks a little higher as I consider his offer.  I know that, if I take the boy’s dime and allow him to touch me, it will be a sin.  I know that the dime will buy me a sack of jawbreakers and bubblegum, or a Coke at the confectionary—all luxuries my family can’t afford.  I smell the boy’s peppermint breath, the fried chicken the women are cooking in the kitchen below.  I feel my stomach clench and growl.  I am hungry.

I hold out my hand, and the boy places the dime in my palm.  I close my eyes, and a shiver of fear or expectation makes my teeth chatter.  When the boy’s fingers graze the band of bare skin between my long socks and the hem of my skirt, a dart of strange pleasure travels from my knee to my heart.  In that moment, the dime is forgotten.  Even now, I can’t recall:  Did I buy candy? A vanilla ice cream cone dipped in hot fudge?  Or did I lose the coin in the backseat of my family’s car as we travelled through the dark toward home?  What I remember is this:  even after the fried chicken, the mashed potatoes floated with white gravy, the thick slabs of homemade sourdough buttered and toasted, my hunger was still with me, keener now, and somehow new.

II.

1970.  The year I begin seventh grade, my family moves from the small logging town to the closest small city.  My father takes a job as a truck driver, and the poverty line holds steady at our feet.  My mother finds an empty rental—a lovely old house on the verge of ruin.  The doctor who owns it will give us one month free in exchange for upkeep, and so we move into the stucco bungalow with its dusty crystal chandelier and overgrown koi pond in back.  Its empty rooms echo with our footsteps.  Other than the scratchy Herculon sofa that my mother says will outlast her, we have no furniture.  Our dining set is a redwood picnic table on loan from a relative, and we eat our hamburger casseroles and bread-and-gravy suppers beneath the faceted light of the chandelier.  My closet is hung with a few dresses and skirts, handmade by my mother—an excellent seamstress whose fashionable impulses are overruled by the church’s dictates concerning modesty:  all hems two inches below the knees, no blouses that don’t cover the shoulders.  No adornment—jewelry, makeup—is allowed.  The combination of homespun and homely in the face of mini-skirts and blue eye-shadow makes me slump and dodge as I walk to my new junior high school, its design blocky and modern.  Even our church is different—pews that seat hundreds, central heating and air conditioning instead of a pot-bellied stove and windows open to the summer breeze.  When we are invited to dinner at the home of fellow parishioners, I’m fascinated by the electric dishwasher, transfixed as I watch the trash compactor grind and seal the garbage into a neat package.  But it’s their son, two years my elder, who mesmerizes me.  He has thick blond hair, sharp blue eyes, a component stereo system connected to a light board, all set up in his downstairs bedroom.  He shows me how the lights pulse and strobe to the music’s beat.  He puts on a Beatles album and plays “Strawberry Fields Forever.”  We sit on the edge of his bed, and when he reaches to touch my knee, I scoot a little closer.  Until I’m sixteen, he will be my boyfriend.  With the money he makes at his job at the supermarket, he buys me tater tots after Sunday church service, root beer floats after prayer meeting.  A wool tartan skirt that I roll at the waist to expose my thighs and a sweater that dips suggestively at the collarbone. He teaches me how to french kiss; his hand travels farther than my knee.  When I hesitate to go all the way, he becomes moody, then angry.  Hadn’t he worked overtime to buy me the promise ring with a real diamond chip at its center?

I think I love him, of course, and maybe I do.  I know that I love riding around in his car, the delicate gold cross he hangs at my throat, the first real restaurant of my life (chicken-fried steak on the menu), where he takes me to celebrate the one year-anniversary of our meeting.  Who better to give my virginity to than this sixteen-year-old boy with hair like John Denver who says he will be my husband?

In a church that demands female subservience and with a father whose patriarchy is absolute, the fact that I should belong to a man is both encouraged and expected.  And, somehow, it is with this exchange—my acquiescence for his continued affection—that my boyfriend gains ownership, as though my maidenhead were a coin he had plundered and now holds in his pocket.  Sex becomes what we do instead of watching TV or listening to his extensive collection of LPs.  Having offered myself once, I no longer believe I have the right to withhold.  As long as I’m free with my favors, my boyfriend is happy.  I begin to dream of houses with more than one level, rooms full of matching furniture, a pantry stocked with staples.  Perhaps I should have heeded the words of my great aunt:   “There’s only one thing that women have that’s worth a plug nickel, and you’d better know when to hold and when to sell.”  She’d kept her man home and seemingly happy for over sixty years by an iron-fisted control of the market (just because he wanted didn’t mean he got, at least not until she got what she wanted), her stock gone from that of a sharecropper’s daughter to the wife of an entrepreneur with certificates of deposit in every bank in town.

But I am of a different generation.  The world of women is in upheaval.  They are burning their bras in the streets, marching on Washington, demanding equal rights, equal pay for equal work.  My boyfriend doesn’t care that I am his equal:  what he cares about is that I am his.  So that when a boy I think of as only a friend buys me a Coke after Sunday night service, my lover is enraged.   He commands me into his car, and I don’t dare disobey.  The other boy hesitates before driving away.  My boyfriend calls me a whore, and then shoves me from his car to the pavement, where I lie for a long time in the dark, believing that I have earned this, that this is the payment for my sin.

III.

A job at Taco Time, and then at Orchard’s Pharmacy.  A six-hundred dollar loan on a 1967 Chevrolet Impala.  My boyfriend’s rages grow more vengeful, and then another girl catches his eye.  Even as ruined as I am, I’m relieved to see him go.

I’m a senior in high school, making enough money to buy my own clothes, my own Cokes, my own tickets to the movies that I sneak to because movie houses are dens of iniquity and might lead me to sin.  My grades are good enough to earn me scholarship offers:  I will be the first in my family to attend college.  The night of graduation, my father and I have a final falling out.  He tells me that if I can’t pay him absolute obedience, I must take my things and never come back.

And I do.  I pack my suitcase and walk out the door, leaving behind my weeping mother, my dreams of college.  Now, I must find a job that will pay me a living wage.  I apply for a teller’s position at a local bank and am hired.  The vice-president is impressed by the grades I received in math.

Every day, I count the money:  all the bills facing the same way, all shuffled and tamped into alignment, stacked and bound with elastic bands.  All the coins rolled and pinched.  I’m making almost three dollars an hour.  I have medical coverage, disability.  My life is insured.  A “career girl,” my grandmother calls me.  I have just enough money to buy gas for my Chevy, to buy a margarita after closing on Friday night, to pay the ninety-five-dollars-a-month rent on a studio apartment, but no money to begin work toward a degree. “You need a man,” my mother tells me.  “Someone to take care of you.  To protect you from other men.”  And even though I now wear a t-shirt that reads, “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle,” I don’t know how to move forward down the road of my life without the ride a man might provide.  All my school friends are married and having children; a few have gone off to college, where they will find men with ambition, men who are headed somewhere, who are on their way up.  I don’t know a single woman who lives alone by choice and on purpose.

Loneliness gnaws at my bones.  I’m hungry all the time.  I eat Top Ramen, mac-and-cheese, toast with peanut butter.  At the end of each month, my money all gone, I eat white bread spread with butter, sprinkled with sugar—a sweet comfort food my mother had fed me when I needed something more.  I miss my mother, miss her quiet presence, her soft assurance. No high school diploma, no training, no jobs that might offer her the minimal security my father’s modest salary provides, her choices are fewer than mine will ever be.  “It could be worse,” she’ll tell me.  “It can always be worse.”

That spring, when the yellow Corvette Stingray pulls up at the bank’s drive-through window, I slide out the drawer and watch with mild curiosity as the man deposits his hefty paycheck.  He has long dark hair, a thick beard and a moustache, blue, blue eyes that hold me longer than is comfortable.  The next week, he includes a note with his deposit:  Would I like to go to dinner that Friday night?

I glance at him through my pane of bulletproof glass.  He isn’t handsome but unusually tall and lean, older than I am by a decade.  Still, there is something about him, a kind of self-possession and worldly carriage, that attracts me.  And those eyes.  And that car.

And then the dozen red roses that arrive at the bank Friday afternoon and that the other tellers moon over.  “Who is he?” they ask, and all I can do is give them the details that I have gleaned from his checking account:  his name—David James—his address, phone, social security number.  The record of his transactions.  The fact that his paychecks are drawn on a long-haul trucking company.  That he is a spender, not a saver.  That he is picking me up at seven in the Corvette.  That we will go to the most expensive restaurant in town.

I bathe and manicure, curl my long hair, add another layer of mascara.  A dress from the boutique on Main Street.  A pair of high heels.  At the restaurant, David orders for me:  filet mignon and lobster, melted butter, a baked potato with chives.  A bottle of wine that the waiter opens with a corkscrew.  David talks about his trips to Seattle, where I’ve never been.  He tells me that he’s a Vietnam vet, two tours.  Like me, he loves to read.  He’s quick to laugh, easy to pay attention to.  When he becomes quiet for a moment, and then asks me about boyfriends I’ve had, I hesitate, afraid that my past will ruin everything.  He doesn’t care, he says.  I have to know that.

I don’t pay for a thing, of course, and won’t for many months to come.  More flowers, midnight rides in the Corvette with the top off, cocktails in bars that have fireplaces instead of pool tables.  I keep waiting for the required payback that will begin with a kiss, then a move to the couch, maybe to the bed.  When no such demands are made, I am at first relieved, and then concerned.  Is he married?  Is he gay?  I begin to fear that he doesn’t find me desirable—a fearful possibility.  What other value do I possess?  My dress becomes more provocative, my attention more fixed.  And when he finally does kiss me, I feel that remembered luscious jolt that had left me breathless in the parsonage stairway.

“Let’s go slow,” he says.  “Take our time.”   I am a virgin again, shivery with anticipation.  I feel doted upon and pampered, wooed and oh so won.  All those roses.  All that buttery, buttery lobster.  I have never been more ready.

When, finally, David invites me into his bedroom, it is not the fairy tale seduction I had imagined but a Hugh Hefner romp.  No candlelight and soft music, just incandescence and rock-and-roll.  Hardcore porn in one drawer, sex toys in another.  He laughs at my shy naiveté.  “Let’s just have fun,” he says.  “What’s wrong with that?”  This thing that I have for so long thought a sin, a sure-fire road to damnation—this sex—he sees as nothing more than harmless entertainment.  I’ve left the church, thrown off its injunctions against movies, dancing, drinking.  Why not this?

When, on our next date, David arrives in a pickup and admits that the Corvette was not his but on loan from a friend, I say it doesn’t matter.  I am having fun, after all, spending all my free time with David.  Sometimes he takes me along as a passenger in his semi-truck, most often to Seattle, where we eat cedar-smoked salmon while looking out over Puget Sound, then walk the wharf holding hands.  When, at the end of one such day, he suggests that we stop by a sex shop, I’m curious.  There’s so much I want to know.

Over the next several months, David cajoles me—that’s the only word for it, good-natured cajoling— into accompanying him into the sex shops, peep shows, and topless bars I hadn’t known he frequented (the workers all know him by name).  When, because I am missing too much work, my supervisor at the bank puts me on notice, David encourages me to quit, and I do.  He moves into my apartment to save both of us money.  Within weeks, my bank account is empty.   When I ask David for cash to buy groceries, I am stunned:  he, too, is broke.

“But you had thousands,” I say.  “I saw it.”

“It’s gone,” he answers, and, in another few weeks, I know why:  speed, cocaine, mushrooms, LSD.   The many “friends” he has are people who come to party with David.  They support his habit, buy whatever he is selling.

At some point, that whatever becomes me.

“You owe me,” he says.  “How else are you going to pay?”

No money, no job, no car.  My request for unemployment denied, my car broken down, my credit in shambles.  Still, I refuse.  What had begun as fun has turned frankly serious.  David’s threats become more explicit, his posture more threatening:  until I agree to do what he says, he will not talk to me, will not acknowledge my existence.  He leaves the apartment, and I lie alone in our bed for days, in a paralytic state of despair, rising only to make my way to the bathroom but never to the kitchen because I will find nothing.  Our cupboards are bare.

It is the economics of survival, pure and simple, that drive me to face David, to refuse his order that I have sex for money with other men while he watches, to disobey his command that I not leave the house, to borrow my cousin’s car and find him where he sits in a bar with one of his other women.  But economics has little to do with what comes next, which will require of me survival of another kind.  The punishment for my sin is this:  David returns to the apartment and rapes me.  And with that violence, he leaves me with a promise–that just when I think I have forgotten him, he will return to rape me again.

As I lie on the couch where he has left me, my body aching, I feel an unexpected calm.  This is the price I had expected to pay all along.  I think of Jezebel, her story a cautionary tale to all women who have earned the wages of sin:  her dismembered hands thrown to the streets for the dogs to gnaw.

But, still, some scrap of who I am remains.

IV.

I am twenty.  My job is gone, my car.  I have turned my family away from me.  This time, it isn’t a man I turn to for help, but a woman.  I am taken in by a girlfriend, one of the few young women I know who is training for a career—she will be a nurse.  She gives me a bed and feeds me until I can gather the pieces of my life and start over.  I find steady employment cocktailing at one of the nicer bars, where I keep my distance from the men and their drunken offers.  I sign up for classes at the local college.  When I tell the financial aid counselor that I have no transportation to get to and from campus, she writes me a check for three hundred dollars—just enough to buy the aging Dodge Coronet I’d seen on the used car lot.  The salesman is good-looking and not much older than I am, but when the roses arrive at my door, along with his card thanking me for my business, I throw away the note and tell my roommate not to take his calls.  The roses last until the end of the week, and then they, too, go into the garbage.  The Dodge will last me for years.

I attend class through the day, work at the bar until two a.m., and then rise to do it all again.  Even with tips, my wages aren’t enough to cover my expenses.  I take my portable typewriter to the food bank and trade it for cheese and peanut butter—I don’t want to owe anybody anything.  When I wake one frost-bitten morning after Christmas with a throat so inflamed that it hurts to breathe, I go to class anyway, and then to work.  Who can afford the loss of grades and money and maybe even the job itself?  Over the next several days, the sore throat worsens.  No insurance, no way to pay for medical care.  My voice has descended to a husky alto.  I stumble from table to table in a true purple haze.  In one corner sits a group of businessmen, celebrating the success of an account, knocking back martinis as fast as the bartender can make them.  Their leader, middle-aged but still trim and with the jaw-set of a man used to getting his way—the kind of man who might take care of me–presses a fifty dollar bill into my palm.

“You sound just like Lauren Bacall,” he says and winks.  “And I’ve always had a hard-on for Lauren Bacall.”

I stand with my tray of drinks in one hand, the fifty in the other, my throat burning with infection.  I make a choice, then, one I’ve never regretted.  I fold the fifty in my fist and walk away.  The fifty buys me a trip to the health clinic and a bottle of antibiotics, and it buys me something else:  a new awareness that just because men are willing to pay doesn’t mean that women have to give—a lesson that my aunt once tried to teach me.

When, years later, I ask a friend twenty years my elder—no high school degree, no job experience, no retirement of her own–why she doesn’t leave her domineering husband, she will reply, “Better prostitute than destitute.”  And how can I argue?  Maybe, when it comes to love, money, and the daughters of Eve, it’s always a devil’s bargain.

V.

One husband, two children, three degrees in English.  I take a position as an adjunct at the college where my young poet-husband, recently divorced, is already a professor, but, unlike him, I have no job security, no benefits, no tenure.  Like other faculty wives, I am an anchored spouse.  I teach the overflow classes, the last minute adds.  In our small community, daycare is nearly non-existent, our combined income barely enough to pay the mortgage.  On the days I don’t teach, I dress our small children, strap them into their car seats, and drive to parks, to beaches, to towns thirty miles away for a matinee—anything to use up the hours.  Their father needs the small house quiet so that he can write.  I’ve read Virginia Woolf a dozen times and still don’t know how to ask for a room of my own.

I compose my own poems and essays while standing at the kitchen counter, a baby at my breast, a pen in my hand.  I jot notes on paper towels, on receipts at McDonald’s while the children sink into the brightly colored balls of Playland.  Sometimes, I take my pencil and paper into the bathroom—the only room with a locking door.  My son and daughter, my husband, even the dog come to the threshold to whine and inquire:  When will I be out?

How can I tell them that, in that small room, still misted with the morning’s showers, I am writing the story of my life?  That each sentence I put to the page seems both penance and payback.  I’m rebuilding the ruins, one word at a time.

Those words become books, those books a desk, a narrow office.  Even so, it sometimes seems as though I’ll never make back those wages lost to men.  I’m fifty, closer to retirement than I ever thought I would be.  After all those years of being a “trailing spouse,” it’s unlikely that my salary, my resume, my retirement will ever match those of my husband, who didn’t wait for anybody:  his first wife, his first child, and then the family he and I made together–all fell in line behind his ambition to become a writer and teacher.  In the isolated environment of the interior west, no one ever told me I might take the lead. If I’d earned truer wages through all those years of waiting for a man to take care of me, how much better could I take care of myself?

Even if I’d had a role model to guide me, would anything be any different?  Even now, twenty-five years into my marriage, the children grown and gone, my university position finally secure, I understand the trade-off.  I’ve given up time and money for the love of a husband and children, for the love of this place where I’ve chosen to live, only miles away from that backwoods parsonage with its smells of fried chicken and gravy, where the boy touched my knee and I began to fall, my sin made of nothing but a little want, a little need to know something more.

***

Kim Barnes is the author of two memoirs and two novels, most recently A Country Called Home, which received the 2009 PEN Center USA Literary Award in Fiction and was named a best book of 2008 by The Washington Post and the Kansas City Star.  She is the recipient of the PEN/Jerard Fund Award for an emerging woman writer of nonfiction, and her first memoir, In the Wilderness, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.  Her work has appeared in a number of journals and anthologies, including the New York TimesMOREO MagazineGood HousekeepingFourth GenreThe Georgia Review, Shenandoah, and the Pushcart Prize anthology. Her forthcoming novel, American Mecca, an exploration of Americans living in 1960s Saudi Arabia, will be published by Knopf in 2011.  Barnes teaches writing at the University of Idaho and lives with her husband, the poet Robert Wrigley, on Moscow Mountain.

This essay, “The Wages of Sin,” was first published in The Secret Currency of Love, edited by Hilary Black. HarperCollins Publishers, January 2009.

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