My father was the first to call me Thumbelina. I adored it as a young child. It sounded like a term of endearment to an attention-hungry middle child of seven sibs, wedged in a family where kind words were handed out as often as blue carrots. Around the age of eight I read the fairy tale and began to hate the nickname, but it was too late by then. No matter how often–or loudly–I begged family and classmates to call me Vicki, the die was cast, and if I hadn’t stabbed my father and run away at age sixteen, today, at age sixty-three, I’d still be Thumbelina to most of Summerland, California.
I ran away from my abusive father, I ran away from my nickname, but I couldn’t run away from being short. No more than a week after getting off the bus in Reno, I met an older man outside of the Mapes Hotel who looked a bit like a younger brother of Colonel Sanders. He wore a white shirt, white pants, white shoes, a fur coat even though it was July, and rings on every finger and both thumbs. He said I looked like someone who needed taking care of. “How old are you?” he asked.
I lied. “Eighteen.”
“Probably closer to eight than eighteen. But damn if you’re not the cutest little thing. Are you a midge–”
“Don’t say it.” I knew I was a pinecone, but I still believed that inside of me were some powerful seeds that would eventually grow into an evergreen. “Call me that and you’ll have to deal with a size four shoe up your ass. And if you’re stupid enough to call me Thumbelina, you’ll get a fist in your big nose, even if I have to climb on top of that step to do it. I’m four-foot-nine and a half, damn it. Elizabeth Taylor’s only a couple inches taller than me. I’m petite, or short if you want, but I’m not a damn dwarf or midget.”
“I believe you, Sweet Pea.” He eyeballed me. “Know what else I believe?”
“One look at you, Baby Girl, and a lot of men will want their crankcase drained.”
I was about as green and naive as a girl could be, but even I knew what he was. If I’d had a butter knife at my disposal he might have gotten the same cure my old man did. Weaponless, and scared, I tried to sound tough. “Fuck off, Dickface.”
He grabbed the back of my curly blonde hair, dragged me into the alley, and drove my face into the brick building. I felt my nose crush like a grape and blood spattered my only dress. “Some bitches don’t know how to handle nice,” he said. As he walked away he shouted, “This is my territory, Thumbelina. Peddle your little-girl-virgin bullshit someplace else.”
That was pretty much the end of my tough girl period. All it’d gotten me up to that point was a bus ticket out of Summerland, loneliness, and a broken nose. I decided right there to go back to my sweeter-than-honey act, though I did eventually steal a knife from Harrah’s buffet and stashed it in my purse, just in case. I was done taking crap from men, and at sixteen I thought it was just that easy.
Luckily, a pit boss from the Mapes witnessed my assault that day, and after helping me clean up, she got me a job as a change girl. As part of the deal, Sheila made me promise to get my GED. It took three years, and some badgering, but I finally fulfilled that promise. My diploma came by mail, and I experienced a real sense of accomplishment, maybe for the first time in my life, but that feeling didn’t compare to the feeling I got when I saw the delight in Sheila’s eyes after showing her the diploma. I don’t know what would’ve happened to me without her act (acts) of kindness. Then again, isn’t that the way life goes?
I kept that job at the Mapes until they closed the place in ‘82. Sheila was then instrumental in getting me a new job at the Cal Neva, where I’m still employed, though I’ve worked my way up to blackjack dealer. And, yes, I do have to stand on a little box they custom made for me–occasionally pride has to be swallowed and concessions have to be made.
Reno was not a place for an unexperienced green teenager back in 1969. Hell, it wasn’t a place for green tea. It was a place as hard as algebra, with a fight on every block, and a lie around every corner. Half the men were wannabe cowboys, the other half were drunken construction workers, with a few sad Indians sprinkled in, and all of them were shifty. And many of them were attracted to me. Even in the beginning I knew it had something to do with my size. When I was young I figured they swarmed to me because I was cute, which I was, but I soon realized it was something creepier–some were almost certainly pedophiles who saw me as legal prey, even into my forties (“call me Daddy”), or they were assholes who wanted a girl they knew they could overpower (though I surprised the bastards once or twice), or, as my best friend Kat once told me while she put Bactine on my cuts and held a bag of frozen peas on my eye, “They all have small dicks, Hon, and want something tight so they feel more like a big man.”
Just like the character Thumbelina, I suffered more than my share of toads, moles, and stag beetles, but unlike Thumbelina I never found my flower-fairy Prince. A couple of years ago I read a quote that I wish I’d read much sooner–A woman’s love is like the dew. It falls as easily on manure as a rose. I know there must’ve been good men somewhere in the Biggest Little City, but none of them lived between Virginia Street and Rock Boulevard, and I never seemed able to escape that side of town, or maybe I just felt at home there.
Looking back, I wonder if it was entirely the fault of the men in my life. Was that pimp right so many years earlier? Did I not know how to handle nice? I wonder now, now that I’m pretty much out of the dating game, please God, if I’d met Tom Hanks would I have only seen the Charlie Sheen in him. Or, after a few months with me, would I have turned Hugh Jackman into Chris Brown?
I’m no shrink, but I’m sure some of my problems with men stem from my relationship with my old man. About the same time I started hating my nickname, I started hating the man who gave it to me. Nobody’d ever confused my father for Mr. Rogers. Even his favorite brood got random dope-slaps, or choked, or worse, but after my three younger siblings shot up past me, and my smallness went from cute to embarrassing, I became the proverbial redheaded stepchild. The old man could really cut you with his tongue as well. Around most people he’d be almost decent when sober, but in private, out of earshot, he called me everything from chit-shit, to midge, to butt plug–which I knew was pretty bad, even though I had no idea who or what a butt plug was. He was especially fond of calling me names that started with runt–runt bitch, runt whore, and runt dago (mom was half Italian). Whoever came up with sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me was as full of shit as Reverend Billy Graham sitting on a whorehouse toilet.
My mother was also punished for my size or lack thereof. When the old man got hammered, which was pretty much every Friday and Saturday night, he’d slap her around and ask her what circus midget she’d fucked to squirt out a dwarf like me. When my baby sister, Anna, tried to stick up for us one night, the bastard backhanded her and she flew across the room like a Frisbee. That was the night I gave him his comeuppance. It was also the last time I saw any of my family–until today.
I kept in touch with a couple of my sisters via letters and sporadic telephone conversations. Two days past I got a call from Anna. “Vicki,” she paused. “I don’t know if this is good news or bad to you, but Dad died yesterday.”
My words hung in my throat like a chicken bone, so she continued, “You didn’t come down for Ma’s funeral, or Billy’s, so I figured you wouldn’t come for Dad’s, but I thought you might like to know. Maybe light a candle, or–”
“I’ll be down tomorrow.”
I drove all night and reached my parent’s house just before noon. The old placed hadn’t changed a bit. The same old rickety front steps, held together by fifty coats of army-surplus, olive green paint. The same overgrown, poisonous oleanders bordering the driveway. The same crack in the picture window–remnants from a particularly chilling night fifty some-odd years ago–a memory that I’d just as soon forget. Pulling into the driveway, I realized how Clara Barton might have felt revisiting the battle of Fredericksburg. I could still hear the screaming, still visualize the carnage.
On the flip side, there was a healthy elm tree out front, grown up from a sapling that Daddy and I planted when I was eight to commemorate Daniel, my still-born brother. And the same rusty basketball hoop above the garage, a reminder of the many hours that Daddy and I spent practicing my free-throws, before it became obvious that I’d never be tall enough to play B-ball competitively.
Standing in the front yard, I could hear lots of chirping from the front room, and figured most of my family would be inside. My oldest brother, James, met me on the front porch. He hugged me so tight my defenses ebbed a little. But then he said, “Jeez, I think you’ve shot up a centimeter or two since I’ve seen you, Thumbelina.”
“It’s Vicki, Dickface (still my favorite slur).”
“Take it easy, baby sister. Just kidding.”
My other brother, Thomas, opened the screen door and shouted, “Hide all the knives, Little Miss Sunshine’s here.”
My eyes filled with tears but I’d learned long ago how to hold them in check with focused anger. Anna and my sister Mary came out. Anna punched Thomas in the shoulder and Mary hugged me. She said, “Don’t listen to these two assholes. Come inside where the civilized people are.” I wanted to turn around and drive back to Reno, but Anna opened the screen door and announced, “Look everyone, Vicki’s here!”
I didn’t graduate high school so I never attended a class reunion, but I imagine it probably would’ve mirrored the next scene–faintly familiar faces, slightly out of focus, but mostly a feeling, a recollection of why you were happy as shit that you got the hell out. The next few hours were filled with introductions, and bragging, and dread. There were just too many of them, plus, meeting everyone else’s children made me think of my daughter, Maya Rose, who drowned herself in the Truckee River on Christmas day, eight years earlier. Depression coupled with heroin addiction was too heavy a yoke for her and all my love could not lift it.
I took Anna aside when things calmed down a bit. “Do you think I could see him tonight?”
“The funeral’s tomorrow. Can’t you wait?”
“I’d like a few minutes alone with him.” I could see the apprehension on her face. “Don’t worry,” I said. “I’m not going to scratch his eyes out or anything like that.”
Anna took a business card from her purse. “I’m not sure if they’ll let you, but I guess you could call.”
I found an empty bedroom and dialed the number. The person on the other end of the phone wasn’t big on the idea, and explained that they had another service that night. I lied and told him I had to get back home, and wouldn’t be able to attend the services the next day. He reluctantly caved.
I slipped out and drove to the funeral parlor. A man met me at the back door and introduced himself as the assistant funeral director. He led me down some dimly lit stairs and opened the double doors. The big room was cinderblock, painted gloss white, ghostly cold, and bare except for a lone silver casket and small wooden desk. The man hit the light switch and I could see the top of my father’s head in the casket. “I’ll be right outside,” he said. It sounded more like a warning than reassurance. He gently closed the doors.
My hands shook so badly I put them in my jacket pockets. I took baby steps toward the casket. Every footfall revealed more of my father’s face and another memory. Finally face to face, I wanted to kneel, if only to give my shaky legs a break, but there was no kneeler. I turned to make sure Undertaker Jr. wasn’t spying through a crack in the doors, then pulled a knife out of my purse–the same knife I’d stolen from Harrah’s buffet line so many years ago. It was finally time to part with it. Finally time to move on. I had every intention to simply drop the knife into the casket, but at the last moment I peeled back my father’s suit jacket and stuck it between his eleventh and twelve ribs. With my trembling hand, I touched his cold check. “Hi, Daddy. Remember me? Vicki? I want you to know, I forgive you.”//