I was seven years old when it started with him, the thing he referred to as playing Sandy Duncan. He coined it when he found me sitting on a backyard swing, eating from a box of Wheat Thins.
“Sandy Duncan endorses those things,” he said, crossing the lawn to take the swing next to me. I still remember how the weight of him lifted the left base poles several inches off the grass, and how I wondered if he kept sitting there maybe the entire set would pitch onto its right side like a seesaw, becoming two amusements in one. How I wondered what endorses meant, if it was some special way to eat something, a way that only Sandy Duncan knew how. Of course, now the word has become my own little sick private joke, violating images flickering through my head every time I hear someone say, “Would you endorse that for me, Miss Craven?”
He said I looked like her, in my checkered oxford knotted at the waist and cut-off denim. He didn’t mention my black eye, or whether or not this Sandy Duncan ever had one of those. I had no idea who she was, but Uncle Markham seemed to feel a special way about her.
“When she stands in that wheat field,” Uncle Markham whispered, “with all those stalks of grain hiding her, I imagine she could be wearing nothing at all on the bottom.”
My girl was Lynda Carter. Or really, Wonder Woman. I was blonde so I knew I couldn’t be her, but I used to slide my mom’s skinny plastic belts off the loops of her jumpsuits and wrap them around the neighborhood boys, telling them it was my magic lasso and they had to tell me the truth. I stopped this practice the day I captured Tommy Boyd and he told me I was ugly.
Tommy Boyd looked like Leif Garrett, who, coincidentally, just happened to be a guest star on an episode of Wonder Woman. I suppose he had superhero qualities of his own back then, his Tiger Beat pin-up hanging on the walls of millions of girls’ bedrooms. I never cared for him. To me, his most impressive superpower was being able to stay on that skateboard of his while toked-up to the max. By the time he appeared on Wonder Woman, both the series and his career were on the decline. The show, having been dealt to a different network, was on its way to cancellation and Leif’s questionable hit “I Was Made For Dancin’” was tumbling itself into a future VH1 Behind The Music remember-when nugget.
“You want to be like Sandy Duncan?” Uncle Markham asked me that day.
I shrugged. How was I to know whether or not I wanted to be like someone I’d never heard of?
He licked his lips and asked if he could have one of those there crackers and I held the box out to him. He glanced toward my house, to the little kitchen window above the sink that looked out over the backyard, where my mom sometimes stood and watched me play while she washed the dishes. I always knew when she was watching me because she’d bang on the window, yell some words I couldn’t hear about something I was probably doing wrong. I wondered if Uncle Markham was looking for her, watching us, about to catch us doing something wrong. Like maybe he was afraid she’d give him a black eye, too.
He looked back at me. “You think you could feed it to me?”
He seemed anxious like maybe he knew he shouldn’t be having any Wheat Thins, which made me think that maybe I shouldn’t be having any, either. Dinner would be in a few hours and maybe that might spoil it. Maybe if my mother saw me feeding Uncle Markham I’d be in more trouble than Uncle Markham. I snatched the box back, crumpling it up at my side, hidden, shaking my head.
“No?” He suddenly didn’t seem concerned whether or not mom was watching. Maybe he knew she wasn’t.
He made a boo-boo face, turning his bottom lip inside out to touch his chin. “Please? Please, Sandy?”
I shook my head again, beginning to understand the game. I had something he wanted. No one ever wanted anything from me. It felt good that he did. And it was up to me whether or not he got it.
Taunting him, I quickly popped one into my mouth, but before I even had time to chew his lips were on mine, his tongue slipping past my teeth. He came up with the cracker, laughing and chewing. He licked his lips with a deep mmmm that I had yet to understand; I hadn’t ever encountered anything that delicious. I wiped the back of my hand over my lips, moving with the slowness of shock and he reached into the box, now slack in my grasp, shoving a handful into his mouth.
“You try,” he said.
I looked down at my dangling legs, the toes of my canvas bo-bo’s barely skimming the dirt. I didn’t want to look fully at him, so I peeked out of the corner of my eye. He held a single cracker between his teeth. He wiggled it by sliding his jaw.
“Try to take it off me,” he said around it. I moved to grab it and he flipped it into his mouth, made a show of chewing.
“Nope,” he said. He clenched another between his teeth, flicking it. I didn’t want to, but somehow knew he wouldn’t stop until I did. I looked toward the house, the kitchen window, wondering if mom was looking out at us. When I looked back at him, I saw that he saw where I’d been looking, and knew at that moment that only I would be the one caught doing something wrong.
“You want me to tell her you’re being a brat?” he asked. “You want me to tell her to smack you again? She will, you know. What do you think she sent me out here for? You rather I do that than play with you? Would you rather I smack you around a little bit than have some fun with you?”
Uncle Markham had never hit me before, but he looked a lot stronger than my mother, and her smacks hurt. Surely Uncle Markham’s would feel much worse.
“That’s what I thought,” he said, the corners of the cracker growing soggy in his mouth. I focused on it, the tiny specks of salt glistening in the sun, melted on his lips. I moved towards the cracker, my eyes crossing as I honed in on nothing but the salt, the shine, the glisten, and my lips rested against his, wet and salty, the cracker hot and moist when I pulled it from his mouth into my own.
Mmmm, yes, I heard above my chewing no matter how loud I tried to make the grinding of my teeth, the swallowing of the masticated snack. Uncle Markham patted the top of my head, calling me his good girl. A good girl eats what is placed in front of her. A good girl does as she’s told. I would be a good girl.
Uncle Markham was mom’s little brother. The year I turned eight Aunt Celeste told him to get out of their house (much like mom had told dad when I was still a baby and he stayed away so good I never even met him) and so he came to live with us. His room was next to mine, at the opposite end of the hall as mom’s. He’d been there a few days the night mom left us alone while she went out with some friends. I was lying on my bed coloring when Uncle Markham let himself into my room.
“Want to play Sandy Duncan?”
I shrugged and continued coloring. No was what I wanted to say, but that would invite a conversation I didn’t have the mental stamina to engage. It was always best if I shrugged and let him make the decision of what I wanted.
He didn’t say anything else but I felt him still looming in the doorway, the way I could sometimes feel my mom watching me from the kitchen window. Only Uncle Markham seemed to fill the entire space, blocking me from getting out, blocking oxygen or anything else from getting in, even though he was only five-seven with a slight build. To my perception he was huge, casting a shadow that resembled the giant’s from the pages of my Disney Jack and The Beanstalk storybook record depicting the moment after he’d stolen the Golden Harp.
A few minutes passed before I heard the crackers rattling in the box like he was shaking Milkbones at a dog. I picked up a black crayon and ran it back and forth over Prince Charming’s face. Then I slid off my bed and followed him into his room.
Sandy Duncan was like any other game; it had its rules of play and a winner and a loser. It started with me sitting on a chair in the kitchen, eating from a box of Wheat Thins. After a moment I would cover my eyes and count to twenty. When I would uncover them, the box would be gone from where I’d set it on the table.
I would call out, “Oh, no! Who stole my Wheat Thins?” and then go look for Uncle Markham. He would be lying in his bed with several crackers hidden on his person; I won the game if I found them all. Sometimes they were in his hair, stuck to his chest, in his pocket. Most of the time I’d find one of the crackers hidden on his penis. I’d unzip his pants, reach in and try to remove it and he’d hold my hand there, manipulating it until the cracker was nothing but sticky, pasty dust. I usually had time to eat five other crackers with my free hand until he finished, my back to him, pretending the sticky cracker hand belonged to someone else. Someone named Sandy Duncan.
It would be twenty years later when what I came to realize as a full-blown panic attack would wash over me in the supermarket. The spinning head, the sweats, the pounding heart, the vacuum of soundlessness. They had scattered their seeds across my psychological landscape when I was ten in the cookie and cracker aisle as my mother would drop the box into the cart.
“I swear, your Uncle Markham pops these things like they were happy pills.”
I always knew what bag the checkout lady put them in and stared at it the entire ride home.
I was eleven the first time I touched a penis that didn’t have a Wheat Thin on it. The son of mom’s current boyfriend, Asa cornered me in his above ground four-foot swimming pool during a Labor Day barbecue while the adults stood clustered around the brick pit drinking beer and arguing who grilled the best burgers. Big Asa said the best burgers had cheese added to them exactly one minute before being slapped on a bun; his sister, who I called Aunt Jeanne, said the best burgers didn’t have no cheese. Mom said you didn’t need no goddamn burgers as long as there was plenty of beer. I floated on my back, trying to keep my ears under water so as not to hear them anymore.
“All their burgers rot,” Asa said, swimming up to me and pushing down on my stomach. I collapsed at the middle like one of those K-mart folding chairs Asa’s brother Fat Wesley broke after plopping into it, sinking beneath the surface. I came up coughing to the sound of Asa’s laughter.
“Jerk,” I said, splashing at him. He shoved back, using his hands like vertical riverboat paddles, shoveling torrents of water over my head, up my nose. I wanted to shout at him to stop but was unable to catch a breath or open my mouth without swallowing a rivulet of water. My nostrils were burning, my lungs aching as he backed me against the side of the pool, calling me tough girl, asking what I was going to do now. I punched out at the air and felt my bathing suit top get yanked down, his stubby, bitten-to-the-quick fingernails stuttering against my skin. He slapped the budding orbs of tender flesh a few times, flicking one of my nipples.
“Stop!” I yelled and got a mouthful of water. I held her arms out, head tucked down, waiting for the pelting to cease. Adjusting my top I called him an asshole and he called me a baby. Under the water I saw he had pulled down his swimming trunks to rest just below his hips, his small penis bobbing in the water. He cast a furtive glance over his shoulder at the adults, now laughing and cursing, hopefully, loud enough for someone to make a disturbing the peace call to the police and break up the party. His focus still on the adults, Asa asked me to touch it.
“Get the hell out of here,” I shouted, and he turned back to me, his face red, beads of perspiration above his lips which he licked over and over again, lips that were telling me to ssh ssh ssh. He said if I touched it, he would touch mine. I didn’t want him to touch mine, not ever, and he said he would lick it, that he knew girls liked that. He asked please with a cherry on top, grabbing my hand and wrapping it around him. I wondered if all males were like this or just the ones around me. If this happened to all girls, or just me. If maybe Uncle Markham had told him I was easy even though he had told me it was our secret alone and I should tell no one. I wondered if I continued to touch it if Asa would leave me alone and let me out of the pool. My hand moved on him involuntarily, until he jerked and sighed like he let out a good belch or convulsed with a strong hiccup.
“Later on it’ll be your turn,” he said. “When it’s dark. They’ll be so wasted they won’t even know we’re gone.”
“No, thanks,” I said. “It’s gross and I don’t like it.”
He told her me I better learn to like it; someday I’d have to do it with my husband.
I stopped playing Sandy Duncan with Uncle Markham at thirteen when I started playing Atari with Patrick VanRee in his parents’ basement. After a few references to his built-in interactive joystick only an adolescent boy would find clever or amusing, he simply grabbed my hand and put it on his crotch, just like Asa had done two summers ago in the pool. I didn’t want to touch it but knew he’d be too distracted to play Space Invaders if I didn’t. So I stroked him until he was sticky, washed my hands in the powder room and we moved on to the video game. Eventually, he grew tired of the hand jobs and asked to put it in me. It was snowing outside the day I let him. School was closed and Uncle Markham was home with me. I called Patrick and told him if he brought over some hot chocolate I’d let him put it in me. He showed up less than thirty minutes later with a box of Swiss Miss add water hot chocolate packets with freeze-dried mini marshmallows.
We did it on my bed while the water boiled. I heard the kettle whistling a duet with the screaming in my head as Uncle Markham came through the door I’d purposely left unlocked. We stared at each other across the span of the bedroom over Patrick’s shoulder, I on my back, my head jerking back and forth on the mattress. Uncle Markham backed out of the room, closing the door. The kettle whistle tapered off with the sound of Patrick’s grunts. It all happened in less than two minutes. I supposed it was something I could endure for a husband.
I had my first baby at sixteen, a boy I named Richard, after his father.
A daughter followed at nineteen, another girl at twenty-one, all different fathers.
I married a forty-three-year-old man when I was twenty-six who liked to slap me around. Around this time my second daughter’s father sued for custody and took the girl to live with him and his wife in Japan; I never saw her again, but we exchange Christmas and birthday cards. My son died in a car accident when he was seventeen. I don’t know where my oldest daughter is, just that she hates me.
I started therapy at thirty-seven, nursing school at thirty-eight, and it was at thirty-nine that I left my husband.
When I was forty-two my mother called to tell me Uncle Markham had died. I didn’t go to the funeral, but I lit a candle at the church three blocks down the street from my apartment complex and said a prayer.
In the supermarket, I always skip the snack aisle.