I should have slammed the door in Earl’s face.
It’s what I wanted to do the minute I saw him standing on our porch, snow clinging to his greasy black hair like dandruff. He was thick and short, five feet seven at most, with pasty white skin and a bulging gut that pressed against his plaid shirt and hung in a lump over his giant silver belt buckle. I noticed that his fingernails were stained and filled with dirt, a dead giveaway that he worked as a mechanic even if Mom hadn’t mentioned it. But it was his eyes that bothered me most. They were icy-blue and hard, magnified by thick glasses that made them look like they were going to pop out of his head.
“Is your mom here?” he asked. I stared at him, wondering what she could possibly see in him.
“Yeah, she’s here,” I said finally, reluctantly stepping out of the way so he could come inside.
By now my sisters Connie and Heidi had ventured in to check out Mom’s date and I saw the same disgust in their eyes. My brothers, barely eight and two, were too young to care and stayed hidden in the playroom.
As soon as Earl entered, a smell that reminded me of rotting hamburger meat filled the air. Mom appeared a minute later. She was dressed in her standard date attire: a bell-shaped white skirt that hit her mid-calf and a ruffled polyester blouse covered in a tiny purple floral print. Her wild flower Avon perfume trailed behind her, competing with the odor coming from Earl. Connie and I both shot her imploring looks, but she ignored us and headed straight for Earl.
“Okay, children, I’ll be back later,” she said. Then the two of them were gone.
In the six months since her divorce from Dad, Mom had dated her share of losers. Connie and I figured it was a phase she was going through until she got back into the swing of things. But Earl was an all-time low. He was a homeless Vietnam vet who lived in the back of his Chinook mini- camper in a trailer park near the edge of town. He had been divorced three times and had four kids from other wives. He was Mormon, but he hadn’t been practicing for several years. His last wife was a Lutheran, and he had been a drinker, a huge sin in the Mormon religion.
Then there was his smell. Mom said it was because he ate only meat, a habit he’d picked up while serving in Vietnam.
“Don’t worry. There’s no way she’s going to marry him. He’s not even a good Mormon,” Connie assured me, even after Mom ignored our initial demands that she stop dating him.
Connie was fifteen and the oldest, and she was so confident in her prediction that she had me convinced.
A month later, the day after my birthday, Mom called us all into the kitchen for an announcement.
“Earl asked me to marry him,” she declared with a smile. “I said ‘yes.’”
I was stunned. Just two weeks before, on Christmas Day, she had told us she was through with him. We’d all been gathered around our plastic, fold-out kitchen table, savoring our Christmas lunch of Sloppy Joes, potato chips, and raspberry Jell-O—a meal I looked forward to all year—when Mom had made the surprise announcement. She’d realized that Earl wasn’t right for her and was going to tell him it was over. My sisters and I had all cheered at the news. I was so relieved I’d almost hugged her. Now she was doing a complete flip-flop, and acting like it was perfectly normal.
“But I thought you said you weren’t going to date him anymore,” I stammered. I could feel the panic building inside me and though I wasn’t sure why, I was scared.
“Why?” Connie added. “You know we don’t like him, and you hardly even know him!”
Mom shot us an exasperated look. “He’s going to be my husband, and I want you to treat him with respect.”
“But Mom, he’s not even a good church member, and he used to drink.” I was desperate to change her mind. It just didn’t seem possible that she could actually want to marry that creep.
Mom’s face turned flush. “Whatever he did in tee past is in tee past,” she said in her thick Austrian accent that made all of her “th” sounds come out as “t” or “d” sound. “He’s a good church member now, he’s a priesthood holder, and he’s going to be my husband.
“Don’t worry,” she added, looking directly at me. “He’s not going to try to take the place of your dad.”
Of course he wasn’t going to replace Dad. The fact that she’d even mentioned the word “dad” in conjunction with that smelly, disgusting excuse for a human made my blood boil. I felt my face getting hot and red.
“Believe me, he’s not going to be anything to me,” I hissed, glaring at Mom hard for effect.
She stared back at me with the righteous glow I hated. “I prayed about it to Heavenly Father,” she said smugly. “I know this is
the right decision for our family.” Mom, who had converted to Mormonism as a teenager while still living
in Austria, was convinced she received revelations from God and prayed about every little decision she made. It drove me crazy that she acted like God was calling the shots for her because it made it impossible to argue with her.
I wanted to scream at Mom. Instead, I shot her a final glare and stomped out the room.
I may have just turned thirteen, but I could see the situation for what it was. Earl was a homeless, smelly fake who was pretending to be a practicing Mormon so Mom would marry him and he could mooch off of her. I knew Mom was desperate for a husband and for a temple marriage to a priesthood-holding Mormon man, but this was insane.
They set the date for March 1st, the soonest they could schedule a marriage in the Mormon Temple. Earl started spending evenings and weekends at our house. He didn’t say much to us kids and we didn’t say anything to him. Most of the time, he and Mom stayed locked in her bedroom reading scriptures together. I knew it was all part of his ploy to make Mom think he was as religious as she was, and it made me sick.
The first Friday in February, Dad dropped by for an unexpected visit. It was early evening, and as usual, Earl was hanging around, his grimy, yellow home-on-wheels parked on the dirt strip in front of our house.
I had told Dad all about Earl during his weekly phone calls, but my words clearly hadn’t prepared him. The shock on his face when he walked in the door and took in Earl and his stench was so funny I had to bite my lip to keep from laughing.
Earl stood next to Mom in the foyer, tightly gripping her hand with his grease-stained, stubby fingers. He had just come from the motorcycle shop where he worked and still wore his navy blue mechanic jumpsuit with the name “Earl” embroidered on the pocket.
For what seemed like minutes, no one said a word. Then Dad jumped into action.
“Well, hello,” he said in a booming, playful voice. “I’m the ex. You must be my replacement. Hope you’re better at obeying than I was.”
Earl didn’t speak; he just tightened his grip on Mom’s hand. Mom glared at Dad, who grinned and shot her a look that I interpreted as a “you traded me in for that?” glance.
“Dis is Earl,” she said finally. Watching them interact reminded me of how Dad used to tease Mom by having her repeat the words, “Thirty-Third Street,” where they used to live, because it came out “Turty-Turd” street. But that was back when they still got along and laughed together.
Mom and Earl quickly retreated to the kitchen with my two-year-old brother, Daniel. Jacob, Mom’s obedient favorite, trailed behind them. That left Dad to visit with Connie, Heidi, and me in the living room.
“Well, that was interesting,” Dad said, shaking his head. “I don’t know what’s gotten into your mother. But then again, she always was a little cuckoo.”
“At least you don’t have to hang around him and smell him every day,” I lamented. “He’s disgusting.”
My sisters and I started telling Dad more about Earl and his fake Mormon act, but I noticed he wasn’t listening. He kept fidgeting on the juice-stained green couch the church had donated to us and glanced repeatedly at the front door.
Dad never could stay in one place for long because he couldn’t stand being caged. He also had a short attention span for everything but work. He was obsessed with becoming a millionaire and was always on the lookout for a business opportunity that would finally make him rich.
Well,” he said about ten minutes into the visit, “the real reason I stopped by is because I’m heading to Albuquerque, New Mexico, for a weekend business trip. I’m wondering if any of you kids want to come with me.”
I felt like I had just been handed a Get out of Jail Free card. “I do!” I yelled excitedly, throwing my arms around him for a hug. Dad was an independent salesman and was always going on road trips.
I escaped with him any time I got the chance because when I was with him, I felt free.
I’m sure Dad already knew that I would be the only one to accept his invitation. Jacob never left Mom’s side and my sisters couldn’t stand spending long hours cooped up in the cab of his truck or sitting through his never-ending business meetings. But I loved it. I understood Dad’s need to be free and to create his own destiny. I thought he had the perfect life and wanted to be just like him.
Dad and I also had another thing in common: we hated Mom’s obsession with the Mormon religion, which she forced down our throats every minute she got.
Along with dragging us kids out of bed every morning for an hour-long session of scripture reading, hymn singing, and prayers, she made us pray six or seven times a day. And on Sundays, she wouldn’t even let us change out of our church clothes or turn on the TV.
“You know that God believes in free agency and that forcing people to do something is from the devil, don’t you, Ingrid?” Dad said to me once while I was tagging along to one of his meetings. “But that’s exactly what your mom does. I remember once I was home on a Sunday and decided to go to a Sacrament meeting. Afterward, I’d had enough and was headed out the door and you know what your mother did? She and another lady from church each grabbed me by an arm and dragged me into a Sunday school class. I went and didn’t say anything, but you know how bad that turned me off ? I never went back again.
“Your mom thinks you kids are supposed to be dictated to and forced into a certain way of thinking,” he continued. “She treats me like that too. She thinks salesmen are the lowest form of scum on earth. She wants a husband that goes to a 9-to-5 job every day, is home every night, and sits next to her at church. But I’m not about to be a slave—to her or to anyone else.”
After I jumped at the opportunity to go with Dad to New Mexico for the weekend, both Connie and Heidi quickly declined. Connie said she had to take care of Abbey, the pure-bred Irish setter she had recently purchased with money she’d saved from her maintenance job at a nearby park. Heidi, who was ten, said she had stuff to do.
I was secretly glad they weren’t coming. It meant I would have Dad to myself.
“Well, Ingrid, I guess it’s just you and me,” Dad said with a smile. “We’ve got a lot of miles to cover and need to get going, so you better go tell your mom.”
I jumped up off the couch and raced through our dirty, white-washed hallway to the kitchen. I found Mom standing beside Earl next to our fold- out kitchen table.
“Mom, Dad invited me to go with him to New Mexico for the weekend. We need to leave in a few minutes. Is it okay? Can I go?”
My question was really just a formality. I couldn’t imagine that Mom would have a problem with it. Though she had been granted sole custody of us by the court, she never prevented me or the other kids from spending time with Dad.
She hesitated for a moment and then looked over at Earl. “You’ll have to ask Earl,” she said. I felt the blood draining from my face. She actually wanted me to ask
him for permission to go somewhere with my own dad? I shot Mom a pleading look, but she wouldn’t return my gaze. She kept
her eyes trained on Earl. I turned to face him, struggling to maintain my composure. Hot
adrenaline was pumping through my body. I felt such an intense rage surging inside me that it was everything I could do to keep from punching him.
Earl looked at me with his icy cold eyes. A small, mean smile crept across his face.
I sucked in some air, trying to calm myself. “Can I go with my dad to New Mexico for the weekend?” I seethed. Earl paused for a long minute, and I could see his mind churning. “I don’t know,” he answered finally, gloating as he spoke. “Your mother
and I are going to have to pray about it.” I stared incredulously at Earl. His smile widened. I turned to Mom. “Mom, please. Can I please go with Dad? He’s
waiting for me.” I concentrated on keeping my voice calm, determined to hide the panic building inside me.
She ignored my imploring looks and gazed at Earl. As a priesthood holder—an automatic right and power given to all “worthy” Mormon men—Earl was supposed to have a direct line of communication with God. Dad had been kicked out of the church, which meant his powers had been taken away.
“We’re going to have to pray about it,” she repeated. Then the two of them headed to her bedroom and closed the door.
I ran back to the living room to report the situation to Dad, who was still sitting on the couch, waiting. I was shaking and fighting to hold back tears as I spoke. Dad looked as if he were ready to blow.
“What the hell does he have to do with this?” Dad fumed, punching the couch with his fist. “What in the hell is wrong with your mother?”
We both waited on the couch for Mom and Earl’s answer. My stomach was churning. I couldn’t believe this was actually happening.
A few minutes later I heard them come out of Mom’s bedroom. I followed them down the hall to the kitchen to hear their answer.
“What about church?” Earl asked smugly. “You have to go to church.”
I glared at him, channeling all my hatred his way. He knew Dad had been excommunicated and wouldn’t want to go. He also had to have realized there wouldn’t be any time. Dad said Albuquerque was five hundred and fifty miles away from Logan, our small northern Utah town. We had just enough time to get there, go to his meeting, relax a little, turn around, and come back.
I ran into the living room.
“Dad, they say I have to go to church. Is there a way we can find a church in New Mexico?”
Dad’s face turned purple. “Tell them whatever the hell they want to hear!” he barked.
I headed back down the hall to the kitchen.
“Dad says he will make sure that I attend at least one church meeting,” I said, directing my comments to Mom.
I felt smart and victorious. Earl didn’t say anything for a minute. Mom stayed silent. “Your mother and I will have to pray about it some more,” he said
finally. Then he grabbed her by the hand and led her back to her bedroom. I swallowed the screams making their way up my throat as I headed back to the living room to report the news to Dad. He didn’t speak, but his hands were clenched into fists.
I took my place next to him on the couch to wait. My stomach felt like a hundred bees were buzzing inside it, angrily stinging me as they bumped up against their prison walls. My thoughts were racing so fast I couldn’t focus on any of them. I could see my hands trembling, and I wanted to reach out and hold Dad’s hand for support, but he looked too angry to touch.
After what seemed like hours, Mom and Earl emerged from the bedroom a second time. Once again, I headed for the kitchen.
“Well?” I asked, holding my breath.
“Ingrid,” Earl said, a wide smile breaking open across his face. “I’m sorry, but the answer is ‘no.’ The Lord doesn’t want you to go with your dad at this time.”
The emotions that had been bottling up inside me came rushing out. “Mom, please let me go,” I begged between sobs. “This is important to me. Please!”
She didn’t say anything for a minute. She just stood silently next to Earl.
“You heard what Earl said,” she replied finally, avoiding eye contact with me. “The answer is ‘no.’”
I turned to face Earl.
“Earl, I want to go with my dad. He’s my DAD. I have a right to be with him.”
His eyes danced. It was clear he was savoring every moment of this.
“I’m sorry, Ingrid. I really wish I could let you go. But like I told you, the Lord said ‘no.’”
I ran back to Dad, sobbing as I relayed the news. “That’s just bullshit!” he yelled. “Bullshit! Bullshit! Bullshit!” Dad’s face turned the bright purple color that always signaled an oncoming explosion. He jumped up from the couch and stormed to the front door, slamming it behind him without even saying goodbye to me.
I ran to my attic room and shoved my dresser against the door as a barricade. I flopped down and leaned against it, sobbing, trembling, trying to make sense of what had just happened.
I spent the next hour crying. Then the tears stopped, and slowly a new hardness took hold of me. I grabbed my journal and pen and scribbled the words, “I hate Earl” over and over across the pages. I wasn’t sure what was coming next. But as I sat there in the growing darkness, I made two vows to myself: I was never going to let that psycho religious fake rule me again. And this was the last time either he or Mom would ever keep me from being with my dad.