I wasn’t going to have a column posted today. Life is kind of crazy right now. I’m in transition from my old home, with my husband, to my new one—my apartment and new life.
Since I won’t move into my apartment until early next week, and since things have been upside-down for the last three weeks, I had begged off this column installment and my editor, Nathan Alan Schwartz, was incredibly understanding.
However, this was too important not to share.
Next week, a story I wrote in conclusion to the attached nonfiction piece, I Took It Back, will be published in podcast form on Louise Wareham Leonard’s 52 Men the Podcast, titled Lachesis. I want all who have read I Took It Back, and those who haven’t, to have a chance to tie these stories together in a meaningful way.
Also, when I first moved out of my husband’s home three weeks ago, I did something else related to both stories. Although I had been thinking of it for some time, the act was entirely impulsive.
One day I was driving around, looking for an apartment to rent, and I drove near Sonny’s home in Ft. Oglethorpe (read I Took It Back to know who that is) and decided to stop and do it.
I knocked on his door, again, and when he came out to the porch, I told him something.
I said, “I forgive you.”
He began to stammer, to act as though he had no idea what I was talking about, as he had done that other fateful day.
“You don’t have to say anything. I’m doing this for me.” I said.
He whispered, “Thank you.”
The immense power in that moment overshadowed the day I confronted him about sexually abusing me, that day I walked up to his door in October 2014 while my husband stood in the background. I walked away feeling a sense of peace I’ve never felt in my life to that moment.
In this time of uncertainty, when my marriage is ending and my world has become unfamiliar, I have had some good people around who remind me of some core truths, and help to reveal others I didn’t realize had existed within.
One of my lifelong friends told me, “It’s always been there, Kimmie. You just didn’t realize it until now.” John W. has been able to see through me since the first day I met him at Tarpon Senior High. He still can.
Another of my friends, someone I’ve known a couple of years, has with love and patience waited for me to realize that I have the power, when it’s all said and done, to allow what I want to happen, to let go of all expectations while living inside the moment. I treasure his friendship, and no matter what the future holds, I always will.
Other friends, who have been there for a lifetime or a season, have been there for me when I need them, and validated me as the intrinsically strong, independent, and fragile person I am. They have reminded me it’s okay to be human. It’s okay to be me.
So, before you listen to the podcast next week, read the following story if you haven’t already done so. It’s a little long, but it’s one of my prized pieces—not only because of the content and the liberation, as well as transformation, that moment in my life engendered, but because my publisher felt it worthy enough to be shortlisted—and friends and family voted for it to be nominated for a Pushcart Prize. That’s something I learned, after the fact, is kind of a big deal in the small press world.
I feel fortunate that 2016 was my year to begin my journey as a published author, and that I have the opportunity, a day at a time, to continue to tell my stories.
They matter, as do all stories, in the end.
It’s not just traffic, but it’s life, with starts and stops, beautiful roadblocks, dead end cul-de-sacs, midnight highway drives, and gorgeous sunrises.
A life that, when viewed in its ethereal wholeness, is a beautiful and heartrending anthology.
I Took It Back
Published by The Scarlet Leaf Review September 2016
Thirty-eight years ago, when I was ten years old, my parents reconciled after a short separation and we moved to a duplex just off Middle Valley Road in Hixson, Tennessee. It was early August in 1977. My dad had obtained a new job with TVA at the Sequoyah plant nearby. My mom was able to get a job at Dixie Yarns, not far from our new home.
Dad worked first shift and mom started out on second shift. This was not unusual for my family. Our parents tried to manage their schedules so one of them could be home with my sister and me in the afternoons when we got home from school.
However, mom was given the opportunity to work first shift for the first time since I was in the first grade. Back then, she worked as an assistant at a daycare across the street from where we lived. It was very convenient because my sister was bussed there from our school which was also very close to our house, after Kindergarten ended at noon. I would walk there after school let out later.
Mom and Dad discussed it and decided that I was old enough to manage the two-hour window of time after school and before the two of them would get home from work. I would be responsible for my sister as well. This also allowed my dad the ability to work some overtime and make a little more money for our family.
I started sixth grade that year at Hixson Elementary School. For the most part, I was a good student and behaved well in class. I was most generally a happy child, though I kept to myself a lot.
My favorite thing to do was to ride my bicycle around the Valleybrook neighborhood which joined with our street, Shelby Circle, as my faithful dog, Slinky, ran alongside me.
I also liked to go out into the woods behind our duplex and sit and think, write poetry and think of stories, draw, sing, hang out with my dog and just be alone. Finding my own secret places to go for solitude helped me with my low times, which I later learned was congenital depression. I was born with it.
Life events would exacerbate the condition as well.
In school, the thing I was most reprimanded for and which showed up on my report card each quarter, was that I daydreamed a lot. I can clearly remember my sixth-grade teacher at Hixson calling out my name in class as he would find me staring out the window, or at my hands or the ceiling, or lost in a world of my own as I doodled and scribbled on my notebook.
Mr. Doebler would call out, “Miss Bailey, oh, Miss Bailey. Would you please join us?”
His class was in the early afternoon, just after lunch. Unfortunately, this was the time of day I was most likely to “space out,” a phrase my dad attributed to my cerebral wanderings.
The kids teased me and snickered behind my back, and my parents chided me for it each time they read the comments on my report card. However, none of those external consequences were enough to change me. I was a creative soul who was also an introvert with attention deficit disorder, before anyone understood what those terms meant or that they were, respectively, a variation of personality and a cognitive condition.
The Hester’s lived in the other side of the duplex where we lived. My dad had made friends with Earl Hester, or as most people called him, Sonny. His wife, Kay, would chat with my mom occasionally on the front porch or as they were coming and going. Though the Hester’s were about the same age as my parents, their children were much younger. Little Earl was seven, the eldest girl Tiki was around five, and LaRhonda was three.
Sonny liked to get out in the yard and play with all the kids. He would do handstands, tell funny stories and make everyone laugh, and throw the football or play catch with the baseball. He would also talk to my dad while Dad practiced shooting his compound bow in the back yard along the tree line, or as he tended his vegetable garden, or when he grilled steaks and burgers out back.
Yes, Sonny was a very likeable person. We all liked him a lot.
A few weeks after school began, around my eleventh birthday in September, Kay asked me if I would like to earn a little money and babysit her three children after school while Sonny slept, and before she got home from work. Her husband worked for UPS and he had to drive a truck late in the evenings and overnight a lot of the times. My job would be to go sit with the kids and help Little Earl with his homework, make them a snack, and keep them quiet while their dad slept in the next room. Since we lived just next to them in the duplex, I could occasionally go over and check on my sister while she was doing her homework or chores.
My parents gave me permission to take the job, conditional upon keeping my grades up and doing my chores, as well as looking after my own sister. I felt I was ready for those responsibilities. In fact, having so many people to watch after and so much to do made me feel important. I was able to make a little money and was given permission to boss my sister and some other kids around without any backlash. What eleven-year-old kid wouldn’t like this arrangement, right?
Unfortunately, things are not always as they seem. Life does not happen as we expect.
My first job and first major responsibility outside my home was supposed to be a benign occurrence that marked my transition from child to adult. Instead, the events which took place turned into a nightmare and colored my self-esteem and self-image, my outlook on life, my relationships and my destiny for years to come.
Bayless Earl “Sonny” Hester molested me during those months I babysat his children. He made me feel like it was my fault, and promised that if I told anyone he would hurt me or someone I loved. I didn’t tell anyone what happened until years later, and by then the damage had not only been done, but had manifested into a series of depressive episodes, poor relationships, and sexual dysfunction that I could not overcome on my own.
Eventually I sought help and could talk about the experience. I began a very long journey towards healing.
Thirty-five years after that despicable excuse for a human being molested me, I moved back home to the Chattanooga area. After living so close to the old duplex on Shelby Circle for the last eighteen months, I finally found the courage to make a final step towards my healing and recovery from his horrible actions.
I had been able to connect with Sonny’s son, Little Earl, back in 2003 through a family member. I told Little Earl about what his dad did to me, and he admitted that his father had done the same thing to his sister. His parents divorced over twenty years ago. Before I said goodbye to Earl that day at my cousin’s house, I asked him where his dad was living. He told me he was in Fort Oglethorpe, behind where Kmart had been. I wanted to confront Sonny at that time, but I did not have the courage.
Since John and I moved to Hixson in January, I have driven by the duplex on Shelby Circle on several occasions. I kept thinking about that little girl who used to live there, and how her life had been so drastically altered by what took place in the dark bedroom of the man who lived next door.
A couple of months ago, I contacted Little Earl on Facebook and sent a message to him. I asked him how his mom and sisters were doing. He said they were doing well. His mom and youngest sister are living in Knoxville, and Tiki is driving a truck. I also asked him if his dad was still living in Fort Oglethorpe, GA in the same place and he confirmed that Sonny still lived there.
Once I received that confirmation, I knew what I had to do next.
With the unconditional love and support from my husband, I confronted Sonny on October 9, 2014 on the front porch of his home at 136 Howard Drive in Fort Oglethorpe, GA.
John was off work and we had six days before he had to return. We had some things we needed to take care of such as pay bills and get groceries, cut trees in the back yard and do housework, etc. I had mentioned to John a few weeks back that I wanted to go to Fort Oglethorpe. He patiently listened and said, “Anytime, you just let me know.”
On Thursday afternoon, after we had finished running some errands, I turned to John and said, “I’m ready to go to Fort Oglethorpe now.”
He nodded and tugged at his goatee and then asked me, “Are you sure this is something you want to do?”
“Yes, I’m sure.” I replied. “I need to do it.”
So, we loaded up in the Ford Ranger and he pointed it to Highway 27 South. We left home around 4:30 pm, so I reconsidered going because I didn’t want my husband to have to deal with traffic. His response was, “It’s just traffic.” We went on.
We arrived in Fort Oglethorpe a little after 5:00 pm and I said I needed to stop and use the restroom. John pulled over into an Arby’s parking lot. He asked me if I was hungry. I realized it was probably time for us to eat since we hadn’t eaten since breakfast. We ordered some food and ate as we watched all the traffic on Hwy 2 and Hwy 27 in what used to be a much quieter little town.
As we ate, I remembered living there as a child. My grandparents lived not a mile from where John and I sat. I attended elementary school in the first through fourth grades just down the road from their house, and I was baptized in a little church across the street from their subdivision.
After my family moved away from Hixson, when I was thirteen, we lived in Chickamauga, just a few miles from the Arby’s where John and I ate our dinner that day. I used to go roller skating and to the movies with my friends in Fort Oglethorpe. In a little restaurant across the intersection from the Arby’s, there used to be a Pizza Hut. It was the place I went on my first real date with a boy. My mom used to shop at the grocery store where the BI-LO sits now, which used to be a Red Food store.
The place had changed as much as I had over the years, but a lot of it remained the same, too. What I had come to realize, and what had brought me to that moment, was that a lot of who I was had also remained, despite the things I went through and the events that affected me. Although my life was forever changed by what Sonny Hester did to me, part of me had already begun to reclaim myself and who I was always meant to be.
John and I left Arby’s and took a short drive to the street off Hwy 27 towards Howard Drive. It only took about three minutes and we were sitting in the driveway.
The home was modest but nicely kept. There were a lot of Georgia Bulldog’s signage and flags and other paraphernalia out in the yard and on the large front porch, which covered the entire front of the home. The driveway sloped down steeply, and at the end we could see a large RV parked under an awning, a sedan and a nice truck.
We walked up the concrete walkway towards the porch. There was a baby gate on the front, between the two banisters, and beyond I could see the front door was open, and there was a glass storm door that let light in and allowed one to peer into the dark front room.
I looked around on the front porch to see if there were any dogs, just in case, and then I undid the latch on the baby gate and opened it.
In my hands, I held two photos. One was of my dad. It was taken in 1977 or 1978. In the photo, he looked much as he did back when we all lived in Hixson on Shelby Circle. The other photo was a picture of my dad’s blue and white Ford Bronco, sitting in front of that duplex. The duplex was a light green at that time.
My husband was behind me, but I knew this was a moment I had to face on my own. I had to be the one to speak and say what I needed to say. John was there for support, but I was there to do the work.
For a moment, I worried that maybe this was the wrong house, or that Sonny wouldn’t be there. I also began to doubt my mission. Was it really necessary? What did it matter after all this time?
I shrugged the doubt off and pushed the button for the doorbell. It was lit up with an orange glow.
Several dogs began to bark at once. I backed down to the steps, next to John, and closed the gate. I heard someone say something to the dogs and then come to the door.
When I saw him I knew it was him. I stepped back up to the porch and Sonny came out. I stood before him. My husband stood close by at the steps, just within reach.
He was older, of course. I couldn’t help but notice that he was shorter than I remembered him to be. Of course, to my eleven-year-old self he seemed much bigger. Now, I stood at least an inch or two taller than him. He was just a frail old man.
Sonny had a puzzled expression on his face. He seemed quite friendly, though. He asked what he could do for us.
I asked him, “Are you Earl Hester? You go by Sonny, right?”
He nodded, “Yeah, uh-huh.” He was smiling. I saw his blue eyes questioning me.
“Do you remember Shelby Circle in Hixson, the duplex? My dad was Fred Bailey. I used to babysit your kids.” I said. My body was shaking, but my voice was strong.
Sonny shook his head. “No, no. I sure don’t remember that.”
I asked him, “Don’t you have a son named Earl, and daughters Tiki and LaRhonda? Your wife’s name was Kay.”
“Yes.” He answered. Then his brow furrowed and he said, “What’s the problem? What’s all this about?”
I showed him the pictures of my dad and the old Bronco, sitting in front of that duplex. “See, this is my dad. See that Bronco? It’s in front of that duplex. Remember now?” I dug in.
Sonny took the photos and said, “Oh, yeah, yeah! I remember that, now. Your dad used to love driving that truck around. What was his name again?”
“Fred Bailey.” I repeated.
“Oh yes, he died, didn’t he?” Sonny answered.
At this point, I wanted to choke the guy. He knew exactly who I was. I could see it in his eyes, and by the expression on his face.
I threw my head back and chuckled at that last remark. I was thinking to myself, “Yeah, he died and here you stand, you son-of-a-bitch.”
Instead, I nodded and said, “Oh yeah, he’s been dead now, what, twenty-six years?” I said as I looked at my husband, who nodded while his kind blue eyes reassured me.
“I’m sorry to hear about that. Well, you’re looking good. What are you up to these days? Everything going okay?” Sonny responded.
I laughed and said, “Oh yeah, things are great…NOW. I’m doing really good. I have a good husband, life is wonderful.”
“Good, good. You going to church anywhere?” Sonny asked.
I couldn’t believe my ears. Church? This guy was something else.
“No, we don’t go to church.” I said as I glanced again at my husband.
Then I turned back to Sonny and, looking him dead in the eye, I said, “You molested me when I was eleven years old, back in Hixson, at that old duplex, while I babysat your kids. You were supposed to be sleeping before your wife got home because you drove that UPS truck at night and you molested me instead. I’m here to tell you that what you did was wrong.”
He didn’t miss a beat. “Well, uh, I don’t remember anything like that, now. That wasn’t me. I’m sorry that happened to you, though.”
I said, “I know you won’t admit it. I’m not here for that. I’m here to tell you that you’re a sorry excuse for a human being, and what you did was wrong. I was a child, not a woman. I was a CHILD. What you did messed me up for a long time. It was wrong.”
Then he backpedaled. “Well, if I did anything like that I’m sorry. I was taking a lot of pills back then, not getting but two hours of sleep a night, you know, when I was driving that truck. I’m sorry, I really am sorry if that happened. I don’t remember it, but if it did I’m sorry. I go to church now, got saved and I got a good wife now. Me and Kay divorced about twenty-two years ago. I’m really sorry if something like that happened to you.”
I really didn’t care if he admitted it or not. I didn’t care if he apologized. I had come to do what I needed to do. I knew what he did, and I knew it was wrong. I didn’t need his stamp of approval or a confession. “Well, all I can say is, I hope that if you did that to anybody else, that you burn in hell.” I said coldly.
He nodded and said, “Well, thank you, uh, well sorry about all that. It wasn’t me, but if it was, I’m sorry. I got saved and changed my life. That was a long time ago.”
“There’s no excuse. There are no excuses for what you did. I will never forget those eyes. I know it was you.” I said as I smiled an icy smile at him and looked directly in his eyes.
I turned to leave and as I was about to go down the steps I said, “Good luck with that whole Jesus thing.”
My husband and I walked back to the truck. He opened my door for me, as he always does, and I got in. He backed out of that driveway and drove me home.
As we were going up the highway he asked me, “Are you okay?”
I smiled. “Yeah.”
“Well, you gave him something to think about. You’re a brave woman.” My husband said.
Thirty-seven years ago, a grown man used his power to commit an atrocity on me when I was a child. I became powerless. I became unsure of everything after that happened. I wasn’t sure about myself or my abilities. I could not trust anyone. My self-worth was down around my ankles for a long time and because of that I attracted men into my life who were disrespectful and who hurt me and took advantage of me in different ways. I desperately wanted to be loved and accepted. I didn’t know how to go about getting what I wanted or how to turn away what I didn’t need, those wolves in sheep’s clothing who often appeared instead of the good guys.
I confronted Sonny Hester and I got my power back.
I had been on this road to healing for a long time, but I knew the final step I had to take was to go directly to him and tell him, to his face, what he did was wrong—I know it, you know it, my husband knows it, and the whole world knows it. Your dirty little secret is out. You can’t silence me anymore. You can’t make me feel badly about myself anymore. I am in charge of my destiny now.
I walked right up on that piece-of-shit’s front porch. Like a boss.
And I took it back.