The Collector

(Bessemer, Mi. 1980) The hum of the car engine, the soft music on the radio surrounded me in a warm, protective bubble. Why can’t life, I wondered, be as soft and airy as the lake effect snow floating down outside the car window. After living in Upper Michigan for several years, brought here by my then boyfriend, now husband, the fairy tale seemed to be losing its glitter.

I remembered his excited phone call to me. I had just finished college and he had taken a short trip to check out a new opportunity. He’d excitedly explained how this was his great chance to make good, He’d hooked up with a real estate developer eyeing the prospects in this remote place, romantically called “Big Snow Country.” The area was on the cusp of an explosion of new development with a new ski hill, the fourth within a twenty mile radius, being planned. That would only make it more attractive to the big city vacationers, and investors wanting to escape onto the ski hills and into the woods for a respite from their high pressure lives. He’d won me over, worn me down. So, off to a new adventure we went.

The snow scrunched under the tires as I drove into the driveway. I noticed lights on in several houses on our road located in the middle of the ski area. Skiers here for escape. Me too, I thought, as I turned off the ignition and sat, taking in the silence. Collecting my thoughts.

Though my husband had a real job, he’d also recently gone into the bar business. The bar, closed for several years and purchased for next to nothing, seemed like a toy, his latest diversion. I hadn’t been part of the decision. After the novelty wore off, the bar had begun to take over our lives.

Invariably, on our way to a planned social engagement, we’d always have to “stop in.” Just for a minute, to see how things were going. Had the bartender shown up? Was anyone shorting the till? Most often, we’d end up never leaving. After multiple times, being trapped until closing, I’d begun to take my own car. At least, I could leave when I wanted to. On this particular evening, he was his usual self, sociable to everyone but me. After several hurtful remarks, I knew this night would end the same as countless ones before. So, I left.

Our lives had changed drastically when I’d gotten a job in my profession as a social worker for the county. I was feeling pretty good about myself. He‘d commented to one of his friends that I no longer cared about him. I only cared about my new life and the friends I was making.

What really bothered him was that I was no longer the “go-fer” in his construction business. He was accustomed to having a to-do list for me each day; but I was no longer the waitress working nights, always available and helpful.

The ramifications of that change were nothing compared with my latest worry. His new preoccupation with guns. Calling himself a collector, our spare bedroom was slowly filling with rifles and shotguns, all neatly placed, leaning against the walls. They were valuable collector items, he said. What was the big deal, he wanted to know. Since we had no real neighbors, he set up a target off our back deck. He’d load a gun and go out to shoot. Returning to the house, he’d often set the loaded gun down on the coffee table and insist it should stay there. Even the fact that friends were reluctant to bring their children to our house didn’t budge him.

As the reality of life in the UP came home to us, his mood changed. Between the difficulty of making a living in an economically depressed area and realizing we would never really belong in such a close-minded place, his drinking had escalated. Trouble sleeping, erratic behavior, the feeling that everyone was plotting his failure in both business and socially added to his discontent. When he put a loaded pistol on the shelf above our bed, I paid attention.

With a sigh, I took the key out of the ignition, walked into the house and stood in the dark for a long time. The house was quiet, peaceful. No noise. No trouble. No husband. I was jolted back to reality by the sound of my own voice, echoing through the empty house: “You are going to get out of this. You have to get out of this before you go crazy. Or end up dead.”

That night, I began to plot my escape. I knew I had to be patient, wait for just the right time. Get him when he’s feeling conciliatory, when he’s sober. My sister and a friend were planning to visit for a ski week and were going to stay at our house. I took that for the opportunity it was.

I knew the best time to talk was early in the day. I knew he’d be at the bar, setting up for the coming night. I closed my office door and dialed the number. I began the conversation by reminding him about my sister’s visit. Why should they have to tolerate our problems, I asked. Wouldn’t it be better if he just stayed at the bar for that week. The bar had been an old hotel back in the hey-day of the ore mining good times. Good times that were now long gone. I knew there were sleeping rooms above the bar because he’d actually stayed there a few times when he’d been too impaired to drive home.

He must have been wanting to impress someone within earshot of his phone conversation, because he treated it like a business call, agreeing without argument and little comment. Later, he came over and got a few things to get him through the week. I’d lucked out.

I was able to welcome my sister and her friend with no stress. The week went along well. Each night after my work and their skiing, I had lots of fun showing them the highlights of the area. My sister’s friend marveled that no matter where we went, I always saw someone I knew. Always the hellos and introductions. Being from a large city, she I thought that was so great. And I thought it was too. See, you can make it here alone. You have friends, I said to myself. I was feeling hopeful that I’d have a nice, new life once this was over.

Near the end of the week, from work again, I placed another strategically calculated phone call to the bar. I appealed to his senses, remarking that he had probably had as nice a week as I had, not having to deal with the constant tension and conflict, always present between us. I ventured that this probably meant we should face facts and accept that we should separate.

And he agreed. Though we were still far from a total resolution, at least that decision had been made. He came over to the house while I was at work and took more of his things. I began to believe this would work out without incident. Silly me.

What followed were the usual games of divorcing parties. Thinking this could be settled easily with one lawyer, only prolonged the experience and led to multiple court date cancellations. Finally, I hired my own lawyer, cut my losses and got things settled as best I could. Several months after the court hearing, my relief was rocked when I got the notice of a tax sale on the house I’d been awarded. So, the money I’d given him to pay taxes had gone elsewhere! This began a tumbling succession of blizzards that blanketed my attempts at recovery.

The next year, I was unnerved when attending a workshop on the newly identified Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, common to Vietnam veterans. This was 1981 and just in the previous year, PTSD had been included in the latest DSM-III, the bible of psychiatric diagnosis labeling and coding.

The day of the conference, I recall how my anxiety increased as I heard the litany of symptoms. Escalation of drinking. A short fuse. The anger. Aggressive behavior. Waking from troubling dreams. Flashbacks. So, the preoccupation with guns was normal!? This suddenly explained so much.

Driving home from the VA Hospital in Iron Mountain Michigan, I had to actually stop the car due to my shaking; I was barely in control of the vehicle. For a few minutes I actually thought that if I’d known what was going on, perhaps I could have helped him. Then I came to my senses. After getting home and back into the daily routine of work and life, the intensity of those feelings seemed to slip away.

But the relief of being done with this and having survived with few residuals was once again smashed when I was packing for my move back to civilization. Emptying out long closed up and never looked into drawers and cabinets produced a package wrapped in newspaper. It was thin and narrow, about a foot long. The newspaper was old and wrinkled. It had been there for a long time. As I unfolded it, I began to shake again. It was a machete, I’m sure from his Army tour of Vietnam. He’d bragged about all the souvenirs he’d secreted back through the mail and in his duffle bag. So, this weapon had been within five feet of our bed all the while we’d lived together in that house.

I called my friend, Lucia, who worked at the local domestic abuse shelter and she talked me down. He’s gone. He can’t hurt you. This is over. I don’t know how I disposed of it but I did. And this would be my second last problem before this time of my life was finally resolved.

In the last stages of moving, the electrician I hired to fix some small thing, found that electrical wires had been routed to by-pass the box. The electrician apologized and said, of course, he had to report this. The police came out to take pictures and I told them my side of the story. Long after my move, the Lake Superior District Power Company would sue me for back charges. After all, I owned the house and I was there best chance for recouping. Luckily, he ultimately settled it. Are we finally done now?

It took five years after the divorce for me to wrap up everything and make my exit. I moved downstate, went to graduate school, on to new work opportunities and life. But I’m a collector too. Aren’t we all? I know this collection of thoughts, experiences and memories will never completely fade from my memory. Now that it’s over, I have come to value many things about this experience, look back in fondness at friends I’m still in touch with and, most importantly, know if I can survive this I can do anything.

 

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