Momma says she named me Dawn because I was born with a headful of hair as golden and radiant as the rising sun. When I was just a little girl, Momma would brush my hair till it shone and glimmered, telling me all the while how special I was. That was before she started listening to all that religious mumbo-jumbo on the AM radio and got so weird and angry.

I was fourteen when I got in the car with that man.

People always want to know why I did it, why I just got in with him. My little sister Trisha was sitting there watching the whole thing. She saw that there was no struggle, no violence. He didn’t grab me or anything. He just pulled up to the curb in this big, shiny car, his lips stretched so wide in a smile that his gums shone wet and pink above his square, white teeth. I leaned into the open window and started talking to him, brushing back hair, kicking my legs behind me so that the bell-bottoms of my denim jeans flared like kites in the wind.

Trisha says she couldn’t hear what we said, but she could hear me laughing. Giggling as I tore open my bubblegum cigarette and started chewing on it, smacking my lips and blowing big, pink bubbles.

Then I went around to the passenger side and hopped in.

It was Christmas Eve, 1978, and my parents had been arguing over the Christmas tree again. My mother screeching about how it was a symbol of Nimrod and the Babylonian bloodline, my father screaming back that it was his house, he paid the bills, and if he wanted a goddamned Christmas tree, he would have one.

I was outside on the sidewalk, practicing smoking.

I loved bubblegum cigarettes.

They were just pieces of gum, rolled in powdered sugar and wrapped in a sleeve of white paper, so that when you blew through them, a wispy cloud of sugar would puff out like smoke. I’d do this once or twice, pretending to inhale, and then I’d put my hand on my hip, cock my head to the side all sophisticated—just like the movie stars did—and pretend to exhale, imagining a dreamy whiff of smoke was leaving my body and drifting off into the air. I’d do this over and over until the end grew wet and sticky and the paper started falling off. Then I’d strip it away, wad up the soft, pink gum, and start blowing bubbles.

I wasn’t what you would call innocent. I’d done things.

I’d let Bobby Thompson get to third base.

He was seventeen and everyone said he was retarded because he still dressed up like Gene Simmons from Kiss and his parents wouldn’t let him get his driver’s license. I let him slip his hand inside my panties and place his finger where no one else had ever been.

We first talked at the fair. He was by the Tilt-a-Whirl with a bunch of his hooligan friends, all acne-faced and in denim. I was eating cotton candy, the pink deliciousness making my lips go numb and swollen, when he strolled up next to me and asked me my name.


“Hey, Dawn,” he said, his big head bobbing up and down on his neck like it just might fall off. “I’m Bobby.”

“Yeah, I know who you are.”

We sat there a moment, the silence thick as taffy and uncomfortable as a pebble in your sneaker, before he spoke again,

“Well, see you around.”

“See ‘ya.”

His friends snickered in the shadows, calling him a cradle robber. When he walked back to them, I could hear his friend Darren say, “Dude, that chick is in, like, middle school. What the fuck is wrong with you?”

“If there’s grass on the field, play ball,” he said. “If not, play in the mud.”

It was a month later, Halloween, when he got to third with me.

I was sitting on the corner, dressed like Raggedy Anne—in an oversized dress and a wig of red yarn—a bubblegum cigarette pressed between my lips, when he came strutting up to me like a cocky puppy.

He had on a kind of Jesus outfit, with long hair and a short beard, and he had an X carved in his forehead. He had used some sort of wax and it looked really real.

He made his eyes go all funny and insane looking like that famous picture and said, “I have X’d myself from your world. Know who I’m supposed to be?”

“Yeah, I know. Charlie Manson.”

“Cool, huh?”

I puffed on my bubblegum cigarette. “It’s alright.”

“So, you go to Winship Middle?”


“I went there.”

“I know.”

“Now I go to Eureka High.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“So, wanna go to the sewer spot and make out?”

He just spit the words out, without any warning. A heat rose up in me like steam from a boiling kettle and my cheeks burned. I shivered but tried to hide it. I looked at him and he was so big, so much bigger than me. But he was cute in a weird way. I hesitated, words stuck in my throat, then said, “Okay.”

It had grown dark and stars glittered amongst the tree tops as we crept through the small patch of woods that led to the sewer spot. As we grew closer, he took my hand in his. It was damp and I could feel him trembling slightly. It had been a dry autumn, the winter rains hadn’t started yet, and the concrete ditch had no water in it. I sat down on the graffiti covered embankment, pulled my knees up to my chin, and wrapped my arms around my legs. I took out a bubblegum cigarette and blew a cloud of sugar into the air, then nervously balled it up and began chomping on it. The sewer smelled kind of swampy, but it was a warm night and being in my costume made everything feel a little magical. Special in that tingly way the holidays have.

He sat down next to me, big-boned and awkward, and without even saying anything at all put an arm around my shoulders, pulled my head to his, and tried to push his tongue into my mouth.

My first kiss.

“Wait, wait,” I said, pushing him away.

“What? Don’t you like it?”

I pulled the wad of gum from my mouth. “Just let me get rid of this. Jeez. So eager. Relax.” Though it was my first time, I was still sassy and a know-it-all.

“Oh,” he said as I tossed the gum out of the ditch, far away from us, worried that it would get into my hair if I stuck it anywhere too close. Then I laid back on the hard concrete, shut my eyes, and prepared myself for him, sort of like when you’re in the cage for the Zipper at the fair, waiting for the ride to begin, nervous but giggly and elated, too.

He lay atop me and we began to kiss. It wasn’t that bad. There we were, Charlie Manson and Raggedy Anne, making out. It was kind of sweet. But he was so much larger than me. His big tongue seeking out the far corners of my mouth, like it was searching for something hidden. His large hands moving all over my body. I hardly had any breasts at all, but he was all over them, pinching and squeezing.

He put his hand up my dress and down into my panties and began to rub at the small patch of hair that had just begun to sprout there only a few months earlier. He began to press down on it, rubbing that hard, boney part below my belly button, searching for some way into me. But he was confused and couldn’t find his way; he just kept poking and rubbing on that bone, pressing so hard that it began to hurt something awful and I finally told him I had to go home, that my parents would be worried and might even have already called the cops. I think it was the idea of the cops that really got him off me.

So, I guess he didn’t really get to third base. He never found his way in, never discovered that spot, that secret entrance. But he told everyone he did and I never denied it, which made me feel older. More mature. I was a big girl now. I had been fingered. At least that’s what everyone thought.

After that, things seemed to change. I heard other girls talking about me. “Can you believe she let that retard do that to her? Gross!”

My best friend Caitlyn asked me if it was true.

We were sitting in her room, laying on her pink canopy bed listening to the Bee Gees—“How deep is your love?”—on this little portable record player she had. I, of course, was puffing on a bubblegum cigarette.

“Yeah, it’s true,” I said between puffs. And it wasn’t really that much of a lie, for I never tried to stop him. I would have let him. He just missed the target. “So what?”

“It’s just, he’s so gross. They say he’s retarded.”

“He’s not retarded. That’s just rude, and he’s not that gross. I think he’s kind of cute, in a way. Like a rock star or something. Can’t you just see him singing in a band? And he was dressed like Charlie Manson.”

“Charlie Manson? I don’t know, Dawn. That’s pretty weird. Not cool. And he’s in high school? Why would he want to make out with you? Creepy.”

“Whatever,” I said, pulling the paper wrapper off my cigarette and pushing the gum between my lips.

After that, whenever I called her house, her mother said she was “unable to come to the phone.”


Our family lived around the television set. We would gather around it when my dad got home from work, eat our dinner on trays in front of it, and stay there until it was time for bed.

We had a big floor-model TV, wrapped in oak with intricate lace patterns over the speakers. It sat on the wall-to-wall, green-shag carpet, pressed against the side of the steps that led to the upstairs bedrooms. We’d watch Sixty Minutes, Barney Miller, Fantasy Island, and the news. Always the news.

That fall, after Halloween, everything on television was very weird and dark. First that rock star from that English punk band Sex Pistols murdered his girlfriend. Stabbed her to death in some hotel room. It was all they talked about on the news for weeks.

Sid Vicious, just released from Riker’s Island, says he can’t remember how Nancy ended up dead in the bathroom of their Chelsea hotel room.

Then, three weeks later, Jonestown, and there was nothing but images of bodies rotting in the jungle sun on every channel. No matter where you turned, just those piles of corpses and all the talk about purple Kool-Aid. Survivors crying, family members hysterical, grainy pictures of that raven-haired preacher on a pulpit in San Francisco. There was no escaping it. My father would grunt and mumble, “Fucking lunatics,” under his breath as he sipped gin and tonic from a big, green glass. My mother would rock back and forth whispering to herself about Jesus and the end of times. A strangeness bloomed from the television that fall of 1978, like a bizarre and hideous flower.

The day my dad brought home the Christmas tree, everything went from bad to worse.

Momma had been spending more and more time listening to this weird preacher on AM radio, growing fanatical. She had become convinced it was the dawning of the apocalypse and that Christmas trees were evil. She began telling my father that she did not want one in the house. Screeching at him whenever he dared to mention it.

But one day, he came home from work with a tree and set it in a stand right beside the beloved TV. He pulled a box of ornaments from the attic, settled down in his easy chair with a big glass of gin and tonic, flicked on the six o’clock news, and said, “Go ahead and decorate the tree, girls.”

Trisha and I were excited. We began rummaging through the box of ornaments, giggling as we remembered the stories involved in each of them. The ugly sled made of popsicle sticks by me in fourth grade. The cotton ball snowman that Trish made in third. And then my mother came storming down the steps. She pulled that tree right out of its stand, dragging it across the room, and threw it out the front door.

“Henry, I told you: I will no longer tolerate that symbol of incest and paganism in my house! That tree is a representation of Nimrod, who married his mother to keep their bloodline pure. It is a symbol of the Babylonian bloodline! It’s pagan! It’s an abomination!”

My sister started crying as my father muttered, “Christ on a fucking pogo stick,” under his breath. He put down his drink, the ice clacking against the glass, got up, and headed to the door. My mother was a big woman, and with her hands on her hips, hair piled high on her head in curlers, she made Daddy—hunchbacked and shuffling—look very small.

“Henry, don’t you dare bring that tree back in here.”

“It’s my house; I’ll do as I wish,” he said over his shoulder as he swung open the door and retrieved the tree from the front lawn, dragging it back across the living room, leaving a wake of fallen needles across the shag carpet. Momma looked like she might blow a fuse, but then just turned, stomped back up the steps, and slammed the bedroom door shut behind her. After placing the tree back in its stand, Daddy sat back down again with a heavy sigh.

“Kids, decorate the fucking tree.”

“But, Daddy,” Trisha said, “I don’t want to decorate the Babylonian symbol of evil.”

“It’s not a Babylonian symbol of evil! It’s a Christmas tree and this is America. In America, we decorate Christmas trees. It’s a tradition! So decorate the tree!”

“Okay, Daddy,” Trisha said, sniffling as she pulled a big red bulb from the box and hung it on the tree.

I grabbed my pack of bubblegum cigarettes and headed to the door.

“Where’re you going?” my father asked as he raised his glass to his lips to take a big slurp.

“Caitlyn and I are studying for the science test,” I lied. Caitlyn wouldn’t even talk to me anymore.

“Hmmm,” my father said as I strolled out the door, slamming it behind me for no real reason.

I headed to the sewer spot. I don’t know why. I just wanted to get away.

When I got there, Bobby was there. With another girl—Maddie Goldstein—a total slut. She had her shirt off and he was sucking on her nipples. I don’t know why, but I grew irate seeing them. I mean, he wasn’t my boyfriend or anything, I’d just made out with him that one time, months ago. The truth is, I thought he was a total jerk. But this rage just filled me, fast, like a tank of helium fills a balloon when the knob is cranked open, and I started chucking stones at them.

One bounced right off his head and he yelled, “Hey!” shielding his face and ducking as I threw another one, a big one, which hit him in the leg.

“Watch it, bitch,” that whore Maddie said, pulling on her shirt as a stone slammed into the concrete beside her.

“You’re a liar, Bobby Thompson!” I screamed. “You don’t even know how to finger-fuck! You couldn’t even find my secret spot!” And then I turned toward the forest, tears running down my face as I ran through the trees with nowhere to go.


Once the Christmas tree was up, Momma would no longer sit with us and watch TV. She’d just sit in her bedroom and listen to those weird preachers on the radio. Oftentimes she wouldn’t even cook, and Daddy would make us TV dinners that he’d forget were in the stove and burn. When the television would go silent for a moment between commercials, I could hear strange passages drift down, about atonement and bathing in the blood of the lamb.

“Beth,” my father would yell up to her, “come eat dinner with us. It’s not right what you’re doing. We’re a family. An American family. Come down here where you belong.”

“Not as long as that abominable symbol of paganism is in that room,” she would shout back.

This went on right up to Christmas Eve, when my father stormed up the steps demanding that she come down. My sister was lying in front of the television, head propped up on skinny arms, watching Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. I had always loved those holiday specials. Just the commercials would make my heart beat faster, but now they weren’t the same. After all the horrific images on the television that late fall and early winter, I half expected Sid Vicious to come on screen, shooting up heroin and stabbing someone, or for Santa to hand out cups of poisoned Kool-Aid to all the elves.

I could hear my parents arguing upstairs.

“You’ve got to stop this, Beth. You’re becoming just as crazy as those Jim Jones fanatics with all this religious crap.”

“It’s the end of times, Henry. The end of times and the sinners will be thrown into a lake of fire!”

“You’re a whacko, Beth. Do you know that? You’d have drunk the Kool-Aid. You’d have drunk the fucking Kool-Aid.”

The sound of my parents hollering was driving me crazy and I couldn’t stand it any longer, so I went out to the corner and practiced my smoking, Trisha tagging along behind me.

There I was when this big, shiny car pulled up.

And so people want to know why I got in the car with that guy, what he said to me. Well, what he said was, “Aren’t you a little young to smoke?”

I leaned down into the window, laughing, threw my hair back, and replied, “It’s not real. It’s only bubble gum,” tearing off the paper wrapping and tossing the sweet gum into my mouth to show him.

He grinned, flipped open a Zippo, and lit a cigarette. “Want a smoke? Hop in. I got the real thing.”

And I did. I guess I was just tired of bubble gum and wanted the real thing.