Batteries Not Included

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2018 Barrett Winner

5th Place Dawn Isby

Introduction by Dr. John Rietz, Chair, Barrett Committee:

Our first reader today, Dawn Isby, is what we at the college call a returning student, which means that she is not coming to HFC straight out of high school. In fact, she’s a grandmother of 5 and a spouse of 40 years. Dawn came to Henry Ford two years ago out of sheer interest, as a way to develop herself and explore the world of ideas. She is studying Ceramics, and as she will tell you herself, she really loves it here at HFC. As her English 132 instructor, I can tell you it’s true. Dawn is an alert reader and thinker who eagerly absorbs everything that she’s exposed to. When we on the Barrett Committee added up our scores and discovered that Dawn was one of our winners I yelped a little bit. Her story, “Batteries Not Included,” is an excerpt from a novel, one of three she has written since returning to school. Told from the perspective of the oldest boy in a deeply dysfunctional family, the story depicts the start of an ordinary day for Don Wyatt. Constantly on guard for threats from his mother, Don tends to his younger siblings who (being younger and seemingly acclimated to the chaos and violence) smile, sing, ask for breakfast, complain about breakfast. Don might appear to be on autopilot, with the flat, emotional face that he presents to the world, but we see his thoughts and know that he is barely keeping it together. We’ve all seen Don’s world before, hopefully from a distance, but Dawn Isby’s story puts us in the middle of his anxious ordeal. . . . Dawn?

Batteries Not Included

The refrigerator and cabinets were not nicely stocked, but nearly empty. The house reeked of backed-up sewage, rotting garbage, and long neglect. Unwanted clothing was stuffed inside broken window panes. Guilty of home invasion, racoons, squirrels, and other pests gave the attic a facelift. There they scratched, fought, excavated, and expanded interior and structural damage.

The faucet delivered water without consent. The sediment left its’ signature on the never-could-tell-it was-once-white tub. Hunger pangs, and the unending stream of gurgling water did not deter Don from drifting off to sleep. Staying up late and extreme boredom cast him into a deep sleep.

Dirty clothing, electronic gizmos, and fast-food containers, were strewn all over his bedroom. Overdue library books accrued fines. The past few years of his life yielded no significant changes. Each day was no different from any other, and the forecast remained paltry. Don was a wounded and scarred soul. Just how are individuals living in dreary conditions supposed to find the path leading to a better future? It would be difficult for anyone to find contentment in such surroundings. Could someone within a similar predicament find anything to look forward to? Like the water cascading into the drain, life spiraled downward. At a time when he should have been celebrating life, Donald Clark Wyatt bemoaned his youth.

There was no excitement or anticipation of a better tomorrow—only despair. Trapped inside a revolving door drew him closer to the edge of his inability to manage disorder and chaos. Coping mechanisms and walls of denial were created to avoid reality.

It was late autumn. Don curled up in a ball up under the covers wishing the furnace was working. As he eased his feet down onto what felt like the arctic tundra, he heard his mother’s voice from the living room. He strained to hear what she was saying. In the next moment, he heard loud swearing and accusations. Don recoiled. Something or someone had gotten Anne, his mother, very angry. As usual, her language was foul.

“I’ll bet you give them wenches whatever they want! How are we supposed to live off seventy dollars a week and how do I pay these bleep bleep bills? You think I’m a magician? And this toilet’s been backed up for two weeks! You won’t fix nuthin’ and I’m tired of pleading. The city inspector needs to come and take a look inside this dump. You want to know something? You ain’t no man. You ain’t nuthin’ but a bleeping mama’s boy!”

Dons siblings were awake. They forgot all about what they pretended they were going to eat for breakfast. In the children’s heads, all they could see was daddy and mama fighting. The youngest child, Michelle, became tense from the fussing, and tears welled up in her eyes. The oldest girl, Sarah, pulled the covers back over her head. Jonathan smiled and sat up straight as if nothing was going on. As Don sat on the edge of his bed, he chewed the skin surrounding his bit down nails. The children’s father retaliated in response to their mother’s accusations.

“You’re just like a wild woman! I am not going to talk if you don’t calm down! The children are not deaf. You can’t point them in the right direction with an unchecked tongue.”

“They’ll grow up tainted.”

“Tainted? What’s that ‘sposed to mean? You walked out on em’ and you worrying about these kids growing up tainted? If that won’t make em’ tainted, I don’t know what in hell will! And Sarah’s birthday was yesterday. Hmff! Don’t tell me. Let me guess. You forgot! Or, no money! I bet you won’t forget to give them bleeps what they want!”

“I’ll drop some money off after I get off work, and I’ll have something special for Sarah. Tell Don I’ll be there by 5:30.” Click!

Don didn’t have to guess. His father was on the other end. Anne slammed the phone down. His father took the phone off the hook. These kind of phone calls always made trouble, so Don jumped up quickly and stepped across his bed and leaped inside his closet hoping to find refuge. His heart started to race. His mother’s heavy footsteps tremored as she came down the hall to his bedroom. Like a linebacker, she used her weight to try and push past the furniture that Don used to block her from entering. Realizing that her son had tried to thwart her entry, she became more irritated. At the top of her voice, she raged with utmost fury, and railed awful words. The intimidated boy knew the threats would be carried out. With great fear and dread, he quickly came out of his hiding place. Using all her might, his mother had almost succeeded in gaining access. He would have to think of something else that would prevent her from getting to him. In his hopes to calm her down, he began to pull the dresser that was blocking the door back to its original spot. It was difficult with so much trash and clothing on the floor. Moving the furniture out of the way of the door did not cool his mother down, but fueled the acid spewing forth. After finally getting inside, Don’s mother yanked an extension cord from the socket.

Don stepped back, shut his eyes real tight, and braced himself to receive the fire. Anne began to thrash her son with the makeshift weapon which caused him severe agony. With each blow, he knew not to dodge or move quickly. He counted the blows, seventeen… eighteen…nineteen. His mother was huffing now. Although her heavy breathing signaled the punishment would not go on much longer, it felt as if the whipping would never end. He couldn’t keep quiet any longer. He screamed as the lashes fanned the flames and made deep welts on his arms and back.

“OK, MA! OK! Ahma stop. I promise ahma stop! AHEEIIIEE! OWWEE! I promise ma!”

Don used his swollen arms as a shield to ward off the last blows. Anne was completely out of breath. She threw the extension cord down and got in her son’s face. He had closed his eyes and cowered and stood frozen. Don couldn’t stop himself from shaking. “Yo’ father will (huff) be here after work. Don’t be late! Get right on home after school!” Her spittle landed on his forehead and got lodged in his hair. Don opened his eyes and stood transfixed. He studied her as she stormed back up the hall. Her breath smelled. A horrible mixture of coffee, morning breath, and malice. He wanted to cry but couldn’t. His whole body ached, and he looked drained. Don examined the purple and red welts on both of his arms. It seemed as if the whippings brought his mother some kind of weird pleasure and relief. Don hung his head and talked audibly. He had a serious conversation with himself about what would no longer be tolerated.

“I can’t keep living like this. I know ahma die.” He drew in breaths as if he was still being beaten. Disoriented, he just stood looking around his room. A safe place failed him. Finding an uncluttered space at the foot of his bed, he eased himself down and ran his fingers gently across the raised welt of his swollen skin. Good thing she didn’t get him on his neck.
The kids would have teased him for sure for still getting whippings at his age.

He remembered being teased by his classmates the day after another good thrashing and abhorred his homelife.

“Man, you still get whippings? You know what you gotta do, don’t you? Just grab the dog-gone belt. She can’t get you if you got it. You’re quicker than her, right? Oh, I forgot. It’s you we talkin’ about. Man, just head for the hills!” The kids had bowled over with laughter.

“And then what?” Don anguished inside. They didn’t know his mother. She could run, too! And when she caught you, she wrestled you to the ground. She had the strength of a defensive tackle.

His mother returned to the kitchen to use the phone mounted to the wall. She needed some clarification and tried calling his father, again. The response, another busy signal. Anne was ticked and slammed the phone down. Don had never heard his mother cuss like she was cussing now. The battered adolescent, who was now weeping, wanted to run away. His life was a mess. He wiped his tears with the end of his blanket.

“I’m too old to be getting whippings…and crying like a baby, too.” He reasoned. If he ever did find the courage to run, his greatest fear was that his mother would find him, and probably…

“You all get up! Fix something to eat!” She yelled down the hall and went back inside her bedroom and closed the door.

Don quit his wishful thinking. He’d hoped his mother had calmed down. His sisters and brother slowly emerged from their bedrooms.

His youngest sister Michelle asked the same question each morning without fail?

“Don, what’s for breakfast,” and usually followed with, “When can we git some Cocoa Smacks?”

His siblings joined him at the kitchen table. Anne’s tornado of fury was not contained inside her room. Left in its wake were unsettled emotions and great fear. Don took the loaf of bread from the refrigerator. He placed several slices of bread in the toaster part of the oven, but it failed to ignite. He made ketchup and mayo sandwiches instead. Michelle protested as Don shoved the sandwiches before the children.

“Don, when can we get some new batteries?” She asked.

“Stoves don’t run on batteries, stupid.”

“Oh. What do they run on?”

“Go on and eat, would you.” Don chewed slowly. Blood, which had come from the welts on his arms had soaked through his t-shirt. His younger sister Michelle was alarmed and felt sorry for him.

With her mouth crammed with food, she alerted, “Don, you got blood on your shirt!”

Don looked over at his sister and put his finger to his lips. “SHHH-hhh! Be quiet!” He peeped down the hallway towards his mother’s bedroom. “Doesn’t look so bad,” he lied. But it did look bad. With consternation, the adolescent was churning on the inside. Michelle got up from the table and tiptoed down the hall to the bathroom and climbed upon the face bowl. She opened the medicine chest and removed a box of band-aids that were no longer adhesive. She returned to the kitchen and gave the box to her beloved brother. He threw them to the floor. Michelle looked disappointed.

“I won’t be needing ‘em. Band-aids make ‘em hurt worse. Y’all hurry up so you can brush your teeth.” Michelle held her arms out to her brother. With hesitation, Don went over to his sister and kissed her on the forehead. Michelle reached out gently to touch the welts. She sat with her mouth open trying to imagine the pain her brother must be going through. Don pulled back.

“What you want to do that for!” He reacted in a vicious tone. The attack he suffered had left his arms feeling as if they were on fire, and they were throbbing.

“Is you okay, Don?” Michelle inquired. Emotion welled itself up in her throat and she wanted to cry.

Don ignored his sister. He was irritated. “Y’all finish eating!”

Sarah also felt sorry for her brother. She no longer thought in terms of what she might do to help the situation, so with a mouth full of bread she started to sing. Jonathan toyed with the buckle on his belt. They kept looking at their traumatized brother who was trying to act as if everything was alright. Tears of hurt and anger streamed down his face, and he quickly wiped them away with his shoulder. The singing voice trailed off, and they all ate in silence. It was the start of another one of those days. The mechanisms were in place. It was the dawning of Don’s life as a career criminal.

[1974]