Elaine grabbed the thin brown strap from behind the kitchen door and wrapped the first few inches around her hand. It had been Sol’s belt until his ever-expanding girth had rejected the last hole. Elaine kept the strap there in full view as a constant reminder to her four daughters of who was in charge. The buckle was removed only after Sol had insisted. The leather was creased and scarred from the countless times she had wrapped it tightly around her pudgy hand in anger these many years of beatings and threats. She narrowed her eyes and pursed her thin cigarette-stained lips as she waved the strap behind her like an angry serpent, her second born, thirteen year old Ruth, the target.
The dying summer gave no notice to the plight of the fleeing woman-child. Ruth ran into the unkempt yard and almost made it to the street before Elaine caught up to her. Ruth tried to hide behind a struggling sapling she watered every day in hopes she could save it from the California heat. The tree yielded no cover and no neighbor ventured to her rescue. Elaine struck both Ruth and the tree with a mighty overhead blow. Both trembled.
The chase ended when Elaine cornered Ruth cringing in a tight whimpering ball next to the rollaway cot in her bedroom. The belt whistled through the air and found its mark with a loud crack for the fifth time. Ruth finally surrendered in agony and fear.
Elaine pushed the defiant Ruth back to the kitchen and slammed her into the cracked red chrome and vinyl chair, part of the aging Formica breakfast nook where only silent meals were eaten. She pulled her now-dull hair cutting scissors from the lowest kitchen drawer and hacked away at Ruth’s long wavy hair. Elaine and Ruth did not speak and every time Ruth tried to move, Elaine yanked her hair to keep her still. Ruth had stopped crying. In fact, Elaine would never see Ruth’s tears again. Few would.
“Now clean up this mess,” demanded Elaine. The butchered hair no longer enticed the observer to admire its sheen and the waves and curls were now just clumps of cast away orphans of Ruth’s adolescent beauty. She swept up most of the debris but hid a tiny curl in the metal box of mementos her young life allowed her. It curled around the brass disk with her name engraved on it. Sol, her beloved Daddy, bought it for her at Disneyland the year before and it remained one of her most important objects long after the shiny curl disappeared.
Ruth wandered around the house, lost and aching. The welts throbbed and cold wash clothes were too rough to sooth. “Why does she hate me?” Ruth wondered knowing there was never an answer to this oft-repeated question. She looked in the mirror and felt sorry for the enraged child who glared back. It wasn’t that she didn’t recognize herself; it was that she didn’t want to be that person.
Sol returned home at his usual hour from a greasy day at the garage. He walked in the door ready for a cool one and saw Ruth and her ravaged locks. “What the hell happened to you?” he accused. “Get out of my sight; I don’t want to look at you.” Sol shook his head with a look of disgust that forced Ruth to run to her room and shut the door. She passed Elaine who wore a broad smirk of satisfaction and Ruth finally understood.