"The Ghost of Chuck"
When going about the task of interviewing a trauma victim, I was lost as to who I should question. Then it struck me; my own mother had seen more trauma than anyone else I knew, and the trauma she endured was and is a taboo topic in the media. I was unsure as how to approach her about it, for there is a dark cloud over our family about that time in their lives, and we only vaguely mention it once in a while. It’s difficult because my brother is this dark cloud’s son and my mother’s second husband. So, during a hasty phone call after my brother dropped me off at my parent’s house one weekend, I took a stab in the dark and asked her if I could interview her about “the abusive relationship she was in once upon a time.” At first, she said no, thinking my brother was still around. When I assured her Charlie was gone, she agreed. What she told me was nothing I expected or wanted to hear.
In 1972, my mother was twenty years old, younger than I am now, and working as a dancer in a bar in Wichita, Kansas. She lived in a small house downtown, on a block with a lot of other young people, including her future and final husband, my father Joe. She was popular with everyone, with her exotic looks, statuesque body, and friendly personality. Because of this and her line of work, she was invited to many parties and at one particular party, she walked into the kitchen to find a young man slumped over the table with a needle sticking out of his arm. She recognized the man as a customer that frequented the bar, and proceeded to ask people at the party who he was and what was going on with him. His name was Charles “Chuck” Webb, and he was currently suffering from an overdose of heroin. She asked some friends to help her get him in the back of her Buick and then drove him back to her house and cleaned him up. From this point on my mother’s life would never be the same.
With bitterness in her voice she told me, “If I never would have met Chuck, I know I never would have touched a needle in my entire life.”
At first their relationship was nice, but far from normal. After the party incident Chuck spent his time devoted to getting clean, enamored with my mother’s mercy, kindness, absence of judgment, and willingness to help him. They fell in love. He was working at Cessna Aircraft and shortly after they met he moved into my mother’s house, where she was living as a single mom with her second daughter, Kristi Sue. Chuck immediately adored Kristi and soon melted into a normal Suburbia life.
“We loved to go fishing and camping together. It was so much fun. He cherished Kristi and doted on her whenever he could.”
I can tell my mother is tearing up when she tells me this, but her voice does not shake as she says, “The first time he was ever violent towards me was over a Macy’s charge card. We had this card and I kept getting these statements in the mail telling me someone had bought five sweepers (vacuums), TV sets, furniture, things like that. I didn’t know anything about it because I didn’t even have one sweeper, there was no way I could afford it. When I confronted Chuck about it, he started packing his bags, because he promised that if he ever started using again, he’d leave. Turns out he had been selling all that stuff, sweepers and TV sets to people for smack (heroin). I was pissed. When I started yelling at him, that’s when he became angry and started to throw stuff around.”
She never says that he hit her that this time, but continues on saying that she took him for a second chance, unable to turn him onto the streets, “I knew he would be dead within two weeks if I kicked him out for good. And I loved him. I couldn’t.”
Again, he promised to get clean. I was curious as to what my grandparents (Chuck’s parents) had thought of this, because I knew they were very old fashioned.
“They didn’t know,” she tells me. “They just thought he was a drinker, which they didn’t care as much about. They’d go to the bars with us and drink too.” At this she smiles, it must have been a good memory.
“No, they didn’t know. They thought we were married too. Chuck was so excited to introduce me to his parents…when he brought me over there with Kristi, it turns out he had told them we were married just to justify us sleeping in the same bed. I didn’t know. I woke up the next morning to a huge fancy breakfast on fine china and linen because they thought we had eloped.”
With no one suspecting any deviant behavior, there was really no one to go to when things got bad, so my mother thought. The fact that she was abused as a child and moved from foster home to foster home also affected her reasoning abilities. She thought this kind of treatment was normal for taking care of someone, which is something she was used to doing, being the eldest of six children, many of different fathers and a disinterested alcoholic “mother.”
“So, I started using when I was hanging out with him and his friends together…I had never used a needle before then. Just smoked weed and drank, like everyone did back then. Chuck and I would wait by the phone on weekends to hear if anyone had copped some junk (got some heroin.) I don’t hardly remember anything about being high except getting sick….it wasn’t good stuff if you didn’t puke. Chick was sick more than me. He already had a bunch of terminal illnesses. His liver was shot.”
Months later, another episode occurred. After a particularly heated argument about his drug use in front of Kristi, Chuck struck her repeatedly in the face and head, and subsequently she had to go to the hospital.
“I had to have surgery. They had to put a plate in my head. That’s when I found out I was pregnant with Charlie.”
I asked her why Chuck became so violent at different intervals and she replied that it was withdrawals. He would go for forty to sixty days of being clean and sober to caving in and using again. It was in between uses that he was most abusive. She states that she would incite some of the arguments, being high herself. Going on, she says that after the fights and in between the black outs of heroin highs, he was nothing but apologetic and guilt-ridden for his actions. He constantly told her he would die without her and that he wasn’t worthy of her love.
“I had boxes and boxes of cards and letters from him saying he’s sorry. He wasn’t the same person when he was going through withdrawals.”
After the hospital, they drove to Miami to avoid attention from friends about the surgery, gauze, and bruises. They got legally married in Florida and drove back to Kansas after they made a pact with each other to get clean for their baby that was coming.
“And we did. And all through my pregnancy, he never hit me once. I know now he was probably still using, but he didn’t hit me.” In September of 1976, when Charles Otis Webb III, my technical half-brother but for all intents and purposes my real brother was born, Chuck seemed to stay true to his promise.
“It went real well for the first couple of months. He was an excellent father. He took care of both of the kids, helped me when I was tired…he was good. It wasn’t until I came home from work one day that I found out he’d gone back to junk.”
Their house was only a few blocks from the bar where my mother worked, and Chuck was home watching the kids. She walked home to feed Charlie and when she entered the house, she saw Chuck passed out over the side of the couch, a lit cigarette in hand, dangling over my screaming infant brother. The cherry of the cigarette had fallen onto Charlie’s stomach and was burning a hole through his clothing.
“But Chuck couldn’t hear him because he was all messed up, blacked out. I was absolutely beside myself.”
When she finally managed to get him to come to, she screamed and yelled at him and smacked him in the face. This sent Chuck into a rage which he chased and beat my mother for a huge length of time, splitting her lip, fracturing a few bones, and bruising her face black, blue, and swollen. He fled the house, leaving my mother on the floor.
At this point, my mother’s sister Sherry was called to live with them. Under a more watchful eye, he wasn’t using in the house, and when there was an argument, he would leave instead of taking it out on my mother.
“He would leave and be gone for days. I got mad at him once when he came back with his shoes gone because I knew he’d sold them for heroin. And he pummeled me. I mean, he was just on top of me, beating me with his fists. Sherry tried to pull him off of me but couldn’t, so she ran down the street to your father’s house and he and his friend Randy had to pull Chuck off of me. That night, he took Charlie and left. To this day I still don’t know where he went. He was gone all night and all day and I was worried sick and so angry. I wanted to call the cops but knew I couldn’t because I didn’t want them asking questions and searching the house and finding the drugs.” When he came back, my mother decided to leave the house entirely with both Kristi and Charlie, and get an apartment. Chuck was devastated and begged her not to leave him.
“That was it. I was done. I drank so much. But he was gone and I had my babies and my own place. Your dad helped a lot.”
One day in 1978, six years after they met, two years after my brother was born, Chuck showed up at my mom’s doorstep clean and smiling.
“I’d never seen him look so healthy. It was like a different man….I had missed him so much. Even after all that. I still missed him. I missed Chuck.”
He told her he went back to his parents for help, got a good job, and wanted to be a part of his son’s life, if she’d let him. After a very long night, they made up. The next morning she was concerned about him getting to work on time.
“I didn’t know at the time he had lied. He never got another job during those two years. I just didn’t want him to lose what he had worked so hard for, that’s the only reason I asked him about what time he had to be there.” At this, she bites her nails.
“He’d been leaving his parent’s house in the mornings, going to flophouses with his friends, and coming back in the evening. So when I asked him about work, he just smiled and said ‘Hey, don’t worry cupcake.’ He got outta bed and walked to the chest-of-drawers where he’d set his clothes and pulled out a gun. He walked to the bathroom and grinned and told me ‘Don’t worry,’ again. Then he shot himself in the mouth.”
After calling the police and the ambulance, my grandma (my mom’s mom), had heard the police dispatch on her CB radio and came over to the apartment in a flash. At the hospital, Chuck lay in his bed, brain-dead, and the decision of whether to let him live with the machines or to let him go lie with my mother.
“I told them to the pull the plug. He said he wanted to die anyway. I mean, he shot himself. Your Aunt Patti flew at me, attacked me. I’ll never forget that. I think that’s why there’s always a rift between us, just a little one. But still. She says she doesn’t remember that, but I do.”
After the death of Chuck, my mother was put on so many “anti” pills, she went through her days in a zombified fog. Remembering very little of that time, she thought she had signed over temporary custody of the two children to Kristi’s father, but unknowingly signed permanent custody of Kristi to his family.
“I never got her back.” She laments.
She went back to work and almost everyone blamed her for the ordeal. Without her ids, she was drinking heavily on top of the pills. My father was taking care of her and Charlie the best that he could, a college drop-out just released from the Navy. She became extremely attached to him. She’d never been taken care of in her entire life. She was so in love with him, she asked him to marry her, but he declined, not ready for that big of step and in devastation she fled to California alone and tortured.
“That was my answer to every problem in my life. Move myself. It was then that your dad realized he missed me and Charlie. I told him I wouldn’t move back until he asked me to marry him. He did.” She smiles.
Throughout this interview, my mother had focused so much on how these traumatic events had affected other people rather than herself and surprisingly enough I found it easy to spot her trauma now that I knew the whole story. Nevertheless, I pressed on., asking her how she dealt with it all after the fact.
“I blamed myself for years and years. Drank. Got into speed real bad. I used to shoot it into my feet so your dad wouldn’t see the marks. But I had to have it…it kept me awake. If I slept, I dreamt of Chuck. He almost divorced me when he found out. After that I got into counseling and that helped. Helped me realize this whole time I’d never been taking care of myself.”
She went on to say that for a long time she couldn’t stand to watch scenes of drug use in movies or on television.
“It’d make me sick to my stomach. That was one of your father’s and my favorite things to do, was to go to the movies. And I had to get up and leave so much. It was the same with suicide scenes or guns…I don’t remember what it was called but there was one movie where the guy shot himself just like Chuck did and I almost fainted.”
Besides the obvious, I had noticed little things throughout my life that indicated my mom was still traumatized by what had happened to her. She suffered from migraines, sleep disorder, extreme fluctuation of weight loss and gain, skittishness, sensitivity to the subject of death and suicide, and extreme, some would say irrational worry over my brother.
“He sounds just like Chuck sometimes, with the things he says, and his anger problems. I get so scared. That’s Chuck ever talked about; wanting to die. I used to read him verses from the Bible to show him that God wanted him to live and so did I.”
Since I was born, she says, everything has been fine. She’s been married to my father for twenty-six years and has not fallen back into the hands of substance abuse. I always find it hard to believe she was once so mistreated, for as long as I’ve known her she’s been strong willed and assertive. We never talked about it in my family and it made me wonder how many other women go abused without anyone knowing.
I asked my mother if she felt like a victim still today.
“No. I’ve let that part of me go. I only felt like a victim when people were blaming me.”
The ghost of Chuck stopped haunting her long ago.
"The Ghost of Chuck" by Joanna Carson
Published in The Mile Marker Review, Volume 2, Issue 1, December 2011