In the photo I most remember, Mark waves a large flag fashioned by my father. Nothing fancy—just a thin wooden dowel from the hardware store and a stretch of iridescent fabric attached along the top half with glue. My siblings and I help assemble them on Saturdays because we’re still young and eager to please—myself only eight, my brother Dave eleven and my sister Becca twelve. The flags were the idea of my parents—a Pentecostal music duo—who’d heard a minister describe the sound of the Holy Ghost as “an army with large banners.” They quote this to the swell of my father’s piano at yet another church we’re visiting in Maryland with folding chairs and dark carpet. Another church with a congregation keen to hear the sound of fabric rippling through the air and equate it with the hand of God. A church where Mark waves a banner as though he is flagging our whole family down.
And let’s call him Mark. Let’s call him anything but his actual name, which I search on Google for so many years afterwards but only recently find. In my earliest memory, Mark is dark haired and lean with a ruddy work van smelling of carpet cleaner and machine grease. Of gym membership and the staged masculinity of a 1980s Tom Cruise film. When he takes my brother Dave under his wing, I’m immediately jealous. Dave with his small pale limbs and plastic-framed glasses. Dave who is new to the sixth grade and without friends. Dave who is anxious to flex his undeveloped muscles to anyone willing to pay attention. I’m anxious to flex, too, but don’t have an audience in Mark. It takes me thirty years to find out why.
Everyone wants to be Mary growing up. The Virgin Mary, that is. I’m told she was only between 12 and 14 years old when she became pregnant—only a few years older than I am—but that simply adds to her allure. Each Christmas is a competition in my Sunday school for who will play Mary and her husband Joseph in an annual display complete with a manger, costumes, and sometimes even live sheep. I never get the part, but the tradition continues even decades later whenever I brave a church over the holidays. A small parade of children dressed as Bible characters like a low-rent beauty pageant. Who will be specially chosen by God? Who will most get to suffer for the LORD?
A TV show we watch religiously when I’m a kid is Little House on the Prairie. I love all the horses and cabins and bonnets. Melissa Gilbert growing up before my eyes one episode at a time. It’s one of the few shows my mother feels comfortable leaving us kids to watch on our own while she fixes dinner in our tiny kitchen. Maybe that’s how she manages to miss the episode I’m unable to shake long into adolescence— “Sylvia” Parts 1 and 2—featuring a 15-year-old girl who is stalked and raped in the woods by a man dressed in all black with a chalky white face mask. I picture the masked man everywhere afterwards and refuse to go anywhere alone for years—even if just to the upstairs bedroom Becca and I share. He looks so much like the mimes who perform regularly at our church or the actors we see numerous times in an evangelical stage play called Toymaker’s Dream.
In other words, he looks like someone I would know. Someone I would trust.
There’s a sliver of light coming from under Dave’s bedroom door. It’s past our bedtime but I want to creep out in my summer nightgown and press my ear to the wall to see what sounds I can hear. Low voices, the hint of laughter. Dave is in there in his loft bed and striped pajamas. Mark is in there, too, sleeping on a spare foam mattress on the floor. He needs a place to stay for a while and my parents are happy to help. We live in a small townhouse at the end of a cul-de-sac with unkempt lawns and a handful of kids who pretend to shoot us from their windows. Some of our neighbors are young professional couples or budding families who quickly move away to other townhouses with cathedral ceilings or a guest room. Our ceilings are low—I can touch them from my top bunk bed—and we have no guest room. Just the foam mattress my mom covers with fresh sheets for Mark when he stays over or a small loveseat in our living room – much too small for a grown man.
Months later, my parents are sitting on that loveseat when they tell all three of us kids we’re not going to see Mark anymore. Not at church or at home—not anywhere. And if we see him, we need to find an adult to ask him to leave. My mother is calm and rational as she tells us this—like she’s telling us what we’ll have for dinner later or when we’ll need to pack up and move houses again. I don’t ask Dave if he’s sad about this or if he knows anything about the decision. I let the fever of my crush on Mark burn off and close that chapter until years later when it is unexpectedly flung wide open again.
The Christmas I am ten is the second year my church foregoes the standard Christmas pageant so my dad can co-produce a large-scale stage play called The Gospel According to Scrooge. It’s based entirely on A Christmas Carol but with heavy evangelical overtones and an altar call at the end, inviting members of the audience to repent and be saved. I play Tiny Tim in an ill-fitting wig, Dave plays a Young Ebenezer Scrooge and Becca plays the Ghost of Christmas Future in a white gown made almost entirely of tulle. I love everything about performing but my favorite part about the play is being backstage with a stagehand named Jim.
Jim looks like he could be in any one of the Christian rock bands I’m allowed to listen to. Unruly shoulder length hair, dark t-shirts, a slight curl in his lip whenever he watches me from the wings shrouded in shadow. He tells me he is twenty-four and how I have the most beautiful singing voice he’s ever heard. How he wants to install me on his bedroom shelf so I can sing to him all day long. How he knows I’m only ten but will wait for me to grow older so we can slow dance in real life instead of in the dark with no one watching. I write his name in the corners of notebooks and floral stationary given to me earlier in the year for my birthday—the stationary with envelopes that taste like mint when you lick them shut.
Jim disappears as soon as the play is over and the new year begins. Eventually all the stationary with his name in my fifth-grade scrawl disappears, too. Years later, when I ask my parents about him, they can’t even remember a person with his name or description—like I had somehow made him up. Or they had somehow never managed to notice him in the first place.
For as clearly as I remember the masked rapist in the “Sylvia” episode of Little House on the Prairie, I surprisingly remember little else. Not the sweet young Albert Ingalls who falls hard for Sylvia and carves their names into the trunk of a tree. Not his heartfelt promise to marry her in a church despite her illicit pregnancy from the rape. Not even the soft-focus kiss he places on her lips before she dies from a tragic fall.
I wonder now if that’s something the memory does instinctively to survive—push aside certain memories to clear a pathway for others. I’ll never understand how one memory can crowd out another one. How some memories completely disappear.
The summer I am fifteen is a slow descent into decay. My father, who has left the church altogether to pursue a dream of becoming a Broadway playwright and producer, drains our savings on printing posters, jackets and playbills for productions that will never happen. Our living room houses the fifty-some boxes of several thousand printed pamphlets highlighting a cast and crew that never assembles. The boxes are shifted every so often so we can get a clear view of the TV from our couch. Dave, my father, and I are sitting on that couch when the news story flashes on the screen. The one about a Babe Ruth youth baseball coach accused of sexually assaulting a thirteen-year-old boy on the team. How his background check had mistakenly come up clean despite sexual assault charges from the early 80s. The man on the screen is handcuffed and heading towards court in a continuous loop. I suck in my breath and wait for someone else to say something, but no one does. It’s impossible for us to not recognize him, though.
The man in handcuffs is Mark.
Our first Christmas season without church is one long smear of winter. I spend most of my time with Dave who spends most of his time with Todd—an old friend from youth group whose parents were once church elders like ours. Todd has things Dave and I do not—a car, a license, and fresh packs of cigarettes. At fifteen, spending time with them is like entering an underground club of Grown Adult Things.
On one particularly cold night, Todd introduces us to Shane smoking in a parking lot in College Park. Shane who is over 6’ tall and twenty-three. Shane with black Doc Marten ankle boots and large plugs in both earlobes. Shane who hoists me up onto his shoulders easily and often because I am only fifteen and under 5’ tall and laughing, laughing, laughing. Dave and Todd give me a pensive look when Shane offers to drive me home and say it’s ok if it’s what I want. What I want is to hide all the newly softened contours of my body in Dave’s extra-large flannels but still somehow be seen. To be part of the pack of everyone old enough to drink beer and buy cigarettes.
Shane lets me talk for the full drive home until he parks abruptly outside of my townhouse, cuts the engine, and says, “Fuck it” —suddenly pinning me to the passenger window and putting his mouth against mine. I feel the steel of his tongue ring against my jaw and my hands going limp at my thighs, immediately hot and flushed with fear.
So this is what it’s like to be kissed, I think to myself to calm myself down—both as a question and an answer. It’s then that headlights sweep over the windshield of Shane’s car—both Todd and Dave’s eyes going wide when they glimpse the scene. I want them to screech to a stop and tear me out of the car. To yell in the parking lot and cause a scene. To save the day. But instead they park a few spaces away and quietly slip into the house.
“I thought that’s what you wanted!” Dave seethes at me in our shared bathroom afterwards when I finally shrink my way inside, all my emotions spilling out by the sink. I expect a different response from him entirely—something supportive or even vengeful. Something more like the protective older brother I’ve come to know. He remains shockingly apathetic and only becomes inexplicably more so. Like the whole episode hit an old familiar nerve and emptied him of everything but a need to barricade himself away from me.
More than twenty years later, when we are both adults, Dave won’t remember this incident anymore. Sometimes I wonder if Shane does.
I couldn’t forget even if I tried.
The most terrifying thing about the “Sylvia” episode of Little House on the Prairie—the one with the young girl raped in the woods—is the moment towards the end when the rapist’s identity is revealed. Just before young Albert tries to flee town with the pregnant Sylvia, he begs his boss—the respected Blacksmith, Irv Hartwig—to let him take some money to help them escape. Albert trusts Irv and promises to pay him back after collecting Sylvia on horseback at her secret location and settling in another town. But unbeknownst to Albert, Irv gets to Sylvia first—dressed in his black bodysuit and white mask. It’s only when Irv is shot dead and the mask falls off when the truth is finally known.
Albert’s best ally had been his enemy all along.
There’s no line at the Fuddruckers where Dave and I order burgers for lunch, my treat. I’m home for my ten-year high school reunion and to stay with Dave for the first time at his new studio apartment. After eight years in group homes and psychiatric wards for schizophrenia, Dave is about to live more independently than he ever has in his life. He gets a buzz cut and a twin mattress which we all interpret as progress—maybe even God’s miraculous healing. The healing doesn’t take and ultimately neither does the studio apartment but we don’t know that on this rainy afternoon. Right now there’s a doomed crack of hope in his story.
I am not even one bite into my burger when he tells me that he saw Mark recently. That he found him online and they went to a movie together. That is was actually really fun. Without asking or making eye contact, Dave somehow ascertains the question flooding to the forefront of my mind.
“He never did anything to me, y’know,” Dave says, casually wiping his mouth and fingers. “He never did anything at all.”
In hindsight, I wish I had asked more questions or gotten more information—something other than wash down his answer with stunned silence and soda water. It’s the only time he openly mentions Mark—my one moon shot to maybe get the truth. I won’t know for another ten years how childhood trauma can trigger schizophrenia. How the eventual delusions can reduce memory to a zero sum. By then, when I feel ready to ask again, Dave can’t even remember what he originally said to me let alone what actually happened.
“I don’t know,” he says over and over, increasingly vacant—every moment starting over from scratch.
The motel room where my father lives is right off the 95 freeway in Savannah, Georgia. I’m there in my mid-thirties to see him on Christmas Eve and take him to the Denny’s next door for steak and potatoes. It’s an unexpected visit—one I make last minute when he texts me out of the blue while I’m at the airport about to fly somewhere else. I reroute my flight from the Delta terminal in Los Angeles and arrive in Georgia just in time for dinner. He’s still just as heavyset as I remember—a white polo shirt stretched across his middle, matching Velcro orthopedic sneakers—but his remaining brown hair is now awash in steel gray. He hardly recognizes me when I meet him in the parking lot. In the twelve years since my parents’ separation, this is only the third time he’s let me see him.
At first, he wants to catch me up on all his business deals. The scripts and production budgets he has tucked away in a shuffle of papers, the bank accounts and investment companies, the film studios in Baton Rouge and Atlanta. They’re all in the works, all in the works, he says to me over and over with his glasses off, so his eyes wander rootless around each corner of the restaurant—anywhere but my face. I know they’re not in the works, though. I know he has spent his last twelve years living in his car or an old friend’s home or another cheap motel. That the small pile of wilted bankers’ boxes I spot in his motel room are the only belongings he has left in the world. But I order us cups of coffee and let him talk and talk and talk until he’s too tired to go on.
What he doesn’t mention is how he’s been in touch with Mark and plans on staying with him for a while when he can no longer pay for the Savannah motel. Mark’s carpet cleaning business is booming, according to my father when he finally mentions it to me two years later—after he has worn out his welcome in Mark’s guest room and landed at yet another cheap motel. He tells me how Mark is a God-ordained prophet and had always wanted to start a church with my family. How my mother had been too jealous to share the spotlight and didn’t want Mark around from the very beginning. How, were it not for his habit of inappropriately touching young boys, Mark would have a thriving congregation.
My stomach curdles at this last bit of information and I ask if it bothers my father, too. If he remembers Mark staying over at the house, taking Dave to the gym, getting arrested on TV. Does he ever worry that maybe Dave had been in Mark’s crosshairs so many decades ago? That it could have affected the entire trajectory of his life? I don’t expect to feel a surge of hope and recognition when my father confirms his memory of those things—or the crushing blow of betrayal when he begins to laugh a fox in the henhouse laugh.
“You can’t change a leopard’s stripes,” he says with a delusional man’s assurance that what he’s saying is gospel truth.
Irv Hartwig is never referred to again in the Little House on the Prairie series. Neither is Sylvia herself or her father who shot Irv to save her. Everyone moves on with little fanfare—even young Albert. The diehard fans on message boards develop theories for where the characters ultimately land. Maybe a trial and prison sentence for Irv; an eventual suicide for Sylvia’s heartbroken father. All theories become plausible because there is no way to get to the actual truth. No way to really know.
It’s the same feeling I get when I call to ask my mom about Mark finally—one summer afternoon when I am nearly forty years old and shaken after a phone call with my father. But she doesn’t remember what we remember. The spare foam mattress Mark slept on in Dave’s room or him even staying over at all. She only recalls “a bad feeling” about him—no more, no less.
“I may have blocked it out,” she finally confesses with an ache in her voice when we are both left with pieces of questions and answers that no longer fit.
Her response stuns me just as much as my father’s—like encountering a wall in a familiar family home where you know a door used to be. I have to walk outside so I can say out loud things I know to be certain. This is sunlight on my skin. Wind in my hair. Spit in my mouth. I tell myself how often details shift or change in a story. How truth takes on different skins sometimes and even the Bible of my youth has translations varying wildly from the other. That even the simple verse my parents quoted to their plaintive piano music— “an army with banners” —is written in numerous iterations, each separate from the rest. Fifty-three in all, I count—only to discover the passage isn’t even referring to the fiery wrath of God like I’d been told for so long. Instead, it’s for a woman seen by her lover for the first time, like they’ve both finally reached their own dizzying conclusions about what to think, believe and know. To accept them with bravery and abandon. Who is this young woman? my favorite translation reads, catching in my chest. She is beautiful like the moon, pure like the sun, awe-inspiring like those heavenly bodies.
I turn the words over and over in my mouth for days afterwards. Relish in it, even, as though it is a long-lost twin or a trap door allowing escape from a house sealed shut. As awe-inspiring as those heavenly bodies, I repeat out loud with the reverence of prayer.
Those heavenly bodies.
Jessica Ripka is a writer and audio producer currently working in film in Los Angeles. A Tin House Fellow and Transom Story Workshop alumna, she is currently working on a memoir.