helpless


Last night was pretty rough at work. There’s a girl who comes in from time to time (I call her a girl, but she’s actually in her early twenties). Sometimes she’s by herself, sometimes with her boyfriend. He’s the kind of guy you know from instinct, from vibe, from that little itch in the back of your brain…whatever…is bad news. The kind of situation where you just know she’s being abused. Physically, emotionally, probably both. I know it’s happening. I was even brave enough once to ask her, when she was alone, if she needed some help. The number to a shelter, a cell phone to call a relative, a little cash to get somewhere safe. She denied anything was wrong, but she was lying. I knew it. She knew I knew it.

She came in last night, alone, to buy a bag of tobacco for her boyfriend so he could roll some cigarettes. She stood there silently for a moment, panicked. Because she couldn’t remember what kind he’d told her to get. We have three brands, and none of them looked familiar to her. She doesn’t smoke, so she really didn’t know one kind from another. I wanted to help her out, but I couldn’t. He’d never bought it when I was working, so I didn’t have the foggiest clue which brand he smokes. She finally decided on one, paid for it, and left the store. She was shaking.

The two of them came back a short while later. She was holding the bag of tobacco in her hands. He was gripping her arm. Tightly. He was pissed. She was still shaking.

You guessed it. She brought home the wrong kind of tobacco. It was the right brand, but it was full flavor. He recently changed to menthol.

He proceeded to inform me, and the two customers in the store, that his girlfriend was a fucking idiot. Because it doesn’t take a whole lot of fucking brains to remember what kind of tobacco your boyfriend sends you out for, does it? Or to remember that he’s recently switched back to menthol. And because of her stupidity, he’d had to leave the comfort of his home, after working hard all day, and fix her mistake himself. Because obviously she’s too stupid to be trusted to go to the store by herself. It meant that supper was gonna be late – not that she could cook worth shit anyway – and…

There’s a metal pole behind the counter. It’s got five long, sharp screws poking out of the top of it, in a lovely circle. It looks rather medieval. My boss made it for us to use for protection in case we’re ever in any harm. And what I wanted to do was to use it on this asshole. I wanted start with his big, fat, fucking mouth, paying particular attention to his teeth and tongue, then move right to his nuts and jab at those for awhile. I didn’t want to kill him, mind you. I just wanted to leave him in severe pain. Possibly with some permanent scarring and damage.

I didn’t, naturally. It’s okay to have those kinds of fantasies, but it’s not okay to act on them. I couldn’t verbally eviscerate the shithead, either. I’m not a psychologist, but it doesn’t take a degree to know that he’d just take that kind of humiliation out on the poor girl, too. I could tell the two customers – both of them women – were thinking the same thing. We were all thinking, too, that if he’s this abusive to her in public, what must she have to endure behind closed doors?

Finally I said, “Sir…this is my mistake. She asked me for menthol, but I gave her the wrong bag. I’m truly sorry.” Then I grabbed a bag of menthol tobacco from the shelf behind me and held it out to him. Gently. I even managed the apologetic, “Gee what a pinhead I am” smile I sometimes give customers when I’ve done them wrong. 

The change in his manner was immediate and shocking. He almost syrupy with sweetness towards me. No problem, ma’am, that’s alright, ma’am, easy mistake to make, ma’am, no hard feelings, ma’am. The girl handed me the offensive bag of full flavor tobacco. She was still shaking. I offered the fucktard a free cup of coffee, by way of trying to make amends for my hideous mistake. Not necessary, ma’am. We’ll just be gettin’ home now.

To their late, shitty supper.

I harbor no illusions that this made any difference in how the rest of this girl’s night went. Or how her tomorrow is going to be. Or her next week, or her next month. But what could I do? What else could I do?

I’ll tell you what I did. I cried like a frigging baby the moment their car pulled out of the parking lot. Not the kind of crying you do when tears just sort of slip out, but actual sobbing. The kind that hurts your stomach and shoulders. The other women cried, too. It was kind of pathetic, really.

But what else could we do?

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About R.J. Keller

R. J. Keller is the author of Waiting For Spring. An avid independent movie enthusiast, she was Managing Editor of The Movie Fanatic website and created episodes of the writer-centric YouTube series, Inside The Writers' Studio, with author Kristen Tsetsi. She co-hosted Book Chatter with Stacey Cochran from 2011-2014. She lives in Central Maine with her family, where she enjoys gardening, collecting geeky memorabilia, and watching other people cook. View all posts by R.J. Keller

12 responses to “helpless

  • Lori Tiron-Pandit

    Wow, Kel, what a story. And how brave you are to have talked to that girl and offer her help and to have lied for her. I admire you more than you can imagine, because all those things, I would be too petrified to do.

    That girl will be fine. I know it. One day she’ll wake up and leave. The thing that I don’t understand is how do get men to be so manipulative? They are stronger most times, so that can keep women in fear of getting hurt, but why and how do we then allow them to say we are worthless and all the rest? Why do we believe all the crap? They are not smarter than us, then how do they intimidate so easily with words? It must be us, right? All the time? Our lack of self-esteem, our trying to avoid conflicts, our belief in the good nature of people, in love, in family. I don’t know. I don’t even know why I’m trying to understand something that is simply wrong and evil and beyond comprehension.

  • watpo

    Kel – I’m impressed at your clever response to defuse the situation. I wouldn’t have thought of that – at least, I don’t think that I would have – I would just have stood there and quietly, unobtrusively seethed.

    Lori – Sorry, I don’t share your optimism about the girl. I meet many people in my line of work, and I find that (mostly) once someone has accepted that this is their lot, they do not try to change it. I know a woman in her early 30s who right now is enduring an unhealthy, violent relationship. She has been with this brute for 10 years and their 8 year old daughter is being brought up to accept that this is a woman’s lot. This woman, when I tried to intervene after observing a nasty bruise on her chin, told me that sometimes she deserved what she got. She wouldn’t hear otherwise from me. Most abusive men are a product of their dysfunctional families but that doesn’t give them the right to continue their abuse.

    What’s the answer to all this? Better education. Otherwise it will just go on and on and on…

  • Crystal Lynn

    As for me I would rather live in a cardboard box that that….

    My grandmother always said ( and she had her share of a less than idyllic life) He has to sleep sometime…..

    If I was the young women, I would join the military, and leave and learn how to take care of myself.

  • MoJo

    That girl will be fine. I know it. One day she’ll wake up and leave.

    Lori – Sorry, I don’t share your optimism about the girl.

    Watpo has the right of it. Oh, she’ll leave him, all right. In a pine box. Within 5 years.

    …once someone has accepted that this is their lot…their 8 year old daughter is being brought up to accept that this is a woman’s lot.

    If you don’t know any better… Abuse isn’t the only intergenerational cycle; so is victimhood.

    And the hell of it is Kel couldn’t even have called the police because while they’d understand and believe, they wouldn’t be able to do anything unless the girl wanted to press charges and…she won’t.

    She won’t ever.

    My grandmother always said, “He has to sleep sometime…”

    That never occurs to some women and to others, it only means they’ll be doubly pissed when they return from the grave to give her what-for.

  • bunnygirl

    Maybe that girl will figure it out, maybe she won’t. A young woman who was raised to believe in herself can get sucked into that type of situation sometimes, but not for long. If this girl was raised to believe this sort of thing is normal, though, her chances aren’t good. Especially if she has a kid with the guy.

    Part of the problem is the way girls are raised. Be nice. Be sweet. Be helpful and compassionate. Don’t talk back, don’t argue. Older people know more than you so shut up. These are all messages that can set a girl up to be manipulated later on and in certain social groups, if you don’t don’t play the game, you’re a bitch and you’ll pay for it.

    Being female can be quite the catch-22. It doesn’t help that abusers of both genders have a freakish sense of when they’ve pushed their victim to the line. Then they back off with no prompting, and can be sweet, helpful, and generous. Until next time.

    Keep being there for that girl, Kel. And good on you for trying to take a little of the heat off her. I doubt that it helped, but she won’t forget it.

  • robinaltman

    That’s such a sad story, Kel. You were so smart to think of saying it was your fault. I sort of wish you had acted out on those fantasies, but then you’d be in jail, so I guess I’m glad you didn’t.

    Grrr…. What an animal. The poor girl. So depressing. No wonder you cried.

  • Kit Courteney

    Spookily in the same situ some (many) years back.

    I did the same.

    Made me cry like a baby – a very upset baby. I was 18. It shocked me.

    Sometimes you can just tell.

    You could.

    I applaud you.

    I repeat… you rock.

  • Jana

    Kel – what we need is a “RISE UP POSSE” (Flobots ref.) and a new kind of intervention. You cannot help those that will not help themselves – or can we? The pen is mightier than the sword – but one can often inspire them other.

  • Jana

    the other…sheesh

  • hoosiertoo

    I’ve attempted to insert myself into obviously abusive situations before. It doesn’t help. Smack the asshole around and his victim comes to his defense. Years back, I’d have smacked him around anyway. Now that I’m older, I’m largely incapable of taking on the abusive shmucks myself.

    Men are subject to the same crap, though not as often physically. You’ve no idea how I cringe when some poor sap is being berated by his wife/girlfriend/whatever and has to put up with it because, you know, a guy has to be bigger than all that.

    People aren’t put on this planet for you. When you get to thinking they were put here for your benefit, you’re the asshole.

  • Crystal Lynn

    I tried once to help a lady in this type of situation while I was in the Navy. She was 8+ months pregnant. Sadly the Navy wouldn’t help since there was no proof and it was she said/he said. I just know what Pat was like while on duty and it scared the begeebbers out of me ( I was the DO) what the guy was doing. The situation was futher compounded as she was white and he was black. She even asked to come live with me…and I couldn’t risk it with him. She went to live in the barracks. Still no help from “The Powers that be”, and I did ask for it. He met her one evening in the parking lot as the section was coming on duty. He had a knife. She and the baby are now in Arlington.
    I have tried to understand this but never have. I do know that no one that had “personal problems” was ever ignored again.

    In the meantime I would have available under the counter or in my pocket a business size card with helpline numbers and shelter locations to give out.

  • zoewinters

    That’s so sad. Unfortunately there’s nothing you can do. If you call the cops, the girl won’t press charges, and then when the cops leave it’s worse for her. Or if charges get pressed, he’s in jail for a day and comes out more angry.

    And people on the outside of it they say things like: “I’d never let a man treat me like that.” To which I want to say: “You don’t know what you’d do.”

    It’s not like abuse STARTS this dramatic. It starts really gradually. And there are times in between where they’re really nice/affectionate. So it’s the stockholm effect. Where someone becomes grateful to and identifies with their captor.

    It’s fucked up, but it’s hard once it slides into abuse to break out of it.

    Also bunnygirl is right. You’re on the “safe and can be trusted list.” If she ever gets to the point where she can leave, you are one person she might come talk to. Just keep building this bridge with her and maybe it will have some effect later.

    And Hoosiertoo, i’m totally with you on the verbally/emotionally abusive wife/girlfriend thing. It makes me cringe to watch a woman emasculate a man. The screwed up part is often women like that have been hurt before and now they’re on constant alert. But that man isn’t the one who hurt them, and he shouldn’t be humiliated for what some other man did.

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