Photo Courtesy of the Author
Kristina Holstad’s debut novel, When My Ship Comes In, tells the true story of a young girl in the Midwest navigating a home of, among other things, abuse, death, and racehorses. It’s a wild, entirely unpredictable story of overcoming great physical and emotional obstacles through sheer strength of spirit. When My Ship Comes In offers a raw, heartbreaking, sometimes hilarious account of what it really means to struggle with mental health, and explores dealing with suicide, both firsthand and as a witness of someone else’s, with an unfettered, at times unsettlingly authentic approach.
Today, we’re pleased to offer a BlackBook exclusive excerpt from Holstad’s memoir, a glimpse into the sharply twisting story contained within the pages of the novel.
“This chapter was special to me because it summed up so many of the elements of my childhood in one story. I had a lot of excitement and adventure, but it always seemed to be tinged with anxiety and fear,” she explained to us. “My mother was an amazing woman and I loved her fiercely, but at the same time I was exasperated by her choices and actions. This chapter captured a lot of those paradoxes for me.”
In the following excerpt, an 8-year-old girl goes to a waterpark, but also watches her mother get physically abused, helps an Arkansas marijuana ring assemble its products, and escape danger in a midnight getaway. Without further ado: here’s an excerpt from When My Ship Comes In:
Arkansas in the summer is sweltering. I had never experienced heat like that before. But I didn’t care. We were on a family vacation. At least that’s what Mart called it. I had never been on a family vacation before, but my friends had. They were always coming back from school vacations talking about Disney World, the Bahamas, and cruises. I didn’t know much about those places. This trip made me feel like we had a real family and that we were normal because that’s what normal families did. Tim told me we weren’t normal because our dad killed himself last fall but I wasn’t going to think about that. We were going on a vacation.
We had piled into Mart’s new hatchback car the night before and Mart drove through the night while we slept. We folded the back seat down and laid our blankets and pillows out to make a bed. It was a huge adventure and even Tim started to warm up to the idea. Wally was only three so he didn’t care about anything except sucking his two fingers and his ratty blanket. Mart played the Bee Gees 8 track tape on her new car stereo and sang along all the way until we eventually fell asleep. She had the most beautiful voice so it was like a lullaby. A feeling of happiness washed over me. We were going to be alright, I just knew it. Mart was happy now and we were safe. We had a new car and were on a family vacation. Leny wasn’t around to hurt us anymore. And we had money.
When we arrived in Arkansas Tim and I were surprised when Mart pulled the hatchback into a driveway in a small neighborhood.
“This isn’t the Holiday Inn.” Tim commented in a sarcastic tone.
“Oh, I know honey. There has been a change of plans. We are going to visit a friend of mine. His name is Bruce. You will really like him.” Mart’s singsong voice was an attempt to make it seem like everything was normal and people visited friends on family vacations all the time. Tim and I glanced at each other but didn’t say anything. We didn’t need to.
“Let’s go in and say good morning,” chirped Mart. Reluctantly we exited the car and slowly walked up the driveway. I felt self-conscious in my shabby nightgown as I approached this stranger’s house. Where were we? The house was small and white with dead bushes and no garage. The grass needed to be cut. I didn’t see any flowers. It was what you might call ‘run down’. I knew what this meant because I had heard my neighbors at home whispering things like this about our house. I was across the street at April Fenn’s house recently and I overheard her mom talking to her friend about me in a hushed tone.
“That little girl is Tina Holstad. She lives across the street in that run down house. But you can’t really be surprised that no one is taking care of the house. The mother is never home and the father committed suicide last year.” The last part was always spoken softly as the one adult leaned in to the other and cupped her hands around her mouth. I pretended not to hear even though the anger was rising up in my throat. They would go on and on about my house, my dad’s suicide (I also knew what that meant now) and my mom and her boyfriends.
As we approached the front door a man emerged. He was tall with long hair and a beard. He wore cutoff jeans and no shirt or socks. I thought he could use a shower and a haircut, but I didn’t say anything. Lately I had been getting into arguments with Mart about what she called ‘differences of opinions’. She and I disagreed on many things.
“Bommie, she would say, “ just because you are smart doesn’t mean you are always right. You are right most of the time, but don’t be so bossy.”
“Mart, I don’t think you should date that man. I think he’s a loser. Does he have a job?” I would often say when she brought a man home to meet us. It was usually how the conversation began after she asked me what I thought. The problem was in the end I was always right. I couldn’t talk about it with anyone because no one understood. None of my friends had single moms who were young and beautiful. All of their moms were married to their dads and were old and fat. They also didn’t ride horses and stay out late drinking and play the guitar and sing Beatles songs like Mart did. Tim was the only one who understood but he didn’t want to talk much anymore. I always tried to cheer him up with stories of how great things were going to be now but it didn’t work. It was like he knew something that I didn’t and he would tell me. He just went to his room to be alone.
“This is Bruce. Say hi, kids.”
“Hello,” Tim and I murmured. Wally had wandered off so Tim quickly ran to fetch him so as to get away from the need for any further conversation with Bruce.
“Less go inside,’ he said as he opened the tattered screen door. We followed him inside. I thought about saying, “aren’t you supposed to hold the door open for ladies?” Grandpa Walt always told Tim to do that for me. But I knew Mart would get mad and I was still holding out hope for this family vacation. The front door opened to the living room. There was no air conditioning so it was hot in the house. The only relief appeared to be a box fan in the corner of the room. It was chugging along the best it could considering one side of it was held together with duct tape. I felt a kinship with that sad fan. There was a mattress on the floor and a low table next to it. Other than that the room was empty. We entered the kitchen next. Bruce put a box of Cheerios and a jug of milk on the table. I looked around at the dirty yellow linoleum and was silently thankful that I didn’t see any bugs. There was an old, worn formica table complete with 2 matching chairs, each of which looked to be missing a leg and some screws.
“Feed yourselves. I need to show your mom something in the bedroom.” With that they left. Tim and Wally had come in by then so I told them it was time for breakfast. I searched the kitchen and found some bowls and spoons. They looked dirty so I found some soap and washed them, just to be safe. I proceeded to pour us all some cereal. I knew that Bruce thought I was stupid because I was only eight years old, but he was wrong. I knew exactly what he was going to show my mom in the bedroom, his penis. He wanted to have sex with her. That’s what all the boyfriends wanted from Mart. But I am pretty sure he didn’t know I knew. I didn’t say anything to my brothers, I just fed them breakfast. As we sat in the kitchen and chatted I heard men’s voices coming from somewhere in the house. Tim and I exchanged a look.
“I will go investigate. You stay here with Wally.” Tim nodded in agreement. I tiptoed through the living room and down the small hallway. There were three doors, all closed. There was no way I was going to knock on or open any of them for fear of walking in on Mart and Bruce, so I pressed my ear against the first door to eavesdrop on the conversation. I established that there were two men in the room. I leaned a little harder because I couldn’t quite hear what they were saying, but as I pressed against the door it opened. I stumbled into a small bedroom complete with some sleeping bags and a bunch of boxes and bags full of clothes and junk. The two men looked at me standing there in my nightgown and one of them said, “Well what do we have here?”
I backed away nervously as I said, “Hi, my name is Kristina. I am here visiting with my mom and my brothers. Sorry to interrupt. I was looking for the bathroom.” They both laughed.
“Well I am Tommy, and this here’s Joe.” He pointed an elbow at Joe as he took a swig from a beer can. “Guess we’s roommates now, eh girl?”
“Not really. I am just visiting. We aren’t going to live here.” A feeling of fear was forming in the pit of my stomach. I had learned to trust this feeling as it had warned me of trouble ahead many times. What were we doing here? Was Mart trying this out under the guise of family vacation but really planning to move here so we could live with some hippie strangers and no furniture? We lived outside of Chicago – where the heck had she found this guy in Arkansas? I started to worry intensely because I really had no idea what Mart was thinking – I never did.
“Well we been hearing that y’alls moving in. You a pretty little thing. You can sleep in here with us. How’s that sound?” Tommy and Joe howled with laughter at my horrified expression. “I’m just messin’ with ya, lil girl. I’m sure you and your brothers will be just fine sleeping out in the livin’ room. Didn’t mean to scare ya.”
“I gotta go,” I mumbled as I backed out of the room.
Later that day Mart and Bruce took us to a waterslide. I had never even heard of one before. It turned out to be one of the most fun days we had that summer. Even Tim was hooked. We ran up those stairs so many times I lost count. The water was cold and the day was roasting and sunny – over 100 degrees. It never got that warm back in New Lenox. When we took breaks we bought peach sodas out of the vending machine and we each got our own. “No sharing on vacation,” Mart said. It was delicious and made me feel so fancy because with Leny we never got to have our own soda. Even contemplating my own soda made my cheek sting with the memory of Leny slapping me hard across the face when I complained about sharing with Tim. The best part of the waterslide was at the very end when the force of the water thrust you into the pool. I would take a big breath and then plunge to the bottom of the pool. All of a sudden water filled my ears and everything was quiet. In that instant I had to focus on getting to the surface, and all of my worries evaporated. Sometimes in that moment I thought about how easy it would be just to breathe in and fill my lungs with water and just stay in the quiet forever.
The days passed in a similar manner. We would either go to the waterslide or the beach at a nearby lake during the day, then Mart and Bruce would go out at night and we would stay home, usually with Tommy and Joe. They had grown on me. I mean after you live with people for days or weeks, you get to know them. Tommy had his own business and Joe was his helper. Tommy would go meet a guy named Rocky every Monday and pick up a big plastic bag full of plants. They looked like a combination of moss that grew on the tree next to the creek in our backyard and dandelions without the yellow heads. I always asked if I could come along but Tommy said no, he needed me to stay and keep an eye on Joe. I knew that was an important job because Joe didn’t seem too smart. Joe and I would go to Kmart on some of the Mondays to buy ziploc bags, waxed paper, tissue paper, and sometimes tools like exacto knives or razor blades. Those lasted a while so you didn’t need to buy them every week. When Tommy returned Joe and I would cover the table with waxed paper. Then we would take the plants (well they called it pot) out of the bag and look through it to remove any twigs or bugs or things like that. They told me I was good at that part because my hands were small. Once it was cleaned Tommy would take a handful or so and make a little pile. Then he’d say, “Tina, how many piles can you make that are exactly the same size as mine?”
The first time he said that I responded by saying, “None. It would be impossible for my piles to be exactly the same as yours without having a scale to measure them. They may look the same but they wouldn’t be exact.” Tommy looked at me with a puzzled expression and retorted,” Girl, who tole you that? Just make me some piles same size as mine. Sometimes I don’t know what you talkin’ bout. And make sure ole Joe doesn’t pocket any for hisself,” he smiled at me and winked while he was laughing. I smiled back and laughed too.
“OK, deal. I will make piles that look just like yours,” I replied. And I went to work.
We made the piles and packaged them up in the ziplocks. We reserved the best piles for ourselves. Later in the evenings we would take our piles out and sprinkle some of them into small squares of tissue paper. Then we’d roll the paper into a little tube which was basically a homemade cigarette. Tommy and Joe called them joints. You had to lick the paper at the end to make it sticky and then glue it to itself so it didn’t unroll. Tommy and Joe would smoke the joints while Tim and I read stories to Wally and cuddled him. Sometimes I did the reading by myself because Tim went off to read his own books. Tommy and Joe told me I could smoke some too but I didn’t. I thought that might lead to trouble. Besides, I was too young to smoke. Eventually Tim, Wally and I would fall asleep on the living room mattress. It was like camping I guessed because we slept on the floor, but better because we didn’t have to go to the bathroom outside.
On Tuesdays we had to handle distribution. The phone rang constantly and people were always stopping by to see us. It never really interfered with the waterslide routine because none of the people called or stopped over until mid-afternoon and we were already back by then for Wally’s nap. Sometimes when Tommy was avoiding someone he would have me answer the door and collect the money. “No one’s gonna give a lil girl the shakedown,” he said. I didn’t mind because when I did a special job like that I got an extra fifty cents. I had already made over $8 on this trip! I was saving it so I could be rich someday. Mart told me I would need money for college or for all of the nice things I always was begging her to buy.
“Save your money, Bommie. You will need it until your ship comes in.”
I still hadn’t had the chance to tell her about the money I was making, but it could wait. I knew her mind was on other things. Mart and Bruce argued a lot. I could hear them fighting late at night when they were in Bruce’s room and everyone else was asleep. I was usually awake, lying on the mattress in the living room, either reading or thinking about how I could have a business like Tommy’s. I had tried something similar with popsicles but I couldn’t get enough customers before they melted. Tommy’s customers came to him looking for the pot. It seemed like more of a sure thing than popsicles. I was laying there one night late in the summer when Mart ran into the living room crying. Her nose was bleeding.
“Martie, what’s wrong?” I jumped up to hug her and wipe the blood away with my sleeve.
“Bruce is an asshole. We are leaving.”
“Right now? It’s night time.”
“That’s ok, Bommie. We can do this. Gather up the boys and your stuff. I want to get out of here before he gets out of the shower. Hurry!” she glanced around, nervously.
“OK. I’ll get the stuff. You get yours and fold the seats down in the car,” I whispered as I jumped up and got started. We didn’t have that much stuff and what we did have was still in suitcases that we used as dressers so it was a quick job.
“Are you sure you don’t want to say goodbye?” I asked.
“No! He told me don’t even think about leaving or he will hurt you kids!” she whimpered. I didn’t answer, I just went to into crisis mode. One thing I knew for sure was that angry adults are unpredictable and scary. We had to get out and fast. I threw our little suitcases in the car. Then I came back in, shook Tim awake and said, “We need to leave now. Bruce has gone crazy. Get in the car.”
Tim nodded and was up and out in one second. I grabbed Wally and tried not to wake him, but once I heard the shower water turn off I didn’t hesitate. Wally jostled in my arms and woke, but miraculously didn’t make a sound. I grabbed his blankie, took one last look around and ran for the car. We all hunkered down in the backseat and as we drove away I could hear him screaming, “Martha, you bitch! Get back here!”
We sped away like a scene from Rockford Files. It was scary and fun at the same
time. My heart was beating so fast I thought I would have a heart attack.
“Do you think he will follow us?” I asked.
“Nope. His car is broken so he can’t. That’s why he was mad. He wanted me to give him $5,000 for a new car and I wouldn’t.”
“Good for you! $5,000 is a lot of money and I am sure we need it for something else. I’m glad you didn’t give it to him.” Thank goodness, I thought to myself as I glanced over at Tim and he rolled his eyes at me. I nodded in silent agreement. With a sense of relief and exhaustion I laid down on our makeshift car/bed and began to doze off. I thought about my business ideas, my sweet baby brother and getting away from scary Bruce. I was a little sad that I didn’t get to say goodbye to Tommy and Joe, especially Tommy, but I was sure they wouldn’t miss us too much. As we drove along the dark deserted back roads of Arkansas, Mart hummed softly. I gazed up through the sunroof and watched the stars twinkle. I listened to Mart and the soft snoring sound that Wally made as he slept with his two fingers in his mouth. Everything was going to be OK. We were going home now and we wouldn’t be moving to Arkansas. Mart had made the right choice on leaving Bruce. We were safe was my final thought as I drifted off to sleep.
When I woke the next morning to bright sunshine, I looked around and was confused when I saw our car parked in Bruce’s driveway. I sighed and closed my eyes for a few seconds. The feeling of anger and rage that I felt at that moment consumed me. I wanted to scream at the top of my lungs but instead I crawled over my brothers to get out of the car and ran into the house. Mart and Bruce were in the kitchen talking. He was holding a check.
“What are you doing? Why are we back here?” I screamed at her. “He only wants your money! He threatened to hurt us! He hurt you! Haven’t you had enough? What is wrong with you?” I was crying now. This could not be happening. I felt a hand on my leg and turned around to see little Wally standing there.
“Tina, I hungry,” he said.
“Go take care of him and mind your own fucking business you little shit! You ain’t in charge here. I am.” Bruce shouted at me in his half-drunk stipor. He gave me a cold stare that enhanced his point. I turned, took Wally in my arms, and left the kitchen. I was smart enough to know that he was stronger than me. Now we just needed to survive.
After that night things were strained for everyone. Bruce and I had an understanding that we hated each other. Tim and Wally stayed outside most of the time so they could be out of Bruce’s path. Mart and Bruce continued to fight. Bruce showed up with a brand new car. Even though Mart had funded the new car purchase, it was the last straw. I overheard the argument that night as I eavesdropped on them through the bathroom vent.
“Martha, you and your lazy kids been freeloadin’ off me for long enough. Hell that gil ‘o your probly been stealin’ weed to keep for herself and sell. Regular delinquent, that one. Time you started payin’ rent. ‘Sides, I need money,” he slurred. I could tell they had been drinking by the pile of beer cans on the floor in the kitchen. Plus I had been ordered, “Tina, get me a beer. NOW,” about 20 times.
“You invited me here to visit to see if I liked it, for a vacation, not to pay rent,” she said in a quiet voice.
“Yeah well I didn’t realize that the lot of ya was a whiny bunch a spoiled know it alls!” His voice was beginning to escalate.
“Well I guess you are out of luck because I don’t have anymore money!” she choked out through a sob.
“Oh, honey, I think you do. I seems to recall you tellin’ me ‘bout that life insurance settlement from yur dead husband. Member that?” There was no response except the sound of muffled sobs.
“Yeah, that’s what I thought. Tomorrow you and me’s makin’ a trip to the bank. That’s what we gone do. Wouldn’t want nothin’ to happen to those kids now do ya?”
I slipped quietly down off of the bathroom sink where I had been standing to reach the vent. I tiptoed out to the living room and explained what I had heard to Tim.
“I think we need to get out of here tonight, before he forces her to go get money,” I whispered.
Tim nodded and replied, “we have no other option. We have to talk to mom. Besides, I am sick of it here, aren’t you?”
“Yes I am. I hate Bruce. I was sick of it the day we arrived! But how are we going to talk to her now?”
Then all of a sudden we heard the bedroom door open and the sound of Mart’s small footsteps padding into the bathroom. We looked at each other with relief.
“You start getting our stuff and Wall in the car. I’ll get Mart,” I whispered quickly.
Tim nodded and I snuck off to wait outside the bathroom door. Mart appeared a couple seconds later. Before she made a sound I put my finger to my lips, grabbed her hand and pulled her into the living room.
“I heard what he said. We need to get out of here for good before tomorrow. You know that right?” I pleaded.
“I know,” she whispered as tears welled up in her eyes.
“It’s OK, Martie, don’t cry. Tim and I will help.”
“I’m sorry, Bommie. He said he would take care of you kids,” she whimpered.
“We don’t need him. We can take care of ourselves,” I said in my happiest cheerleader voice. “Now here’s the plan. Tim and I will get everything in the car. You go back in there and wait until he’s asleep or passed out. Then make a run for the car and we’ll get the hell outa here!”
She hugged me tight. “OK, Bommie, you’re right. Be quiet and careful.”
“YOU be careful,” I replied as I squeezed her back. She turned and tiptoed back into the bedroom.
Tim and I loaded everything in the hatchback, closed the doors as quietly as you can close a car door and waited for what seemed like hours. We were whispering about how lucky it was that Tommy and Joe weren’t home that night to witness our second escape when Mart appeared out of the darkness. It took all of my self control not to scream as she had startled me. I guess we were all a little nervous. Mart slid into the driver’s seat and tossed her sandals on the passenger seat.
“Here we go,” she whispered, “and this time we won’t be back.” Tim and I looked at each other thinking, “we better not be back,” as Mart backed the car out of the driveway with the lights off. She drove with the lights off until we reached the two lane highway, and then we sped off into the night and never looked back. Well, almost never.