Category Archives: Monroe County

Opal

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1960

Opal was doing as she always did during the early hours of Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday. She was walking up and down the rows of uneven headstones in Piney Cemetery. From time to time she’d encounter a snake slithering about, but she never got startled when one got under her feet. Most creatures, animal and human alike, seldom bother you if you allow them to do whatever it is they do.

She and her husband of forty years lived in a small house off Rich Road, near where it intersected with Mopac Road and 39. The roof was tin and most of the sides of the house were covered in tar paper disguised as bricks. Opal kept a line of rose bushes across the back of the house. She insisted that Earl let them grow wild, a demand that often caused Opal to laugh as she heard her husband cursing at the thorns as he got too close. She often reminded him that her garden’s size more than compensated for the hassle of dealing with the roses.

After her husband Earl retired from police work, they moved from Little Rock back to Monroe County. They got the place Earl’s brother Frank inherited from their eccentric parents. Frank took off for Mississippi when he found out Earl and Opal wanted the old place. He claimed it was because the mosquitoes were so bad here. “Like birds,” Frank would say, over and over. It made little sense, either, because the mosquitoes on that side of the Mississippi were worse. Earl opined that perhaps the generous availability of good barbeque and moonshine might have contributed to his brother’s enthusiasm for a move. Frank liked to associate with people who might otherwise catch his brother’s attention. He loved saying things like, “Bad apples still make good wine.”

Earl had donated most of the extra land around the house for the farmers who owned property nearby. Not only did it save him having to pretend to keep it presentable, but the farmer would drop by and give him beans or corn from another crop in repayment. When the crops were in full bloom, their house would be rimmed by cotton or beans. Earl swore he’d never farm, unlike many of his family. Earl didn’t ask for signatures or handshakes; he expected people to honor their word.

As for the Rich community of Monroe County, it was mostly a place of good souls. There were a couple of mean drunks and a pair of men who enjoying hitting their wives. Most of the angry drunks learned their lesson a few years ago while Opal lived in Little Rock. Melvina Mull came home one night after church to find her husband sitting on the porch with a shotgun and drinking whiskey. Though the details are still argued about, the little community woke up Thursday morning to the news that Melvina had enough beatings and opted to put an ax in the forehead of her husband. She was arrested and charged. The trial was held a week later. The jury acquitted her after 2 minutes of deliberation. Judge Bryant just shook his head and said, “Justice is swift in these parts.” The judge did take a moment and recommend that Melvina might reconsider getting remarried if the urge to do so arose.

Many people in the Rich community lived such private lives that they didn’t see how oddly they often behaved. As for loyal neighbors to be counted on, all of them were fiercely willing to lend a hand to anyone, anytime. The austere farm life often demanded precisely that. Many of the locals had no indoor bathrooms. Almost all used wood heat and left their screened-in windows open day and night.

Away from the prying eyes of her infernal husband, Opal could partake of a bit of dry snuff. She could spit wherever she wanted to that way. Her neighbors snickered behind her back. The idea of walking sounded bonkers to everyone she knew, especially once she turned sixty. Opal walked to Brinkley more than once, which was eleven miles. Monroe was closer, but the mercantile wasn’t always open. Opal was in great shape despite her taste for both snuff and alcohol. She kept a big garden and built chicken coops or a storm shelter for anyone who needed one. While living in Little Rock, she had challenged several men to arm wrestling. All but one left with a new outlook on feminine toughness.

She skipped her walk on Wednesdays because her Wednesday night gospel duties included providing at least one dish and one dessert. She took great pride in preparing for the church meals, much to the chagrin of her husband, Earl. He’d sit on the porch and complain about starving away to skin and bones. As far as Opal could tell, it would take a grand bout of going without a bite to eat to starve him out. Anyway, Earl thought she’d given up her snuff. He hadn’t found the supply of strawberry liquor, either. Opal kept it in a bleach jug, one she’d washed until it had no bleach smell. She carefully drank a cup of it each night after supper. That liquor had saved her marriage frequently. It also helped her to sleep during the nightly ritual of Earl snoring so loudly that even the dogs would howl for a few minutes. The mutts weren’t hers, though. They belonged to that no-account neighbor about a half-mile down the road. They spent more time under her porch and in the shade at her house than they ever did at Cousin Spendly’s tin-roofed house. Everyone called him Cousin, which was odd because as far as she could tell, no one much claimed to be his kin.

Some mornings, Opal would see Old Lady Elvertie riding her three-wheeled contraption down the road, her long skirt making it look like she was moving along by magic. Opal had encountered a drunk or two sleeping it off in the cemetery over the years. They’d mostly been coming back from Monroe or Blackton after drinking too much. Ever since the railroad spur from the lumber mill had been closed, the drunks were becoming less frequent. The spur line was falling out of repair; in some places, bushes and grass were growing wild. Sometimes a tractor would go by a little too fast, creating a dust storm that left nonsense in her teeth for an hour after it had passed. Opal would make a note of it was and make sure to get on the party line and mention it, so word would get out that someone’s husband was speeding and causing a commotion.

After so many years of marriage, Earl didn’t require much maintenance. He’d drink at least 6 cups of coffee and eat toast. Sometimes he’d eat biscuits from the day before. He’d eat bacon, eggs, and sausage too, like any good Southerner, but he preferred to wait until lunch to un-notch his belt and stuff himself senseless. Opal would always make a tin of biscuits.

Last night’s church service had been particularly lively. Reverend Samuel pounded the pulpit as if he were calling Satan himself to come to have a word with him. The congregation had been worked to a frenzy, resulting in them drinking a record number of glasses of iced tea after the service.

Most Wednesday night services in the summer were sparsely attended due to the crops but last night was a surprise. Even Jasper, the area’s only known atheist, showed up at the service. He told everyone that it was his job to keep the pastor honest. Everyone loved Jasper and his dry sense of humor. Jasper also had almost all of the New Testament of the King James Bible memorized, and on a couple of occasions had been used as a Bible when one wasn’t available. Jasper’s wife Emelda was a devout Methodist, which was strange, as she’s been attending the Baptist Church around the bend for twenty years. “I’m Methodist,” she’d say, almost without thinking. She was just about the most Baptist Methodist anyone could ever meet.

As Opal neared the eastern end of the cemetery, she shielded her eyes against the sun, which had been up for about forty-five minutes. With no warning, she fell into an open grave without realizing she was approaching a hole in the ground. There was no mound of dirt piled carelessly to one side to draw attention. Her straw hat tumbled to the side while she tumbled headfirst into the freshly dug grave.

On the way down, she thought it would be the death of her. As she braced herself to hit the soil on the bottom of the pit, she found herself instead falling on top of a body.

The person under her didn’t jump or push away, which she found to be strange. The hairs on the back of her neck stood up like icicles as she realized that the person under her was dead.

Being practical, Opal stood up in the grave. Opal had seen many bodies during her husband’s career. Truth be told, she was less skittish about it than he was. Her head was still a foot under the rim of soil. Most graves weren’t dug six feet under. This one seemed to be deeper. Since the person was dead, it wasn’t going to do her any harm. Not unless she couldn’t get herself out of the grave. Likely, no one would visit the back of the cemetery for a full day. Shouting like she’d chopped a finger off wouldn’t attract anyone’s attention either unless someone was going by slowly. No one on a tractor would be able to hear her. She resisted the urge to look down at her companion in the grave.

She stood on top of the body and jumped with as much force as she could muster. Her arms cleared the edge of the grave, and she pulled and scratched at the grass to get leverage and crawl out. Just as she was beginning to slide back down in the grave, a pair of hands grabbed hers. Opal screamed like a squirrel had jumped from her drawer of unmentionables.

She felt herself being dragged from the grave. She fell face-first in the grass and then rolled over to see who had helped her out of the grave. The sun was behind her rescuer, and all she could see was a blinding silhouette without much form.

“Mrs. Opal, what are you doing in the bottom of a grave?” Pastor Samuel asked. His voice was unmistakable. For a pastor, his voice sounded like that of someone who’d spent a lifetime in the coal mines. To the horror of more than one of his church members, the Pastor loved smoking. He preached many sermons about the benefits of the vice. Opal wouldn’t be surprised if Lucky Strikes didn’t pay to have their logo placed on the steeple of the church.

“I ain’t practicing, if that’s what you’re getting at, Reverend.” Opal continued to lay in the grass, shielding her eyes.

“I came by to put flowers on Ivey George’s grave for his wife. She was feeling poorly last night and asked me for the favor. I’m on my way to Henderson’s Corner to see Emma Lou.” As Pastor Samuel talked, he leaned down to offer a hand to Opal. She grabbed his hand and yanked herself up much more quickly than the Reverend expected. For a moment, he wondered if he might topple over into the grave.

“I’m surprised you didn’t hear my old Ford as I pulled in over there,” the Reverend said as he waved vaguely toward the entrance marked by an overhead arch. “I saw you dive into the hole just as I pulled in.”

As Opal looked over toward the Reverend’s ugly old car, she stopped. Pastor Samuel noticed that her eyes went a little wide and looked around too. “I didn’t dive in there…” she started to say, her voice trailing off. Opal curiously looked around the grave and wondered where all the excavated dirt from the hole went.

On the edge of the road, Old Lady Elvertie stood, both feet planted on either side of her three-wheel bicycle. She had her hand over her mouth and looked like she was in shock.

Opal waved toward her.  The Reverend took a couple of steps toward her to give her a shout to let her know that all was well.

No sooner than he had moved toward her that Old Lady Elvertie jumped up on her pedals and began to madly push up and down on them. She was fleeing the scene like she’d seen a familiar ghost.

Opal and the Reverend laughed as they watched her scramble away from them. They stood by the grave trying to decipher where all the dirt from the grave had gone.

“It just beats all,” the Reverend decided. Opal declined the Reverend’s offer to drive her back to the house as he walked back to his ugly Ford to get the flowers.

Thirty minutes later, Opal walked back up the dirt and gravel driveway in front of her house. It didn’t occur to her that she hadn’t mentioned the dead body in the grave to Reverend Samuel. It seemed to be relevant now that it crossed her mind again, especially since he hadn’t mentioned one, either.

Earl was waiting, his legs hanging off the closest end of the wooden plank porch. Two of Cousin Spendly’s mutts were underneath him, beneath the porch, both lazily watching Opal approach.

“Did you have a commotion, Opal?” Earl was grinning and full of himself.

“Whatever on Earth do you mean? Have you gone soft in the head?” Opal was a little sore from doing gymnastics into the boneyard.

“Mildred called in a tizzy. She said Old Lady Elvertie stopped in at her house, babbling about seeing Pastor Samuel bring someone back from the dead, straight from the grave. Mildred couldn’t get much sense out of her. She said Old Lady Elvertie drank a hot cup of coffee in one swallow and took off again.” For Earl, that was a speech.

“Like all rumors, part of that’s true. I ain’t dead yet, but the Reverend did yank me out of a peculiar grave. And there was a dead body in it.” Opal was flustered. Earl was going to pick and poke at her for forgetting to mention that the grave had a body in it.

At the mention of the dead body, Earl’s right eyebrow shot up like a startled bird. Opal could see ten years of wrinkles disappear from her husband’s face. His day would be filled with questions as his old skills and days investigating people doing stupid things came flooding back.

Expecting Earl’s attempt at humor, Opal scolded him. “Yes, I know graves are supposed to have bodies in them!”

“I’ll give Sheriff Bryant a call, if Mildred will get off the line. He might be interested in a body.” Earl stood up and started stamping his feet. The edge of the porch had put the back of his legs to sleep. His nimble mind was already racing though.

 

*

Sheriff Bryant stood near the grave that Opal discovered earlier. As always, he was dressed in overalls and a cowboy hat. His star was pinned on the shoulder of his overalls. He didn’t wear a uniform. “I’m one of y’all,” he was fond of saying. If he carried a gun, it was often shoved into one of his pockets as an afterthought.  Earl stood next to him, shaking his head in disbelief. “Where did the dirt go?” had been uttered at least a dozen times. The dirt’s disappearance seemed more perplexing than the body at the bottom of the grave.

“I called Deputy Win to bring a ladder and his sons over here. There’s no use in one of us jumping down there and getting stuck until they get here.” Sheriff Bryant never hurried. His dad was the same way. People joked that the old Sheriff Bryant took a week just to get to his own retirement and would be late arriving at his own death.

*

I’m seventy years old now. I can’t believe sixty years have passed since Opal found the unidentified body of a woman in that grave. Her husband Earl got deputized to investigate the alleged murders. After he decided that Pastor Samuel had killed the woman, the quiet community almost erupted in a civil war. Although I was just ten when it happened, I can still smell Opal’s roses blooming behind her house, even though those roses were plowed under in 1993 when the farmer who owned the land grew tired of renting the house to a series of poor occupants.

That time and place has vanished, but not a day passes that I don’t wish I could go back and relive 1960 in Rich. I could have saved Opal and her retired husband from the disruption in their lives.

If you’ll give me a few minutes to consider how I can tell this story and do it justice, I’ll collect my thoughts and get back to you…

I’ll leave with a picture I have of Opal and Earl. I can look at this picture and feel the excitement for life that Opal radiated. She wasn’t my kin, but she was my kind of person. I’d love to live in her world again. I’d trade all the money I’ve made to walk in that world and sit on her porch.

Etch A Surprise

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Noted Etch-A-Sketch artist Beth (a notorious yet talented cousin) conspired with my other favorite cousin Lynette, aka ‘Operative Cheetah.’ Beth, using Lynette’s meticulous input, created and designed a permanent Etch-A-Sketch of one of my favorite places in the world: the plank porch at my grandparents’ house on the hill in Rich, a tiny place located in Monroe County. She then installed it in a shadow box stolen from the attic of a noted philanthropist who curated at the Smithsonian. Somehow, despite the current apocalypse, it arrived at my house without damage.

For those who didn’t know that Etch-A-Sketch artists exist – or that they can be rendered permanent by those with the knowledge to do so. Beth’s Etch A Sketch Facebook Page

can before trash

Although unintentional, Beth provided my cat Güino with an immediate resting place. He pawed and clawed until he separated the 14 meters of wrap and created a nesting spot for himself.

cat after trash

This picture is of Güino later, after I pushed trash in around him to determine how long his planned residency in the box might be.

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This was one of the apologetic notes written on the packing box: “I only had gift tape and this is the apocalypse.”

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Just Enough Truth To This

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It was a hot Saturday late afternoon. Though the clouds were piled high in the west, no one actually expected the sky to bless us with any rain. That part of the state hadn’t received any real rain in over ten days. Uncle Charles went through the screendoor and outside a few minutes ago. As he left, he shouted, “Get your behind moving,” already whistling. He taught me to whistle, too, and I knew I’d be mimicking him in a few minutes. He had also taught me how to whistle while inhaling, a valuable trait, albeit annoying to anyone who disliked whistling. “Assholes” was the endearing name Uncle Charles had for people who disagreed with him, especially if he was whistling or enjoying a bit of humor.

I was busily shoving as many homemade pickles in my mouth as I could, chewing like a man who just left a hunger strike. My Aunt Margie didn’t think much of her efforts at pickle-making. She couldn’t have been more wrong, though. On more than one occasion, I had devoured an entire jar without any assistance. Unlike most people, I accidentally discovered that I liked the pickles most people found to be less flavorful, especially if they were bitter.

I poured myself a huge glass of Coke from the 2-quart bottle as I struggled to get the pickles all consumed.

I went outside as quickly as possible to conserve as much of the cool air as possible. Grandma didn’t cotton to people dilly-dallying at the door in the summer. She was ecstatic for company to come to visit. She would, however, let anyone who took too long going in or out know that the air conditioning wasn’t free. In the South, it was common to hear shouts of “Get in or out!” or “Close the door!” fifty times a day. For those without air conditioning, the same shout was offered in response to the endless squadrons of mosquitoes circling every living creature.

Grandma didn’t have any foolishness such as chairs on her long front porch. Grandma didn’t understand why someone would sit outside in the heat if air conditioning was available. There was a porch swing on the opposite end of the porch, and it invitingly faced the field adjacent to her old house. You could sit on the edge of the porch, too, or on the creosote-soaked steps made from railroad ties. I sometimes forget how artfully so many men practiced the art of crouching and leaning.

Uncle Charles was leaning against the far end of the porch, near the porch swing. He was drinking a glass of water, a fact that seemed strange to me, given that Grandma kept a well-stocked supply of Coke in the house.

He and my Uncle Harry were arguing about the weather. It was a free hobby, so they tended to participate as if their livelihoods depended on it. Neither were farmers, so it seemed a bit odd to me that the matter managed to lasso so much of their attention.

Uncle Charles took my glass of Coke for a second as I clambered up onto the swing. He handed it back when I was situated. I nodded and said, “Thanks.” He winked at me and then clicked the side of his mouth to let me know it was okay. He lit a cigarette and handed it to me. Just as Uncle Harry was about to protest, Uncle Charles reached back over and took the cigarette from me. “You’re too old to smoke. And you don’t want to sound like your Aunt Helen.” He winked again.

As the yellow jackets flew by, we sweated. In the distance, loud cracks of thunder would occasionally echo, causing the wall of unseen insects to momentarily suspend their buzzing.

I finished my Coke after fifteen minutes. I remained on the swing, watching the wind blow against the bean plants. Both Uncle Charles and Harry sat on the edge of the porch with their backs turned to me. Uncle Charles had lit at least four more cigarettes. Their conversation had turned to baseball at some point, a subject I found to be as interesting as licking a hot stove.

Even though the wind had picked up speed, I hadn’t noticed that the sky had dimmed considerably. As Uncle Charles flicked his cigarette to knock loose the ashes on the tip, a massive lightning bolt struck the ground about fifty yards away, near the small board bridge along Clark Road. The clap of thunder that normally follows after a delay boomed immediately. We could all see where the lightning hit the field. All of us were seeing the afterglow of lightning in our eyes.

“Holy crap!” shouted Uncle Harry as he jumped down off the edge of the porch.

Behind us, someone threw open the front door and shouted, “Get your butts inside. Yes, Nannie, I’ll unplug the television!” The first part of Aunt Helen’s shout was for us. The second was for Grandma, who believed that unplugging everything prevented lightning from hitting. I always looked up at the tall television antennae wired to the side of the house when she mentioned it.

Uncle Harry quickly walked around the edge of the porch, up the railroad-tie steps, and inside the house. He worked outside a lot. Being around lightning didn’t inspire him to be closer to nature.

“Are you coming or what?” shouted Aunt Helen to Uncle Charles.

“Naw, we’ll come inside in a bit.” Uncle Charles jumped off the porch and onto the grass below. “Come on,” he said, turning to me. Even though I was short, fat, and barefoot, I ran and jumped off the porch and onto the ground. Such delights are long behind me. More than most things, the absence of such abandon ails my soul.

Uncle Charles removed his shoes and tossed them onto the planks of the porch. “It’s going to rain,” he said and laughed. He was wearing black socks. As a lover of all things barefoot, socks seemed ridiculous. Black socks made less sense to me than keeping a snake in the underwear drawer.

A few random pops sounded from the galvanized tin roof. They came more quickly. The air temperature dropped several degrees. Then came the deluge. The drops were so heavy that they pounded against us. Uncle Charles walked the few feet over to the edge of the bean field and stood in the perimeter of dirt there. The dirt quickly became soaked and muddy. I followed him. The mud between my toes was a sublime pleasure.

As Uncle Charles stood next to the bean field with me, we both quietly watched as the edge of the rainstorm enveloped us, the adjacent road, then race away. The rain pummeled the metal roof behind us and everything in its path.

Uncle Charles put his hand on my left shoulder and smiled.

I witnessed the possibility of a life filled with small joys in the wrinkles of his face.

We stood there, even as Aunt Helen shouted from the porch for us to get our fool heads inside before the Lord could come to take us.

The rain. Us.

I don’t know for certain that I’m not still standing there.

 

 

Dust Eddies In Time

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While I will get the words wrong, my recollection is at least correct for tone and content. Many parts of the day I write about are a blur. It was a complex day for more than one reason. Like a few other days, the day sits on the calendar of our minds. I will write around the fringes so as to avoid treading upon the loss which brought us all together. All of our lives are complex. Our memories, reactions, and ability to interact fluctuate with an erratic ebb and flow.

I was in the geography of my childhood, sitting in the church that seems to ‘the’ church in my memories. It sits in silence off a highway between places travelers seldom slow enough to notice, surrounded by the relics which once thrived. Like so many rural places, it fights the bubble of time that envelopes the area. It is the nexus of memories for many people, benchmarking people’s faith and sense of family and togetherness. This church remains, across the highway from the place my dad once ran his gas station. The surrounding field has reclaimed every trace of the station. One day soon enough, it will overtake everything else in the area.

Those who can remember will fade too, leaving dust eddies as they pass through the area and this world. To me, this is a comfort, even as I am unable to exonerate the existential discomfort of the knowledge. We’ll all pass this place, regardless of the velocity of our lives.

In front of me, two older ladies sat, each nervously chattering about the multitude of overlapping recollections in their lives. The further back one went into the wooden upright pews, the louder people felt comfortable talking. Whether it is always fair, funerals serve as a social outlet and gathering place for most people. Oddly, even as we grieve or grapple with loss, we sometimes find our hearts swelling with the smiles and faces of people who were once integral to our identity and lives. Loss ignites our connection to the shadows of our past; the demands of daily life usually blur that enthusiasm soon after.

I’ve stuck my foot in my mouth countless times as I attempt to navigate the mysterious awkwardness of interacting with people, especially ones I either once shared a deep connection to, or strangers who echo an odd familiarity. I later found out that I got roped into a hurtful conversation without being aware of it. I can’t take it back, so I will forever be someone’s anecdote. In a roundabout way, that is also what each of our lives does for everyone else.

“I never attended this church. I only came here for funerals. White Church was the only church for us back in the day,” said the older lady on the left.

“We should get back to the cemetery there. Not today, though. It’s Hell’s furnace out there. The old church was something. I hated to see it go. We lost the community when it left.” The lady on the right half-whispered it with a bit of pain and nostalgia in her voice. “Remeber the potlucks? The summer singing?”

When she said it, I thought of the mosquitoes, the blistering heat, and the discomfort of hot, uncomfortable Sunday-best clothing that churches like the White Church once required of members. I also recalled celery in potato salad, mind-numbingly long sermons sending all to Hades for our indiscretions – and cars with no air conditioning. Nostalgia certainly and capably erases the memories that more accurately convey the complexity of living in the past.

“The last time I was here, it was Carolyn’s funeral. Kak or Kakky they called her. I remember playing with her when she was younger. Their dad was a mean drunk back then. Carolyn took after her papa and married that no-account Bobby Dean. What a mess.”

The lady on the left was unaware that Carolyn was my mother.

The lady on the right nodded her head solemnly. She almost visibly shuddered. “Remember how she looked? That funeral home that got caught stacking bodies in the hallway did her funeral. That place out of up north, wasn’t it?”

I knew what was probably going to be said next. I wasn’t mistaken.

In her best gossipy whisper, the older lady on the left leaned in and said, “That horrible gravestone with the Bud Light can engraved on it is still down there. Can you imagine? Lord knows she was a drunk, but can you picture someone’s daughter thinking a beer car is a good idea for a tombstone?” She laughed.

“That daughter! Remember when she about gave Harold, or was it Howard, a stroke when he tried to adopt those two precious boys?” They both nodded toward one another.

I leaned in and said, “She’s still alive, too. Hasn’t changed one bit.” I told them in case they wanted to know. Neither registered that I might be closer to the people they’d mentioned than they realized.

I was unbothered, however.

Before arriving at the church, I drove the long loop around Rich. The roads were scorched with heat. Though I half-expected it, I choked up a bit as I neared the place where my grandparents once lived, off Highway 39 near Cook Road. I stopped at Upper Cemetery. An older man was outside in the heat, spraying the weeds and ditches. His dust-covered truck blocked the arch entrance, so I left my car along the artery of Highway 49 and walked out over the slight rise to the place where my parents are buried. As I crossed the top of the rise, my lungs filled with a pungent dust cloud, clotting my lungs and rendering my throat raw. I quickly walked down to the edge of the swamp and pondered the place for a moment.

I noted the Bud Light can on my mom’s gravestone and laughed. I think my sister chose well; some of the reasons for my agreement are based on amusement and aptness. The Bud Light can, at least, is an open salute to an essential truth in my mom’s life: more than anything, she lived for a drink. Even now, so many years later, I’m still discovering the mass of hidden lies and secrets in my parent’s lives.

When I got back to the car, my voice was almost gone. A million little pieces of this place remained in my mouth, nose, and lungs.

The cemetery embodies the communities around it. If the traffic becomes still, you can hear the insects, fields, and marshes for miles as they simply pulsate. Time doesn’t interfere in that place. I can hear it now, feel it in my bones, and feel it call me softly across the distance. I suspect you can too if you focus inward toward the places of your youth.

Truth sits outside of us. Every other person on this planet carries his or her own idea of each of us, independent of the facts and circumstances of our lives. It’s a fool’s errand to attempt to amend their mental biographies of us.

I hope that you can find a good life if you don’t have one, embrace the parts that can enlighten and lighten you, and forgive or ignore all of us who may trespass against you. In this world, it is the only way forward.

Catfish Murders

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Josh stood on the embankment of the fifteen-acre catfish pond, watching the sun touch the horizon. The Phillips Brothers recently constructed this particular pond, and it was still devoid of fish. Thousands of dragonflies and insects flew above it. Now that Josh owned the land by birthright, he was confident that fish would never swim in it. Soybeans were the future for Josh. He’s seen enough catfish and live-haul trucks loaded with contraband to last him a lifetime. It wasn’t his place to judge his father and grandfather for their choices in how best to make money. How much money did a man really need, though?

He could see the Rawling’s house in the distant break in the treeline past the expansive rice field, beyond the edge of the series of catfish ponds stretching out to one side. The Rawlings clan were as mean and loyal to one another as any family in the Delta. All eleven of their kids were adopted. They were the closest neighbors both by proximity and character. The Rawling’s didn’t put fences around their properties. Anyone foolish enough to trespass ran the risk of disappearing into the swamps of Monroe County. Most people weren’t aware that the Rawlings single-handedly funded the Delta College Fund. It paid for college for a dozen Monroe County residents a year, provided each graduate came back to live and work in the area. No one dared break their promise to return.

Josh’s ears still rang with a muffled, high-pitched whine. He reached up and pulled off his hat. His grandfather (who he called Grand-pére due to his grandfather’s vague French past) gave him the hat the day he turned 18. He then poured two shots of whiskey. After they both downed their shots, his grandfather shook his hand and then threw a punch at Josh’s nose, a jab which Josh barely side-stepped. His grandfather laughed and said, “I guess you’re quick enough, after all.”  Josh suspected that his Grand-pére moved to Arkansas to escape the choices he’d made when he was younger. While he missed his Grand-pére, he also felt lighter in spirit after his passing. Some people cast larger-than-life shadows; things seldom flourish in the shadows. On a whim, he flung the cowboy hat into the pond. It lay flat on the surface for a moment and began to slowly sink into the surrounding water.

After a minute of observing the approaching sunset and listening to the muffled crescendo of insects calling, Josh held up the Colt 1911 pistol in his left hand, surprised to see that it had a splash of blood on it. The Colt was a gift from his Grandma Eva on his eighth birthday. She claimed that she had used it to kill two men when she was younger, a story Josh didn’t doubt, especially since whispers of it reached his ears through the years. He had dared to ask her about it once. Instead of addressing his questions, she enigmatically said, “Death is a private matter. I think you’ll find out for yourself if you live long enough.”

He had fired the gun at least a thousand times in the intervening years. The first time he fired it at another person, he killed the man who had already fired a shot at him and missed. The County Sheriff had walked up to him and slapped him on the back. “That was some fine shooting, Josh. Let me know when you want to come work for me.” The newspaper wanted to interview him and print his words under the headline “Local Man Saves Neighbors.” Truthfully, he felt nothing when he shot and killed the would-be robber at the Save-A-Lot grocery store. He was driving by the small store on Adelade Avenue when he saw a young man leaving the store and firing his pistol into the store. Josh didn’t think about what he was doing. He stopped the truck, stepped out, and waited until the robber turned to look at him. The robber lifted his gun and fired one shot. Josh calmly raised his pistol and shot him through the right eye. He found out later that the robber was his third cousin, Johnny Ray Terry. Johnny’s father shook his hand at his son’s funeral and nodded his head. Josh felt like he owed Johnny’s family a little of his discomfort. Being at the service afforded anyone with a grudge to say words or throw their punches. Waiting for other people to do what they had to always led to more problems. As his Grandma Eva would say, “Get down the road as quickly as you can. It’ll save you a lot of steps.”

The second time he fired his beloved gun at another human being with murder in his heart.  He couldn’t muster up regret for either occasion.

Barely ten minutes ago, his dad had looked up from his place at the rough wooden table. The table held a map of the county, a pile of legal documents, and a bottle of whiskey. He looked up. “Don’t point it unless you’re going to kill the person at the other end of the barrel,” he coldly told Josh. He didn’t seem concerned that Josh was pointing a pistol at him. The irony of his dad failing to realize that he violated his own rule earlier in the afternoon didn’t seem to register as he spoke.

Josh did not wait for his dad to say another word. He squeezed the trigger and the Colt, less than two feet from his dad’s face, fired directly into his dad’s forehead. The boom inside the cabin was thunderous. Josh carefully placed another pistol, one taken from his dad’s gun cabinet, on the floor. His dad fired it a couple of hours earlier, outside, as Josh walked toward the cabin after getting out of his truck. Instead of returning a shot, Josh had turned and walked the perimeter road of the property. It didn’t even occur to him that his dad might fire another shot toward his back. In his heart, he already knew what needed to be done. If a man tries to kill you, he’ll never relent if you let him walk away.

His dad slumped over on the table by the time Josh’s hand touched the front door of the cabin to leave. Josh walked across the yard and then crossed the access road to reach the closest of the catfish ponds. Mosquitoes accompanied him on his trek. Josh ignored them. Everything must eat, after all, and suffering inevitably resided alongside survival.

Josh flung the Colt pistol high in the area, and it landed about halfway across the pond, splashing neatly.  He knew it would stay there, half-buried in the sediment at the bottom of the pond until it would be recycled and replaced after its ten-year lifespan dwindled.  Grandma Eva would want the pistol to be lost to time, of that he was sure. Her death six years ago seemed impossibly distant. Cancer tried to kill her for eleven years, starting in her chest and invading anywhere it could. It took a freak accident to beat her. Until yesterday, Josh didn’t know that his dad was responsible for the accident.

After today, there would be no inquiry, no hard questions, and no suspicious glances, even if someone suspected the truth. In quiet places where time slows to a crawl, justice has its own rules, ones independent of the wider world. Josh hadn’t murdered his dad; he simply paid forward the cruelty his dad had birthed by killing his Grandma. Most people can respect such decisions in their hearts. Josh wasn’t one to justify the distinction between greed and love.

As Josh’s ears began to absorb sound again, he could hear the shattering wall of insects making their nightly melody of chirps.

Life would go on, and the fables and stories would intensify, just as it always had in this quiet farming community.

Josh used the wall phone in the cabin to call Sherrif Medford. “Yeah, my dad is dead. There’s no hurry. I’ll be here waiting on the porch.” He hung without waiting for the dispatcher to respond. He didn’t look back toward the table where his dead father slumped. That part of his life was finished.

He would change clothes, clear the table, swim in the pond, and coat his hands with diesel first, though. Finally, he’d sit on the porch in the Arkansas night, waiting for the rest of his life to begin. Josh couldn’t wait for the land in front of him to fill with soybeans and a peaceful life. He was thankful for the promise of the static of a normal life.

Grand-pére would find all this amusing, fifteen years after his death.

Beyond, Monroe County made its descent into night.

 

 

 

 

The Unsettling Solace Of the Ruins

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This is a guest post.

Each of us has a hometown. Returning brings the blessing of memories and the bitterness of entropy enveloping what we remember.

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Trips to my hometown are usually quick and for a particular purpose. Occasionally during these trips, an investment of a few minutes is made to drive past the small house that was home to me for well over half my life. 

One of my earliest memories, if not the earliest, is of the day we moved in. I was not yet four years old. We lived next door, and my main contribution to the move was carrying my baby doll’s high chair down the front steps of that two-bedroom house (where a sheet divided one bedroom down the middle to accommodate my brother on one side and my sister and me on the other) to the larger (barely) three-bedroom.

This was home for the next 28 years–until my mother died—when it became a house-home mixture of sorts. It was never the same for any of us with her missing, but my father owned it for several more years before selling it and moving to a new town. 

In the bottom right corner of the photo is the front window to my bedroom. It often held a box fan in the summer and was covered with plastic on the inside during the winter to help block the cold draft. During my early teenage years, it held a view to and thoughts of a much bigger world beyond. 

The crepe myrtle outside this window was always one of my favorite things about the house. It provided a wonderful canopy for day or evening, and its delicate flowers and flaky bark were a constant enticement to touch. This crepe myrtle has never been subjected to the yearly scalping performed on many crepe myrtles, and so it has grown from the 10-foot (or less) height of my youth to the 30-40 foot beauty you see here. Knowing this tree as a friend from day one makes it feel as though the roots of this tree are deeply intertwined with the “roots of me.”

The photo is from the street in front of the house-taken today during one of those quick trips.  

Not all here was beautiful, though. Today brought the unsettling (and a bit devastating, being totally honest with myself) discovery of an abandoned home with a broken kitchen window and No Trespassing/Keep Out signs posted in various places on the property. Barring an unforeseen and unlikely miracle, this house will probably not exist within a few years. Based on the condition the structure and its outlying storage buildings are in, I hope it doesn’t. It would be far less painful to see a clean slate than to see the neglected and abused ruins of a home that held life and dreams for so many decades. Maybe I will drive past again during the next fast dash to the area; maybe I won’t. Maybe instead, I will ask friends who still live nearby to let me know when it is gone. I know this is not a situation unique to me, and maybe it makes no sense to many others who often moved in their growing up years; but, for today, I am sad about what is and miss what was. 

It’s Personal, With Love

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This is not a Father’s Day post.

On the other hand, it is. I just found out this morning that my dad had another child. Were he still alive, he would have found out this morning, too – and I would have been the person telling him. Life is a series of kicks in the face.

All my life, I’ve resisted the revisionist tendencies of much of my family. I revolted against the idea of secrecy and shame. Each of us makes our own decisions and is responsible for the consequences. People misbehave and make terrible decisions.

For the first time, this morning, I wrote, “every person in my immediate family has struggled with the demons of alcohol, drugs, or violence.” Some of their stories weren’t mine to tell, even as the consequences boiled over and tainted my ability to live a good life. Over the last year, I learned that my brother, despite his stunning intelligence, has been a victim for much of his adult life. On the Terry side of my family, every person in my immediate family has led a double life. Many have died prematurely as a result. Just writing this paragraph might have earned a beating in the not-so-distant past. The revelation that some of us lead secret lives (or smaller lives) controlled by our lesser natures is one that seldom gets a warm embrace. We prefer to hide our shadows away from questioning eyes.

None of this is a secret. Everyone close to those family members knew, of course. That’s part of the corrosiveness of alcohol or addiction. Part of my adult fight was trying to reconcile the fact that so many people stood by on the sidelines and angrily pushed me away as I tried to be open and honest about my parents and their brutal hidden lives. It’s my story to tell because I have an equal right to share my steps.

Since I was little, I’ve joked that I must have brothers and sisters out in the world. My dad was unfaithful in every sense of the word. He had notorious affairs with several people. I knew that one day I would be able to say with certainty, “I told you so,” even as a couple of my aunts and uncles angrily told me to shut up. “You ought not to talk about that!” Equally true is the fact that my father ought not to have behaved that way. People close to me have heard me say that my genetics are an infection. I don’t say it with disrespect toward my brother and sister; it’s a fact that is sustained by the carnage of our lives.

Years ago, I started genealogy. I didn’t think it would be interesting to me, even though I love to research. It opened a world to me. I helped many people find lost loved ones, discover their birth certificates, and unlock countless mysteries. Many of those mysteries were buried – or so those involved foolishly thought. I participated in the DNA system early and with optimism. DNA is the blueprint of truth that people can’t control. It is the genie which relentlessly tells us the truth, despite what those who preceded us might have written as history. Alongside DNA, I began to discover the historical record that buttressed my claims about my past. Much of the record contained people’s accounts of crime, abuse, violence and sometimes proud moments. Several of my aunts and uncles died before I compiled a record that would make them wince.

History devours all of us incrementally.

As the unofficial family historian, I’ve never shied from directly admitting what happened behind closed doors. It’s caused some discomfort and anger.

And so…

After years of relentless diligence, it finally happened: through DNA, I discovered that I have a half-sister out in the world. This discovery just happened. It’s raw and fresh in my mind. I can’t imagine what my half-sister is experiencing. I have a million questions, of course. Luckily for her, she can use my ancestry treasures and written accounts to jump right into the lives that she wasn’t able to experience. I warned her that demons possessed my father. I’m not one to gloss over the terrain that makes people uncomfortable. I’ve given my dad a long eulogy, one punctuated by bitter truth.

Her mom was very young when she was with my dad. The liaison happened in the early 70s after my dad was in prison and had returned to Monroe County, Arkansas. He’d barely survived a DWI accident that killed my cousin. I know nothing about my new half-sister’s mother or other family. It’s probably best at this point as she comes to terms with unintentionally finding an entire family in the world.

I don’t have all the details. Part of the uncertainty is that the woman in question didn’t expect to ‘find’ relatives, much less someone like me with a full arsenal of DNA results and extensive family history for her. I don’t even know her name yet.

Ironically, I found confirmation on Father’s Day, a holiday that was no more real than a unicorn in my family. My dad died over 25 years ago. He would laugh. Whether that makes him human or a monster I’m not sure.

I am both confused and happy. Most of my glee is for my half-sister who found the road she was seeking. What she does with it is entirely her choice. That’s entirely the point of DNA and family history. None of us had a choice regarding who brought us to this world, and many of us would desperately love to be able to change those choices. It’s not our fault. Whether our parents were doctors or assassins, we are guiltless in our existence.

I wish I could grant amnesty to all those children who grow up feeling responsible for the people behind them.

For those of you who have good families, it probably seems a bit exotic to think about these situations. Many of us flee in self-protection from our family. All of us would prefer the warm embrace of people who value and love us. Unfortunately, much of the world operates on a stranger wavelength.

It’s no insult to say that my original sister and I are incompatible. I’m not one for anger, drama, and instability. It might make her angry to see this truth written out – but it is true in a way that no one can deny. As for my brother, he wisely moved away when he was younger. Over the years, our connection lessened. A few years ago, we went through an intense and disruptive episode that broke something in me. I didn’t know at the time how much he was suffering from addiction. I knew but didn’t ‘know,’ much in the way that each of us later wonders how all of us avoided connecting the painful dots.

Now that the day has come that I might have a connection to another sister, it is news that I can’t share meaningfully. Mom and dad are both dead. My sister is in exile for my sanity, and my brother is struggling merely to live another year.

You might say, “None of that is your place to say, X.” You’re wrong, though. I have earned the right.

I don’t know what, if anything, will come of my discovery of a new half-sister. I wish my brother Mike were in his right mind, though. We share a deep and incisive bond of dark humor and irony. Since he’s been at the brink of death, he has passed a lot of time with me recounting the old stories. Shared history acquires a more profound meaning when you realize that your time in it is diminishing rapidly. In the last few months, Mike has read all my family lore and stories and relished them. He knows how strongly the gravity of what we came from has affected us.

I hope that my new half-sister waits a long time to meet my original sister. While I am by no means able to claim normalcy, I’m foolishly confident that I am the best ambassador to the family.

To anyone reading this, I hope each resists the urge to ‘find’ my new half-sister. She gets the right to decide when or if she opens the door. I wish her peace regardless of her timeline.

To the new half-sister I don’t even know by name, I wish that Father’s Day were one of joy for you. I wish that life had been different for us all and that all of us could sit at a table and wonder about what might have been. Each paid the price of our common ancestor. We never stop paying.

We also never stop hoping, though, either, not if we share a common humanity.

History Seldom Stays Silent

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This post is personal. Read at your own discretion.
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I’m not quite sure what precipitated some of my revelations this week. Gears clicked and connections snapped together in so many different places. I felt like Rainman as a few things which had previously been a block for me fell away. Not only was I able to help several other people, but I also used my luck to take another stab at some of my own history.
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I found a few things which I’ll process and write about later. Some of them are dark and some are simply crazy. A few of my ancestry leads broke open, too. A couple of people are going to have to rethink who they think they are who they think they come from. I’ll take this opportunity to remind everyone that while we are not our DNA, it is the tenuous and undeniable connection that belies our ancestry and heritage. I’ve made some discoveries which I’ve never shared with anyone; once told they are no longer ideas to be held, but burdens which cannot be forgotten. All of us have our internal history, the one which we know to be true – but often isn’t.
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Regarding one of my most personal finds this week, I only found them because I had helped someone find a bit of information. I wrote, “Start your inquiry in the simplest way possible.” Easy words to write but hard to live by. Starting simple is exactly like attempting to tell a story without drawing an entirely new and complex roadmap in the middle of the story as we tell it. We are so impatient for the people in our lives to get to the point and yet some of us are enraptured by the presence of a story well-told, filled with wrinkles, and the destination unclear.
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And so, in a matter of minutes, I found news articles in Indiana regarding some of my dad’s run-ins with the law. There was more than one, I discovered. I’ve been told that my dad left Arkansas because he had family in Indiana, which is true. The myth is that he had exhausted the good-ole-boy network in Monroe County, Arkansas and needed a clean break. Like in most rural Southern places, it was possible to run amok without real consequence in Monroe County, all the way to mayhem and sometimes murder. I do know that my Grandmother Terry exerted a great deal of pull in a continual attempt to keep my dad from being held accountable for the hell-raising that he always found himself in. My dad’s father James died in early 1964, and shortly before my oldest sibling was born.
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The story of all this is a massive tapestry shared by countless people. Some know more of it than others, especially the older generation, the one succumbing to death with greater urgency. Others, the younger generation, are unaware of much of the tapestry, as ideas like family honor, secrecy and shame shielded them from being aware in the first place. I’ve unevenly kept my post through the last few years, honing in on some truths. Some I’ve cemented rightfully into the record because I was able to find sources other than those affected by dubious family loyalty.
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That same misplaced loyalty to protect my dad served as an umbrella for him through much of his life. It enveloped him and encouraged many of my paternal relatives to shamefully look away as he engaged in a long series of brutally violent and alcohol-fueled crimes against his wife and children. (And society.)
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Alcoholism is one of the few diseases that infects others with an inability to see and hear clearly. Alcohol coupled with anger or violence demands a collective and permanent bout of amnesia. Once initiated, this voluntary amnesia makes everyone an accomplice.
I’m relieved that I’ve learned to place this idea in a tidy descriptive box like that because it makes it more palatable and relatable. People get really angry when they are reminded that they allowed children to be abused.
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My dad’s family silently stood by, almost always pretending to not see it, nor the symptoms of pathology that it engendered in myself, my brother and my sister. It is a miracle that we survived. It’s a greater miracle that I did not see fit to murder him while I had the chance, or that another family member didn’t light his bed on fire in the dark of night. Throughout my early life, I constantly heard, “We don’t talk about that.” Or, “Shame on you! He’s your dad.” The latter would be hurled at me through tightly-bound lips, spitting the obvious anger all over me, even as the person saying the words could see the dark purple and yellow bruises from my ankles to my neck. I can’t fathom how many children went to church with the hard wooden pews pressing against the trail of agony on their legs and back, wondering when the mercy would flow toward them.
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“Only the spoon knows what is stirring in the pot,” is an old saying to remind us that situations are complicated and look different from the outside. It’s easy for normal people to jump to their dad’s defense, (or mine) on the pretense of biology. It’s easy for some to expect me not only to forgive, which I have done – yet for some, they also insanely demand that I not use my voice to share my experiences. It is possible to share simply because the story of our lives is interesting to us. As we tell it, we learn things anew.
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“Bobby Dean was a good man,” some would say. No, he was not.
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By any objective measure and any accounting, he was not good. In his defense, he had his shining moments, as everyone does – and I remember those with fondness. To any family member asking me to focus only on those shining moments, I remind them that not all monsters have fangs. Some of them are in the PTA and engage in all manner of horrors.
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Years ago, Dad helped organize a fish fry to help someone with medical bills. It was truly a good effort with real consequence. A family member used it angrily against me as an example to support their ignorant thesis that my dad was a good man beneath it all. I acknowledged that it was indeed a good act, but that terrible people live lives of mostly normal constancy. I then shocked and angered the family member by saying, “Is that man good if he broke a rake across my back so violently that I peed blood for a week, or beat my mom so hard with a pistol that he broke her nose? Killed someone? Went to prison for multiple crimes?” As I talked, the man’s face became crimson. “And anyone who let him do it is as guilty as he is.” He stomped away.
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As my ability to comb the past has grown, I’ve assembled a larger picture of my dad. The more I learn about his life, the more sympathy I see for his trajectory. His arc was cruelly bent at an early age and he chose not to deviate from its perpetual fall. The responsibility is his and his alone, though, just as my impatience in my own personal life has led me to some dark moments. I, however, didn’t have children; my ownership of the defective biology that flowed through my dad now dies with me. I’m being literal. Whatever dad had lurked in his DNA.
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As I do with everyone, I say that almost everything we do when young can be forgiven. Most of us are simply stupid when younger. After a certain point, it becomes an issue of either willfulness or pathology. Beating your wife and kids to the point of risking murder is a great example of this, if using half your income to buy alcohol and cigarettes isn’t. Everything must be weighed against youthful ignorance and the long totality of a person’s life. Accumulated choices and consequences allow us to characterize someone in a way that singular mistakes cannot.
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I’d also been reluctantly told that my dad was only guilty of being in the getaway car at a truck stop robbery on Highway 20 in Indiana. Based on the evidence I’ve been able to uncover, he wasn’t just “there.” What I wasn’t told, however, was that he had also committed other crimes, including burglary, while he was in Indiana. He was younger than I had been told, which had hampered my ability to accurately research. I had to indirectly ask questions, usually when people had been drinking. My head was filled with a million untruths, half-truths, misdirection.
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My dad was sentenced to prison in Indiana the month before I was born. I was the last child, the baby, and the second-born son, and through a series of accidents and misunderstandings, was branded with his name upon my birth in Brinkley, Arkansas. Some of my dad’s misfortune benefitted me, as during one long portion, I lived with my Grandma and Grandpa Cook. I’ve long suspected that Dad’s incarceration in another state might have saved my life, and most probably the life of my mother.
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As you all know, I later rejected my birth name entirely and yet credit my grandparents with the part of me that I find myself prideful of. Names don’t contain the essence of a person. My Grandpa would have never wrapped his head around my choice of name in “X,” but he would have leaned in and hugged me with his arm around me on the porch swing and laughed at my foolishness. He would have known why without being told. His eyes had seen a lot of human misery and recognized the stale indifference that often overpowered my dad. When I was young, Grandpa often said, “Don’t be afraid of things on four legs. It’s the ones on two that will get you.” In the rural area we lived, critters and creatures constantly came to visit, often stealthily and seen through the darkened screen of an open window on a blistering night. Years later, I felt as if Grandpa were talking about my dad. He rarely had words with my mom and dad, but several of the instances were warnings to stop mistreating their kids, and me in particular.
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So it came to pass that this week, on a whim,  I found the first article from Indiana in less than 2 minutes, after years of haphazard and dedicated digging. Dad started small and then went big with his nascent crime career in Indiana. I indexed the articles so that future interested parties might find the articles more easily.
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It’s worth noting that regardless of my dad’s official criminal record, he killed a cousin of mine while drinking and driving, (Which I recently found a mention of in a newspaper. Another tidbit that I literally just discovered is that my dead cousin’s father was related to the county sheriff.)
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My dad was quite the adept arsonist and managed to be involved in almost all the petty and felonious no-nos on the books, whether it involved guns, marijuana, VIN displacement, DWI, domestic violence, or assault. When the Springdale City Attorney went to prison for DWI-fixing, you can be sure that my parent’s names figured prominently in that accounting.
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Because the truth reaches places I hadn’t expected, I now know that a few other rumors I had heard in screaming and bloody episodes in the deep of night as bones gave way to furniture are probably true. Words I didn’t have context for now have meaning and their incoherence has slithered away, leaving behind a freshly-washed sidewalk for me to examine.
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I say none of this with shame; his life was his own.
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I have more than paid the price for his presence in my life. For anyone who has read my mind by reading my words over the years, you know that I’ve worked hard to extract the useful parts of my dad’s life, too. I’ve not turned my back on the whole person. A story I wrote earlier this year was read by thousands of people. It was a story of my dad as a whole, imperfect person, written through his eyes. I understand much of dad’s pathology now. I owed him a demonstration that I could see him as a human being.
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I’m not bitter, but I will confess that the sharpest lemonade is akin to water to my taste in part due to my dad.
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There have been times in which people have incredulously asked me about some of my stories. “That can’t be true!” someone will say.
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It’s true I sometimes get the details wrong, but I assure you that I try to get it right. I’m the only one out here on the limb of my family tree doing the time and attempting to share my part of the story. Not all stories are of youthful summer mornings on the porch with my Grandpa Willie.
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Where I err in detail, I strike a chord in truth.
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All these decades later, I’m amused that I get the final say. I read, I ponder, and I consider. The scarring I have is my friend, one which whispers in my ear as I put words on paper.
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Recently, I’ve been able to talk openly with someone who is familiar with the tornado of my youth. He’s shared some stories, many of them I couldn’t remember. In the past, he might have been the one to silence my family’s critics, as his family loyalty was ingrained into him in a way that it never was with me. His advancing age and experiences in the world finally gave him permission to detach and tell the overlapping stories of our youth. I thought that it would have been my cousin Jimmy, but cancer silenced him a few years ago. During a conversation last week, I could only imagine the storytelling if Jimmy were alive to join in. Here we are though, with our myths, certainties and acquired perspective, wondering how many unpleasant ripples our own choices might have made in life.
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Before parting, I’d like to mention that there’s another sinister chapter in my dad’s life, one which I don’t feel is my story to tell. It is a mirrored hall of horrors. I’ve circled its fringes with curiosity for a time; I doubt that I’ll ever claim ownership to the story. That I believe the chapter of his life is true reflects on the chasm that my dad punched and beat into me. I sometimes creep up to the bloody edge of it and recoil. It is the darkest of possible secrets. I guard it closely, knowing that those who would disagree with the assessment of dad would cringe and run if I were to shout it to them in reply their foundationless defense of a man long dead. I know that others walking in this world have their stories. Their silence is astounding to me. It is theirs to guard, though.
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Vicks Recipes For Southern Survivors

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Vicks salve was invented in 1905. The same person Frenchman who invented BenGay was ultimately responsible for creating Vicks VapoRub, as he inspired a pharmacist here in the United States to modify the recipe for BenGay.

On a personal note, I’d like to say that I l-o-v-e the smell of Vicks. I like the smell of creosote and diesel, too. None of them are good on a sandwich, an ice cream float, or on a spoon on its way to my mouth, however. As anyone who ever used Vicks in steam can attest, the aroma is inescapable and rich. If eaten or allowed to melt in one’s mouth, it manages to embed itself between teeth and the gums for several hours. If you’ve never eaten Vicks, get a slice of Dominos pizza and put an entire package of mint gum on it, and then topped with vaseline, and attempt to eat it. A slice of Dominos is bad enough, I admit.

The cobalt blue bottles were also immediately recognizable. One could clean them completely with very hot water, followed by vigorously adding soap and wiping them out.

Evidently, Vicks became a household staple thanks to the 1918 flu epidemic that killed millions of people. It’s hard to imagine the effect of such an epidemic, one which killed more people than any other in human history. We don’t hear much about it anymore. At least 7000 Arkansans died officially from the flu in 1918, a huge number, compared to the 600 who died in WWI. Because of the huge number of poor rural people in Arkansas at the time, family history and circumstantial evidence tell us that many more died from the flu. Additionally, because Arkansas was deeply affected by Jim Crow, thousands of blacks also went under the radar. It’s interesting to delve into the story of this epidemic; it’s undeniable that Arkansas lost at least twice as many people as officially reported.

Interestingly, I had heard stories that a great-grandfather of mine died from the flu in 1918. Research proved this to be erroneous, as he died in February 1918 before the first known case in the United States that year. Almost no family escaped death from the Spanish flu that year.

You can’t study the history of Vicks without factoring in the trauma of the 1918 epidemic. I found several news articles from early 1919 regarding the Vicks shortage as a result of the flu epidemic which had killed millions of people worldwide. Vicks was relatively inexpensive and easily obtained. Almost all households in the rural South had a bottle of Vicks. Most were smart enough to avoid eating it. I like to think that some ate it simply to accelerate meeting their maker.

For those of us who had ignorant ancestors who made us eat Vicks, most of this tendency is a result of misinformation and the worldwide scare of the deadly flu over 100 years ago. They didn’t mean to unsuccessfully poison us. At least, for the most part. During the epidemic, Vicks was considered to be a disinfectant if applied on or inside the nose. It’s no wonder that even level-headed people began to ingest it directly.

The world was smaller and people didn’t have access to a wider community of people. Home remedies and folksy cures tended to become ingrained in cloistered communities. This is exactly why so many of us were subjected to the stupidity of our parents telling us to eat Vicks, even if the bottle were clearly labeled “do not ingest,” or “toxic.” We can laugh at such goofiness now, despite the fact that the modern internet has brought us anti-vaxxers and other idiots clamoring for attention to spread their modern snake oil ideas.

Vicks also contains varying levels of turpentine, another old folk remedy that can be quite poisonous but was once very popular. It’s important to remember that people scoffed at the idea of germs until fairly recently, too, or believed that blood-letting and blowing smoke up one’s anus could reduce serious ailments such as hernias. (It’s where the term “blowing smoke” originated.) By the way, I’m referring to the mistaken idea that all turpentines are the same, even the ones found in hardware stores versus distilled turpentine oil.

Another point I’d like to make is that so many people could make a living in the South selling Snake Oil. Like all ridiculous claims, Snake Oil appealed to those without a proper understanding of science or medicine. Paradoxically, thanks to the internet, we now find ourselves in reversed roles: some of the stupidest health claims for completely useless products are made by those with advanced education and training.

In the same way that people say, “Riding in the back of a pickup didn’t kill me,” or “We didn’t have seatbelts back then,” people excuse away eating Vicks VapoRub with the same ridiculous claims, “Well, it didn’t kill me!” Any examination of our safety record clearly demonstrates that seatbelts made our lives much, much safer. Science easily demonstrates that ingestion of Vicks is dangerous. Convincing people that they were terribly wrong about such an obvious thing is a difficult feat. They didn’t die after all.

Were my mom still alive, she’d roll her eyes and cluck like a chicken if she heard me picking on her about this. My favorite cousin will point out that my mom learned to feed Vicks to children as a result of my Grandma. In Grandma’s defense, she was born after the turn of the last century and her world was very small, in the Arkansas Delta area around Monroe County. She loved me like no one ever did; she also had some strange ideas about the weather, driving in the dark, and eating things like Vicks. She lived to be over 90 years of age, so it’s difficult to argue with her methods. Plus, she loved bacon, and as you know, bacon is the single best medicine available.

I’m convinced that my mom enjoyed forcing people to eat Vicks. I’m only saying that because she could be quite sadistic, a fact that is a simple truth today, but one which would have resulted in my murder had it voiced in her vicinity as a kid. As I grew older, I joined my brother in reading the labels on ‘medications’ my mom was fond of. Several of them literally had poisonous logos on them. Munchausen Syndrome By Proxy would have been a relief to us both as we endured our mom’s ignorance about all things medical. Mom was one of those people who would not listen to reason and her stubbornness was legendary, even among mules. For most of my childhood, my mom worked at Southwestern Bell and had excellent insurance, yet I never went to the dentist between ages 5 and 18  and only got medical treatment after trauma. “You’re breathing!” she’d say.

In 1983, the FDA decided that products such as Vicks couldn’t have more than 11% of a concentration of camphor. Camphor can be fatal to small children and studies demonstrated that it actually made most people less likely to breathe more freely. Weirdly, many people report that it allows them to sleep better.

Any discussion regarding Vicks needs to take into account the historical differences of the ingredients used compared to the modern version. I’ve read anecdotes of people who claim that the bottles once recommended ingesting small amounts. I don’t doubt these claims given the ointment’s history. I can’t find evidence of it, however.

Interestingly, Vicks labels have warned against using it under one’s nostrils for any reason, as well as ingesting it. Obviously, you should never eat it, either, or put it anywhere it can penetrate into the skin. I was surprised to learn that it can damage one’s corneas, too.

Vicks VapoRub actually confuses your brain, which makes it think that you’re breathing more easily while actually reducing your ability to breathe more freely. I think it works the same way that the internet does for modern versions of my mom.

With my new cookbook of recipes, those who survived eating Vicks when they were young can once again enjoy the undeniable taste of this treat. I recommend that you start with a PB&J&V sandwich.

1975

101108 lynette house and misc (56)
The early summer mist still blanketed the encircling cotton fields. Grandpa poured me a cup of coffee and then held the screen door open for me to slither through. Instead of sitting on the long porch swing, we both stepped down onto the cut railroad ties in front of the porch and sat. Grandma’s coffee was always hotter than the top of a wood stove. I was expected to respect the dangers of hot coffee. We could hear grandma inside, fussing with the skillet of salt pork, bacon, and sausage. When I was young and with my grandparents, vegetarianism was unimaginable. Later, as Grandma noted my love for vegetables, she filled my plate and bowl relentlessly with corn, mustard greens, and beans of every kind. After a few minutes, the smell of breakfast filled the damp air. All of our stomachs grumbled in anticipation.

Grandpa pointed with his right hand as a reddish grey coyote bounded through the periphery of the cotton field to our left. It stopped in the gravel drive, his head sniffing the air. To me, they all resembled foxes. After a moment, he turned and ran through the mist and across the road. We watched as the mist above him churned to mark his passage.

Grandpa sloshed the remainder of his cup onto the grass and stood up. Just as I stood up, Grandma hollered from the back of the house, “Woolly, come on!” Because of the way she talked, I found it hard to believe that she was calling him Willie; my young ears could not distinguish the subtle difference.

Grandpa shrugged his shoulders and took my cup and sloshed it into the yard, too, indicating we’d better get inside before the call to eat intensified.

Salt pork, sausage patties, bacon, and buttered toast greeted us as we sat at the table. It was Tuesday, but looking back, it was a morning for kings, one of many that summer of 1975. The mist of that early morning over forty years ago still swirls in my mind. I awoke this morning with it fogging my senses.