If Daddy wasn’t going to the beer joint, he’d be home by 3:37. It was 3:50 when I got off the bus. He wasn’t there. I shuffled through the dry leaves and into the house. When I shut the door, the sound reverberated off the bare hardwood floors like a rifle shot. I threw my books on the couch and took up my vigil at the window in the dining room. Nothing was as dark as a Tennessee winter day. The three maples in the front yard looked like a dead man’s fingers. Cool air seeped under the window seal, tickling the downy hairs on my arm. I started my game. It was stupid, but I’d been playing it so long that it would be bad luck to give it up. If that leaf falls off that tree before Bingo walks over that crack in the sidewalk, Daddy won’t go to the beer joint today. If I can put my hand on the window sill before that spider crawls to the top of the web, Daddy will not got to the beer joint today. I jerked my hand down to the sill.
It was 4:15 when Daddy’s Ford, covered with fly ash from the steam plant, pulled into the driveway. 4:15 meant three beers. I wanted to throw up. I quickly slid the dining room chair back under the table and went in my bedroom, shut the door, put on a Johnny Mathis album, turned it on high and slid my dresser stool over to the window. Mother would be home soon. I heard Daddy slam the door, and he walked to the bathroom, singing, “Been invited on dates. Might of gone, but what for? Awfully different without you. Don’t get around much anymore.” I heard a muffled whistle, the toilet flush, the door open and heavy steps back to the den.
It was 4:30 when Mother and Billy pulled up in the driveway. I went into the living room, and sat on my knees on the couch. Waiting. My brother, Billy, who always wore jeans, was wearing dress khakis and a button down collar shirt. He was tall and lean with black hair. He walked in the door first.
“’s the old man in the house?” He looked me straight in the eye and paused a beat.
“How come you’re with Mother?”
“I took her to school and went to . . . Dickson.”
Mother came in with her arms overloaded with papers and books. “He went to check on the vocational school . . . you know, the welding school. Where’s Daddy?” Her forehead crinkled.
“Den, I guess.” Then Billy walked toward his room.
“Has he been . . ?” Mother asked. Her hand lingered a moment as she swept her hair back and slightly tilted her head upward. She was practiced at the art of catching a whiff of alcohol at 20 paces, easy. Even I smelled the combination of grilled burgers and Schlitz lingering in the air. There were two problems with Daddy’s drinking. One problem was that it didn’t take much to make him mean, and the other problem was that it didn’t take much to make her mad. I remembered our first beach vacation to Panama City last summer. The whole family shared a room, and Daddy bought a pint of gin and spent the last night in the motel room berating Mother. There was no room to escape into. That was the first time I saw the ocean.
We were afraid of Daddy when he drank. He was capable of things. One time, in a drunken rage, he led my old dog, Princess, down to the river and shot her. He apologized to Mother the next day. She said he cried. Mother didn’t have a high opinion of people who drank alcohol. During the Depression, her sharecropper father had been the town drunk; he drank up all the money the family made picking cotton. Her brother, Peter, a Korean War veteran, died after downing a fifth of whiskey and driving his truck into a telephone pole. Daddy wouldn’t let her other brother, Little Boy, come to the house because he was a drunk who had deserted his wife and their five kids. Furthermore, Mother was Church of Christ. Drinking was a sin.
Within minutes, Billy was into his jeans and sweatshirt, and in his hand, he had the neatly knotted trotlines, twisted around a wire hanger. He walked out the back door with them down toward the creek. He was gone within ten minutes of walking through the door. That wasn’t unusual. Billy was always gone. By age 10, Daddy taught him how to shoot a shotgun and a rifle, how to fish for crappie and how to set out trotlines, but once Billy turned 12, he got his first shotgun, and never went hunting or fishing with Daddy again. By that time, we had moved off the farm and into the small town of Jonesville which was on Kentucky Lake. There were boys. Billy disappeared into the woods and lake behind the house with his friends, Bubba and Randy. I thought they had an idyllic life away from the house. They hunted deer, ducks, and squirrels during the fall; they fished for crappie and bass all summer; they swang across the creek on stripped down kudzu vines; they built a fort deep in the woods near the Indian mound where, I guessed, they smoked and cussed. My girlfriends and I were not allowed to go that far into the woods.
Billy was only at the house now because he and Bubba flunked out of University of Tennessee at Martin. We heard that they skipped a lot of classes and drank their way through the quarter. After Billy came home a few weeks ago, Daddy had talked to Borchert at the plant about getting Billy into a welding apprenticeship after he finished some training at the vocational school in Dickson.
I trailed Mother into her bedroom, and lay on the bed with my hands locked behind my head. Mother slipped off her dress and slip, unsnapped the garters and began peeling off the hose and shimmied out of the girdle. They crackled with static electricity in one clinging mass, she smelled the feet and tossed them in the bottom drawer of the chest. Then, she put on her “duster” which had snaps up the front. She never wore an apron.
“Well, is he going to vocational school or not?”
“Uh . . . well, we’ll talk about it after supper.” Mother took a deep breath in and closed her eyes as she exhaled. She sat on the bench seat in front of the dresser staring at the mirror. She glanced at the bottom right-hand corner, where there was a yellowing card that said: “Tomorrow is another day.” Mother lived her living according to two books: the Bible and Gone With the Wind. Mother tapped my knee, “Let’s fix some supper.” I trailed her into the kitchen. Daddy was just emptying his thermos and rinsing it out. Just as we came in from the living room, he walked back into the den to read the Tennessean before supper. He read the paper cover to cover every day.
We ate in the cedar-paneled kitchen at the yellow Formica table. The walls were greasy from years of frying crappie. The overhead light was dim because Daddy only put a 60 watt bulb in it to save on the light bill. The only brightness was the light over the stove where my Mother stood. She put the black iron skillet on the stove and spooned in heaping mountains of Crisco. She dipped each fish in the milk, salted it and then dredged it through the cornmeal and put it in the bubbling grease. Mother fried everything. If it didn’t fit in a frying pan, Mother couldn’t cook it. I talked incessantly while setting the table with the “jelly” jar glasses and the mish mash of chipped plates. Paper napkins, sugar bowl, salt and pepper sat huddled in the corner of the table.
“I got in an argument with Luther Monroe in Mrs. Hardin’s class.”
“Peggy! Again? Mrs. Hardin came to me the other day and said, ‘Mrs. Haynes, I just don’t know what to do with Peggy and James. They just get so mad,’” she said as she looked out the back kitchen window toward the creek. “What was the argument about this time– Vietnam or abortion?”
“Vietnam, but it doesn’t bother us to fight! I mean, we hate each other. He’s a complete idiot, Mother. It gets to Mrs. Hardin because she’s such a goody goody. She just wants us all to act like good little Church of Christ Christians. I’m just not that good nor do I want to be,” Mother laughed. At least, I wasn’t going to turn out to be mealy-mouthed. Daddy, who had been scrounging around in the den closet, stepped out on the back porch. We stopped talking.
“Billy! Billy!” he yelled in the direction of the creek.
“What?” yelled Billy.
“Where’s my good pocket knife? Not in the tackle box! You been cuttin’ bait?” We didn’t hear an answer.
“I can’t hear you! Billy! Get up here,”
Mother and I looked out the window to see Billy taking big strides up the path into the yard. He kept his head down.
“I don’t have your knife.”
“Where are the three new boat cushions? They’re not in the closet. I don’t know why you can’t put stuff back where you get it!”
“In the boat, I guess.”
“Well, get ‘em out, and put ‘em in the closet!” I followed Daddy into the den, and Billy came in with the cushions. Daddy opened the closet roughly and Billy threw the cushions inside. Daddy slammed the door. I thought I heard Billy curse as he walked back out the back door.
If tools, nails, shampoo, soap, boat cushions, minnow buckets, nail clippers or anything came up missing, Daddy was sure Billy had lost them. Sometimes he had. He rode us all about not leaving standing water on the bathroom floor for fear it would rot the floor beneath, not pulling a plug out by the cord for fear of shorting it out, not feeding the dogs fish heads or pork chop bones for fear of them choking to death, not slamming doors or walking hard after 9 p.m. for fear of waking him up, not sitting too close to the color T.V. for fear of getting cancer, but he rode Billy the hardest, and there was a tone that he reserved just for Billy and the dogs.
“Edith, supper ready?”
“Just about. Peggy call Billy.” She slammed the kitchen cabinet hard and let the oven door snap shut. With all the bare hardwood floors, the sound reverberated like marbles in an aluminum trash can.
Daddy beat me to the door. “BILLY! Get back up here. Supper’s ready!” He turned to Mother as he came in, “I don’t know why he’s going back down there. He thinks you’re a short order cook, I reckon!”
Daddy didn’t talk at supper unless he’d been drinking. At supper, Daddy always seemed mad or unhappy, and I never knew what he was angry about. Today, though, he’d had more than a few beers so he was going to talk. We knew it.
“Ahhhggggg,” he said with a guttural sound like he was going to spit something out.
“Not enough salt.” He grabbed the salt shaker and shook it hard. I could barely eat the meat because it was so salty as it was, but we were afraid to tell him that his taste buds were shot. Mother got up to check the boiling eggs for tuna fish salad for his lunch tomorrow. He turned his head to follow her. He had a lump of food tucked in his cheek.
“What you boiling?”
He jumped up, took his arm and roughly pushed her out of the way, slightly off balance. “Keep on doing that, and you just boil the water out of the pan! You think you gotta have everything on high.” He turned to me, “She thinks she’s gotta have ever’ eye on high! Just bring ‘em to a boil and then cut it down.” He reached back and flamboyantly turned the dial back to low. “Eggs supposed to simmer!” Then he enunciated each word, “You . . . got . . . that . . . little . . . pan . . . on . . . that . . . big . . . eye, too and you just crank it up too high. It don’t work like gas, honey. See that coil? Put the right size pan on the right size eye otherwise you’re just wastin’ the heat of that outer coil. Keeping TVA running, I guess. That pan oughta be on that small eye,” and he slid it over to the smaller eye. A little water sloshed out with a sizzle. Billy was looking down at his plate. He hadn’t eaten a bite.
Daddy sat back down. Then he pushed his plate back with his thumb. “That’s all I can eat of that.” He made a fist and held it to his chest. Indigestion, we guessed. Her food had done it.
He got up to go brush his teeth. Daddy brushed his teeth a lot. Mother said they might put that on his tomb stone, “He always brushed his teeth.”
Mother looked strange . . . she didn’t make any movement toward clearing the dishes. She was irritated at Daddy because he had been drinking, but he hadn’t been any crankier than usual. The tirade about the stove eyes was just his typical irritability. Mother was good at apologizing for stuff she hadn’t done just to make things go smoother. Mother told me that she had listened to her parents fight constantly so she decided from the beginning that she wouldn’t fight with Daddy. Daddy’s mother, Vergie, told Mother that she had ruined Daddy’s life by not arguing with him. Vergie said that he liked a good row and Vergie, who was even crankier than Daddy, gave him one every time she saw him. One time they had argued about whether steel wool would burn. That argument ended with Daddy firing up a Brillo pad in the kitchen, and then there was the argument about whether a person would fall out of a car, going sixty miles an hour, if the door happened to pop open Finally, Daddy, who was driving, reached across Vergie and opened her car door. He won the argument. She didn’t fall out.
I had only seen Mother show her anger one time when she threw a frying pan across the kitchen at Daddy. Just as she started to go out the back door, she slipped a little on the scatter rug. He giggled. She picked the rug up and threw that at him before stomping out the back door and down to the river. Daddy was in shock when she lobbed that pan across the kitchen, but I wished that she had hit him square in the face.
Mother, Billy and I were silent, staring at a plate of cold fried crappie and cold home-fried potatoes. A smattering of mashed butter was smeared on the table. Finally, Billy reached for a napkin, and he almost spilled his untouched glass of iced tea.
Daddy had walked into the living room to finish the Tennessean before the news. Billy turned to me and mother and said, “I need to tell ya’ll something. Daddy too.” When I looked at Mother, it was like a light had gone out under her skin. Her steel gray eyes, dark and empty.
Mother didn’t miss a beat. “Well, sure, son.” She said this loud enough for Daddy to hear it. “We better go in the living room.” Billy got up first, walking point, with Mother and me bringing up the rear.
“Rufus, Billy says he needs to tell us something.”
Billy stood there moving his arms strangely, almost like he didn’t know they were his arms attached to his body.
“I joined the Marines today.” Silence for a long minute. I grabbed Mother’s arm. It felt trembley and damp.
I felt like I did when we were in the red Impala and got rear-ended at a stop light in Waverly in 1962. Everything slowed down. A full two minutes of silence.
“You did, huh?” Daddy said. His face was reddening. He sat up straight and lowered the foot rest of the chair with a bang, took off his bifocals, and stood up.
Billy tried to fill up that awful space. “I need to do this. Bubba joined the Army. I need to do this for my country.”
“Your country? What do you know about it? Anything?” He crumpled the paper in his right hand, and one sheet fell to the floor. “We don’t have any damn business over there, Billy. Why, these people been fighting for years, long before we stuck our nose in it, the French were in it. They couldn’t sort that out that mess. I’ve been reading all about it for years. Hell, just like Korea. Had no business there either. We need to stay in our own backyard unless somebody drops a bomb on us. Damn, Billy, you don’t have a lick of sense.” He got quiet and walked to the dining room chair, sat down, and leaned forward with his elbows on his knees and put his head in his hands. He looked frail, shaken. You could see light freckles under a fine veil of wispy hair.
“You just need to try to get out of that!” A beat. In a whisper, “Hell, son, I don’t know that you can get out of it. Did you sign somethin’? Some slick officer, I guess.” Daddy hated officers. He bragged about hitting every pot hole when he was a driver for a colonel at Ft. Benning before he got the medical deferment that kept him out of fighting in WWII.
“Yeah, I signed something, but it doesn’t matter. I don’t want to get out of it. I’m not going to get out of it.”
Daddy mumbled into his hand, talking to the floor. “What the hell did you do that for? You could join the Guard.” He stood up not wanting an answer. His chest puffed out.
“I got to do this.”
“I go to do thisss,” Daddy said mocking him. Then he found the scab and ripped it open. “You’re just a damn failure. You flunked out of college. Drinking and whoring I guess. Now you think this is gonna make up for it? It won’t!”
Billy was shaking, squeezing his eyes forcing the tears back inside him. Mother was crying, and she had her arm around Billy’s thin waist. She dug her face into his chest and then looked up at him. “I don’t want this, but I’m proud of you. I don’t want you to go, but . . . I’m very proud of you.”
Daddy stared at her like she’d eaten a baby. Then he turned the knife, mocking her. “Ya do, huh? Well, how proud are you gonna be if he goes over there and comes back dead? How’s that gonna be, huh? Or maybe without no legs or arms? How’d that be?” Daddy kept looking at Billy. “Just tell me exactly what you know about this thing, huh? What do you know? I’d just like to know.”
“I know that those people wanna be free like us. The North won’t let ‘em. I know that if we don’t stop the communists there, they’ll be over here soon. Khuschev said he would bury us. Besides, it’s my country.” Daddy interrupted.
“Shit, Billy,” Daddy said. He’d never said that word in front of me and Mother. “You don’t know shit!”
“Well . . .,” he exploded. “I know you were too fuckin’ scared to go fight in WWII.!” It was as if Billy had sucked all the air out of the room. Something was starting to rev up, speed up, spinning, faster and faster until it circled around all of us.
“I’ll tell you one thing . . .,” Daddy screamed. Billy was shaking. “If you go over there and lose your legs, I’ll still tell you that you were wrong.”
Billy left the living room and walked through the house to the back door and the river beyond. Daddy followed him out the door, onto the back porch and screamed at him, “I’ll still say you were wrong!” Daddy slammed the back door and stormed out the front door. We heard the car start and then peel away, spraying gravel.
Mother watched from the doorway while I followed Billy as he walked toward the river. I had no shoes, but I walked to the edge of the yard where the wooded path began. I stopped there, afraid of water moccasins and cotton mouths, but I watched as Bill took long strides down to the river. He had a straight, strong back that was just barely hunched. He was over six feet tall, but he got smaller and smaller all the way down the path leading to the river until the thick tangle of weeds, shoulder high, engulfed him.
Linda Barber is a retired teacher and realtor from the mountains of East Tennessee. She has worked hard to embarrass her entire family for many years. She wanted to be a spy, but that didn’t work out, so she spends her spare time watching Investigation ID, arming her alarm system, and calling her daughter in Dallas to warn her about Texas.
© 2012, Linda Barber