Part I: What Momma ‘nd ‘em Tol’ Me
Chapter 1: Trouble Fishin’
With the sun barely peakin’ over the pines and oaks around Big’s Cove, Uncle Jube helped me down in his old wooden boat. I sat back’ards on the for’ard wooden bench seat so I could watch him crank the motor and get a good whiff of two-cycle exhaust, which I liked.
The old Evinrude caught on the third pull of the cord like it always did. Jube threw the rope off the port stern cleat, twisted the throttle enough to idle us out of the dogleg slough and turned into the slow-movin’ green blood, as Big called it, of the river.
We putt-putted upstream past Taylor’s Bluff and the boat launch at the Ferry Camp while Jube hollered at two of his old buddies, who hollered and waved back, then he twisted the throttle and we were off, makin’ good time toward Birmin’port, past sloughs and coves and trees leanin’ out over the water.
I knew ‘em like most little kids know their backyards.
We had the river to ourselves all the way up past Black Creek Camp, then east up Short Creek to the Highway 269 Bridge.
Jube stopped fifteen yards short of the bridge, dropped the concrete block anchor over the side, tied off the rope to the port stern cleat and let the boat swing around with the current ‘til we pointed downstream. That put me right on top of one of my favorite brim beds.
We baited our hooks with nightcrawlers we’d fiddled yesterday, then flicked our cane poles and sat back to watch the quill bobbers for evidence of a bite.
Uncle Jube didn’t talk much. Momma said he used to be happy and would never shut up, but since he came back from a war in some place called Korea, he liked peace and quiet.
He pushed his dark blue Barons baseball cap back on his head, lit a cigarette with the Zippo that had a gold Marine Corps emblem on it, took a long pull, then blew out a cloud of blue smoke.
I liked the smell of that, too.
He leaned back against the transom-mounted motor, stretched out his long legs, cocked his head and sorta squinted one eye at me. “Trouble, has your momma ever told you how you got your name?”
Ever’body in the family told me what it was, but the best I could do with it was “Turtleback”. Grandpa Big called me Yurtle, Momma called me “Buddy” and ever’body else called me “Trouble”. It was all right confusin’ to me.
Nobody told me how I got it, though.
Jube continued to squint that one green eye at me. I frowned back at him. “I don’t think so, Uncle Jube, least not that I can ‘member.”
He pointed at my bobber. “Pay attention, boy.”
The quill bounced and jiggled, then went under. I jerked back on the pole and fought a nice-sized brim up to the surface, jerked it wigglin’ and thrashin’ into the air, then swung it ‘round so he could take it off the hook.
I’d be glad when I could do it myself. “I’m sorry, Uncle Jube, my hands are still too small and those darn brim get mad and stick me with their back-fins ever’ time I try. Big’s been tryin’ to teach me that trick to gettin’ ‘em off the hook, but I ain’t quite got the hang of it yet.”
Jube grunted. “Don’t worry ‘bout it kid. Ain’t no sweat.”
He threaded a stringer through the brim’s gills and out it’s mouth, tied off the cord and eased the fish, big as his hand, down in the water so there was no racket to scare off the others.
His bobber went down and a minute later he added another to the stringer, then we re-baited and swung our lines back out over the bed.
Jube puffed his cigarette and caught my eye again. “On the night you was born, the wind howled and the snow fell and blew sideways and it was cold as a witch’s titty.”
I didn’t know about witches’ titties, but I got the idea. I might be a little kid, but I ain’t stupid.
He checked his bobber and went on, “Me and your momma prayed Uncle Deuce’s old Model T truck with it’s one workin’ headlight would make it thirty miles down McPhaul Mountain on bald tires and black ice to Other Momma’s ‘fore you came into this world.”
Oh yeah, “I remember her. She’s that big, jolly old lady who likes to hug people and mash their heads between her bosoms.
I pulled in another brim, this one a mite larger. Man, I loved the way those little fish fight!
Jube strung the brim, then flicked his butt in the creek.
“I love my kid sister, but she was a little wild and, differ’nt, back then, still is when you get down to it. She got herse’f pregnant and don’t none of us know who your daddy is ‘cause she ain’t never said. I guess she knows me or one of your other uncles woulda killed the sum-bitch.”
I frowned at that. Why would they want to kill my daddy? I’d never really given any thought to who he was ‘til right then.
Jube paused to pull in another brim. After he re-baited and set his line out, he caught my eye and continued, “I was up at the farm that December when Big brought her up there to stay with Uncle Deuce and Grandpa.”
Great-Grandpa was like a nightmare that won’t go away. He scared the bejeezus outta me. Momma said he scared the bejeezus outta her, too.
He always wore a black coat, black boots and a wide-brimmed, black hat that covered his long, white hair no matter what.
My quill bobbed and I jerked the pole, but I was too quick and lost the brim before it swallowed the hook. It got a free meal and I tried again, then frowned at Uncle Jube. “How come she didn’t stay here?”
Jube grinned, which made him look much younger, more like his age than the old man that came back from the war. “There was two decidin’ factors. One is, I was there. We’ve always been tight, Katie ‘n’ me. People used to say we was ‘like as two lightnin’ strikes and jus’ as hard to handle.”
“I know we don’t look nothin’ alike. I’m tall like Big and she ain’t big as a minute. I got green eyes and she got blue, plus that strawberry-blonde hair like Mother, God rest her soul, but inside, she’s all McPhaul.”
“Reason two was that Big’s always worked graveyard at the pipe shop and he was ‘fraid he wouldn’t be home in the middle of the night if somethin’ happened to her, like with Mother.”
I nodded. Grandma died when she missed her carriage and all.
Jube went on, “Your momma knew I’d look out for her best I could, even though I don’t know nuthin’ ‘bout no pregnant women.”
He pulled two Co-Colas from the ice chest and tossed me one. I tried to stick the cane pole ‘tween my legs and catch it, but I was too slow. The bottle bounced off my bare chest, then rolled around in the bottom of the boat for a few seconds.
Without thinkin’, I picked it up and popped the top with the ‘church key’ on my pocketknife. Soda sprayed all over my face and my chest and legs.
Uncle Jube slapped his thigh and laughed.
Then it hit me. “You did that on purpose!”
He nodded, still grinnin’. “Whatchoo gon’ do nex’ time?”
“NOT open the bottle.”
He turned halfway ‘round on his seat and looked up at the bridge. “You know why I was up on the mountain, Trouble?”
“I don’ know, Uncle Jube, why?”
He pointed up at a lighter shade of concrete. “See that newer concrete and section of rail? Well, I stole a road department dump truck when I was drunk one night and drove it off the bridge. I was tryin’ to pass a coal hauler ‘cause I was in a hurry to go see Easy Jolee Harris over on the Walker County side and get my ashes hauled.”
I had no idea what that meant, but I laughed, ‘cause he did.
“Big was mad as hell, but jus’ ‘cause Judge Bridges made him pay for the goddam bus.”
Jube shook his head and chuckled. “The judge gave me thirty days at the road camp in Bess’mer, then he paroled me to Rev’rend Grandpa’s custidy. Ol’ Bridey said he was ‘fraid Big couldn’t keep me on the straight and narrow path.”
My mouth hung open for second and my eyes bugged. “I can’t believe you did that, Uncle Jube!”
He arched his eyebrows. “That’s what drinkin’ that goddam ‘shine will do to you, boy. Mind you remember that!”
I nodded solemnly. “I will.”
He paused his story to pull in another brim, then I caught another one, too. That made six. Looked like we were gonna catch a mess. Momma would be pleased as punch. She could sure cook and eat some fish!
We swung our lines out again and Jube tol’ me, “The rest of reason number two Katie come up there was Big’s sister, Aunt Cecilia, lived nearby at Scottsboro crossroads. Ever’body called her ‘Other Momma’ ‘cause she was a midwife, like a nurse and she’d birthed ‘bout ha’f the babies in southern Jackson County.”
He drained ‘bout ha’f his Co-Cola, then went on, “Big insisted Katie let Other Momma do the birthin’. He said after what happened to Mother, God rest her soul, he’d be dip’t in shit and goddamned if he’d let anything bad happen to his fav’rite daughter and his grandchild.”
My quill bobbed hard, then again. Before I could jerk back on the pole, Jube leaned forward and put a hand on it. He put a finger to his lips and whispered, “Thass a bass, boy! Wait. I’ll tell you when.”
I’d never caught a bass! I squeezed my knees together to keep from peein’ my cutoffs!
The quill sank again and I could feel the bite through the pole. The slim bobber was now at an angle and movin’ downstream, then it plunged deep and Uncle Jube yelled, “Now!”
I leaned back and jerked as hard as I could, settin’ the hook. The pole nearly flew from my hands, but I wasn’t ‘bout to let it go. The bass leapt out o’ the water, then thrashed and fought. My heart leapt to my throat like that bass. I fought back and managed to make some headway.
Jube moved up beside me, quiet as a cat. “You got him, boy, jus’ hang on, let him wear hisse’f out. That’s it. That’s it. Now, when I tell you, stand up and lift him out the water, then swing him ‘round fast ‘to the boat. Hold it. Hold it. Now!”
I followed Jube’s instructions and then stared in shock at the big fish floppin’ and gaspin’ in the bottom of the boat. “I got him, Jube!”
He held the bass down with one hand then worked the hook out its mouth. “Go get the stringer boy. Hang on tight. It’ll be heavy for you. I gotta hold him down so's he don’t flop out the boat.”
I hurried to the stern, untied the stringer and carefully made my way back to Jube.
He held up the bass by its bottom jaw and eyed it over. “I’d say you got a two-and-a-half pounder, a female by the looks of her and full o’ roe.”
He added the bass to the stringer. “Good job, kid. Katie’s gonna be mighty proud and Big’s gonna have a fit. He loves him some roe fried up with his grits in the mornin’.”
Uncle Jube slapped me on the back. “It ain’t easy catchin’ a bass this big on a cane pole, no sirree!”
He returned to his seat and lit a cigarette, squintin’ through the smoke in his face. “We hafta move to another spot afta all that ruckus. How ‘bout that deadfall at the back o’ Black Creek ?”
He was askin’ me? Holy smokes! “Uh, sure, Uncle Jube. Me ‘n’ Big was there a few days ago and had some luck.”
He pulled up the anchor and cranked the outboard. We putted down the creek to the river, then he sped up for the half mile run down to Black Creek and turned in the narrow mouth.
Jube twisted the throttle wide-open as we passed Judge Bridges’s place and made sure the boat threw a good wake to jostle his cabin cruiser. Jube snickered and gave the big boat the finger. I gave it one, too.
We eased in to the deadfall at the back of the slough formed by the creek and I tied us to a branch. This was a better spot anyway, shady and cooler. The smell of fish on the bed was strong.
Thirty seconds later, we had our lines in the water.
Jube cocked his head in that way he had, like Momma. “You wanna hear some more ‘bout your momma and when you was born and all?”
I nodded. I’d never heard Jube talk this much. He seemed happy for once. “I reckon.”
He pulled the brim of his cap down and rested his boot heels on the seat beside me. “Katie showed up seven months pregnant with her belly lookin’ like she swallowed a pun’kin whole, ‘specially since she’s so short and slender and got those itty bitty titties.”
He chuckled and shook his head. “Nineteen years old and carryin’ a baby and she was still flat-chested as a thirteen-year old li’l girl. I hate to say it, but I laughed at her. She got madder’n a wet hen! Tried to kick me, but I dodged, then she waddled after me and I teased her, ‘Ducky, Ducky, some feller got lucky.’”
“She’s always so cute when she gets mad ‘n’ her face turns red.”
I knew exactly what he was talkin’ ‘bout. Momma got that same look on her face when I did somethin’ bad and she made me go get a willow wand so she could blister my butt with it.
Uncle Jube snatched a big brim, half as long as his forearm, out of the water and before he got his hook rebaited, he was pullin’ one off my hook, too. That made eight brim and a nice bass. We were gonna be eatin’ good.
He leaned back with the pole ‘tween his legs and his fingers laced behind his head. “I was proud of Katie, Trouble. You’ll never know how hard it was for her to be pregnant and take a double load at Birmin’ham-Southern so she could graduate early, ‘fore you were born.”
“She said the stares, snide comments, name-callin’, backstabbin’ and stuff that came with bein’ pregnant and not married, hell, not even havin’ a boyfriend, were worse than ever.”
“On the other hand, she’s been hearin’ and dealin’ with it all her life for not conformin’ to other people’s rules and for bein’ the free-spirited li’l pixie she is. I love her for it, but it don’t go over well with folks ‘round here.”
People, ‘specially women, did look at Momma funny. Maybe it was ‘cause she hated wearin’ a bra. She said she didn’t need one ‘cause she didn’t have nothin’ to put in one. “How come folks think she’s differ’nt, Uncle Jube? She’s always smilin’ and wouldn’t hurt a fly.”
Uncle Jube let out a big sigh. “’Cause she don’t go to church and says goddam and speaks her mind. She hates it when people lie and most folks lie all the time. She says what she thinks and as long as she don’t figure she’s hurtin’ anybody else, she does what she wants to do, whether it’s hangin’ out and skinny-dippin’ with me and Joel and our buddies, or goin’ to the roadhouse, or swimmin’ ‘cross the river buck-naked at dawn. Ain’t another woman like her and she’s always been that way, leastwise since your Grandma died, God rest her soul.”
I fidgeted on the seat. I jus’ didn’t get it. “So people don’t like her and talk bad ‘bout her for bein’ herse’f and tellin’ the truth?”
Uncle Jube sighed, then sat up fast as his quill bobbed. He jerked in another brim, then I did, too. They seemed to be bitin’ in pairs today.
We swung our lines back in the creek and he caught my eye with his and frowned. “Your momma’s the smartest person I know. She reads and thinks and keeps up with what’s goin’ on in the world. She went to collitch. She keeps herse’f fit while most women her age jus’ let theyse’ves go.”
He kept his gaze locked to mine. “The worst thing she did, is have a child without bein’ married. You unnerstand?”
It hit me. My heart dropped to the pit of my stomach. “Then it’s my fault.”
My voice trembled when I said it. I couldn’t help it.
Uncle Jube slowly shook his head. “It’s not your fault, boy, it’s nobody’s fault but hers, but her gettin’ pregnant without bein’ married don’t make her any differ’nt than a thousand other women in this part of the county. The differ’nce is she didn’t trick some man into marryin’ her, or go away for seven months, then give you away afta you was born and then lie about it. You see the differ’nce?”
I fought back tears and a sniffle, but managed a nod.
He nodded back. “Remember that, boy. Ain’t nothin’ wrong with your momma, it’s other folks what’s messed up. If ever’body was like her, the world would be a far better place.”
Uncle Jube was silent for a while. We both caught two more brim, then Jube went on with his story, “Rev’rend Grandpa was hard on us, thumpin’ his Bible and tellin’ us we was gonna burn in Hell. When your momma showed up carryin’ a basterd baby, you, in her belly, he threatened t’ kick her ‘til she lost you.”
“Katie spent the next two months tryin’ to hide from him, but it’s hard to do when you’re on top of McPhaul Mountain and termin’lly pregnant. She sure as hell couldn’t run and neither could I.”
His eyebrows scrunched together and he spat over the side of the boat. “She shoulda stayed here with Big.”
Big hated Great-grandpa and his Babtis’ preachin’. I didn’t care for him much, either, now.
Jube chuckled to hisse’f. “You remember how your momma laughed so hard she cried when he ran off with an old floozy from his congregation? How the ol’ whore stole what little money he had and took off in the middle of the night a week later?”
I didn’t recall that at all, but Jube seemed to be enjoyin’ hisself, so I just shrugged and kept my mouth shut.
“Well, Grandpa went back to McPhaul Mountain from the boardin’ house in Huntsville where they was shacked up, put down his hat ‘n’ ‘is Bible, sat on the porch in a rockin’-chair and churned butter all day ever’ day. He never said a ‘nother word to a single soul ’til he died at age eighty-six two years ago.”
Oh yeah. Now I remembered, sorta. “Momma said he was just another pot who called her kettle ‘black’.”
“Yep, that made three of us, countin’ Big.”
He chuckled and shook his head as I pulled another brim out of the snags. “We made a game out of tryin’ to make Rev’rend Grandpa think he was losin’ his mind and faculties. We talked to him straight-faced with our mouths movin’ but no sound comin’ out. He’d plumb at his ears with both his forefingers, shake his ol’ head, then stomp off mutterin’ under his breath ‘bout the trials and tribulations the Good Lord heaps on the righteous.”
I laughed along with him while he unhooked another fish for me. That made thirteen and one.
“You think that’s funny? We did other stuff, too; rubbin’ our butts with his denture brush and mixin’ crumbled mouse turds in with his ground coffee.”
I laughed so hard I near’ fell off the seat.
Uncle Jube pulled up another brim, laid his pole in the boat, then sat hunched forward with his elbows on his knees.
“You know how I said there was a bad storm the night you was born? Well, your momma’s water broke at the exact same moment the storm cut loose, ‘bout nine Sunday night...
“Wait. What’s that mean, ‘Momma’s water broke’?”
“It means, uh, she knew you was ready to come outta her. You unnerstand?”
I frowned and scratched my head. “No, but I don’ know much ‘bout ladies havin’ babies, ‘cept Momma told me how they’s made when I asked her, but I don’ really get that, either, Uncle Jube.”
His jaw dropped. “Katie told you ‘bout that? Well, it shouldn’t su’prise me, I guess. She said she was gonna arm you with the truth and she’d ‘preciate it if we helped her with that. Thass why I’m tellin’ you this stuff today.”
“I’m not gonna lie to you, boy. Folks, ‘specially kids, gonna say bad things ‘bout you and your momma and us McPhauls. They gonna call you names and call your momma names, jus’ like they been doin’ for years, okay?”
My head hurt tryin’ to cipher all he was tellin’ me. I teared up. I couldn’ help it.
Uncle Jube’s face was hard and old lookin’ again. “Suck it up, boy. You gonna be raised a McPhaul and McPhauls don’t cry. Disappointment ‘n’ pain are part o’ life. Cryin’ won’t help you and prayin’ goddam sure won’t do you no good, okay?”
I wiped my nose on my arm, took a shudderin’ breath and let it go. “I’ll do my best Uncle Jube.”
He leaned forward and put both hands on my shoulders, lookin’ me dead in the eyes. “I know you will, boy, I know you will. Now pick up your pole. I’m gon’ tell you ‘bout how tough your momma was the night you was born.”
I snatched up my line, took the worm off, fed it to the fish so they’d grow and stowed my pole in the holder.
Jube took another deep puff, blew out a cloud and cleared his throat.
“Your momma didn’t know ‘xactly how long it was gonna take when it was her time to bring you into the world, ‘cause no woman ever does.”
Jube shook his head, pulled up the stringer and laid the fifteen fish in the bottom of the boat. “I told your momma I sure as hell didn’t know, so when she doubled over her embroid’ry work, sittin’ on the sofa in front of the fire and yelled, “Jube!” she fought you comin’ in to the world with ever’thing she had. She was ‘fraid we wouldn’ make it down the mountain in the storm to Other Momma’s house in time, otherwise.”
“I carried her piggyback through the howlin’ storm to the truck. You was kickin’ me in the back the whole time and Katie was ‘bout to strangle me with the death-grip she had ‘roun’ my neck.”
“Ya'll made me run a helluva lot faster than I intended.”
“On the way down the mountain, Katie cussed and wailed and thrashed like two bobcats in a burlap sack, ‘til the inside o’ that ol’ truck was beat and torn t’ hell ‘n’ back.”
“I told her right away I warn’t birthin’ no baby on the side o’ the road at night in the wors’ snow storm in recorded hist’ry, so she jus’ better suck you back up in there, or jam her fist inside herse’f, or somethin’.”
“I scootched as far as I could up against the driver’s door or she woulda kicked the shit out me when I tol’ her that.”
Jube took several more puffs on his cigarette while he stared down at the calm water, then stubbed it out. “That storm was like a true-blue, damn-Yankee, northern invasion, but I got your momma and you, to Other Momma’s at five minutes ‘til midnight with twenny inches o’ snow on the ground, the front porch thermom’ter readin’ 21 degrees and the very firs’ sliver of a waxin’ moon holdin’ water somewhere ‘bove the clouds.”
You came out screamin’ without even a smack on the ass at 12:01 on the 20th of Feb’uary, the first minute of the astra-log’cal month o’ Pisces, which seems fittin’ fer a river rat, bein’ the fish sign and all, if you ax me.”
“I’ll never ferget that night and how brave your momma was as long as I live.”
“Katie asked Other Momma t’ name you in the Irish tradition, her bein’ the ex-pert on fam’ly hist’ry ‘n’ such.”
“She said your name should be Toirdhealbach, Irish fer troublemaker, but also the name of kings. It was a mouthful, though, so Big ‘n’ me shorted it t’ “Trouble”.”
“Folks say Other Momma has the gift of the fey blood, or the curse, dependin’ on how you look at it and that she can see the future. I ‘spect it was flowin’ through her right strong that night and you’re gonna live up t’ your name.”
He pointed to the bow rope ‘n’ nodded.
I untied us, then sat facin’ for’ard while he cranked the motor. I figured I was armed with ‘bout all the truth I could handle for one day.
We headed back down the river with the wind in our faces and a mess of fish for Momma to fry up for our dinner.
Chapter 2: Scars
The sun was hot as a firecracker. Momma and me lay on our bellies on beach towels while Aunt Dotty and her kids stretched out in Big’s homemade lawn chairs in the shade of the boathouse.
Momma, Brad, Charlie and me were buck-naked, but Dotty wore a one-piece bathin’ suit. She had grown in size since Charlie was born and her thighs and butt had the texture of cottage cheese. Her legs were stubbly and red-brown hair curled out from the crotch of her suit.
Momma said she’d let herse’f go and I had to agree. She looked like a younger version of Other Momma, now; more a McPhaul than a Galloway like Grandma and Momma.
Momma’s body was hairless as mine, except for a small patch of orange-blonde fuzz above her lady parts. Even her orange-blonde eyebrows and lashes were nearly invisible after half a summer in the sun.
Her belly was flat, her hips were narrow and her butt was firm.
Big said she got that from Grandma, too.
We were all sunburned. I checked my arms to see how dark I was gettin’. Momma saw me lookin’ and ruffled my hair. “I swear, Buddy, you’re like Big. You must be part-Injun or somethin’.”
“And that hair! You got my sperm donor’s ash-blonde hair. It’s turned as light as the ivory on my piano keys!”
Momma was tanned, too, but her skin turned a lighter shade of brown, more like she was dusty and she had a huge crop of freckles on her shoulders, chest and cheeks.
The sun had streaked her straight, shoulder-length, orangish hair with a dozen lighter shades.
She groaned and muttered, then rolled over, sat up and swung her legs over the edge of the weathered, gray, cypress-plank pier with her feet and strong calves in the warm water.
I couldn’t help starin’ at the very white, six-inch long scar down the outside of her right thigh.
I pushed up to my feet, took one step to launch myself in a cannonball that splashed ever’body with water, swam over between Momma’s legs and rested my right forearm on her left thigh. I ran my left forefinger along the ridge of smooth tissue on the other one. The contrast between the white lines and her smooth, dark-beige skin fascinated me, as did the way the scars were cool to the touch when the rest of her skin was so hot.
Momma sighed and grabbed my hand, then slid in the water with me. She stood in the shallows, turned around so she could swing her right foot up on the pier, then pointed to the scar.
“You wanna know how I got my scar? I’ll try to explain it so you can understand, okay?”
Momma was a first-grade teacher after all. She was good at explainin’ things to kids. I nodded my head, then dove under her, blew a huge stream of bubbles and came up laughin’ by the inside of her raised leg.
She shivered and gasped. Goose bumps rose on her arms and belly. She pushed me away, then splashed me in the face. “What’d I tell you ‘bout blowin’ bubbles ‘neath a girl’s bottom? Don’t do that! It, it tickles!”
Aunt Dotty snorted and rolled her eyes. “If you’d put some goddamn clothes on, Katie, you wouldn’t have that problem. Watch. You’re gonna turn that boy ‘to a’ Eddi-pus.”
Eddi-pus? What was that?
Momma stuck her tongue out at Aunt Dotty and gave her the finger. “Shut up Dotty. How many times I gotta tell you, I hate the con-fines of clothes, especially in the water. It ain’t natch’ral! I don’t want Trouble growin’ up with hang-ups ‘bout the beauty of the human body and all. I just want him to be free and not hide who he is behind clothes like other folks do.”
Dotty raised her eyebrows. “You got two of those fingers?”
Momma showed her the other one.
Dotty grinned, but her eyes looked mean. “Sit on one and stick the other one in your mouth, then rotate ‘em ever’ five minutes. Oh, wait, you wouldn’t know how to do that, would you, bein’ as how you’ve only been laid once in your en-tire life!”
“Jeez, Katie, go out and get yourse’f banged! I don’t know how you stand it. I’m horny right now and Hark does me good at least three times a week and I find somebody else the other four!”
“You’re twenty-five years old! Hell, I’ll bring you some toys down here and do you myself. All you have to do is lay there and wiggle and moan while I do all the work.”
All I understood was “toys”. “Yeah, Momma, let Aunt Dotty bring us some toys! I’ll play with you!”
Momma’s face flushed red as a beet. Her mouth moved, but no sound came out. Her left hand rested on the curve of her belly below her navel, chest heavin’ as she breathed. Her right hand clenched in a fist as she moved it up to her pursed lips like she was kissin’ her curled thumb and forefinger.
“Dotty, you are such a goddam slut! God!”
Dotty smiled, but not with her eyes. “So what if I am? It’s not like I’m screwin’ your man.”
“Damn it, Dotty! Stop! You win, okay? You never know what these kids might pick up on, okay? Just... stop it! You’re... sick!”
The look on Dotty’s face scared me. “You have no idea, my sweet sister. Come on Brad. Get your little ass up here.”
My cousin Brad crawled out of his lounge. Aunt Dottie picked up nappin’ little Charlie from her lounge, then walked slowly, hips swayin’ like wunna those hula girls, up to the house.
Brad followed, suckin’ his thumb, then turned and waved. “Bye, Twouble. Bye Aun’ Kadie.”
Dotty grabbed his ear and pulled him behind her. He didn’t make a sound. I woulda yelped, even though I was two years older.
Meanwhile, Momma had swung her foot down off the pier like it was on fire. Tears pooled at the corners of her eyes.
Somethin’ was wrong, but what? Grown-up stuff? It seemed likely.
I turned to her and she hugged me tight, the side of my face mashed to her pancake-with-a-cherry-on-top left breast. She kissed the top of my head a dozen times.
After a minute, she sat back on the muddy bottom and stayed there for a long while, face in her hands, shoulders heavin’, until Dotty’s car cranked and headed out the gate.
Finally, Momma took a deeep breath, blew it out slowly and rubbed my head. “Let’s go for a boat ride, okay? Go put your shorts on.”
I climbed up on the pier, ran across the forty feet of back yard, up the half-flight of stairs to the back porch, tiptoed to my room so as not to wake Big, jumped in my cutoffs, stopped in the kitchen on the way back for two bananas and headed out the back door and down to the boathouse.
Momma stood at the shoreward door, wigglin’ into a pair of short, tight, ragged denim cutoffs. They didn’t look much bigger than mine to me.
Her thin, white cotton blouse was open down to the third button and she hadn’t bothered to dry off. As usual, she was obviously bra-less.
I ran around to the river side of the boathouse and opened the near, wide, corrugated, door, then dropped its chain over the closest creosote-covered post at the end of the pier.
Momma cranked the 7.5 horsepower Evinrude on the third try and a second later, the 14-foot, almost flat-bottomed, wooden fishin’ boat that Big built himself came putt-puttin’ by.
I dropped the bananas in the bottom by the for’ard bench seat and jumped in.
Momma idled out of the slough, then twisted the throttle on the motor’s rudder arm wide-open.
I tossed her a banana, which she caught with her free hand and peeled with her teeth as we headed up and diagonally across, the river toward the old ferry landing on the Walker County side.
By the time we arrived, Momma’s hair had blown dry and streamed behind her head like a tattered, orange-gold banner.
She eased us up to a young water oak by the remains of the gently-sloped landin’ ramp as a bank o’ dark clouds boiled up to the west, blockin’ the sun, which was fine by me.
I tied us up and we both jumped in the knee-deep, to me, clear green water, then walked up the gravel ramp. Momma grabbed my hand and headed for an overgrown old wagon trail that ran south parallel to the river toward Salter’s Slough.
“Where we goin’ Momma?”
She pointed to an old, dilapidated log cabin with a fallen roof, barely visible through the trees fifty yards away. “I told you I was gonna tell you how I got that scar on m’ leg. Well, that ol’ cabin is where it started. It’s a neat place. You’ll like it.”
I squinted through the trees as we walked through tall weeds and low bushes. “Anybody live there, Momma?”
“No, Buddy. Nobody’s lived there since the Taylor’s ferry shut down ‘bout a dozen years ago. It’s where the ferrymen waited on this side o’ the river while the miners loaded coal wagons on the ferry barge.”
“Why’d they close the ferry?”
“Why do you think they closed it?”
Drat! Momma answered my questions with questions all the time. She said it would teach me to use my noggin’ for somethin’ other ‘n a hat rack.
I mulled it over for a few seconds, then I snapped to the answer. “Cause they built the Copeland’s Ferry Bridge and didn’ need it anymore.”
Momma ruffled my hair and smiled. “Very good, Buddy! You’re right.”
She was silent for a minute, then reminisced, “When I was little, Big would go to the Masonic Lodge in Jasper once in a while. Sometimes, he took me and Jube and Joel with him. We had t’ cross the river on the Copeland’s Ferry, right there where the bridge is now on t’other side o’ Black Creek.”
“The ferry had a coal-fired steam engine built in Norway. It belched the most god-awful black smoke, but I loved ridin’ on it. Big did, too. He knew the engineer and the old codger would take us down to the engine room and let us watch the nigrahs shovel coal in the boiler furnace.”
“The propeller shaft was bigger ‘round than I was. It was fascinatin’.”
We were almost to the cabin. Momma stomped her feet ‘n’ so did I. She purely hated snakes.
She began her anti-snake song at the top of her lungs and I joined in, “Oh when the snakes, go marchin’ in, Oh when the snakes go march-in’ in! I’ll tuuurn my tail and ru-un, When the snakes go march-in’ in!”
The process worked. Momma and me never saw a snake, not even in the blackberry patches where they liked to hang out and eat birds ‘n’ rodents.
She climbed the three rotten steps to the unprotected doorway, stuck ‘er head through, banged hard on the frame with the palm of her hand and stepped through, sayin’, “Come on, Buddy, the coast is clear, just walk where I walk, okay?”
I followed her in, dodgin’ fallen timbers and cypress shakes. The place was a wreck.
It was perfect.
Momma wove through the debris, stopped at what must’ve been the central roof beam, sat down, then cleared ‘n’ patted a spot beside her.
I sat down. She draped an arm over my shoulder and pointed to the remains of a narrow stairway that led down to a cellar. “That’s where I fell, Buddy.”
I squinted at the dark passage. I bet there were spiders and other neat stuff down there. “How’d you do that, Momma?”
She looked up at the few remainin’ roof timbers and sighed. “You remember Mr. Ollie, right?”
How could I not? He had the neatest ChrisCraft ski boat on this stretch of the river! I’d even ridden in it once when he came to visit Big. “Yeah, Momma, I ‘member. Big said he was your boyfriend long time ago.”
She rolled her eyes and made a face. “He was not my boyfriend, though I wouldn’ve minded if he was. He was my practice-kisser and we hung out some. We’d come over here, or go down the river and skinny-dip ‘cause he was embarrassed to be seen with me in public or take his clothes off in front of anybody but me.”
I didn’t really understand that. “Why?”
Momma shrugged. The corners of her mouth turned down, then her faint eyebrows knit together. “’Cause he was con-flicted, con-fused and con-stupid. He jus’ saw me as some li’l white trash tomboy to hang out with when he ‘as bored.”
My opinion of Mr. Ollie plummeted, though it was more from a sense of what Momma felt than from what she said. “Did he hurt your leg, Momma?”
She laughed, a sound like rain on po’ dead Grandma’s copper chimes. “Oh no, Buddy, he saved my life!”
Momma stood, then made her way to the fallen stairs while starin’ nervously up at the few remainin’ rotten roof beams. “It was my sixteenth birthday and I was standin’ right here on the trap door of the stairway, tryin’ to get Ollie to practice kissin’. I told him I wanted that ‘n’ more for my birthday present.”
Her chest heaved and a deep sigh came out. “God he was good-lookin’, still is. I wanted to ride him cowgirl style, like he was a horse ‘n’ I was Annie Oakley.”
I imagined what Momma would look like ridin’ on Ollie’s shoulders.
“I unbuttoned my blouse and took a step to’ard him. It wasn’t like he hadn’t seen me naked, though only in the water. We’d been skinny-dippin’ together two dozen times in the past three years. He...”
Suddenly flushed, Momma squeezed her knees together and fanned her face with both hands. She muttered somethin’ I didn’t quite hear, took a deep breath, closed her eyes and blew it out.
I tugged the hem of her blouse. “You okay, Momma?”
She chuckled and ruffled my hair. “I’m okay, Buddy. I was just thinkin’ ‘bout somethin’ I need to let go of.”
She took my hand and led me the few steps to the dark hole in the floor of the camp. “Look down there.”
I looked. Spider webs, dirt and splinters of busted boards. I was rather disappointed. “Momma? Is treasure buried down there?”
She threw her head back and laughed. “You and your buried treasure tales! No, there’s nothin’ but coal buried ‘round here, Buddy. I wanted to show you this hole ‘cause I lay down there for three hours with both my legs broken.”
She pointed up at a roof timber. “Keeraack! One of those fell. I tried to get out of the way but I fell back. It crashed down, PSSSHHHH and hit right across my thighs and broke them with a sssnaaap! The force smashed me through the trap door and onto the stairs, then I tumbled backward, head over heels to the bottom. If that warn’t bad enough, the stairs fell on top o’ me, too.”
“Ouch! I bet that hurt!”
Her face sagged for an instant, but then she nodded. “It didn’ jus’ hurt. It goddam hurt! I screamed ‘til I lost my voice. I couldn’t move. There were spiders and bugs crawlin’ on my belly and my legs ‘n’ my chest, ‘cause my blouse was open.
I nodded. “You didn’ have a bra on, didja Momma.”
She punched me on the upper arm. “You little stinker, you know I didn’t! I def’nitely didn’t need one back then. If it warn’t for you, I wouldn’ have what little bit I got now!”
I frowned at that. This was just one more conversation I was havin’ a hard time unnerstandin’ today.
Momma dragged me over to a chunk of broken beam and pointed down at it. “This piece of roof fell and hit Ollie in the head. He was knocked out for an hour, but I thought he ‘as dead ‘cause he didn’t answer my screams. I was sure I was gonna die, too.”
“Finally, he woke up and crawled to the hole, but by then, I’d passed out m’self.”
“Ollie was afraid he would hurt me or not be able to get back out of the cellar if he came down, so he just ran for the boat and went for Big and Jube.”
“Big grabbed some rope and the first aid kit from the shop. They came for me as fast as Ollie’s boat would go.”
“What happened Momma? How did you get the scars?”
She rubbed her thighs absently as she stared up at the darkenin’ sky. “Big and Jube put me and Ollie in the back of the truck. Jube laid my head in his lap and Ollie, well, his head was bleedin’ like a stuck pig, but he kept my legs from floppin’ ‘round while Big drove us to Babtis’ Hospital.”
“The doctors rushed me to surgery, then cut my thigh open and used steel plates to put it back together.”
My eyelids flew open wide. “Like Humpty-Dumpty!”
Momma raised her arms and did her best monster imitation. “No, like Frankenstein! RAAARRRGH!”
I knew Frankenstein from Halloween and yelled, “Frankenstein! Frankenstein! Here comes ol’ Frankenstein!”
She wrapped both her arms around my head like a monster would, rocked me side-to-side and chuckled. “I woke up two days later in casts from my hips to my feet. I had to wear ‘em for three months and use a stupid wheelchair, then I was on crutches for a month after the doctor cut ‘em off.”
I frowned at her. “I’m gladjoo didn’ die, Momma.”
Momma stared up at the towerin’, dark gray clouds visible through the open roof. Thunder rolled and echoed in the distance. Tears brimmed at the corners of her eyes, her fists clenched white-knuckle tight, her shoulders shook and she doubled over, beatin’ both fists on ‘er thighs.
I felt her pain like a punch in my gut, though I couldn’t get a grip on what had just passed between us ‘r why. Tears brimmed in my own eyes ‘n’ my voice trembled when I asked, “Momma? Momma, what’s wrong? Why you cryin’?”
She got a grip on herself then; squared her shoulders, relaxed her hands and rubbed her eyes with her palms. She took three deep, shudderin’ breaths, then grabbed my hands and held on tight, just starin’ up at the clouds for minutes.
Finally, she grinned her crooked grin, then squatted to look me eye to eye. “I’m fine, now, little Buddy. I was just thinkin’ ‘bout how me ‘n’ you should take a trip.”
I wiped my own eyes and perked up. A trip? “Can we go to the beach?”
The only trip I’d ever been on was to Mobile and Dauphin Island. I couldn’t remember much ‘cept a long tunnel, sand in my crack and laughin’ in the surf.
Momma cocked her head and raised one eyebrow. “The beach? Maybe. You know all those pitchers ‘n’ maps I have on the wall in my bedroom? I’ve wanted t’ see those places all m’ life.”
She placed her right elbow in her left hand, then tapped her right forefinger nail on her pointy chin. That was her thinkin’ pose. “I’ll need some time to make the arrangements, but we’re goin’ to pick one and go, okay?”
I grinned back at her. “Thass good by me. Can Big go, too?”
For the first time I noticed the little crow’s feet at the corners of her eyes as they deepened. I would’ve sworn they hadn’t been there ten minutes ago. “No, sweetie, he’ll have to stay here. Just you ‘n’ me against the world, okay?”
I wanted Big to go, but an adventure sounded like fun, regardless. “Okay, Momma. I’m ready when you are.”
She kissed my forehead. “That’s my little trooper. Now, let’s get out o’ here ‘fore it rains. Race ya!”
Then we were runnin’ for the boat.
Momma drove wide-open, racin’ whitecaps and grinnin’ like an imp all the way back to Big’s Cove.
Big, fat raindrops beat a tattoo on the camp’s tin roof. Lightnin’ flashed in the dark night and I counted by Miss’ssippi’s to ten before thunder boomed down the river. “Two miles, Momma, that one was pretty close.”
She opened a cedar chest under her bedroom window, sayin’, “Sounded like it, Buddy.”
She rummaged through magazines and posters and brochures. “How high can you count now?”
I scratched my head and frowned. “I’m up to thousands, but I lose track after a coupla those.”
She raised her eyebrows. “Wow! That’s great! I had no idea!”
“Pssshh, Momma, I’ll be doin’ bazillions ‘fore you know it!”
She laughed as she turned back to the chest, pulled out the magazine she wanted, closed the chest, sat on it, then patted a spot beside her.
I joined her.
She pointed to the front of the magazine. “I’m gonna point to each word as I say ‘em ‘cause you don’t know these, okay?”
I loved to read. “Okay.”
“Con-de. Nast. Tra-ve-ler’s. Guide. To. Ger-ma-ny. Say it.”
It looked simple enough. “Conde. Nast. Traveler’s Guide to Eu-rope. What’s a ‘Conde Nast, Momma.”
“Well, it’s the name of a company that makes magazines, guides, that have information ‘bout faraway places and the things to see ‘n’ do there.”
I nodded. “And Eu-rope is wunna them places?”
“Those places. Say it right, Buddy, you know better.”
I fidgeted on the hard chest. “Those places.”
Momma nodded, then flipped through the guide ‘til she came to a map that took up both pages, then pointed to the left-hand side. “We’re here in the United States, right?”
I nodded. I had a map of the United States tacked to the wall in my bedroom. “Yep.”
She traced her finger to the right ‘cross the ‘Lantic Ocean ‘til it hit another land mass. “This is Europe, across the Atlantic Ocean. There’re several dozen countries in Europe, sorta like the states in our country.”
I could see that plainly enough. “Which one you wanna go to, Momma?”
She laughed. “I wanna go to all of ‘em, Buddy! But I’d love to go to this one...”
She tapped her fingernail on a country in the middle o’ Europe, “called Germany.”
I saw the name beneath her finger. It sounded just like it looked, if you didn’t let the ‘G’ fool you. “So what’s in Germany?”
Momma put rested her right elbow in her left hand and tapped her chin. “Wee-eell, there’s lots o’ castles and the Black Forest where they make Koo-Koo clocks...”
She punched my shoulder. “Not ‘cause they’re crazy, silly, ‘cause that’s the noise they make instead of a ding or a dong or a tinkle!”
I laughed. “Ding-dongs and tinkles. Momma you’re a nut!”
She rolled her eyes and chuckled. “That does sound a little silly, doesn’t it.”
She turned a few pages, then stopped at one with a castle.
My jaw dropped. “Momma! That’s that new place called Disneyland in California! I just saw it on tv!”
She shook her head and patted my shoulder. “No, Buddy. That’s the castle Disneyland was copied from. It’s called Neufschwannstein. You wanna go there with me?”
“A real castle?”
Eyes open wide ‘n’ dreamy, Momma nodded. “A real castle and museums and more!”
I grinned at her. “You betcha!”
Chapter 3: Cowboy Boots and a Three-Dollar Bill
Momma drove like Red Farmer through Five Points West as I asked her for the hundredth time, “Momma, can I have some cowboy boots, you know, like the ones Audie Murphy wears?”
I really wanted a pair o’ those boots.
She sighed and rolled her eyes. “No you may not, ‘specially if you can’t use proper southern English to ask for ‘em!”
I was a persistent kid. “Please, Momma, may I have some cowboy boots?”
She huffed ‘n’ puffed, drummed her fingernails on the bakelite steerin’ wheel, then turned her head to glare at me ever’ ten seconds for a minute before askin’, “How many times have I told you ‘no’, Buddy? Ten dozen? The answer is still ‘no’. It won’t matter if you ask me another ten dozen times. You are not wearin’ cowboy boots! Don’t ask me again, you’ll just be wastin’ your breath!”
There were no willow switches in the car, which was the only deterrent that actually worked on me. “Come on, Momma! Why can’t I have some? Pretty please? I’ll do anything you want, just get me some Audie Murphy boots!”
Momma squinted at me for a second, then sighed and slowly shook her head. “I’m gonna tell you a story, Buddy-boy. You may not understand all of it, now, but it’s a true story and has to do with why I can’t stand cowboy boots, okay?”
I slumped in the seat ‘n’ frowned. I liked her stories, but I doubted she could change my mind. I pouted and folded my arms on my chest, resigned to hearin’ her out. “Okay, Momma, but...”
She raised her pale eyebrows. “No buts, Buddy. When I’m done, you will never ask me for goddam cowboy boots again. Do you get my drift? Have I made myself clear?”
I sulked, but she was serious. Momma only said ‘goddam’ when she had a strong opinion ‘bout somethin’.
“Did. I. Make. My. Self. CLEAR?”
Resistance was futile. “Yes, Momma.”
She made sure I understood there would be consequences. “You know what will happen if you ever ask me again after I tell you this story?”
I knew exactly. “Yes, Momma. You’ll make me cut a willow wand and you’ll use it t’ blister my butt.”
“You’d better believe it, Buddy-boy!”
Momma was silent for a moment. I could almost hear the gears grindin’ in her head. Finally, she glanced at me from the corner of her eye. “You can never tell another soul what I’m ‘bout to tell you, nobody, okay?”
Oh, now this was an interestin’ development! “Okay, Momma.”
She stuck her hand out, pinky extended. “Pinky-swear!”
Drat! A pinky-swear was unbreakable. So much for more ammo in my chest. I locked pinkies with her. “Okay, Momma, I pinky-swear.”
She breathed out a long sigh, then shook her head. “I’m prob’ly gonna regret this, but I’ve never told this to another soul and I’ve been itchin’ for nine years to tell somebody. I’m trustin’ you here, Buddy-boy. This is a grown-up story. I expect you to act like a grown-up and keep your word.”
My eyelids popped wide-open. Grown-up stuff? Alright! I crossed my heart so she’d know I was serious. “Cross my heart ‘n’ hope to die, Momma. Your secret is safe with me!”
“And no more ‘bout cowboy boots, right?”
I shoulda seen that comin’ and somethin’ told me I’d never get a pair ‘til I was old enough to buy ‘em myself. I sighed, stared down at my bare feet on the floorboard and wiggled my boot-denied toes. “That, too, Momma, my lips is locked.”
I pressed my lips together, pretended I was lockin’ ‘em and threw away the imaginary key.
“Lips are locked, Buddy. Say it right.”
Sometimes, havin’ a first grade teacher for a mother stank. “My lips are locked, Momma.”
She took a deep breath and began, “You know I was only sixteen and I’d been recoverin’ from my broken legs, when I graduated high school, right?”
“Well, ever’ graduatin’ class has a dance called a senior prom. It’s a big deal. Because Big wouldn’t let me date ‘til I was sixteen...”
“What’s date mean, Momma?”
The skin around her eyes tightened and she drummed on the steerin’ wheel. “A date is when a boy asks a girl to go somewhere with him, like to a church social, or a movie, or a dance at school.”
“Like boyfriend and girlfriend?”
“Yes, Buddy, somethin’ like that.”
“Anyway, I’d never been on a real date...”
How could that be? Momma was pretty and I’d never seen anybody else that looked remotely like her. Surely somebody had wanted her for a girlfriend. “Not even with Ollie?”
Momma glanced at me from the corner of her eye while she negotiated traffic through Wylam. “Not even with Ollie. Oh, we went off and did things, like pickin’ blackberries ‘n’ fishin’ ‘n’ skinny-dippin’ in the moonlight. Like I’ve told you, we even practiced kissin’, a lot! But a date means bein’ seen together out in public and he just couldn’ seem to do that with me, I guess.”
I wasn’t much on mushy stuff, or girls, ‘cept for Annie Oakley, but I’d heard Momma talk like this about Ollie several times before. It seemed to upset her. I wanted to hear, “Why, Momma?”
She fidgeted on the bench seat and frowned. “I guess some of it was my own fault. I never tried to fit in ‘cause I thought I couldn’t, or maybe I was just contrary and wouldn’t.”
“I looked differ’nt, bein’ orange-blonde and small and flat-chested and wearin’ differ’nt clothes.”
“I’ve always been free-spirited an unconventional in a culture that frowns on such.”
“I made straight A's without even tryin’ and I was two years younger than ever’body else in my class.”
“They thought I was a freak and shunned me like I was cursed or had the goddam plague or somethin’.”
“Did Ollie think you were a freak?”
Momma cut her eyes at me, then ran her fingers through her hair. “I didn’t think so at first, but I was wrong. I was blinded by what I wanted to be true rather than what was true.”
Her tiny crow’s feet deepened slightly and her lips pressed together, forming thin, pink lines. “Then I thought he just wanted me as a secret lover, but I was wrong about that, too. I gave him too many hints and opportunities, even tried to show him what I was willin’, wanted, to do that day at the log cabin ‘cross the river. I thought if he saw me in the daylight, he... Well, he missed his chance, didn’t he and I wasted my time.”
Her voice was bitter, but I’d heard most of it before and knew it made her sad. Time to move along. “So why didn’t you find another boy?”
Momma sighed. “None of them wanted me, Buddy, or I didn’t want them. Some of the kids at school said bad things about me that weren’t ‘xactly true and it wasn’t long ‘til ever’body in west Jefferson County believed and added to ‘em.”
She cut her eyes at me again, hands on the wheel so tight the tendons of her wrists looked taut as drawn bowstrings. “That’s one of the reasons why I don’t like clothes, Buddy. If people went around buck-naked they might be more prone to tell the truth and be less judgmental ‘bout what people look like on the outside.”
I actually understood that. Momma was a stickler for truth and what she called “reason”. Big ‘n’ them laughed at her an said she was over-educated and read too many books.
I asked before she could continue, “What was it they were sayin’ ‘boutcha Momma?”
She sighed and hunched forward over the wheel. “Because I was younger ‘n’ smaller and had small breasties and no hair on my legs or under my arms, a lot o’ girls made funna me for some reason. They called me ‘Little Orphan Annie’ and ‘rugrat’ and ‘weirdo’.”
“I...I whupped a couple of the worst ones for it, like Betty Lou Spurgeon and Susie Sawyer and they started makin’ up stuff so nobody would like me.”
Now, that made me mad! “Well, that was just mean!”
“Yeah, it was, sweetie.”
She frowned and stared out the windshield for a minute, then went on, “You know how I like bright colors and short, tight dresses, right? Well, I made a few on Mother’s old pedal Singer machine once in a while.”
“You know I never wear goddam bras or girdles or panties and I didn’t with those dresses, even though I didn’t wear them often.”
“All the boys stared at my little butt and my pokey nipples and all those goddam cows, who dressed like Dott
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