Do not consider me negligent, please. If anything, I’m the opposite. Over these twenty-one-plus years I’ve subscribed to the Beaufort Island Packet and scoured it daily, in hopes of seeing your photo, or reading an item about your endeavors. I know all about the Quiz Bowl, the volunteer work you’ve done with the Humane Society, your senior year leading the cross-country team to the state championship. I know about the straight As (just like your mother), your part-time weekend job at the nursery dealing with tomatoes and hot peppers, your volunteer work at the nursing home. Do not think of me as a stalker. You can go with ne’er-do-well, troublemaker, reprobate, and outcast, but not stalker. I might be hard-headed, confused, sentimental, obsessed, stubborn, and vengeful, but it would hurt if you thought I’d been negligent.
I would’ve subscribed to your college paper, too, but feared I’d find your face amidst a sea of sorority sisters, and then, knowing me, I’d’ve come up to Virginia, told you the truth about your birth parents, the truth of your mother and father truly being your grandparents, the truth of your mother one time, when we were in college, hatching a plot to eradicate sororities and fraternities—hell, and football—from our campus.
Your mother’s name is Lydia. I don’t know if they’ve told you this fact yet. I would’ve named you Lydia, Jr., should your mother not died, had your grandparents (or I guess you call them “parents,” rightly) allowed me to marry Lydia, had your grandfather (this is going to be difficult for me to go between “parents” and “grandparents”, I know) not written not only me, but my parents—your paternal grandparents—checks, had he not hired out an attorney for us to sign some kind of nondisclosure agreement, if that’s the right word, had he—again, your adoptive father/grandfather—not made threats to my life, there in my senior year of college, and contacted higher-ups he palled around with who said I’d be arrested if I ever contacted you, or got caught within a half-mile.
I know that I ramble. You can call me a rambler. I would’ve named you Lydia, Jr., had I been given custody, or if somehow you ended being brought up by my mother and father.
“Lydia” is from the Greek. It means “kindred spirit.” I would be willing to bet that your parents/grandparents didn’t know that. I don’t want to cast aspersions—you can call me an aspersion-caster—but they probably named their daughter, your mother, after some kind of child actress, like Lydia Reed, who played the sister to Luke, who was married to Kate, granddaughter of Grandpa Amos. There’s a “Little Luke” in there, who is the brother—not the son—of Luke. I don’t want to make any judgments about synchronicity or symbolism or coincidence, but there seems to be a connection here. Where the hell were Grandpa Amos’s (played by Walter Brennan, who once won three Oscars as a supporting actor) children? What happened to them? There was Grandpa, a skipped generation, then Luke, Little Luke, Luke’s wife, and Hassie, played by the child actress Lydia Reed. If you ask me, either the TV screenwriters got lazy and couldn’t handle more characters, or somebody’s child is really someone’s grandchild.
And there was Pepino, the hired hand.
By the way, I’m glad you studied Spanish for your foreign language requirement. Your mother and I both took French. It’s been pretty worthless, outside of a few answers while watching Jeopardy!, or working a crossword puzzle.
Back in college, at this liberal arts place called College of the Foothills, everyone had to either write a senior thesis or provide some kind of scientific paper or make a documentary. It doesn’t matter what I ended up doing. Your mother, though, wanted to write a paper and make a documentary about the Importance of Trivia Night in Bars Throughout the South. She probably selected me to be part of her team only because I knew some stuff about pop culture, music, sports, and art. She chose a friend of ours named Banks—an African-American whose parents were actually African, from Nigeria, who named their son not after the financial institutions plopped down two-to-a-block in their adopted country, but because they liked the sandy edges of the Little Pee Dee River—who knew everything possible about the history of fashion, food and drink, plus twentieth century literature. Then there was Ralph, poor white Ralph, who knew American history post-1865, economics, capitals of the world, and, on occasion, cinema. I do not mean to be hyperbolic when I say that your mother knew everything in between. I’m talking technology, science, medicine, Spanish conquistadors, Greek mythology, literature between Beowulf and the twentieth century, knives and weaponry, both flora and fauna. Lydia, your biological mother, grasped everything.
Her parents—your parents/grandparents—bought her a short bus and got it decked out with a couple beds, a fold-down table, a mini-fridge. They said, “Travel where you need to travel, in order to make a stellar grade on your senior thesis at College of the Foothills, and graduate summa cum laude.” I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt here. Your father/grandfather probably said, “This will be cheaper and safer than you staying in one of those hotels on the interstate exit ramp.”
We called ourselves the College of the Foothills Upstart Knaves, which was too long a moniker when we dropped into, say, a Wild Wings, or Buffalo Wings, or Wings ’n Things, or Wangs bar on a Monday-through-Thursday, in Charlotte, Asheville, Knoxville, Charottesville, Asheboro, Milledgeville, or wherever, during this particular January interim term. Greensboro, Greenville, the other Greenville, Greenwood, the other Greenwood, Columbia, Columbus, the other Columbia, Jackson TN, Jackson MS, and so on.
On the overhead board, College of the Foothills Upstart Knaves got reduced to CFUK which, of course, was our little joke. We weren’t making fun of the dyslexics, Lydia, Jr.: We made fun, I guess, of everyone.
Sometimes I wonder if our absolute giddiness caused, in a karma-kind of way, your mother’s unwarranted demise.
We went, we entered, we conquered. Venimus, et ingressi sumus vicit, your mother said, later.
Not once, during these episodes, did we lose. Both local nerd-teams and mean-spirited rednecks threatened us at the end of the night. Your mother wrote down notes like a hamster with its first pencil. Me, I manned the camera. Banks and Ralph—for a long time I didn’t know about them—usually said, “Let’s go back to the KOA” or “Let’s go back to the Walmart parking lot” or “Y’all understand that we have senior theses to work on, too, right?”
Fifty, a hundred, two hundred dollars. A case of Miller Lite. Two cases of Pabst. Gift cards to Wild Wings, Wings ’n Things, Buffalo Wings, Wangs. We drove around the South, killing the competition, for, I guess, enough to live on, in a way. Meanwhile, in the daytime, I worked on my senior thesis that, supposedly, made a connection between Pliny the Elder and Modern Day Non-Profit Martyrs. A stretch, I know now. Pliny the Elder wrote, “The best plan is to profit by the folly of others.” One of the members of my committee told me she thought I might want to take some tests to see if I qualified for accommodations.
One night, around a campfire at the Croft State Park camping grounds, Banks drank enough beer to say what I’d already understood: “I need to tell y’all that I’m gay.”
Your mother smiled that perfect smile of hers—she looked just like you, by the way, kind of a cross between Mona Lisa and Marlene Dietrich—and said, “I’m happy that you are comfortable enough to tell us this, Banks.” It sounded like melting marshmallows coming out of her mouth. It sooooothed out, is what I’m saying. The fire crackled, as fires are wont to do. Campers on either side of us yelled at children. Overhead, nighthawks and whippoorwills and Chuck-will’s-widows flew around, gathering flying insects.
On Trivia Night, I was the ornithology expert, too. I can’t say for sure, but I don’t think we ever had a question about robins, hummingbirds, crows, turkey vultures, cardinals, bluejays, wrens, chickadees, wild canaries, or penguins and emus.
This was early on in your mother’s senior thesis endeavor. I don’t know why I thought it necessary to say, that night, “I think we should make a pact not to have sex with one another while we’re on this journey. It would make it uncomfortable for everyone else.” Me, that’s what I said.
Off in the distance, it sounded like a bomb exploded, but someone from the next campsite over yelled out, “Tannerite, again! Every night someone’s shooting his gun at a jug of tannerite. Goddamn it to hell, those people got to understand that some us got the shell shock.”
I couldn’t see him there in the dark. He might’ve been a veteran from World War II, or Korea, or Vietnam. Maybe he was stuck in that Operation Desert Shield. He didn’t use the term “PTSD.”
This part of the South continues to be immersed in a brine of old war remembrances.
To Banks I said—and I swear to this, even though I was only twenty-one years old, the child of poor blue collar working class textile mill parents living in a cement block house on the outskirts of Forty-Five, South Carolina, the son of a man who thought if anything I should become a welder, the son of a mother who said, “You going to end up not loving us when you get big-headed”—I said, “Huh.”
Ralph, who kept dicking around with the buttons on his Brooks Brothers shirt collar, said, “I’m gay!” like that. He said, “I agree with Lydia!”
I looked at your mother as if to say, “I ain’t got nothing against anyone’s sexuality, but are you playing some kind of trick on me to do some other kind of senior thesis to see how I act and react? Is that’s what going on? I mean, if that’s the case, count me out, because I don’t want to go down in the annals of a psychological study. Nope. Me, I just want to drink some beer, smoke some dope on occasion, think about how lucky we are that the world didn’t end on January 1, 2000, and so on.”
Lydia said, “Duh,” to Ralph. She said, “You’re wearing a dress.”
“These are culottes!” Ralph said. He crossed and uncrossed his legs.
I said, “I don’t care anything about anyone’s sexual preferences. Not a bit. But I think we should maybe be quieter about it, from now on out.”
At least that’s what I remember saying. I do know that the next day our fire pit had a swastika etched into it, and the four tires of your mother’s short-bus had been flattened. Both campsite neighbors flew confederate flags, out of nowhere. We woke up because someone thought it necessary to shoot at a drywall bucket of Tannerite.
Here’s how we woke up, just so it’s clear: Banks in one little bed, and Ralph in the other. I awoke behind the steering wheel, Lydia in the passenger seat.
I didn’t mean to write “adopted country,” up above. It wasn’t intended. Call me unknowingly inconsiderate.
I majored in Poverty Studies. It was one of those colleges. They didn’t have minors, but I would’ve probably gone with either Conflict Resolution or Post-Colonial Weather. If I’d’ve known you before you went to college, Nancy—and please don’t tell me that your parents/grandparents named you after Reagan’s second wife—I would’ve offered this advice: Go to college abroad. Go to the Sorbonne, or Beijing University, or the University of Southern Denmark. Major in English. You’ll graduate top of your class.
I majored in Poverty Studies because, I figured, I had a head start in the eventual lectures. I knew about hunger, unemployment, food stamps, alcoholism, lice, bed bugs, Salvation Army haberdashery, and stealing both electricity and cable. I knew about aluminum can and metal recycling, drug addiction, nighttime gunshots in the trailer park, and moving to a new apartment or trailer at the end of the month. One time I ate nothing but macaroni and cheese thirty days in a row, back when it cost 33 cents a box. Then we moved on to Patio-brand burritoes. Your grandparents—I’m talking about my parents here—did the best they could with what they got. There’s a reason why I didn’t go into the sciences in college, like genetics, because I don’t understand how two people with sub-par IQ levels could’ve spawned me. Not that I’m a genius or anything, but I did well enough in school to get a scholarship to College of the Foothills, plus those grants for kids whose parents make less than $20K a year.
You had an uncle that you don’t know about. He was my older brother, named Hickam, named after an Air Force base that my father had nothing to do with. Hickam Ware. If you were a boy, and if I had anything to do with it, I might’ve named you Hickam instead of Renfro, Jr.
Hickam got stabbed to death in the parking lot of a bar called the Mill Hill, after cashing an unemployment check, using some of the money to visit an Urgent Care clinic to take care of scabies and possible tetanus, finding out he didn’t have head lice anymore, and picking a fight with a man who accused him of stealing his moped. Hickam. I loved him. I loved him as I loved you from afar. Your dead uncle could tie something like ninety knots, even though he’d never been in the Boy Scouts or merchant marines. Angler knot, butterfly bend, pipe hitch, pretzel link, square Turk’s head, sheep shank, strangle knot, Turle knot, zeppelin knot, Yosemite bowline, nail knot. He could tie a noose in about thirteen seconds, and I always thought that’s how he’d die, not from a moped rider. One time, when I was maybe twelve, he showed me how to tie a Windsor knot, even though we didn’t own ties. He used the neighbor’s pit bull’s leash. Knot of Isis. Cow hitch. Half blood knot.
On and on. I can’t remember all of them. He tied knots like a magician pulls gossamer scarves from his mouth. I tell you about Hickam, for later you might read an article of his death, should you choose to join one of those ancestry sites. You had a great grandfather that got shot and killed by a deputy sheriff for reasons that I never learned. You had a great grandmother who got trampled by pigs. Various great aunts and -uncles died in odd manners, too, all of them: fell into a well and wasn’t found; struck by lightning while trying to clamor over electrified fencing; stung by a swarm of yellow jackets and a swarm of hornets simultaneously; passed out on a fire ant mound and got eaten alive; got run over by an out-of-control mountain bicyclist while hiking in the Smoky Mountains.
No one on this side of the family, though, has died from cancer. Not lung cancer, ovarian, prostate, brain (maybe obvious as to why), uterine, blood, or bone. No one lived that long.
So Edmund and Gloria named you Nancy. It’s of Hebrew origin, and relates to “grace.” Why not call you Grace? That’s a beautiful name, Grace. Grace Kelly, Grace Slick, Grace Marguerite Hay Drummond-Hay, who traveled around the entire earth in a zeppelin. Grace Coolidge was a first lady. Grace Abbott was a social worker who dealt with immigrants. “Amazing Grace” is a song that brings tears to my eyes at funerals. There’s no such “Amazing Nancy” song.
I’m going back to calling you Lydia, Jr. from now on.
I’m sorry that your father/grandfather died. You know, when he took you in he was the exact age as I am now, forty-four. And you’re right about the same age as your biological mom when she died in childbirth. I never learned the truth about her final moments. Do you know yet? Did she have a stroke, or bleed to death? Did she have a heart attack? Did they give her some kind of sedative in the delivery room, which caused an allergic reaction? I’ve spent twenty years reading up on how women die during childbirth. None make sense. It’s a reason not to believe in a god, if you ask me. Were you in trouble as a newborn? Could you breathe? Has anyone told you anything?
And I’d be remiss not to say how it saddens me as to how you found out. I mean, I’m ecstatic that you contacted me, understand. I haven’t been this relieved since my rescue dog Frank returned after being lost four days during Hurricane Michael a couple years ago. Still, I cannot imagine what went through your head, there at the funeral.
Let me get this straight: Edmund suffered a heart attack down there in Beaufort. Pillar of the community. Maybe or maybe not it happened in a VRBO that he didn’t own, and had no reason to visit. Sixty years old. And then at his funeral—I’ve been to St. Peter’s Catholic twice, when I shouldn’t have been there what with the questionable restraining order, but I figured y’all had evacuated to the mountain house (do the Tradds still have that place up in Tryon?)—the priest requested that anyone who had a nice thing to say about Edmund should stand and speak, right? And a man you didn’t even know stood and said something like, “I knew how generous Edmund was after he suffered his daughter’s death, then took in the newborn baby as his own back in 2000.” Is that what happened? And you were seated, I assume, right there on the front pew with your mother, not knowing she was your grandmother?
Is that how it happened, more or less? I don’t know what’s worse, someone standing up and causing a mourner to figure out math, or no one standing up at all to testify a life well-lived. When my father died—he fell from a tree trying to chainsaw a limb, and hadn’t thought about his ladder being propped against the section that would eventually get cut off—we had a funeral at, well, the funeral home. The embalmer in charge asked for people to offer memories. No one stood up. He’d asked me for photos of my father so they could put it on a big screen behind the so-called pulpit, one after another, a slide show of sorts. We had one photo of my father. He didn’t have on a shirt, he didn’t wear his partials, he smiled right into the camera looking not much different than that mountain man character from Deliverance, and he held an Old Milwaukee beer can in one hand, and a six-pound catfish in the other. I’m not sure why, but the photo kept fading out, then returning, as if there’d be another picture of him, maybe posing normal, or dressed.
At my mother’s funeral—a year later—there were two photos that flashed above her coffin. The first one of her, when she was fifty, showed her pulling a pie out of the oven. In the second photo, taken two weeks before her death, she pulled another pie out of the oven, but she looked to be about ninety years old. I don’t know if she had some kind of extra-rapid-developing osteoporosis, but her bones brittled quickly, she slipped on the linoleum, cracked her head on the edge of the bathtub, and died. For what it’s worth—and I’m not asking for pity—I inherited three photos, some pots and pans, and twenty-seven blue tarps that covered a shed’s roof, two inoperable cars, two woodpiles, the trailer roof, and so on. Some were plain folded up beneath the trailer, as if waiting.
It’s as if I was born to do what I do, Lydia, Jr.
Let me get this straight: Did Gloria Tradd intake her breath when that man brought up Edmund’s generosity? Did you look over at her, like, “What is that man talking about?” It’s more Gloria than Edmund who wanted to keep you from knowing about me. She wasn’t much different than Mrs. Robinson in that movie, trying to keep Ben from Elaine. Your mother and I saw that movie together, during out required Humanities 101 class. That’s the first time she reached over and held my hand.
For your first birthday, I sent along some pink stretchy headband bows. I sent some onesies. For your second birthday I mailed the Tradds a Barbie doll, even though I’m 100% against Barbie dolls. For your third birthday I sent clothes again, sorry. Although it might’ve been too early, I sent six Dr. Seuss books for your fourth birthday. Did you get that package of coloring books and Crayons I sent for your fifth birthday? Did you get the watercolor set I sent when you turned six? Did you know that your biological mother was a talented artist? She sketched me sitting in the short bus, driving, and I keep it here on my desk.
I never got any kind of thank you card from Edmund or Gloria. Zero. That’s why things might’ve changed on my part.
Did you get that copy of The Communist Manifesto that I sent on your seventh birthday, or the copy of Emile Durkheim’s Socialism for your eighth? Did you get Steal This Book by Abbie Hoffman, or that book of Diane Arbus photographs? What about The Anarchist Cookbook? I’m betting not. I’m betting those things went straight out to garbage pick-up.
All those books by Jean-Paul Sartre, those plays by Samuel Beckett, that long poem by T.S. Eliot called The Wasteland?
What about that machete?
Frank’s still with me, every day, in the truck. He’s about to turn twelve. I got him because of a hurricane, and I’ll eventually lose him through one, I’d bet.
He’s not named after Frank Sinatra. He’s not named after Frank Lloyd Wright. He’s not named after Frank Sinatra, Jr. My dog Frank might be part terrier and part wolf hound. He’s owns a remarkable and fetching beard. Frank Beard’s the dummer for ZZ Top.
Let me guess: The Tradds didn’t allow you to own a dog. I’d’ve sent you one somehow, but Edmund might’ve taken that machete to it.
Your mother called from the hospital, during labor. I didn’t think to ask for specifics. Her mother—your grandmother—had gone to get a Fresca, your grandfather, for all I knew, shacked up with his secretary at the vacation rental house he didn’t own. Lydia said, “Let me do the talking, quickly.”
I said, “Just like Trivia Night.”
I could see her speaking through clenched teeth, through the onslaught of pain. “Listen. I’m committed to you, Renfro. Know that. After things settle down, maybe I’ll go back to school. You’ll have graduated. We’ll figure it out.”
I stood, in my dorm room. This, again, was senior year. I’d not seen your mother since mid-May, when she divulged her pregnancy, when her parents vowed not to let her return for her first-semester senior year, when they, pretty much, put a fatwa on my head. October. I guess you know this, what with your birthday. It smelled like a dog that rolled in Fritos from where I stood. I said, “Yes.”
Then Gloria came back in the room—I didn’t know if Lydia’d already been rolled down to where she’d give birth to you, like I’ve seen on TV, of if this was the best private room Beaufort had to offer. Your grandmother yelled out, “Not a Fresca in this whole place!”
I said, “I love you, Lydia.”
Your mother—I guess to camouflage the other end of the phone call—said, “I know about child-proofing.” Then she hung up. I imagine that she said to her mother, “That was Rebecca,” or Frannie, or one of our other friends at College of the Foothills. She might’ve said, “Aunt Gabby,” who—as you now know—has always been your great aunt.
When I never received a call about your birth, I called the hospital. This was a day, then two days later. The receptionist said no Lydia Tradd convalesced there. Because I took a logic course—and because I understood the Tradds’ obsession with keeping your mother and me apart—I called hospitals in Charleston, Savannah, Jacksonville. I thought maybe they’d taken Lydia to the mountains, and tried Asheville and Tryon.
Your grandmother picked up the telephone on the first ring, when, on the third day, I called your mother’s house. I can’t recall if this occurred after Caller ID or before. Cell phones might’ve been around minimally—kind of like bear sightings back then—but neither I nor Lydia owned one. Maybe Gloria possessed ESP. It rang once. She picked up the receiver and said, “Our daughter died in childbirth, Renfro. She’d be alive if it weren’t for you.”
For some reason, I hung up. My face reddened out of embarrassment and guilt. And I didn’t believe the woman until I read the obituary later. They’d used “after a short illness” for the cause. Private burial. In lieu of flowers, send donations to some kind of non-profit that taught children how to man the helm of a yacht.
Your mother’s last words to me—I’m haunted daily by the fucking useless double- or triple-entendre—went “I know about child-proofing.”
I should’ve dropped out. This isn’t my proudest moment, but I convinced myself that Lydia wouldn’t wanted me to continue Poverty Studies. I’m not proud to say, too, that—I’m a heathen at best, atheist at worst—I fully believed your mother watched over me, protected me, kept tabs on my mental and physical and emotional limitations like a big-hearted angelic mare coping with her three-legged foal.
Sane people, rightly, wonder about a Poverty Studies major’s job options. I get it. I knew a woman who ended up in med school, who obviously sinned horrifically in a previous life, then chose to work free clinics in Alabama. Me, Lydia, Jr., between the ages of graduation to almost-thirty I found work at the United Way, the Children’s Defense Fund, and Job Corps. I worked as a policy analyst for the Center for Law and Social Policy. In Atlanta, I talked people into believing I’d be indispensable as a homeless prevention advocate. I helped a YMCA with offering swimming and golf lessons for after-school poor. Food banks, three times. Battered women’s shelters, twice. Finally, the Southern Poverty Law Center, keeping track of both hate groups and food deserts. A local V.A. hospital hired me for two weeks somewhere in between all of that.
You’re wise to understand, That’s more than a normal number of jobs over a less-than-eight-year period. I might’ve been labeled a “functioning alcoholic,” I guess. It caught up with me.
I don’t know if I ever—ever—went over an hour without hearing “I know about child-proofing.”
I paid bills, paid taxes, and listened to Hank Williams—not Hank Williams, Jr.—from waking up to work hours, from arriving home to passing out.
Hank Williams died in the back seat of a Cadillac, somewhere between Bristol, Virginia and Oak Hill, West Virginia. He lived twenty-nine years, 106 days. When I made it one day past that, I decided to take care of myself better, even though, now, I listen to Hank III.
Lydia left campus in the converted short-bus. She packed her clothes, stereo, most of her books, a desk and chair. She left me with any trophies or ribbons or certificates she’d amassed from the Trivia Night experiments, plus two books, both first edition, first printings: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and The Grapes of Wrath. She’d gotten them from her parents, I knew, without telling them she’d be giving the books away as gifts, as as-yet-unknown remembrances, as possible nest eggs.
They’re yours now, Lydia, Jr. One’s going for upwards of five grand, the other twenty-five.
She also left me with four half-filled bottles of Jim Beam, Old Crow, Jack Daniels, Old Forrester. I put notch marks on all the bottles. When one of them got down to an inch from the bottom, I’d go down to the closest red dot store, buy what I needed, and pour up to the notch. Listen, there’s a famous hamburger outlet in downtown Memphis called Dyer’s. The place opened on Beale Street in 1912. Every time they change the grease, they leave a jigger or so of the old grease so, according to their history, some of the person’s order got fried in partly-one-hundred-year-old Wesson’s or whatever brand was around before World War I.
I’m convinced that your mother’s saliva—however minute a percentage—exists in each bottle, along with mine. She drank from the bottle mostly, like some kind of gunslinger, like a moll, like hillbillies from their handled jugs. If anyone ever needs proof that you’re our child, I’ll have the DNA evidence.
Maybe you and I can celebrate together with the remnants of Lydia’s bourbon at some point soon.
Well, no. “Celebrate” isn’t the right word, and I ain’t drinking.
Up above, I mean twenty-five thousand.
It flat-out came to me: Sturdy and Recycled Tarps for Roofs, Etcetera. SARTRE. Blue Tarps. I watched reruns of Gilligan’s Island, not the Weather Channel. I read the want ads, looked out my rental house window at three cardinals staring back at me, listened to someone far away play the chainsaw. In the house, it smelled like Dial soap submerged in a jar of Welch’s grape jelly. Your mother smelled such, some mornings, on the road, in a Waffle House or Southern Pancake Palace.
As an aside: People down here think cardinals embody one’s dead relatives, that when one or more arrive and dawdle, it’s an ancestor checking in. I’ve always wondered if—when a human pulls back leafy foliage and peers into a nest—cardinals think old dead cat-mauled and windshield-smashed bird ancestors return as bipeds, interested in the development of fledglings.
Being at worst a heathen and best an atheist, I shouldn’t’ve believed in love at first sight, or smell. I understand how people might judge me as a one-woman man, how I never dated a young woman growing up—what, partly, I believed, with my station in life—how in college I remained true to Lydia, how after your mother I found no interest in men or women outside of making sure food was available where they lived, heads got covered, et cetera.
I have Frank now, sure.
We met during the first day, of the first week, of College of the Foothills orientation. I’ve never known how other small, once-Methodist-affiliated, liberal arts colleges negotiated an orientation schedule, but goddamn it seemed like it lasted an entire month. Everyone could’ve graduated a semester early had this endless meet-and-greet been pared down to, say, an hour.
We divided into teams, Boys against Girls, Northerners against Southerners, Thurmond Dorm versus Hollings Dorm. We underwent field day festivities unknown to most sane first-year college students: egg-on-a-spoon relays, sack races, wheelbarrow sprints, a water balloon toss-and-catch match. At night they made us sing campfire songs, learn the alma mater, sign some kind of pledges that dealt with honesty, loyalty, drug intake, anti-drinking-and-driving, Just Say No, Just Say No, Just Say No to sexual advances, sleep deprivation, allowing strangers into the dormitories. We watched enough movies to receive minors in film studies, if that minor focused a concentration in Oscar-unworthy works on celluloid—the entire Burt Reynolds catalog minus Deliverance, Plan 9 From Outer Space, all the Dolemite movies that, I feel certain now, got thrown in because of some administrator’s notion of diversity.
We sat in circles, introduced ourselves, were forced to offer these complete strangers something “extremely personal” that no one else knew. Jesus Christ, I wanted to transfer after hearing my freak classmates’ inner demons, wants, and desires. Me, I said, “Here’s something no one knows about me—I don’t divulge extremely personal info to strangers.”
From way across the room—they’d taken us to a defunct Methodist summer camp called WesleyLand—your mother laughed. She participated in another circle, there in a dilapidated barn. I could smell her from where I sat cross-legged. She smelled like one of the Pacific Northwest logging areas. She smelled like Steilacoom, Washington.
From all that way off from my circle, she said—I’m quoting here, and it’s your mother talking—“I dream of losing my virginity to a man who won’t divulge extremely personal info. That means he won’t kiss and tell. And he’d make a good spy.”
Later that night, after we rode a bus back to the campus, I went and hid in my room. I don’t know how else to say this, but it was too obvious how I felt about your mother, and I couldn’t appear in public.
You always hear about how opposites attract—that’s your mother and me for the most part—but also how each subsequent generation develops 180 degrees from the previous. As to Lydia and me, well, she displayed charm, beauty, patience, and a photographic memory. Your mother made Princess Di come off as a germaphobe, cuddling those little African AIDS children in that one famous photo. Lydia (I just noticed how “Di” is in her name) was the kind of woman who’d give up her place in line at the DMV, who could sit two hours staring at an untrembling bobber out at the lake.
I’m not that way. She came from money and acted like she didn’t; I emerged from poverty and ended up acting like I owned half of Kentucky’s distilleries.
But that’s not what I want to delve into. And this probably crosses eighteen lines when it come to appropriate topics, nosiness, TMI, practicality, social taboos, politeness, respect, and whatever else.
Your mother thinned oxygen out of the room when we made love. I can only assume that her mother—if I’m correct in this generation-to-generation generalization—came off frigid as Norwegian windowpanes.
And then, I fear, that you would inherit your grandmother’s tendencies. Unless—unless—indeed you understood Gloria to be your mother all along, that there’s more to Nature v. Nurture, that you evolved in the same way as Lydia.
I should erase this section of my explanation.
I pray that you didn’t amass my qualities.
Let’s pretend I’m testing your patience, Lydia, Jr.
Your mother a gymnast, I a long-distance runner, though not competitively.
They gave my father the cumbersome moniker Chesley Purcival Ware. At some point he got my mother to hand-embroider CPW above his shirt pockets. He said it made him feel like a bona fide worker from the Commission of Public Works. Sometimes he’d walk into a business where no one knew him and go, “Everything okay here with the water?” and act like the idea of clear and quenchful tap emerged from his endless experiments at the treatment plant. He’d either found or stolen a plastic hardhat for these occasions.
I drove home after my junior year in order to relay the news about Lydia’s pregnancy. Well, I came home to find the trailer vacant. This wasn’t the first time. Because, over my childhood, it wasn’t uncommon to have the landline cut off for non-payment, the water and electricity—and because (two, three times?) my parents decided to skip out on a late rent check while I sat in school—I knew to tip up a pre-selected rock or paver and find a handwritten note with the new address.
I know that this sounds far-fetched and inconceivable. It’s the truth. Indirectly, you come from these people.
I looked at the single wide, parked on a quarter-acre parcel, wedged between a sewage pond and a cement block vacant building that once housed a lawnmower repairman’s business. I’d probably not spent three nights in this particular trailer.
I found the new address and actually said out loud to no one, “Are you kidding me?”
My mother scrawled out—scrawled isn’t the right word, seeing as she exhibited perfect cursive handwriting—the address, plus “the old Rock House.”
Listen, the Rock House was a two-story mansion of sorts, with eight 600 square foot rooms and a hole in the first-floor ceiling where a splendid spiral staircase once stood. The place attracted, in my childhood, dope smokers and ghost hunters alike. The legend went that a man built a wooden house, and Indians burned it down. He built another, and Indians burned it down. So he built a rock house, of fieldstone, and Indians showed up, then hanged him from an oak tree out back. During my dope-smoking, bourbon-swilling, graffiti-spraying, specter-hunting youth, I’d trespassed the Rock House grounds, on average, twice a month. I’d scale the outside walls like a professional rock climber, enter an upstairs window, then peer through the absent spiral staircase’s maw down toward my classmates making out, whooping and hollering, trying to figure out the intricate, impossible, engineering feat of bra hooks. It’s where I saw a kid named Brillo Scurry shoot a .22 pistol quck-draw-style at an old 6.5 ounce Coke bottle, hit it, then a shard ricocheted right back into his forehead in such a way that left a pink scar later, like a Hindu bindi. Everyone said the old Rock House still held Indian haints, because of this.
My people don’t know the difference between Indians and Indians.
“Appears the old Ware luck’s changed,” my father said when I got out of my car. “Your momma’s happy and proud.”
I guess I’d not been to the Rock House since high school. I said, “Are y’all squatting? Have you used up every shack- and trailer-renting landlord in the county, and it’s come to this?”
My mother emerged from the front door and yelled, “We have a shower and a bathtub!”
Some rich guy bought the property and hired out my parents to live for free in exchange for being caretakers. Their sole jobs were to shoo away people like I’d been not ten-to-five years earlier. I said, “Huh,” because I felt a distrust.
My father said, “He’s starting up some kind of fancy hunt club. And he’s gone plant grapes out back for a vineyard. And I got an outbuilding—it’s a building out back—where I can do my work!”
I didn’t know what kind of work your grandfather partook of at this point that might require a shed. “We ain’t got no telephone yet,” my mother said. “We would’ve called, but the only way’s to call collect, and that never seemed to work.”
I am not proud to say that, in the past, I’d not accepted collect calls from my parents.
“You noticed how they ain’t no more real payphones around no more?” my father asked me.
I didn’t say, “Less payphones, more double-negatives.” I could have said such a thing—I spent my youth pointing out improper English—but this utter exhilaration on my parents’ faces kept me quiet. I said, “What work, Dad?”
“Come on in,” my mother said. She said, “We don’t have a bed for you yet, but we got the old couch.”
I went into the Rock House to find the once-exposed rock walls now covered in sheetrock, a wooden ladder lifted to the second floor. They had a kitchen with—I didn’t know it at the time—top-of-the-line Viking and Wolfe appliances. The refrigerator didn’t require ice trays for cubes. I didn’t ask how gas lines and electricity made their way out this far. How rich was the new owner?
My father said, “One—I’ve been selling arrowheads to anyone who shows up not knowing this place has been bought. Two, I got me a grinding wheel and do my work, you know, on axes and hatchets. Lawn mower and sling blades. I got an ad in the paper, and people want to come out here, just to see this place. People will pay for anything. Oh, and that growth your mother had on her heel, I ground that thing off,” my father said.
I’d never seen my mother so happy. Indeed, she wore two shoes and didn’t limp.
She smelled like a Nilla Wafer showroom.
My father said, “Did you graduate from the college? Did we miss it?” He said, “Goddamn it to hell. We been collecting beer cans on the road, waiting for prices to go up. We planned to turn them in and give you the money for a present.”
I’ll go ahead and skip a slew of this conversation—which took another two hours and focussed on canning muscadine jelly, picking blackberries the next July, seeing a couple UFOs hover above the Rock House, wondering why the creek out back changed directions one day, et cetera. It finally got to, “Listen, y’all. I impregnated my girlfriend, Lydia.”
This might be revisionist history, but I swear I remember my father saying, “Against the measles, or chicken pox? Are you licensed to do such?”
My mother, though, said, “I’mo be a grandmother?!”
I said, “Come on, Dad. I know you know what I mean. Not like a flu shot, or the one they got for the shingles nowadays.”
“Yeah,” he said. “I know.” He rubbed on that CPW monogram.
“Lydia’s parents are rich, rich, rich, and they hate me.” I didn’t say, “They think their daughter’s too good for me.” My parents—your paternal grandparents, Lydia, Jr.—might not’ve been book-smart, but they understood slights. They’d grown up—as had I, I guess—with constant slights.
I explained Gloria and Edmund taking Lydia out of school, the rest.
My father said, “Well. We got enough room, now. If y’all need privacy, I can give up the work shed. I mean, y’all might need to walk inside to use the bathroom, but I’ve seen people live worse. You wouldn’t mind at all, would you, Patsy Jean?”
My mother said, “Why would no one not want you to not be a father?”
I said, “I don’t know what to do,” and started to explain how, really, your mother and I couldn’t commit to an outbuilding behind a house my parents wouldn’t inhabit long, once all renovations got completed.
My father looked at the wind-up silver Timex he kept on his left wrist, a watch he found on the mens room sink at a Stuckey’s down near Myrtle Beach. He said, “This place ain’t ever gone be complete. They fix things up, they leave, night falls, and I compromise one thing or another. Time to pry off and throw some shingles back down off the roof, unless—you sure about this?—they got a shot for shingles like you say.”
After I sobered up, and after I figured out to start a 501(c) (3), and after I found it necessary to offer free blue tarps to hurricane victims—after I convinced someone to donate an ex-school bus not much unlike what your mother’s parents gave her—that’s when I got death threats, probably from people working for Lowe’s and Home Depot and Walmart, plus their stockholders.
Lydia, Jr., because I’ve seen your photograph, let me apologize. You have your mother’s slender physique, her long legs, that smile that might make dentists feel unworthy. I don’t want to come off as a pervert, but you own your mother’s breasts. I can imagine your pulling your head back, laughing at someone on a competing team in Trivia Night contest thinking Leningrad might be the correct answer. You and your real mother both hold your shoulders up an inch above normal, as if y’all stood between shrugging I-don’t-know and I’m-about-to-dive-into-the-shallow-end. Goddamn, same straight near-blonde hair. Same knees. Same left eyelid that’s a little more closed that the right one when y’all smile.
I apologize for the flat nose. That’s mine, the puckish nose mostly portrayed by Irish immigrants one step off a ship docked on Ellis Island. Your mother—your grandparents—possessed those beautiful, elongated, straight Roman noses.
I’m not making fun of you, and I’m not making fun of myself. Believe me when I say I’m proud to look like a middleweight who’s taken a punch.
They slept in back, side-by-side. Your mother reached over from the passenger seat and tapped my arm. I’d not fallen asleep. What? I said, without turning her way.
Your mother jerked her head to the side. Lydia held her left index finger to her lips Be quiet. Then she pointed to the door handle. She giggled without making noise.
We’d just won first place at a bar in Spartanburg. We’d fucked up, and not gotten any kind of campsite earlier. I can’t remember, but I think this competition involved a case of beer and some money—$50? $100? No matter, I know this:
She and I snuck out from where we parked, behind the Memorial Auditorium. Some kind of pro wrestling event took place. People’d already gone in to enjoy the spectacle. Your mother and I walked, holding hands, toward a stand of Leland cypresses off to the side. For some reason I remember a sleeping bag, a one-gallon green-and-yellow Scotch plaid cooler of Hawaiian Punch and vodka, and my fumbling around in my pocket for a rubber.
I remember all of this, wholly.
It smelled like a feed store, beneath those trees, if it matters.
As best as I can predict—and your mother did the same—your conception occurred at the same moment Dusty Rhodes, or the Undertaker, or Kane, stepped inside the ring, looked up at the rafters, and roared. Applause broke out from afar, we remembered that much.
The Rock House didn’t burn down, but the work shed out back did. You might’ve heard about it. If your “parents” owned a half-ounce of humanity, and a dram of recognition, one of them should’ve seen the notice on local news, or read about it in the newspaper, and thought, “That last name Ware…”
My father’d turned into a sharpening entrepreneur, somehow. They say a spark off the grinder ignited a roll of paper towels behind him, that he didn’t know about it, that he must’ve gone over to his second-hand La-Z-Boy to take a nap, that he’d been drinking, and so on. I don’t know if the coroner, or a certified accident site specialist, reconstructed the scene in such a way to determine my mother saw what happened out the back window of the Rock House and ran in to save her husband, had a beam fall on her, received third-degree burns on ninety percent of her body, that she crawled out, somehow and got airlifted to the Burn Center in Augusta, Georgia where she died a month later. No matter the true events, my parents almost died together. Their cremations stand in funeral home-bought ceramic jars, up in Poke, here in South Carolina. If it matters, I bought six more shelves, or slots, or cubbyholes—whatever marble mausoleum structures hold—for your mother, later, once her mother dies and I can get a court-ordered injunction to exhume her remains, get them burned, et cetera. There’s room for me. I won’t have a wife, of course. I won’t have another child. There’s room, then, for you, a spouse, and up to two future Wares.
As your father, I stress that you never spawn more than two children. It’s not my idea. I read it in one of my Poverty Studies textbooks.
Understand that I’m both surprised and elated that you found and contacted me. I can’t imagine your trepidation. What if he’s in prison! probably crossed your mind. What if I find only Renfro Ware in various obituaries? Even this last method might’ve proved to send you to a couple different towns: “Hickam is survived by his parents, Chesley and Patsy Jean, and a brother, Renfro, of College of the Foothills.” “Chesley is survived by wife of twenty-seven years, Patsy Jean, and son, Renfro, of Brunswick, Georgia. He was predeceased by his son Hickam.” “Patsy Jean is the widow of Chesley. She is predeceased by a son Hickam, and is survived by a son, Renfro, of Wilmington, North Carolina.”
What if he’s famous and thinks I’m out to blackmail money owed me? you might’ve thought. What if he’s in a mental institution and thinks he’s Emile Durkheim, or Margaret Mead?
I understand “what if” scenarios daily. Right after “I know about child-proofing” enters my mind each morning, normally, somehow, I talk myself into believing how your grandmother Gloria possessed clairvoyant capabilities on par with ancient oracles and Mexican free-tailed bats. I accept that woman’s pronouncement that I ruined Lydia’s life. Back before I changed my ways, at some point during those tragic and malentendu pre-dawns, usually between first and third Four Roses, I might’ve said to the refrigerator—hell, I guess this occurred even after I changed my ways, for I know I said it to Frank the Dog, too—“She probably would’ve joined the Peace Corps, Lydia.”
Then I’d be off swatting flies with boiled linguine: “Lydia would have cared for impoverished children in Africa or Central America, returned to the United States, matriculated to one of the better research institutions, and, over time, discovered cures for dengue, cholera, trypanosomosis, and leprosy. She’d’ve put a halt to malaria, yellow fever, all the hepatiti, schistosomiasis, and rabies. Goodbye swine flu, congenital births, cleft palate, and AIDS. Hello to a vaccine so that if one were bitten by a puff adder, black mamba, spitting cobra, or boomslang, then he or she could just keep walking barefoot to the next watering hole.”
Lydia, I imagined, would have to build a second and longer mantel on our fireplace to hold all the Nobel prizes, the Oscars for documentaries, the Medal of Freedom, that MacArthur Genius Award, whatever trophy the United Nations and UNICEF might give out for humanitarian achievements.
Then, normally, I’d submit to a reverie of my living on the streets, drunk and homeless, pitiful, self-loathing, for who can share a life with someone so determined, talented, focused, sublime, empathetic, brilliant, open-minded, lucky, and angelic? Name me one person who could. I’d bet both Jesus and Siddhartha might mosey afar, feeling blameful and worthless.
Then, in time, I’d put on clean clothes, brush my teeth a few times, and head out for the day, unready to recognize whatever problems arose. I spent more time trying to erase what-she-might’ve-beens than celebrating what Lydia and I conquered in those—what?—1200 days.
Lydia, Jr., I choose to live in state park campgrounds. It’s convenient, for one. It makes sense. Here’s what I need, at least since I got “reborn” to a certain extent. I need to know that there’s an AA chapter nearby, and there’s always been one nearby. Let me be clear that I’ve never attended an AA meeting, but I know that it’s logically possible that, one day, I might succumb to last resorts.
I need wi-fi. When this first started, I stayed in hotels and motels with cable TV. Nowadays, if the campgrounds don’t have some kind of wi-fi services, at least I can get the latest reports on my cell phone.
There are enough mini-storage warehouse units up and down the eastern seaboard, all within an hour’s drive for me. Hurricane hits Tybee Island? I got CubeSmart Self Storage not far from River’s End Campground. Outer Banks? I got Cape Hatteras RV Resort, not far from First Flight Storage. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Pirateland Camping Resort in Myrtle Beach, and Grand Strand Storage. We’ve had mini-storage warehouse units filled with folded up tarps in Virginia Beach, Rehobath, and one on Long Island. Brunswick, Georgia, Fernandina Beach, St. Augustine, Fort Pierce, Coral Gables down in Florida. New Orleans, Biloxi, Mobile.
By “we” I mean “me,” for now. I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but know that you can go study anything—anything—and you’ll be qualified to work for SARTRE. Anthropology. Philosophy. Meteorology, of course. English—maybe. Probably not creative writing. Biology, sociology, zoology, Spanish—I could use someone with a knowledge of Spanish, believe me. Poverty Studies like me. Environmental Science. Southern Culture Studies. African-American Studies. Economics would be a great major, as I’ll explain at some point.
I guess by now you’ve surmised that I choose to live dangerously.
Understand that I don’t keep all those mini-storage warehouse units year-round. Math—that would be another great major that would’ve helped me back when I started the non-profit. I watch the Weather Channel. I make my move. I hire out the cheapest moving van people—Two Men and a Truck, North American Van Lines, this guy named Boyce with his sons Tony and Curtis, and I say, “Y’all, I need to move a thousand tarps from,” say, “Beaufort to Wrightsville Beach!” like that. I say, “We need to get it done before they close Highway 17.”
It’s because those hurricanes don’t always follow their original courses.
Your biological father obsesses with original courses, is what I’m saying, Lydia, Jr.
And then I’m out there, afterwards, driving by damaged houses, apartments, and trailers, sometimes in the RV, sometimes in an SUV, sometimes, fuck, in a goddamn johnboat, yelling out to stranded people—or even people no longer stranded but roofless—“Hey, y’all need a free tarp to cover that lost roof so your furniture doesn’t get wetter?”
And they yell back, “Yes!”
And then I say, “I’m here to the rescue,” or something like that. Sometimes I just nod Okay. More often than not I end up saying, “Fuck FEMA—you won’t see them for this hurricane until the next hurricane.”
I’ll explain later how I came up with the idea to help the hopeless. I’ll explain—remind me when we finally meet up—how Home Depot and Lowe’s want to see me dead. I don’t want to say they put a fatwa on my being like Gloria and Edmund once did when I impregnated their daughter. Hell, it’s probably worse.
You know who sends money to the Blue Tarp non-profit foundation more than anyone else? It ain’t the Christian Right. It ain’t rich people who own stock in Home Depot and Lowe’s and Ace Hardware. I’ve never done any kind of official, marketing firm-hired, questionnaire or poll, but from the letters I get, it’s mostly people who vote left-of-democrat, who don’t believe in a benevolent, omnipresent, omniscient supreme being, who have suffered from high winds in their pasts, either tornado or hurricane or plain micro-burst. I’ve got a collection of these letters in one of those mini-storage warehouse units, and most of them go something like, “Enclosed please find twenty dollars that I hope helps buy a tarp. Why in the world would an omnipotent god plague innocent coastal residents? I was talking to my friend Eugenia the other day—she’s a descendent of Eugene Debs—after both our houses’ chimneys blew away when a tornado hit us here outside Topeka.”
I’m not making this up!
Your birth mother’s favorite quote goes, “My country is the earth, and I am a citizen of the world.” Eugene Debs.
Ralph whispered to me, finally, “Banks wants me to ask you if we can have some time together. He’s embarrassed to ask.”
I said. “If you and I can have some time together?”
This was in Raleigh. We’d just won another big-time Trivia Night contest, at one of those bars on Hillsborough Street. We sat outside on a bench, facing the street, beneath a lighted sign that advertised “Charburgers with French Fries” and “Pepsi/Coffee/Shakes.” Your mother and Banks stood at the glass window, pencilling in our orders that they’d later wedge up into a pneumatic tube that shot the slip into a pimple-faced, paper-hatted man’s hand two feet away.
“No. Banks wants me to ask you if he and I can have some time together. He’s embarrassed to ask.”
Because I already understood their attraction to one another—and please know that it didn’t bother me whatsoever—please know that I fully believe that gay parents care more about their children than the kind of parents who keep their daughters from marrying men who come from a different station in life—hell, about people—so it seemed right to plain mess with them. I said to Ralph, “What?”
Someone drove by, honked the horn, and yelled out the N-word to Ralph. Me, I stood up and gave them the finger, and squinted to get the license plate, which ended up showing FIRST IN FLIGHT up above and SENATE in a little box, but I couldn’t make out the rest of it.
“We want to be alone back at the campground,” Ralph said. “For just a little while. Is there any way y’all could maybe sit around the campfire for an hour or so, all by yourselves? I know we all made a pact about not hooking up while out on interim.”
I felt guilty. Though we didn’t know it at the time, this was after your conception.
I said, “Well.” I turned my head toward Lydia, hoping that she remembered how I didn’t want mayonnaise on my cheeseburger. I’d been thinking about the death of Hickam, and how I thought that, indirectly, his love of Duke’s mayonnaise might’ve attributed to his getting stabbed, somehow.
What’s with human beings, Lydia, Jr.? How can they not understand how everyone knows about them? Ralph tipped his head back once or twice in the same way someone buying a nickel bag might do. He reached into his coat pocket. Earlier in the night, during the trivia contest, he and Banks pulled us through what ended up these answers: Liza Minnelli, Liberace, Bette Midler, Virginia Ultra-Slims, Freddie Mercury of the band Queen, politician Lindsey Graham, Barbra Streisand, and that sweatband-wearing guy who used to sell aerobic workout tapes, Richard Simmons.
He reached in his pocket, like I said, and handed me two tickets for a midnight showing of the director’s cut of Cleopatra, starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, shown on the campus of North Carolina State University and sponsored by some kind of Egyptology Club. “Banks and I think that you and Lydia might like this movie. We’ve seen it already. What with your understanding of poverty—and Lydia’s beauty—we thought this might be the perfect movie for y’all. We can drop you by the student union where it’s playing, and we’ll come pick you back up afterwards.”
Lydia yelled out my name, and walked toward the bus. I said to Ralph, “It’s okay that y’all want some time alone. I understand that, brother.”
At least that’s how I remember it now.
I don’t know how long the regular movie ran, but the director’s cut of Cleopatra, by the way, runs five fucking hours and twenty minutes. There were two intermissions. Your mother and I left after the first one. Back then, people didn’t say “Spoiler alert” as much as they do today, but I said, “Spoiler alert: Cleopatra commits suicide.”
Luckily we’d found a bar across the street called Sadlack’s, which had an outdoor section. The place was closed, but some of the bartenders and dishwashers and waitstaff sat outside, drinking until dawn. We joined them. Part of the night’s Trivia Night winnings included a half-gallon of Jim Beam, which your mother lugged around in her bag. Ralph and Banks didn’t like bourbon. They tended to drink Cosmopolitans.
All of this is to say, some people contend that I look like Richard Burton. Again, I’m not a stalker, but I’ve seen pictures, and I’m glad your mother’s genes took over, for your sake.
VAGINA stands for Veterans Against Guns in North America. There’s a chance you’ll end up seeing my name attached to those good people, in time. I hope not. It’s one of those things. I don’t know how many non-profits contact other non-profits, and promise money, but this is one of those situations. VAGINA brags about having more members than you’d imagine, Lydia. Most of them are Vietnam War vets, but more and more they’re Iraqi War and Afghanistan War and wherever else-war vets. Grenada, maybe. Nicauragua. Anyway, these are men and women who understand how maybe the Second Amendment isn’t exactly the best idea in the twenty-first century. When they contacted me—this was after I got some air time for SARTRE’s work, in Wilmington, on—I believe it was—WWAY—they drove up from Atlanta, where they’re unofficially located, and found me there at the campground. This guy, named Billy Glane, showed up with Terry Terrell. They purported to be the president and treasurer of VAGINA. They said they had members in all fifty states. My dog Frank took to them right away, and it might’ve been because they looked like the two bearded members of ZZ Top.
“We have a proposition,” Billy Glane said.
Understand that this occurred at a campground, with the wind still whipping around at, oh, sixty miles an hour. I wanted to say to these guys, “How did y’all get through all the roadblocks?”
I said, “What?”
“Man with a tarp probably gets an inside-peek into houses, am I right or am I right?” Billy Gland asked me. He had that long beard, sure, like I said, but he had the forehead of an antelope. Gentle, is what I’m saying.
I said, “I pretty much just hand out tarps. It ain’t my job to crawl up on a roof and do the work.”
Terry Terrell nodded. His beard flew sideways so much it looked as if he wore the letter L on his neck. He said, “Wouldn’t it be nice if you had some people who volunteered to do the work for you? Wouldn’t the disaster-struck inhabitants appreciate such an effort?”
I said, “I guess.” I wanted these guys to leave. I needed to crank up my little Optimus stove, and get going on some macaroni and cheese that I planned to make, with tuna fish and chile peppers included. Frank wanted his Alpo, too.
“Let’s say we help you out,” Billy Glane said. “Let’s say we do a little commission work.”
I swear to god, Lydia, Jr., at that moment I thought WWLD? That’s what I thought! I said, “I’m just trying to help out people.”
Billy Glane toed the old remnant-embers from a campfire that hadn’t been lit for two weeks. He said, “Lots of these people with their roofs blowed off have AR-15s and AK-47s. That’s not good for America. You want America to be a better place, don’t you?”
Terry Terrell said, quickly, “Glocks, Remingtons, Sturm, Ruger, Colt, Beretta, SIG Sauer, Smith and Wesson, Heckler and Koch, Mossberg, Springfield, FN Herstal, Taurus International, Browning, Venelli.” He said, “Palmetto State Armory.” He said, “There are other ARs, of course.” And then he said, “All those numbers of others: 17, 26, 19, 20, 31, 21.”
I owned no clue as to what he meant. It sounded like someone at a bingo parlor, if you ask me. Both Terry Terrell and Billy Glane looked up at the sky as he listed off numbers, and brand names.
I didn’t say, “How much money?” I said, “Well, yeah,” as if I followed his argument.
And then we made a deal. We shook hands. We exchanged cell phone numbers. I cannot say that I didn’t like these guys, or their cause.
“I should pat you down,” Billy Glane said to me. “Normally, I’d pat you down to make sure you ain’t wired or nothing like that. But why would a man like you be wired? Is a hurricane gone worry about you telling people where it’s fixing to land?”
Billy Gland and Terry Terrell went “Haw haw haw” over that one. “Haw haw haw.”
I said, “Well.”
“Hey, I got this idea. I’ll pay for it. Let’s make up some official looking t-shirts, so no one questions our authority, you know. We’ll pay for it all. VAGINA will pay. Some people pay for vagina, but in this case VAGINA will pay, you know what I’m talking about?”
I looked at my dog. He didn’t seem to be either squeamish or perplexed. “Y’all can do whatever you want,” I said. “I’m with you on this if I have it figured out correctly.”
So there’s that.
It’s what your dad does.
Hurricane comes in and ruins a number of mostly trailers and shacks. I go find these people and say, “Hey, you want some free blue tarps for your roof and/or siding?” They say Yes. I call Billy Glane. He wrangles up some VAGINAs. They slide through roofs, they go through burst doorways, they use their collective knowledge about where people keep guns, they retrieve said guns, they steal said guns, and they, finally, unfurl my blue tarps and hunker them down with cement blocks.
Then they melt down stolen automatic and semi-automatic weapons, plus normal pistols and shotguns and rifles, then—at least this is what they promised me—sell them for scrap at one of many recycling outlets.
They leave pellet and BB guns, if it matters. VAGINAs don’t worry about BB guns.
What is a man going to do after he had his truck, johnboat, boom box, VCR, clothes, ashtrays, five-piece loveseat combo, mirrors, coatracks, cowboy boot collection, portable vanity, and baseball car collection float off elsewhere? Is he going to call the sheriff’s department and say, “Hey, Bo, my illegal firearms collection, bought at the flea market, is missing”?
I should say that VAGINA does a lot of good work outside of natural disaster excavation. They got members all over who just knock on doors, say, “You got an automatic weapon that ain’t good for killing deer but is only made for killing humans?” and then beating shit out of the door-opener before barging in and taking what they want. VAGINA is kind of like a Good Will Hell’s Angels organization, at least in my mind. They’re like the United Way of Crips and Bloods. I’m glad they’re on my side.
I’ve gotten enough money from them, per find, to expand, Lydia, Jr. I don’t want to go into specific details, what with the IRS, and how our president won’t show his own goddamn taxes, but, understand, when you get out of college, you know, well, I’m here.
Your mother said, “It’s different from the other times.”
We sat on a bench near the tombstone of College of the Foothill’s founder and first president, a man named Wwoyd Glimmons. Wwoyd! Who knows why he got named such? Was it supposed to be Lloyd? Was his name pronouned Wuh-woyd? I don’t know. Someone should’ve been hired out immediately as some kind of college historian or archivist.
Anyway, there we sat, on a wood-slat bench, near his granite marker which, if you ask me, shouldn’t’ve been smack in the middle of the campus.
I said, “What is?”
Lydia didn’t say anything back for too long. We looked over at students walking out of the Jefferies Science building, which was named for a big-time donor who didn’t believe in Evolution and, according to legend, thought College of the Foothills should submit to the We’re Only 6000 Years Old way of thought. Maybe it’s the reason why we didn’t have Anthropology classes, or Geology, I don’t know.
What matters is this: You mother said, again, “It’s different from the other times.”
I know you’re smart enough to figure this out: We’d had sexual intercourse before the Trivia Night extravaganza interim. We’d kept it on the “down-low” as maybe your generation calls it. So what? We went off with Ralph and Banks, and we pretended like we’d never met each other. People do that all the time. Maybe once—maybe six or nine times—she took those at-home-pregnancy tests, they came out positive, we went down to this clinic, they did more blood tests, we came home and waited until four o’clock in the afternoon, we waited around, I thought about how I might have to drop out of college and take care of your mother, and then the phone call came back with a woman saying, “It’s negative.”
And then your mother got her period about, oh, five minutes later.
Nothing against your momma, but that’s how it went. That’s kind of how it went in September, October, November…you get it… and then we were first-semester juniors in college. And then we went off on that intermim thing because we were so goddamned smart knowing trivia. That last time when she said “It’s different from the other times?” I said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” Or at least I thought it. Yeah, yeah, yeah—that’s what I thought.
And then she left, it seemed.
Out in the country, inland twenty miles from the Atlantic coast, clapboard houses, ex-slave shacks, trailers, and ex-tenant farmer hovels always stood equally damaged, if not worse, than their high-rise condos, townhouses, sturdy eighteenth-cenury mansions fashioned from old growth cypress and oak, and chiseled granite fortresses built-by-indentured-humans brethren subjected to super tides, king tides, and the inexorable, unrelenting, unobstructed outer bands and eventual hurricane eyes. These sad inland residents, that I always wish to aid with free tarps first, rarely live with the conveniences of sewer lines and city water.
They have septic tanks and wells. The wells become floodwater-contaminated with a variety of run-off pesticides, insecticides, the nearest septic tank contents, hog farm lagoon run-off, coal ash, coliform, various other-fecal by-products, and drowned animals. There’s probably more.
If I get to a place early enough, I stick my head into the well’s maw and yell “Renfro!” just to hear the return echo. Always—always—the bouncing voice is that of my father. Try it. Go to a well, stick your head down there, and scream “Lydia!” What you’ll hear back is the voice of your biological mother, I promise, either saying her own name, exasperated, or calling for you, should I’d gotten my way.
As an aside, sometimes I bellow out, “We’re moving out of here in an hour,” to experience Chesley Ware’s voice saying what I heard too often.
That won’t work for you, Lydia, Jr. But you could try, “I love you.” You might say, “I’m so proud of you, honey.” If it’s possible to get your voice deep enough, go “Don’t be like me” should you wish to hear your father.
Because I’ve read about your exploits on those Genius Teams, I imagine by now you’ve noticed that my name “Renfro Ware” can be rearranged easily into “Forewarner,” though with an extra -e left over. That meant nothing to me until I figured out E-forewarner means something in these technological times.
I’ve lied, as you know. It wouldn’t take much to uncover my deceit. That last mention of “technological times” spurred me into admitting non-prevarication. I apologize. There’s probably some kind of “app” out there you can open, type in some key words, then learn truths through MMPI tests, or Rorschachs.
I’ve been married three times. Long ago in this missive—call me lazy, but I ain’t looking back—I probably wrote how, after your mother’s death, I never cared to be in a long-term relationship with another human, man or woman, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. During the drunken years I walked into the same Maggie Valley wedding chapel twice. One time I married another alcoholic named Cherie. It lasted a year. She thought I took Poverty Studies too seriously. Next came a woman named Patricia, who didn’t drink whatsoever and worked for a non-profit called It’s Time, a place that handed out free, donated Timex watches to the homeless, supposedly so they’d know not to be late for job interviews.
There were no children in either marriage.
My last wife—during the sober years—happened to be named Dahlia. Dahlia! Who names a child Dahlia? It doesn’t matter. I’d be willing to bet that a certified psychologist might conclude that I followed a personal journey to find another “Lydia,” and settled for “Dahlia” because of the similar sounds. If your mother’d been named “Aretha” maybe I’d eventually married a urologist, what with the “urethra” connection.
Ha! Or “LOL.”
Dahlia wished for more from a relationship, too. Between Cherie, Patricia, and Dahlia I got accused of everything from self-absorption, delusion, hard- and hot-headedness, and caring more for strangers than the ones closest to me. I’ve tried to eradicate these indictments: slovenliness, poor hygiene, unpredictability, OCD, predictability, attention deficit disorder, bad temperament, preoccupation, workaholism, depression, apathy, inappropriate elation, frigidity, indifference, hyper sexuality, and irrational behavior. Paranoid. Negligent, as I mentioned in the first line of this explanation.
Somewhere in between these failed marriages I had Banks as a roommate, after his relationship with Ralph didn’t work out. Banks never accused me of much, outside of homophobia, which I don’t believe is true unless being homophobic includes not wanting a penis in my mouth or rectum, plus the overpowering scent of patchouli throughout my house.
All of this is to say, at least in my argument, yes, I might’ve lied earlier, but I contend it’s reasonable, that I’m trying to make a point, an argument, reveal a higher truth.
I never loved these people enough to attempt voodoo curses on their parents, as I underwent with Eugene and Gloria.
All three of these women, I should mention, originally studied nursing. Maybe I wanted help, just in case.
I shouldn’t’ve been charged originally for assault and battery with intent to kill. Luckily, good lawyers—don’t ever let anyone tell you there aren’t moral attorneys out there—took up the case pro bono after I spent way too much time unable to post bail, or deal with a court-appointed lawyer—don’t ever let anyone tell you there aren’t idiot attorneys out there who somehow graduated from D-level law schools. I got punched first. The argument, outside a bar on the Darlington square, commenced over an argument about climate change, over global warming, over an adult man taking his shirt off there on the sidewalk in order to spray himself down with Right Guard aerosol anti-perspirant. “Where the fuck did you get that can?” I said.
I’d hunkered down, waiting for the upcoming hurricane imminent for landfall sixty miles away. Me, my truck sat there loaded with tarps and enough room for me to sleep in the cab, waiting for NOAA indications.
“No one tells me what I can keep on my armpits,” this redneck guy said, kind of slowly. He smelled like gin, which was an unusual smell in a small southern town. He smelled of gin, and cardboard pine tree rearview window freshener. “Soon’s I heard the governmnet wanted to take away my favorite deodorant, I stockpiled.” It took him a minute to get that sentence out. I figured he was either special or edging toward a .30.
I had no choice—and as my second lawyers proved—but to say, “That shit’s ruining the ozone layer.” Then I went off on a memorized speech that involved droughts, higher temperatures, unpredictable Gulf Stream activities, melanoma, and how the Earth wasn’t flat.
As you know, if you’ve snoop-Googled my name, I ducked from his punch, then nailed him with what a boxing aficionado might label a “right-hand cross.”
He lost his footing. This guy—who names their kid Prell, like after the worst shampoo ever invented?—hit his head on the curb. Broke his neck, cracked his skull, and so on. He bled everywhere. Prell didn’t die, but a stranger talking to him might’ve thought he had a stroke, or got born with a major childbirth defect. I don’t know how many people from the community Prell offended in the past, but some of them actually sought out the police and my lawyers to say that, outside of sitting in a wheelchair, he didn’t seem any different.
On top of all this, fuck, I’m the one who walked into the bar and called 911.
Of course this guy—once-worried about underarm aggressions—Prell’s father owned some kind of cotton gin in town, a soy bean silo operation, a tobacco warehouse. I’d paralyzed the son of the town’s richest pillar.
In case you’ve not investigated my past: A woman’s boutique across the way had set up security cameras because another woman’s boutique’s owner had taken to throwing rocks at the competition’s plate glass windows, spray-painting epithets on the sidewalk out front, whatever. I’d already spent a month in the county jail before the truth emerged. I’m not saying the Darlington police force didn’t look for what really happened, but, well, they hadn’t.
I’m prone, still, to punch out aerosol-spraying citizens, but I keep it inside. I feel myself shaking visibly, but I refrain.
I drank club soda in that bar, if it matters.
I first met your supposed mother and father between first and second years at College of the Foothills. Both of them showed up to move Lydia’s clothes and furniture back to Beaufort for the summer. Gloria blew her nose, then wiped her face with the same Kleenex. A smear of mucus trailed across her forehead. She said, “How do you people live up here in this humidity? At least we have something called ‘a breeze’ in the lowcountry.”
I said, “It helps that we don’t coat our faces with snot.” I couldn’t hold back.
That might’ve been, unknowingly, their first reason to keep you away from me.
“You have an interesting-looking make-up,” Gloria said, wiping her forehead again. “What’s your background, Renfro? Are you, oh, Portuguese?”
This occurred during that brief time—maybe a two-month period—when I thought I might have a future as a stand-up comedian. Your birth mother said, “No, no, no, no, no,” like that. She had her ways with understand what I might say.
Listen, I’d always been dark complected, what with working outside, or practically living outside with my parents. I knew what the Tradds wanted to know. I said, “I’m thirty percent Irish, thirty percent Scottish, thirty percent German, and ten inches black.”
That was the second reason to keep you away from me, I guess.
I hope you’re still with me, Nancy. Understand I know how your generation wishes to receive news and/or information in thirty-second sound bites, in flashes, via Snapchat or Instagram or whatever’s been invented and developed between my starting this apology and explanation and the United States Postal Service folding up the mailer-sized envelope and shoving it inside your college mailbox. I’m not making judgments. Who’s to say what’s right, or why humans have evolved such? It’s like the weather. Or people feeling a need to over-fortify themselves.
Listen, I’ve made a point not to tell you your mother’s dorm room. Ghosts, and all. Cupboard, closet, and cabinet doors opening inexplicably, et cetera.
PS—If a professor staples a Waffle House job application to one of your graded exams, like one of them did to me, let me know. I have my people who can take care of him or her.