For My Uncle Joe
by Steve Turner
(Read more from Steve at his blog, located at http://www.unwonderful.com )
I could never understand, at age four, why we moved away without taking dad. Running forty miles away to Leaksville had us all upset. As we drove off, mom was sobbing, which made my two sisters sob. As for me , I dookied my pants, really bad. Four year olds are supposed to have sense enough not to do that. I did have sense enough not to sit down. With both cheeks on fire, my legs stayed far apart. The others had gotten painfully pale and bug-eyed, mouth breathing as seldom as would sustain life. By the time we pulled into my aunt's house, I was doing the jitterbug. My aunt and uncle (joe and betsy chandler) were all hugs when we got there. I quickly crab-walked to their bathroom. They mumbled something about corrective shoes. If Leaksville has a quality apart from other towns, you can knock on any door and get a wet washrag.
For the next two years, my oldest sister and I would write our dad and try to get him to take us back. He never mentioned a word of it, but we wrote anyway. It beat giving up . He did make it to my kindergarten graduation.
Losing my first grade girlfriend (lisa wilson) to a boy with a new minibike was my first Leaksville heartache. Who could've foretold it? She would do without T.V. and ice-cream just to tell me how much she loved me. One day, she and Mr. New Mini-bike (mike whitlow) came sputtering down his driveway. Her tiny legs jutted out like an airplane (hugging him like a pencil as he fake smiled his piano teeth at me). Losing Natalie Wood to a Briggs and Stratton is one thing, but this kid scared his own mother. I felt worse than the bathroom attendant at the Balmar Theater. They spun off. She was his alone. A harpoon in your soul sure helps road pennies to find a pocket. I should have found them all that day. Maybe mom will take us out to eat tonight...
Going out to eat was our only adventure. We piled into our rickety Ford Falcon, arguing over the front seat and the best place to go. My sisters liked "Red and Betty's." Mom's choices were either the "Circle" or the "Sealtest." My favorite was "Dick's Drive-In." "Dick's" was way behind the times. As soon as your car was parked, a freshly beaten, pancake make-upped waitress would strut out of "Dick's" orange door and bark a cigarette-ruined voice through your window. With "Harper Valley P.T.A." and "Pretty Woman" serenading through the horn speaker, the moods changed to whichever song the jukebox played. A George Jones tune would have the place near suicide, putting a song-long, country-washed tone of emotion between you and your waitress. Despite this, they never really listened to your order. It didn't pertain. Pertinence belonged to hustling single guys who made them listen to long, boring descriptions of their lives. "Hey baby, I ain't pushin the broom up the mill anymore, I'm pullin it . . ." Maybe it was their hair that got these girls slapped around. It was teased as high as their arms would go.
A flash of the headlights signaled the waitress to take your tray. Mom had the courtesy to warn us when she was about to start the car. My sisters and I dove to the floorboard as she fired up the little Ford. The screeching fan belt screamed like a scalded pterodactyl stuck under the hood. Our car arrived with four and left with one. After losing sight of "Dick's," we'd pop back up and hoped against hope it would make it home.
Home was a single wide trailer across from the junior high. Life in a mobile home, especially with three females, was tough. Our oil tank was way too small. Mom never did poke a stick to check the level. Our furnace knew this, the duct near the television would listen to a Lee Kinard forecast and shut off when words like "possible accumulation" and "blizzard" were spoken. I was always the patsy for calling the oil company. Bringing my bedcover with me, my teeth chattered so hard, the oilman told me to calm down.
Trailer-life in summer held its own form of torment. If the skies blackened over Martinsville, it was minutes before a storm hit. The first rumble of thunder sent my sisters, like hamsters, to bury themselves in mom's lap. As the bursts of wind rocked our little home, mom, unknowingly, would squeeze my finger as hard as she could. The hammering rain was mixed with booming cracks of thunder and blinding flashbulb lightning. With the defenseless trailer buckling and leaning, we expected the coast guard to row up any minute and toss us the rope. Wide-eyed in fear and finger pain, I feigned dignity. At storm's end, I would yank my deformed finger from her hand and remind her of having the "chickenest" mother in Leaksville.
Small town boredom brought out the worst in some. On a moonless Halloween night, my sisters and I were heading home with heavy bags of candy. A rustling from the creek bed caused us to stop and look back. Three pit-viper bullies (maynard hughes, bruce parker and another one that was hidden by a branch) rose up and started hurling fist-sized rocks at our heads. We ran away as fast as we could. With stones whizzing by our ears, not a single rock ever hit us. I've never thanked my mother for her lifetime of prayers. She had angels wearing baseball gloves that night.
Bullies in school had more time to study your weaknesses. This one particular offspring of Satan (satan) chose lunchtime to ruin my day. Like a snake on tippy-toes, he slithered up and appeared over me with a look of bigger-guy entitlement. His venomous stare drained the autonomy from my soul. When the last muscle of dignity was out of my face, he'd run his hand slowly over the favorite part of my lunch, squishing it between his dirty fingers. Nobody said a word. Nobody could. These days, he's probably hollering "serve you?" at some cafeteria. Maybe he was just broke and hungry.
There were some things that even I don't believe, things that weren't supposed to happen or be seen . This one lady, I'll call her Shirley (because that was her name) . . . Shirley's home was a "Prison Preparatory School" for her unwatched boys. Shirley and her two boys embraced each new day as an opportunity to further regress. Her whole day was spent in a loosely boarded, barren kitchen, sliding eggs through bacon grease to the middle of a filthy, scratched fry pan. She cooked eggs all day, like a man with a paycheck was coming over. The peeling counter was speckled with rusty nail heads and cigarette ashes. Uncrushed, backwash filled beer cans shared space with a grease-stained half gallon bottle of cheap dishwashing liquid. Foil draped television antennas jutted out at eye level, piping in distracting "stories." This smoked up the kitchen really badly, giving the eggs a cover in which to plot their escape. When lunch or dinner was served, Shirley would push a plate of eggs in front of everyone. A basket of buttermilk biscuits was covered with a yearly-washed towel. When removed, a steaming vapor that smelled like a trucker's boot clung to your face and made you feel like part of the family. Shirley's kids weren't competitive, they were pioneers. If a new way to get in trouble was possible, they sat up through the night to devise it. Timmy had a strong resemblance to a tiny Harpo Marx. His speech impediment was a combination of book-less shelves and an eternal cold. The teacher sat him in the front row to lip read his clueless muttering. Her "tilted head of concern" atrophied over time into repetitive, glazed "uh-huhs." By years' end, an unseen force of social selection found him alone, in the back of the room, drawing pictures of naked women. Our church invited him to a party at the home of a sinless relative (betsy chandler). When the discussion turned to hymns, Timmy proudly beamed his favorite song was "My Baby Does the Hanky Panky." Timmy was the first kid to get tattooed. The knuckles of his right hand spelled out the "F" word, the three valleys in between said "YOU." He would have proudly shown it to Billy Graham.
Johnny's crawl through the birth canal should've included land mines and friendly fire. His heroes were the pre-redeemed characters in phone booth pamphlets. This affinity for the dark side must have come from having to stare at an overhead light while crib-bound. Missing more school than he attended, truant officers knew better than to call Shirley, they resorted to yelping bloodhounds and volunteer posses to find him. After a few normal days of "show and tell" and "red rover," the sheriff brought Johnny right over. When the solid oak door of Principal Fred P. Liner's office boomed shut, resonations of the paddling pealed through the hallway like a distant deer hunter's rifle. With each blow, Johnny's legs ran in place, but his feet held their ground. He didn't cry. He didn't know how.
Johnny's life came to an early, unexpected end. He kicked in the door of a respected, yet tough, elderly woman in broad daylight. She leveled a shotgun at his chest, killing him instantly. Timmy still holds in pot smoke until his butt bleeds, calling jail his second home. Maybe Shirley needed a cookbook.
In my teen years, I was riding around Leaksville with a childhood girlfriend (cathy cherry). It was a warm spring day, so we headed out to the country. When we drove past my great-uncle's farm on Garrett Road, I saw a large group of people, maybe fifty, in his front yard. I parked and walked up to join the reunion. My aunt and uncle (lloyd and thelma turner) were sitting at a picnic table atop the dead center of their acreage. Expecting to be spoken to, things got awkwardly quiet. They asked who I was! Trying hard to hide my hurt and astonishment, I explained to them in great detail who I was. It was like trying to yell in a dream. Nobody, hopefully, has a name like my mother's (lovelene, her sisters call her lovalene). Telling them who my parents were surely will do it. It didn't. I looked into the face of a relative I had known seventeen years and gave him the name of two people he had known for forty. I walked away, knowing it must have been a cold night when I was conceived . . .
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About the author... Steve Turner lived in Eden (known as Leaksville from 1797-1967) from 1959 until 1970. "It seems I was whisked away. What a difference a day makes! After 34 years, I live here again. For all those who made my childhood wonderful, Sally Groseclose, Vicki Woodall, Danny Durham, Stevie Amos, Carol James, Lisa Gilley, Lyman Collins, Margaret Wright, Phyllis Cheek, Joanie Edwards, Timmy Martin, Cathy Cherry and Myrna Ball, I love and miss you all. You were children when I left, I certainly miss your camaraderie and the innocence we had together. Special people from a special town."
Click here for more of Steve's writings.