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Chapter 1: A man who buys books because they're pretty
My mother and father were born in the most beautiful place on earth, in the foothills of the Appalachians along the Alabama-Georgia line. It was a place where gray mists hid the tops of low, deep-green mountains, where redbone and bluetick hounds flashed through the pines as they chased possums into the sacks of old men in frayed overalls, where old women in bonnets dipped Bruton snuff and hummed "Faded Love and Winter Roses" as they shelled purple hulls, canned peaches and made biscuits too good for this world. It was a place where playing the church piano loud was near as important as playing it right, where fearless young men steered long, black Buicks loaded with yellow whiskey down roads the color of dried blood, where the first frost meant hog killin' time and the mouthwatering smell of cracklin's would drift for acres from giant, bubbling pots. It was a place where the screams of panthers, like a woman's anguished cry, still haunted the most remote ridges and hollows in the dead of night, where children believed they could choke off the cries of night birds by circling one wrist with a thumb and forefinger and squeezing tight, and where the cotton blew off the wagons and hung like scraps of cloud in the branches of trees.
It was about 120 miles west of Atlanta, about 100 miles east of Birmingham, close to nothin' but that dull red ground. Life here between the meandering dirt roads and skinny blacktop was full, rich, original and real, but harsh, hard, mean as a damn snake. My parents grew up in the 1940s and 1950s in the poor, upland South, a million miles from the Mississippi Delta and the Black Belt and the jasmine-scented verandas of what most people came to know as the Old South. My ancestors never saw a mint julep, but they sipped five-day-old likker out of ceramic jugs and Bell jars until they could not remember their Christian names.
Men paid for their plain-plank houses and a few acres of land by sawing and hand-lifting pulpwood onto ragged trucks for pennies a ton. They worked in the blast furnace heat of the pipe shops, loaded boxcars at the clay pits and tended the nerve gas stockpiles at the army base, carrying caged birds to test for leaks. They coaxed crops to grow in the up-country clay that no amount of fertilizer would ever turn into rich bottomland, tried in vain to keep their fingers, hands and arms out of the hungry machinery of the cotton mills, so that the first thing you thought when you saw an empty sleeve was not war, but the threshing racks. The summers withered the cotton and corn and the tornado season lasted ten months, making splinters out of their barns, twisting the tin off their roofs, yanking their tombstones out of the ground. Their women worked themselves to death, their mules succumbed to worms and their children were crippled by rickets and perished from fever, but every Sunday morning The Word leaked out of little white-wood sanctuaries where preachers thrust ragged Bibles at the rafters and promised them that while sickness and poverty and Lucifer might take their families, the soul of man never dies.
White people had it hard and black people had it harder than that, because what are the table scraps of nothing? This was not the genteel and parochial South, where monied whites felt they owed some generations-old debt to their black neighbors because their great-great-grandfather owned their great-great-grandfather. No one I knew ever had a mammy. This was two separate states, both wanting and desperate, kept separate by hard men who hid their faces under hoods and their deeds under some twisted interpretation of the Bible, and kicked the living shit out of anyone who thought it should be different. Even into my own youth, the orange fires of shacks and crosses lit up the evening sky. It seems a cliché now, to see it on movie screens. At the time, it burned my eyes.
It was as if God made them pay for the loveliness of their scenery by demanding everything else. Yet the grimness of it faded for a while, at dinner on the ground at the Protestant churches, where people sat on the springtime grass and ate potato salad and sipped sweet tea from an aluminum tub with a huge block of ice floating in it. The pain eased at family reunions where the men barbecued twenty-four hours straight and the women took turns holding babies and balancing plates on their knees, trying to keep the grease from soaking through on the one good dress they had. The hardness of it softened in the all-night gospel singings that ushered in the dawn with the promise that "I'll have a new body, praise the Lord, I'll have a new life," as babies crawled up into the ample laps of grandmothers to sleep across jiggling knees. If all else failed, you could just wash it away for a while, at the stills deep in the woods or in the highly illegal beer joints and so-called social clubs, where the guitar pickers played with their eyes closed, lost in the booze and the words of lost love and betrayal. They sang about women who walked the hills in long black veils, of whispering pines, and trains.
It was the backdrop and the sound track of our lives. I was born into it in the summer of 1959, just in time to taste it, absorb it, love it and hate it and know its secrets. When I was a teenager, I watched it shudder and gasp and finally begin to die, the pines clear-cut into huge patches of muddy wasteland and the character of the little towns murdered by generic subdivisions and generic fast-food restaurants. The South I was born in was eulogized by pay-as-you-pray TV preachers, enclosed in a coffin of light blue aluminum siding and laid to rest in a polyester suit, from Wal-Mart.
I watched the races fall into an uneasy and imperfect peace and the grip of the poverty ease. There was reason to rejoice in that, because while I was never ashamed to be a Southerner there was always a feeling, a need, to explain myself. But as change came in good ways, I saw Southernness become a fashion, watched men wear their camouflage deer-hunting clothes to the mall because they thought it looked cool, watched Hank Williams and his elegant western suits give way to pretty boys in ridiculous Rodeo Drive leather chaps. And I thought of my granddaddy Bobby Bragg, gentler than his son in some ways, who sat down to dinner in clean overalls, a spotless white shirt buttoned to the neck and black wingtip shoes.
Only the religion held. It held even though the piano players went to music school and actually learned to read notes, even though new churches became glass and steel monstrosities that looked like they had just touched down from Venus. It held even though the more prosperous preachers started to tack the pretentious title of "Doctor" in front of their name and started to spend more time at seminars than visiting the sick. It held even though the Baptists started to beat drums and allow electric guitar, even though--Jesus help us--the Church of Christ conceded in the late 1970s that it was probably not a mortal sin if boys went swimming with girls. It held. God hung in there like a rusty fish hook.
Even my father found Him at the end, or at least he went looking for Him.
It was 1974, when he was still a young man and I was a boy in my first year of high school. Several years after he abandoned us or chased us away for the last of too many times, the phone would ring in the little red house where we lived with my grandmother, through the good graces and charity of my aunt Nita and uncle Ed. It would be him, asking for my momma between bone-rattling coughs, the kind that telegraphed death, promised it. She would stop what she was doing, dust the flour from her hands or turn off the iron or put down her fork at supper, and sit for what seemed hours, silent, just listening, twisting the phone cord around and around her hands until it was so tight her fingers turned white as bone. Funny, the things that rivet themselves in your mind. Finally she would promise to pray for him, and ease the phone back onto its cradle. Then she would pick up what she was doing again, dry-eyed, but would not talk to us for a very long time.
He had been a fearsome man, the kind of slim and lethal Southern man who would react with murderous fury when insulted, attacking with a knife or a pine knot or his bare hands. When I was six I watched him kick the mortal hell out of a man in a parking lot. I cannot remember why he did it. I just remember how the man covered up his head and tried to crawl under a car to get away, but he was too fat and wedged himself half in and half out, while my daddy kicked his ass and spit on his back and called him a son of a bitch. I remember how the man's yellow sport shirt had blood on it, how his pocket change spilled out into the gravel, and how the man's children--I remember a little girl screaming--stood and watched, in terror. I distinctly remember that I was not afraid, because no matter how much red hatred clouded his eyes, how much Jim Beam or beer or homemade whiskey assaulted his brain, he never touched me. In some sick way I admired him. This was, remember, a world of pulpwooders and millworkers and farmers, of men who ripped all the skin off their knuckles working on junk cars and ignored the blood that ran down their arms. In that world, strength and toughness were everything, sometimes the only things. It was common, acceptable, not to be able to read, but a man who wouldn't fight, couldn't fight, was a pathetic thing. To be afraid was shameful. I am not saying I agree with it. It's just the way it was.
But in the end he was very afraid. The years of drinking more whiskey than water had wrecked him, and somewhere along the way, he had picked up TB. People were not supposed to still be dying of it then, in 1974, and he might have lived if he could have quit drinking and cleaned up his life. But it was the drinking that killed him, really, just as sure as if he slipped and fell and cut his throat on the broken bottle.
He was only forty, when the sickness took him down. But by the time he was scared enough of dying to try to live, to truly want to live, he was out of every option except The Cross.
He said he began to see a dark angel perched like a crow on the footboard of his bed, just waiting, expectant. He knew enough of the Gospel to be fearful of fallen angels, and he was afraid that it might have been dispatched from hell, special, to ferry him home. He said he threw shoes at it to get it to flutter away, but it returned, it always returned. I never, ever liked to listen to him when he talked drunk and crazy that way, and the phone seemed to grow hot in my hand.
He had never been inside a church in his life, back when he was young, indestructible. But as the sickness squeezed his lungs he began to hope that Jesus was more than just a fifty-cent mail-order picture enshrined in a dime-store frame on the hallway wall, that salvation was the trick card he could play right at the end and stay in the money. I know it because I asked my momma what they talked about all those times. "He talked about y'all, a little. But mostly he just wanted to talk about the Lord."
I guess it is what you do if you grow up with warnings of damnation ringing from every church door and radio station and family reunion, in a place where total strangers will walk up to you at the Piggly Wiggly and ask if you are Saved. Even if you deny that faith, rebuke it, you still carry it around with you like some half-forgotten Indian head penny you keep in your pocket for luck. I wonder sometimes if I will be the same, if when I see my life coming to an end I will drop to my knees and search my soul for old sins and my memory for forgotten prayers. I reckon so.
He would ask to see her in some of those calls, but anything my momma had for my daddy had been beaten and starved out of her a long time ago. At least, that is the conviction I had at the time. He would ask to see us, too, his sons, but too much time had gone by since he had been anything close to a father and the overpowering memories were bad, of curses and shouts and my momma motioning us away, out of the room. I had not seen him for more than a few minutes in years, since I was six and we went back to live in my grandmother's house on Roy Webb Road.
We had heard he was sick, but that information registered somewhere far below my second-hand motorcycle and my first real kiss in relevance and importance. My older brother, Sam, who was nine the last time he left us, who went outside to dig crumbs of shattered coal from the frozen mud so that we would have something to burn to stay warm, was scarred more than me by the memories, cared even less than me. My younger brother, Mark, did not have a single cognizant memory of him. I wonder sometimes if that is not a blessing, but then I think that while my older brother and I grew up with a cracked image of a father, with some vague memories of fleeting good times, he had nothing, has nothing now, as if he was hatched into this world.
Then one day my momma told me he had asked for me, only me. She said he was bad sick and it might be the last time. He said he bought me a present, and wanted to give it to me himself.
Even now, over twenty years later, I wonder if the reason I saw my father that one last time, that I heard the closest thing to a confession he would ever make, is because I responded to a dying man's cry for attention or just wanted the present, the bribe. I guess it does not really matter anymore. I went to the little house where he lived and knocked on the door, determined to stare him down, man to man, to let him know exactly what I thought of him for what he did to us, to my momma. I was going on sixteen, six feet two and 185 pounds, and had fought bloody battles over girls in the parking lot of the local Hardee's, and now and then my brothers and I mixed it up just for sport.
I was not afraid of him anymore. I was not helpless now, not some child hiding under the bed.
I know why he wanted to see me. If my daddy had a favorite, I guess I was it. I guess he thought I was smart, because he liked the fact that I would sit quiet with a book about Dick and Jane and read it so many times that I memorized it, then show off in class by reciting my page, not reading it. He liked the fact that if I got into a fight on the playground and someone had a grip on my throat, I would stick my thumb in his eye, just like he taught me when I was still just a very little boy. He was proud of the fact that, if a batter got a hit off me in baseball, I would throw the next pitch at his head. Like he taught me.
I guess he thought I was a lot like him. Even now people say that. They tell me I remind them of him in little ways. As the years slip past, it is easier to hear, but at the time I hated to hear it, think it.
He was living in a little house in Jacksonville, Alabama, a college and mill town that was the closest urban center--with its stoplights and a high school and two supermarkets--to the country roads we roamed in our raggedy cars. He lived in the mill village, in one of those houses the mills subsidized for their workers, back when companies still did things like that. It was not much of a place, but better than anything we had ever lived in as a family. I knocked and a voice like an old woman's, punctuated with a cough that sounded like it came from deep in the guts, told me to come on in, it ain't locked.
It was dark inside, but light enough to see what looked like a bundle of quilts on the corner of a sofa. Deep inside them was a ghost of a man, his hair and beard long and going dirty gray, his face pale and cut with deep grooves. I knew I was in the right house because my daddy's only real possessions, a velvet-covered board pinned with medals, sat inside a glass cabinet on a table. But this couldn't be him.
He coughed again, spit into a can and struggled to his feet, but stopped somewhere short of standing straight up, as if a stoop was all he could manage. "Hey, Cotton Top," he said, and then I knew. My daddy, who was supposed to be a still-young man, looked like the walking dead, not just old but damaged, poisoned, used up, crumpled up and thrown in a corner to die. I thought that the man I would see would be the trim, swaggering, high-toned little rooster of a man who stared back at me from the pages of my mother's photo album, the young soldier clowning around in Korea, the arrow-straight, good-looking boy who posed beside my mother back before the fields and mop handle and the rest of it took her looks. The man I remembered had always dressed nice even when there was no cornmeal left, whose black hair always shone with oil, whose chin, even when it wobbled from the beer, was always angled up, high.
I thought he would greet me with that strong voice that sounded so fine when he laughed and so evil when, slurred by a quart of corn likker, he whirled through the house and cried and shrieked, tormented by things we could not see or even imagine. I thought he would be the man and monster of my childhood. But that man was as dead as a man could be, and this was what remained, like when a snake sheds its skin and leaves a dry and brittle husk of itself hanging in the Johnson grass.
"It's all over but the shoutin' now, ain't it, boy," he said, and when he let the quilt slide from his shoulders I saw how he had wasted away, how the bones seemed to poke out of his clothes, and I could see how it killed his pride to look this way, unclean, and he looked away from me for a moment, ashamed.
He made a halfhearted try to shake my hand but had a coughing fit again that lasted a minute, coughing up his life, his lungs, and after that I did not want to touch him. I stared at the tops of my sneakers, ashamed to look at his face. He had a dark streak in his beard below his lip, and I wondered why, because he had never liked snuff. Now I know it was blood.
I remember much of what he had to say that day. When you don't see someone for eight, nine years, when you see that person's life red on their lips and know that you will never see them beyond this day, you listen close, even if what you want most of all is to run away.
"Your momma, she alright?" he said.
I said I reckon so.
"The other boys? They alright?"
I said I reckon so.
Then he was quiet for a minute, as if trying to find the words to a question to which he did not really want an answer.
"They ain't never come to see me. How come?"
I remember thinking, fool, why do you think? But I just choked down my words, and in doing so I gave up the only real chance I would ever have to accuse him, to attack him with the facts of his own sorry nature and the price it had cost us all. The opportunity hung perfectly still in the air in front of my face and fists, and I held my temper and let it float on by. I could have no more challenged him, berated him, hurt him than I could have kicked some three-legged dog. Life had kicked his ass pretty good.
I just shrugged.
For the next few hours--unless I was mistaken, having never had one before--he tried to be my father. Between coughing and long pauses when he fought for air to generate his words, he asked me if I liked school, if I had ever gotten any better at math, the one thing that just flat evaded me. He asked me if I ever got even with the boy who blacked my eye ten years ago, and nodded his head, approvingly, as I described how I followed him into the boys' bathroom and knocked his dick string up to his watch pocket, and would have dunked his head in the urinal if the aging principal, Mr. Hand, had not had to pee and caught me dragging him across the concrete floor.
He asked me about basketball and baseball, said he had heard I had a good game against Cedar Springs, and I said pretty good, but it was two years ago, anyway. He asked if I had a girlfriend and I said, "One," and he said, "Just one?" For the slimmest of seconds he almost grinned and the young, swaggering man peeked through, but disappeared again in the disease that cloaked him. He talked and talked and never said a word, at least not the words I wanted.
He never said he was sorry.
He never said he wished things had turned out different.
He never acted like he did anything wrong.
Part of it, I know, was culture. Men did not talk about their feelings in his hard world. I did not expect, even for a second, that he would bare his soul. All I wanted was a simple acknowledgment that he was wrong, or least too drunk to notice that he left his pretty wife and sons alone again and again, with no food, no money, no way to get any, short of begging, because when she tried to find work he yelled, screamed, refused. No, I didn't expect much.
After a while he motioned for me to follow him into a back room where he had my present, and I planned to take it and run. He handed me a long, thin box, and inside was a brand-new, well-oiled Remington .22 rifle. He said he had bought it some time back, just kept forgetting to give it to me. It was a fine gun, and for a moment we were just like anybody else in the culture of that place, where a father's gift of a gun to his son is a rite. He said, with absolute seriousness, not to shoot my brothers.
I thanked him and made to leave, but he stopped me with a hand on my arm and said wait, that ain't all, that he had some other things for me. He motioned to three big cardboard egg cartons stacked against one wall.
Inside was the only treasure I truly have ever known.
I had grown up in a house in which there were only two books, the King James Bible and the spring seed catalog. But here, in these boxes, were dozens of hardback copies of everything from Mark Twain to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. There was a water-damaged Faulkner, and the nearly complete set of Edgar Rice Burroughs's Tarzan. There was poetry and trash, Zane Grey's Riders of the Purple Sage, and a paperback with two naked women on the cover. There was a tiny, old copy of Arabian Nights, threadbare Hardy Boys, and one Hemingway. He had bought most of them at a yard sale, by the box or pound, and some at a flea market. He did not even know what he was giving me, did not recognize most of the writers. "Your momma said you still liked to read," he said.
There was Shakespeare. My father did not know who he was, exactly, but he had heard the name. He wanted them because they were pretty, because they were wrapped in fake leather, because they looked like rich folks' books. I do not love Shakespeare, but I still have those books. I would not trade them for a gold monkey.
"They's maybe some dirty books in there, by mistake, but I know you ain't interested in them, so just throw 'em away," he said. "Or at least, throw 'em away before your momma sees 'em." And then I swear to God he winked.
I guess my heart should have broken then, and maybe it did, a little. I guess I should have done something, anything, besides mumble "Thank you, Daddy." I guess that would have been fine, would not have betrayed in some way my mother, my brothers, myself. But I just stood there, trapped somewhere between my long-standing, comfortable hatred, and what might have been forgiveness. I am trapped there still.
He could not buy my friendship, not with a library, but with the books he bought my company for as long as he wanted it that day. We went back in the living room and he unscrewed the cap on a thin pint of what I believe was George Dickel or some other brown likker. He drank it in little sips, and talked about how pretty my momma was when they were married, about a time when we all went to Texas for a summer so he could work a body and fender job, about the bulldogs he used to fight in the pits over in Rome, Georgia, about the mean woman he used to court over that way who kept a razor tucked down the neck of her blouse. He talked of a hound dog he had that could climb a tree, of the time a rattlesnake bit Boots, his momma's fat Chihuahua, and how she swelled up like a beach ball. I had heard them all before, or thought I had, when I was a child, but I cannot say it was a bad thing to hear them again.
I asked him once or twice to tell me about Korea, because I was a boy and boys are thrilled with war. But he just said nawwwwww, he didn't like to dwell on it, that I should thank the Lord I never had to go.
Finally the bottle was down to a swallow or two and he was huddled back in a corner of the couch, quiet, as satisfyingly, numbingly drunk as a man in his condition could be. The whiskey was like tonic to him, I guess. It warmed instead of burned. I just sat in a chair all the way across the room, waiting. I had experience with drunks, with him as a child, and later with kinfolks who staggered into our house for a place to sleep. I knew it was just a matter of time until he slipped into that deep, deep sleep that no amount of shaking or even a house fire would wake him from. I would take my gun, my books, and leave him forever.
Then, without any explanation of why he changed his mind and without any pretense that by talking about this war he could somehow excuse the way he lived, he told me one last story. He used his aged, ruined voice like an old man's palsied hands to pick the lock on his past, and tugged me inside.