Every day I watched my Daddy slip away from me, swallow by bitter swallow. He made promises he could not keep his bottle kept blocking his vision and purpose in life. . .
Daddy took us fishin’, Lord, and I just got to tell you about it. We went down to the Neuse River close to the Carolina Power Plant. I even baited my own hook! The worms were too squiggly this time. These worms were a whole lot quieter than the first time Daddy let me bait my own hook. You see, Lord, I heard one of the worms cry out in pain when I poked it. I almost dropped the poor thing until I realized that Daddy was foolin’ me again. . . .
He was always playing practical jokes. He would howl when his teasin’ got the right response. Sometimes his jokes bordered on cruelty making it hard for me to laugh; especially if he talked about dying or being in pain. I dreaded hearing him even mention being sick; it frightened me.
One of my recurring dreams was being buried alive in a pine box. My family would be standing all around my open grave, crying because I was gone; only, I could hear every wail, but I was paralyzed and unable to let them know that I wasn’t dead. No matter how hard I tried to speak or gesture in some way, it was useless. I remember the darkness closing in all around me as the top was placed on my coffin, and the angry pounding of the hammer against the nails that were to seal my fate for eternity. After being totally abandoned I’d lie in the coffin waiting to breathe my last breath, and I wondered why no one bothered to check my pulse one last time. No one even covered my legs. When I became desperate for air, I would fight to get the casket open and I’d wake up tangled in the covers. By that time I was in such a state of panic that it was next to impossible to breathe, even though my life depended on it. It felt so real; could this be a sign that the death angel was going to visit?
When the fishing was done, I braced myself for the ride home. If ever there was a chance to get paralyzed or left for dead it was while riding in the back seat of the family car. Daddy drove drunk, Mama prayed and we kept our fingers crossed and wiped the tears from our faces. The beautiful afternoon was forgotten, and we were faced with the reality. How will we make it home?
I’ll never get used to this part of our trips. I remember sitting in the back seat of the car without seatbelts to hold us in, so we held on to each other for dear life. One time Daddy was determined to teach Mama how to drive, but I guess he waited until he was too drunk to care whether she wrecked the car or not. Mama tried to practice after Daddy stopped the car in the middle of a country road, that ran between two deep ditches, a hill, and a curve just ahead. He figured that mama needed to learn a three-point turn, and the place he stopped was as good as any. Mom got behind the wheel still in a state of total panic.
I can laugh about it now, but it wasn’t anything to laugh about when we knew that if mama was scared and saying that she couldn’t do it, we were definitely in trouble. “Why not an open field, Dad? I can’t turn the car around, here! What if I get stuck in the ditch!”
My daddy just looked at her. “Jer, it’s not the ditch you need to be worrin’ about, do you see those lights? Them’s headlights off a big 18-wheeler. It’s comin’ over the hill, it can’t see you here and when it gets over that hill it can’t stop. You better turn this car around, now, or it’s gonna plow right into your babies!”
Mama said, “. . . ooooh . . .” and made a perfect 3-point turn in less than 30 seconds. We put our hands over our eyes and braced ourselves for our doom that was sure to come at any second. Boy, were we glad to actually be able to hear the air horns on that truck! The truck passed us just as she righted the car and took off. Lesson passed: no casualties. After he passed, Mama, had a new confidence, but she stayed quiet for the rest of the ride home, and come to think of it so did daddy.
I wish daddy would let mama drive tonight. He’s really angry tonight because he stopped off at his half-brother’s house, Uncle Jimmy, (J for short) to give him some catfish that he caught. Uncle J knew what that bootleg did to daddy, but he offered it to him anyway. Stupid, stupid, stupid move on his part, but what does he care? He doesn’t have to get home.
When Uncle opened the door the first thing he said was to make yourselves at home, and then to Daddy, “Got some bootleg in the cabinet out back–seasoned batch from Back Woods.” They never said a real name. It was a secret. I thought to myself, “Uh-oh, this is not good.” When they left to go out back, I saw mama turn away quickly and wipe a tear from the corner of her eye so that we wouldn’t see her cry.
For what seemed like hours, Daddy and Uncle drank chasing the bootleg with water from a mason jar. Then, the accusations started as they remember that they only tolerated each other for all the years they were together.
“If it wasn’t for you, my Nonie would be alive. You were always running around chasin’ women and boozin’ it up instead of taking care of her.”
“Where were you?” Uncle asked, “You stayed at home and run around and boozed it up in front of her. At least I didn’t have to be bailed out of jail every weekend.”
“Naw, she worried herself sick because her only blood son was good for nuthin’ and never called or wrote her the whole time he was away in the service. Some big shot in the service you were, you didn’t bother to come home when she got sick the first time.”
“She got better and I couldn’t get home. I couldn’t just drop everything and run half way around the world. It doesn’t work like that in the Air Force.”
“Because of you, she worried herself sick!” Daddy was getting angrier and louder the more that he thought about the only mother he claimed.
“That’s not true, she died of lung cancer because you smoked around her!”
“Well at least I was with her and helped her while she was going through all this, where were you? I know, you were out there living it up, and didn’t care about how much your mother needed to see you. You could have at least called once in a while. No, she died of stomach cancer because you were so stingy with your ‘hard earned’ money. She made the best of it. Do you have any idea what she ate? Cornflakes, three times a day!”
“You, callin’ me a liar? I said that she died of lung cancer.”
Daddy turned up his bootleg and took a long swig of the fire water. “I didn’t call you a liar, but I’m telling you she died of stomach cancer. That’s what the doctors said! She ate corn flakes morning, noon and night because you was too cheap to buy her real food!”
They drank more and more. Daddy tried to get up, instead he promptly fell back in his seat. Uncle J smirked and then bellowed in a mocking laugh at Daddy, “What’s the matter, can’t hold your liquor?”
“I’ll show you who can’t hold his liquor.” Daddy staggered to his feet and fell into the kitchen door and the counter and found a butcher knife.
“You’re drunk, young man,” Uncle J shook his head from side to side, “don’t you know that you’re not supposed to drink alcohol around your kids? They might turn out to be just like you,” Uncle mocked Nonie’s constant harping on the subject of the ills of drinking.
“I’m not drunk! You better watch your mouth, don’t talk about my Nonie. She can’t defend herself now.” Daddy, stalked through the door with the butcher knife. When I saw the knife, I knew it was all over. There was definitely going to be bloodshed. Just when we thought that Uncle was a dead man, Daddy reached out for us kids instead, and pulled us behind him. He saw the enemy coming out of the walls, and through the windows. We made our way to the car in a huddled mass; he shoved us down in the back seat; and he told us to hide in the floorboard so the enemy couldn’t get us. Mama slipped into the front seat.
It didn’t make much sense to me, Nonie was dead, and no matter how she left this world, she wasn’t coming back, plain and simple. By that time, we didn’t care what Daddy thought; we screamed for Jesus to the top of our lungs and held on, even when he shouted that we were giving away our position. Our prayers were loud as we kept calling out for help.
Uncle J was outside, now, trying to get Daddy to stop the car. He was sobering up fast because he had rode with Daddy before when he’d had too much bootleg. This was serious business, Dan was holding his nieces and nephew hostage, and they might not make it home, because he was so stupid and got him in this shape. Uncle jumped out of the way just in time before Daddy hit the road. We screamed and looked out back to see if Uncle J was okay, he waved at us, gave us a thumbs-up, and I saw him running for his truck to follow us.
By this time the car was gaining speed. I watched as it climbed from 60, 70, 75, 80, I couldn’t look anymore! He still had the butcher knife melded to his hand and he wasn’t about to surrender. No sir, he planned to get his family out of enemy territory and safe somewhere, but where? He got lost driving home, and we drove in circles for what seemed like hours. Every time headlights whizzed past us, they’d set down on their horns and swerve to miss us. Daddy claimed the whole road.
At the end of the road was a steep embankment that was part of a cloverleaf. It was sometimes called, Devil’s Pit. As we approached Devil’s Pit, we all started praying louder. God must have heard, because there is no way humanly possible that we could have made that curve without careening off into the embankment. It wasn’t Mom’s hand that turned the steering wheel. She was too busy reaching for us and trying to hold on herself.
The wheel made a sharp jerk to the right. An angel must have grabbed hold on the wheel! Daddy had passed out in the middle of the curve. When I peeked over at the speedometer it had slowed down to 60 MPH. Mama had covered her eyes, trying to make herself relax and pray; it must have worked. We cruised into the bottom of the curve to the service area and gave thanks. Mama carefully opened her eyes and looked over to the man that she loved so desperately. The butcher knife relaxed in his open hand and Mama gingerly reached over and chunked it far out of the window into the grass. He didn’t need the knife any more. He needed some understanding.
Uncle J pulled in front of us. He had a tow bar and he hooked up our car and towed us home. Not a word was ever spoken about that night. Daddy only remembered the fishing trip.
So, Lord, prayin’ works. I’m so glad that you are not hard of hearing.
Your thankful daughter, Grace
PS, God, thanks for sendin’ the angel.