Chapter 1: Babies Making Babies
Babies making babies. Pfft…I ain’t never heard a good story about two teenagers setting out, ready to conquer the world, only come to find out they got themselves already knocked-up after just one night’s fit of passion, leaving all their fancy ideas of what life was gonna be like, rolled-out like toilet paper under their heels behind them. Mama said that’s precisely what happened to her and Daddy, and they was nothing more than just babies making babies when they gave birth to that stubborn, curly-headed, terror-of-a-sister-of mine, Bartlett.
The way Mama tells it, she met daddy out at the Southern Speedway, the race car track down off Highway 77 in Ardmore, Oklahoma, one glorious summer’s night. Mama says that whole night long, Daddy kept trying to kiss her, telling her she sure was the prettiest thing he ever did saw, but Mama told him she was a lady and she was raised better than that. She’d smack his hands each time Daddy got to wandering, and pushed him away each time he leaned in for a kiss. Daddy must have known she wasn’t gonna let any man touch her before she got married, so he up and asked her, straight-away, to marry him on a teenaged boy’s foolish impulse. Shoot, they didn’t even know each other but more than a few hours when my flattered, exasperated mother laughed and looked up at him with her shiny, steel blue eyes and finally gave-in to him, “Yes, I’ll marry you, Earl, but not before you go out to my house and ask my Mama and Daddy for permission.”
Mama turned to me, more staring through me than anything, because she was lost in some faraway place. As she slowly recanted that evening so long ago. I watched as something within stirred and fluttered and reared its head deep inside her as she began talking about how they sat on the cool bleachers and watched those loud, colorful race cars zoom by them at breakneck speeds while Daddy struggled to fondle and flirt and hear her timid voice above the crowd and the noise. I could almost smell the exhaust and the asphalt and rubber, and feel the sweltering hot, humid Oklahoma air, she told the story so well. She said that night she believed she could love my daddy forever. “Barley, your father was the handsomest man in all of Carter County,” she began. “It’s true, don’t laugh,” she said, eyeing me thoughtfully as I giggled nervously. “Everyone thought he looked just like a young Elvis Presley back then, all dark-haired, tall and tan and thin and so ding dang confident, your Daddy was. Why, all them girls out at that race track just wished they was me that night,” Mama said, as her smile slowly began to fade. Suddenly, she began rummaging around in her own thoughts, picking them up and sorting through them one-by-one, ruminating about her shy, teenaged self, a different person in a different body at a different time. For a moment, I thought I had lost her completely to her memories. “Oh Mama, hurry up already. Tell me more,” I pleaded, bringing her back to the here and now.
That next Monday morning, Mama told me Grandpa had his first serious talk with Daddy, the groom-to-be, and gave him what mama called, The Three Nevers Talk. “Never hit her, ever,” my Grandpa said slowly, looking him straight in the eye, taking a long pause for effect, while spitting his tobacco in the Folgers Coffee can he used as a spittoon sitting next to him. “I ain’t never hit her and you ain’t gonna neither,” he said plaintively. Then he grimaced, contemplating his next words as he slowly sucked the tobacco from his teeth. Finally he said, “Never let her go hungry, and never stray from her and find yourself another woman, because she’s the best you’re ever gonna find. Ya hear me? If you can promise me these three things, Anita and me, well…we will give y’all our blessings, and you can marry our Franny,” Grandpa said in a foreboding voice.
Later that morning, my Mama, just fifteen-years-old at the time, powdered her pale skin and got all dressed-up in her Sunday finery, kissed her Mama on the nose, and left the only home she ever knew, all giddy and excited, ambling down a dirt road, heading towards her destiny with a man she barely knew in a dilapidated Chevy truck. Feeling hopeful and reckless, summoning her heart’s out-and-out abandon, she later stood solemnly, thinking about what it would be like being married to the elusive stranger standing next to her. In front of the Justice of the Peace in the Carter County Courthouse, Fanny Faye Doyle, married my Daddy while my mother’s brother, Uncle John, and his wife, June, looked on. Mama never liked old June much, and I could see just mentioning her name now gave her the worst case of the willies and that in turn caused the goose pimples to surface on my arm. I brushed them away and finished listening to Mama tell me more about the day she pledged her life away to my daddy.
Nine months after Mama said I do, she gave birth to Bartlett, named after the pear fruit, ‘cause Mama was green with the flu when she went into labor and threw up all over her doctor, just two years and a month before I was born. Mama always did have a penchant for food, and so she named me Barley, like the waves of golden grain that rolled through the John Deere combines from the dry fields of Oklahoma. Seven years later, my baby brother, Graham, like the cracker, came. Mama didn’t have no real good explanation for his name, except that she liked to crush up graham crackers in milk in the mornings and eat ’em like that for breakfast. Us three, Bartlett and Graham and me, we never knew what hit us being born a Sullivan. One of my elementary school teachers, Miss Espich, once told me that never knowing what hits you is an idiom relating to very bad consequences in which the people involved were totally unsuspecting. That’s us, the Sullivan Three, totally unsuspecting people named after food.