November 30, 1983
November 30, 1983

I awakened a few hours later to the delightful aroma of side pork and eggs, fryin’ up cracklin’ hot on the griddle. I knew Mama was standin’ at the stove, dutifully making us breakfast where she was probably still adorned in her blood-stained pink robe. Daddy, undoubtedly would be sittin’ at the kitchen table—drinkin’ his coffee and tokin’ long and hard on his Marlboro, while starin’ out the window, surely carryin’ his thoughts out into the trailer park and farther past it to the great wide beyond.  I never knowed where my Daddy went when he stared out that window at nothin’ in particular, but I imagined it was someplace other than Ardmore, Oklahoma, population 24,677.

Mama always served us up a big, pipin’ hot breakfast on Saturday mornin’s and so I reckon I was mighty hungry enough ’cause I pulled back them covers back and jumped out of bed, not realizin’ how dreadful cold the air felt in the room. November in Carter County was a frigid reminder that winter was comin’ and before too long now, Daddy would be makin’ overtime plowing them roads again for the Oklahoma State Highway Department.  When my feet touched the bare floor, I shrieked and jumped back to the bed, grabbed the coverlet and draped it tightly around my body and then peeked my head out the door to look into the kitchen makin’ good and sure the coast was clear.

Mama’s forehead was bruised up somethin’ fierce already and it looked like she’d be needin’ some stitches from Doc Patton, what with that gash running down her temple and all, but the good thing was–the blood was all dried-up now and she didn’t look as frightenin’ as she did before.  She tiredly looked up from where she was standin’ at the stove, forced me a quick smile with her pearly whites, and told me to go on and grab me a plate. I could hear Saturday mornin’ cartoons blarin’ from the television in the adjacent livin’ room, where I’m sure Bartlett and Graham were already holed-up and congregated together on the couch.

“Barley, you and me is going into town after you eat your breakfast,” Daddy mumbled while stampin’ out his cigarette and without turning to even look at me straight in the gosh-darned face.  Daddy, I’m here…Yohoo…Look at me, I thought to myself.

“I’m gonna need your help workin’ out on the yard on the Impala today, so hurry up and eat,” he said, just now lookin’ up at me for only a second before he barked, “Wear somethin’ good and warm.  It’s gonna be a cold one out there,” and turned away. Obediently, I finished breakfast and raced to get myself dressed, elated that it was gonna be just me and him runnin’ into town, and there ain’t nobody else was gonna join us.

Back in my room, I threw  me on a flannel shirt over a turtleneck, poured on my jeans and tugged on my socks and boots when I heard Daddy yell at Mama, “Old Lady, fetch me my shoes!” Not missing my stride, I raced back into the kitchen ready to tackle the day out with my Daddy.  In all the years since I had been born, I don’t never recall hearin’ Daddy refer to my Mama as Franny; shucks, I was even quite certain  “Old Lady” was the only moniker she ever knew besides Mama.

“Jesus Christ, Earl, let me finish cleaning-up first.  I ain’t your goddamned slave.  Just give me a second to breathe,” Mama snapped in return while she moved to the counter where she slowly scraped the cooling bacon grease with a rubber spatula from the griddle into an empty Miracle Whip jar.

Daddy’s muscles on his neck tightened, and I thought he was gonna to get right up off that chair and put her in her place once again.  Ain’t nuthin’ was gonna ruin this day for me; I was gonna personally see certain to that.

“I’ll get ‘em,” I said joyfully, as I ran into their bedroom and clasped the shoes by their strings from their bedroom floor and carried them obediently to my father where I dropped them at his feet.  Daddy pulled on the black, steel-toed shoes and stood up, simultaneously hoistin’ his jeans up onto his trim hips.  Like a veritable hapless giant that loomed over my frail frame, he effortlessly nudged me out of his way, then walked to the other side of the kitchen where he grabbed his flannel jacket from the pegs on the wall near the door.

“Barley, let’s go,” he growled, “Ain’t got me all day.”

Outside, the crisp November wind gnawed at my rubicund face while the tall Maple nearby rustled and shook the last of her amber leaves at me.  I felt a shiver run from my head to my toes and pulled my jacket tautly around my body.  Suzie, dad’s huntin’ Beagle, met us at the door and raced down in front of us along the gravel walkway to the car, stretchin’ her chain out as far as it would reach, until it jerked her back and placed her on her hind quarters where she sat dazed for a second realizin’ she was still tethered to the gosh-darned trailer.  Unaffected, she got up and sprinted to Daddy, and greeted him by jumpin’ on him until he finally kneed her in the chest to get her to stop.  She took the hint and sidled on up next to me and mounted me just the same.  I bent over to pet her for only a moment, because I knew if I didn’t hurry and catch-up to Daddy, who was already in the car, he’d be leavin’ for town without me.  I wasn’t about to let that happen, so I ran to the Impala and slid into the bench seat of the car from the passenger side where I flashed my Daddy the biggest smile in all of Carter County.

Daddy and I drove in silence the full fifteen minutes it took us to get into town and on down to Denny’s Auto Shop where we was pickin’ up a new ignition switch for the Impala.  But, on the ride there, my thoughts kept detourin’ back to the early mornin’ hours and to what Daddy had done to my Mama.  Mama sometimes told me I didn’t know what my Daddy was capable of, and well now I knowed, and that knowledge festered inside me as fierce as a boil from an infection ‘cause I didn’t want it to be so. But, sometimes I couldn’t help but think Mama had it comin’ to her. I wished she would just finally learn how to bite her tongue.

As we ambled down Highway 35 and out past Old Man Ardy’s pecan stand, now boarded up nice and tight for the winter, the image of Daddy standin’ over Mama with that chair in his hands played over and again in my head. One.  By the time we passed Lake Murray, the chair came crashing down.  Two.  And by the time we reached Ardmore, Mama was splayed out on the floor in a batch of her own blood.  Three.  Everything bad happens when it comes in threes like that.

By the time we rolled into Denny’s, I was wipin’ the cold tears away from my face and did my best to smile and fake like I hadn’t been wankin’ like a baby when the tall, red-headed owner of the shop greeted me with his standard high-five hand in the air.

“Lollipops are inside on the counter, Barls,” Denny chirped as I met his hand with mine.  I raced inside and looked around the shop for the candy.  In the garage bay, a newer Chevy Nova was jacked up high enough for two men in dark blue uniforms and work boots to be under it tinkerin’ round with their wrenches.  Daddy and Denny came-in to the shop and started talkin’ about engines, carburetors and ignition switches while I stood there crouched real low like with my legs tangled around each other.

“Christ Barley, use the toilet before you piss yerself and then go on back out and sit in the car.  Denny and me is gonna be a while,” Daddy said, but I was already off to the races lookin’ around the shop for the bathroom.  I relieved myself while sucking on my orange flavored lollipop, finished real quick ’cause the toilet seat felt like I was sittin’ on an iceberg, pulled my pants back up, washed my hands in the sink, and then made my way back out into the shop.  Denny was standin’ back in the corner of the garage handin’ somethin’ to Daddy in a little plastic baggy.

Back in that Impala I was havin’ trouble keeping myself warm, so I rolled myself up nice and tight into a ball and leaned against the door of the car, alone for a spell I reckon, and tryin’ hard not to conjure up any recollections buried deep in my mind. But, something was badgerin’ me, tuggin’ and pullin’ at me real hard, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it—somethin’ about Aunt June that Mama brought up last night before her world and that dang chair came crashin’ down. I looked across town and from where I was sittin’ I could see dark loomin’ clouds approachin’ far up overhead.  It looked like Ardmore was mighty ripe for some heavy rain.  And then that thing about Aunt June, that I couldn’t remember, well, it hit me so hard it felt like someone had reached down and smacked me upside the head and left me breathless.  Before I knowed what hit me, a childhood memory took me back to a time and a place sometime long before my little brother, Graham, was born.

It was late and the rain was peltin’ down somethin’ ferocious outside; I could hear the clank of thunder and see flashes of lightnin’ ricochetin’ off the walls as I am being pulled from a deep slumber in a bedroom from the basement at my Aunt Debbie’s house.  It’s my Daddy, come sometime ‘round Midnight to take us home.  He lifts me out of the bed and lugs me about the house, feelin’ his way up the stairs into the quasi-darkness and makin’ his way to the door. I want to pull in close to his warm body, ease into him just like that and have him hold me in his arms like that forever.  But, my sleepy and dulled senses suddenly become magnified. Daddy was stumblin’ and weavin’ around as he walked, so I held on tighter, almost certain he was going to drop me on my head, my tangled bed head and all.  Through my groggy, sleep deprived eyes, I could see Mama’s nose was all red, and glistening with snot from a lot of cryin’ before.

Daddy suddenly becomes less agile, and my face was positioned so close to his, I could smell the Bourbon on his breath and permeating clear through his pores.  Once outside, Daddy does nothing to protect me from the harsh cold rain peltin’ my face and soakin’ up into my skin from my already drenched clothes. Finally, none too soon, we reach the old rusty car left idlin’ in the driveway, and Daddy dumps me in the backseat without looking backwards to see if I’m ok. Bartlett opens the passenger door next to me and quietly slides into the backseat with me, while Mama hops into the front seat, and we drive off.  It’s still rainin’ somethin’ fierce outside and I start to fall asleep to the lolling sound of the rain and the windshield wipers thrashing out a tune.  It doesn’t take long before my parents start in to arguing in the front seat.  Swish, swash, swish, swash, swish, swash, the windshield wipers make perfect time with my parent’s argument which is getting really heated now.  I hear them, but I’m so tired, I can’t muster the energy to open my eyes to see what’s going on.  Shoot.  It’s best to pretend that I’m asleep anyway.

“She just had to fuckin’ be there, didn’t she, Earl?” Mama started in again.  You must think I am pretty damned stupid.  June turned up because she knew you was gonna be there and I saw how she was lookin’ at you and you was lookin’ at her.”

“Jesus Christ, old lady.  I didn’t know she was gonna be there.  You’re just fuckin’ crazy you know that? I can’t take a piss without you lookin’ down my back.”

“And why the hell not, Rex?  Look at what cha did.  That’s my brother’s wife…that fuckin’ whore!  You don’t think I don’t know what I seen?  I have a pretty good idea and so does John. You just better watch out ‘cause when HE finds out, he’s gonna kill ya and I will stand there laughin’ at your grave when he does.  Fuck you, Earl!”

Swish. Swash.  I find solace from the sound the windshield wipers make as I curl into a tighter ball in the backseat, swaddlin’ myself with my threadbare winter coat, a hand-me-down from one of my older cousins. Bartlett stirs next to me, but I don’t know if she’s awake too, or just pretendin’ to be asleep like me.  The car is speedin’ now; I can hear it movin’ fast, water splashin’ up under the wheels as we zoom down the road at a breakneck speed.  Every now and then I feel the body of the car swerve ever so slightly as my father overcompensates at the wheel from hydroplaning on the wet pavement or from his own drunkenness, which one, I ain’t none too sure. I dare to lift my head and open my eyes.   The fields and trees are whizzin’ past us, and the lights from passin’ houses are nothing but a blur. I pray that my Mama will just hold her tongue or we will all crash and die.  I bury my forehead against the window and repeatedly, tap it against the cold glass willin’ it all to stop; all the while the fighting becomes more languid like God hisself was playin’ an awful trick on me and did the opposite of answerin’ my prayers.

When the car finally comes to a complete stop, I look up and couldn’t help but noticin’ that we were already at home which tells me that I musta fallen asleep sometime durin’ part of the trip.  But the car ain’t in the driveway.  It sits parallel to the road and faces the lone, giant oak standin’ like a solider next to the trailer.  Our home was parked closest to the exit of the trailer park, and we was lucky we only had a neighbor on just one side.  The tree’s branches shake its limbs at us, as if in warning, and bends and sways from the wind and rain.  I noticed the trailer sat vacant and dark since no one gave it no nevermind to leave a light on for when we came home.  My father flips on the interior light of the car and turns his head around and faces the backseat where both my sister and I are now sittin’ on full alert, our bodies erect, waitin’ to see what happens next.

“You girls wanna go with me or yer mom?   The choice is yours, but go on and make it good and quick.”   Bartlett immediately opens the door roadside and races around the car to our mother who is already standin’ facin’ the driver’s side window a few steps away.  “I want to go with my Mama.  I don’t want to go with you!” she says loudly into Daddy’s rolled-down window and then turns on her heels and positions her back towards him a good distance away from the car.  Stupid, stubborn Bartlett, I think to myself.  Not now.  And then Daddy turns the rearview mirror so he can see me sitting alone and awkwardly in the backseat.

“Barley, make yer pick.  It’s me on yer Mama,” he growls.

Pleadin’ with my eyes, I start to beg, “No, daddy, no!  I want you both.  I want you both!” I say again for effect. But, instinctively I know that it’s prob’ly time to exit the car.  I brace myself before I get out of the warm vehicle and begin to shiver expectedly because I knew the torrential downpour continued to pelt unforgivingly outside. Dad was leavin’ us.  I knew it was really happenin’ this time.  Why couldn’t Mama just learn to leave things gosh-darned alone?  And, why did Stupid Bartlett have to go on and pick sides between them?

Just before I shut the door, Daddy turned around and looked at me with what seemed to be sadness in his eyes, “Then come on around here and give yer Dad a kiss and say goodbye now,” my father slurs out the words slowly, all the while he’s looking directly at me.  But, I bolt out the door and race around to my mother and sister’s side.

With much more conviction I say louder as if to change his mind about leaving, “But, I want you both!” I scream into Daddy’s rolled-down window.  “Don’t go daddy.  Please don’t go.  I’ll be good.”  He motioned me forward and I knew I had to obey or he’d get right out of that car and whoop me blind.  Resigned now in the fact that he was leavin’ us whether I wanted him to or not; I walked over to the driver’s side window, apprehensively peckin’ my father on the cheek and not trustin’ how he would react to all my cryin’.  This is it.  He’s leavin’ and I knowed it.  He had never asked for me for a kiss before. Wait.  What?  He had never asked me for a kiss before.  It felt like love, or somethin’ like it.  I couldn’t be too sure.

Suddenly, Daddy guns the engine and the car bolts forward, just as Mama steps over to pull me away from the moving tires kickin’ up gravel beneath them.  Moments later, Daddy slams the car into the giant Oak tree by the road.  The engine falters and dies as the headlights from the car pierce through the otherwise darkness.  The three of us, Mama, Bartlett and me stood motionless and in shock.  An eerie cascade of light from the headlamps along with radiator steam suddenly envelopes the darkness, castin’ shadows from the tree all around.  Reality sets in and I’m the first to react.  “Dad is dead!” I screamed over and over.  “Dad is dead!”  My whole body is tremblin’ somethin’ fierce as my mother, sister and I huddle against each other; each of us sobbin’ uncontrollably, and wishin’ and willin’ it not to be so.

Time passes and no one has enough courage to walk over to the purple Chevy that was crumpled against the tree.  The steam risin’ from it seemed to be the only breathin’ entity comin’ from the car.  The interior of the vehicle was all aglow, and the light from the headlamps was refractin’ into the car and onto my father’s lifeless body that was lyin’ in a heap slumped clear across the steerin’ wheel.  Minutes pass as the three of us continue to wail into the empty night, rain-soaked and all convinced that my Daddy was dead.  Lights come on from nearby trailers and George, who was just a pup at the time, along with all the other dogs in the trailer park start to bark and howl.

Finally, after what seemed like a very long time, dad sits up; we can see the dark outline of his hand rubbin’ his head as he repositions hisself in the front seat. He turns over the ignition, and the car sputters then eventually starts.  He slowly backs away from the enormous oak, navigatin’ the car in reverse for a spell and then puts it into drive and eases up gently onto the road headin’ away from us.  Obviously still stunned by the impact of collidin’ with a dang tree, my father now drives off with somewhat lackluster conviction now.  I watch the taillights retreat into the dark night.  Dad’s not dead, I sung over and again in my head, and I am overcome by joy and relief.

My mother grabs my sister and me and races us into the house where she clamors about hurriedly openin’ and slammin’ drawers and doors.   Frantically, she stuffs our clothes into giant, black plastic bags pulling each of them tightly closed by their yellow loops when each bag was filled almost to the top.  She tells us to grab a few things because we might not be comin’ back none too soon.  My mother fights back her tears and snaps at us to hurry up, resolved in the fact that we were leavin’. She picks up the phone and tells the other person who shared our party line that we had an emergency and that she needed to make an important phone call.  It was early in the mornin’, by now, and I wondered who that person was on the other line and why they’d be makin’ a call so late.  Maybe their father left ’em too?  In any case, I knowed who my Mama was callin’ at this hour, and he wasn’t gonna be none too happy about it neither.

A half an hour or so later a red, rusted-out Ford truck pulls into our driveway and a strong, burly man gets out and makes his way to the porch where my mother had placed all them trash bags.  He was rubbin’ his bald head, lookin’ tired and grumpy as he walked up the porch steps to meet us.  Grandpa didn’t say a word as he heaves the bags, one by one, into the bed of the old pickup truck, our clothin’ and belongin’s reduced to trash thankfully encased in plastic, protected from the pouring rain.  We all pile onto the long, black vinyl seat that was cracked, and weathered from both age and sun.  The sharp vinyl pokes through my still damp pajamas from all the rain.   I knew we was safe now, as I eased my small frame in closer and closer to my Grandfather.  I could feel his warm body close to mine, and I could smell the telltale scent of tobacco along with a hint of beer.

Grandpa reaches under the seat and tosses me a pack of Kraft cheese and crackers and then ruffles my hair with his fat, calloused hands.  He still had not said one gosh-danged word.  I peel back the plastic wrapper on the Handi-Snack and find the little red stick.  I smear the cheese across a cracker as my Grandpa pulls the truck onto the road, flips on the windshield wipers and heads in the same direction that my father had went.  The indulgence, the cheese and crackers, was one that Grandpa and me always shared together when we was alone, and was his way of soothin’ me here with him tonight.  Grandpa made it better and I momentarily forgot about my Daddy and where he was headin’, out alone and out into the darkness of the night, the cold and the rain. I was cognizant that my mother’s face lay propped up against the window next to me, her shoulders shudderin’ up and down as she cried and cried.  Bartlett was leanin’ on her shoulder tryin’ hard to soothe my Mama.  I watched as my mother’s spirit withered away and died that night.  That was the last time I had ever seen Mama stand-up to my Daddy enough to leave him.

Daddy knocks on the car window, waking me up from my reverie and gets in as the vehicle shifts a little from the sheer brute force of his muscular body.  He motions up ahead at the thunderstorm clouds that were now movin’ in fast above us, and flips on the wipers just as raindrops began to pitter patter across the windshield and said, “Looks like we’re in for some mighty heavy rain, Barley.  Won’t be workin’ on the car today. Let’s head on home.”

When it Comes in Threes: Chapter 1 “Babies Making Babies”

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.