January 15. A wind chime across the street is ringing in the howling wind. My window panes are rain-splotched. It’s still dark out at six in the morning. West, a massive line of red fills the weather map. Storms are on the way. With each gust, they push closer, bringing a cold front.
Yesterday, I took the patio furniture—wicker sofa and chairs—into the garage for shelter through the worst of winter. With them went bold red and yellow cushions with designs of a hummingbird, a parrot, a pineapple. They need protection from rain, snow, ice, and green moss that will set in on them, too, just like on the yard stones and wood of the deck.
When light comes and I walk and observe, the back yard sits in confusion. In what used to be a thick Kentucky fescue, every kind and sort of weed is coming up. Weeds I have never seen before; weeds I cannot identify. Used to be that with winter, the weeds died.
Used to be that when Christmas came, the weather turned cold. January came with jackets and caps and gloves. February, still consistently cold. The green blades of daffodils didn’t break ground on New Year’s Day. But now, the clump of daffodils set out against the Rose of Sharon is four inches high. Daffodils are heralds of spring. But spring is two months away; warm is three months away. Yet it is now.
Dad’s garlic is a foot high. Come spring, Dad will be gone fourteen years. When he was living and loving his garden in Mississippi, I dug up some of his garlic plants and brought them to Tennessee to plant at the Wimbledon house. When it was time for me to move, I dug them up and brought them to the Wade House. They’ve been pulled in so many directions, here and there and up and down, they’re as lost as last year’s Easter egg.
The hydrangea bush does it right. Big showy lime-white blooms have dried to brown crisps. Some get clipped by the wind, fling themselves to the ground, and roll through the yard like tumbleweeds. The entire bush goes to brown, bare, and into self. But you can bet your bottom dollar that, come spring, it will shoot up in all its showy beauty and bigness and stand up before the world and shout, “I am me, and I am here,” and will grow the biggest flowers you’ve ever seen.
Winter is a time of introspection, when all of life falls back to earth—goes into self to think, assess, conserve strength, and prepare. Even me.
It’s quiet out. Nothing’s quieter than a low, gray sky, or a soft, cold rain, or maybe a falling snow. The trees are silent, empty, exposing every noded twig, every twist of a limb, every turn of a branch. Growth is taking place deep down, in the quiet.
In winter, the day’s light is not long with us. I must use the time I have, look deep within, and trust that a good work is taking place beyond my perception. My power begins in the quiet.
In the quiet, with growth pushing up from the deep, which way will my branch turn? Who am I? Am I being true to the stature of my former self? To my creator? In the words I say? In the life I live?
Or will I succumb to winter’s heavy winds? Will I follow that cold, dark creek as it rolls over itself, over the rocks, lost in the empty canopy of scrub trees, turning its back to the source and moving toward sundown. Because it’s easier to follow the path downward, to go with the flow, to stay quiet. To let my light stay lost in winter’s short days.
I am in the cold, dead season building up, preparing for my future. For when spring comes. For when it’s time to move out of the quiet, stand up, be bold, and show truly who I am and who I belong to.
I don’t remember ever making a Christmas list as a child. I’m sure I did, but I don’t remember. I remember the Sears Wish Book. I mostly looked at dolls. I don’t remember wanting anything in particular or having an aversion to anything. I’m sure I did, but I don’t remember.
Christmas morning, there were always all kinds of gifts under the tree from Santa—things I don’t remember wanting or asking for or that I even knew existed. A deluxe chemistry set. A pogo stick. Monopoly. Game of the States. A bike when I was seven or eight—a turquoise bike with tan trimmings (beautiful!), the only bike I ever had. Pop beads. A white jewelry box with red satin interior. I still have it. Dolls—the Bannister Baby, a Madame Alexander I named Sidney, the big baby Angela. Never Barbie. She came at the end of my doll era. I got dolls every Christmas until I was maybe eleven.
Whatever I got, I was pleased. Except maybe for the pop beads. I remember all those years ago being surprised at the jewelry-making kit. I mostly got educational toys and toys that stimulated my imagination. The bike, for example. It could easily become a horse and I was on a tan leather saddle on some narrow western dirt trail instead of the sidewalk on Fifth Avenue. I clothes-pinned a few playing cards to the spokes, and the sound was that of a horse clomping on bedrock.
And the dolls. I didn’t dress and bathe and feed them. I didn’t play mother. I made up stories with them. They were always crossing the prairie, migrating west, running into danger. Stagecoaches, long dresses, and campfires under a starry sky mingled into the tales.
Because I had so much fun (and I didn’t have daughters), I tried to pass this doll adventure on to my granddaughter. But. She hates dolls. Always has. I bought them anyway. American Girls with books, a Madame Alexander, a lookalike Cabbage Patch I had birthed and named Lucille Deering (after my mother and my growing-up street), a multitude of Barbies—at least three a year. And then there was Anne of Green Gables that I bought in Prince Edward Island, gave to her, and ended up bringing back home with me.
Jillian doesn’t like dolls. “They creep me out,” she says.
I guess I can see that. Big and hard plastic heads with manufactured-molded hair and wide eyes that never close and a red-painted mouth. I never saw as a child that their expressions were creepy or scary. I saw them as real people. With feelings and thoughts and interesting lives. I lived in fantasy. Jillian lives in reality.
So this year, along with a precious, personal handwritten scroll letter she wrote to me and a canvas oil painting she created, she bought me a doll to make her point. “It’s just a joke, Grandmomma,” she said. But I think this is how she sees all dolls.
This Christmas, I gave her purple low top and black hightop Converse shoes, a string of penguin lights, headphones, and books—from a list she texted me from her Apple phone to mine. I’d already learned my lesson on the dolls.
I planted my back yard garden in pots this year. This came out of need—out of frustration and despair over the last two seasons’ results. No yield of tomatoes, cucumbers, cantaloupes. I lost everything I planted to pests, rot, fungus, weeds, and disease. Oftentimes, before those menaces could even get a grip, birds pecked holes and ate the flesh and juice.
I’m a Southern girl. I have to plant things in the dirt and watch them grow. I come from a long line of farmers, from my grandfather back. My father, too, had a garden in his town yard, a yard that was once a fertile Mississippi Delta cotton field before it was a neighborhood. My garden area is small—twelve feet wide and three feet deep, in a corner against the wooden fence.
In the past, come spring, I’d pull weeds, hoe and air the dirt, add some new soil. I’d select my varieties, pick some heirlooms, put in a few cool things like broccoli or Brussels sprouts. I’d water, feed, and wait, and by June, tiny vegetables appeared, and then July brought an onslaught of hundred-degree heat. The plants curled, browned, gave in to it. I gave up, too.
I’ve lived in this house for six gardens. Before I got here, the yard was a pasture, prone to weeds, hard to tame. Beneath the bags of garden soil, conditioner, and humus I’d laid out was clay. There was nothing winning about this combination. The plants growing out of it were small, spindly, and sick.
Pots—my last hope. I bought big plastic terra-cotta-colored ones. Real clay pots were too heavy. I lined them up in my garden space and filled them with new dirt. In the first three, tomatoes. Then cantaloupes, cucumbers, squash, and peppers. I tend them daily, water them, help their vines trail safely. I’ve been blessed with the fruits of their growth.
Having a seasonal garden is like watching before your eyes a sped-up version of life. New tender plants are put in their beds. Watered, fed, watched, fussed over, cared for. Their stalks are straight, leaves green, baby fresh, perfect, no flaws, nothing but potential, a blueprint to fulfill and feel out beyond. Then life comes and brings its good and bad. Plants grow and bloom and produce. Nourished by spring’s sun and rain, they flourish. Then it turns on them and beats them down and rots them out. It’s an all-out attack of the elements and the outside forces that begin to suck the marrow out of life. There’s nothing you can do. You can water with a hose, you can put poison out to kill the bugs, you can cut off the sick and dead parts, but it’s not enough, it’s never enough, and you sit and watch the deterioration, and wait for the decline. Until that once strong and happy life succumbs.
And then in winter you sit on your deck and wonder what else you could have done. Or what you could have done differently to make it work, and last. And the answer is, Nothing. Sometimes things are out of your control.
Last summer my friend Nancy gave me some bean seeds to plant. She’d already planted hers along her white picket fence in downtown Franklin. Before the bean pods came, flowering red blooms would appear against the green bean leaves. We’d watch them grow and have fun comparing our bean blooms during our regular get-togethers at Chop House for lunch and poetry and essay reading. Here’s what she said:
“In South Carolina we always grew Scarlett Runner Beans. They can be put on fences, posts, or anything they can climb on, have beautiful red flowers and tons of runner beans. Lots of foliage also. I went to four places here in the Franklin area and none had ever heard of them, so I ordered packs from Burpees. I planted mine along my picket fence and have a packet left. I want you to have them as I know you love flowers, gardens, and anything that is different. So when we meet I’ll bring your packet. They are so easy. Just drop about eight seeds into about a two-inch hole, cover them, and water. Sprouts start showing in about seven days. When the beans appear in about forty days, if you constantly pick them, they are prolific. I am planning on my little white picket fence having bunches of red flowers this summer!”
The vines grew and trailed. I watered, waited, and we took pictures and compared, and finally I saw maybe a dozen beans. I picked them and steamed them with some carrots. I watched for more. Then I got distracted with work, with writing, and I grew tired of waiting. This spring, a year later, I pulled all the twining vines off the poles and fence and found a hundred or more bean pods. They were hidden inside all the foliage, had ripened, and were waiting attention that never came because I wasn’t patient enough to tend them every day.
* * *
It’s been three weeks since Nancy died. I wish I had another Burpees pack, some red blooms twining up my fence, and some bean pods to look for.
I’m reminded that the season of life may be a season, or it may be years and decades, and it’s never enough, and there’s never enough we can do to sustain it. We just need to remember to always put in all we can, to take hold of all the good we can find, and to get out of life and friendship all we can.
My husband always told me that if anything ever happened to him, I’d get married again, fast. I always came back with, No, I’ll get a yellow lab. Well, something happened to him. Ten years ago today he had an aortic dissection, throat to groin. He had surgery at Williamson Medical and then was life-flighted to Vanderbilt for two more surgeries. He died during the third.
I dated someone for about five years…and he died.
I did not get a yellow lab. I got a yellow cocker spaniel.
Life can come at us fast. Loss wrings us out. Losing someone who lives in your house every day, someone you depend on for the life you’re accustomed to living, someone you’ve built a history with, someone you’re joined to physically, emotionally, and mentally, is about the hardest thing you’ll ever do. I say “about” because I’m thinking losing a child is in that “hardest” category, too.
One of the key figures in my grief journey was my friend, Nancy Fletcher-Blume, whom we buried Monday. About two weeks after Charlie died, the shock started wearing off. I could feel my skin peeling up at the edges and exposing the raw bloody tissue under it…and a pain greater than any I’ve ever felt, a pain far greater than I could bear. I still remember the exact moment I thought, “I don’t have to feel this pain.” I’m not sure where that came from, but I instantly knew it was a thought of suicide and I didn’t need to be having it. This is a normal thought, but we have to get control of it quickly.
I called Nancy. She’d lost a husband and two sons, one just a few years earlier. I knew she’d had counseling, and I asked her who she went to. I told her I needed help. She took the ball and ran with it. She called her church and set me up with the family counselor. She told me when and where to go. I did. And that was the beginning of taking back some control in this new wild and mean and chaotic world I was living in. And for months and even years after, Nancy told me, Take care of you. And in many ways, without even knowing it, she showed me how.
After five years on my grief journey, I published a book about my loss, about my experience with grief, about my path from “our” to “my.”
And now, ten years. And it’s my house, my car, my decisions, my job, my dog, my choices. There have been some happy and satisfying moments, and there are some lonely moments. There are still the familiar “four walls” and then there’s the example of Nancy telling me to take care of me by getting out of the closed-in, isolated-from-people space. Sometimes I’m happy being there. That’s a good thing for my writing and editing. Sometimes I’m not. Do you know what it’s like to not talk to another human being for five days running?
That’s why I’ve got to be proactive, to take steps to make sure I am out and among people.
Maybe it’s time to explore ten years of changes and discoveries and growth along that road after loss. I have an opportunity to watch others as they negotiate this path. Nancy was one of them. I share this status with four others I’m with regularly. How do we live alone for the rest of our lives?
How do we live alone meaningfully?
My son worries about me and tells me not to write gloom and doom on Facebook all the time. Well, hell, that’s what life has given. I’m in it whether I write about it or not. Writing about it lets me process it and live this life more effectively, and if by chance I can speak to someone else along the way, then that’s good. That is fulfilling my life’s calling.
I could go buy a little metal heart, engrave the word CHRISTIAN on it, and clip it to my cocker spaniel’s collar. She could run around and proclaim to the world she’s a Christian. But to my knowledge, she has never made a personal choice for her spiritual destiny.
It’s when you turn that noun into an adjective that it begins to mean something.
As little Baptists we were brainwashed with that adjective. We were loved with it, and we were beaten over the head with it.
“Out of James 1:22, comes a call for Juniors true, who will live for Christ the risen Lord. Listen to this trumpet call, ringing out to one and all, be ye doers of the Word. Be ye doers of the Word, be ye doers of the Word, be ye doers of the Word. And not hearers, not hearers only, be ye doers of the Word.
I sang that song at least 156 times in the Junior Department of my Sunday School class on the second floor at the First Baptist Church.
“Be ye doers of the Word.” It’s repeated in the chorus four times. That means I sang that command at least 624 times during my formative years between ages nine and eleven.
At that young age, did I know what it meant? You bet I did. It meant behavior. We weren’t just supposed to read Bible verses and listen to the Bible taught in a Sunday lesson or preached in a sermon.
We were supposed to walk out of those church doors on Sunday and live the principles of the Bible every day of the week. It was our guide, our code of behavior. It taught us how to act and how to treat others. It also made clear how not to act and not to treat others. We failed on occasion, and quite often. After all, nobody’s perfect. We got in trouble, got spanked, had to stay in at recess at school, got grounded, got detention, but by damn, we knew right from wrong.
What the hell has happened to those of us who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s because, now, collectively, we don’t know. We don’t know right from wrong. We have no moral code. We as a Christian people forgot about hearing and DOING. Or at least, that’s how we act.
In 2016 we lost our moral compass.
Nowadays, the end justifies the means. Situation ethics—without the love for fellow man—is the way we roll: each isolated situation gets its own moral decision based on what feels right in that moment. I mean, if the economy of our nation is good, we can support, defend, and adore immoral and unethical behavior. Where did this come from?
I think about us as little Baptists with our white gloves, white patent shoes, Tonette permanent curls, flowered hats, and white leather Bibles with a picture of Jesus inside.
What has happened to us in our religion?
Why was it so easy to throw away the doing of the Word, the believing of the behavior set forth in the Word? Why can we not discern right from wrong? Why are we floating in the wind and following any new wrong fork in the road?
We keep on wearing that little metal tag with CHRISTIAN on it, and maybe we are the noun. But what happened to the adjective?
Think about it. It bears some study and pondering. Are we in some type of new religious movement, and does it have a name? This is something that has bothered me for a long time, but in the last two years, it has become a great stumbling block. I’ve thought about it, read about it, prayed about it, talked with others about it, sought answers in deep conversations, poured my heart out, and looked in the right places for answers, but for the life of me, I cannot mesh the little Baptists we were with the old grownup Baptists we are today . . . or any denomination, for that matter. What has happened to make us turn to hearing and following a man rather than hearing and doing and following God?
I know, and get your panties out of a wad, I’m not talking about every single Christian. I know there are some with vision and mission and followship. But the whole, the collective Christian community, the Church, has given not only their votes, but their lives in support and defense and adoration of a behavior that is far, far against the Word we sang about as little Baptist Juniors.
I don’t want to be saying all this stuff. I’d rather be liked by old friends and even family. I’d rather be popular and not the target of Christian-labeled hate arrows. I’m too old to be hated and mocked. I could choose to pretend things are good and happy and right. But they’re not. And so I’m not going to sit on the fence, and I’m not going to sit silent. And at this point in my journey, I’m impervious to the arrows. I see, and I need to say. My goal is to try and be nice about it. I’m sure I will fail at times, and forgive me, as I’m desperately searching and trying to reach a greater understanding of exactly what being a Christian means today. It doesn’t mean what it did when I was a young Baptist.
I don’t think we’re quibbling about politics. I think we’re quibbling about religion.
I so hope we as a collective Christian community can find a way to turn those (NOUN) cold, flimsy, metal heart tags into (ADJECTIVE) Christ-likeness and looking to the behavior in his Word as our guide for belief and action and followship.
Neil O. Jones wrote about war, sometimes spot on, sometimes indirectly, but always with an effective punch. Neil died one year ago today. What better way to remember him than to share a story he wrote maybe twelve years ago. This one has a favorite saying of his: “champion of the world.” I do miss his voice, this dialect, this storytelling mind.
One thing about Neil: he never drank. Maybe a sip of wine or a beer now and then, but never much, because of his alcoholic father.
Of all Neil’s boyhood lifetime friends from the Oak Cliff section of South Dallas, T-Bone is still with us. Ronny died as a young man in an auto accident. Jimmy died a few months before Neil did. And any little boy named Victory Over Japan deserves his own story.
By Neil O. Jones
If there was ever an individual’s name to represent his baby boomer generation, it was my friend Victory over Japan, called V.J. for short. He was born the same day as the event—August 14, 1945. Though he was not in the neighborhood long, he made two memories that are so sharp, they will always be with me.
His family lived one street over from me there in south Dallas, on Shellhorse Road, about halfway down, on the left, of the deadend road. Two other buddies, the brothers Jimmy and Ronny, as well as their mom and dad—Papa Earl—lived at the end of Shellhorse. Actually V.J.’s mom met my mother before he and I met. They often rode the same bus home from their jobs and they talked and got to know each other on their walk home from the bus stop. They both worked selling to the public, my mother at a clothing store and V.J.’s mom as a waitress at the downtown Dallas Woolworth’s lunch counter. The women learned they had boys near in age, and as they got to know each other better, they learned they had another like concern—alcoholic husbands.
I first met V.J. in the summer of my tenth year. Jimmy, Ronny, T-Bone, and I were taking turns rolling down the steep gravel hill on Shellhorse Road in the brothers’ Radio Flyer wagon. We were seeing who could roll the farthest with just the driver pushing himself off the hill. T-Bone was the leader so far, as he had marked his spot with the marking rock. He was a good six feet ahead of Ronny, who was about three feet ahead of his brother, Jimmy. It was my turn. I gave myself a good push-off, and I had a clean mount. I was able to miss the slowing big rocks and deep gravel. As I made my way down and saw I had a chance for a win, I heard an encouraging voice.
“Lay flat and scoot it when you slow down,” V.J. said from his seat on his porch.
As I approached the marking rock, at first I didn’t think I was going to get there. Then I thought I might just tie T-Bone. My front wheel was finishing its last revolution when I heard, “Now. Scoot it.” And I gave it one good scoot, enough to claim the long distance neighborhood championship of the world—by a half a wheel length.
“Neat,” V.J. said. “You did it.”
The rest of the guys came down to verify the mark. They were all talking about the run when I noticed my new coach-cheerleader friend still sitting on his porch. I told him, loud enough so the others could hear, “We’re going to do some suicide dives. You wanna come?”
He was up before I finished the question. We all gave our names as we walked back up the hill. “I’m V.J.,” he started out. “My whole first name is Victory over Japan ‘cause I was born the day the Japs give up. I go by V.J. And my daddy was in the Army somewhere in the Pacific, my mom told me. And I was born that day and my mom said she knew my dad would be coming home and she was so happy about me being born and victory day and him coming home and she figured it was a sign or something so she named me Victory over Japan, but like I said, you guys can call me V.J. Ever’body does.” I got the feeling he had told that story a few times.
There was an odd silence. Just saying you were maybe named after an uncle or grandfather, didn’t seem like much. Finally I could think of nothing but the obvious. “I’m Neil. These two are Jimmy there, and Ronny. They’re brothers. The cotton top there is Gerald, but we call him T-Bone ‘cause he’s skinny. You can just call him T-Bone. Ever’body does.”
At the top of the hill we looked back at the run. Shellhorse Road, from our angle, began on the high end at Jimmy’s and Ronny’s yard, and butted into busy Lancaster Road on the lower end. The flat part between the brothers’ yard and the hill was our starting point. One kid would drive the wagon while another pushed him across the flat part of the road, past Mrs. Cullum’s house and under her big pecan tree until the steep downhill part was reached. The suspension-less wagon bounced on the little rocks and slid a little on and over the bigger ones. In season, we cracked a mess of pecans in our path. At the plummet point, the runner gave one last shove of the wagon just as the driver reached the steep drop in the road. The worst or best wreck I ever saw, depending on your perspective, happened the day V.J. joined the troupe.
It must have been V.J.’s fifth or sixth run as driver and he had made it all the way down without wrecking and he was feeling a little cocky, I guess. T-Bone and I were getting ready to be the pushers when V.J. said, “Can’t y’all push any faster? You push like a couple of girls.” T-Bone and I looked at each other. Without saying anything, sometimes we could communicate pretty well.
T-Bone pulled the wagon back into Jimmy’s and Ronny’s yard so we could have more of a running start. We both kicked out holes as starting blocks to get a good jump start. We each took a back corner and rocked the wagon back and forth.
“On three,” I said. “One . . . two . . . three!” And we were off. I timed “three” in rhythm with the forward rocking of the wagon.
The rear of the wagon scooted a little to the side and for a moment tried to catch up with the front. With both his fists together on the wagon tongue handle, V.J. turned the front wheels and adjusted nicely. The wagon straightened just in time before coming to the wallered-out tire ruts on the edge of the brothers’ yard. It was a washed out spot on one side that everybody slowed down for as they drove in. V.J. either could not control the wagon or he aimed for the hole as he hit it square. The front wheels dipped, followed by the drop of the back wheels and the wagon was airborne briefly, slamming down with T-Bone and I still hanging on and pushing as fast as our little legs would carry us. Once on the level part of Shellhorse, we got good grip with our Keds and the speed increased to the point of reaching maximum velocity just as we got to the edge of the hill. Our timing was good because we both gave our parting super shove in sync and with such force that we both stumbled and fell as we launched our bodies horizontal in the act.
V.J screamed. He began to lose control immediately. Bouncing a little sideways, he over-corrected and was headed for the ditch. I looked up from my position on the ground to take in the visual that happened in the next few seconds that I, or T-Bone I suspect, will never forget.
V.J. tried to bring the wagon back into control but there was no way. His right side wheels slipped in the ditch and I heard him scream again just before he slammed into the end of Mr. Woodruff’s culvert hard enough to bust out a piece of concrete. The collision put a big dent in the front of the wagon and the wagon tongue/steering wheel bent funny after it nearly impaled and then flipped V.J. And he took another pretty good lick as he flew out, skidded a ways on his hands and head and wound up rolling to a stop in the middle of old lady Johnson’s petunia patch. One of his shoes flew a good ten feet farther.
Old widow Johnson had to have been in her eighties then but people who had known her for years claimed she was as spry and mean an old hen as she ever was. She didn’t put up with foolishness from anybody, especially neighborhood toeheads who had no respect for her flower garden. She came near swallowing her dip as she arose from her rocker on her front porch.
“Well I’ll swanee,” she hollered. “You kids ain’t got a lick of sense in the bunch of you! Get out of my flowers, boy!” and she fairly jumped off her porch and was whacking him with her walking stick as she continued yelling at him. “I didn’t sweat and (whack!) dig to plant ‘em (whack!) just to have you (whack!) waller all over ‘em!”
Mrs. Johnson’s piercing voice cut through the neighborhood, and one at a time heads looked out of windows and some folk came out front to see what the ruckus was all about. V.J., poor V.J., must have landed harder on his bean than we thought because he was hobbling away fast, but the wrong way. I hollered at him and he sort of got his senses back, luckily before he walked into the zooming traffic of Lancaster Road. He did a hobble step pivot on a stiff leg and was headed right. He was sniffling and his head was bleeding, as was his hand he was holding against his chest, but all-in-all he was limping along at a pretty good clip, bumping up and down with each step and favoring his right side. On his shoeless left foot a dirty white sock was pulled off the ankle and bent under his foot and dragging.
T-Bone got the wagon, and I threw in the broken off front wheel, and he pulled it up the hill. Jimmy stuck the piece of concrete back, as if Mrs. Johnson would keep her mouth shut to Mr. Woodruff about it. Ronny went into Mrs. Johnson’s yard to get V.J.’s shoe so he caught a double barrel shot of her wrath at close range, but he was quick and did stay out of stick-swinging reach. Jimmy was running ahead with his arms held out like a receiver and Ronny saw he was open so he let the shoe fly in a wobbly spiral. Jimmy caught it in stride and passed us all and was the first one back to Mrs. Cullum’s pecan tree. The rest of us joined him, with V.J., the wounded one, hobbling in stiff legged and last. He looked plumb pulverized and pitiful, but as he caught up with us he started to laugh between the sniffles. The rest of us joined in. We would face the consequences later when we had to. For the moment we were on top of that hill and we laughed till we hurt and we were alive and loving it. V.J. made his bones that day.
My other strong memory of V.J. also involves him getting the worst of it, this time from his dad. There were a few times I was in V.J.’s house when his old man was there. He was always drinking Kentucky Times whiskey and every time I saw him, he was already there, drunk as a souse. I knew the speech, and the bloodshot eyes, and the smell all too well from my own dad, and I didn’t like to be around it at home or anywhere else. We usually played outside. The neighborhood kids didn’t play much at V.J.’s house or at my house for the same drunken reasons. I’m sure I was at his house more than the other kids because I understood his situation, like he understood mine.
V.J.’s daddy did mostly labor jobs on construction sites when he could get the work. He also did odd cleanup jobs in the neighborhood. Everybody knew to talk to his wife the night before if there was a job because she would keep him sober that morning to go to work. And he worked fine as long as he was sober. The family owned no car so he either rode the bus to construction jobs or got a coworker to pick him up. He never worked regular.
In a way I hated that old man, and in another way I felt sorry for him and in still another way, I admired him. I hated him I think because, like my dad, when he got drunk he was mean as a stepped-on water moccasin, and he took out his anger on those close to him. I felt sorry for him because he had the saddest face on a man I have ever seen. His mouth was downturned on the ends like an Emmet Kelly clown face, but there was nothing made up about it. His eyes were blank, distant and empty when he was drunk and quiet. When he was drunk, loud, and mean, his eyes were cutting and vicious looking, like Death’s head as I imagined. V.J. had told us about his dad’s experience in the Phillipines, as he had heard it from one of his dad’s Eighth Army buddies who had visited once. One time I saw the father’s scar V.J. had told me about. It was an indentation on his left side that stuck in about a half inch and wrapped halfway around his side below his ribs. V.J. told me it was where a Japanese soldier’s bayonet had pierced him and then ripped out his side as V.J.’s dad wrestled it away and then killed the soldier by pounding his head to mush with the rifle butt. He was not a man to be trifled with, and I was one of the few people who knew that.
Late that fall, T-Bone, V.J. and I were rolling down Shellhorse again. The brothers’ wagon had since been wrecked too often and the axles were bent, so their mom turned it into a planter she kept under their front room window. Not to be sidelined for long, the three of us came up with a makeshift hill racer. It was just an oblong wooden crate we had attached with casters we had found in T-Bone’s garage. Although we did the best we could, the vehicle looked kind of funny because there were two sizes of wheels. We tried it both ways and learned it rolled better with the small wheels in the back, making it less likely to flip forward. We couldn’t guide the thing; we just sort of aimed it before we shoved off the hill. There was just enough room for two to ride. The small wheels dragged on some of the bigger rocks, preventing us from getting up much speed. We did ride on the opposite side of the road from Mrs. Johnson’s, per V.J.’s request. Once I was pushing the two of them and at the last second pushed the back end a little sideways so it would head for the old lady’s yard, but my scheme didn’t work. T-Bone and V.J. both stirred up a dust cloud as they bailed out into the gravel before they would risk the wrath of Mrs. Johnson again.
V.J. and I took our turn as pilot and co-pilot. T-Bone had just given us a good send-off. I was in the back and couldn’t see much. V.J. was waving and shouting, “Hey, Daddy, watch us. Here we come.” I looked around V.J. as we bounced down the hill and saw that his dad had just turned up Shellhorse and was walking toward their house with a sack of groceries. He waved back. We came to a stop about twenty feet from him.
“You boys be careful with that thing, you hear?” he said as he approached us.
“Yessir,” V.J. said. “Look at our two-man racecar. We made it ourselves.”
V.J. and I got out so he could get a good look. He tilted it on its side and said, “Oh yeah. She’s a good ‘un, all right. No brakes and no steering wheel, but you got you a nice rope handle to pull it up the hill with.” He laughed a little. “Yeah. She’s a dandy. You boys just be careful, and you best not let your Mama see you.”
Most of the two hours of daylight left we spent riding that hill, until V.J. found a horned toad that caught our interest. In turn we petted it and studied it and V.J poked a little finger in its mouth just to show us its pink insides. We all liked horned toads but V.J. especially loved to mess with them. T-Bone caught a grasshopper and tried to feed it to the horned toad but I guess it was not in the mood for eating with three giants around it pulling its legs and rubbing its underbelly and poking at its thorny head.
When we heard his parents going at it, V.J. kneeled down and put the horned toad back in the grass. “You go on little guy. I’ll play with you again some day.” V.J. stood and said to us, “I gotta go. He’s drunk by now and something set him off and he may be getting rough.”
“Why?” I asked. “Why go now? Do what I do and wait till it blows over and he goes to sleep and things quiet down.”
“No,” V.J. said. “I can’t,” and T-Bone and I watched as he opened his screen door and entered just as there was a loud crash of something breaking inside.
T-Bone and I started back to our homes on Arden Road, but we took our time. The yelling lowered to just the man talking loud, but we could still hear everything being said. Then the fight picked up again. This time it sounded like something heavy was slammed against the wall and it seemed the whole house shook. Then we heard V.J.’s voice, “Don’t, Daddy, don’t. Leave her alone!”
The man yelled, “Why you little . . .” and then there was a cracking sound, and the sound of jostling and things being turned over and the mother’s voice begging the man to stop, “Before you kill him.”
The mother pushed the screen door open with one hand and was pulling her son out of the house with the other. The drunken man came through the door a second later and threw a couch pillow at them, but missed. “Go ahead and go and sleep outside for all I care. Just get the hell out!”
We came up to them and the mother seemed glad to see someone. “Neil, is your mother home? Do you think we could come over? My boy here is gonna need some tending to.”
I told her yes and we all went to my house where we got in the light and my mother did what she could for the two of them. V.J. was the worse off. He had a black eye and his nose was bleeding and looked kind of bent. There were scratches around one of his wrists, but what amazed me was the mark I saw next. As I stood behind him, I saw something through his thin tee shirt that was dark and big. I pointed it out to my mother. She had him raise his shirt to reveal the second visual image of V.J. I’ll never lose. It was the perfect outline of a red handprint. Later it became a bruise-blackened handprint.
V.J.’s mom kept saying she was sorry for putting her problems on us and my mother told her it was no bother. She told my mother that her husband was not usually that way, but he was not feeling well lately and that made him mean. Mother nodded and said, “Yes honey, I know.” They stayed about an hour. I walked back with them and watched as the mother picked up her couch pillow in the yard and they entered the dark, quiet house.
A month later on a Saturday morning early, I ran to V.J.’s house because I had caught a fat horned toad and I wanted to show him. On his front porch I saw through the front window the house was empty. There was a hand-drawn “For Rent” sign attached to the screen door with bobby pins.
As I sat there on his steps, I felt the movement of the horned toad in my shirt pocket. I pulled it out and poked my little finger in its mouth to see its pink insides. Then I put my little thorny-head buddy between my feet and watched as it hesitated in its sudden freedom.
“Go on little guy,” I said. “Lay flat and scoot. I’ll play with you again some time.” I poked it a little and it ran into the high grass.
On my way home, I moved slower. I wondered what happened to V.J. and his family. I think about it still, now and then. The mother probably stayed with her husband; she had few choices. V.J. stayed around at least another five or six years, for his mother’s sake, if not for his own protection. He would have gotten as big as the father and maybe held his own in future go-rounds. The father, I suspect, continued to see an eyeless, misshapen Japanese face every time he drew back for another swing at his Victory over Japan. He is likely dead by now. My guess is V.J. and his mother are glad he is finally able to rest.