Tags: Writing: Stories
(Published in The Sun)
My mother’s name was Jesse Mae Parker. Her married name was Futrell, but Bill Futrell wasn’t my father. My father was a beach bum my mother never married, and I never knew him. Bill married my mother when she was only fifteen and pregnant with me. He was pale and slight, a quiet, worried-looking man who loved to hold hands with her. He worked for the Highway Patrol, and when I was nine he was struck and killed along Highway 17 while writing out a speeding ticket. For years my mother cried every time she passed that spot in the northbound lane, just before the New River Bridge.
Bill Futrell’s parents never forgave him for marrying my mother. My mother’s parents never forgave her for getting pregnant in high school. Nobody in either family would talk to us. So my mother and I were on our own, and this was fine with me. It made us closer.
In the summer of 1971, my mother was thirty and I was fifteen. We lived in North Carolina and rented a trailer in a field owned by Miss Lottie Bird and Mr. Tommy Bird. In back of the field was the Bird graveyard, which was surrounded by trees and covered in clover and vines. Some of the markers were so old they were made of wood. In summer the bees were thick in the clover, and if you lay on the ground, the bees would land on your face and crawl over your mouth. I’d heard once that bees build their hives in dead things, and I used to think maybe the bees came out of the graves. I went to the Bird graveyard to read and think. Sometimes I’d just lie very still and shut my eyes and wait for the bees to walk across my lips. If you were very still, they wouldn’t sting you.
The Birds didn’t have much money, but they didn’t seem to need more. Miss Lottie had three, maybe four thin pint dresses, all wash and wear—mostly wear, for they were oftentimes sweaty and stained. She kept a vegetable garden and a yard full of brown chickens, which she called “reds.” They laid eggs with rich, golden yolks, the kind not found in supermarket eggs. For meat she threw a little fatback into the vegetables or sometimes killed one of the chickens. They were beautiful animals, especially the roosters, which had large, showy tails that reminded me of the rooster on the cornflakes box. The roosters were always fighting each other for the right to mate with the hens. Miss Lottie called this her “barnyard drama.” She said sometimes one rooster would kill another, but that was nature’s way. Only the strong survive to make more chickens.
Mr. Tommy couldn’t walk, because he’d tipped his tractor over in a ditch, damaging several of his organs. He stayed in his bed all the time. Miss Lottie tended him while tipsy on cheap wine she bought at Shelby’s Variety Store, right beside her property.
My mother had once been a party girl, but that was all over now, she used to say. She was a high-school dropout and had never liked school. Now she worked six days a week at Shelby’s, the evening shift. During the school year, before she went to Shelby’s, she sat with me while I did my homework. She continued doing this even after the assignments became too advanced for her. I worked at Shelby’s, too, a couple of hours on weekday afternoons. I wasn’t old enough to be legally employed, but nobody cared. I never worked weekends. There would be plenty of time to work on the weekends when I was grown, my mother said. So I spent my weekends however I wished.
I wasn’t a party girl like my mother had been. I spent the money I earned on movie magazines. I liked actors, but not the most popular ones. In the summer of 1971 my favorite actor was Pete Duel, who was in a weekly TV western called Alias Smith and Jones with Ben Murphy. Pete was the dark one. I always liked the dark ones. Pete Duel needed my adoration, and I needed to be needed, so it all worked out. I’d buy any magazine that had an article about him, and I taped pictures of him on the knotty pine paneling of my bedroom walls. He said he wanted to fight pollution, injustice, and war. He also drank too much and was slightly obsessed with guns. So he had a unique combination of positive and negative traits. He was imperfect, and his imperfections fueled my Pygmalion dreams of making him a better man.
I didn’t take down my pictures of Pete Duel for a long time after he shot himself. I’d look at the pictures and wonder what had made him stop wanting to be a survivor, like the character he played on TV. It had to have had something to do with love, I decided. Didn’t everything?
I missed my mother when she was working. I always stayed up late, waiting for her to return home. I imagined every tick of the clock brought her closer to me. I’d visualize her moving toward me in jerky, mechanical motions: tick, tick, tick, nearer, nearer, nearer. As soon as she got off work, we made Jolly Time popcorn and watched Johnny Carson. On Fridays we watched Red-Eye Cinema all night and laughed and cried until we heard Miss Lottie’s roosters crowing, just before dawn. Their ancient sound coming to us through the darkness was sad, like an ending.