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These words are true if only because my memories tell me they are true. They form the remembrances of my childhood, as clear to me as water, as clear to me as my granddaddy’s voice, deep and tinged at the edges with whiskey and smoke. I will never hear that voice again in this life, but it resonates within me, stirring the beating of wings behind my ribs, a murmuration of starlings.
My mama’s laughter—once she’d let go of her pain, the honest work of the men and women in the tobacco fields, the lushness of my grandma’s hair, are all gone now, turned to sepia. I pine for long-ago days when I was at home in the world, a feeling which eludes me in the present.
I close my eyes. I open my heart to those beating wings. I remember.
Nineteen fifty-seven was a year of changes and revelations for many. Jackie Robinson retired from baseball in January. President Eisenhower signed the Civil Rights Act of 1957 in September. In Robeson County, North Carolina, the year brought news of Abe Baxley’s retirement from the Farmer’s Cooperative Exchange, and the birth of John and Beulah Taylor’s ninth child in a decade. In late summer of that year, my mama and I also received news that would change the course of our lives.
It was sweltering, a still and brutal hot spell. The crops were withering and the birds had taken silently to the deep woods. Mama had opened every window in the house, hoping to catch any passing breeze. I was sitting on the floor in our front room, playing with tin soldiers that had once belonged to my daddy, when I heard a car drive up outside. Mama was preparing our meager Sunday supper. She came out of the kitchen, wiping her hands on her apron. She’d been rolling out biscuits she’d made with the last bit of flour we had in the house. Small clots of dough clung to her hands, hid under her fingernails. She was at the door before the first knock.
“Why you here?” she asked Deputy Darryl Hardy through the screen.
I knew who he was on sight. Everybody knew everybody in Fairmont. Deputy Hardy had gone to high school with my mama before joining law enforcement. He was a snub-nosed man, wide-browed and fat as a tick. I was only nine years old, yet I felt even then that he was to be avoided. My family had taught me a distrust of men with badges.
“Hey there, Mrs. Dooley,” he said, taking off his deputy's hat.
I felt trouble coming. I could often feel when something was going to happen, bad or good. A subtle shift in the air, an itching in the bones.
“It's Miss McClelland, Darryl. You know that,” Mama said, matter-of-fact.
“Oh yeah, that's right, ain't it, Alma?” he said, looking over at me. “Ol' Archie never did marry you proper, did he?”
The deputy smiled wickedly, a pig-like expression on his round face. I stood up and gave him my fiercest look. It was a steely grimace I’d learned from watching my Granddaddy McClelland, who everybody, even me, called Danny Boy.
Kind, loving, ethical, but tough as nails, Danny Boy was everything I believed a man should aspire to be. My perceptions were biased in that regard. I knew that each of us carried the potential for viciousness, an untamed wolf lurking behind domesticated facades. I acknowledged it in everyone else, but somehow, not in Danny Boy. Never in him. He was my only counterpoint in my small world of cold and volatile men. I would not go on a scavenger hunt, seeking the foul to balance the fair. I needed a hero.
Danny Boy had told me to never feel shame about being born out of wedlock. It had never been a secret that my parents’ marriage was common law. My grandma, Jimmie Dare McClelland, said there was no law to it, only common. Danny Boy felt that Mama had simply followed tradition. I was not the first bastard born to the family. Truthfully, I was thankful that my last name was McClelland, and not Dooley, like my daddy’s.
“Why you here?” Mama asked again, not letting the deputy into the house.
“I got some official news, Alma. You might want to send the young'un on back to his room.”
I didn't have a room of my own to which to be sent. We were renting a shotgun house about a mile from town. It was small, with peeling white paint. The ceilings were low, the rooms cramped, but the front porch was expansive, with a view of a persimmon tree and acres of wilting corn.
The house was our third in the span of a year. My daddy was a gambler by profession and a thief by hobby, activities rarely conducive to the paying of rent. When he was absent, which was most of the time, I slept on a cot in Mama's room. When he returned home, usually drunk and penniless, he rolled my bed out to the kitchen.
“Hotshot, go on outside for a spell, baby,” Mama said, wringing her hands.
The name on my birth certificate read Jasper Archibald McClelland. Hotshot was the crib name Danny Boy had given to me on the day I was born. Viewing the clenched fists and screaming maw of my infant self, he’d been convinced that I would mature into a strong and willful man. A man with enough brains to be able to leave Robeson County, but with enough heart to stay. Like the old-timers who refused to call the Lumber River anything other than Drowning Creek, Hotshot was the only name to which I would answer.
“Hotshot! I done told you to go on outside, now!” Mama said.
I could see that she was nervous, so I made my way to the door. I gave the deputy another hateful glance, holding his gaze in a final act of defiance before accepting my banishment.
“Lord, he's Danny Boy all over again. Up one side and down the other,” I heard Mama tell him. I liked that.
I made my way outside and plowed through Mr. Norment's cornfield. Mr. Norment lived down the rutted dirt road from us. He also owned our house. I could tell that he, like all of the others who had ever rented to Archie Dooley, was contemplating eviction.
He had already visited twice to complain about the noise. The noise came from Mama’s screams, brought on by my daddy’s short-lived but frequent physical attacks upon her. I knew Mr. Norment was aware of it, but people in the country usually turned a blind eye to what happened between married couples, even if they were only common-law married. Because of this code of silence, Danny Boy was unaware that Mama was being battered. My own silence was sworn in the depths of a dark closet years before. Hiding us from Daddy, she’d whispered in hot, rapid breaths that tickled the inside of my ear, that I must never tell. Never tell.
The first incident that I could recall of my daddy abusing my mama was when I was no more than three years old. I remembered the warped kitchen floor and the pine paneling. It was hot, and he was sweating. He was holding me in one arm and knocking her to the ground with the other. The violence was chimeric, neither push nor punch, but a combination of movements. Afterward, he stood above her, yelling, You will obey me! It was, for a moment, as if she and I were both children. Love was sometimes just prettied-up hate.
I shook off the memory and zigzagged through the rows of corn. It was misty with heat and condensation, and I still had that itching in my bones. I knew that Deputy Hardy had nothing good to say to my mama. I was certain that my daddy was in the drunk-tank again, or that he had started another fist fight he was always bound to lose. Whatever it was, it usually meant that Mama would have to scrounge up the little money we had in order to bail my daddy out of jail.
I picked an ear of unripe corn off of one of the stalks, peeled the husk and the silk and found a little green worm munching away on Mr. Norment's profits. I watched it for a while. I began to feel jealous of the creature. I thought that a life of simple eating and shitting seemed enviable, in contrast to the constant worry that a violent and irresponsible father caused.
“Hotshot?” Mama called from the porch. “Baby, come on back in now!”
I came out of the cornfield and ran up the three steps to the porch. Mama was alone. She had a look about her I'd never seen, stricken and relieved at the same time. I looked up at her face, at her soft black hair and hard black eyes. She reached in her apron pocket for her cigarettes and lit one up. Camels, just like Danny Boy smoked.
“Your daddy's dead, baby,” she said. “He was playing cards and got himself shot in the head. They don't know who did it.”
She looked at me closely while she blew smoke through her nose. She reminded me of a dragon in a storybook, only beautiful. People in Fairmont had always said that Mama looked like Ava Gardner, raven haired and cat eyed. Her beauty had won her the title of Fairmont's May Queen when she was sixteen years old. Her photograph, in which she held white roses and wore a banner across her breast, appeared in The Robesonian. That was before she’d run away with my daddy.
“Did you hear me, baby?” She tossed her cigarette down and used the sole of her shoe to put it out.
I didn’t know how she expected me to react. I couldn't say what it was I was feeling, but it most certainly wasn't sadness. All of my thoughts were directed to the possibilities of what my daddy’s death meant for us.
“I heard you, Mama.”
“Well? You alright?” She cupped my face in her hands. Affection didn't always come naturally to Mama, so that was her way of giving a hug.
I nodded. “What do we do now?”
“Go on inside and pack up, I reckon,” she said. “See about getting us a ride to Teardrop.”
I knew I ought to feel bad that my daddy was dead, but in my heart I was flying high with thoughts of going to Teardrop. It was the farm where Mama had grown up, and the only place in the world where I knew we’d be safe. Danny Boy said it was called Teardrop because good crop or bad, he cried over it every year. It was a place where the Holy Bible and the Farmer's Almanac sat side by side. Which one was more important depended on the weather. Danny Boy raised cows and pigs and grew peanuts, cotton, soybeans, and corn. What wasn't eaten was ground up and fed to the animals, including the three draft horses, two buckskins, two mules, and a pinto. But it was the yearly crop of tobacco that kept the farm going. That, and hard work.
Beside Danny Boy in every endeavor was Clarence Day, his right-hand man and his best friend since they were boys. This, despite protestations from certain members of the white community, who were dumbfounded that Danny Boy thought a black man his equal. To hell with them all, Danny Boy would say.
Clarence was a talented woodcarver, and made the best moonshine in Robeson County, perhaps in North Carolina, according to Danny Boy. He kept his still deep in the woods, its heat and coils producing a brew to rival ambrosia.
Clarence and his wife, Vashti, had two daughters, Ruth and Naomi, who had grown up with Mama. Mama loved them like sisters, especially Naomi. She told me one of her bitterest memories was going to Fairmont High and seeing Rosenwald, the black high school, through her classroom window. She told me how she'd felt sick with guilt knowing that Ruth and Naomi were over there, getting her hand-me-down books and hand-me-down supplies, separated from her by the rusted ties of the railroad tracks.
“It wasn't fair, baby,” she'd say to me. “If you only knew how unfair it really was. I'll tell you one day. Tell you the whole of it.”
Both of the Day daughters went up North, first Ruth, then Naomi. Mama missed them terribly. Ruth was married to a doctor in New York, and Naomi landed a good-paying job tending children for a wealthy white couple. Mama received the hand-me-downs then. No money, a child to raise, a dead man who never married her, and now we were moving again.
“What all should I pack?” I asked.
“Clothes. Just get your clothes. Ain't nothing else here that's ours to take.”
While we were packing up, we heard a car horn outside. We didn't receive many visitors out there, so I thought it must be Deputy Hardy with more bad news. Mama opened the door, and for the first time since hearing that my daddy was dead, she began to cry.
“Danny Boy,” she whispered, before she dropped to the floor.
I ran to the door. Danny Boy was hopping out of his old Chevy truck, leaping up our three steps to the porch and taking Mama in his arms like she was a little baby again.
“Hush now,” he said. “This ain't the end of you, girl. You're a McClelland, damnit!”
Mama broke like water over rocks. I'd never seen her open herself up to a display of such pain. Years of subjugation and denial came pouring out of her.
“It'll be alright, Alma,” said Grandma Jimmie, coming up the steps.
I hadn't noticed her, her approach was so quiet. When Mama saw her, she pulled away from Danny Boy and stood. She acted as if she’d never broken down at all.
“How'd y'all know?” Mama asked, wiping her eyes with the backs of her hands.
“Well, it's all over town, ain't it?” said Grandma Jimmie. “I can't say I'm one bit surprised.”
She pulled a handkerchief out of her purse, walked over to Mama and tried to wipe her face. Mama snatched the handkerchief out of Grandma Jimmie's hand.
“I got it,” she said.
“Come on over here, Hotshot!” said Danny Boy, spreading his arms wide. “Hug your granddaddy’s neck.”
I ran into my granddaddy’s embrace. He smelled of cigarettes and hair tonic. He felt like home. Grandma Jimmie came over, patted me on my head and told me that everything would be fine.
“This child's filthy, Alma,” Grandma Jimmie said, rubbing her fingers together. “When's the last time he had him a good bath?”
“Lord have mercy!” Mama yelled. “Ain't this just like you? A man laying dead and you come in here with sword drawn.”
“I just asked you a simple question.”
“It ain't never a simple question with you.”
“I just wondered if the boy's been bathed, that's all. His hair's dirty.”
“It's ninety degrees outside and he's been playing in the cornfield,” Mama said. “He's a boy. They get dirty.”
“But when did he last have him a bath, Alma?” Grandma Jimmie asked.
“Yesterday, Mama! Satisfied? That answer your damn question?”
“Don't you cuss at me, trash-mouth! I ain't one of your fast-tail friends you can talk to any old way, Alma Jean McClelland!”
Mama told me to gather the remainder of my belongings. I went into her bedroom, but the argument between my mama and grandma continued.
“Alright, damnit, that's enough!” Danny Boy said as I returned to the front room. “I ain't listening to this shit no more! Both of you shut your damn traps!”
“Don't cuss, Daniel McClelland, Jr.,” Grandma Jimmie said.
“Shitfire, woman, you are pushing me today. I mean what I say. Not another damn word. I ain't having my wife and my daughter fighting like yard dogs. Now, I'm taking these things on out to the truck, and then we're heading home. Period!”
“But, Danny Boy,” Grandma Jimmie said, putting her hand on his arm.
He shook her hand off. “No, Jimmie. She's been through enough today. Pick your damn battles, woman!”
Grandma Jimmie brushed past him, lips pursed and eyes wild. She marched outside and got into the truck. She crossed her arms and stared straight ahead. Danny Boy picked up Mama's things and walked through the door. I followed behind him, all of my clothes, the little I had, in a knapsack. Mama brought up the rear.
We walked over to the truck. The sun was still bright and high, and the air was motionless. Danny Boy's old dog, Ugly Joe, was in the back, wagging his tail and panting in the heat. Danny Boy gave him a pat after putting Mama's things in the truck bed. He turned, pulled Mama to him, and held her tightly.
“Jimmie's always been a honey-dipped knife,” I heard him tell her. “She's sweet, but she can gut you from groin to gullet before she knows she's made the first cut. Be patient with her, Alma Jean. She loves you. She just always wanted you to have more than you wanted for yourself, I reckon."
“No, Danny Boy. She wanted me to have what she always wanted for herself. There's a difference.”
Mama climbed up in the truck next to Grandma Jimmie. I got in last. I sat on Mama’s lap with my head hanging out of the window. Other than the wind in my face, the first breeze I’d felt all day, it was a silent trip to Teardrop.