My father had an affair with a woman once married to an Irish Traveler—one of those guys who takes money to seal your driveway, but then skips town. The woman, a Flora Gorman, ran the Dial-a-Style beauty salon and cut my mother's hair once a month. The salon, a three-seater, must've been a front for other things, because it remained hidden way out on two-lane Pick Road, which dead-ended at a creek that fed the Savannah River. My mother had to go out of her way to the Dial-a-Style, which probably meant that she suspected my father's dalliance.
"I lived with a bouffant atop my brain from 1977 to 1979, back when it hadn't been in style for ten years," my mother told me. "You remember. Dial-a-Style my ass. Every Irish Traveler's woman down there looked like that girl on I Dream of Jeannie. That girl on Gilligan's Island. Jackie Kennedy. Whoever posed for the Mr. Bubble's box of bubble bath."
This was over the telephone. I'd not talked to my mother since taking my wife down to meet her a couple of days after our impromptu wedding ceremony, thirteen years earlier. As I've always contended, the noncommunicative nature of our relationship stemmed from Mom's unwillingness to believe that I knew nothing of Dad's affair, plus her presumption that no man named Spillman could turn into anything but a petty and ceaseless philanderer. I said into the receiver, "I remember that big sign out front of the Dial-a-Style. Like a rotary phone where you could turn to a pageboy, or that haircut that looked like a nuclear bomb exploded your bangs. And then the Peter Pan look."
My wife, Raylou, turned her head toward me and squinched her eyebrows—the international facial expression for "Who's that?" She flipped through a gardening book too fast, as if in search of the plot. I mouthed "Mom" and shrugged my shoulders.
"Yeah. Yeah, like any one of those women married to Irish-Traveler scam artists knew how to cut hair. Those bitches didn't know shit."
I calculated my mother's age. She wasn't quite old enough for classic dementia. Maybe she suffered from a post-menopausal syndrome akin to Tourette's. Even when my father packed up and left for New Orleans with Flora Gorman, my mother hadn't gone on a cussing binge. I said, "So, what's on your mind? Raylou and I are still together, by the way, and I don't run around on her. I quit drinking. Raylou has a slew of people across North America and Europe who collect her face jugs. I make sculptures, welded entirely from bolts and hex nuts. You can see them standing in a number of cities, and I just got a commission to weld some giant angels for Birmingham, Alabama."
"Good," my mother said. "Your father and I were married for almost fifteen years before he took to foreign snatch. So you still have time to become a true Spillman."
Raylou set down the book, opened the end-table drawer, and took out a pack of Lucky Strikes that I hadn't touched in two weeks. She held a cigarette lengthwise in her open palm, sprang her arm like a catapult, and caught the thing in her mouth after it had flipped a few times in midair. "What're you doing?" I asked my wife.
My mother said, "I watched a fascinating show on the influx of nutria and armadillos down in Louisiana, which made me think of your fucking father, which made me think of you. Where the hell's this Gone Ember where you live? I called Information about twenty times before the stupid man on the other end figured out I wasn't saying 'sputum,' and then I got you. Then I thought that you'd invite me up, seeing as I'm retired from teaching those goddamn little chalk-eaters. And I've changed my hair. I've convinced myself that if you look me blankly in the face and don't recognize me at first, it's because I have a new hairdo instead of that son-of-a-bitch beehive that made me look like either a linthead working the cotton mills or a punk rock singer."
I veered my eyes away from Raylou and said, "Okay. Well, okay. Can you still drive, or do you need me to come down there and get you?"
I held the phone away from my ear as my mother went into a stream-of-consciousness curse that embarrassed me. She finished by saying, "I got a van, and I got equipment. I got almost enough backers, and I got people."
I told her that I seemed to be missing something in the conversation. I said, "People for what?"
I listened as my mother exhaled smoke—something she didn't do when bringing me up alone as the only white boy within about a two-mile radius. She said, "I've spent the last twelve years studying up on it. Thank God for the invention of the VCR. We never did get a movie house within twenty miles of here, Harp. Anyway, I took a college course in the mail, and after conference calls to my professors at Southern Cal, I've finally figured out how to make a movie."
At that moment I wished that Raylou and I had a speakerphone feature so that she could listen in. I said, "Wait. You took a film class at the University of Southern California?"
She exhaled again. I heard a Zippo click. "Southern California Junior Film College. I might have those words turned around. Some such crap. Anyway, I successfully completed the program. My major's in directing. My minor's best boy."
My mother, her hair buzz-cut a half centimeter all over, hadn't been in our house for more than five minutes when Raylou decided to pipe up. "You know," she said, "I have an idea for you. Why don't you try a documentary on Harp, here? You can do a documentary that'll be multilayered as can be. First off, you get him doing these twelve-foot angel sculptures for the city of Birmingham. Then you get his constant struggle with staying off the liquor. If some of his new friends show up and you get to interview them, I see Sundance Film Festival in your future."
I looked at my wife, and just in case she couldn't interpret my expression, I said, "I'll kill you." But what she had said was true: since I'd quit drinking, quit going to rehab, and quit going to AA meetings, the rehab participants and AA victims had taken to coming my way. Sometimes I thought they were checking up on my progress. But most of the time I suspected they felt safe at our little compound, on a twenty-acre rounded piece of granite far from liquor stores and bars. I imagined a documentary wherein my part-time helper, Bayward, went into detail about how he had tried to perform a tracheotomy on himself so that beer would shoot out his throat—which of course it wouldn't—before reaching his bloodstream. I daydreamed about Vollis, Evan, and Kumi—the Elbow Boys—trying to explain how they had discovered a questionable orthopedic surgeon down in Costa Rica who had fused their elbow joints together so that they couldn't bring a drink to their lips. I said to my mother, "You don't want to make a documentary about everyday people doing nothing. It would be boring and a waste of cellulite."