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."
"It's celluloid," my mother said, taking suitcase after suitcase out of her Dodge van. "Damn. First test in history and terminology class." She looked around at the Quonset hut I used for a studio, Raylou's work shed and adjacent kiln, the clear expanse of smooth granite where nothing man-made was standing. "Not many trees around here," she said. "Wouldn't have a problem with lighting." She reached down, picked up a suitcase, and put it back in the van. "Okay. I'd say it's about time for a drink, but I won't do that. When in Gone Ember, you know. I believe Marty would act thusly too. Marty and Francis Ford. Frank. F.F. Quentin's another story, though."
I thought that if this were a movie, my mother and I would undergo an awkward hug while Raylou looked off at the horizon. "Did you actually get taught by those directors somewhere along the line? Do you know them somehow?"
"This'll work out perfectly," my mother said. "Great idea, Raylou. Listen. I've got to be up-front on this." My mother put some of her luggage in an outbuilding, an eight-foot-square structure that, I felt certain, my wife insisted on having built as a kind of alcoholics' playhouse, for when those forced-upon-me acquaintances showed up uninvited. "I know I said 'When in Gone Ember,' but this old cinematographer could use a drink. Are you sure you quit, Harp? You're named after a by-God Irish lager, among other things."
I said, "We're fresh out. If you brought your own, fine. I won't be bothered."
Raylou grabbed two suitcases to haul into the house and said, "We've got bourbon and vodka, I think, Ms. Spillman. You come on in, and I'll fix you up."
Where? I thought. Where's the booze? I hadn't gone on any scavenger hunts since I'd quit, but believe me, I knew every inch of fiberglass insulation and its underside from the old days of Raylou's hiding. I said to my mother, "You were going to say something about being up-front."
We walked a straight line to the house. I didn't point out the snapping-turtle pond between Raylou's workspace and our sliding glass door, for fear that my mother, who had suicidal tendencies, might dive in.
We sat in the den. My mother looked surprisingly young for a woman nearing sixty, a woman whose only husband had run off with a jack-Irish Traveler's wife who used to operate the Dial-a-Style, a woman who must've lost all reason to live if she'd spent hard-earned retirement money on the Southern California Junior Film College correspondence course. She'd lost weight, and she looked more wiry than I could remember. Her baldish head made her look like an older and savvy California woman involved in the movie industry.
"I'm neither ashamed nor proud of it. I was going to make a feature film about your father's running away like he did. And I was going to let the guy have it—kind of like a modern-day Job, you know. But now that I see you, Harp"—she held up a see-through square with her thumbs and index fingers, like a camera lens, I supposed—"and with Raylou's suggestion, I see how I can turn this all around."
Something sounding like an earthquake occurred in the guest bedroom, bottle shaking against bottle. I tried to envision where my wife had hidden the booze over all these dry days. Or months and years. I said, "As long as you don't need my help, do what you want. I have a thing against movies. And I'm not a theater snob. I just have a thing against actors."
Raylou came out carrying Old Crow so old that it came in one of those embossed bottles. My mother said, "You look exactly like your father when he was thirty-eight. As a matter of fact, that's when he left us. Oh, I can see all kinds of possibilities in a documentary, sort of a cross between Fahrenheit 9/11 when it comes to showing how stupid you are—I mean your father was—and, oh, I don't know. Let me think back to the syllabus we had second semester." My mother did those fingers my way again. "I can see a multilayered before-and-after, then-and-now, the-acorn-doesn't-fall-far kind of movie, with a ton of voiceovers provided by yours truly."
I didn't like the sound of this, of course. It's not how I ever imagined a reunion with my odd, obsessed mother. My wife said, "The bourbon's old, but the mixer's new. What'll you have with this, Ms. Spillman?"
"I've got it! A cross between that and maybe a little-known film we saw on Rube Goldberg and his ways." To Raylou my mother said, "I'll take it straight out of the bottle, if no one is joining me. And please call me Ansel."
Raylou walked a wide half circle from my reach and handed the untapped Old Crow to my mother, a woman whose name I'd always known to be Margaret. Margie. Peggy. Peg.
My wife converted to Quakerism. She hosts her fellow parishioners in the eight-by-eight outbuilding on Sunday mornings, and asks that I tiptoe, that I don't fire up the mig welder, that perhaps I use this time to take a long, long, quiet walk far away from our house. Raylou and her pacifists require a boatload of quiet. I brought this up when my mother—or Ansel—said that she wanted to work in seventy-two-hour cycles with one day off in between. I mentioned that we couldn't work on Sundays. "I don't have much use for Quakers," my mother said. "I'd've liked to've gone to a Quaker school, though, just to beat everybody up. You have to understand, I like action!"
I asked myself how long doing this documentary could take. She would watch me weld for a minute or two, and ask some questions; watch Raylou form a face jug, ask some questions; and then maybe assume that ubiquitous voiceover to rant about how her husband, my father, never had any ambitions beyond grading eggs and peaches for the South Carolina Ag Department before he ran off with a younger woman who couldn't dial but one style.
My mother said, "I really need to hire someone to run a second camera, or at least hold a boom mike." This was kind of late on that first night, and the booze didn't seem to have affected Ansel.
Raylou said, "You know, we could do this between the three of us. When you're shooting Harp, I could hold the microphone, and vice versa. On top of that, Harp and I both learned how to run a camera and do lights back in college. You don't need a rocket scientist." Raylou kept talking to a point above my head. I wasn't sure, and tried to retrace the evening backwards, but she might've excused herself to the bathroom and smoked some pot in there.
Maybe she had hit a bowl or two, probably with a ceramic pipe she'd made between face jugs, which took her thirty minutes to form and she sold for upwards of $300. Back in my more politically incorrect drinking days I might've pointed out that slow kids, too, grew up to fetch top dollar on their face jugs. I said, "I have enough to deal with right now. I'm not even sure I'm all that hip to someone's putting my mug on film. Some people out there might be looking for me, you know."
My mother didn't say "Oh, come on and humor me." She didn't say, "Well, this is a fine welcome after all these years of silence." She got up from her seat and said, "Well, this little cinematographer needs to visit the editing room to unreel a spool."
I looked at my wife when Mom got out of earshot. "You've been smoking pot again, haven't you? I can tell. Don't try to hide a high from an old drunk, Raylou."
She giggled. She said, "First off, do you think your mother's film will ever be seen by anyone? Give it a break, Harp. This might be the highlight of her life. And you want to take it away? Check your ego in the Green Room, man. And second, your mom gave me the pot, back when you were pretending to need something in the room where I had the bourbon hidden. The latest etiquette books say that smoking dope is proper and right if it's offered by an older family member. Family sharing keeps everybody from feeling uncomfortable."
I looked at my wife. I'd forgotten that her eyebrows kind of arched up like a clown's, like a McDonald's sign, like the wings on my giant welded angels, when she got stoned. I said, "I'll love you tomorrow, but I want to go on record as saying this is trouble."
My mother came back and said, "False alarm." She grabbed her bottle and sat back down. "Oops, there it is again. Take two." She walked faster to the bathroom this time.
"A big mistake," I said.
I unboxed a new crate of shiny steel nuts from Southern Hex, stood back, and stared at the frame I'd built of rebar. My mother stepped in closer to me and said, "Unlike most artists, Harp Spillman doesn't hold his thumb up to the work in progress."
I laughed and said, "Cut!" I said, "That's just stupid, Mom. Can you go back and add the commentary later? And let me know what you plan to let out of your mouth?"
Raylou lowered the boom mike to rest on our granite lawn. She said, "That was kind of dumb, Ansel, I hate to say."
My mother made no promises but said, "And … action!"—like she'd seen in the movies, I supposed. I pulled the trigger on my mig and beaded a nut down low, and then another and another. In the distance wild dogs barked, and a flock of ducks passed over. I sensed the camera angling up toward the sky. I said, "The trick to these things is getting them heavy enough to remain sturdy, but balanced so they don't tip over while I'm working. And I want enough negative space to create the illusion that the angel is nearly airborne."
This time my mother yelled "Cut!" She said, "Okay. You weren't good at direction when you were a kid, but I let you slide, seeing as your father was to blame. But you're an adult now. Hell, you're old enough to leave your wife."
Raylou said, "Thanks."
I said, "See? I told you."
I circled the half angel, and my mother operated the camera about two inches from my face, which luckily couldn't be seen for the welder's mask. She said, "So. When your father left you for that skank gypsy, what did you think, Harp? Was that when you decided to become an artist—because your brilliant mother supported you, and helped nurture your talent, and urged you to follow your dream, even though she couldn't afford to get her hair fixed right in a proper hairdo?"
I said, "Most of that's correct. I think my mother really only wanted to see the pretty colors all swirl together while she smoked dope in secret."
My mother said, more quietly, "Yes. Yes. That'll keep an audience riveted." I pulled the trigger again. Over the hiss my mother said, "How's about that father of yours? Do you think you received your alcoholism through him genetically, or did you start drinking hard early on in life as a means of trying to forget what an asshole he was and still is?" I didn't answer. I continued working, reaching down for new nuts, standing back half crouched, trying not to think about how I would soon invest in a series of massage-therapy sessions, or at least a case of Doan's Backache Pills. My mother said, "I'll take that for a yes."
Raylou kept the mike above my head, and my mother shot for a good half hour in silence. Finally I set the mig down and pulled up my mask to get a look at the sculpture. My mother turned off her hand-held camera. I said, "Maybe it would be a good time to go film Raylou. I'll hold the mike. You probably have enough footage that you can cut and splice together."
We went through the same format, pretty much. I held the mike, Raylou sat down at her electric wheel, and my mother said, "Raylou, do you truly believe that Harp received his alcoholism genetically, or that he began drinking at the age of thirteen because his father left a stable household in order to navigate the strange choppy waters off the Gulf of Poontang?"
I leaned the microphone up against Raylou's groundhog kiln. She started laughing. I said, "Are you intent on making an X-rated film? You need to watch your language a bit, Mom, if you ask me. I don't care what those correspondence-course directors say, even art-house movie joints have some sense of decorum, from what I hear."
"Cut," my mother said. She set the camera down on the hard rock of our acreage. "Don't y'all have any friends or anything?" She swept her arm around. "I need some people to tell me some stories, man. Y'all obviously can't do it."
She left her equipment on the ground and walked back to the house as if marching toward a spank-needy child. I said to my wife, "I told you this wouldn't work out. She was kind of nutty way back when. That kind of behavior doesn't reverse itself."
Raylou shrugged. She said, "I'm betting she won't need another twenty-four hours to understand she can't find a story here."
Those same ducks, I was pretty sure, flew back overhead in the opposite direction. My mother yelled out, "What the hell are these things?" and I looked to see that she'd almost stepped into the snapping-turtle pond.
I said, "Never mind those things. It's a long story that involves Raylou's getting too involved with rescuing animals she thinks are being tortured by biologists."
"Biotoxicologists!" Raylou called out. "Hey, now that might be—"
"Hurry up and bring the camera," my mother yelled. "Leave the microphone for now. Hey, when these things have their necks stretched out, they kind of look like … good God, man, talk about your father." She said, "I got a whole new idea. Take one, baby, take one!"
W hat my mother decided to shoot ended up—I'll give her this—as kind of a good idea. She took a real liking to the six snappers—now weighing in at about twenty pounds apiece, their necks able to stretch out nearly a foot—and filmed them burrowing down in the mud, gnawing on chicken necks, sticking their heads out of the water like prehistoric periscopes. My mother said, "I think I could just dub some Bartók over the film—maybe some Shostakovich—and then market this documentary to schools, so they can get their students to understand biology and music. I'll call it something like … damn, what're those words for a turtle's shell? One for the top and one for the bottom."
My wife said, "We have copperheads around here too. A few rattlesnakes. You'd have to go farther south to find cottonmouths. I'm thinking you could do a whole series of shorts involving, you know, God's scary creatures of the South."
I said, "We got fire ants, and the neighbor down the hill tried to smuggle in some anteaters from Central America or someplace, but they all got loose. Two of them, from what I understand, are now mounted, looking down from some confused hunter's mantel."
We sat in mesh chairs that Raylou got somewhere; they rolled up and fit in a bag. We sat in the Quonset hut, surrounded by what angels I had finished, drinking coffee. My mother and Raylou ate dry, dry homemade scones that I wouldn't touch, because I figured they'd remind me of the days of pretzels and beer. My mother said, "You know, it's really not all that bad here in Gone Ember. I don't see the hustle and bustle like where you were brought up, Harp."
My home town might've held 2,000 residents. Maybe nothing is more selfish than a committed drunk become a committed recoverer, which may explain why I said, "Don't think about moving up here."
Raylou said, "Harp. That's not very nice." To my mother she said, "You can come up here any time you want."
"Hollywood East," my mother said. She rubbed at her scalp a few times, the way a kid might rub a balloon to create static. "No, I was just being polite. I'll keep my home base right there near the Dial-a-Style, so I can remember every day why I'm on this planet."
I cleared my throat. I got up, rummaged through a drawer of old washers, and found a pack of Camels I'd stashed for mornings when I felt lost without bourbon. I said, "Is your reason for being on the planet that you want to make sure everyone knows what Dad did twenty-five years ago? I mean, that first documentary you started—the one about how I looked like him, and I was destined to act like him—to be honest, I thought it was plain meanspirited. And kind of presumptuous."
Raylou got up and said that she wanted to throw a couple dozen face jugs, that she needed to chop oak for the kiln, that she'd bought a new shingle hammer she thought might work best for cracking up the old porcelain plates she used for scary teeth. I think she felt uncomfortable. I think she thought my mother and I had to have some kind of long-time-coming talk, in which my mother might admit to some shortfall in her child-rearing skills, or I might confess that I should've initiated contact years earlier, before the era of correspondence courses, when my mother had no hobbies or use for family members.
When my mother opened her mouth wide, I thought she was going to acknowledge some shortcomings on her part, or say that she admired my overcoming the Spillman family's drinking problem. The sound that came out of her throat, though, sounded like what happens when you use one of those trick cellophane-and-cardboard discs that kids put in their mouths to talk like the speech-afflicted. Or it sounded like a death rattle.
I said, "What?"
My mother pointed at her chest twice. She pointed at half a scone—and later I would observe that outside of a cheap way of killing yourself, scones were better used as door stops—and then at her throat. She got up out of her chair and walked quickly to my twelve-gallon wet-dry Shop-Vac. She made that noise some more and stamped her feet. On her face I read—frustration? discomfort? some kind of existential dread? Finally she eked out "Choking."
She was the one to turn on the switch. I jumped up like a good son and tried to figure out how to perform the Heimlich maneuver without touching my mother's breasts, because, well, I had enough nightmares.
My mother shoved the black nozzle in her mouth, tightened her lips around the business end, and unclogged her air passage. The image was one I knew I would never escape, even with daily visits to a certified psychoanalyst with training in hypnosis to eradicate Oedipus complexes. I screamed for help, but by the time Raylou showed up, the vacuum's hose was snaking around on the floor, a chunk of scone stuck to the plastic attachment, and I stood there cradling my mother's abdomen from behind. Raylou said, "I knew y'all would patch things up. I wish I had this on film. I didn't want to say anything before, but you don't need all the cursing and violence."
I let go of my mother. Later I would think about how most people would thank a son for having a Shop-Vac at the ready, for my at least attempting to heave at her diaphragm. "Lucky thing I don't wear dentures," my mother said. She went back to her chair. "If you end up with your teeth falling out someday, Harp, you can blame it on your father's gummy side of the family. Maybe that's why he ran off with Flora Gorman. It wasn't for her hair, believe me. Maybe her having retractable teeth played a part in it. I saw it before. I saw her in the Dial-a-Style. I saw her have to apply another strip of that gum glue." My mother laughed and laughed. She reached into her pocket and pulled out a four-inch clay pipe that I supposed Raylou had given her. "Now that I think about it, your daddy's mistress looked about like those snapping turtles when it comes to smiles."
Then, like any good sniper, she left the premises. Raylou went back in the house, and I stood in my studio making a mental list of what I needed to do next. My mother packed up her van and drove straight through Gone Ember, without so much as an invitation to come see the final cut of whatever it was she had shot. I realized that in the movies I would probably have a voiceover saying "What just happened?" or "I hope to hell this is all a dream" or "This isn't good for my recovery."
I locked the door to the Quonset hut. At the snapping-turtle pond I tried not to think of my father's mistress from years ago. Inside, while my wife took orders for her face jugs over the Internet, I turned on the television. One of those cable channels was showing a Three Stooges marathon. Another was showing a Marx Brothers film. The Atlanta station had Laurel and Hardy, and the cartoon channel offered up Roadrunner.
Nothing seemed funny.
I turned to the Independent Film Channel. A German man and woman, their faces in close-up, talked about the good and essential symbiotic nature of termite mounds, with subtitles. I think the man tried to make some kind of connection with Schopenhauer. I turned to Animal Planet, and—God or Satan will insist that something more powerful than I had planned this all along—a man was doing a voiceover explaining the many differences between land tortoises and aquatic turtles, but declaring that both depended on sturdy plastrons and carapaces. A woman pointed out that although it's not common, snapping turtles have been known to be monogamous, and one pair stayed together more than fifteen years.
I thought about post-acute-withdrawal syndrome. I turned back to the cartoon channel.