M A R C H 1 9 9 7
by Tim Gautreaux
UESDAY was about typical. My four daughters -- not one of them married, you understand -- brought over their kids, one each, and explained to my wife how much fun she was going to have looking after them again. But Tuesday was her day to go to the casino, so guess who got to tend the four babies. My oldest daughter also brought over a bed rail that the end broke off of. She wanted me to weld it. Now, what the hell you can do in a bed that'll cause the end of a iron rail to break off is beyond me, but she can't afford another one on her burger-flipping salary, she said, so I got to fix it with four little kids hanging on my coveralls. Her boy is seven months, nicknamed Nu-Nu, a big-headed baby with a bubbling tongue always hanging out of his mouth. My second oldest, a flight attendant on some propeller airline out of Alexandria, has a little six-year-old girl named Moonbean, and that ain't no nickname. My third daughter, who is still dating, dropped off Tammynette, also six. Last to come was Freddie -- my favorite, because he looks like those old photographs of me when I was seven. He has a round head with copper bristle for hair, cut about as short as Velcro. He's got that kind of papery skin, like me, but it's splashed with a handful of freckles.
March 1997 Table of Contents
When everybody was on deck, I put the three oldest in front of the TV and
rocked Nu-Nu to sleep before dropping him in the port-a-crib. Then I dragged
the bed rail and the three awake kids out through the trees, back to my tin
workshop. I tried to get something done, but Tammynette got the big grinder
turned on and jammed a file against the stone just to laugh at the sparks. I
got the thing unplugged and then started to work, but when I was setting the
bed rail in the vise and clamping on the ground wire from the welding machine,
I leaned against the iron and Moonbean picked the electric rod holder off the
cracker box and struck a blue arc on the zipper of my coveralls, low. I jumped
back like I was hit with religion and tore those coveralls off and shook the
sparks out of my drawers. Moonbean opened her goat eyes wide and sang, "Whoo.
Grendaddy can bust a move." I decided I better hold off trying to weld with
little kids around.
I herded them into the yard to play, but even though I got three acres, there ain't much for them to do at my place, so I sat down and watched Freddie climb on a Oldsmobile engine I got hanging from a willow oak on a long chain. Tammynette and Moonbean pushed him like he was on a swing, and I yelled at them to stop, but they wouldn't listen. It was a sad sight, I guess. I shouldn't have had that greasy old engine hanging from a Kmart chain in my side yard. I knew better. Even in this central-Louisiana town of Gumwood, which is just like any other red-dirt place in the South, trash in the yard is trash in the yard. I make decent money as a now-and-then welder.
I think sometimes about how I even went to college once. I went a whole semester to LSU. Worked overtime at a sawmill for a year to afford the tuition and showed up in my work boots to be taught English 101 by a black guy from Pakistan who couldn't understand one word we said, much less us him. He didn't teach me a damn thing and would sit on the desk with his legs crossed and tell us to write nonstop in what he called our portfolios, which he never read. For all I know, he sent our papers back to Pakistan for his relatives to use as stove fuel.
The algebra teacher talked to us with his eyes rolled up like his lecture was printed out on the ceiling. Most of the time he didn't even know we were in the room, and for a month I thought the poor bastard was stone blind. I never once solved for X.
The chemistry professor was a fat drunk who heated Campbell's soup on one of those little burners and ate it out of the can while he talked. There was about a thousand of us in that classroom, and I couldn't figure out what he wanted us to do with the numbers and names. I sat way in the back, next to some fraternity boys who called me Uncle Jed. Time or two, when I could see the blackboard off on the horizon, I almost got the hang of something, and I was glad of that.
I kind of liked the history professor, and learned to write down a lot of what he said, but he dropped dead one hot afternoon in the middle of the pyramids and was replaced by a little porch lizard that looked down his nose at me where I sat in the front row. He bit on me pretty good, I guess because I didn't look like nobody else in that class, with my short red hair and blue jeans that were blue. I flunked out that semester, but I got my money's worth learning about people that don't have hearts no bigger than bird shot.
Tammynette and Moonbean gave the engine a long shove and then got distracted by a yellow butterfly playing in a clump of pigweed, and that 900-pound V-8 kind of ironed them out on the back swing. So I picked up the squalling girls and got everybody inside, where I cleaned them good with Go-Jo.
"I want a Icee!" Tammynette yelled, while I was getting the motor oil from between her fingers. "I ain't had a Icee all day."
"You don't need one every day, little miss," I told her.
"Don't you got some money?" She pulled a hand away and flipped her hair with it like a model on TV.
"Those things cost most of a dollar. When I was a kid, I used to get a nickel for candy, and that only twice a week."
"Icee!" she yelled in my face. Moonbean took up the cry and called out from the kitchen in her dull little voice. She wasn't dull in the head, she just talked low, like a bad cowboy actor. Nu-Nu sat up in the port-a-crib and gargled something, so I gathered everyone up, put them in the Caprice, and drove them down to the Gumwood Pak-a-Sak. The baby was in my lap when I pulled up, and Freddie was tuning in some rock music that sounded like hail on a tin roof. Two guys I know, older than me, watched us roll to the curb. When I turned the engine off, I heard one of them say, "Here comes Bruton and his bastardmobile." I grabbed the steering wheel hard and looked down on the top of Nu-Nu's head, feeling like someone just told me my house burned down. I'm always sunburned, so the old men couldn't see the shame rising in my face. I got out, pretending I didn't hear anything, Nu-Nu in the crook of my arm like a loaf of bread. I wanted to punch the guy who said it and break his upper plate, but I could imagine the article in the local paper. I could see the memories the kids would have of their grandfather whaling away at two snuff-dripping geezers. I looked them in the eye and smiled, surprising myself. Bastardmobile. Man.
"Hey, Bruton," said the younger one, a Mr. Fordlyson, maybe sixty-five. "All them kids yours? You start over?"
"Grandkids," I said, holding Nu-Nu over Fordlyson's shoes, so maybe he'd drool on them.
The older one wore a straw fedora and was nicked up in twenty places with skin-cancer operations. He snorted. "Maybe you can do better with this batch," he told me. He was also a Mr. Fordlyson, the other guy's uncle. He used to run the hardwood sawmill north of town, was a deacon in the Baptist Church, and owned about one percent of the pissant bank down next to the gin. He thought he was king of Gumwood, but then every old man in town who had five dollars in his pocket and an opinion on the tip of his tongue thought the same.
I pushed past him and went into the Pak-a-Sak. The kids saw the candy rack and cried out for Mars Bars and Zeros. Even Nu-Nu put out a slobbery hand, toward the Gummy Worms, but I ignored their whining and drew them each a small Coke Icee. Tammynette and Moonbean grabbed theirs and headed for the door. Freddie took his carefully when I offered it. Nu-Nu might be kind of wobble-headed and as plain as a melon, but he sure knew what an Icee was and how to go after a straw. And what a smile when that Coke syrup hit those bald gums of his.
Right then Freddie looked up at me with his green eyes in that speckled face and said, "What's a bastardmobile?"
I guess my mouth dropped open. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"I thought we was in a Chevrolet," he said.
"Well, that man said we was in a -- "
"Never mind what he said. You must have misheard him." I nudged him toward the door and we went out. The older Mr. Fordlyson was watching us like we were a parade. I tried to look straight ahead. In my mind the newspaper bore the headline "LOCAL MAN ARRESTED WITH GRANDCHILDREN FOR ASSAULT." I got into the car with the kids and looked back out at the Fordlysons where they sat on a bumper rail, sweating through their white shirts and staring at us. Their kids owned sawmills, ran fast-food franchises, were on the school board. They were all married. I guess the young Fordlysons were smart, though looking at that pair you'd never know where they got their brains. I backed out onto the highway, trying not to think, but to me the word was spelled out in chrome script on my fenders: Bastardmobile.
On the way home Tammynette stole a suck on Freddie's straw, and he jerked it away and called her a word I'd heard only from the younger workers at the plywood mill. The word hit me in the back of the head like a brick, and I pulled off the road onto the gravel shoulder. "What'd you say, boy?"
"Nothing." But he reddened. I saw he cared what I thought.
"Kids your age don't use language like that."
Tammynette flipped her hair and raised her chin. "How old you got to be?"
I gave her a look. "Don't you care what he said to you?"
"It's what they say on the comedy program," Freddie said. "Everybody says that."
"What comedy program?"
"It comes on after the nighttime news."
"What you doing up late at night?"
He just stared at me, and I saw that he had no idea of what late was. Glendine, his mamma, probably lets him fall asleep in front of the set every night. I pictured him crumpled up on that smelly shag rug she keeps in front of the TV to catch the spills and crumbs.
I started thinking about my four daughters. None of them has any religion to speak of. I thought they'd pick it up from their mamma, like I did from mine, but LaNelle always worked so much that she just had time to cook, clean, transport, and fuss. The girls grew up watching cable and videos every night, and that's where they got their view of the world, and that's why four dirty blondes with weak chins from St. Helena Parish thought they lived in a Hollywood soap opera. They also thought the married pulpwood-truck drivers and garage mechanics they dated were movie stars. I guess a lot of what's wrong with my girls is my fault, but I don't know what I could've done different.
Moonbean raked in a gaggle of jacks, and a splinter from the porch floor ran up under her nail. "Shit dog," she said, wagging her hand like it was on fire and coming to me on her knees.
"Don't say that."
"My finger hurts. Fix it, Paw-Paw."
"I will if you stop talking like white trash."
Tammynette bounced her jacks ball and picked up on fivesies. "Melvin says 'shit dog.'"
"Would you do everything your mamma's boyfriend does?"
"Melvin can drive," Tammynette said. "I'd like to drive."
I got out my penknife and worked the splinter from under Moonbean's nail while she jabbered to Tammynette about how her mamma's Toyota cost more than Melvin's teeny Dodge truck. I swear I don't know how these kids got so complicated. When I was their age, all I wanted to do was make mud pies or play in the creek. I didn't want anything but a twice-a-week nickel to bring to the store. These kids ain't eight years old and already know enough to run a casino. When I finished, I looked down at Moonbean's brown eyes, at Nu-Nu's pulsing head. "Does your mammas ever talk to y'all about, you know, God?"
"My mamma says 'God' when she's cussing Melvin," Tammynette said.
"That's not what I mean. Do they read Bible stories to y'all at bedtime?"
Freddie's face brightened. "She rented Conan the Barbarian for us once. That movie kicked ass."
"That's not a Bible movie," I told him.
"It ain't? It's got swords and snakes in it."
"What's that got to do with anything?"
Tammynette came close and grabbed Nu-Nu's hand and played the fingers like they were piano keys. "Ain't the Bible full of swords and snakes?"
Nu-Nu woke up and peed on himself, so I had to go for a plastic diaper. On the way back from the bathroom I saw our little bookrack out the corner of my eye. I found my old Bible-stories hardback and brought it out on the porch. It was time somebody taught them something about something.
They gathered round, sitting on the floor, and I got down amongst them. I started into Genesis and how God made the earth, and how he made us and gave us a soul that would live forever. Moonbean reached into the book and put her hand on God's beard. "If he shaved, he'd look just like that old man down at the Pak-a-Sak," she said.
My mouth dropped a bit. "You mean Mr. Fordlyson? That man don't look like God."
Tammynette yawned. "You just said God made us to look like him."
"Never mind," I told them, going on into Adam and Eve and the garden. Soon as I turned the page, they saw the snake and began to squeal.
"Look at the size of that sucker," Freddie said.
Tammynette wiggled closer. "I knew they was a snake in this book."
"He's a bad one," I told them. "He lied to Adam and Eve and said to not do what God told them to do."
Moonbean looked up at me slow. "This snake can talk?"
"How about that. Just like in cartoons. I thought they was making that up."
"Well, a real snake can't talk nowadays," I explained.
"Ain't this garden snake a real snake?" Freddie asked.
"It's the devil in disguise," I told them.
Tammynette flipped her hair. "Aw, that's just a old song. I heard it on the reddio."
"That Elvis Presley tune's got nothing to do with the devil making himself into a snake in the Garden of Eden."
"Who's Elvis Presley?" Moonbean sat back in the dust by the weatherboard wall and stared out at my overgrown lawn.
"He's some old singer died a million years ago," Tammynette told her.
"Was he in the Bible too?"
I beat the book on the floor. "No, he ain't. Now pay attention. This is important." I read the section about Adam and Eve disobeying God, turned the page, and all hell broke loose. An angel was holding a long sword over Adam and Eve's downturned heads as he ran them out of the garden. Even Nu-Nu got excited and pointed a finger at the angel.
"What's that guy doing?" Tammynette asked.
"Chasing them out of Paradise. Adam and Eve did a bad thing, and when you do bad, you get punished for it." I looked down at their faces, and it seemed that they were all thinking about something at the same time. It was scary, the little sparks I saw flying in their eyes. Whatever you tell them at this age stays forever. You got to be careful. Freddie looked up at me and asked, "Did they ever get to go back?"
"Nope. Eve started worrying about everything, and Adam had to work every day like a beaver just to get by."
"Was that angel really gonna stick Adam with that sword?" Moonbean asked.
"Forget about that darned sword, will you?"
"Well, that's just mean" is what she said.
"No, it ain't," I said. "They got what was coming to them." Then I went into Noah and the flood, and in the middle of things Freddie piped up.
"You mean all the bad people got drownded at once? All right."
I looked down at him hard and saw that the Bible was turning into one big adventure film for him. Freddie had already watched so many movies that any religion he heard about would nest in his brain on top of Tanga the Cave Woman and Bikini Death Squad. I got everybody a cold drink and a jelly sandwich, and after that I turned on a window unit and handed out Popsicles. We sat inside, on the couch, because the heat had waked up the yellow flies outside. I tore into how Abraham almost stabbed Isaac, and the kids' eyes got big when they saw the knife. I hoped that they got a sense of obedience to God out of it, but when I asked Freddie what the point of the story was, he just shrugged and looked glum. Tammynette, however, had an opinion. "He's just like O. J. Simpson!"
Freddie shook his head. "Naw. God told Abraham to do it just as a test."
"Maybe God told O. J. to do what he did," Tammynette sang.
"Naw. O. J. did it on his own," Freddie told her. "He didn't like his wife no more."
"Well, maybe Abraham didn't like his son no more neither, so he was gonna kill him dead, and God stopped him." Tammynette's voice was starting to rise the way her mother's did when she'd been drinking.
"Daddies don't kill their sons when they don't like them," Freddie told her. "They just pack up and leave." He broke apart the two halves of his Popsicle and bit one and then the other.
Real quick I started in on Sodom and Gomorrah and the burning of the towns full of wicked people. Moonbean was struck by Lot's wife. "I saw this movie once where Martians shot a gun at you and turned you into a statue. You reckon it was Martians burnt down those towns?"
"The Bible is not a movie," I told her.
"I think I seen it down at Blockbuster," Tammynette said.
I didn't stop to argue, but pushed on through Moses and the Ten Commandments, spending a lot of time on No. 6, since that one give their mammas so much trouble. Then Nu-Nu began to rub his nose with the backs of his hands and started to tune up, so I knew it was time to put the book down and wash faces and get snacks and play crawl-around. I was determined not to turn on the TV again, but Freddie hit the button when I was in the kitchen. When Nu-Nu and I came into the living room, they were in a half circle around a talk show. On the set were several overweight, tattooed, frowning, slouching individuals who, the announcer told us, had tricked their parents into signing over ownership of their houses and then evicted them. The kids watched like they were looking at cartoons -- which is to say, they gobbled it all up. At a commercial I asked Moonbean, who has the softest heart, what she thought of kids that threw their parents into the street. She put a finger in one ear and said through a long yawn that if the parents did mean things, then the kids could do what they wanted to them. I shook my head, went in the kitchen, found the Christmas vodka, and poured myself a long drink over some ice cubes. I stared out in the yard to where my last pickup truck lay dead and rusting in a pile of wisteria at the edge of the lot. I formed a little fantasy about gathering all these kids into my Caprice and heading out northwest to start over, away from their mammas, TVs, mildew, their casino-mad grandmother, and Louisiana in general. I could get a job, raise them right, send them to college so that they could own sawmills and run car dealerships.
A drop of sweat rolled off the glass and hit my right shoe, and I looked down at it. The leather lace-ups I was wearing were paint-spattered and twenty years old. They told me I hadn't held a steady job in a long time, that whatever bad was gonna happen was partly my fault. I wondered then if my wife had had the same fantasy: leaving her scruffy, sunburned, failed-welder husband home and moving away with these kids, maybe taking a course in clerical skills and getting a job in Utah, raising them right, sending them off to college. Maybe even each of their mammas had the same fantasy, pulling their kids out of their parents' gassy-smelling old house and heading away from the heat and humidity. I took another long swallow and wondered why one of us didn't do it. I looked out to my Caprice, sitting in the shade of a pecan tree, shadows of leaves moving on it, making it quiver like a dark-green flame, and I realized we couldn't drive away from ourselves. We couldn't escape in the bastardmobile.
In the pantry I opened the house's circuit panel and rotated out a fuse until I heard a cry from the living room. I went in and pulled down a storybook, something about a dog saving a train. My wife bought it twenty years ago for one of our daughters, but never read it to her. I sat in front of the dark television.
"What's wrong with the TV, Paw-Paw?" Moonbean rasped.
"It died," I said, opening the book. They squirmed and complained, but after a few pages they were hooked. It was a good book, one I'd read myself one afternoon during a thunderstorm. But while I was reading, this blue feeling got me. I began to think, What's the use? I'm just one old man with a little brown book of Bible stories and a doggie-hero tale. How can that compete with daily MTV, kids' programs that make big people look like fools, the Playboy Channel, the shiny magazines their mammas and their boyfriends leave around the house, magazines like Me, and Self, and Love Guides, and rental movies where people kill each other with no more thought than it would take to swat a fly -- nothing at all like what Abraham suffered before he raised that knife? But I read on for a half hour, and when that dog stopped the locomotive before it pulled the passenger train over the collapsed bridge, even Tammynette clapped her sticky hands.
"Bruton," he said. "Too hot to weld?"
I didn't think it was a friendly comment, though he waved for me to come over. "Something like that." I was tempted to walk on, but he motioned for me to sit next to him, which I did. I looked across the street for a long time. "Yesterday at the store," I began, "you said my car was a bastardmobile."
Fordlyson blinked twice but didn't change his expression. Most local men would be embarrassed at being caught in rudeness, but he sat there with his face as hard as a ploughshare. "Isn't that what it is?" he said at last.
I should have been mad, and I was mad, but I kept on. "It was a mean thing to let me hear." I looked down and wagged my head. "I need help with those kids, not your meanness."
He looked at me with his little nickel-colored eyes glinting under that straw fedora with the black-silk hatband. "What kind of help you need?"
I picked up a pecan that was still in its green pod. "I'd like to fix it so those grandkids do right. I'm thinking of talking to their mammas and -- "
"Too late for their mammas." He put up a hand and let it fall like an ax. "They'll have to decide to straighten out on their own. Nothing you can tell those girls now will change them a whit." He said this in a tone that hinted I was stupid for not seeing this. Dumb as a post. He looked off to the left for half a second and then back. "You got to deal directly with those kids."
"I'm trying." I cracked the nut open on the edge of the bench.
"Tryin' won't do shit. You got to bring them to Sunday school every week. You go to church?"
"Don't eat that green pecan -- it'll make you sick. Which church you go to?"
"Bonner Straight Gospel."
He flew back as though he'd just fired a twelve-gauge at the dog sleeping under the station platform across the street. "Bruton, your wild-man preacher is one step away from taking up serpents. I've heard he lets the kids come to the main service and yells at them about frying in hell like chicken parts. You got to keep them away from that man. Why don't you come to First Baptist?"
I looked at the ground. "I don't know."
The old man bobbed his head once. "I know damned well why not. You won't tithe."
That hurt deep. "Hey, I don't have a lot of extra money. I know the Baptists got good Sunday-school programs, but . . ."
Fordlyson waved a finger in the air like a little sword. "Well, join the Methodists. The Presbyterians." He pointed up the street. "Join those Catholics. Some of them don't put more than a dollar a week in the plate, but there are so many of them, and the church has so many services a weekend, that the priests can run the place on volume, like Wal-Mart."
I knew several good mechanics who were Methodists. "How's their children's programs?"
The old man spoke out of the side of his mouth. "Better'n you got now."
"I'll think about it," I told him.
"Yeah, bullshit. You'll go home and weld together a log truck, and tomorrow you'll go fishing, and you'll never do nothing for them kids, and they'll all wind up serving time in Angola or on their backs in New Orleans."
It got me hot the way he thought he had all the answers, and I turned on him quick. "Okay, wise man. I came to the Tree of Knowledge. Tell me what to do."
He pulled down one finger on his right hand with the forefinger of the left. "Go join the Methodists." Another finger went down, and he told me, "Every Sunday bring them children to church." A third finger, and he said, "And keep 'em with you as much as you can."
I shook my head. "I already raised my kids."
Fordlyson looked at me hard and didn't have to say what he was thinking. He glanced down at the ground between his smooth-toe lace-ups. "And clean up your yard."
"What's that got to do with anything?"
"It's got everything to do with everything."
"If you don't know, I can't tell you." Here he stood up, and I saw his daughter at the curb in her Lincoln. One leg wouldn't straighten all the way out, and I could see the pain in his face. I grabbed his arm, and he smiled a mean little smile and leaned in to me for a second and said, "Bruton, everything worth doing hurts like hell." He toddled off and left me with his sour breath on my face and a thought forming in my head like a rain cloud.
My knees were killing me, and I couldn't figure how to keep Nu-Nu from crawling out here. "I don't know."
She looked around at the wet glare. "What's got into you, changing our religion and all?"
"Time for a change, I guess." I loaded up my brush.
She thought about this a moment and then pointed. "Careful you don't paint yourself in a corner."
"I'm doing the best I can."
"It's about time," she said under her breath, walking away.
I backed off the porch and down the steps and then stood in the pine straw next to the house, painting the ends of the porch boards. I heard a car come down the road and watched my oldest daughter drive up and get out with Nu-Nu over her shoulder. When she came close, I looked at her dyed hair, which was the color and texture of fiberglass insulation, the dark mascara, and the olive skin under her eyes. She smelled of cigarette smoke, stale smoke, like she hadn't had a bath in three days. Her tan blouse was tight and tied in a knot above her navel, which was a lardy hole. She passed Nu-Nu to me like he was a ham. "Can he stay the night?" she asked. "I want to go hear some music."
She looked around slowly. "Looks like a bomb hit this place and blew everything away." The door to her dusty compact creaked open, and a freckled hand came out. "I forgot to mention that I picked up Freddie on the way in. Hope you don't mind." She didn't look at me as she mumbled this, hands on her hips. Freddie, who had been sleeping, I guess, sat on the edge of the car seat and rubbed his eyes like a drunk.
"He'll be all right here," I said.
She took in a deep, slow breath, so deathly bored that I felt sorry for her. "Well, guess I better be heading on down the road." She turned and then whipped around on me. "Hey, guess what."
"Nu-Nu finally said his first word yesterday." She was biting the inside of her cheek, I could tell.
I looked at the baby, who was going after my shirt buttons. "What'd he say?"
"Da-da." And her eyes started to get red, so she broke and ran for her car.
"Wait," I called, but it was too late. In a flash she was gone in a cloud of gravel dust, racing toward the most cigarette smoke, music, and beer she could find in one place.
I took Freddie and the baby around to the back steps by the little screen porch and sat down. We tickled and goo-gooed at Nu-Nu until finally he let out a "Da-da" -- real loud, like a call.
Freddie looked back toward the woods, at the nice trees in the yard, which looked like what they were now that the trash had been carried off. "What happened to all the stuff?"
"Gone," I said. "We gonna put a tire swing on that tall willow oak there, first off."
"All right. Can you cut a drain hole in the bottom so the rainwater won't stay in it?" He came close and put a hand on top of the baby's head.
"A big steel-belt tire?"
"Sounds like a plan." Nu-Nu looked at me and yelled, "Da-da," and I thought how he'd be saying that in one way or another for the rest of his life and never be able to face the fact that Da-da had skipped town, whoever Da-da was. The baby brought me into focus, somebody's blue eyes looking at me hard. He blew spit over his tongue and cried out, "Da-da," and I put him on my knee, facing away toward the cool green branches of my biggest willow oak.
"Even Nu-Nu can ride the tire," Freddie said.
"He can fit the circle in the middle," I told him.
Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; March, 1997; Welding With Children; Volume 279, No. 3; pages 80 - 88.