by Misty Skaggs
My fuzzy, earliest memories unfold in a sprawling house on a hill. A house situated at the peak of a ridge, overlooking a bright green holler we filled with corn and tomatoes and beans and a strawberry patch I loved to get lost in. We lived off a gravel road, off the main road, on a dirt road, off the grid. We lived nestled safely inside our heritage, inside a house with character...gumption, that my family built from the basement up long before I was born. I've seen pictures of Mommy laying foundations. A broad shouldered, big-busted fifteen year old in cut-offs and pig tails, bandana tied tight across her forehead. She's preserved - sweaty and sort of tinted sepia and frozen in time with her muscles straining against the weight of a fat, concrete block. Two tow-headed little girls with gap toothed grins bounce around her legs.
The layout of the place seems a little funny looking back. Our rooms weren't stacked one on top of another. We weren't separated by stairs and stories, by floors and ceilings and doors. Instead, skinny hallways wandered off from the kitchen and living room. Lazy, carpeted paths meandered back to the bedrooms and the bathroom and the brand new garage that always smelled of pine needles and grease.
On Friday nights, the sprawling living room was filled with a fine mist of Aquanet Extra Super Hold. The kind of no nonsense hair spray that could take your breath away if you were unlucky enough to stumble through a fresh, pungent cloud of it. That was the smell of brand new femininity being pushed to its limits. The cute little girls from the snap shot that stuck with me, were almost all growed up. Wielding two giant, shiny, purple cans, they worked simultaneously - shaking and squirting, clinking and hissing, gossiping and giggling. They ate up ozone and lifted layer after layer of soft blonde hair, eighties style. It left a strangely sweet, chemical scent hanging in the air to mix and dance with the smoke from Mamaw’s Winston cigarettes and the strains of a Bad Company record blasting down the hall. It tasted like rubbing alcohol on my tongue if I opened my mouth too wide as I laughed loudly. Around the same time the sun slid down behind the ridge, my aunts started getting ready for high school dances or rural route parties that unfolded in some barn or trailer down the road a little ways.
Papaw would settle into his spot at the end of the couch, leaning on the frayed, plaid arm, half watching the local news and half watching my aunts prissing and preening. If Mamaw wouldn’t let them out the front door, they’d wiggle through the tiny bathroom window eager for Friday night freedom. In spite of the fact that the window was an even tighter fit than the acid wash jeans the girls loved to squeeze into. I was the look-out, perched in a wobbly way on the toilet seat staring up and out on tiptoe through the rectangle of evening air just above my head. I never told, not once. And they promised one day they’d take me with them out into the night way past my bedtime.
Twenty years later, the phone rang. At two in the morning. And it was that shrill, worried kind of ring I can never sleep through, no matter how drunk I am.
“Hello?” I mumbled.
“Get dressed. We’re comin’ to get you.” Tammy snapped.
And I thought I heard angry, female voices in the background, rising and falling frantically. Stabbing at each other in the wee hours. I heard my aunt Patty screaming words that hadn’t slipped past her lips since she found Jesus -
“That sorry sonuvabitch! He thinks he can hide from me? Well I’ve got news for him, Morehead ain’t that fucking big...”
And the line clicked.
And suddenly I was scooting out of bed and sliding into my jeans, leaning over to knot my beat-up sneakers tight with my head still spinning at a hundred proof. I recognized that tone of voice, had heard it from her before. She meant business.
The girls must’ve flown over Stark Ridge, picked up speed down straight stretches on Christy Creek. By the time I was snubbing out my first cigarette butt on the stoop they were squealing through the red light on Bridge Street and slamming to a stop in front of me. Ffteen minutes flat.
“You ready?” Tammy asked, whipping the silver car door open.
“What’re we doin’ guys?” I mumbled, already shuffling towards them with an uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach.
Patty and Tammy had been in bed by midnight for the last decade. They were responsible, respected women now. Women who brought some of the best dishes to church potlucks and doled out sound advice to fellow members of the congregation and the community at large. My aunts were the beautiful, blunt, hillbilly versions of suburban soccer moms. With God on their side.
But I still remembered the days when they were bigger than me, straddling my chubby wriggling form in the front yard, applying charlie horses and Indian burns until they extracted the secret or promise they expected. I remembered before. And the stories, the feisty family legends. Like the one about how my cousin Herbert stopped the school bus at the bottom of the cliff so that Tammy could fight one of the Bear girls. And how Tammy was the one who climbed back up the hill, triumphant and wet and bloody, after the two rolled down into Caney Creek throwing punches. Or the one about Patty pulling that unfortunate young lady off the back of Uncle Jack’s horse. And how she busted her lip and left her whimpering in a pile of cow shit in the middle of the Tobacco Festival Parade.
“You’re driving. We’re riding. Are you going or what?” Tammy was already squeezing into the backseat of her Toyota Camry.
I was sliding behind the wheel.
It was never really a question.
Patty hadn’t spoken a word. The only movement from the passenger seat was the insistent bounce of her right knee. It was a steady, automatic jerk forceful enough to jiggle the whole car in an anxious shiver. I inched out of the parking lot of my apartment building and turned onto US 60.
“You know where Clearfield’s at?” Tammy asked.
Clicking the turn signal down, I nodded and fumbled in the floorboard looking for the lighter my trembling hands couldn’t quite hold onto. But instead of a light, my fingers found about a foot of cool, lead pipe crammed between the seats. Patty smacked my hand away and I was six years old again. Slouching guiltily and hunching my shoulders, I cracked my window open wider, ready for the sticky air to hit my face. My sweat smelled like cheap vodka and all I could think was, I need a drink. Or those last two valium stashed in the bottom of the Band-Aid box at the back of my medicine cabinet. We crept through every trailer park in the neighborhood. Crunching up and down gravel aisle after aisle, we were looking for someone we loved.
When I was six years old, Patty was twenty one. She was a brand new mother and a wife of five years at that point. I can’t imagine. Here I am, inching up on thirty and barely able to take care of myself, an undergrad with an alcoholic gene and a broken heart in a one bedroom apartment next to the water treatment plant. When I was twenty one, I was busy discovering booze and loud, punk rock bands at hole in the wall bars. Patty was working full time and coming home to care for a two year old girl with her Daddy’s big, brown eyes and a typical only child attitude. Twenty years later, she’s the reason we were out that night. She’s the reason Patty was twitching and Tammy was poking me from the backseat, signaling for me to slow down every time we passed a little white sports car with big, gaudy rims.
My phone rang yesterday, too. At seven in the morning. My cousin Kelly was on the other end, in tears. He hit her, she said. Her troll of a boyfriend, her first serious boyfriend, the one with the loud mouth and even louder cologne. He choked her and beat her and threatened her life and she had managed to hide it from all of us. I think that’s the part we couldn’t understand, the part that really pissed us off. How could we not see it? A family as close as ours. A sadness in her eyes or a tremble in her voice that meant so much in hindsight. For months he had moved among us undetected, bullshitting about the Yankees at family birthday dinners and bringing Mamaw flowers. I think I knew the moment I got into the car we were out late looking for revenge. We were taking advantage of the few hours when my aunts could slip away from their lives and their selves and their sleeping husbands and children. Our search was damn near exhausted when we happened across what we’d been looking for.
As we pulled out onto US 60 again, Patty produced her cell phone and kept dialing
Kelly’s number to no avail. Less than twenty four hours after our family stormed in and packed her things and swept her away, Kelly lied to her mother and went back to meet him.
“Pat...” Tammy started.
“I heard that bastard in the background,” Patty mumbled in response, poking at her phone furiously, making it beep in mechanical pain.
“We’ll find him,” Tammy’s tone was viciously reassuring. Final. “Morehead ain’t that fucking big.”
And we did. We found them. Together. Patty spotted the souped up car he loved to spend the rent money on in the parking lot of a popular restaurant. A restaurant where I knew for a fact that Kelly had gotten drunk for the first time, with him. She told me, in tears, that she had vomited up Long Island Iced Teas while he stood in the doorway of the women’s room making fun of her. I could feel my pulse in the palms of my hands as I gripped the steering wheel, easing up behind the unsuspecting couple. Kelly pulled out of his arms and looked back and for a split second, I saw her face captured in the headlights. She was terrified, eyes wide and swollen from crying. But I couldn’t really tell if she was afraid of him or of us.
“Leave it running,” Patty said, opening the door and stepping out.
Tammy slid across the backseat to follow her as she stormed toward the car.
Suddenly, I felt disconnected. Moving without thought, operating on auto pilot I leaned forward, grabbing the pipe and dropping it in the driver’s seat as I got out. The car door became a flimsy shield positioned between myself and what was about to unfold ten feet in front of me.
“Please!” Kelly screamed, rushing towards her mother only to be intercepted by Aunt Tammy.
Tammy was always the tallest of the females in our family. And she was bean pole skinny since birth, all arms and legs and long neck. But those arms were deceptively strong for her slight frame. They were muscled up from years of lifting and pulling and stitching countless bales of heavy denim at the sewing factory in Olive Hill. Her workouts sprang from sweaty summers yanking tender tobacco plants from their unsuspecting beds and hefting ten pound, blonde haired, blue eyed babies along with her everywhere she went. Once she wrapped those arms around Kelly’s waist, I knew there’d be no escape.
“Please! I can’t believe this. Stop her! Let me go right fucking now!” Kelly squealed, kicking wildly with her arms pinned to her side.
“Watch your language,” Tammy said. “You know she can’t quit until she settles it.”
“Please,” Kelly continued. Her cheeks were wet and shiny and she was sweating, “Please it’s settled,” she begged.
“Get the hell out of that car!” Patty commanded.
And I watched, in slow motion. Her arm reaching out and then coming back, grasping his striped shirt collar tight. Even the back of his head looked scared and surprised somehow as she snatched him out of his precious car and deposited him on his ass on the concrete. Scrambling to his feet, he opened his mouth -
“You crazy bitch!”
Patty stood stock still in front of him, her fists clenched into rocks and planted on her hips. I never saw his face that night. He didn’t dare to look away from her, a woman possessed and bathed in lamp light and head lights and raw, unedited anger.
“Now son,” she began. I could tell she had been practicing this particular speech in her head as we were driving around the curves in Clearfield. “You know you’ve got a whippin’ comin’.”
“Bullshit!” he protested, moving closer to her with his chest puffed out.
“You can either stand here and take it like a man or I can tell Misty Marie to get that .45 out of the back floorboard,” she offered the ultimatum simply, nodding in my general direction.
I flinched at the sound of my own name being spoken. For a minute, it felt like a movie. I was watching, frame by frame as he stepped back and dropped his head and Patty cocked her arm at an awkward angle. She issued a hard right hand to the side of his head, to a sensitive spot right above his ear, and he dropped to his knees.
And then she fell on him, both fists flying through the thick July air with purpose. She connected again and again, his head and neck and shoulders. The single diamond of her engagement ring snagged pieces of his scalp. Dark droplets of his blood splattered and dribbled down over the car’s pearlized paint job. All I could hear were the sounds of Kelly’s sobs and Patty’s grunts of exertion and the hollow, dead crack of his skull when she hit him. A crowd of late night loiterers had gathered around, stopping at the sight of violence as they stumbled through the parking lot toward their cars.
“This sonuvabitch thinks he’s tough!” Patty proclaimed to the shocked crowd. “He thinks it’s okay to beat on women!”
There were a few gasps from the audience she had gained. And a few hoots of approval. A tired looking waitress peeked out the door of the restaurant, shook her head and reached for the phone.
“We’ve got to go. Tammy! We’ve got to go,” the choked up sound of my own voice surprised me.
“They called the cops, Pat. We’ve got to go!” She echoed the warning and moved towards the Camry, pulling Kelly along with her.
But Kelly managed to wriggle away. And she ran to him.
That’s when her mother started to cry. My Aunt Patty reached out for her daughter, already apologizing. But Kelly’s arms were filled with the man she’d been running from. His blood leaked out to stain the pretty, pink, paisley shirt she had on. We pulled out of the parking lot without what we’d come for. She put him in the car and headed for the hospital. They hugged me tight when we stopped by my place and I crawled out of the car.
They told me that they loved me, but they forgot to make me promise not to tell this time.