Jennifer Sapio: Creative Non-Fiction: Jan 2022


Southern Legitimacy Statement: You’ll know I’m from the South when you hear my drawl, or smell my Meemaw’s peach cobbler bubbling in the oven. Born and raised in Texas, I share with all those who call these steamy lands home a history as much told as untold, as painful as it is poignant.

Laws of Primogeniture


“Let me know if you need me to come get the guns,” I said, with all the love I could muster to send across the phone line.

“Nah, I don’t wanna go nowhere,” he croaked, “I wanna be here for you.” He sniffed and nearly whimpered, before continuing, “and for my grandkids.”


We lived on Brenda Lane with our dad every Wednesday and the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th weekends of every month.  Dad lived next door to his own father in a stone house they built in the country outside of Austin, Texas. Uncle Bogue lived on the other side with his herd of cattle, an aviary with mostly pigeons and a fully stocked catfish pond across the road. My little sister and brother and I would dare each other to ring the doorbell to ask Aunt Sadie if we could go fishing even though she always said yes.


After school, the bus would drop me off at his mechanic shop off Highway 79. The bus driver, Bonnie, was the wife of one of dad’s friends he’d party with on the weekends sometimes. I remember that awkward feeling, like seeing the teacher at the grocery store, when I’d walk in her house on one of those Saturdays. I think she drove a little outside her route to drop me off while dad was still at work. We’d be late some days if we got stuck at the railroad crossing, the deep purring and hissing of the long freight trains going by. One time we put pennies on the tracks before the train passed and went back to find the smashed, distorted pieces of metal flung all around. Dad drilled a hole in one so I could fish a line through it and wear the treasure around my neck.


He would always save me half of his Alvin Ord’s sandwich from lunch, so that I could have a snack after school.  I sat on the smooth orange and brown floral velour couch in the front office of Cen-Tex Automotive and watched Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood on PBS, slowly nibbling the muffaletta to make it last. Once I got older, I’d wander in the shop and talk to Anthony and Mark about school, boys, how to grease brakes and change rotors. “I got a 96 on my science test,” I’d announce to the rough-fingered men. “Why wasn’t it a hundred?” dad returned, a faux frown wrinkling his brow.


My dad was the outcast in his conservative Christian family. He was the middle son out of three boys. He was married three times, tried everything except heroin (he proudly reported), and drank way too much. But we thought he was cool. He did wheelies on his motorcycles up and down the dead-end street, and we always got to play with the best toys: dune buggies, Volkswagen Beetle “Bugs,” and go carts that we’d drive around the native grass field between our house and Paw Paw’s next door. For Christmas when I was thirteen, he got me a 12-gauge shotgun. He was so proud. “Just because you’re a girl don’t mean you can’t have a goddamn shotgun,” he beamed.


When we were kids, my little sister Sarah wrecked the go cart on Brenda Lane. I had been riding the other one a few minutes before and watched her swerving left to right like an asphalt anaconda, slithering on the hot concrete. When she walked in the house, she was yodeling in pain, road rash covering her shoulder, hip, knees, elbows, forehead, chin. She was wearing a swimsuit. I remember screaming at her as she rinsed the gravel off her skin in the shower, “Why were you swerving like that anyway?” I hollered at her. “There was a rock,” she insisted. Later, when she was strung out on heroin, I basically screamed the same thoughtless accusations when instead I should have held her as she cried and salved her wounds.


On New Year’s Eve, Y2K, my dad kicked me while he was wearing steel-toed boots. He broke the little finger on my right hand, as I tried to cover my backside from his blows. I’ve never spent another New Year’s Eve with him, but we do every other Thanksgiving by the books. We haven’t spoken about that night since. In fact, he may not remember it. The closest we ever came was when he was waking up from a neck surgery years and years later. He was all fucked up on the good stuff in the recovery room, and somehow I managed to beat my stepmom and everyone else into the room first. Dad saw me and wept and just kept repeating, “I love you Jemfer. I’m sorry about everything. I’m so sorry.”


When I went to college in New York, my dad swore that he wouldn’t cut his hair until I moved back home. It was his own personal protest, dissenting from the start to every decision I made independently. “Get a rope,” he said when I told him I was going to live with the Yankees at Barnard. When dad came to my graduation, his rat tail was braided halfway down his back. “I’m never coming back to this goddamn city,” he said, and he hasn’t. “City girl” is a slur he still hurls at me when he’s feeling vicious. 


My ex-boyfriend and I had broken up for about 900 reasons, one of which was that I thought he had a thing for my little sister. One night I woke to find him out of bed with a picture of my sister in the living room, and I lost my shit. I screamed and asked him what the hell he was doing, and things escalated. I slammed my fist on his cymbals, part of the drum kit that was set up in the breakfast area. He went back in the bedroom to get his shotgun. “What, are you going to fucking shoot me?” I said with some kind of inexplicable daring. “I used to think you were just like your mom,” he paused, cruelly, “but you are just like your dad.” 


On the day of Sarah’s intervention, she begged the handler guy to let her make one stop on the way to rehab. I suspected that I knew where she was going. I tailed her all the way to the house where I used to live with the ex we now only refer to as The Asshole. I parked a block or so away, watching her unload boxes of her things from his house, back and forth she walked, showing the breadth of their betrayal with each trip between the trunk of the car and the screen front door on Prickly Pear Lane. My sister and my boyfriend. My ex-boyfriend and my ex-sister. Sibling rivalry and domestic violence. If I would have had a gun, I might have shot somebody.


Inheritance is a funny thing. My sister and I have the same mom and dad, but we don’t look anything alike. As the first-born daughter, I think I got the lion’s share of what my parents had to pass down. My dad and I are the same height, and we have the same color hair. We are both diagnosed bi-polar. Our mania mostly extends to buying shit, building shit, writing shit down, and scheming harmless plans for businesses that we never open and real estate ventures we never complete. Most recently, my dad has been in a four-week depression that has left him unable to work, and I’ve been there, too. 


Ever since I was a kid, he’d always confided in me, his oldest daughter. I spoke to my dad on the way home from a quick trip to the Texas coast today, and he’s getting back on his meds. He’s starting to crawl out of another round in the hole. He assures me that I don’t need to come get his guns. I zone out on the white stripes along Highway 290 heading home, with my two children in the back seat, worried about what they’ll feel they must do for love.