Southern Legitimacy Statement: I was raised in a mill village in North Carolina. My parents worked at the Burlington Cotton Mill. Every spring a leathery old black man drove up to our mill house on a buckboard, unhitched a mule and used him to plow a garden space about half the size of a high school basket ball court. I remember the mule’s yellow teeth.
The first time I saw Drunk Underwood he was standing in front of a huge oak tree on the edge of our woods trying to steady himself as he bobbed and weaved like a punch-drunk boxer. He was trying to persuade the tree to go home with him. His eyes flared red, his face flamed with alcohol heat, shaggy black hair sprouted from his head like a crop of unruly hay. I was terrified and I ran.
Underwood’s gaunt face and soiled black suit haunted me. I was afraid he would catch me and talk to me as he had the tree, blame me for failing to make sense of his twisted logic. I felt guilt that I could not understand his rage.
My grandma used the image of the man in his dirty, baggy trousers as a boogeyman to exert some control over the kids she tended while my parents doffed bobbins at Burlington Mills. It was a flawed ruse. We knew that when he was at his drunkest, knee-crawling drunk, we could stay out of his reach. We would pelt him with dirt clods and rocks, the braver ones running up to snatch a tuft of his hair or try to steal his bottle.
We would circle the old man on stick horses cut from branches of Chinaberry trees whose bark had been whittled into patterns with pocket knives. We would ride round and round yelling like Indians harassing a beleaguered wagon train, until he dropped to his knees, then kick dirt all over him.
He would lunge at us, lose his footing and fall on his face, and our gang would charge again, spurred on by his ineffectual swipes and his threats of reporting us to our parents. “Tell yore goddamn mama on you!” he’d yell at us.
“Worthless white trash,” was my grandpa’s summation of the man. “Steal pennies from a dead man’s eyes!” he would storm and smack his gums and give the floor a rap with his cane. “Orter lock him up and throw way the key!”
One day the gang went too far. Underwood was down for the count, on his back coughing and wheezing, his hands in the air accepting his punishment, waiting for the boys to tire of the game. Johnny Ray hurled a clod of dirt that, unbeknownst to him, harbored a sizeable rock. The clod shattered on the side of Underwood’s head, unleashing a spurt of bright red blood. We ran like hell.
It was a nerve-racking day for the stick-horse posse, waiting for someone to find Underwood, to learn of his injury. The police came late afternoon. They asked my parents if they knew anything about Mr. Underwood being attacked in the woods near our house.
“No, sir, officer,” my father answered. “We was at work, but my mother was here the whole time. Don’t let those kids out of her sight, I promise you. First I’ve heard of this.”
“Well, it was gonna happen sooner or later,” said the cop. “Ya’ll have a good day. Sorry to bother you.”
The funeral service was small. Family only.