Southern Legitimacy Statement: I grew up n a small town on the Kentucky-Tennessee border where elections were determined by which politician passed out the most half-pints of liquor. When we were kids we got paid 50 cents a piece to pass out Seagram’s Seven and Coronal Lee. When we weren’t doing that, we caught crawdads in the creek and kept lightning bugs in jars. It felt like those honey-suckle summers would last forever, they didn’t. My family made their money from the moonshine that my Papaw distilled and sold out of his trunk, until he could afford to buy a beer joint. When the next generation took over they would use the same tavern to sell cocaine to the Mafia from New York, until the TBI and FBI shut them down and sent them to the pen.
P.S. I make kick ass gravy, red-eye or sausage, and biscuits.
I come from a small Southern town that left me wanting; a place filled with churches, beer joints, and funeral homes, so there wasn’t a lot to do except get drunk, go to church and die. Like most small towns, we had a “Boo Radley.” Redbird had all the hallmarks of a town eccentric, a strange name, haunted appearance, and emotional damage. There were many urban legends that floated around as to how he got that way. He had functioned normally in school, and he and my brother were once friends. After his mysterious metamorphosis, he would aimlessly wander the sidewalks, sometimes skipping but always mumbling to himself. Coming upon him gave you an awkward feeling like you had interrupted a private conversation, and there was desperation about him, as though he had an urgent need.
The ritual most kids followed when passing him was to ask, “Who is the devil, Redbird?” He would always reply, “Gary S. is the devil.” Then, the kids would run away back-slapping each other with approval and roaring with laughter. Gary S. was my uncle, and his stunts, like riding a horse into the police station and shooting the ceiling, had made him a local legend. Most people in town thought Redbird’s transformation was the result of his father locking him in a closet, after Redbird had dropped acid and snuck off to an Ozzy Osborne concert. This was not the heart of his trouble. It was the consequence of something far worse and I saw it happen.
My cousin Little Gary was also my best friend. We spent our days playing Batman and Robin and our evenings watching Happy Days. Up until our fifth grade school year, we insisted our friends call him Fonzie and me Spike. During the summer of 1980, at fifteen years old, he was killed in a car wreck. Uncle Gary, also known as Big Gary, was his father. Knowing how close Little Gary and I had been, Big Gary would come to grieve with me. He said he could feel his son in my presence. I didn’t know a lot about Uncle Gary except that everyone liked him, and he was as cool as a fan. He had a 57 Chevy and wore a leather jacket, and when he came to pick up Little Gary and me, he would burn rubber down the back roads and do donuts in the high school parking lot while we laughed in the backseat.
It was early December; I was fourteen-years-old, and Uncle Gary came by to take me out to dinner. Although it was a school night, he charmed my mother into letting me stay out until eleven. After we had eaten, he excused himself, and with his motorcycle boots tapping time, he walked to the pay phone and made a call. When he returned, his face had gone from sad and sweet to something I had never seen before, raw rage. He said, “Get your coat. We are going to the house.” I did as he asked. Snow began falling as we drove down the narrows, the same road that had claimed Little Gary that summer. By the time we pulled into his driveway, the yard was wearing a blanket.
I had only been to his house twice before when I was in the third grade, and it seemed mysterious to me. I remembered it as a place filled with trees for climbing, grape vines for swinging, and a car carcass that Little Gary made into a clubhouse. Isolated, it sat on 17 acres, but I felt deflated seeing it again; it looked like an ordinary ranch house and was so much smaller than my memory.
Uncle Gary was banging the front door open before I managed to get out of the car. When I walked in, my eyes crossed at the chaos; it looked like every teenager in town’s mother had cleaned their room then dumped the mess in Uncle Gary’s house. As I walked into the kitchen, I heard cereal crunching under my feet. A carnival of food was dumped out of boxes and jars onto the counters. Every drawer had been pulled out of its housing and lay on the floor like empty coffins. I turned and saw my brother’s friend, John, come in from the back of the house.
Gary yelled, “You find it?”
Without making eye contact, John mumbled, “Man after the TBI trashed this place, it’s hopeless.”
Gary walked over and grabbed him around the neck, then pushed him against the wall and said, “Dumbass, if the dope had been here before the law came, we would be in jail. I just brought the load in from Florida this morning, and it was in that cooler.” He pointed his finger like an exclamation point at an empty Igloo lying on its side. He took a deep breath, stroked his beard, and in a voice so calm it was eerier than a scream, said: “Where is Redbird?”
John threw a thumb over his shoulder and said, “He’s still sleeping it off.”
Gary said, “Get him.”
As John headed to the back bedroom, I asked, “What is going on?”
He replied without looking at me, “You best mind your own, child.” Then, he afforded me a hard, long look and said, “This is family business, and it stays in the family. Got it?” I simultaneously nodded, shrugged and froze, with the very adult realization that life can suddenly change. The truth, so abrupt and large, was going down like spoiled molasses. John burst out of the backroom, with his hand clamped on Redbird’s forearm, and yanked him towards Gary.
Gary handed Redbird a cigarette and said, “You get your beauty rest princess?”
Still blinded by sleep and oblivious to the danger, Redbird put the cigarette between his lips and said, “Got a light?”
There was a lot more talking, but I had gone deaf with terror. I don’t remember all the words, but I heard “dope” and “kill”, and as their tones escalated, I retreated further. What was happening was unlike any argument I had witnessed. It was dangerous. With only the survival instincts of a fourteen-year-old, I turned towards the sink and began washing dishes.
As I rinsed, I would glance towards the front door watching their migration towards it. I was grateful for the familiar sound of the faucet and the comfort of warm water. My hands were shaking so badly that I broke a glass; I looked down to see a small cut on my finger. When I looked up, this memory still comes to me in snapshots, I see Gary holding Redbird by the throat. John walking out the door. John walking in with a gas can. John holding Redbird. Gary pouring gas. Redbird looking like a child. Gary by the fireplace. Gary in front of Redbird, match in hand. The spell is broken and everything goes double time, my hearing comes back with force and the match scratches as Gary strikes it on the brick fireplace, then he smiles and says, “About that light.” and throws the match on Redbird’s flannel shirt. As he erupts into flames, Gary spins him and shoves him outside.
I dropped the plate I had in my uncut hand, ran to the door and looked out. Redbird was in the yard, standing with arms aflame, reaching towards the heavens. There was a surreal sickening beauty of fire against the dark winter sky. It was hard to comprehend its source. I thought, “My God he looks like a phoenix.” As I was about to yell the fire safety instructions I had learned in school, he dropped onto the snow and began to smother the flames.
I turned to look for the monster, who just an hour before had been my uncle, and could not see him or John, but I heard them in the back of the house. I looked and saw they were in Little Gary’s bedroom which had remained unchanged since the accident. I turned and told Redbird, “I’ll get you help, but you need to hide. What if he’s not done?”
He said, “It’s not that bad.” Fueled by an adrenaline surge, he jumped up and ran.
I walked into the back bedroom, hoping to buy him some time to get to the road. As I stood framed by the doorway, they looked ridiculous and small in their panicked search. Little Gary’s posters still covered the walls and Batman seemed to watch them with disdain as they slung clothes and drawers. A jewelry box crashed near my head, and I didn’t flinch. John pulled the mattress off of the bed and put it on its side, and this caused the box springs to come off track. I could see within the triangle of the frame a large zip lock baggie lying on the floor. I had seen enough Miami Vice to know it was drugs. I let them continue their two-man demolition until I thought Redbird had made it off the property. Then, and I have no idea where the courage to say this came from, I calmly said, “It is under the bed, Sherlocks. I’m ready to go home. It’s after eleven.”
As they retrieved the cocaine, they began laughing about Gary’s mistake; he had put the drugs there when he had got in from Florida and then went to sleep. Apparently, he had been sampling his supply because their where-abouts had slipped his mind, and neither he nor John had enough sense to look under the bed for them. At fourteen, I knew where monsters hide is the first place to look for anything.
As we walked out of the house, they began praising me. They were nearly singing “She is cool as a cucumber.” “You can’t rattle her.” “She’ll take over the family business.”
Insulted and un-flattered, I said, “Mom will get mad if I don’t get home soon.”
The funny thing was Gary looked scared by that idea. He dug in his pockets, handed John the keys, and told him to take me home. He hugged me through the open car door. I did not reciprocate. He nervously said, “Wait.” Then he ran into the house. When he came back outside, he handed John a bag of marijuana and said, “Tell Redbird it was business.” Then, he came around to my window and handed me a hundred-dollar bill. Incensed, I said, that I could use a cigarette. Gary handed me one. I asked for a light. I wish I could say I set the money on fire but, I didn’t. I just wadded up the grimy bill and stuck it, shamefaced, in my pocket. Then, I smoked my first cigarette.
I didn’t tell my Mom about that night until many years later and Redbird, who had survived, wore his newfound scars in silence. I heard he told people at the hospital he was siphoning gas from a car and had the bad judgment to light a cigarette. I guess they bought it. I went into Gary’s house that night, a child and came out cynical, and Redbird, who was ten years, my senior, went in an adult and came out a child.
The last time I saw Redbird I was thirty and in town visiting my mother. I took a walk to reminisce, and he was sitting on the wall in front of the First Baptist Church. His flannel shirt and high-water chinos combined with his wily red hair made him appear ageless. I stopped to make small talk, out of guilt more than humanity, and as I turned to walk away he said, “You were just a kid. There was nothing you could do.” I began to cry.
He continued on as though he had been waiting awhile to speak to me, “You know, I think the only thing that kept me from dying outright of fear, was seeing you in the kitchen washing dishes. You looked so little and helpless. I thought how sad it was you had ended up there. You had no idea that something like that could happen. I ran with Gary and knew how dangerous he was. Not that I deserved it, but I wasn’t surprised, not the way you looked surprised. Anyway, I guess we both danced with the devil and survived.”
I hugged him, probably the first person to do so in a long while, and said, “I don’t know why I started washing dishes. I wish I could have stopped Gary.”
He sagely said, “If you had done anything else, we could have both been burning in the front yard. You just wanted to make Gary less mad. That’s all. I honestly think that it kept them from getting any crazier than they were. It is hard for crazy and normal to be in the same place, trust me I know.” I tried to interrupt and he held up a hand covered with burn scars and said, “There are different kinds of courage and courage and stupidity can look an awful lot alike. Sometimes courage is just doing the best with a bad situation. It wasn’t your mess honey, but you tried to clean it.” That was the last time I saw him.
We all had our crosses to bear from that night; Gary lost everything when he was sent to the pen for selling drugs. John was hurt in a car wreck and sentenced to a life with chronic pain. My cross was living as though everyone and everything I loved could be burnt without warning. I was always cautiously peeking around corners and sizing people up, especially my family.
Redbird shed his cross as he held his burning arms to the sky. I honestly think he came out of that night more whole than any of us. I had been wrong about him; I was the one with a desperate need. He washed my hands of that dirty hundred-dollar bill. Since that day on the wall, I don’t think about the fire. I sift through the ashes. Big Gary lost his son and took it out on the world. Was he the Devil? For years I, like Redbird, thought so, but fire has no conscience; it just burns until it doesn’t.