Former college president Dr. Lynn Veach Sadler has published six poetry chapbooks; has another and a full-length collection in press; and won The Pittsburgh Quarterly’s Hay Prize, the Poetry Society of America’s Hemley Award, and Asphodel’s Poetry Contest and tied for first place in Kalliope’s Elkind Contest. One story appears in Del Sol’s Best of 2004 Butler Prize Anthology; a novel will soon join her novella and short-story collection. elizaPress’s 2007 Writer of the Year, she won the 2009 overall award (poetry and fiction) of the San Diego City College National Writer’s Contest and Wayne State’s 2008 Pearson Award for a play on the Iraq wars. She has traveled around the world five times, writing all the way.
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As it’s been told to me, Daddy got “into drugs” working after school on Granddaddy Bob’s millyard. The big family business is a lumber mill, and Daddy, being a boy, the only one in the core family (Ryan and I came along later, of course) was always expected to learn it, work it, and inherit it. His sister, my Aunt Jobie, being a girl, was supposed to do her time in the family grocery store, and what she’d be was up to her. (She became a lawyer.) Up until the drugs, Daddy was considered as book-smart as Aunt Jobie.
Granddaddy Bob thinks Grandmother Helen more or less ruined Daddy. He held onto her legs and his bottle until he was “nigh onto,” as Granddaddy Bob puts it, four years old. Granddaddy Bob thinks it ruined Daddy’s “constitutional fortitude” and made him “weak-willed.” [Which could be weak-Willyed. Granddaddy Bob had a drunkard half-brother named Willy he doesn’t like to talk about.] Granddaddy Bob doesn’t hold his “ruination” against Daddy but against Grandmother Helen, though he’s never told that to anybody but me. It remains a “rabbit” he does not want to run. [Which should be “dog,” I know, but you have to accept Granddaddy Bob’s language on its own terms. He’s a born wit.] I am, Granddaddy Bob says, his only confidant. He feels that every family has to have someone the secrets and “spiritual legacy” can be passed to, or the family will “languish and die with the patriarch or matriarch.” I feel the responsibility and am trying hard to let the job grow me. As to the guilty parties where my father is concerned, I have ideas, but I see nothing to be gained by voicing them. Not even to Granddaddy Bob. Maybe especially not to Granddaddy Bob.
Anyhow, Mother was loyal, and, when Daddy was released and supposedly “clean,” they ran off to South Carolina and got married. Granddaddy Bob says that was what everybody used to do way back in his days and that it only goes to prove Daddy is a throwback to some time even before Granddaddy Bob. Daddy wasn’t yet eighteen, and Mother not quite seventeen. Daddy hated Granddaddy Bob and Grandmother Helen, but he moved his bride into a house they built for him right across the road from the lumberyard, and Daddy went to work full-time for Granddaddy Bob.
In due time, as Granddaddy Bob is fond of saying, along came Ryan, followed by me. My name is Zion, but I’m called “Zy.” Mother told me Daddy picked out my name while he was high on some “designer drug,” and, yes, Daddy never gave drugs up completely, I now understand, until way, way on. Mother would say, every time we saw a new ad for a drug on television, like that Oxy-Contin thing, “Well, your father will soon be grinding that one up and eating it like snow cream. Right now, it’s Ecstasy.” She also said he was too selfish to thrive in the drug culture. That “puff, puff, pass” was not his thing. Mother was never into drugs, but she learned about them to try to help Daddy, who was once an acid head-banger. She told me he was the worst during “sketching.” I don’t know if Granddaddy Bob knows the full extent of Daddy’s drug gluttony. It’s not my place to tell him, but I’m pretty sure he knows because of this joke he made. Granddaddy Bob, like most North Carolina farmers, has a tobacco allotment shrinking as I write [meaning input on the computer] because of the health problems with “sot weed.” The replacement with the most potential is kenaf, which looks like marijuana but has no “psychoactive” properties. Granddaddy Bob said he expected to hear any time that Daddy was the first person to be arrested for smoking kenaf! But, if so, Daddy would be in for a surprise. Some chemical in it irritates the throat big-time. I asked Granddaddy Bob if he thought we could be accused of “family profiling” as opposed to “racial profiling” for the way we carry on about Daddy. But my own favorite joke about him is, “Daddy took off from his wife and boys so fast, he left the lawn mower running in the front yard.” Only, Daddy never cut the grass in the first place. Granddaddy Bob came over and did it on his riding mower or had one of the hands from the mill do it.
I also didn’t tell Granddaddy Bob about what Daddy sometimes did to Mother when he was high. I don’t like to think about it. Or about how he came after Ryan and me. Let’s just say he wasn’t after me, Zion, for salvation. That’s for sure. [I don’t think I’ll ever do drugs. I can feel “carbonated” from some pretty ordinary things. OK, OK, I’m wonkish. But carbonation comes from when the ordinary turns out-of-the-ordinary. You see something. Somebody does something for you. You do something for them. Something good, I mean.
I have always wondered about my name, of course. Mother can’t tell me what made Daddy come up with it. He had to go to the same country church the family has gone to for generations, but he stopped with the onset of drugs. I do not think anything from church “took” with Daddy. In fact, I have the strongest feeling that he was somehow vaccinated against it. I know that Zion is, variously (as Ms. Ellerby, my favorite English teacher and Teacher says), the Kingdom of God which is in Heaven, the hill in Jerusalem where the City of David was built, and the Jewish people or religion. The Zionists themselves, of course, became doubly prominent with the Arab-Israeli conflict. But after all, what had any of that to do with me or Daddy? And the name isn’t that much of a hardship. It’s just different, and most of the kids my age hear “Zy” and think it’s weird but cool. I seem to be the only one who’s thought of “Cra-Zy.” Surely Daddy wouldn’t have done that. I could see his maybe thinking “Ryan,” then “Zion” for the rhyme, but not “Cra-Zy.” I did not share that even with Granddaddy Bob.
After they were married, and, no, she was not “P.G.” and in the have-to state, Mother did her GED and kept going to the local community college and then a regular university until she had a Bachelor of Science in Nursing. She worked right up until she had Ryan and went back to it as soon as she could put him in Nursery School. There were six years between him and me, and she worked the same schedule with me. I mean, we all got to eat together most of the time. It isn’t Mother’s fault that Ryan got more of Daddy’s ways than of hers. Still, I say with not the least bit of ill will, she loves Ryan better than me, and he loves Daddy better than her. Anyhow, when Daddy pulled his last drug-frenzied temper tantrum and beat where he shouldn’t on the three of us, Mother had had enough. She left and took us with her. We moved in with her mother, our other grandmother, a widow.
Ryan went crazy. He got what Granddaddy Bob calls when he’s deliberately being coarse, and he can be very coarse, “butt itch he couldn’t stop to scratch.” He went after everything half-way-decent-looking in skirts and maybe a few who didn’t wear skirts in public. People talked. Oh, how people talked. But I was still at the local “grammar,” which was a separate school from his, so I didn’t get The Full Monty about him. Granddaddy Bob admitted to me that he himself had gone through a “loose-but-cultivated-grape-vine-variety period of moderate alcohol and ‘immoderate’ women, otherwise known as ‘sowing wild oats,’ but had, praise God, gotten it out of his system in good order.” Daddy, on the other hand, was “perpetually trapped in adolescent muzziness,” while Ryan was doing his dead-level to outdo him. I consoled as best I could with the promise that, though I would doubtless fall into bad ways of some sort, they would be my own special and private brand of the Primrose Pathway to Hell. “I bless you for the thought,” was Granddaddy Bob’s response, “but remember, Zy Boy, the exact nature of the paving stones on the Famous Pathway, and don’t be ultra hard on yourself when you skin your knees and other parts appertaining.”
Unlike Ryan, though I never told it to him, I was actually glad when Mother left Daddy. What laid me low came later when she moved in with a man who’d been married four times and had had countless other women. My beautiful, sweet mother. If she was so hell-bent on taming a male soul, why couldn’t she have accepted Daddy as worthy of her efforts? I wanted the maximum effort from my mother. I would have expected more from a nurse who knew every crook, cranny, and angle men had and then some, including every inch of their butt itch.
I had no choice but to move with Mother into J. D. Fulcher’s big, ugly ranch-style house he’d inherited when his last old wife had died on him. (Some said she was not the first Mrs. Fulcher, old or young, to die mysteriously.)
By that time, Ryan had made Roseannalie Kornegay pregnant, and her father had taken after him with a shotgun. Figuratively speaking. He wanted payback in the form of hard cold cash. Granddaddy Bob had to be called in to resolve the mess, and resolve he did. (Daddy and Ryan called him “Mr. Moneybags” and were always saying, “Just take it to Mr. Moneybags. He’ll get a kick out of fixing whatever ails you.) Ryan left school (I can’t stand to say “dropped out.”)—he had already flunked so many classes, I was almost up with him because I was on an accelerated schedule—and Granddaddy Bob saw to it that he was accepted in the Army, though it was somewhat reluctant to accept riffraff. I don’t know who decided about the baby or how, but Roseannalie went right along and had it, and Granddaddy Bob paid for it. Roseannalie and that shriveled little runt the baby turned into, though he’s a boy so it’s all right, it seems like, were invited to every “family get-together.” They didn’t come to many, but they were always on hand for Christmas when Grandmother Helen distributed the checks she’d made out as gifts from Granddaddy Bob and herself. All we knew about the poor dried-up little boy was that he was called “Bob-Bob.” I guess he was “Bob-Bob” Kornegay [Slayter], since we are Slayters. Nobody thought he’d last very long, but I, at least, hoped he’d fool us all.
Mother was always invited, too, though it was made plain she wasn’t to bring J. D. Fulcher. I’m glad she couldn’t, but it does seem odd because Daddy was there with the woman he lived with and his children by her, which I will get around to telling you about.
And maybe I ought to do that now because I can’t move through the family line of Granddaddy Bob, whom I consider my true father, until I’ve finished off Daddy. Figuratively speaking.
After Mother left him, Daddy crawled off towards the capital city of Raleigh to lick his wounds, as Granddaddy Bob explained it to me, all with Granddaddy Bob’s financial backing, of course. I still don’t quite know where he “went to ground”—neither Ryan nor I was ever invited to see the place. At least, I wasn’t. But Daddy, probably to spite Mother, got his own GED and two two-year community college “specialties,” in “Landscaping” and “Environmental Issues.” The second was to spite Granddaddy Bob, everybody else in the family said, but Granddaddy Bob told me he was just glad “the boy finally settled on something of his own.” What was more directed at him, Granddaddy Bob felt, was Daddy turning into a Rabid Republican, which is the opposite of a Yellow Dog Democrat and doesn’t go one bit with being a Greenie. The “Yaller” Dogs bite the Republicans something fierce and make them rabid, but, Granddaddy Bob thinks, Republicans have and pass on butt itch. Daddy opened his own landscaping business, courtesy of Guess Who? and was “doing well” by all accounts, but Granddaddy Bob and Grandmother Helen also settled with Mother and paid child support for me.
Somewhere along the way, Daddy went back into therapy, and, unfortunately, his therapist was or is female. It’s a nice touch for the psychiatrist on The Sopranos (which Mother doesn’t want me to watch, but Granddaddy Bob and I do) to be a woman, but I knew Tony would fall for her. She says it’s just “transference” and typical of the relationship between patient and analyst, but I think there was more to it in Daddy’s case. Since Mother left him, Granddaddy Bob and I both think he’s had to “prove his manhood” (Granddaddy Bob’s terminology, not mine) with every woman he meets.
Well, you guessed it. Daddy had an affair with Esther, his therapist, and she lost her license, so it must have been pretty flagrant, Granddaddy Bob says, for that kind of extreme to be reached. What Granddaddy Bob knows that Grandmother Helen and most other family members think he doesn’t know is that Esther is Jewish. The ones in the know about it insisted that it had to be “hush-hush” because Granddaddy Bob would blow a gasket if he found out. They are the same ones who think every woman named Esther is a direct descendant of Queen Esther in the Bible and therefore Jewish. Can you imagine what they would say about Norman Jewison, the Director of The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!, which Granddaddy Bob and I watch over and over, at least once a month. But they’d never even know who it was I’d be talking about.
This is one of those times when you’d like to jerk some sense into most of the members of your family. There is just about nothing that goes on in it that Granddaddy Bob doesn’t know about and rectify as well, for that matter. I mean, where do these people get off? You can’t be in your advanced eighties and live through the Depression and WWII (as he always calls it) and The Korean War and The War in Vietnam and the First Gulf War (as he insists it be called) . . . , as well as the Struggle for Civil Rights, Gay Rights, Human Rights and Animal Rights, plus Divorce (Granddaddy Bob’s own and then his son’s, my daddy’s) and The Information Highway and The Demise of the World Trade Center, etc., etc., without taking on a whole heap of smarts. Granddaddy Bob is something of a Bill Gates in the local frog pond, and he’d have to be blind not to see the stuff that’s on the computer screen. I mean, he doesn’t go to movies much anymore (I tape them for us to watch on the VCR, or we rent them. He subscribes to a DVD service, too.), but he sits in front of the computer and looks and reads and sends off off-color jokes to his good e-mail buddies and gets them in return. The man knows all about Political Correctness but has his fun anyhow. Still, he is living proof that the more smarts you take on, the more tolerant you become. But you are not going to believe the things that have happened in our family that he’s not supposed to know about. Well, take it from me, he does. As for me, I’ll always take it from Granddaddy Bob that “until you eat at another person’s table, you don’t have the right to judge him or her.” So, I stick by it: sometimes you eat the Daddy, but most of the time, the Daddy eats you! Not to mention that, now with Mad Cow and Foot and Mouth (Granddaddy Bob wonders what happened to Hoof and Mouth Disease and whether Foot and Mouth isn’t a play on foot in mouth.) Disease and bioterrorism, family dining is one of the most dangerous things we can do. Will we come down to enforced staggered dining to prevent whole families from being wiped out at one fell bite? Some couples were taking separate flights prior to SEPTEMBER 11, 2001, but McDonald’s was already in a time warp when it named its “Happy Meals.”
Anyhow, Esther moved in with Daddy and was pretty soon pregnant or vice versa. All this time there was a breach between Daddy, on the one hand, and Granddaddy Bob and Grandmother Helen, on the other, wide enough to drive a log truck through. Even one with a multi-stage Jacobs Brake, a two-speed rear end, an eighteen-speed Road Ranger Transmission, a set back front axle, and a high torque rise 425 hp Cat engine. And, yes, I’m showing off. If Daddy didn’t cotton to the logging business, I do. Another reason why, I’m sure, Granddaddy Bob favors me. He says as much. He says he cannot imagine a descendant of his not being interested in THE LOGGING INDUSTRY. He always says it just so, so you know he’s speaking in and seeing all caps. (I tease him that, never logy, he has moved from logging to logging on.) Aunt Jobie likes all the logging stuff as much as I do, so nobody can claim Granddaddy Bob is prejudiced against females. In fact, until I came along, it was the females in the family who pleased Granddaddy Bob. He said the males, meaning Daddy and Ryan, weren’t worth a tinker’s dam. He doesn’t get creative with his clichés when he’s disgusted. So far, by Granddaddy Bob’s lights, the family has had no females with butt itch.
Nevertheless, Granddaddy Bob would have peace in the family if it could be bought with not much more than a few wrinkles in his dignity and pride and any amount of money. When Daddy began to come around again, with Esther and the new baby, a boy named Robert Elliott and called “Robbie” to honor You-Know-Who, a cute little devil I have to admit, Granddaddy Bob was cool as a cucumber. That’s a cucumber grown out of the prickly stage into what Granddaddy Bob calls the “hog cucumber” stage. Hog cucumbers are never cool, being only food for hogs, though Granddaddy Bob says the Yankees who’ve bought out Cates and Sons and the Mt. Olive Pickle Company regularly use them for any pickles that are cut in slices and especially for those pickle strips cut thin and supposed to be the size to go across the bread in your sandwich. A regular square sandwich, that is.
After about three trips to show off the new grandson and, I guess, Esther, who is very pretty, naturally, and well-endowed, though I know I should not make such an observation about any lady, particularly one who is my father’s paramour and may well become a stepmother to me, and not at all Jewish looking if there is such a thing as Jewish looking, Daddy sidled up to Granddaddy Bob—Granddaddy Bob says there was one thing in the world his son (my father) was a champion of, and that was sidling—and informed him that Esther was “in the family way again.” And Daddy wanted to know if there was any way Granddaddy Bob could see his way clear to building them a new house. I don’t know if Daddy pointed out that he’d received no cash “benefits” from the first house Granddaddy Bob had built him, the rent-free one I lived in across the road from the lumberyard with Daddy and Mother and Ryan. Granddaddy Bob didn’t say. He doesn’t low-rate Daddy (or anyone else) to me unless he absolutely has been driven beyond human limits, and that is seldom. Thank goodness for that. Granddaddy Bob driven beyond human limits is not a pretty sight to see or hear. What Granddaddy Bob did this time was attach conditions. He and Grandmother Helen agreed to have a house built—Daddy couldn’t find a ready-built one just right for Esther and him—but only if Daddy and Esther got married and gave a name to Little Robbie and the baby that was on the way. No problem.
Only—the time came when Daddy and Esther and Little Robbie and Little Bertie (Roberta) were in the new house, but, so far as anybody else in the family was aware, Daddy and Esther were still not married. If Granddaddy Bob knew why, he has never told me. I kept trying to think up reasons, excuses mainly, but I couldn’t. It plain came down, as far as I could see, to Daddy “spiting” Granddaddy Bob again. I found it amazingly terrible to have a father who wouldn’t keep his word to his own father. Didn’t the kind of example he was setting matter to him? If he didn’t care about his first crop of children, Ryan and me, you’d think he’d be scared out of what wits he had for Little Robbie and Little Bertie in this day and age when everybody claims we have no values left. But here we were with the cycle repeating. Roseannalie was blaming the absent Ryan for getting her pregnant and not marrying her. Daddy was blaming Mother (who wasn’t blood kin, I wanted to shout at him) for leaving him to wallow in his misery. That’s the way with families. You love them right or wrong, as you’re supposed to our country, especially in times like the present, but under the cover of family, you can let them know when they don’t measure up. “Unconditional love” doesn’t mean not having to say you’re sorry or letting family members slide out of the messy hole they’ve dug without having to say they’re sorry. I finally decided to try to let it go and concentrate on the “negative learning” I could pull out of it. Parents do not concern themselves enough with the negative learning they let their sons and daughters wallow in.
I had not easily reached this “watershed” [a Ms. Ellerby term], and, no sooner than it was wrung out of the protesting me, that sly pursuer of all Slayters, our Dark Side, upended me again.
I imagine it as Granddaddy Bob prepared me to imagine it. This Army jeep stops before the last known address for Daddy. It gets sent on to several other places, each, I suspect, worse than the last, until, finally, it pulls up at Granddaddy Bob and Grandmother Helen’s. Nobody is home, of course, because everybody is at work. The driver points out the store to his companion, who walks over and mistakenly enters the side door. That alone scares Grandmother Helen. Everybody who comes to Slaters’ Grocery knows better than to enter that way. Grandmother Helen turns to face the interlopers, then goes pale, sits down in the straight chair she keeps behind the cash register. She listens hard, gets some of it—the part about their being unable to locate the parents of Private Ryan Slayter, the part about his being “lost” in the service of his country.
The minute the funeral was over, Roseannalie thrust “Bob-Bob” Kornegay [Slayter] into Grandmother Helen’s arms and left. She promised to never reappear “upon certain reasonable monetary considerations.” “Bob-Bob” Kornegay [Slayter] is now officially “Robert Kornegay Slayter,” adopted son, not without strings being pulled, of Grandmother Helen and Granddaddy Bob.
Daddy went crazier. He was suddenly passing for a grief-stricken father proud of the son who had given his life for his country. Nobody in the family messed with the label, but the at-large whispers in the community and beyond (for Granddaddy Bob and Grandmother Helen cut a swath as far as to the state level) sniped about Ryan’s being knifed by an irate “A-Rab” defending his daughter’s honor. Daddy swore off drugs, whiskey, and, I guess, the pleasures that accrue from dealing with one’s butt itch. Nobody in the family messed with his new image, but the at-large whispers must have driven him to prove himself. He took to hanging out outside the low places he’d so often frequented. He’d grab at arms, go down on one knee, beg the arm owners to “mend their ways before tragedy repaid them as it had repaid him.” The daddy of old wouldn’t have stood for such behavior. Neither did the ones he beseeched. When he tried to pull a former buddy off a woman he was forcing himself on out behind a bar, the man shot Daddy in the stomach and the woman between the eyes. Daddy lingered. The damsel didn’t. Granddaddy Bob says being shot in the stomach was intentional for its guaranteed degree of pain. He “allows as how ‘butt itch’ caused the whole by ‘butting in.’” [Ms. Ellerby had told me about the Paracelsian Overplus, according to which Paracelsus treated by dosing with the same concoction over and over again until the patient surfeited and threw off the malady. This was “in contradistinction” to Galen, who treated by dosing with opposites. I prefer Ms. Ellerby’s version. At the least, when the snide and the nosy go after me about what happened to Ryan and to Daddy, they turn tail quickly with my, “In the family, we write the situation off to the Paracelsian Overplus.”] Esther and Little Robbie and Little Bertie still live in the house Granddaddy Bob and Grandmother Helen built for Daddy and them. They also pay all the bills and upkeep and will pay for the children’s college, etc. I can’t help wondering what Daddy’s family (extended by Ryan’s “Bob-Bob”) will do when Granddaddy Bob and Grandmother Helen “age out” and are no longer here to underwrite them. Aunt Jobie, who remained alienated from Daddy, is not likely to help. I feel the Slayter Darkness focusing on me, but I know that, from afar, Granddaddy Bob will never forsake me. Together, we’ll kick its butt!