His mother’s life is a complicated tangle of inconsistencies, and her bonds with the boy are sailor’s knots that he doesn’t have the skills to untie. She tells him stories of her life that are sometimes contradictory and confusing, and always leave him uneasy and scared.
“Calhoun, Tennessee is where I grew up,” she says one day in her lilting Southern accent, as he and his younger half-sister sit at the kitchen table, eating biscuits and gravy. “We didn’t have any money. My daddy worked at the saw mill there, and Jesus Christ, he could be a mean sonofabitch.”
The boy and sister laugh at Mom’s rough language. It always makes them laugh. Mom is so pretty, still, even after all the horrible events of her life. It would be nice to say that the awful events were behind her now, but her life would be plagued, always and forever, with awful events. Her story of misery never ends, and eventually, yes, it takes its toll on her looks as it must for everybody. But that day, she is pretty, beautiful even, with her slender elfin face and clear green eyes and loads and loads of full blonde hair piled on her head.
“My mamma, your Mama Rock (they call their grandmother Mama Rock, for a reason the boy never really knew) had the most amazing singing voice. She sang on the radio, you know, down in Dickson. She could yodel just the old-timey singers. And she was beautiful. Too beautiful. My daddy was awful jealous of her, and it turns out with goddamn good reason.”
Mom then tells them how Mama Rock cheated on her husband with every man in town, and eventually left the family with some man called Daniels. The boy knows this is true, because sometimes Mama Rock is visited by a son in her upstairs apartment, and the son’s last name isn’t the same as the rest of the family’s—it’s Daniels.
Mom tells how Mama Rock left the family and no one saw her for years and Mom was left to take care of her father and her two younger brothers. She tells how her father lost his arm in an accident at the sawmill, or sometimes he loses his leg instead—or maybe the boy remembers it incorrectly.
“I had to drop out of school, but I didn’t mind, really, I hated school, I always got picked on by the other girls,” she says, and the boy is mortified, wondering how, in a just world, anyone could pick on his mother. “I had to get up every morning at four-thirty to make breakfast for everyone, and if I didn’t have it ready in time, well look out, ‘cuz Daddy would beat me within an inch of my life, and I’d just cry and cry and cry—“
And the boy doesn’t stop to wonder why his mother is telling him all this, why she’s sharing the nightmare of her life with her children, who are only seven and five at the time, why she is bequeathing all her misery to the next generation.
“Daddy used to say to me, you’re a little slut, just like your mama, and he wouldn’t let me go out on dates. I got a job outside the house when I was sixteen, I was a carhop at a drive-in restaurant, I’d roll up to cars on my roller skates and take orders. But when I’d come home late from work Daddy’d be waiting up for me and he’d accuse me of sleeping around with any man I came across and he’d grab me with one hand and beat the high holy hell outta me with the other.”
And how he managed to do that, missing an arm or a leg, the boy never thought to ask.
He didn’t think his mother was lying. He didn’t think it was that simple. For reasons he didn’t fully understand himself, he knew that memory was a tricky thing and the truth of someone’s experiences was completely subjective.
No, his mother was not lying.
“I know it’s hard to believe, but he was a good man. He was just hurt, is all. Your Mama Rock broke his heart, and he could never trust anyone ever again, especially a woman. I was nineteen or so when he died, and my baby brothers were put up for adoption. I was growed-up, though, so no adoption for me. I had to work. I got a job as a go-go dancer.”
When the boy and his half-sister ask what a go-go dancer is, Mom grins and says, “I danced in a cage. You know, like on Hulapalooza? I had the white go-go boots and I danced to, oh, such great songs. I was really good at it.”
She met a man there, a man named Melton, and was married in no time. She had two sons by Melton, two brothers to the boy that he didn’t really know, would never really know, aside from a handful of visits many years later.
“He was a bastard,” Mom says. “He used to beat the shit outta me, far worse than my daddy ever did. After Ernie was born (Ernie was her second son, Tony the first), I decided I couldn’t go on like that and I left him. He managed to… he managed to convince the court that I was an unfit mother. He…” And here Mom would start crying, and the boy and his half-sister would stop eating and stare at her in horror. “He got my babies taken from me, he got custody of them. I hated it, but… well, I realized that I couldn’t take care of them myself. I didn’t have any money, cuz he wouldn’t pay alimony.”
“What’s alimony?” the boy asks.
“It’s what the man is supposed to pay the woman, after they get divorced. He wouldn’t give me none, and so he got the babies and I had nothing. It was Christmas when I realized I had to let him have them. I was so broke, I had to feed them macaroni and cheese for their Christmas dinner.”
It another version of the story, told many years later, the characters of Tony and Ernie were replaced with the boy and his sister.
Melton was the first of a succession of evil men who seemed bent on nothing less than destroying her. She’d been divorced from him less than two years and was working in a diner in Huntsville, Alabama when she met a new man, the man who would be the boy’s father. “Oh my sweet God, he was the most handsome man I’ve ever seen in my life, to this day…”
And the boy’s half-sister would say, “What about my daddy? Wasn’t he hand-some?”
“Yes, he was, but he was nothing compared to your brother’s daddy. He looked just like Clint Eastwood. He looked so much like him that, when he came into the diner I was working at, he had everyone believing that’s who he was. Clint Eastwood, right there in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, for no good reason. I knew he wasn’t, of course, but I didn’t care. He was so handsome and such a smooth-talker…”
In another version of the story, it wasn’t Clint Eastwood his father looked like, but Chuck Conners, the guy who played “The Rifleman” on TV.
“We got married in the fall of 1965, and before long I got pregnant with you.” She tousles the boy’s white-blond hair. “And then the sonofabitch left. Soon as he found out I was pregnant. He just lit out, and I never saw him again, except in the courtroom when the marriage was annulled.”
The boy was born in January of 1966, and he tries to do the math of the length of a typical pregnancy from gestation to birth, but it doesn’t seem to jibe with them being married in the fall of the previous year. He decides that it really doesn’t matter.
After that, his mother met McAmis, his half-sister’s father, and the already dark story of his mother’s strange life got darker still, and became a horror story that involved the boy as well.