Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal

Just Like His Old Man

Connie Foster


The first and last time I rafted the bucking white water of the Ocoee River, I jumped in thinking it might help my hangover, but icy water froze the part of my brain that says swim, fool. My kids stood on the dock with their momma and yelled, “Swim, Daddy, swim.” Between the crashing waves I looked at them as I drifted further out of reach. I don’t remember how I ever made it back to shore that day. I don’t do shit like that any more.

These days, my kids have outgrown their daddy. I’m always on the lookout for a way to make a connection, especially with my oldest. He’s traveling down a dangerous road that leads to no good, a road rutted from the heavy traffic of my thick-soled heels. His immoral tie to my blood sanctions his no-good-ways, just like my own lust led a destructive path back to my daddy. I see that now.

Just shy of my sixteenth birthday, I accidentally discovered that the man I thought was my daddy was really my step-daddy. It was the Christmas of ‘72 when I overheard my momma read a letter to Aunt Sue.

Dear Mazzy,

Thanks for the picture you sent of our boy. He still looks like you, but his hair and eyes are dark as coal, like mine.

Me and you made a deal a long time ago, and I intend to keep it. But it would be easier if you don’t send no more pictures. I got me a new woman now, and if she were to find your letter in the mail, I might not be able to make good on our deal to keep our little secret.
So here’s a ten-dollar bill. You go out and buy him something special for his sixteenth birthday.

This’ll be the last letter you’ll get from me. Take good care of our boy.

Bobby Ray

Being my momma’s only son, I knew the letter had to be about me. But I didn’t say a word, bit my tongue, and bided my time. Momma and my fake daddy finally left the house five days later for a New Year’s Eve party. I searched every inch of their bedroom until I found her hiding place, a large manila packet taped to the bottom of her sock drawer. I shuffled through eight coffee-stained envelopes with nothing but white space where the return address should be. I carefully removed and scanned each sheet. In the second paragraph of the last letter, I found it: Here’s my new address, 5220 Maplewood Drive, Cedar Forge, North Carolina.

Two days after my sixteenth birthday I passed my driver’s test and asked my momma for the keys. She agreed on the condition that I drive two blocks over to Avery Earl’s house, then straight back. I passed my old friend’s house pushing 50 in a 35-speed zone. It took me an hour and fifteen minutes to reach my real daddy’s house. I parked across the street and watched. The dusty yard grew straggly patches of tall brown grass that shot up between car parts, oily rags, and wadded Marlboro packs. I heard an engine rev four times before it settled into a choking idle. I stepped on the clutch and rolled forward to get a better view. Bent over a ‘63 Plymouth Fury in the backyard was a big bellied man in a flannel shirt a few sizes too small and greasy jeans that hit midway down his butt crack.

A woman stepped onto the side porch. Her slip strap dangled below the left sleeve of her daisy print duster. Her right arm wobbled as it shook a heavy iron skillet at the man. When she yelled, her breath fogged in the cold air.

“Bobby Ray, turn that off right this minute before I warp you across the head with this here skillet. I’m trying to watch my story, fool.”

That confirmed it. Right there in flesh and blood stood my daddy, Bobby Ray Bush. I looked at him, but from the distance I couldn’t find any resemblance. What had he said in his letter to my momma? That I had dark hair just like him. Not anymore. What little hair this dude had fell in greasy strands down his neck. The top of his head was bald and shined in the sunlight. What was my Momma thinking, ever letting this filth touch her? Fat belly poking out from the bottom of his shirt, half his ass shining above the waistband of his jeans. I had seen enough. I popped the clutch and headed for home, half froze in a cold car with no heater.

In my foolish head, the realization of that day earned me the license to screw around, and that’s just what I did. I kept a running list of names. It became a competition of sorts between me and my new best friend, Larry. We had five bucks on who could add the most girls to their list before one of us decided to settle down. Shortly after we graduated from high school, Larry found Jesus, washed his sins away in Bear Creek, and paid me the five bucks. I, on the other hand, continued to add to my list until Sally Ann’s daddy convinced me otherwise. I looked into the hollow eyes of his twin-barreled shotgun and said, “I do.” She was two months pregnant when we got married. When she started to show, I reclaimed my birthright and strayed with number thirty-two on my list.

Boy, was Sally Ann ever determined to salvage our marriage. She preferred to turn her head and look the other way while I worked my list.

I worried my poor momma half sick, too. With every visit she carried a bag of groceries in each arm and lunch money for the kids. Back then, I didn’t do much of nothing to provide for my family. My money went for six packs, cigarette cartons, and car parts. Momma would empty the groceries, then take the bags outside and round up the kids to play a game of trash race. Whoever picked up the most empty oil cans and greasy rags out of my yard would win a quarter. If it weren’t for Momma, we would’ve starved to death.

Just before my thirty-fifth birthday, I changed my ways. I had my head under the hood of my ‘75 Plymouth Gran Fury changing out a bad plug when I heard a car pull up in front of the house. With my head still upside down, I didn’t move a muscle. I peeked under my left arm to see a young boy get out of a rusty ‘79 Ford Pinto. For the longest time I stayed like that, eyeing the boy while he stood there and eyed me. His dark hair hit at the shoulder, and he seemed to be about my height. When he turned to get back in his car, I straightened my spine and turned his way. I stood there and wiped my hands on a greasy rag. He started his engine, popped it into gear, and squalled the tires.

When I tried to lay my head down that night, I couldn’t sleep for the thought of that boy. I went to the kitchen to get a drink of water, opened the cabinet, and found it empty. I looked around at the countertops piled with dirty dishes. Something came over me, and I washed every plate and glass in the house. After that, I got a handful of brown paper grocery bags and went outside. I picked up five bags of garbage by the light of a quarter moon. The next morning after Sally Ann took a gander at my handiwork, she accused me of sleeping around. Said she knew I had the hots for that skank Mary Joe that used to work at the Quick Shop on the corner of Maple and Bragg. I didn’t have the heart to tell her the truth that on the day before I had laid eyes on one of my seeds, a seed that took root long before she got her chance to pleasure my company. No, I couldn’t tell her that.

***

Connie Foster, third grade teacher by day and writer by night, lives in Tennessee and writes short fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry, and is completing her first novel. Connie’s work has appeared in Muscadine Lines, A Southern Journal, Muscadine Lines, A Southern Anthology, Literary Momma, Southern Hum, and Birmingham Arts Journal. She may be reached at: foster_connie@yahoo.com.

© Connie Foster

Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal ISSN 1554-8449, Copyright © 2004-2012