We didn’t have gypsies or midgets living next door to us. Seems that’s always major criteria for living a truly gothic southern childhood.
True Flannery style, though, we did have a bible salesman – my father — selling scripture to anyone he could hold captive. And there was a prosthetic, too. And leg braces, straight-up-Forrest-Gump style. And plenty of twisted scripture.
Sometimes people with the best hearts can make the worst choices. I heard that line last night and I immediately thought of my father and the choices he made so long ago that sucked him, and us right along with him, into a spiritual cyclone of incredibly destructive dimensions.
Growing up, we lived in a brick ranch on a dirt road just off the Ole Miss campus. There was a carport off the kitchen, a horse shed out back, a fern gully due south, and blackberry brambles as far as the eye could see. Our neighbors consisted of a one-eyed drunk, a couple of naked hippies, a random homeless grad student, and lots and lots of snakes. I’d say all that qualifies as a veritable cornucopia of southern gothic ingredients.
Technically speaking, the road we lived on was gravel, but I remember one spring it rained 92 out of the 90 days and the gravel all washed away. Front porch mudslides and a mudbound VW bus became our new normal. That season, we subsisted on hot pickled okra and well water until my mother hitched a ride to the local Jitney Jungle atop a backhoe for peanut butter and bananas.
Now, I told you there’d be a prosthetic in this story, and I don’t lie. (I may embellish, but I never lie.) That drunk next door — the one over the gully and through the mud? He had a glass eye, and any given night, he’d wander up our way and knock on the carport door. If I answered, he’d knuckle his eye out, pop it in his mouth, and roll it around on his tongue like a jawbreaker. Then he’d spit it out and offer it up to me. I had wet-the-bed- night-terrors over it.
Even though he probably died years ago, for anonymity purposes, I’ll call him Shine – if not for the prosthetic spit-shines, then for his moonshine pilgrimages. You see, Shine would show up looking for liquor or ladies, or both, almost every single night. It got to where Mama was afraid to answer her own door.
If Daddy was home, he’d carpe the diem and minister to Shine’s soul. I think that’s where his passion for scripture truly set fire. My father was fairly lost himself at the time — his own father having recently passed — and I’ve heard an existential crisis like that makes a body vulnerable to cultish ways.
Regardless, there in our kitchen, my dad would fire up the Holy Spirit and force-feed scripture and coffee down Shine’s throat till he got a bellyful and went off in search of better spirits.
Now Shine wasn’t the only strange and suspect man we’d find in our kitchen back then. The grad student Sellers (not sure if that was his first name or last, but I know he’s dead of suicide now, so I’ll name him) studied physics by day and lived in his car in our side yard by night. Every morning, he’d steal into our kitchen to swig milk straight out of the wax carton.
I was a toddler then, in leg braces (didn’t I promise ya?). Dr. Stone told my folks I had some sort of rotational deformity, I think, so I wore the human equivalent of a leather and metal horse harness every night, and wasn’t allowed in the kitchen until my mother unshackled me every morning. The screws in the feet chewed up the linoleum, leaving Mama in a tizzy.
So I’d watch Sellers quietly from the hallway as he unfolded the spout and chugged away. (I did a whole lot of watching back then and not a lot of talking. More on that in a moment.) Every single thing about Sellers was disheveled. His head, with its matted tufts of hair, his chest, with its pale, pudgy flesh, his Hanes briefs, with their drooping posterior.
He drove my mother crazy. But he was my father’s most faithful disciple — somehow fascinated with my Daddy’s frenzied spiritual awakenings. As far as my father was concerned, Sellers could do no wrong.
Those naked hippies though — Dad made it pretty clear they could do no right. They lived on the other side of us from Shine. Of all the neighbors, they scared me the least and Dad the most.
To me, the most fascinating thing about them wasn’t their nakedness, but their giant outdoor waterbed. It sat about thirty feet from their back porch, hidden by jutting canna lilies with giant purple stalks and flaming red tips. The flowers sheltered the hippies from view when they laid naked in the sunshine.
I watched them from a rusted-out Chevy perched among a mess of brambles at their tree line. A sapling had sprouted through the floorboards and crept through the passenger window. It housed a whole lot of spiders and an occasional garden snake. And me. From my vantage point, I pretended I was a member of the Swiss Family Robinson surveying the natives in their natural habitat.
I don’t remember him much, just that he had long, lanky limbs and hair. But her, she was an Ole Miss beauty queen drop out with caramel skin and honey hair and (according to my father’s definition of hippies) a love of mind-altering substances. A few years later, she was involved in a terrible car crash that left her in a wheelchair the remainder of her days.
She once gave me a Mrs. Beasley doll from Family Affair fame. It had a blue polka dot body, frizzy blond hair, and a non-functioning pull string. This Ole Miss Beauty Queen was probably twenty years my senior, but at four-years-old, she became my closest friend and the closest thing I will ever know to a goddess. Or a hippie, for that matter, I guess.
There were other people in my life in those early days, too. Every Wednesday night, Dad hosted prayer meetings in our living room where he strummed his guitar with a pick and sang Delta Dawn with my mother. I don’t remember much about the folks there. Just that they were mostly college kids who probably wanted an A in my father’s physics lab.
My father often prophesied about the end of days and always shouted in tongues. There was also some laying-on of hands and some casting out of demons. It all fell just short of snake handling, though.
So, there you have it. The southern gothic roots that propogated my father’s crazy, cultish curiosity with off-the-grid faith. And it all stemmed from a good heart, recently broken by a father’s death.
Still, it was all a bit much for a toddler in leg braces to absorb. But absorb, I did. And like it or not, it proved good fodder for a future writer.