Authors: George Singleton
ALES OF A
A Shannon Ravenel Book
ALGONQUIN BOOKS OF CHAPEL HILL
For the bartenders and booksellers,
plus Shannon Ravenel for putting up with me
I would like to thank agents Liz Darhansoff and Kristen Lang; everyone at Algonquin, past and present; wild copy editor Janet Wygal; Michael Feldman and the trio; my writer pals who pitch horseshoes, clean fish, drive far, vote sanely, and talk about things other than writing; the students, staff, and faculty of the S.C. Governor's School for the Arts and Humanities; closet southerner Billy “Maine” Payne; Hollywood Lindy Dekoven; Mom and her one good doctor; all of Oxford, Mississippi; half of Dacusville; every stray dog that's shared a roof with me, or at least considered it before taking off again; and mostly, Glenda Guion for letting me howl at will even when she knows it ain't the time or place.
I had to assume that my mother took the photographs of me standing near the alligator pit. The same goes for the ones of me standing next to Dad on the edge of Blowing Rock, and the ones in the cotton mill amid a thousand running looms. There's a curled black-and-white picture of me somewhere on the roadside near Cherokee, North Carolina, with my hand inside a black bear's cage. All of my childhood pictures had taken place in precarious situations: on my father's lap aboard a tractor cutting through corn-stalks; at the rear end of a working cement truck's trough; held in my father's arms between two hot rods at the ready to race down Forty-Five's main drag. There were pictures taken of me sitting in a stroller on the roof of the house, bricks braking the wheels while Dad cleaned our gutters. I know that sometimes people think that they remember a situation when really they just recall hearing family stories ten thousand times, or they've seen the photographs and/or eight-millimeter home movies a million. For me, the occasions for these snapshots remained as vivid and recognizable as
when I first teethed, took a step, or got potty-trained, except for who had held the Brownie camera. I wasn't three years old before I'd done about everything scary outside of flying upside down in a crop duster or shaking hands with Republicans. When the county fair came to town, my mother had evidently shot a series of photographs of me sitting on the laps of fat ladies, bearded ladies, geeks, Siamese twins, and knife swallowersâall people who could have kidnapped and made me part of their otherworld. I rode on the back of a two-headed calf. My father always stood nearby, usually only half his body in the frame, either smiling like a fool or as somber as any rebel soldier intent on being slain.
“Just because you're drowning in gasoline doesn't mean you should light a match to enhance evaporation,” my father said when I asked him about the photos. I was seventeen, and full of myself, and although I remembered everything on a daily basis, this was the first time I'd seen those memories in monochromatic, two-dimensional splendor. These family photographs had remained in a shoe box tucked behind some pink insulation beneath a homemade safe in the attic. Now I needed to pick one out for some kind of Before-and-After thing Miss Ballard, the yearbook sponsor, wanted to try out.
I didn't know what my father meant by gas and evaporation, of course. “What're you talking about, man?” I said.
“Some things are best left alone. I was just trying to do what I thought best. Your mother had other ideas. If she'd've
stuck around and had her way, you would've been brought up wearing safety boots and a helmet. I did the opposite. Sorry if you ended so messed up, son.”
This was in mid-April of 1976, and the yearbook deadline approached. I already had a reputation for being some kind of loner hermit freak at Forty-Five High School because my father made me read all of Durkheim and Marx and recite it daily, because we didn't go to a church of any sort, because I could run two miles in ten minutes but wouldn't join the track team, because I planned on going to a college that didn't offer agriculture science, because I talked to and admired my female black friend, Shirley Ebo, because I listened to the Grateful Dead, because I accidentally laughed uncontrollably when our revered football coach died of a heart attack on the sidelines losing 72-0 midgame, because my father made me lure stray and feral dogs from the tree farm across from our house on Deadfall Road and keep them until we could get them properly fixed or neutered, because I didn't smoke cigarettes, because I knew early on that female genitalia wasn't known as “cock,” though some of my idiotic redneck male counterparts called it that, because I could speak French perfectly without knowing what I said, because I wouldn't participate in the Pledge of Allegiance or daily prayer each morning, and because I probably won the countywide spelling bee six years earlier only by enunciating f-o-s-s-o-r-i-a-l without counting on my fingers.
I said to my father, “I'm not saying that I'm messed up, or that
messed up. I just need a picture of me when I was younger. We don't have a picture of me sitting on Santa's lap or anything like that? There's got to be a picture of me riding a tricycle, or opening Christmas presents. I remember Mom taking a picture of me holding that rat snake.”
My father held the shoe box on his thighs. We sat at the kitchen table. He shook his head sideways. “Your mother might've stolen some pictures with her back then, I don't know. Your mother might've taken a lot of things from this house thirteen years ago or whenever, but I can't be responsible for all that. To hell with me. Here.” He reached into the box and handed me a three-by-five photograph in which I stood beside a sign that bled off the left side of the frame. It only read
, and I wore a perfectly wonderful and crisp seersucker suit, plus a watch cap. My father's arm came out of the right side of the picture. Did the sign say
from top to bottom? Were we in Savannah, or Nevada? Was my father touching my shoulder gently, or pushing me toward the hole? I kind of remembered the day, but seeing as I couldn't read at the time, I wouldn't have known what the sign read. Maybe it said
and we stood near another one of those country fair sideshow people. Maybe it read
Or maybe the sign had read something else altogether, I didn't know. I said it would be good enough for Miss Ballard's yearbook, and got up from the kitchen table. I excused
myself to go rig a garden hose from our car into the living room window, to rid our household of a probable degenerative disease passed on from father to son. My father said, “Make sure you come back in time for us to dig some holes in the backyard. I have a few more things to bury so you'll have something to unearth and sell later on after I die.”
I told my father to hide my childhood photographs somewhere else so I wouldn't find them again, ever.
Y CHILDHOOD TOOK
place a few miles outside of Forty-Five, South Carolina, which meant I lived a hundred miles from any town with a population of twenty thousand or more people. Charlotte, Greenville, Augusta, and Columbia were far away. In between were places like Level Land or Graniteville, Ninety Six or Doweltown, Putdown or Takeaway. Gruel. Between those towns stood plain
. Hereâa mile up the gray, bumpy asphaltâwas Rufus Price's Goat Wagon store, and down Deadfall Road slanted a series of shingle-sided shacks where people like Shirley Ebo lived. Over in Forty-Five stood three cotton mills, their requisite villages, and my high school on Highway 25. Between the town and my house was a flat, flat, barren expanse of red clay nothingness and uncultivated scrub pine ready for development by people like my father, maybe the only man in all of Forty-Five with the ability to look past tomorrow.
“I could take a photograph of some little child now and we could say it was you,” my father said on the afternoon after I turned my mysterious
photograph in. “We've got some pictures of your momma's sisters' kids we could turn in and no one would know the difference. I've been upset all day thinking about what few relics I have of you growing up, and therefore what you have of yourself.”
I said, “Miss Ballard said she liked the one of me standing in front of
. She asked me where we were, and I said California. I said we were somewhere on vacation in California.”
My father put his hand on my shoulderâat this point I stood nearly as tall as he didâand said, “I'll tell you where we were if you promise not to tell anyone else. I mean, I'll let you in on a mean-ass joke I played, if you can keep your big barbecue pit doused.”
I had a story to tell him, too. I'd gone by the Winn-Dixie on the way to homeroom, bought a jar of strained Gerber's pablum, taken off the label, then sworn to Miss Ballard later that I had been the child-baby actor who modeled for the picture. I said to my father, “Don't hit me.”
He had that look on his face. My father had taken to walking with a hard, hard cane for no reason whatsoever, and he liked to slap me across the hamstrings with it in a similar fashion to what most people used to pat someone's shoulders.
“That picture your mother took of you was taken right
in the backyard there.” He pointed out toward a field owned by a man named Few, one of Forty-Five's wealthier citizens, a man who kept land around because, over the generations, his kin had moved upstate from Charleston in order to escape heat and mosquitoes each summer. My father continued with, “I felt then and I feel now that, in time, that land will be sold to a land developer, and that that land developer will correctly begin making a subdivision out of it. You know for a fact that I would buy up the land if, and only if, I could sell it to land developers, but I don't want a subdivision on our back property.”
I looked out the window of our sad cement-block house. I saw weeds, goldenrod, scattered four-foot pines, the small crosses I had fashioned over the last ten years when I'd buried dead wild dogs that had chased cars badly out in front of our house. I said, “No it wasn't. That picture was taken somewhere else. It doesn't even look like the same place.”
My father hit me with his cane. “Landscapes change over fifteen years, fuzznuts. You're going to find out sooner or later, believe me. One day someone's going to start digging back there, and your property value for this house will drop dramatically. But you won't have a subdivision out the kitchen window. Those toxic-dump barrels will stop that little project.” My father swiped at me again with his cane. “You won't ever remember this, though, seeing as you're not even listening.”
My mother had snapped the photograph in the early 1960s. Out on the West Coast, entire cities of near-prefab houses were being developed. My father foresaw the groundswell moving to the southeastern United Statesâand although he never put it down on paper, he often liked to predict what would happen to places like Atlanta and Charlotte. My mother still lived with us then; my father went out and gathered, according to him right there in our kitchen, some hundred black fifty-five-gallon steel drums. He borrowed a backhoe and bought stencils and spray paint, supposedly. “Your momma helped me spray-paint
on every one of the barrels. I put them in the ground all over the place one Christmas week when I knew that old man Few wouldn't be over this way. He and his family always met down in the low country most of December and January, you know.”