Southern Man

By Amy C. Evans/Flickr
By Amy C. Evans/Flickr

By Terry Barr

It was my mother’s heart attack that brought us together. I’ll always see him sitting on that hard chair outside the intensive care unit, looking down, like if he could only pray hard enough, she’d be his again.

They’d been eating barbecue sandwiches at the now-defunct Golden Rule in Bessemer, a new location for an old Birmingham chain.

“Your mother was complaining of indigestion, but we thought it was just her acid reflux again,” he told me later. “But, you know, the pain kept getting worse.”

He drove her to Bessemer Carraway hospital, and then when the support staff determined that she had severe blockage, they transferred her to St. Vincent’s in Birmingham to insert a stent. She had given birth to me in St. Vincent’s all those decades ago, but now I lived two states away from my mother. She doesn’t have a living will, and I suppose that in many ways we were lucky that no life-threatening operation had to be performed, because this man who accompanied her and stayed with her, and who was now waiting for her to regain consciousness, was not her family. He was her new boyfriend, John.

I received the call the previous night, at the college where I teach, where I had been the invited guest of a Presbyterian youth group, talking to them about my faith. My father was Jewish, and I had been identifying with him, and explaining my choice to twenty earnest students. I remember vividly when my colleague entered:

“You need to call home immediately. It’s an emergency.”

My heart almost stopped, a fitting experience, for when I got my wife on the phone, she told me, “Jo Ann’s had a heart attack.”

Somehow I drove the forty-five miles home, and we booked a flight for early the next morning. A good family friend met me at the airport and drove me to my mother’s house so I could pick up her car and drive to the hospital. I remember looking down at the general area of the hospital from my plane, and then passing the turn to it on the drive to my mother’s house. I remember wondering if I’d get there before anything worse happened, and even if it didn’t, I wondered what I’d find in her room. What state she’d be in?

Draped across the top of the recliner in her den was the beige sweater she’d been wearing, and on the seat of her chair was her matching brown purse. In my mother’s world, purses have to match the basic color scheme, and I could have cried at that thought. I could also see the spot on the floor where she must have thrown up. Someone had cleaned it already, most likely John at my mother’s direction, for she’s the kind of woman who never leaves her house a mess. I grabbed her purse, her vitals and drove. When I got to the intensive care unit, there he was:

“Buddy, I know we haven’t met, but I’m John Vines, your mother’s friend. She’s all right. They say she’s going to recover fully. You know, I care so much for your mother.”

I had no doubt. I could see it in his eyes.

•••

Words you never want to hear your mother utter:

“Well, I’ve gotten myself in a sure-nuff fix this time…”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, you know that I was supposed to go to a concert last night with ‘the little family’: Susie, Virginia, and John Vines. It turned out, though, that Susie and Virginia couldn’t go. So John and I went. Anyway, after the concert, he drove me home, and when we pulled up in the driveway, he kept the car running, turned to me, and said, ‘I want to say something now. I’m glad that the others couldn’t go. I’m glad it was just us. I’d like to continue seeing you.’”

My mother paused, and I felt sure she was about to ask me how to extricate herself from yet another man’s unwanted overtures. (This had happened twice before in her short widowhood with very different men). It’s not as if I didn’t believe my mother would date again after my father’s death; it was more that such thoughts left me as queasy as I normally get spending too much time in the summer Carolina sun. Or like that day my wife informed me that our oldest daughter was now “a woman,” an experience that left me reaching for the nearest door jamb. I even survived the special ceremony my wife planned for her new womanhood. We have pictures of our daughter then, at thirteen, with flowers in her hair. So queasiness can also feel sweet.

It can also unnerve a son.

“What did you say Mom,” I breathed.

“Well,” and then she laughed in a way that warned me that, unlike those previous occasions with those other men, this time she saw different stars:

“I told him I’d love to. He’s such a gentleman, the last of the old time Southern gentlemen. He even buckled my seatbelt for me!”

That might not sound like much unless you know my independent mother. But at least I was already sitting down.

“He buckled your seat belt for you? Did you want him to? Do you really like a man to buckle you in?”

Notice how I asked these questions instead of the other ones: “Are you in love? Are you ready to get married? Where will y’all live, and oh my God, will you be having sex now?”

Fortunately, I’m not a stupid man.

“Oh, I didn’t mind at all. It was such a sweet thing to do! But what do you think?”

So I told her. “Mom, all I want is for you to be happy. If you want to go out with John, that’s fine. And if you decide you want to marry him, that’s fine too.”

She laughed off the marriage part and instead uttered a few clichéd phrases about her time of life and having fun. Honestly, I don’t remember exactly what she said, because another thought had invaded me, concerning my father. Having his wife remarry, I don’t think, would have alarmed my dad. My alien thought, however, would surely have killed him again. While my mother rambled on across our long distance phone lines I silently protested.

“But John’s a Georgia Tech man, a Yellow Jacket! He played for and adored Coach Dodd, a man my Alabama Crimson Tide-loving father detested. A man my father referred to often as ‘Cry-Baby Dodd.’”

I can honestly say that my father disrespected only two of Alabama’s football foes: Notre Dame and Georgia Tech. Not even Tennessee or Auburn roused Dad’s hatred like the Irish and the Yellow Jackets. Alabama and Georgia Tech no longer played each other, though, and while the former’s star continues to blaze, the latter’s has fallen mightily.

Besides, my poor father was gone and my mother was very much here.

“He’ll take me places, anywhere I want to go! And you know I always had to drag your daddy everywhere we went. Except to his mother’s, that is, and to the Alabama football game!”

As the weeks passed, it seemed my mother had found the antithesis of my dad: John drove a Lincoln, and my dad hated Fords. John was a gentile, my Dad a Jew. John played high school and college football. My dad, the clarinet and tennis.

Yet they were each loyal Americans, served their country proudly, and were hard-working providers for their families. They were both quiet, gentle men. And my mother, somewhat reluctantly, provided one other similarity.

“John and I went to the Bright Star the other night [Bessemer’s finest restaurant and the oldest continuous-serving restaurant in Alabama]. You know how good the seafood and steaks are there. They had stuffed snapper on the menu, so after I ordered, I looked over at John. And do you know what he ordered?”

I could hear it coming, This seemingly perfect man did the unthinkable:

“He ordered the hamburger steak, just like your daddy used to!”

Though I wouldn’t order it, because I’m no idiot, I have to admit the hamburger steak at the Bright Star does look good. Dad always smothered his in ketchup.

“Did he add ketchup?” I asked Mom.

“Of course! I just don’t understand men. All that good food and no matter what, they just want hamburger! And when it arrived, all he could say was ‘Oh yeah!’”

I wanted to pronounce an “Amen” on that, but decided that enough bland sauce had been poured already.

•••

Though she was still in intensive care, the doctors had successfully placed a stent in my mother’s damaged artery and declared her out of danger. John left me soon after I arrived at the hospital, and I’ve always wondered whether in his place I would have done the same; whether I would have ceded space to my steady companion’s son. He had been the one to accompany her through this trauma, and now his actions said, “I know my place.” I didn’t know his place, though, and even as I write this, I look at the phrase I used for John: my mother’s “steady companion.” It’s a true statement because they did go everywhere together, including church on Sunday, a church John didn’t belong to. Can seventy-somethings be described as boyfriend and girlfriend? As “special friends?” Even today, when I describe John, I call him “Mom’s friend, you know….”

Except that we really don’t know. I could never use the term “lovers” to describe John and Mom, even if I did think it described them accurately. Years into their relationship and while he was lying in his own hospital bed awaiting exploratory kidney surgery, John made the mistake of referring to another mutual female friend of theirs as his “other lady friend.” This so incensed my mother, who by that point had decided that she’d never marry John, that she left him in his room for a couple of days. That same lady friend, one of my former Sunday school teachers, fueled my mother’s ire some time later by wondering aloud whether John had spent the night at my mother’s because she saw him wearing the same clothes on that day as he had worn the day before, and the last she knew, he had been seen entering my mother’s house in the early evening.

Why my mother felt the need to report this to me during our weekly Sunday morning phone chat, I can’t say. Was she just passing the gossip before I could hear it from other mouths?

“I just couldn’t believe she would say that about me. She knows me better than that!”

But my mother has reported other strange information over the years, like the time she told me that a new, and newly-drunken, neighbor made a pass at her in her own house during a barbecue that she and my dad were holding for this new neighbor and his wife. My mother was in her late sixties at the time.

“Your daddy never knew, and I didn’t tell him. He would have been furious.”

Yet she told me long distance. Was I supposed to be furious too? Or appalled? Disgusted? Nauseous? My daughters have always laughed at me, saying I never know when someone is flirting with me. If I ever did know, though, I wouldn’t be calling them on the phone to report it.

Of course I didn’t think of these awkward moments while my mother was lying in the hospital. Part of me wished that John hadn’t left us alone because I wasn’t used to seeing my mother in such a vulnerable state.

She was alert when I walked in, though, saying “Hey darlin’” before I could get to her bed. I sat with her through the evening and offered to spend the night by her.

“Oh, you don’t need to do that, I’m fine. You just go home and get a good night’s rest.”

She was in no danger, according to all the nurses, and selfishly, I thought a bed at home sounded so much better than the pullout cot available there. However, when I reached home, I realized the strangeness of sleeping in my mother’s house alone, seeing but not seeing her flitting from room to room picking up stray items or straightening yet another decorous object. Hearing but not hearing her habitual smoker’s cough lapsing into such a choking fit that I’d wonder if this was the end.

When I returned to the hospital the next morning, she volunteered the information that she was determined to quit smoking. “I decided last night that that was it!”

I rejoiced. Her health, finally, seemed to mean more to her than her Virginia Slims Menthol Lights. That night when I returned to her house, I threw out the remainder of her carton, and the open pack in her purse. I remembered then the time in fourth grade when, after viewing an anti-smoking film in school, I played hooky and waited till she was out running errands then flushed an entire carton, bit by nasty bit, into the back bathroom toilet. When she asked that night what happened to her cigarettes, I confessed. Though upset at the loss of good money, she didn’t punish me.

“I don’t want you to get cancer,” I managed in the face of her initial fury.

She understood, and I know that despite her habit and need for a cigarette then, she forgave me. She loved me.

The next day when I returned to school, she ran to the store and bought a new carton. So we lived with her habit for another forty-five years. But now, after a serious heart attack, we were done.

My mother was released from the hospital on Thanksgiving Day, and our beloved family friends, the Mulkins, invited us all—my brother, my wife, our two daughters, and John—for Thanksgiving lunch. We drove straight to their house from the hospital, and so Thanksgiving seemed restored, except that this combination of families had never spent any holiday together before. Not long after the meal, John made a suggestion. “Let’s get your mother back home. She’s still pretty weak.”

On that Sunday after Thanksgiving, Mom suggested that we let her rest while we went to a movie or something.

“You all don’t need to be sitting in this house watching me. I’ll be okay.”

After we returned, my wife walked past my mother’s bathroom and over to me.

“I think I smell cigarettes.”

I smelled them too, but only faintly, and then after a few moments I convinced myself that I had smelled nothing out of the ordinary, except, that is, the scent of my mother’s lemon body oil.

The next morning, I found a cigarette butt that hadn’t fully flushed, floating in her bathroom toilet.

She hadn’t left the house the entire weekend, and I was certain that I had purged her place of all offending smokes. So how had she procured these new heart-killers? When I confronted her, all she said was, “You just don’t understand. Only a smoker understands how hard it is to quit.”

I never asked, but I was sure that in the couple of hours we had spent at the movies she had persuaded John to buy her a new carton of smokes. After all, he had told me, “I would do anything for your mother.”

And so my mother continued smoking for another ten years until she finally gave up her habit after successfully undergoing radiation treatment for a small but malignant lung tumor. I suppose John stood by her through these trials, but she said it was the e-cigarette that really helped.

•••

“I remember I cried when my father died/Never wishing to hide the tears

And at sixty-five years old/My mother, God rest her soul…”

—Gilbert O’Sullivan

 

My mother isn’t dead, and she wasn’t sixty-five when my father died. She was sixty-seven, and I was forty-four. While it’s true that I did not wish to hide my tears, my mother told me to stop crying. “I need you to be strong now.”

I tried to stop; truly, I did. Fortunately, I was already in therapy, so I dealt with the grief. I don’t know how my mother wrestled with hers, but I suspect she did what she’s always done: pushed it back inside and moved on with her life. She jumped back into her civic and social clubs; she repainted the bedroom and ordered new furniture. She got a new mattress for the back bedroom where my father spent his last year because he’d been unable to control his bladder, and despite the bed-pads and adult diapers, the mattress was ruined.

She began getting offers from men. She seemed ready to enter that world again: of dating, of potential husbands. And so, it seemed, I had to get ready within myself to understand and accept the difference between “your father” and “your mother’s husband.”

•••

I am unlike my father in these ways:

I drink: Beer (now gluten-free), red wine, and bourbon, especially bourbon. Four Roses, small batch.

I read novels instead of the newspaper, and I write. A lot.

I am a political liberal. I never thought Rush was right.

I eat seafood of all types including anchovies.

I wear a beard and hate mowing the lawn.

I am like my father in these ways:

I cherish my home and the older I get, the less keen I am on leaving it.

I am loyal to my job, my family, and even my country.

I like meatloaf with ketchup.

I cherish the University of Alabama football team, recently buying a 55” TV just to get a bigger picture for this season’s games.

I try to stay fit, walking my dog for an hour each day and supplementing that with thirty minutes on the elliptical. I use free weights, calculated repetitions, though the calculations are often, if not always, based on some OCD number in my head.

The irony of this obsessive number is that it’s 64, taken from a framed Alabama football jersey mounted on the wall near my weights. When I lift weights I have to make sixty-four reps. Have to. That jersey is 1940s vintage, crimson wool with a wraparound crotch button. I received it in one of those be-careful-you’ll-smother-in-this-thing dry cleaners wrapping bag. My father gave me many Bama jerseys: numbers 22, 25, 38, but he didn’t give me this one.

John Vines did. John played on the 1951-2 National Championship Georgia Tech teams. He never pulled for Alabama, or Auburn either, his home state teams.

But not even John could remember where he got it or even how long he had had it. I wish I had my other jerseys. My mother junked them went I went off to college. But I’ll never lose or give up this one.

I tried researching to see whose jersey my number 64 could have been, but no luck, or at least there were too many possibilities and no winnowing down. John didn’t know either, but it didn’t matter to him.

“I want you to have it. I know how much it will mean to you.”

If I could have worn it, I would have right then. Players back then were smaller, even those on the offensive line. I weigh in the mid 190s, just too big to want to try stretching this precious wool. Besides, wearing it isn’t the point. The point is that a Tech man gave a Bama man, a man young enough to be his son, a Bama jersey, a precious keepsake, on a cold and cloudy Christmas season night. And when he left our house that night, for the first time, I hugged this man, my mother’s boyfriend, instead of merely shaking his hand as acquaintances do.

It was my wife, not a football fan of any sort, who suggested framing the jersey, because she understands what gifts mean and how to honor them and those who give them. She understands the texture of human hands and shoulders and hearts.

Though 64 is an easy number to reach with arm weights, and  I still feel sufficient after achieving it, I go beyond it usually, and every time I do, I think of John and how pleased he’d be. Not always, but more times than not, I think of my father, too.

•••

During the year after Mom and John began dating, I would have bet anyone that they were headed toward marriage. I waited for the news.

But it never came.

John had moved to a new house, just a block above where we used to live.

“I don’t know why he moved up there,” Mom complained. “That neighborhood is going down,” which was true enough, though very sad given the decades we all had spent there.

My mother helped John decorate it though, as if someone might soon be moving in with him. And someone did: the stray dog that showed up in John’s alley one day; a beautiful shepherd mix about the size of a young horse. John named him J.V., after himself.

The beautiful house that Mom helped John decorate stayed that way for almost a year. And then…

“You won’t believe that house! He’s just wrecked it. He is without a doubt the messiest man I’ve ever seen. One thing I’ll say about your daddy, he was neat.”

Yes he was, OCD neat, just like my mother is OCD neat. Shoes in proper order, beds made within five minutes of getting up, dishes washed, dried, and put up immediately after a meal. I could go on, but the funny thing is that despite knowing how she was, John went on doing what he wanted, “messing up” his house. I always wondered if what he did was just him, or some subconscious method of insuring that marriage with my mother, despite what he said, would never happen.

“You know, Bud,” he said to me once, “your mother is mighty particular.”

Oh yes, for who else would demand her own vomit be cleaned up while she is undergoing a heart attack?

Eventually, John bought another house in the same area and on the same street where my mother lives. My mother is a stubborn woman, and so once again, she helped John “fix up” his new home. And once again, just months after he moved in and staged an open house to show it off, my mother began complaining:

“I just wish you could see that house! All that work I did and for what? For nothing! He leaves stuff where he found it and never throws anything away. He’s just a pack rat!”

This coming from a woman who eventually throws everything away: my jerseys, my old comic books, my old journals, and if I let myself, I might remember other things I can’t find and don’t know what happened to. So it came to this: an OCD woman just couldn’t marry an extremely relaxed man. Still, my mother put her refusal to marry in her own inimitable way: “I just decided that I didn’t want to wash another old man’s dirty underwear.”

What could anyone, especially her son, say to that?

•••

Though my mother and John never married, they remained close friends, and Mom reported their adventures together. She even dragged him to see her favorite rock band, Chicago, once. When I’d come to town, she’d have John over for supper, and we’d both relish her roast beef, new potatoes, fresh lima beans, and creamed corn. Often, on the day I’d be leaving for home, John would drop by to say so long. More often, he’d give me a card, and in that card would be a twenty-dollar bill.

“That’s to get you a Coca-Cola on the way home,” he’d say.

As if Cokes cost twenty dollars. As if he were my dad or something.

•••

Last month I went back to Bessemer.

John was dying.

I thought about so many things as I drove, but the one thought I couldn’t put down occurred the previous summer when I was there: when John wanted to take me to a hamburger joint for lunch, just him and me. But I was too busy. I had overcommitted myself with other friends. At the time I knew I would live to regret turning him down, so why didn’t I do anything about it?

That following fall I called John to tell him I’d be coming down for a visit and that I wanted to take him out.

“Okay, Bud,” he said. John was never much for phone calls, especially from other men who were trying to take care of him, who were making him feel too much of what he had become: dependent.

Mom and I did take him to The Bright Star on that visit. He ate well—this time, the liver and onions—but in many ways it was a futile endeavor. His cancer was too far-gone, and he had chosen not to undergo surgery. He was eighty-eight years old, and people that age, surely, should get to choose how they approach their end. I remember how thin he’d gotten, this former lineman for the city. He still had his friendly manner, but it didn’t take a genius to tell that he was slowly moving on.

And so he did this summer, June tenth.

Mom and I went to visit him that day. His daughter Sallie had brought him to her house where she, her husband Noah, their children and grandchildren, and even John’s beloved J.V. could be near. Sallie recounted on that day a memory from her childhood: how her daddy would carry her on his shoulders to the Highland Bakery on summer nights after he got off work.

“I’d be in my nighties, ready for bed, but he’d walk us the two blocks to get ice cream. Cherry Vanilla or Lemon, my favorites. It’s just so hard. I’m gonna miss him so.”

That’s the way it is with people we love. Our fathers, and even those who never quite were, but could have been, and whom we loved anyway.

As I did with my own father on his deathbed, I told Sallie to speak to John. To tell him that he had been a good father and that it was okay to go now. I watched her lean into him and speak those very words.

She called a few hours later to say he was gone.

I couldn’t be at the funeral, but I heard that hundreds of his friends and family attended. A fire truck—he so loved fire trucks—led the procession to the cemetery, and there everyone gathered to honor this very gentle, very Southern man.

In his will, he left my mother one hundred dollars.

“Just a little Coca-Cola money,” he wrote.

•••

TERRY BARR is the author of the essay collection, Don’t Date Baptists and Other Warnings From My Alabama Mother. His work has appeared in South Writ Large, Steel Toe Review, Eclectica Magazine, Blue Lyra Review, The Bitter Southerner, The Dead Mule School of Southern Lit, and of course, Full Grown People. He lives in Greenville, SC, with his family.

 

Read more FGP essays by Terry Barr.

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Stranger Interlude

our country
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Terry Barr

I watched this man take off his hat. It was one of those worker’s caps like the one in that old photo of Allen Ginsberg’s mother, Naomi, back in the twenties.

Before he took off the cap, the hair sticking out on both sides suggested a younger man. It was rich and lush and very black. But once he doffed it, I could see the dye-line, the gray eking out in the spots that he missed. He was completely bald on top, too. Something wasn’t right, but I couldn’t make myself look away fast enough.

“Terry?”

His companion. She stared as if affronted that I hadn’t spoken first—that I hadn’t recognized her.

“Who’s that, Daddy?”

I was at supper with my four-year-old daughter, Pari. Her sister had just been born the day before, and I was trying to show Pari that she was still special to me, that she would always be my first love. I had let her order a chocolate milkshake for supper at this upscale Greek diner along with a funny-face waffle, an indulgence that I hoped her mother would never discover.

“Just someone I know from our Amnesty group, sweetie.”

“Oh. What’s her name?”

“Cathy, I think.”

“Oh.” She wisely returned to her waffle.

However, Cathy’s relentless stare kept burning into me, and so unwisely I spoke.

“Hi Cathy. How are you?”

“Oh, I’m fine. Terry, this is my friend.”

And maybe she did say his name, and maybe it was Marvin. In any case, Marvin turned to me. He wore heavy, black-rimmed glasses, a yellow Polo shirt, and green hiking shorts. He straddled his chair, his hairy legs protruding from either side. They were the sort of legs one sees on short, but active Jewish men, like my cousin Arnold’s son, Donald: legs that are muscular, compressed, and slightly bowed. Legs used to supporting a thickish frame. Legs that I thought could transport their bearer quickly and with ease in case of trouble.

“So, how do you two know each other?” he asked Cathy, as if there were something between us, something suspicious in the air. Which, of course, there was.

“Oh, Terry and I are members of our local Amnesty International group.”

“Amnesty International?” He turned to me then. “Tell me about that. I’m all ears!”

And he was, though if I stared at his ears, I’d just keep noticing that dye-line: the one separating hair that was too dark from the natural more salt-than-pepper color. Hair highlighted by his pale bronze dome.

“You’ve never heard of Amnesty International?”

I wondered even then why I was about to go on talking to the strange friend of a woman I barely knew, a woman I wanted to know less of. Besides, this was supposed to be a special night with my beloved first daughter who, at this point, was slurping the bottom of her chocolate shake.

“No, I haven’t, so please tell me more. I’m really curious about that name, Amnesty, and what it refers to.”

I explained as briefly as possible about prisoners of conscience; about letter-writing appeals; about volunteers and human rights abuses. Who can say what he heard or didn’t hear; what impacted him or bored him? But what I said next truly did penetrate those ears.

“We work for prisoners all over the world, though by policy, we aren’t allowed to write appeals for prisoners in our own country. That’s because in some countries, the letter writer might then be arrested and thrown into prison or maybe even killed, so we want to ensure that the writer is safe. The only exception to that rule is in death penalty cases; there, you can write about prisoners in your own country. The U.S. has plenty of these cases.”

“Wait a minute. You mean that you aren’t free to protest prisoners in the U.S?”

“Right. As I said, it’s a general rule put in place especially to protect those in other countries who don’t have the same freedoms that we do. Plus, we wouldn’t want to single out a country that has more freedom and make it an exception to the policy.”

I thought I had explained this procedure pretty well. I thought that now I might be able to return to my daughter and our night together. We were heading back to the hospital soon, and visiting hours were growing short. I missed my wife and wanted to see our new baby, Layla.

“Not as free as we are? What makes you think that we’re free?”

I think now of all the things I could have said, “So long, buddy” being foremost. But, of course, feeling the need to defend our nation’s list of Rights and Freedoms, I kept talking: the Right to Free Speech; to Assemble; to keep a Free Press. The Right to eat peacefully in a Greek diner with your daughter without being interrupted by a shady-looking associate and her even shadier-looking partner, a stranger to you.

But this last right was being so easily violated by the pair that it just proved his point.

I looked over at Cathy then, and I remembered what I knew about her, reported to me by my wife who served on one of Amnesty’s subcommittees, the committee on Women’s Rights.

“She’s a member of BirthRight,” my wife said.

“What’s that?”

“A group that works for the rights of ‘the unborn.’”

Cathy had advocated that the subcommittee get BirthRight to endorse their work and be listed as a sponsor for an upcoming event. The subcommittee respectfully declined. Amnesty, despite appearances, refuses all political monikers and manifestos. Being non-political has allowed Amnesty to exist in places that other activist groups can’t. But to be completely honest, virtually everyone in our group was active in other political organizations: the ACLU, the Democratic Party, the Sierra Club. And no one I knew in our group, except Cathy, wanted to work against abortion rights, though if someone were imprisoned simply for speaking out against abortion, we would theoretically work for their release.

To my knowledge, Amnesty doesn’t consider a fetus to be a person. Actually, that’s not exactly true. Amnesty just takes no stand on this issue. But it does question and work against gender-directed abuses around the world—for instance, those who are victims of forced female genital mutilation or of rape and assault by governmental forces. Violations that are not anyone’s choice.

But now Cathy and Marvin were waiting on my response about freedom in our country, and all I could think about was BirthRight. And abortion, and where all of this was leading.

•••

Once, I got a girl pregnant. We hadn’t been dating long, but I knew that she was into me, maybe because once, she confessed that I was “the best thing that ever happened to her” since she’d started her graduate school program the previous fall. So much for what she got out of that Yeats seminar we had.

Of course she wasn’t on the pill. Is it worse that I asked first? That when she said, “No, I’m not,” but then didn’t request that I “be careful,” explosions didn’t erupt in my head?

In other words, we knew what we were doing in that very special way that really means we didn’t.

I didn’t love her; I barely even knew her. In fact, on my way to pick her up for our first date on a clear October night, driving down Kingston Pike, Knoxville’s busiest strip, past the Bearden Bowling Alley and the Half Shell Oyster House, I knew that I didn’t want to be going out on this date. Going out with her. I should have turned around then.

But of course, I didn’t. I have no idea why I asked her out now, and I’m pretty sure I didn’t know then, either. We had sex exactly twice.

Even when her phone call woke me at my parents’ house on a mid-December morning, the first morning of my semester break, I didn’t flinch. Much.

“So, what do you want to do?” I asked.

“I’m getting an abortion. But I need three hundred dollars. Can you help me?”

And so I went to my bank, withdrew the money from my savings account, wondering now what I was going to use to buy Christmas presents for my family, and mailed a money order to her.

Three days later, she had the abortion. She didn’t ask me to be there, and I didn’t offer. Her roommate went with her, I found out later. I saw her once more, when she gave me fifty dollars to help me pay my rent. A few months later, she was dating one of my grad school buddies. I had no regrets about that or how we ended.

For us, the abortion was the right thing to do because our lives together shouldn’t have started or continued with that sort of mistake. I’m sorry we were so stupid. I’m sorry she faced the procedure alone. I’m glad we had the right to do what we did, and I really don’t wonder what our child would have been like.

More than anything, I shudder to think of what would have happened to all of us had we decided to have the baby.

I do feel many emotions as I picture this time of my life, some thirty years ago now. But even after all that time, the feeling that lays strongest inside me is relief.

•••

I’m a little slow about becoming aware of those funny feelings that we all get. Or maybe it’s just that when I get them, I’m too slow to respond.

So as I stared at Marvin’s bald head, fringed with unrealistic hair, I realized that more than his hair was off. I know now that while Pari was finishing her funny face, I should have been calling for our check.

Instead, I looked at this strange fellow and asked, “Don’t you think we have more freedom than, say, people in Uganda, or Iran, or North Korea?”

“Don’t you think,” Marvin sneered, “that our government is watching us all the time, monitoring our phone calls, keeping tabs on what we watch, where we shop? What do you think all those cloudy tracks in the sky are?”

I remembered to breathe just then, and a new truth hit me.

“So, what do you do?”

“You don’t really want to know what I do.”

And in a sense, he was right. Ten minutes earlier, I couldn’t have cared less. Fifteen minutes earlier, he and his crazy legs didn’t exist.

If only we could abort certain scenes.

“Daddy, I’m finished.”

“Okay, sweetie.”

But I couldn’t stop now. It’s funny the challenges we choose to accept.

“No, go ahead and tell me what you do. I’m really interested.”

“Well, while people like you are out playing golf every day, people like me are working for something bigger.”

Now, I had taken two semesters of golf back in college, mainly to keep myself out of activities like tennis that would cause excess sweat and would necessitate a mid-day shower.

“Golf? That’s what you think I do?”

It’s strange what all can get in your way when you should be relating to your daughter, when you should be holding your other newborn daughter. Today, I’d avoid this scene like I would unsafe sex. In fact, just last night when I was sitting on a park bench outside my hotel—the Hyatt Regency—in downtown Louisville, a man scrambled to the bench across from me. He was smoking the butt of a cigarette. I had my IPod in, Wilco singing about “The Ashes of American Flags.” I knew immediately that this guy was off. I had seen him earlier at my lunch break; his eyes had the unfocused look of pure madness. And he was shaking. It was seven in the evening, temperature in the low eighties. I let the song finish, and as casually as I could, I left my bench for safer ground.

But with Marvin?

“No, man. I don’t play golf. I’m a teacher. And you don’t know anything about me,” I said.

“Well, if you must know, I’m part of the Patriot movement. We’re changing this country. Taking it back.”

I stared for a beat. I had heard of such “movements,” mainly from my Southern Poverty Law Center pamphlets like Human Rights Watch. And Klanwatch. Back then, in the mid-nineties, these movements were mainly underground.

What do any of us think of when we hear the word “patriot?” Nathan Hale? Sam Adams? The three-cornered hatted, three-point-stanced character who used to adorn the helmets of the former New England football team when they called themselves the Boston Patriots?

Then, “patriots” were showing up in places like Oklahoma City, Ruby Ridge, Waco. Two years later, one would set off a bomb at Atlanta’s Centennial Park. Another, or actually the same guy, would bomb a women’s clinic in Birmingham, my hometown.

And in my current home of Greenville, South Carolina, a four-year-old boy would get arrested for blocking the entrance to yet another women’s clinic. He was our neighbor, and now he’d have a criminal record. On the news that night, his mother would refer to him as a “hero…a real patriot.”

I wondered then about our definitions, our stances, the people we meet. This same mother once called me over as my wife and daughter and I were out walking. She wanted us to meet her mother, a grinning gargoyle of an old woman who was climbing out of a minivan and wearing an oversized t-shirt.

On that shirt was the silkscreened image of an aborted fetus, about three times the size it would have been. Below the image, the caption proclaimed, “This one might have been yours.”

We couldn’t escape fast enough.

I hope my daughter doesn’t remember that scene, as I do, although I realize, of course, that now she very well might.

•••

The waitress brought our check. I gathered my little girl up, looked back at Cathy and Marvin, and said, “Nice talking to you.”

I’ve always had such good manners.

I don’t remember what—if anything—they said, and I don’t care. I’m thankful that I never saw either of them again, although every time I get an edition of Klanwatch, I scan it looking for news, for the people I barely know. And I’m even more thankful for the freedom to associate with or to avoid whomever I want.

•••

TERRY BARR’s essays have appeared widely in such publications as Graze, Compose, Under the Sun, Tell As a Story, Sport Literate, Four Ties Lit Review, and Purple Pig Lit. This is his second essay for Full Grown People, a site his creative writing students at Presbyterian College read every week. He lives in Greenville, South Carolina, with his wife and daughters, both of whom are fine, compassionate young women.

We Know Where You Live

shadowman
By srqpix/ Flickr

By Terry Barr

The blinking red light of the phone machine, as usual, unnerves me. Why do I always think that somehow this will be the message that changes my life? It’s all I can do to walk past it, even though I’m holding my baby daughter Pari, even though I need to put her down gently to keep her warm and asleep. Still thinking of that machine, I wait a beat, two. Her breathing is normal, calm. Exhaling now, I walk back to my machine, abandoning my wife Nilly who, as usual, wants to glow in our daughter’s sleep.

There are two messages flashing at me, actually. The first is mainly silence until the very end when I hear “TERRY BARR” in a voice attempting to speak its authority. The message ends there.

The next one begins.

I am standing alone in our living room looking out of the broad picture window at our quiet, connector street. It’s getting late on this Saturday night, ten days before Christmas. Nilly hasn’t emerged yet from Pari’s bedroom, which rests at the back of the house, far from the living room where I stand, and I thank God for that now.

When I hear it, I freeze until the message runs out. I look back towards my daughter’s room. Has Nilly heard? But there is nothing stirring back there, no “Oh my God,” and no footsteps approaching with worry and fear. So it’s only me. Me and my machine.

And those words.

Before I can think this through, I do the one thing that in the light of day I’ll most regret: I hit the erase button. But I want to make this disappear. I want to throw my machine like a discus out into the night. I want to wake up again on Saturday morning for a do-over. I want never to have heard what I heard, and more than anything else, I want to be sure that neither my wife nor our daughter has heard it. Or ever will hear it.

And it’s only in this last desire that I succeed.

•••

We had been to two Christmas parties that night. The first was an Amnesty International gathering celebrating our recent success in our Holiday Card Action campaign. We’d succeeded in sending over one hundred greeting cards to prisoners of conscience all over the world that morning as we took to the main street of our downtown. Stationing ourselves at a cross street with heavy shopping traffic, we would gently accost perfect strangers who’d sometimes smile and sometimes sneer at us as we ask them to send a message of hope to a prisoner of conscience of their choice. We have twenty-five to thirty different prisoners to work for—men and women who have been bound and held in a prison in some remote part of the world for exercising their human right to speak their beliefs, wear what they want, or support some loved one who has run afoul politically of a governmental tyrant.

Mixed in, too, and usually the hardest to get people to sign for, are the death penalty cases. Amnesty unconditionally opposes the death penalty in all circumstances. Sometimes our card-signers want to debate the issue with us. These debates usually get nowhere, and I often refuse to engage because who knows what this other person has experienced? My strong beliefs are my own, and I keep telling myself that I’m not threatening or challenging anyone else’s, or if I am, I’m doing so respectfully. Beliefs can’t hurt, right? I’m aware of the irony here that if I truly think that beliefs can’t hurt, I won’t fully get what Amnesty’s prisoners are suffering.

Still, it turned out to be a good day despite these moments of doubt and conflict. Over a hundred messages of hope that we hope will reach our prisoners. Maybe it’s true that Christmas does bring out “goodwill toward men.”

At our party this night, everyone is in high spirits. We toast each other for our success; we toast those who signed our cards. We toast our prisoners and hope that next year they’ll be free. And we toast the founders of Amnesty, two British students who wanted to change the world, or at least show the hopeless that someone cares.

Our Amnesty group is a diverse lot: teachers, students, lawyers, social workers, and psychologists. Our group leader is a British astronomer, one of the smartest men I’ve ever known. A man, in his sixties, who still likes to climb a good tree.

We eat our potluck supper, raise our glasses one more time, and then the three of us—Nilly, Pari, and me thriving on all the attention—head off to our next gathering, which is a party for the staff of our weekly alternative newspaper. I’ve been writing film and local theatre reviews over the past year, trying to hone my skills and give voice to whatever arts scene our town has.

The party is held at a duplex in an older part of town. As we enter its arched doorway and I see peeling paint on the inner hall walls, I’m reminded of all those grad school parties I attended not so many years ago. Our host, a guy wearing a silken robe and an ascot over what might be flannel pajamas, leads us to a side porch where a pumped up keg awaits. Strings of mismatched Christmas lights are draped haphazardly from room to room, greeting us everywhere we turn, but saying what?

Pari is sneezing at the party’s cigarette smoke. I barely know the paper’s editor—and he’s the only person I know here—but he’s nowhere to be found at first. Soon I see him and another boy his age tumbling out of the bathroom.

“Hey Terry,” he says, before his momentum, or his friend’s weight, pushes him out the door onto the porch.

“Are we about ready to leave,” Nilly asks. She gives me that look, but it isn’t necessary. Not at all.

I love this paper and am glad it gives no restrictions on what I write about and say. No word count; no demand to simply recount the plot and give a thumbs up or down. There is a star system, though, and for my latest review, I gave Spike Lee’s X four and a half stars out of five. I thought Lee’s ability to capture the complexity of Malcolm in just under three hours was a feat itself worthy of high praise. I appreciated his courage and tenacity. His audacity. And my review said so.

As we drive home, I’m thinking that even though we stayed at this party for barely half an hour, it was worth it to mingle with people who, even in our small town, aspire to a more bohemian lifestyle. In fact, the whole evening for me has been warm and cheerful—an evening surrounded by friends and people who love each other. While I’m not a Christian any more, this time of year is still—and I know of no other word for it—so joyous.

Or so I believe until we get home. Until we walk in the front door and I see that red blinking light. Until I press the “play message” button.

Until I hear his voice.

•••

The next morning I walk across the street to my neighbor’s house. Steve’s a police detective, and he agrees to come over and talk to us. After greeting Nilly, he gets right to the point.

“Why did you erase that message?”

“I don’t know. I just reacted. I didn’t want anyone else to hear.”

“What exactly did it say again?”

“Well, it began with: ‘Terry Barr!!! We know who you are and where you live! We’re watching you!’”

That was bad enough.

“Have you had any other messages like this?”

And then I remember the other late night calls, the ones asking: “Is this Mark, the Art professor at Clinton College?” The same college that employs me.

“He doesn’t live here,” I answer, but the caller hangs up before I can ask “Why do you think he lives with me,” or more importantly, “Just who the hell are you anyway?”

“All I can tell you to do,” Steve says, “is to save any other messages you get, and put call-tracing on your phone. We need to build a case file and collect evidence.”

I must still be in shock. Will this work? Will I even want to answer the phone again? Still, we purchase call tracing, the phone calls stop.

In their place, packages begin arriving. Round, white packages unlike any I’ve ever received. They come from The Bradford Exchange and other such “collectible” outlets. Commemorative plates and coins: things you see advertised in popular magazines or on late-night TV. Places with 800-numbers that don’t ask questions and don’t demand credit cards. Places that allow the “Bill Me Later” option.

Over the next few weeks, we receive BassMaster equipment, Columbia House LPs usually containing the latest from Brooks and Dunn or Toby Keith—musicians I’d never intentionally listen to. We get subscriptions to Rolling Stone, Field and Stream.

Penthouse.

“I’ve never seen a Penthouse,” Nilly says.

When we see him, we ask the postman what we should do with this stuff.

“You didn’t order it, did you?”

“No.”

“Well, it’s all yours then. They can’t do anything to you!”

So we return what we can, refuse what we’ll never want.

And then the first Hustler arrives. We’re anxious now, and ashamed of the pornography, of the violation, of someone we don’t know imagining us holding such a magazine.

I call their 800-number to cancel any other Hustlers and strangely, miraculously, they’ve saved the order card. They mail it to me, and I see the writing for the first time. A hand not only not my own, but a form of printing that I’d characterize as coming from someone who isn’t comfortable holding a pen, someone who stopped paying attention to anything scholastic around the sixth grade.

Next comes an afternoon call from a representative trying to confirm the “escort” I’ve ordered for that evening:

“I have the request right here on my phone tape, though I have to say that the voice really doesn’t sound like yours.”

“Could you play it for me?”

He does. It’s familiar, I think, the same voice: deep, smug, satisfied with itself but in a southern dialect not even remotely close to mine.

I’m from the South, have lived in this region all my life, from Alabama to Tennessee and now here in South Carolina. When I travel to New York or Boston, people there recognize my southern accent immediately. But down here, there are people who believe I’m from New York. Maybe it’s my training in music and theatre back in high school. Maybe it’s that while my mother drawls with the best of them, my father, also a native southerner, has a different slant. A Jewish slant. An accent that seems to defy a specific region.

All I know is that the voice on that tape is truly and defiantly southern. And not “city Southern” either:

“Mah name is Turry Bawhr, an’ I’ed lahke an es Cort for toonaght at sebm.”

He gives our address, and then, in an even more smug tone, he signs off with a “Thaink yew vera much!”

I ask, and in a compliant and law-abiding way, the escort service turns the taped message over to the police. And then, the calls start coming again. Always late at night; always asking for “Mark.” We trace these, turn them over to our investigator. Months have passed since the initial disturbing call, and we have collected diecast cars and random cologne samples and Playboys and US magazines. And more BassMaster stuff. I can’t begin to describe all that we got, all that subsequently made up our massive yard sales.

The police have enough evidence now to confront our harasser. He hasn’t actually committed a crime, but they think they can at least scare him, intimidate him. Make him stop. And just as they’re ready to do so, we put it together, or at least together enough to see how this started, to understand what set him off.

I had asked Nilly before if she remembered any crank calls, anything suspicious, even anything that seemed innocent. It’s usually the thing you’ve forgotten, the thing you say to yourself, “It just couldn’t be.”

“You know,” she says, “there was this time when I got a call asking if you were the same Terry Barr who reviewed movies. I said ‘yes,’ but that he’d have to call back to speak to you. He was polite and thanked me.”

“But he never called back.”

“No, he never called back…Why did I tell him who you were?”

“It’s okay. You couldn’t have known.”

A few days later, our investigator checks in. He and another officer paid our caller a visit. They told him they knew what he was doing and that if he didn’t stop, we might press charges. He never actually denied anything, but he didn’t admit his guilt either.

“We warned him pretty good. You should know, though, that he’s in his late thirties and still lives with his parents. And, of course, he has a record.”

“For what?”

“Indecent exposure.”

They even tell me his name, and later, I look him up and find out where he lives—an area of town notorious for its less-than-progressive thinking, though of course I’m just stereotyping now. It does my soul—so committed to human rights—no good to know the truth behind every stereotype, or to be right in my stereotyping. Is it good to know who this man is, though? Can knowing bring peace?

“Well, that’s all we can do for now,” our investigator says. “Let’s hope he doesn’t bother you again.”

I understand. I’ve watched enough episodes of Law and Order in my life to get it. To get that the best we can do is to change and unlist our phone number, and so we do. The phone calls stop, but the packages still come.

A year or so later, after our second daughter is born, we move to a larger house in a different zip code. The packages stop then, and after a few months, I finally get out of the habit of looking out our window at night when random cars come driving by.

It’s obvious, too obvious to say—though I will anyway—that though I erased that tape, I can’t erase its memory, its message. I can’t erase the fear or the harassment of those many nights in our young life.

I did tell Nilly, as well as the police, what the voice on that tape said. But thankfully, neither Nilly nor Pari ever had to hear that voice, so if they have any memory of that night or that time, at least it won’t be what I remember. At least I protected them from that. And if I did put them at risk by liking Spike Lee’s X, or erasing a hate-filled tape, I’m as sorry as I can be, as I’ve ever been. We didn’t deserve this; of course we didn’t. But then, does anybody?

“Terry Barr!!! We know who you are and where you live! We’re watching you! Remember. WE KNOW WHERE YOU LIVE! SIEG HEIL, SIEG HEIL, SIEG HEIL!”

•••

TERRY BARR is a regular contributor to culturemass.com and has had essays published or forthcoming in such journals as The Museum of Americana, Hamilton Stone Literary Review, Fat City Review, Sport Literate, and Melange Press. He lives with his wife and two daughters in Greenville, South Carolina.