Although we had lain awake at night and speculated about who would be our next dad, Danny and I knew the chances of our favorite winning out were slim. For one, Marlboro Man wasn’t the marrying kind. And the only time he did broach the subject with my mother, she worried about it going against his bachelor-for-life nature. Besides, she liked the spontaneity of their affair. He’d make cameo appearances whisking her out of the apartment for day trips to New Summerfield where they stopped for roadside peaches and picked wildflowers, playing like kids down by a small creek. She’d come back with leaves in her hair all doe-eyed and dreamy. That’s the mother Danny and I were rooting for. And Marlboro Man was the only one who brought it out in her.
But it’d be months in between these romantic excursions and sometimes a year would pass. In the meantime, there were other suitors. The rough-around-the-edges, big talkers and big spenders who wooed Dell Rose, who applauded when she sang and played the guitar, who fawned and fell all over her. In spite of their adoration, she kept her heart under lock and key until the offers of commitment included helping to take care of her two boys.
“Gotta steel plate in mah head, didja know that? From back in ‘Nam,” he said, giving a half grunt half laugh as he reminded us with a finger tap to his forehead. Staring at his receding hairline, I thought I could just make out a rise in the leathery tanned skin where the plate began and where it ended. But like the story of his saving several of the men in his battalion, I wasn’t sure I could believe it.
“Knock-knock,” he grinned, leaning in close enough for me to smell the woodsy Old Spice losing out to the whiskey underneath.
“Who’s there?” I asked, feeling too old for these kind of jokes.
“Steel wish I didn’t have this plate in mah head!” he guffawed, showing his big false teeth.
He was nowhere near as handsome as Malboro Man, but Donny had money. With that fist pumping stampy walk, he looked like a bantam rooster with little patience and a lot to prove, a white George Jefferson. Instead of the dry cleaning business it was a supper club on the outskirts of town not far from where Nanda had begun telling her ominous stories of the big black bird. She didn’t like Donny one bit. Called his business a god-forsaken honkey-tonk and, despite her own binge drinking and chain-smoking, felt it was beneath her daughter to date a man like that. I wouldn’t trust ‘em as far as I could tho ‘em. Hmph! But Lord, bite my tongue. As the good book says, ‘judge not lest ye be judged.’ Mom saw it differently. The "honkey-tonk" was testament to Donny's business acumen and ambition and apparently, business was good. He’d pull into the Tanglewood parking lot in his dove grey Lincoln with leather seats and the kind of headlights that closed like eyelids, going to sleep when he turned off the ignition. Danny and I would spy through the window of our bedroom on the second floor and watch him get out of the car dressed in his starched white shirt, tan Haggar slacks and pewter snakeskin boots. On the one hand, we saw Donny as our ticket out, as a way for us to leave claustrophobic apartment 16 and live in a nicer place, drive a nicer car, wear nicer clothes. On the other, we saw through his chummy affectation and thin kindness as a way to get to our mother. For months he worked at sweeping her off her feet. There were romantic dinners at pricey steakhouses, surprise gifts in small white boxes with red felt ribbon, and dozens of roses delivered to Gibson’s accounting office where mom had just been promoted to office manger.
Danny and I carried on our late-night evaluations of where this might end, whether she’d actually marry him or not. Danny held onto his suspicions from the beginning. I, however, became blinded by thoughts of glamour and glitz. I saw getting my own bedroom with a television and VCR. I saw being dropped off at school in that fancy Lincoln with the plush leather seats. I saw Michael D. and I on wild shopping sprees, buying whatever we wanted at Gibson’s, Dairy Queen, wherever.
Then it happened. In a whirlwind of events, mom and Donny eloped over a three-day weekend and came back married. This meant our leaving Tanglewood and Michael D. But I wasn’t sad. I was too driven by my own greed to think much about it. We were moving. Not just moving, but movin' on up! Donny had a sprawling three-bedroom, two bath house out in the country with a fireplace and something I’d only seen in rich people’s houses on TV—a sunken living room. The red brick house even had the small pillars at the front entrance and a decorative curved brick gate with globed lanterns on either end. For the first time, Danny and I had our very own bedrooms. I remember thinking as I unpacked clothes into my oversized dresser and walk-in closet, that this was going to be the best year ever.
That year I made my theatrical debut in the fifth grade production of The Paper Bag Mystery. I’d been obsessed with the Hardy Boys series the past two summers, so it was a perfect fit. And I even got my first real pet. We’d had fish, birds and hamsters at Tanglewood, but those didn’t count. Someone gave Donny a two-year old white german shepherd mix who we named Sebastian, “Saba” for short. When Western Day arrived at Eastview Elementary that fall, I begged Donny to get me a cowboy hat. Instead of buying me a new one, he showed me his favorite keepsake from his younger days. It was a black felt Stetson. A classic. I swore up and down to take good care of it, promised not to lose it, not to get one speck of dirt on it. I carried it in a large paper bag until I got to school where I put it on and struggled to navigate the hallways because it kept falling down over my eyes. But it didn’t matter. I was wearing the coolest cowboy hat ever. From cafeteria lines to recess, art class to play rehearsal, the borrowed Stetson came through it all unscathed.
Standing in the bus shed after school, I remember feeling excited and special that I was now taking bus No. 5. It had one of the longest routes and took kids far from town where large houses spread out along the sweeping landscape. No apartment kids took bus 5. I’d lean my head against the window staring out at white farm fences and grazing cattle under trees, majestic horses, chestnut brown and shiny coal black, dotted the wide open fields. The second to last stop was mine and I tilted my head back under the brim of my hat until I saw our house. Not an apartment, but a house. We lived in a red brick house. Saba ran the two-hundred feet from the front porch to greet me, leaping and licking for a good five minutes before calming down and roaming off to dig up a favorite cow bone. I held Donny’s Stetson loaner, still in pristine condition, high above my head as I ran to the back door, threw my school books down on the bench, and went inside to watch Star Trek. About half-way through the episode I remembered the hat. I hadn’t taken it inside. My stomach lurched as I scrambled out of the house to find my stack of school books sitting on the bench. But no hat.
I bolted for the front yard and there was Saba, digging a fresh hole under the tall pines, the hat tattered and crumpled in his pink and brown mouth. Happy, proud. I grabbed for the hat and launched into an unwanted tug-of-war until it broke (or rather tore) free. Tears streaming down my face, I swatted the crushed hat at Saba yelling, “Bad dog! Bad dog!” Saba dropped his tail between his legs, lowered his head and wandered off. Then the agonizing wait before my sentencing. As soon as I heard that Lincoln making its way down the gravel drive, I burst into tears again. I was crying so much I had snot running out of my nose and couldn’t speak. But in a surprise show of mercy Donny took pity on me and began cursing at Saba, chasing after him and calling him every bad name under the sun.
On Saturdays I was sometimes allowed to hang out at the supper club while mom helped run the front bar with Donny. I mostly stayed in the back kitchen with R.V., the cook. He had skin the color of black plums and a graying short-cropped afro that was almost all white. R.V. would let me do things like sweep the floors and get pickles out of the fridge or, after pestering him long enough, he’d pick me up and let me flip hamburger patties on the giant flat-top grill. Just about everyone in town knew R.V. If they didn’t know him personally, they knew of his legendary burgers. Now and then I’d sneak into the bar area if there weren’t too many people around and Mom would give me money to put in the jukebox. I loved punching the square plastic buttons and watching the automated mechanics, the purr, click and whoosh before the song began.
Hey, hey, good lookin’,
Whatcha got cookin’?
How’s about cookin’ somethin’ up with me?
Either that or it was Glenn Campbell,
Like a rhinestone cowboy,
Riding out on a horse in a star-spangled rodeo…
Mom would come over, grab my hand and we’d dance through the bar in large dramatic circles, the five or six boozy patrons smiling, clapping or nodding with their cigarettes dangling out of their mouths. Awwww… lookid ‘em go. Ain’t they sweet? Dell, you got a sweetheart of a younger man. I’m gonna have to tell Donny on you. In the middle of a Saturday afternoon the bar would be almost completely dark except for the amber glow of the jukebox and a few dusty Christmas lights strung haphazardly along the back wall. But when the front door opened, a bright flash of sunlight illuminated the place exposing dingy tabletops and chairs, scuffed up linoleum floors and dying smoke rings. The vampires at the barstools turned and squinted their red-rimmed eyes, hissing their voices in a greeting from the crypt.
In this new role as Donny’s supper club wife, Mom took to wearing a silver Farrah Fawcett wig. Nanda loved it, saying Aww, Dell, now that’s cute on you! Where can you get me one? Danny and I weren’t too crazy about it. It wasn’t really mom. To us, she looked like an impostor. In many ways, the fake identity represented all the artifice of our new life with Donny. We must have sensed that we were living on borrowed time, that this marriage wasn’t real.
It began with late-night bickering when Mom and Donny got home from the supper club on weekend nights. I’d lean against Danny's bedroom door to see if he was awake.
“You hear that? What’s going on, what’s happening?”
“SSSSH. Just mind my your own business and get back in bed.” But I could tell by the crack in his voice, he was worried too.
The fights escalated in number and intensity. After the raising of voices and shouting, we’d hear shuffling of furniture or a muffled crash. Years later, Mom confessed to some of the details of abuse. She’d been taken to the ER when Donny had pushed her into the glass coffee table and she needed stitches. She’d also had to replace the birdcage (and bird) after Donny had kicked it off its stand and the bird’s neck got caught in between the bars of the cage. It happened one weekend when I stayed with Nanda and by the time I’d come back home, there was a new cage (and bird) that so closely resembled the old, I never noticed the difference.
Late one night after another argument, Mom came into each of our bedrooms. She flicked on the blinding light and with her voice gusty and short, “OK, boys. Load!” She had a box of large black trash bags under her arm and frantically unrolled one bag for each us. “Take only what you absolutely need. Don’t take anything that was bought with his GOT-damned money!” As scared as I was, the urgency and rush of adrenaline made it feel like staring into an approaching funnel cloud, wanting to stay and watch but knowing you'd better pray and run. I began stuffing all my “valuables” in the trash bag, tossing in a couple of games (“Life” and “Trouble”) and my favorite Converse T-shirt. I wanted to take my new cowboy boots, but Donny had paid for those. I put them in the bag anyway. Then I heard Mom telling Danny, “Meet in the driveway when you’re done and take care of Michael Wayne.” Before we were able to escape through the garage back door, Donny stood blocking our exit.
“Now where the fuck do you think you’re going?!” he snarled.
“Nobody’s gonna treat me and my boys this-a-way. Nobody,” Mom spat out as she stood in front of us, one arm holding us back. Danny bowed up and pushed his way forward. There was a rapid-fire exchange of words before Mom pulled Danny back.
“I’m telling you right now,” Donny warned, jabbing the air with his index finger. “If you leave, you ain’t ever ‘llowed back here. And if I ever see any of you again, I’ll blow yer fuggin’ head off!”
“Well, if you think we’re stayin’ you’ve got another thing comin’,” and Mom led us past Donny and out the back door.
The three of us must have been a sight, each with a black trash bag over our shoulder, mine almost as big as me. I kept waiting to hear Donny start up the Lincoln and come after us. But he didn’t. Mom kept saying, Don’t look back. Go on, just go! We walked to the end of the driveway and started down the black top road into total darkness. We’d gone about a hundred yards before a old Chevy pickup pulled over and we squeezed into the cab, trash bags and all. Mom had called a work friend to come pick us up in the middle of the night.
At school the next day, I remember wondering where we’d be going, where’d we be staying. I had a hard time picturing our living with Nan and Pap. I fantasized about Marlboro Man coming to our rescue. Then I worried if Danny and I would be sent to our Dad’s for a while outside Houston. Before the school day ended, I received a note from the office saying I was to take my regular bus home. That’s strange. Why would I go back there? On the long bus ride home I counted the horses, strong and confident with their glistening coats. I imagined what it’d be like to ride one of them far, fast, and free. When I got off the bus and walked the long drive to the garage entrance, Mom came out to greet me. She had a painted-on smile like nothing had ever happened. She said everything’s back in my room as it should be. Slowly, I walked into my bedroom and saw a perfectly made bed, games returned to their shelves, and clothes neatly folded back into my dresser.
A few weeks later while Donny was at work, Mom called a “team meeting.”
“Boys, this isn’t working out. Know what I’m saying?”
“Yes, M’am. We know."
“I want it to be just us three again. With nobody telling us what to do, nobody raising a hand to any one of us. Unnerstand?”
“You’re right, Mom.”
“You know how hard I’ve tried to make this work, right?”
“If I’m gonna do this, I’ll need your help. We’ll all need to pull together as a family. Can we do it?”
“Yes, M’am. We can do it,” we mumbled softly.
“Danny, son, I’m gonna need you to help out in a big way. You’ve got to be the man of the house, now. Can you do that for me? For us?”
“Yes, Momma. I can help.”
And so we left.
Danny had just made the varsity football team but he quit after his first game and got a job delivering furniture. After staying a few weeks with a friend of Mom’s, we were living back at Tanglewood. But it wasn’t the same. Ole McCarley had retired and left the Exxon Station. Gibson’s was going out of business leaving Mom to look for a new job. And Michael D’s family had moved out of the sagging Victorian next door for a smaller A-framed house in the country not far from where we had been living with Donny.
Empty and looking even more forlorn than before, the Ewells' house sat with a homemade “For Rent” sign stuck awkwardly at the end of their driveway. I stood there a long time staring at the leaning sign and wondered when I’d see Michael D. again. Then I kicked up a few stones from the drive and wandered back home.