My Aunt Lulu, my daddy's sister, told me a story about our family's history and how we had ended up in Oklahoma. I think she waited until I was twelve thinking that I was old enough to make some kind of sense out of a story that really didn't make much sense to begin with.
My Aunt Lulu was a potato shaped woman with long, gray hair worn piled atop her head and with piercing brown eyes which were magnified by the oversized glasses she wore. At the the time she told the story, she had already outlived two husbands and was managing a large farm by herself. She had two daughters, one named Estelle who was extremely beautiful and a very talented singer. She had been sent away to study with a voice teacher in St. Louis. The other daughter named Muriel was as common as dirt. She was, however, good hearted and much admired.
We were sitting on Aunt Lu's porch drinking sweet tea. I had walked the distance to her farm to sit with her because I liked to listen to her talk about the old days. She liked me too. My daddy was her baby brother, and her affection for him carried over to me and Thurman.
She lit up a corncob pipe and stuck it in her mouth before she started talking, "My daddy and some friends and couple of cousins used to run a still in the woody hills of Arkansas. They made good money doing it. Some of the other shiners were jealous of them. One day this ne'er do well named Lot Jones shows up at their still with this girl riding on the back of his mule. He pulls my Uncle Juicy off to the side and tells my uncle that he got this girl convinced he'd gonna marry her, but he ain't really. He says that if they give him some money and pretend to beat him up, he'll leave her with them and they could have their way with the girl. The girl was running away with him as her folks were dirt poor and had no use for her."
I asked Aunt Lu, "Was the girl pretty?"
She sat back in her chair and took a long, slow pull off the pipe releasing the smoke slowly so that he crawled across her face before it vanished into the air above her head, "I reckon that you could say that she was. She was young though. A victim of the times, I guess. People in them parts didn't have much money. They still hadn't recovered from the upheaval brought about by the War of Northern Aggression. She didn't have no future where she was. So, she just up and took off."
"What did they do to her?"
"Well, I guess you can say they took advantage of her. But not my Pa. He says that he tried to stop them, but a couple of them were too liquored up to listen, so he left in disgust. They pretended to beat up her beau, gave him some money, and he left. She later went to live with one of the men there who took pity on her and took her home with him."
"What do you mean took advantage?"
"Some of them, I won't say who, did things like a man does to a woman. I'll let your daddy fill you in on what that means. Anyways, they all got in trouble cause the girl starts telling everyone that them men killed her beau and had their way with her. They arrested my daddy. Some stupid people started talking and saying things like the girl was actually one of our kinfolks to begin with and that she was really a Wilson child. Things got really ugly with half the people in those parts taking up for her family and half of them taking up with ours."
"Well, they let them men go cause they never found no body to prove that anybody'd been killed. And they didn't believe the girl cause she wasn't very educated and had ran away in the first place. Some folks in those parts still say that my Mama's daddy paid the jury off."
"Is that what happened?"
"Naw. Not that he probably wouldn't done it if he'd had to, but he told me himself that he never done it, and I believed him. He told me that a few of them other shiners had heard about the story and put that girl up to the whole thing. He said that only one of my daddy's friends had even bothered with her. Then she showed up at the trial in a brand new coat, so we all knew she'd gotten some money from somewheres."
"So, why did Grandpa up and leave everthing he had behind?"
Aunt Lu drifted back through the mists of time for a moment before she answered, "Figured it was better that way I guess. Them was the times of blood feuds and stuff. All I knowed that before that happen my daddy was a very gentle man and the kindest man I ever knew. The trial changed him, made him bitter. That stuff they always say about my daddy handling rattlesnakes in church and forcing your daddy to talk in tongues never really happened. Daddy got into religion to keep from having to kill people over blood wrongs. It cracked him, I'll admit to that much, and he was mean to your pa too."
"What happened to his farms? Pa always said his dad had two good farms and a sawmill back there."
She rocked forward and took her pipe from out of her mouth and held it out in front of her as she spoke, "That's where it really gets ugly. You know that your pa has two brothers right? Well, they see a chance to grab up Daddy's farms, so they turn their back on him and start spreading stories on how it was him who killed Lot Jones. They said he hit him with a big rock and knocked his brains out and then burned the body. I think that's was what pushed Daddy over the edge. We left out of there with him, mama, me, your aunt Nancy, and your daddy. A lot of Daddy's folks had already moved out to Oklahoma, so we headed there. My two brothers stayed and fought over the land. Daddy just left it for them to fight over, and my mama never spoke to them boys ever again."
"What happened? Who won the fight?"
"Neither of 'em. The greed got into their blood and ended up killing them both. We settled in Oklahoma and set down new roots. Mama died right after and daddy went blind few years later. Your Aunt Nancy took care of Daddy till he passed."
I was confused by the story and told her so, "Papa ain't never said a kind word about his pa. I just guessed it was what makes Daddy so mean to us boys and to Mama."
Aunt Lulu leaned back and relit her pipe, "Well, my Daddy was mean for a long while after, not to me and Nanny, but just to your pa. I think he took out what them other boys did to him on your daddy. But after he went blind, he quit going to church and mellowed out a lot. He tried hard to make up with your daddy, but it was too late. I do wish you could have known your grandpa in his later years. All of his experiences had made him uncommonly wise. It might have helped you and Thurman to have known him. I remember nodding when she said it, thinking hell, anybody with a kind word could have Thurman and me back then.
Mr. Robert Jenks of Concord, California by way of Salina, Oklahoma was run over crossing a street by a drunken kid driving a car that he had stolen to impress a silly young girl. He had been married less than three months. He and Martha had just put money down on a new home. She took his death pretty hard. It was his death that caused me to remember the conversation with my Aunt Lulu.
Thurman and I had grown to love Mr. Jenks and to regard him as something of the grandfather figure that we had never known. I had so many images of him standing at our kitchen stove waving a spatula in his hand, frying bacon and talking about some strange religious idea while trying to settle and argument between me and Thurman. He had a way for reconciling our differences and making us appreciate each other's point of view.
Martha divided up his library, his pride and joy, between Thurman and me. Thurman go the biographies and the history books, and I took the books on religion, myth, and literature. Martha kept his record collection. We helped her move into her new house, and she insisted that we come eat breakfast her several times a week. She wasn't as learned as Mr. Jenks, but her heart was as big as Texas and as soft as a feather pillow. So, even though we had lost one thing, we had gained another. And she had a sister and a brother who became like our own folks too.
Mr. Jenks had gone across the street to fetch some mail from the mailboxes on the other side. The girl that the boy was trying to impress lived in the shacks on the other side of the road from the market where I was working at the time. I had gone outside to sweep just in time to hear her and her friend giggling as the boy in the car pulled up to the stop sign at the corner and to hear the squealing tires. I shook my head at their silliness just before I looked up to see Mr. Jenks standing in the middle of the road.
The boy lost control. I ran across the street praying that I was running in a dream, a nightmare from which I would eventually awake. Mr. Jenks would have told me himself that that much would probably prove true at some point in the future of things.
But it seemed so fucking real at the time.