Wrassling with an Angel
When I finally got out of the service, the Anderson's had retired and sold their store. I had to get a job driving a engine to support my young family. By then, Thurman had opened up his mechanic shop in Bakersfield had moved to live out on the outskirts that city.
I was essentially alone again. I had friends, lots of them, and Martha Jenks became like a second mother to me, only a stronger more vocal, female presence than my actual mother. My mama would never have lifted a hand to me. Martha thought nothing about smacking me with a stirring spoon or fly swatter if she thought the lesson she was teaching me warranted it.
I used to make fun for her by comparing the advice and wisdom that she passed down to me to that of Mr. Jenks. "Martha, I don't think I ever heard Mr. Jenks used the words shit, fuck, and damn in the same sentence."
She was just laugh and act like she was going to hit me with a wooden spoon, "You ain't in school anymore, Billy John. This here's real life and if you need a smack upside the head or a good cussing, who else is gonna give it to you."
We went round and round on the subject of me marrying Jeannie. Martha couldn't understand why I would subject myself to so such trouble. All I could tell her, was that I never so felt so all alone. It was clear that Thurman was moving on with his own life, Uncle Bill and Aunt Lou were gone, and so was Jenksie. And I saw in Jeannie Lazarus, someone who needed me as much as I needed her.
Mr. Jenks had told me and Thurman about this story about a man named Oedipus who had married his own mama by mistake. This made his daughters his own sisters. I tried to reason it out some and the only thing I could come up with was that all them females represented the bigger idea of being a woman, and that when we get married, we are actually tying our own self to the idea of motherhood and that all females are in some way our own sisters. That's about as far as I got.
I told Mr. Jenks that my take on the story was that in our ignorance of things, we deserved what we ended up with. He got kind of mad and answered, "That's a modern understanding on it son. Them Greeks didn't believe in all that moralizing about stuff like that. Them plays simply said, "This is the way things are. Take it or leave it."
His answer struck me kind of deep. I'd often thought about maybe I married Jeannie because I felt that I was guilty about what happened with Guinnie and Stewie and my mama and my daddy. I wondered at times if I believed that I needed to wrassle with a tornado out of that sense of guilt.
At other times, I knew that that was a big bunch of bullshit. Jeannie wasn't always troublesome. Half of the time she was a sweet as Mama was, and she loved our boys.
Driving a Caterpillar wasn't anywhere near the funnest thing I ever did, but it paid the bills and put food on the table. Aunt Lou and Uncle Bill had left the camp and big house to Colton when they died, and he didn't really want it. He sold it me and me and Thurman for a good price and me and Jeannie moved into the big house.
We continued to have our problems and fought an awful lot. We had our two boys in a very short time and were both kind of chafing under the demands of being new parents. I know for a fact, that a lot of my own problems had to do with me coming home from traveling all over Europe and coming back only to settle in the tiny little pile of dirt in the middle of nowhere that was Concord.
I had to believe that much of Jeannie's problems came out of living with her crazy sisters and her even crazier mother. Then when she finally managed to get shed of them, right away she's got two kids and husband made grumpy from the long. boring hours spent guiding a Caterpillar engine around a dirt field.
I didn't make things any better because I would often go play cards to blow off steam and leave Jeannie home minding the kids by herself. We used to go out dancing a lot, or even to the movie shows, but when I offered to hire a babysitter, so that we could get out, she wouldn't have it because she didn't want to leave the kids with anybody else.
One morning, I stood off by the side of my idling Caterpillar smoking on a self-rolled cigarette. It was a gray November day, foggy and cold. The mists rising up out of the ground made it hard to see more than fifteen feet away.
Every time I blew the cigarette smoke out of my mouth, my breath would combine with the mist and make it look like I had a fire going on in my belly. I watched as the boys in the back of the rig ripped open grain sacks and poured the contents into the hoppers.
I felt ashamed because I always stared a bit too long at Blue Daniels as the one-armed man hoisted the sacks using the stump of his left arm to steady the bags on his right shoulder. Blue had lost his arm to a Nazi grenade. When he was drinking, he said it was buried somewhere in France and every now and then he could feel it making French gestures while he slept.
Blue never wanted to talk about it much though and every time the young, dumb ass Billy Hollis tried to draw him out on the subject, the other men in the crew would tell Billy to shut-up. On this day, Billy Hollis got riled up and exploded.
"I'm getting awful tired of all you old, motherfuckers telling me to shush all the time! If I got somethin to say, by Gawd, Imma gonna say it!" There was a brief moment of silence broken only by the sounds of tractors in the distance. Billy was standing more or less in the center of a loose circle of men, and he turned and faced them all in a threatening posture with his fists balled and his arms defiantly bent at his sides.
Then, one by one, we started laughing. It was only chuckles at first, but it kept growing till the guys were all guffawing loudly. Mooney Gomez had to bend over to catch his breath. All the men had been overseas during the war and had seen death and dying and some of them had even killed men. Billy, on the other hand, was a second string half-back on 2-6 football team.
The laughter subsided, and Castor Nichols put a big dot on it by loudly farting in Billy's general direction. Slim Jones then spit a big glob of tobacco juice on the moist ground. Billy slowly put down his fists and slunk away dragging his tail behind him.
The Caterpillar I was driving had once been painted orange but now the paint was old and faded and rusted metal poked through ever where. Two dirty canvas flaps were hung from the side to guide the heat back toward the cockpit to where the glove wearing driver handled the sticks that guided the beast across the field. The constant breathing of the canvas made the machine look somewhat like a asthmatic dragon trying to catch its breath.
"She's near ready to go, Billy John. Hoppers full, and she's loaded up with diesel. We woulda had her ready last night, but it was so foggy I couldn't find the fuckin truck much less drive it."
"Ain't no thing, Slim. I could use the extra time to try and cut this hangover loose."
"You tie one on last night?" Slim questioned. When I grinned and shook my head shyly, Slim asked, "What did Jeannie say about that?" Slim was one of the steady poker players down at the Brunswick, and so was I. Usually he played on Friday nights but had missed last night's game because of church supper his wife had hosted. Him and me talked all the time about all our domestic concerns.
"Well, she weren't happy I can say for certain. She stayed up late and near brained me with a can of peas when I walked in the the door. Only thing that saved me was I turned my head. Lookie here at the scar it made. I pulled up my cap to show the wound over my right eye. "Hell, I traveled all across France, Belgium, and Germany with nary a scar, and in two years with this woman I already broke a rib, got two black eyes, and a broken toe. Now this."
Slim laughed, "You marry a wildcat, Billy John, you bound to get mauled. It's what they do. Her mama was the same xact way. She did jail time for stabbing her ex-husband while he was sleeping."
"Well, Jeannie sure keeps me on my toes, and sides, she's kind of sweet most of the time. At least when we're alone."
Slim laughed again, "When she's alone, you mean." We shook hands and Slim walked back to his service rig and climbed into the cab. I was sad to see him go, I liked Slim, and looked up to him as a kind of a mentor. My own dad had never been a mentor. All he ever did was teach me to afraid of him. Mr. Jenks had done more than a passable job of it, but now he was gone.
Later that evening, I had gone back to the Brunswick. Jeannie had gotten mad over something and taken the kids and scurried over to her sister's house to commiserate with her. In my eyes, her sisters were the most miserable excuses for caterwauling she-bitches in the whole damn universe.
When she stomped out and slammed the door on me, I sat there by myself for a bit and then went and got dressed and headed out the door . I knew it was a risky choice and ripe for potential disaster, but I didn't care. Tell, the truth, Jeannie and her constant complaining was really beginning to get on my nerves. I wasn't supposed to work that day, but Bill Jessup had got thrown in jail, and I'd gotten called out to take his place.
I was four beers in and up fifty dollars when she came walking in the back door of the bar carrying baby Glen on her hip. Her sister Cassie came in behind her carrying little Danny in her arms. Cassie stood by the back wall in front of the gold framed autographed pictures of Hank Williams and Hank Snow, and the look she gave everone in the room made it look like she had swallowed a whole sack of peeled lemons by her damned fool self.
I excused myself from the table and went and took my wife by her waist and walked her out the back door. Jeannie tried to resist, but I was determined, and she had to hurry her feet to keep up with me. Cassie scurried out behind us.
Once we were standing outside in the alley beneath the light of a single street lamp hanging from a crooked telephone pole, we stopped, and I released my grip on her. We stood there in the alley way facing each other like Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. The anger in her eyes was palpable, and our frozen breaths hung in the air between us. It was looking at the frightened eyes of my boys that calmed me down.
"Them boys shouldn't be out here in this cold," I finally stated.
She had never seen me this way, and after looking to her sister for support and finding none, she impulsively spat, "Them boys got a right to know where their daddy goes at night!"
"They're babies, Jeannie. They need to be home in bed and not out standing in the alley behind the Brunswick."
She started to rear up again. She was gonna say, "Just like their daddy." But something in my eyes warned her to not go there. This whole mess was Cassie's doing anyway. Jeannie knew deep down that I was a hard worker and a doting husband and father. She knew I needed to blow off some steam from time to time, but she was jealous of the fact that I seem prefer the company of other men when I did it.
I spoke, "Jeannie, I'm trying my damned best to make this work. I'm new at it, and I suppose I'll get it right sooner rather than later. But, you gotta come to a decision your own damn self. I'll support you in whatever you want to do with your life. I mean it; I will be your bedrock, but don't you ever come walking in a room with the intent on belittling me and trying to shame me in front of my friends. If you do this again, then you can pack your bags and go live with that miserable bitch." I pointed toward Cassie who suddenly looked like a suffocating fish on a dirt bank sucking at air.
To her everlasting credit, Jeannie fought back the urge to become her mother, she stared down deep into my eyes and then slumped her head down and started crying like a little girl. I quickly put my arms around my wife and child.
We stayed locked-up that way for several minutes before I finally muttered, "Go get in the truck, and I'll take you and the boys home. Give me a minute to go get my winnings." I fished around in his pockets and handed her the keys.
As I was collecting my money from the dealer, I saw Billy Hollis sitting at the bar in front of several empty bottles looking my way with a huge grin on his face. When our eyes met, Billy quickly looked away and mumbled something to the kid sitting beside him.
I said my goodbyes to all my friends and meandered over to where Billy was sitting. I leaned in close and told him, "You are a lucky sumbitch, Billy Hollis. Got your whole life ahead of you. You are young, free, and got a job, but you need to listen to your elders a bit more and quit trying so hard to impress them. It makes you look silly. If you really want to impress them men, you need to quit trying so hard."
I gestured to Carlos the bartender to put Billy and his friend's next round on my tab and slowly walked toward the rear door feeling more like a growed man than I had ever felt before.