My sister Susan and I would tumble out of the car when we arrived at our grandparent’s house. We had spent days in the car fighting and playing games on our way to Covington and Memphis. Without seatbelts we couldn’t be held in our place along the long bench seats in the back of the car. Susan and I were always fighting about who was encroaching on whose designated share of the bench seat. All of which was occasionally interrupted with our dad pulling over to the shoulder of the road and whipping his arm over the back of the front seat while I squirmed to avoid being hit. If he was especially angry, he’d pull me out of the car and smack me hard across the face or rear end. He never hit Susan because she was a girl. He had standards to uphold.
Every summer we would pull into the gravel driveway next to my Grandfather Joe’s white Chevy truck. The next few moments were always fraught with anxiety and dread. As my smiling Grandmother Zolette swung open the front door, behind her would crowd Great Grandmother Elsie. She was a small, gnarled woman in a print housedress, support hose, and brown thick-soled shoes. She’d set her Folger’s jar full of tobacco spit in the floor beside her chair and then would lean forward for some sugar. I’d feel the lump of snuff in her lower lip as she pressed her lips against my cheek, leaving a streak of brown spittle on my cheek. I tried not to throw up and didn’t know how I was going to get that off my check. I was too afraid to touch it.
Across the room, Grandfather Joe would rise from his naugahyde recliner. A half-smoked cigar would jut from his lips underneath a nose that belonged in the Guinness Book of World Records. It was a huge whiskey nose that seemed to grow like a massive red fungus on the middle of his face. As he approached, he’d pull the wet, soggy cigar from his lips. Bits of brown wrapper would cling to his lips, but that wasn’t a problem the way Great Grandmother Elsie’s spittle was. He would simply lean toward me and offer a not very embracing hug. The sharp smell of alcohol would break ever so slightly through the aroma of the nickel cigar. As I grabbed him loosely around the waist, my hand would land on his pistol holstered on his hip. It always shocked me because I had rarely been around guns. Wearing a gun made him seem like he had stepped out of a Saturday Matinee Western. My father tells me that my grandfather always carried a gun, even when he was a boy. I guess Convington was just that kind of place.
Grandmother Zolette was a good church woman and didn’t permit alcohol in her home, and Tipton County was a dry county, except under certain odd circumstances. Despite the restrictions, Grandfather Joe always smelled of booze. I never saw him drink, and most of the time, the effects of his drinking were nothing more than long naps in his recliner at home or its twin at Hill’s Furniture Store on the square. He would sleep and the cigar in his hand would drift down to the recliner’s arm where it would melt a black circle. Hill’s Furniture Store was the first furniture store in the county to sell fireproof recliners.
Both Grandmother Zolette and Grandfather Joe were enigmas, more so than our other grandparents who seemed to completely recognizable. Grandmother Zolette would give me subscriptions to the Daily Word and brown ties for presents. Grandfather Joe was rarely around. Typically, he was in one of his pool halls, which were located on the second floor of buildings on the town square. The reason they were located there was that a town ordinance allowed 3.2 beer to be sold on second floors, not first floors. There was a notorious club in the basement on the square because there were no rules about what was sold in a basement.
Grandmother Zolette ran the store because Grandfather Joe was illiterate. He was kicked out of school in the second grade because they thought he was retarded. It was only in his early twenties that he learned he was horribly myopic and all he needed was glasses. That was just before he married my grandmother who was 13 at the time. These stories seemed to underscore that harshness of rural life. I always imagined Covington as uncompromising.
Grandfather Joe’s world centered around the Paradise Club, an illegal gambling casino with rigged games, of which he was part owner, his pool halls, and his two J and Z Laundromats. In this world Grandfather Joe was unrecognizable. Occasionally, his world and mine would intersect, never to my benefit. Every once in a while, when he made deliveries for the store, he’d take me along.
One summer when I was seven or eight years old, Grandfather Joe took me with him on a delivery of some furniture. We drove the washboard back roads to a raw, shotgun shack where a black family lived. They had bought some odd piece of furniture, and my grandfather was delivering it. On the way back Grandfather Joe let me sit in the truck bed. He told me under no uncertain terms do I to stand up. I promised I wouldn’t.
Along the way back, as we rumbled down the rural roads, I saw a hawk overhead. The way it road the air currents, seemed to carry him effortlessly, as he circled the rows of cotton searching for prey, I forget my promise. As if being lifted by the same currents, I stood. I spread my arms out. I tried to soar too.
Seeing me in his rearview mirror Grandfather Joe pulled quickly to the side of the road. In his haste he pulled into the drainage ditch. He climbed out of the truck’s cab and jerked me by the arm out of the bed. As he lost his temper, he took his cigar out of his mouth to yell. He raised his hand, the cigar clamped between two knuckles and swung to slap me. The lit cigar smashed against my eye, but grandfather didn’t seem to notice. I saw him swing his hand by his hip. I flinched. I really thought he might shoot me. What was a gun for, but to shoot people who had broken the law? I had broken his law and was now sure I was dead. Instead, he hit me several times more and pulled me close. I could smell the sharp alcohol and rotting tobacco on his breath. His poorly fitting false teeth clacked. "Don't ever do that again," he whispered. I knew he was making a real threat, and the next time I would be shot dead. I had stepped in Grandfather Joe's Wild West world. Transgressions had deadlier consequences than being sent to your room. Consequences were life or death.
An old truck—it looked a million years old—rattled down the road. Grandfather Joe pushed me into the passenger side of the cab as the truck pulled up beside us. An ancient black man sat behind the wheel and offered to pull us from the ditch. As the old truck pulled in front of us, I saw the fresh carcass of a hog lying on newspaper in the bed. Flies swarmed the bloody meat, the raw violence of the butchering still visible. I had never seen an animal freshly carved up. In Scarsdale, where we lived, our meat came refrigerated, neatly wrapped in white butcher’s paper from Gristedes. I turned my gaze away. It was only a minute or two before we were towed out of ditch, and the man with the butchered pig was on his way.
Grandfather Joe and I drove silently back to town. We never spoke of it again, and I never told anyone. The violence I had experienced on the back roads back outside Covington seemed to unleash an anger of my own. When we returned to Scarsdale, I found my self control had been lost. Any slight, however small or insignificant, I responded with fists. For years after, or until I found alcohol at eleven, my coping strategies became my fists.