When I was fourteen, Uncle Lucas decided to take me to a bachelor party. His longtime friend Buddy Cooper was getting married. Buddy Cooper was a real-life cowboy: wore Wranglers and thick-heeled boots and a stiff Stetson hat. He smelled like fresh hay, and his hands were always impossibly clean. During the summer, Uncle Lucas would sometimes take me to Buddy Cooper’s farm two counties over to ride horses and fish for brim in his pond. Buddy was a nice man and got along in a good humor with Uncle Lucas, staying up late into the night to retell old stories of their past exploits together. Their voices were soft and measured with one another—sounded like the whispery crick-crack of tree limbs being nudged apart by wind—and it was easy to fall asleep listening to them.
One thing you should know about Uncle Lucas: he liked to exaggerate. His talent was in taking ordinary events, the everyday happenings of life, and giving them that spark they needed in order to become memorable, even remarkable. Dressed in the finest of tweed suits, he would regale those who shopped in his department store on the square in town with one story after another, stories about the locals whom nobody remembered exactly but still felt like they had somehow faintly known. He had the confidence and air of a learned historian, even though—if Aunt Mavis was right—he had barely graduated from high school.
But with Buddy, my uncle never exaggerated. The truth of their memories together was a sacred thing to him. I never questioned Uncle Lucas about this because I thought it had something to do with their friendship, the bond between them. As a boy, I knew very little about the world of men and what kept them in healthy fellowship with one another.
Aunt Mavis did not like the idea of my tagging along for the bachelor party, especially when she understood where it was taking place. “Fay’s,” she hollered. But Uncle Lucas told her that I was old enough to know “some things about this world,” and after he said this, she looked at me as if she had never seen me before. Said that if I went I would be disappointing my parents, who had entrusted me to their care.
“Hardy har har,” Uncle Lucas said to this. “If his daddy was still living, he would have done took him. And his mother—well, his mother—” That was a tender subject, my mother, so Aunt Mavis held up her hand to silence him.
“Fine,” she said. “I hope you both get so sot drunk your livers turn black and fall out your backends.” She turned on her heels and buffaloed upstairs, huffing the whole way.
After she had slammed the door, I asked Uncle Lucas if that could really happen: your liver turning black and falling out, and he said, “Naw,” but then seemed to ponder the thought for a few seconds more and said, in a more serious tone, “at least, I don’t think so.”
The one Uncle Lucas used to tell me all the time was about the little girl and her pig. The girl was the only child of a dirt farmer. According to Uncle Lucas, they spoiled her, gave her anything she wanted. And what she wanted one year, at the age of twelve, was to be crowned Little Miss Farm Special at the Mid-Mississippi State Fair. All she needed was a pig. The competition consisted of the contestants, dressed in fine, puffy gowns, parading their fattest hog out onto the muddy fairgrounds. They were scored on their attire, their poise, and—of course—their pig.
Her father cashed out his Christmas Club and bought her a piglet from the man whose fields he worked. The girl tended to the animal all summer long, feeding it cow’s milk and thick triangles of cornbread and, later, expensive bags of feed to fatten it up. At night, before bed, she would sit on the back porch with the pig’s knotty snout in her lap and rub baby oil into its tender flesh. She named the pig Suzanne, and on the day of the competition, the animal was a behemoth, its skin the color of eggnog and its curlicue tail adorned with an elegant blue bow. To complete the look, the girl wore a matching ribbon in her own hair, and they trotted out onto the fairgrounds, expecting to win the day. Unbeknownst to her, however, it was against the rules to doll pigs up with ribbons, the judges preferring pigs to retain a more natural look, and they were disqualified. To make matters worse, Suzanne had gained a multitude of hungry admirers during her first outing in public. “Sweet meat, sweet meat,” men sang as the little girl walked her burnished animal out to the parking lot to load her back into her father’s truck bed. But by the time the girl made it to the truck, her father—who was angry because of all the money he’d wasted on such a venture—had already sold Suzanne off to the man who owned the local meat locker.
Needless to say, the girl pitched some kind of fit when the man came to take Suzanne away. The animal, sensing the girl’s distress, squealed and squealed, roiling its great body back and forth as the man led her off. The girl cried and moaned and sniffled the whole way home, her dress all bunched up around her like a glittery cloud in the tiny truck cab. Her father regretted what he had done, but he’d made back the money he lost from his Christmas Club twice over and promised her he’d use it to get her a new pet. “A real one this time,” he said. “A pedigreed dog.” At this, the girl cried louder. That night, while her parents were asleep, she slid out of her room window and rode her bicycle all the way across town to the meat locker. The building made a crooked shadow in the night sky, and she was almost too frightened to enter, but pressed on. There, in a pen beside the rusted meat hooks, she found Suzanne, oinking and snorting, still alive, mingling with a drove of other hogs. “So she set them all aloose,” Uncle Lucas would say. “And there are still feral pigs up in the woods that owe their lineage to that girl.”
Here, he would end the story, and though I was young, I knew an embellishment when I heard one, knew my uncle could stretch the truth so thin you could read the newspaper through it. But that didn’t matter much—not to me at least—when it came to enjoying his stories for their beauty and humor. Uncle Lucas’s exaggerations had a pull to them, drawing me (and perhaps others) closer and closer to something else, something underneath the story, something that he was trying to communicate indirectly. It wasn’t that he attempted to drop morals in with his exaggerations, I don’t think, or give life lessons exactly, like the parables of Jesus. No, what he was doing with his storytelling was trying to shape the world into something better than it was. In his heart, I don’t think he could face the finalities of life—unexplainable death, loss of love, petty hates and injustices—and so, in memory, he colored events differently. Growing up, I was constantly at war with myself: you see, I knew it was foolish to believe a word he said when he got going on one of his stories, but that didn’t stop me from desperately wanting to.
His listeners knew he made up most or all of what he told them, but they forgave him because he was not of them, and I think they found it charming that he took such an interest in their town lore. None of my family was ever considered a part of town: our roots were not deep enough. Fifty years ago, my widower grandfather left his fledging law practice in the North and moved to Mississippi, bringing with him his three children—Uncle Lucas, Uncle Lucas’s twin sister, Mavis, and his older brother, Reuben (my father)—to start a new life where the cost of living was cheap and lawyers were sparse.
They had moved from the state of Illinois, and in the Delta, you might as well have been from the moon. Here, it’s all about family and who’s kin to whom; here, girls are given double-names—Anna-Taylor, Hattie-Frank, Sarah-Burden—so that people will know who their mothers had been before they were married; here, you say you live in “God’s Country” because the endless fields of soybean and rice and cotton that separate your cluster of a town from other towns gives you this feeling of importance, of significance, that you might matter, that surely God can’t miss you if you are one of only a few looking up at him. But in my family, we didn’t believe in God, so when we glanced above our heads, all we saw was blue sky, ozone, the faint scars of cloud.
My favorite exaggeration was the one Uncle Lucas told about me. During the summers, I would sometimes go with him to his store to help fold and arrange the new shipments of polo shirts and trousers. When people would come in, he’d sometimes point at me and say, “There’s my nephew. He’s going to be famous one day. He’s special.” Then, he’d wink at me like what he had said was gospel.
He knew I liked to write, to tell my own stories just like he did, and made it up in his mind that I was going to be a well-known writer. “Another Hemingway! A Faulkner—only my nephew will make some damn sense!” It felt good to live in the warmth of his imagination; however, the truth was a little closer to earth. Each of my stories—if you could call them that—were barely a page long, a sketch of description or a stray thought captured in my own paltry grasp of language, and Aunt Mavis, who was also my seventh-grade English teacher, said I had problems sticking to my subject: “You wander and wander and digress so much,” she wrote once in the margins of one of my themes. “It’s like trying to find a story in a hurricane.”
But my uncle told me all the greats were misunderstood in their own time. He said, “Forney Culpepper. Now that is a name that should be on the cover of a book.” And every now and then, I almost believed him. Then my mother would send me a letter from Nashville, telling me whom she was about to go on tour with and how, in just a year or two, she would hit the big time and fly me out to live with her. That brought me down real quick. My mother’s letters reminded me who I really was: I was Forney, the boy whose father was dead and whose mother had left him to pursue a far-flung singing career; I was Forney, named for a nowhere town in Texas, where two people who barely knew one another conceived me. Truth: Forney Culpepper was not really that special at all. Ultimately, I could never keep up the exaggerations of my uncle for long—sooner or later, I always gave into the rough way of things.
The juke joint, unofficially called Fay’s, was affixed to the bank of the Big Black River not twenty yards from where the train tracks crossed over the water on a rickety bridge. Because Attala Country was dry, Fay’s was, for the longest time, one of the few places near town where a man could wet his whistle in peace, away from the company and influence of his wife. You have to walk to get there; most of the men parked their trucks on the side of a gravel road and trekked to the shack, using the river or the train rails to guide them. It would be foolish to assume the police didn’t know about Fay’s, but since most of their own fathers had frequented the establishment, they let it alone, so long as there wasn’t any trouble.
Who Fay had been was long forgotten by the time Uncle Lucas took me there, but on our way that night to the bachelor party, he told me the story of her, or rather his story for her. She had once owned a bed and breakfast in town called the Redbud Inn, and often kept girls there on the payroll for the men’s pleasure. “It was a good business in those days,” Uncle Lucas said. “Fay had a nice setup, and the men adored her.” She had a bright shock of red hair, and when she traipsed up and down the square, the women would cross the street to avoid her. Some would even hiss.
As my uncle tells it, Fay messed up and got herself pregnant, and when the news of this pregnancy was leaked in town, the fine ladies of that time turned mean. Fay could claim, they feared, just about any of their husbands as the father. In great distress, the ladies met at the café on the square to discuss what to do about her; of course, the meeting was done in secret, under the guise of a monthly gathering of the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. After two hours of debating the issue of Fay and her illegitimate child, it was decided that the woman simply must be run out of town, and since the menfolk were too dazzled by her to think straight, they would have to do it themselves.
“That very night they went to the Redbud Inn,” Uncle Lucas said. “And the whole herd of them—fine church ladies, in frilly dresses and fancy flowered hats—went to her front door.” Looking out her window from the second floor, Fay observed the mob approaching and told one of her girls to latch the doors. She opened the window and called down to them, asking if they had followed their husbands and come to see what all the fuss was about. She laughed at the women, shooed them home, but the ladies, indignant from her laughter, would not be moved. Fay had underestimated them.
Back then, it was high fashion to smoke, so many of them had their cigarette lighters in their purses, and few of the ladies even had matches on their person. The thought must have occurred to them all at once in a grand moment of inspiration: smoke her out. “No one knows who started the fire, but once lit, the house took like kindling.” The flames lapped up the delicately painted siding, engulfing the pretty inn and driving out the girls. The ladies circled the house like a coven of witches and caught them as they came running out in their silk nightdresses. “You could hear the girls’ screams echoing through town.” But the one the ladies wanted most of all remained inside; she had phoned the fire department and the police and held faith they would rescue her in time, but the fire worked faster than she anticipated, forcing her to the roof, where she clung to the chimney until the Redbud Inn caved in on itself.
The ladies scattered as the bed and breakfast came tumbling down. “It is said,” Uncle Lucas told me, “that many of them couldn’t ever wash the smoke out of their hair and that they smelled of soot for the rest of their days.” Amazingly, the way he tells it, Fay had more life in her than the ladies of the town gave her credit for because, miracle of miracles, she survived. Firemen found her smoking body amid the ruins and carried her, in secret, to an old bachelor doctor out in the country. There, she was nursed back to health and ended up having the baby.
Fearing their wives, the men built her a small house deep in the woods. “There, she lived out her life in relative peace,” Uncle Lucas said. “When she died, the men came to the house to mourn her and found the daughter, who could have been any of theirs, cooking corn liquor on the back porch as if she had been expecting them. She offered them a snort of it. And they each took some and toasted Fay.” Thus, it became tradition for many of them to meet once or twice a month at Fay’s, drink the daughter’s moonshine, and, at midnight, as the train rustled past, hold their drinks in the air and, in a solemn chorus, say, “To Fay!”
Uncle Lucas told me all of this on the drive out there.
Uncle Lucas and Aunt Mavis were fraternal twins but looked nothing alike. Uncle Lucas had the same blunt nose and wide mouth of my father. Aunt Mavis, on the other hand, possessed the narrow face and delicate features of a French aristocrat.
In her younger days, when she was in college at Ole Miss, she fancied herself something of a poet. She wrote her senior thesis on Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop and had plans of attending graduate school, but that summer my grandfather died, and she stayed behind “to see about things” for a while. Twenty years later and she was still seeing about things, remaining single.
Uncle Lucas never married either, and for most of their lives, they lived together in the same house on Claymore Street, and I lived with them during my teenage years while my mother was away. I remember before she left me with them, she told me to be kind to my aunt and uncle because I was all they had left in the world and, besides, I wouldn’t have to stay with them long anyway, just until she got settled in Nashville. I was ten, and four years later, around the time of the bachelor party, I wouldn’t have left them for anything. We were, for better or worse, a family. We had long dinners together, where Aunt Mavis and I listened to Uncle Lucas exaggerate; we went to plays and ballets in Jackson at Thalia Mara Hall, took vacations to Biloxi and Memphis and New Orleans. I considered us outsiders—not just of the town, but of life itself, and a certain closeness developed among us three, an intimacy the likes of which I’d never known.
Now, I see that this business about being outsiders was perhaps more complicated than I’d first imagined. I think we knew, on some instinctual level, that we could never be them, the town, and likewise, they didn’t see any reason for trying life our way. The town, for the most part, was hunkered down in the insular culture of Little League and church and Bunko, and there is, to my mind, nothing especially wrong with that. Our interests, however, were elsewhere. In a place where every household seemed to have a garden, we kept our lawns bare and preferred the comforts of the indoors, where during the hot months—July and August and sometimes September—we’d spend long weekends inside reading, cushioned from the heat by a loud AC unit my grandfather had bought at Sears many years ago. We seemed to always be reading. Stacks of books—maybe walls of them—lined the hallways and covered the dining-room table and propped open doors. Aunt Mavis read mainly volumes of poetry, while Uncle Lucas (who liked to downplay how much he liked to read in public) and I devoured novels, and the trashier, the better. One summer, we made our way through the complete works of Jacqueline Susann (Aunt Mavis, of course, had no idea). Some nights, my aunt and uncle would get a wild hair and read passages from Shakespeare or Auden aloud: both of them had rich, thick voices—a mix of midwestern flatness and southern drawl—that had a way of lifting me right off my seat. It was almost as entertaining as my uncle’s exaggerations.
It didn’t take me long to hear the rumors about them, that there was something funny about the way they never married and still lived together. I had a violent streak back then and would beat up any of the kids at school that so much as hinted in my presence what their parents had whispered; that is, Uncle Lucas and Aunt Mavis were somehow incestuous. This was an exaggeration that Uncle Lucas couldn’t control, and the truth was much more pedestrian than the town’s imagination. My aunt and uncle were creatures of habit, and the habit of living together had seemed natural and easy and more preferable than being alone. They were, after all, friends, knew each other better than anyone else, and accepted the faults of the other as easy as could be expected of twins and siblings who were believers in unconditional love.
Soon after the bachelor party, my uncle left us. He moved to the little room above his store, and Aunt Mavis, I think, was hurt but understood his reasons even better than I did at the time.
The men in my family had bad hearts. They’ve each died of some kind of heart condition or other, and it was always sudden and unexpected. Aunt Mavis found my grandfather slouched over his desk one morning, already purple and cold. My father and I were shelling peas when his heart quit working. And Uncle Lucas was in Canada when his stalled. I was a junior in high school at the time. He had gone to a convention in Toronto; it was his first time traveling outside the country. On his first night there, he ate an elephant burger at an exotic restaurant, ice skated at the park near his hotel, and braved a rollercoaster, which was housed inside a mall the size of our town. Afterwards, he wandered back to his hotel, perhaps drunk with the possibility of life, and fell asleep on top of the covers of the neatly made bed in his room. He did not wake up, and Aunt Mavis had a time getting his body flown back to us.
After walking for a while in the dark woods, we made it to the little clapboard house by the river. Even in moonlight, I could see how the woods had all but taken over Fay’s, how kudzu and sumac pushed up through the floorboards on the little porch and how the roof sagged in the middle as if the house had taken one last great breath and then had given up altogether. We entered through the side door. The floor bubbled and popped under our feet as we sallied past a row of card tables and made our way to a makeshift bar at the back of the dim room. There was no electricity, and greasy kerosene lanterns provided what little light there was.
Uncle Lucas told the girl behind the bar that he wanted two gin and tonics. The girl’s eyes passed from his to mine and then back again. She was pale and missing most of her teeth, and I wondered if this was supposed to be Fay’s daughter, but I couldn’t tell if she had the flaming red hair of her mother or not because it was all bunched up underneath the handkerchief she had wrapped about her head.
“Drink this,” Uncle Lucas said, sliding a glass of clear liquid over to me. It looked like Sprite, and I took a long swig. The drink tasted bitter and wrong, and I was only able to choke down a little. “Easy,” he said. “Sip it. Will protect you from the mosquitoes.”
He took his glass from the bar and went over to the tables, where a few men had already gathered for the evening. I wasn’t sure what was supposed to happen here. I had a feeling that the men would drink and talk and maybe play cards, but I also wondered if something darker might occur, like if Fay’s still had those girls in silk nightgowns. I glanced back at the one behind the bar and shivered. She appeared to be the only one working tonight. I knew the basics of sex, what went where, but I couldn’t imagine doing that with someone like her, someone I barely knew.
As the gathering of men got bigger, my uncle migrated from table to table, patting backs, laughing. I stayed put and felt out of place, like I was somehow intruding where I had no business. Behind me, the girl lit a cigarette and, as she puffed on it, laughed a little to herself. “You look scared,” she said, and I took another sip of my drink, which didn’t taste as bad as it had before. I didn’t know what to say to her: her dark eyes seemed to take in every bit of me, examine every part with extreme scrutiny, and find me wanting. “Guppy,” she said under her breath.
On the walls hung mounted deer heads. Most of them were bucks, their knotty antlers twisting out of their skulls and touching the low-hanging ceiling. A thick skein of dust covered their glassy eyes. I wasn’t able to look at them long before I asked the girl if I could have another drink.
Two hours later, I was still there at the bar, nursing my fourth gin and tonic and feeling as if the world was fading away into a shapeless mass of color and sound. “Am I drunk?” I asked the girl behind the bar, and she grinned, her toothless mouth a warm invitation. “I could kiss your face off,” I said, and this made her cackle.
About that time, Buddy Cooper, the groom, appeared at the side door. “Gentlemen,” he pronounced to the room. “I’ve come to sew my last wild oat.”
The men cheered, and catching on, I cheered too, longer and louder than any of them. He heard me at the back of the room and came over with this puzzled look on his face.
“Cowboy,” I said to him. “What do you know?”
He took the drink out of my hand and asked if I knew the whereabouts of my uncle.
“Over there,” I said, pointing to the larger table, where most of the men had congregated. “Talking shit.”
“So dark in here. Can’t see nothing.” He smelled my drink and then noticed the girl over my shoulder. “Suppose this is real entertaining, huh?”
“Seems like he’s having a good time,” she said. “Guppy said he was a big boy now.”
“I am a big boy,” I said.
Grabbing me on the shoulders, he led me to the table, to where my uncle was red-faced and laughing. “You need to cool off,” he said, and produced a chair for me to sit on out of what seemed like thin air. “Here,” Buddy Cooper said. “Pop a squat.”
My chair was back a bit from the table, and I was able to watch my uncle hold court amid the men. Buddy Cooper crossed his arms, half-smiling, and walked closer to them. When he joined the table, it became hard for me, in the shadowy light, to tell him from the others. I only made out my uncle, rapt in the telling of his story. It was quite a sight. The men seemed to forget that he was Lucas Culpepper, and he appeared to be one of them, which made my heart sink. I felt abandoned. I wanted him to recognize me sitting there, facing him. I wanted him to call me over and introduce me to everyone, but that never happened. The floor was wobbling back and forth, and I had this crazy idea that we had detached from the side of the sandbar and were floating down the river. I gripped the edges of my chair to steady myself. After a while, the floor stopped moving, and I was all right again.
I leaned forward in my chair to listen to Uncle Lucas speaking and realized that he was telling them about Dr. Rosamond. Dr. Rosamond was the one who tried to have his way with this married woman he had been infatuated with. He wrote her love songs and, on the weeks her husband was away working offshore, sang them outside her window with his homemade git-fiddle. The way Uncle Lucas told it, the doctor burned for her and decided one day that enough was enough: he’d have her or die trying. In broad daylight, he kicked in her screen door and forced himself inside. She was kicking and fighting and screaming something good, and—lo!—the husband came home early and found the doctor bent over his wife trying to make time with her. The husband broke it up, but the doctor, crazy and slobbering all over himself, told the husband that he wasn’t leaving. “You’ll just have to kill me,” Dr. Rosamond said. The husband, not being one to fool around with, went to the bedroom and retrieved his double-barrel twelve gauge. He placed the gun square over Dr. Rosamond’s chest and told him to leave the premises; otherwise, he would have the right to protect his family and blow him, medical degree and all, straight to hell’s gates. Dr. Rosamond, who liked to see things through, clicked his heels together and began to sing one of the love songs he’d written for the married woman. He had made it to the chorus when the husband, frustrated and ready for dinner, pulled both triggers, releasing twin barrels of buckshot into the doctor. “Shot his heart into a million bits,” Uncle Lucas was telling them. “And now his ghost, it is said, haunts the town, looking for pieces of his lost heart.”
“It was a poet’s death,” said one of the men, and the others laughed at him and begged Uncle Lucas for another story. My uncle glowed with benevolence and was gesturing for them to quiet down when a man with a handlebar mustache sitting close to me spoke up.
“That’s not how I heard it,” he said. He gazed about the table, seeming to make a point to look each of them in the eye, even me. “That’s not the way I heard it at all.”
Uncle Lucas sat back in his chair and studied the man. “Well,” he said to him. “That’s the only way I know it.” I nodded and wanted to tell the man with the shiny mustache that I’d heard about Dr. Rosamond for as long as I could remember. It was the story my uncle usually told on Halloween, and it’s always been the same. I leaned up and was about to speak, but Buddy Cooper came out of nowhere and put his hand on my chest, pushing me back in my chair.
“You’ve had enough there, Bert,” he said, speaking to the man with the mustache. “You always get sour when you drink dark liquor.”
The man told Buddy Cooper to hush, and his voice had changed, gotten deeper, and the sound of it made all the men at the table hush and look away or down at their drinks. The sudden silence sent a cold chill down my neck, like someone had poured cold water down my shirt. “Way I hear it,” Bert went on, “it was his pecker that got shot off.” He pointed at me and hissed with laughter. “You hear me, boy? Changed him from a rooster to a hen.”
Some of the men chuckled, but Buddy Cooper, Uncle Lucas, and I didn’t make a sound. Finally, after a long pause, where everyone seemed to be trying to figure out what to do next, Uncle Lucas spoke: “Everyone knows it was his heart.” He drank what was left in his glass. “I don’t like the way of that story you tell one bit.” More silence followed his speaking; many of the men shifted in their chairs.
Bert fingered his mustache, itched it for a while, and then grinned. Over the years, I’ve come to see other people give grins like that one: a hateful sort of smile. “I’ve heard many a story about you, Lucas Culpepper.” He stood and turned, and I thought he was looking at me, but no: he was looking at Buddy Cooper, who was standing beside me. “Have heard many stories that I don’t spec I’d like repeated if it were me and I was unmarried.”
Someone flipped the table, and I slid out of my chair, landing on my back, and didn’t see anything that was happening at first. I jumped back to my feet, blinded by the tall shoulders in front of me. Then, some of the men moved out of my way, and I saw that Buddy Cooper was holding that man in a headlock, the man’s face turning all shades of red and purple, his mustache flapping about his mouth as if it were trying to fly off to safer territory.
Uncle Lucas was standing behind them, speaking in a low voice. “Come on now,” he was saying. “Ain’t worth it, Bud. Not this one.” Buddy Cooper’s eyes went big, and he seemed to realize what he was doing. The rest of the men began to follow Uncle Lucas’s lead, telling Buddy Cooper to let the poor bastard go. Finally, he did. When released, the man crumpled to the ground, gagging for breath. Under our feet, all of a sudden, the plywood floor began to shake, and the windows rattled in their panes. It was midnight, and the train was blowing past; its shrill whistle sliced through the dense air in Fay’s. Everyone watched Buddy Cooper, and Buddy Cooper watched the floor. No one toasted anything.
August: six months after my uncle died. The fair was opening that night, and Aunt Mavis, for as long as I knew her, had never been one for the fair, but I was a senior that year, and she claimed she was feeling nostalgic, so we went. There was an unexpected cold snap moving through the Delta, and we wore our jackets with the collars turned up high. We ate deep-fried Oreos and frosted funnel cakes. We rode the Scrambler and the Ferris wheel and the Tilt-a-whirl. We seemed in a desperate need to keep our heads spinning, our stomachs churned. I sometimes think we were trying to work ourselves into a frenzy, so to forget what we had lost earlier that year.
After touring the tornado exhibit, we headed over to the coliseum. Inside, under the bright yellow lights, young girls in sparkling gowns and long gloves were marching their pigs out into the center of the stadium amid the furrowed dirt floor. Entranced, we sat down in one of the first rows, and Aunt Mavis rested her arm on the rusted railings and observed each of the girls as they took their pigs to the little podium and announced their names, who their parents were, who was sponsoring them, and what they wanted to be when they grew up.
We stayed for the whole show. When the judges finally crowned that year’s Little Miss Farm Special, Aunt Mavis cried. It was a gentle sort of weeping that lasted until we got back to the car and started home. During the drive back, she said, “You know your uncle loved that pig as much as I did. Hell, he went with me that night to set it free.”
I was silent, and for a moment, we listened to the sound of the defroster, humming. There was a great wealth of things we had left unsaid between us—it had been our way—and having her say this now left me unsettled. I couldn’t look at her. Somehow I’d always known what she was telling me, but hearing her actually reveal the truth behind one of my uncle’s stories felt like a betrayal of him. Like blasphemy. Still, I couldn’t help myself: I wanted to know more.
“Go on,” I finally said.
“When we got there,” she said, “it was too late, of course. The man had already hung Suzanne up by her hind legs. Cut her up something awful. My god, I never knew a pig could bleed so much.”
After the sound of the train evaporated into the night, the bachelor party was over. The man with the mustache stumbled out the side door before anyone else, the first to disappear into the darkness. One by one, they all left, and when Uncle Lucas went to pay his tab, Buddy Cooper said to me, “How you feeling?”
I thought about this question for a long time. Then, I said, “My teeth. My teeth are numb.” Also, my head felt like it had been filled with water, but something about that didn’t seem right, so I kept it to myself.
As we were leaving, the girl frowned and said, “Come back and see me, little one.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I said, my face tingling, and hurried out the door.
Once outside, Buddy Cooper told us that his truck was close by and that we should follow him. As he led us through the dark, my uncle held on to the back of his shirt, and I held on to the back of my uncle’s. Our feet made loud, slushy noises as they plodded through the debris of leaves and sticks, and the trees that sprung up around us were the color of bone. I wondered if I had died. Wildly, I thought I had somehow croaked back at the bar and this was the afterlife: wandering around through darkness for time eternal. Then, we came up on Buddy Cooper’s old blue Ford pickup, and the world seemed right again.
Buddy Cooper handed my uncle the keys. “You drive,” he said. “I’m still too shaky from that bastard back there.”
“Where we headed?” Uncle Lucas said.
“Sailor’s choice. Anywhere, my friend, but here.”
The inside of the truck smelled like chewing tobacco and motor oil. I sat squashed between them and watched bleary-eyed as the headlights blasted through the night, the lonely road opening to receive us. I didn’t know where we were going until my uncle turned off onto I-90. He asked me when was the last time I’d been out to my parents’ house in the country—the large farmhouse my mother could never sell and left (same as she left me) to dilapidate with time.
As we pulled up the long driveway, the headlights caught most of the house in its beam. It seemed alien to me now, this large empty house, and my buzz fading, I didn’t have the heart to go in.
We parked in the yard, directly across from the front door so the headlights could shine into the house. Buddy Cooper said he didn’t think this was such a good idea. “Hey now,” he was saying. “Let’s us ease back over to my house. We can camp out there. Lois won’t mind.” Lois was the woman he was marrying, and when he mentioned her name, Uncle Lucas got out of the truck and started walking toward the front porch.
Buddy Cooper and I stayed behind and watched him unlock the door. My mother had given him a key to the place before she left. “Just in case,” she had said. Thinking about my mother and this house made me feel sick, and I hunched over on my knees.
“You OK, kid?”
I sat back up and nodded.
“Sometimes,” he said, “I think your uncle is like that doctor man, looking for the pieces of his lost heart.”
“Do what?” Nothing made sense to me: the house, my uncle, what Buddy Cooper was saying. It was like I had entered another person’s life.
Buddy Cooper scratched my head and laughed. “You are Cooter Brown drunk.” Then he slid out of the cab, and I followed him. We went inside the house. The headlights illuminated the living room, revealing the covered furniture and scattered boxes on the floor.
“Careful you don’t fall,” Uncle Lucas said.
I looked at what was around me. It was a ghost house, chock-full of the remnants of people I didn’t know or care to know anymore, even though I had once been one of them.
“Look,” Uncle Lucas said. “There’s a couch for each of us.”
“We’re sleeping here tonight?” I said.
“Sure. You don’t want us to go home to Aunt Mavis like this?”
Buddy shuffled from one foot to the other. “We can go back to my place. Drink some Crown and Cokes. It’ll be fine.”
“You can go if you want, Coop,” Uncle Lucas said. “We’re camping here tonight.”
“No, no. I can’t leave y’all out here. I’ll stay, I’ll stay.”
Once I got settled into one of the loveseats, I didn’t mind the house so much. Sleep came fast to me, and I drifted off to the sound of Uncle Lucas and Buddy Cooper whispering to one another. Finally they are alone, I thought, and can tell real stories without any sort of exaggeration. It was my first alcohol-induced sleep, a cold sort of slumber I’d come to appreciate because, in the throes of it, I rarely dreamed.
When I awoke the next morning, I heard crying. The daylight was bright and horrible and came pounding through the shuttered windows. I had to pee, badly, so I rolled off the loveseat and ambled to the front porch, still half-dazed with sleep. On the porch swing, I found Uncle Lucas and Buddy Cooper in each other’s arms. Uncle Lucas was kissing Buddy Cooper’s neck, and I said, “Hey, is it all right if I piss off the front porch?”
Uncle Lucas slung himself off the swing so fast it was like an invisible hand had thrown him. His eyes were red and irritated-looking. “Get back inside goddamnit,” he told me, his voice hoarse and gritty.
Frightened, I stumbled backwards inside and somehow made it back to the loveseat. I wanted to bury my face into its cushions and never come up again. They stayed outside for about half an hour, talking in low tones. I was embarrassed and felt like I had hurt them, seeing what I had seen. On top of that, my head ached, and my bladder was full from all the gin and tonics the night before. Finally, I could take it no longer and went out back to relieve myself. When I got back inside, Uncle Lucas was standing in the doorway, and I could hear Buddy Cooper’s pickup rumbling to life.
As his pickup trundled down the driveway, my uncle said, “He’ll call Mavis to come get us when he gets home.”
“Sure,” I said.
I went back to the loveseat. He kept standing. We waited in silence for nearly two hours until we heard Aunt Mavis’s sedan pulling up the driveway. I think that was the first time I learned when it was best to keep my mouth shut and not ask any questions. I felt like how I would feel, years later, when Aunt Mavis would tell the truth about the pig story: like I had betrayed my uncle somehow in seeing what I had seen, in knowing what I knew. Sure, I wanted to tell him that I didn’t care, that I even understood him better now, but every time I went to say something, my throat went dry and I couldn’t speak. I don’t think it would have done any good to say anything to him. I think he felt exposed and that I held something over him. A few weeks later, my uncle moved out: he couldn’t stand to be around me anymore, I don’t think. When he looked at me, all he saw was Buddy Cooper and his last night with him before he was married off. At least, this was what I told myself. Now, I think it was probably more complicated than that—that he was ashamed of his love for Buddy Cooper, and my knowing it somehow compounded the shame, made it absolutely unbearable for him.
On the day that he moved, he cleaned out his closet and chest of drawers and packed up his clothes all by himself. I didn’t know about it until it was too late to ask him to stay. His mind was made up. I had been reading in my room when Aunt Mavis called me outside. She and I stood side by side, and he paced in front of us saying that it would be better this way. More room for all of us. After he toted his last bag out to his truck, he came back and hugged Aunt Mavis good-bye. He reached out and shook my hand briskly. “You,” he went to say, but then he couldn’t finish. He glanced back at Aunt Mavis and shook his head. “We are a strange sort, the three of us,” he said, and with that, he left.
I’ve been trying to tell the story of my uncle for some time now. He comes and goes in my thoughts perhaps more than anyone, even my mother. I always come back to that night at the hospital morgue, his body recently delivered from Canada. Aunt Mavis had asked me to go with her. “Please,” she had said, so I went.
A fat nurse led us to the cold room where they kept the bodies before they were picked up by the funeral home. My aunt clung to my arm as the nurse unceremoniously slid the body out of one of the lockers. Suddenly, there he was: Uncle Lucas.
“Can we have a minute?” Aunt Mavis said to the nurse who told us that she would come back in ten minutes or so, after rounds. When she went out, we inched closer to the body. “It’s just us now,” she said. “We are the last.”
Then, we heard a cough and jumped. Standing behind us was Buddy Cooper—a little fatter than I last saw him, but still wearing his tall cowboy hat. “I called him,” Aunt Mavis explained.
Buddy Cooper couldn’t meet my eyes as he stepped toward the table. His boots made loud click-clacks against the linoleum floor. He gazed down at my uncle’s body for the longest time.
“You better go on and touch him now,” my aunt said. “Because he won’t feel like himself when the funeral home gets through with him.” So, Buddy Cooper placed his hand on Uncle Lucas’s forehead, and we all stood there in silence until the nurse came back for us.
Uncle Lucas’s funeral was enough of a stir in our lives to bring home my mother from Nashville. According to her, things were good in Music City: she had landed a gig as the backup singer for Tanya Tucker and was slated to go on tour with her next month. “Soon,” she told me, “we are going to be golden.”
Seeing her for the first time in nearly eight years, I didn’t know quite what to make of her, this woman, my mother: the heavy-layered makeup made her look much older than she was, and her hair was dyed a frightening white-blonde and teased into great whorls above her head. “What are you?” I wanted to say to her. “What have you become?”
The only thing solid that she knew about me was that I made good grades, that I hadn’t made a B since the fifth grade—my aunt had dutifully mailed her copies of my report cards every nine weeks—so when people came up to us at the visitation service, she led off with this information. “My son here,” she’d chime. “The scholar!” I really didn’t know what to say to her myself; she asked me about college and I told her which ones I’d applied to. She asked about majors, and I listed off several that I thought would impress her. It soon became apparent to both of us that we spoke different languages, and trying to translate proved too painful.
For the graveside service, my mother had asked the Methodist preacher to say a few vague words about goodness and mercy. “Just in case,” she said to Aunt Mavis. Besides the preacher and the workers at the funeral home, it was just the three of us huddled around the open mouth in the ground; I was standing between my aunt and my mother, each of them had an arm laced in mine. As the casket was being lowered, something unexpected happened: my mother broke away from us and began to sing, impromptu, “Love Lifted Me.” Her voice was shaky, but still beautiful and pure. My aunt and I looked up, following the delicate sound, as it went up and up and over our heads.
When I tell the story of my uncle, I want to end it there: my mother singing. It seems right to me. But I can’t. Truth is Buddy Cooper never showed up that night at the morgue, and my mother never sang in the cemetery. In fact, she never even made it to the cemetery; she went back to Nashville the same night of the visitation. It was just Aunt Mavis and me: at the hospital, at the grave. My own weak exaggerations are no match for the way things really are. In the real story, there was no repentant lover for dead Uncle Lucas and no song for me, only the hard silences left by the people we wanted—that we craved the most—people who had already moved on in their lives without us.