Johnny was the favorite, although (or because) he could be so bad. He was wild and handsome and had a laugh that could be heard three counties over. He married Doris – quiet, sweet Doris, daughter of a preacher – and no one could figure out how that happened.
He brought her home to meet Opal, who took one look at the pale, thin girl before her and exclaimed, “Son, don’t marry that girl! She ain’t nuthin’ but a doctor bill,” which of course made him more determined to marry her. Opal saw that and proceeded to feed Doris ham biscuits on a regular basis to fatten her up a little bit.
Darcy’s children couldn’t believe their crazy uncle had got himself such a beautiful girlfriend and stared at her silently to try and figure it out. Darcy smiled, knowing her baby brother could charm the socks off a snake.
It may have come about shortly after Johnny took Doris out riding in his convertible. He picked her up at school, but didn’t drive her straight home like she expected. It was past suppertime when he finally brought her back. Her mama took one look at Doris and asked, “What happened to your neck, girl?”
“Johnny bit me,” Doris giggled.
The Reverend went outside and Doris and her mama heard his car start up. “Uh-oh,” said Doris. Her mama nodded.
For a while, Doris and Johnny lived with Opal. There wasn’t much room, but there wasn’t much choice. Johnny worked hard – he could when he really wanted to – and Doris saved and they were able to buy a house. Darcy’s children had never seen anything like it: it was a house on wheels that came down the road. Johnny heard the truck coming and ran outside whooping and hollering like he’d just scalped somebody. He ran up right behind the house on wheels, jumped up on it as it was climbing the little hill by Opal’s driveway, clambered up on top and rode it like a surfboard to its final destination just past Opal’s house. The truck driver swore at Johnny as he unhitched the house and drove away shaking his head. Doris let all of the little ones pile into the back of the convertible and drove them up to see the new house.
“He was so mean to Darcy,” Opal confided. “She would clean the house so her friends could come over, vacuum, make it all nice – then while she was at school, he’d mess it up, break the winders so there’d be glass on the floor …” Her voice drifted off and she stared into the memory for a moment, then said, “But, I always figgered it was better to have a bad daddy than no daddy at all.”
When he died, their youngest daughter didn’t come home for the funeral. She said her daddy had died a long time before and she didn’t know who that man was. All of the other children were there, along with their children and several members of the community – mostly church acquaintances and Opal’s closest friends, not so many of his. There was a viewing right before the service; after visitors paid their respects, they were led into the chapel so the family could privately file by the casket and bid the dearly departed farewell.
Opal looked, really looked, into her dead husband’s face and said with finality, “Goodbye, Hubert.” Only a few people understood that she was actually telling him, “This is the last time I’ll ever see your sorry self, because you’re going to Hell and I’m not.”
When Sally was a little girl, her mama Opal sent her up to play at her sister Ruby’s house. Sally was a handful, and Aint Ruby liked to play jokes. Opal should have known something would happen.
Aint Ruby had raised a whole bunch o’younguns herself and didn’t aim to put up with any more. When Sally came up the road, Ruby told the two girls who were still at home to go outside and hide. After five minutes, they were supposed to start throwing mud clods onto the roof of the house.
Sally went in and said hey to everybody, found Aint Ruby’s hard candies and started pestering her for a co-cola. She started messing with stuff – you know how little girls do. It aggravated Aint Ruby, but she just waited. Then the mud clods started banging on the roof.
“OH! Sally! It’s the Russians! Hide under the bed!” screamed Aint Ruby. “Quick!”
Sally scooted under the bed quick as a wink and stayed there, quiet as a mouse and shaking like a leaf. She didn’t quite know who the Russians were, but she knew they meant bombs and that tin roof was clattering. Sally started to cry into the skirt of her dress so the Russians wouldn’t hear.
After what seemed like hours, it got quiet. Aint Ruby stuck her face up under the bed. “It’s over,” she said. “We made it. You can come out now.”
Sally came out, all right. She zipped out from under that bed and ran out the front door, all the way back home where her mama was getting dinner ready. It didn’t take long for Opal to hear about the Russians and to figure out what had happened. Next thing anybody knew, she had whipped off her apron and was marching up the road to her sister’s house. What happened next remains a mystery, but Sally stayed away from Aint Ruby for a long time, and Aint Ruby stayed away from Opal.
I was telling Aint Ruby about my new babysitting job. It sparked her memory.
“Yeah, I used to keep them little nigger boys up the road,” she reminisced. No matter how many times I heard her use That Word, it always shocked me and I wondered again why she didn’t know we didn’t say it. But she continued cheerfully, “I used to take them down to the bridge and we’d hide behind the bushes and throw rocks at people …” She dissolved into what could only be described as giggles, then composed herself and looked at me sorrowfully. “People just don’t know how to laugh any more,” she said.
She was telling me about the hard history between them. “You have to tell me if he comes in,” she said anxiously glancing over her shoulder. “He’s tall and dark and will walk in like he owns the place. You’ll know him.”
Sure enough, when he entered I recognized him right away just from that description. “Red shirt?” I asked.
She thought for a second. “Yes, red shirt.” He came over to our table and sat down in the empty seat next to me. I glanced at her to see if she was piqued by that detail, and was astonished to see the change that had come over her. Suddenly, she was sparkling – gazing adoringly at her man, smiling with delight at his presence.
She made the requisite introductions and he launched into a description of his day. He’d taken two of the women on his staff out on a “teambuilding exercise” for the afternoon and returned them to their spouses drunk and sick. He seemed to take an odd pride in the achievement. We discovered we’d graduated from the same college the same year, and he noted that he thought he’d dated all of the pretty girls, but had never met me. He’d played football there until his senior year, when he gave it up to focus on activities that were more career-oriented. He went up to the bar to get himself a beer.
The mask dropped, she leaned forward and continued her story. “I didn’t hold it against him that he was fucking her,” she said quietly. “I know it’s because he was afraid of what we had.”
He returned to the table and the sparkle returned. Maybe that’s it, I thought. Maybe I never charmed that type of man because I didn’t put on that face. It seemed like an awful lot of trouble for not much return.