Mama’s men wore snakeskin with conviction. Of these clowns, who was my daddy—which deserved a long overdue kick to the testicles? She was always better shacked up with one of them. Without Carhart boots by the door, Mama was prone to mood swings.
She’d wake me up late at night by ransacking the trailer.
“I can’t do this Mommy thing,” she yelled, dragging me by the hair. If I didn’t pack fast enough, Mama only screamed louder.
Sometimes a cousin would take me in while she “cooled off.” This could last for weeks.
Usually though, she just drove until whatever fire in her burned away; we’d cross the state line to get lotto tickets and Krispy Kreme doughnuts, listening to music that made her feel young. When the gas had to be refilled, she did that, then we’d head home.
Mama never said what caused this—not even to relieve me of guilt by saying it wasn’t my fault. It was my responsibility to put the clothes she’d packed back into the drawers.
Cousins who took me in were prone to pointing out very ugly men at the Dugout Valley Winn-Dixie. “Look, Gracen, there’s your daddy.”
To be fair, they also did some good. An adult cousin told me Mama was always crazy, even at my age. This wasn’t my fault, didn’t I know?
When they weren’t making jokes or dropping revelations, my cousins speculated that my father was a man named Dale Steele. There were no pictures of Dale handy, so I conjured up John Henry or Pecos Bill, saving coworkers in a lumberyard or coalmine.
The real Dale was 5’7”. I finally saw him the summer before eighth grade. His arms were an island of misfit tattoos, a koi fish here, a lock and key there. I woke up and Mama was watching a game show. Dale was there, humming top forty but replacing words in the chorus with curses.
I laughed at this before they noticed me. I was a preteen; curse words were funny if it wasn’t Mama using them as a weapon.
“What are you up to besides nothing?” he asked once they noticed me. He had a spatula in one hand, and the skillet was spitting grease. He made us breakfast, and I made them change it to cartoons. Dale suggested we roast hot dogs over a fire that night. He had, after all, been a scout.
“Had to pawn my badges, though,” he said, and I was sure this was a joke. Turns out, the boy scout talk had been a fraud. Mama started the fire that night, irresponsibly, with Brawny paper towels and gasoline. The hot dogs were off-brand, unnaturally red, staining your fingers even after a wash.
I watched Mama and Dale watching the fire. After, I didn’t begrudge their noise or the skunky smoke smell coming from under the door. She was laughing, and it felt normal for once.
Dale was gone the next morning. Mama didn’t leave her bed for a week. My fingers were Red #4 from the cheap left-over dogs for just as long.
The lights were out from a rainstorm pounding on the roof. The pilot light on the space heater was out too. Mama burned old tabloids to keep us warm. The magazines were from when she was my age, jaundiced and curled around the edges now. They made her feel in control, maybe; by then, all her idols’ messes had unfolded. Updated issues of these very magazines had filled her in, and Mama remembered every detail.
“You will be cheated on,” Mama said to one back issue with a TV star bride on the cover. “You may be pretty now,” she warned another, throwing them into the firepit. “Just wait. You will sag and wrinkle like the rest of us.”
She kicked the stack of magazines. Expletive, expletive, expletive, because all the lights were out.
That weekend Mama had her first date with a man who lived at a different trailer park on the other end of our road. We made fun of Jake at first; his pasty chicken skin and incessant rambling about WWII over KFC made it hard for us to take him seriously.
By their third date, Mama had changed her mind.
“What do you think?” she asked, as if I hadn’t made my opinion known.
“No, he’s too old, with grown kids your age!”
But Mama married him anyway. She snuck off to Pigeon Forge, where Dolly Parton’s amusement park is, and did it without telling me. She’d known the man just under 60 days. By the next Monday she was packing away my things—in a good mood this time.
“Living with him will be better,” she reasoned. “There you will have a room with a door. Even with all his stuff, there’s more space for us.”
I had to admit, it was an upgrade.
He made Mama happy, to be fair. Late nights, I’d get up for a sip of water and find them giggling. Jake grabbed the “extra” around her waist that she was self-conscious about with every man before.
“My first wife was a skeleton,” he cooed. “Real women have something you can hold onto.”
Mama smiled knowingly. “We offer shade in the summer and warmth in the winter.”
They laughed like teenagers in his dirty kitchen, and I’d forget about the sips of water and go back to bed. Mama loved feeling brand new. But the feeling and the men scared me—Dale and Jake, her other husbands, and others whose names I didn’t remember.
Mama could overlook whole cornerstones in a man who made her feel good.
My new stepfather’s mama was a shut-in, living in the trailer beside his. You called her Granny even if she wasn’t yours. The first time I met her, she crouched in front of me right in her living room. Mottled, banana-spotted cleavage was suddenly in my face. Her teeth went in dark, different directions.
“Is there a flea in my bosom?” she asked.
I said, “No ma’am,” politely, like she’d offered butter cookies. My poker face comes from everyone at the trailer park—hell in DugoutValley, Georgia—having a cousin who’s been locked up for preaching naked in the supermarket or putting a needle in their arm.
Granny had a militia of chickens outside her yard. They roosted in her pine tree, pouncing if you dared walk under it. Inside her trailer were twelve cats.
During that first visit, I saw a loose bread loaf on the counter that may have been fresh the week before. At first the loaf looked raisinfilled. I got closer and saw that the raisins were moving. They weren’t raisins but roaches, in seemingly-constant figure eights.
I threw away the bread when she wasn’t looking, then immediately took out the trash which Granny was unusually possessive of. Mama bathed her before they went to the doctor. While they were gone, I was to deep clean the whole trailer.
Mama was appalled at the conditions Jake let Granny live in. I said it wasn’t our job, on the walk over, and Mama muttered, “I raised you better than that.”
But had she?
While they left, I immediately trashed graying food and soiled pet mats. A preserved crow’s wing was buried with loose change in a junk drawer—for hygiene’s sake, I tossed eleven bucks in silver change with no reservation.
Had I set it all on fire, maybe no one would’ve blame me. Instead, I jimmied open windows that were shut for a decade, gritting my teeth for the effort. It all had to be aired out after the Raid: Kills Roaches Dead. I put on a surgical mask.
Granny’s cats went into her bedroom with a towel under the door so the roach spray didn’t hurt them.
The roaches died on their backs, on the kitchen floor. I had to sweep them up, then mop with hot soapy water. After that dried, I poured bleach down every drain, until the faucets ran without clogging.
When Mama and Granny got back, the older woman was uncommonly lucid. The bath and some socializing had done her good. Her curt “Thank you, Gracen” was the only thanks I heard her pay anyone.
Then we helped her to the room, and Mama switched her TV from Billy Graham to Granny’s preferred programming—home shopping. The talking head was hocking cubic zirconium. On the walk back to the new trailer, I asked Mama what that was.
“Fake diamonds,” she replied, weary from the day. “Diamonique if you get QVC.”
Dementia aside, Granny was fit as a horse. Despite the bill of health, she was convinced of a hernia, which kept her indoors. I practiced for my license by retrieving whatever was on her barely-legible grocery list. Mama had pitched this to me as mutually beneficial.
She never just gave you the grocery list. You had to endure a docket of gross stories, sitting on her slashed-up couch on the front porch, with the stuffing coming out. She sat on the thing as if it weren’t soiled. The room, as expected, was also a mess—the lights were dim from dead moths trapped in the fixture.
Granny’s cruel stories normally centered on perverse sex. They could be about people from the trailer park or Dugout Valley at large, my own loved ones, celebrities, or dead strangers from her history. It could be twenty minutes of breathless rambling before Granny remembered to extract the list from her bra.
Today’s topic was about Mama. “Growing up,” Granny said, “she and her sister Diane opened their legs to every married man in Dugout Valley, high and low.” Jake, her son, was simply too deluded to listen to reason.
You wanted to spit until you remembered her mind was a wornout dishrag. Mama’s new husband was deluded though. Jake thought the old woman was capable of living alone. He argued with Granny all day, and cried about her squalor to us at night. She simply wouldn’t let you clean it while she was there, and she only ever left to see a doctor.
I listened to the old woman’s incendiary words, stone-faced, nodding when appropriate. Otherwise, I had checked out. Some king of televangelism was on TV. The Jim Bakker type chimed in: “If you keep coming back to something, you might just deserve it.”
Then, a final stab from Granny. “You wouldn’t fetch money like your mama. She was cute then. Before every man put a different line on her face.” She said that was something I should know. That every man I’m with will add a line to my face. Then she looked directly at me.
“You can’t afford further damage, my love.”
My top lip got thin, and my eyes peered slightly.
“It’s getting late, Granny,” I said, outstretching a hand. “The supermarket closes at seven.” At that, she handed over the grocery list and two twenties from her brassiere. A mild struggle, compared to most days.
My role models for handling Granny weren’t Mama or her husband. Granny, with two words, could turn them to infants. I looked up to the county health inspectors instead. When they made wellness checks at her place (fire hazard this or animal abuse that), Granny fell out on her doorstep every time. The good men from the Health Department never broke face.
“God, my hernia, damn,” she cawed, writhing in the dirt. “My stomach, my hernia,” clutching her torso for something the doctors said isn’t there.
These men always offered to call an ambulance if she needed. But Granny was always miraculously cured by this. Then, business as usual, they’d restate their purpose for being there.
This caused Granny to bare her teeth. She called them and their mothers everything but children of God. Maybe the first time Granny had known enough white trash legalese to fool them. That summer, she was either too old or too familiar to scare the men from the county away. Their poise and patience was unflagging. They’re who I’d copy when she was dragging Mama or my name through the mud.
Before I could get her next grocery list, the man who refilled Granny’s propane tank found her dead. She was wedged into a kitchen corner, swollen, after falling with no one to help her back up.
The propane guy beat on our screen door, and it shook with blows from his fists. When Mama opened the door, the poor man collapsed into her, shouting “Cats” again and again, almost incoherently, until an emergency vehicle came.
At her wake, the out-of-town preacher touted Granny as a “steadfast Christian.” Once he’d spoke peace on the woman and her mourners, Jake took the mic.
“Mama was a true character. Patricia Neal, Geraldine Page— nobody with an Oscar could play her,” he said. Since Granny had died, Jake forgot all the old gall that had come between them. In death, Granny was a saint.
Leading up to the wake, me and Mama called animal control every day to remove the cats. Naturally, we wouldn’t be cleaning it with them in there. But no one came for five days.
In the meantime, Granny’s cats idled on her porch rails, finally free and able to roam outside. They licked curled palms. They kneaded dough against tree trunks, yawning, stretching innocently in the sun, like they’d only been eating houseflies the whole time.
No one at the trailer park dared go near them.
When the cats were taken, we finally got to work.
The day of the cleaning, I’d gone to a joint video/hardware store. Jake had given me money for three cans of paint and an overnight rental of Candyman 2: Farewell to the Flesh. Our work flow was this: Jake sprayed for roaches, I spot cleaned with all-purpose cleaner, and Mama had a paint roller and mixers. White exterior gloss covered the grass, like mock Queen Anne’s lace, when she was finished.
After four hours, Jake said the competing fumes were suffocating him. He went outside to smoke, belly up in the grass. Me and Mama joined him after the main room was halfway decent. Four trailers down, you could hear a Chevy vs. Ford debate. Crows roosted in powerlines, and sandflies harassed us, but the chickens and cats, thank God, were gone.
Jake suggested we go to the drive-in movie that night. This surprised me and Mama, but we agreed, so long as it wasn’t one of his war movies. And it wasn’t.
Mama took a class at community college that Fall. It wasn’t like her—she’d told me all my life that she’d barely graduated high school. She took a class on Beowulf, Canterbury Tales, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Her classmates were closer to my age, so Mama asked Dr. Loretta McKee, could she bring me along. Dr. McKee told Mama that she could.
The next class, Dr. McKee argued that “beer” was incorrect in the Chaucer translation. “The drunk in Chaucer would’ve said ‘mead’.”
The professor rolled her eyes, but I saw Mama’s shining. Before, she’d only ever read John Saul with skeleton cleavage. Or Fabio paperbacks, with the raised, metallic sunrises and silly cursive fonts. She was always in a good mood after one of her classes. After a successful midterm, I figured, was as good a time as any to ask if she knew where Dale Steele, my alleged father, was.
Her and Aunt Diane were coupon clipping at the kitchen table.
“He sells produce at Trade Day,” Aunt Diane said. “Good produce, I’d say. Better than Winn-Dixie, just pricier. You know, Dale Steele really ain’t bad for 5’3″, Pat,” she goaded Mama.
So, that Sunday, I drove to opposing pastures—to Trade Day. It’s two towns over from Dugout Valley. In one pasture, they sold animals, tied and caged. Pit bulls and goats were roped to posts, coveted puppy breeds were in cages. There was also the occasional rare bird.
The other dirt field was forty Hooverville shacks, side-by-side. There were trailers with concessions like lemonade and funnel cake. On this side, folks sold nostalgia, bad and good—folk art whirligigs and hundreds of paperbacks with the spine broken on every page. The man selling fake Confederate relics with fake certificates of authenticity had a spot next to a man frying empanadas, and everyone was thoughtful and chatty.
In fact, infidelity was the only reason a fight ever broke out at Trade Day. And all that resulted in was some harmless tire slashing.
I found Dale’s stand in twenty minutes—his produce is colorcoded, tomatoes at the top, eggplants in the dirt.
“Dale Steele?” I asked.
“Who’s askin’?” He was suspicious, which annoyed me.
“Do I look like your bail bondsman?” I wanted to ask, thinking I would die if he whistled.
When I said my name, there was dim recognition, then twenty hugs. Dale didn’t say much besides platitudes. His cigarette rested low, because his bottom teeth were pulled. Dale bought churros from his neighbor, a boy my age.
When Dale got back, I asked about Mama, but he said, “That’s the dark ages, girl.” He didn’t want to see the ways she got older.
My eyes narrowed. “She’d remind you of your own wrinkles?” He admitted I was likely right.
“Why did you come?” he said, not cruelly. Dale wasn’t a bad man.
I told him I’d wanted to look at his face after these years. People all my life had said he was my father.
“When I die, all you’ll get is a piece of paper that says ‘Shit Outta Luck’.”
“I’m not here for money,” I assured him. “This is Trade Day—no one here has money.”
Then, like any tomboy worth her salt, I spit into the dirt, fierce but with finesse, like I had needed to the whole time.
In the end, Dale Steele gave me four yellow squash for Mama to bread and fry and pickled eggs in Mason jars, because I loved those. He said I could come back and get free produce as much as I wanted. He was there every Sunday.
“You can tell your mama that’s back child support,” he said, amiable so I wasn’t annoyed.
Back home, Mama knew where the goods came from. She eyed the pickled eggs with disgust. “Only a dirty-foot trucker would eat that mess.”
And I said, “Who else raised me but you.” But with a sly smile so she knew to laugh and not be offended.