Issue 203, Winter 2012
John C. Skaggs was born in Green County in 1805, thirteen years after Kentucky became our fifteenth state. His son, Ben Skaggs, was born in 1835 in Bald Hollow and married Missouri Ann Carter.
Their second eldest boy, Will Franklin Skaggs, had his pick of Pleasant Poteet’s granddaughters: he could have had Delilah or Myrtie Scripture, but he chose Ella Green Poteet; and their third child, after Carter C. and Elvie Omen, was Sylvia May.
Meanwhile, in Larue County, Elmina G. Dixon married Bryant Young Miller’s boy, and they bore a girl they called Mary Bothena Doctor Bohanan Sarah Lucritia Miller Rock, who, mercifully, named her own son Charlie.
And Thomas Jefferson Quinley’s daughter Sefronia married Edwin Russell Wheatley, and begat Mildred Lucille, who married Robert Raymond Salisbury, who called himself Butch Daniels—of whom we will not speak.
Their son married Charlie and Sylvia’s daughter, and begat me: “His Majesty the Ego,” as Freud wrote in 1908, “the hero of all daydreams and all novels.”
This happened in Kentucky, except for the Freud part. That happened in Austria.
I was born in Kentucky and lived there for the better part of three decades.
As schoolchildren we were taught that the word Kaintuckee came from Ka-ten-ta-teh, which meant, in Cherokee, “the dark and bloody ground.”
Later they said Ken-tah-ten meant “future land” in Iroquois. In high school, they claimed it was Wyandot for “land of tomorrow,” and I recall a field trip to see a documentary with that name.
Before long historians were telling us it could be Seneca for “place of meadows,” or it might be a Mohawk word, Kentah-ke, meaning “meadow.”
And from time to time there was an expert, often but not always on a barstool, who argued that the region in its pristine state had seemed to its settlers to be nothing but wild turkeys and river canebrakes: Kaneturkee.
It was clear that no one had any idea what he was talking about—and, in this manner, the most valuable part of our education was received.
I flew back to Kentucky on a cold spring day aboard a paper airplane that every sneeze of wind knocked sideways. Next time I’ll swim. Everyone hates flying. Even birds hate flying.
A sign in the airport said LOUISVILLE WELCOMES TOGETHER FOR THE GOSPEL NAZARENE YOUTH INTERNATIONAL 2012 PENTECOSTAL FIRE YOUTH CONFERENCE. There was nowhere to sleep. The many hotel rooms of downtown Louisville were occupied by boys and men in red T-shirts with white crucifixes ironed on. They stood in traffic, gawking.
Someone had cut down the peach tree in the front yard of my old Preston Street house. There was a scrap of vinyl siding across the front step, and plastic wrap on the inside windows to keep out the draft, and wax paper fluttering under a gap in the door.
Across the street from that house had once been the only bar where they had known what I wanted, a shot of Jim Beam and a bottle of Sterling, and Bill set it up every time he saw me coming. It was called B & B Bar, said to have been named for its owner Bill and then for Bill again, because what kind of name is the B-Bar.
I had seen an old man get shot in front of that bar because he wouldn’t give two kids his bicycle. I snorted pills off the back of the toilet in that bar with a woman I didn’t understand was a prostitute: but later it became clear to me.
Blind John, still dripping rain from his trip to the ATM, offered me a hundred dollars to let him go down on me. “I think you’re in the wrong bar,” I said. “Maybe you are,” he said.
I lost a lot of money shooting nine ball in that bar. Listen to your uncle Tim-Tom and never play pool for money against a man called Doc.
I saw a little man stab a big man with a carving knife on that bar’s front steps. Later the wet knife glimmered under the streetlight on the hood of a prowl car. The big man went to the hospital; the little man went to the penitentiary. I don’t know where the bar went.
I drove down the tractor-trailer plant where my father had managed the repair shop, but the plant had closed. I had worked there twice.
The first time was in the touch-up shop with Orville, soldering brakelight wires and repainting trailers Andrew had banged his forklift into, as a summer job and as a warning from my father: this was the kind of job I was going to wind up with if I didn’t straighten up and fly right. I was the only man in that garage with ten fingers.
The second time was in the decal shop as a college dropout. I had not straightened up, I had not flown right, this was the kind of job I had wound up with.
By day, Mayflower trailers, Frito-Lay trailers, Budweiser and Bud Light trailers, Allied trailers; by night, drinking Colt 45 with Allen down by the train trestles, and later Boyd crawling around on the floor with a cardboard box on his head, insisting that he was a Christmas present. I read The Faerie Queene—counting syllables, thinking about the number seven—and thought: One of these days I am going to jump off the Second Street Bridge.
Finley’s was gone, too, nothing but a pile of bricks. At Indi’s, eating the rib tips with red sauce and macaroni and cheese and mashed potatoes and gravy, I listened: “You never know. That’s what I told them at his funeral this morning. I said all right, see you later. But I was wrong.”
And I remembered my friend Allen asking me if I saw a plain white van parked across from his house down by the racetrack.
Allen said, “Tell me something, man. The van is real? I’m not paranoid? It’s been parked there for days. Three days.”
“I am sure that is true.”
“Listen—am I crazy? Could it be the FBI?”
“Allen,” I said, seated in his forest of pot plants, “let me ask you a question. What amount of drugs and paraphernalia is in your house, do you think? And what is it the FBI gets paid to do all day? I am one hundred percent certain it is the FBI. I will see you later.”
I said see you later, but I was wrong. I did not see Allen later. Allen went to jail.
I took the Gene Snyder Freeway out to the Bible College and got off at Beulah Church and drove past AMF Derby Lanes (“all you can bowl”) and Highview Church of God and Highview Baptist Church and Victory Baptist Church Camp.
An old woman with a long gray ponytail was doing yard work, cutting back bushes I had planted in front of the house where I had grown up, where I had tried to grow up. A tired black dog lay in the yard, her yard now, not mine.
It’s an old story. The horse knows the way to carry the sleigh: you go back to the place, but the place isn’t there any more.
I drove out of Fern Creek down Bardstown Road toward Buechel, past Cash Xpress and Mister Money, past Xtreme Auto Sounds and Ventura’s Used Tires and Global Auto Glass, and past the Heart of Fire City Church, the pastor of which had once helped us move some furniture and when it came time for my mother to write him a check for his services he said, “Don’t cheat a blind man, sister, I can’t read.”
I drove to my uncle Charles’s house out in Okolona, past Latino Auto Service and the Godfather (the strip joint that once had on its marquee THE MAYOR IS GAY PLEASE SUE SO I CAN PROVE IT), past Liquor Palace 5 and Discount Medical Supplies, past Furniture Liquidators Home Center, past Cash America Pawn and Cashland, past the Mower Shop, past Los Mezcales and El Molcajete, past Big Ron’s Bingo and Cashtyme Cash Advance (“You’re Good For It!”), past Moore’s Sewing & Learning Center, and DePrez Quality Jewelry & Loan, and Floors Unlimited, and Chain Saw World.
I turned on the rental car’s radio and the man on the radio said, “Your gift right now, just twenty dollars a month, could help. Seventy-three more gifts needed. People like you, doing their part. One song left in this challenge. Standing in the gap for those who need it. We here believe in the infallible Word of God. Unchanging principles for changing times.”
I drove past something. Then I drove past something else.
“There is an awful lot of drugs now in these small towns and big towns both,” my uncle Charles said. “You may not know the police shot that boy you all used to play with. Said he was cooking meth down there in his shed. They had him surrounded and he came out alone with his pistol. Found thirty-seven shell casings when it was all done with. What was his name?” But Charles couldn’t remember the dead man’s name.
“You’ll stay with us tonight,” my aunt Alice Carol said.
“I have a hotel room near the airport.”
“Honey, everything in this town is near the airport.”
“I guess I made a foolish decision.”
“You’ve always been foolish.”
My aunt was teasing me. She didn’t think I was so bad. One Thanksgiving—we were listening to the old boys jaw for hours about hiding up a tree with my grandfather’s shotgun in order to shoot a neighbor’s brown dog that had killed two of their chickens, and after both barrels were empty there was nothing left but the dog’s collar and its tail, which they’d helped the neighbor bury—she had turned to me and said, “If you want to be a writer, why don’t you go get a pen and paper and write down all these lies?”
Standiford Field was now called Louisville International Airport and the Executive West hotel was the Crowne Plaza, but Executive Strike & Spare still stood on the other side of Phillips Lane. I walked across the street and shot nine-ball for a couple of lazy hours. It turns out it’s like riding a bike—you never forget how, and especially not if you never knew how in the first place.
Overheard at the bar: “He and his friends see this old man take his wallet out at the liquor store, so they know he’s got money, and they follow him home. But his wife’s there. Now that’s two counts. I called him and his mother says, He ain’t here. I called back. I said, Santino, I heard you cut your monitor off. You know you got court this Friday? You coming? You know that’s another felony? Do not shave your head again, I told him.”
“It’s funny what order we all remember the salad dressings in.”
“My youngest daughter has excellent upper-body strength.”
“I sleep very well on the floor.”