1. Embrace Change

I had just turned fifteen when my dad killed himself, and I turned my back on God.

I will always be grateful, that God never turned his back on me.

Sporty and Grace Waters trundled home from a party where they enthusiastically broke the law of the land, specifically, the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America regarding the consumption of alcohol, also known as the Volstead Act. Like most reasonable people, they decided to ignore Prohibition. In their case, the violating alcoholic beverage trafficked under the name of moonshine, the exact opposite of sunshine, although the wicked liquid did infuse you with a rather sunny disposition right up until the point in time you experienced a total lunar eclipse of your conscious mind and couldn’t remember your own name.

He parked his Tin Lizzie, an old black Ford Model T, rather abruptly in the driveway of a small dark red brick cottage my soon to be grandparents owned off Hillsborough Street, a block from the North Carolina State campus. Cow college everybody called it because of the ag school. Sporty and Grace had two children at that point in time, a boy, seven years old, and a girl, five. Nine months later they’ll be my dad’s older siblings, and eventually, my uncle and aunt. They poured themselves out of their car and staggered toward the front porch.

Sporty and Grace dressed in typical 1920s fashion, and exuded an elegant Gatsbyesque style, semi-rural Raleigh reprints of F. Scott and Zelda, though much less tragic. Sporty was handsome, and dapper in his pinstriped charcoal gray suit that accentuated his broad shoulders. Perched rakishly on his head, his black fedora featured a bright red feather. Grace exhibited the winged flippant flair of a devil may care roaring twenties flapper, with breathtakingly seductive nylon stockings on her lovely well shaped slender legs that snaked all the way up to her happy place, and then some.

Being in their early thirties, they projected a vibrant procreative fullness of life. Grace, a looker in her own right, lustily fondled Sporty’s crotch in the garish glow of the front porch light. Fat moths frolicked above them, swirling and swerving, noisily flying around the overhead lamp, careening and crashing into the bulb and the eaves of the house with a dizzying thump after thump after thump, as if engaged in an acrobatic aerial demolition derby. Why quite frankly, those moths carried on as though they’d been drinking moonshine all night too.

“My goodness but that bootleg lickah shore does put me in the mood,” Grace whispered in a throaty purr through painted lips. He glanced furtively about thinking the neighbors might be watching them grab and grope each other on the front porch. But, like most men having their genitals stroked, Sporty quickly lost his ability to think straight and otherwise function normally.

He fumbled with a ring of keys trying to jam the right key in the lock of a humble, but substantial, heavy oak front door with an arch on top. Any carpenter worth his straightedge would have called it a radius top door. Grace pulled a half empty Mason jar out of the side pocket of Sporty’s jacket, and availed herself of another lusty swig of moonshine.

“If you drink any more of that white lightning you won’t be able to stand up,” Sporty said with a tone of chastisement.

“I didn’t know you wanted to do it standin’ up,” Grace said. The sodden door remained swollen from recent rains, but with a thrust of his shoulder Sporty shoved the door open as they all but fell forward into the house.

***

William Whalen Waters, Sporty, entered life born of a pharmacist dad named Clarence, who’d become way too fond of his work. While high on his supply, Clarence botched a prescription for an affluent woman in the community who abruptly died, whereupon the court handed him twenty to life at Central Prison in Raleigh. Twenty to life turned out to be a death sentence because while incarcerated Clarence died too, from an overindulgence of the devil’s deadly sister, morphine.

Sporty’s mom, christened name of Gertrude, but everybody called her Trudy, was a wispy ephemeral creature prone to flights of fancy. She barely existed, and rarely flourished, way too beautiful and fragile for this earthly plane. Trudy claimed she could hear the voices of the dead weeping and wailing, even chanting and singing sometimes, so my great-grandmother frequented graveyards full of talkative tombstones at all hours of the day and night listening for the very best in buried gossip. The powers that be locked up Trudy in Dorothea Dix Hospital, the antiquated state facility for the mentally ill, located up on a high knoll people dubbed Dix Hill.

Having matured to the ripe old age of nine with nary a close relation anywhere in the general vicinity, some well-meaning church folk enrolled Sporty at the All Saint’s Orphanage in Wake Forest, a few miles outside of Raleigh. A small college situated itself there too at the time with the same name as the town. Encouraged by the lure of big tobacco money, the school later relocated to Winston-Salem in the 1950s.

Sporty excelled at every sport — baseball, basketball, football, and track — hence his moniker, but oh how he could take things apart and put them back together again, often with his eyes closed to impress his fellow students, especially the girls, and even the teachers. When electric motors rumbled onto the scene after the turn of the last century, Sporty realized he’d discovered his life’s calling. These new electric motors offered an exciting field, and Sporty was determined, he would be a player on that field.

At the age of seventeen, Sporty graduated from All Saint’s Orphanage carrying a sack of apples and oranges, a Barlow pocket knife, a twenty dollar bill, and a letter assuring, “To whom it may concern,” that one W. Whalen Waters could be relied upon, “as a young man of high moral fiber and upstanding character.”

As he passed through those rusty old wrought iron gates to leave the orphanage for the last time, his favorite teacher, Mr. Oliver Ripley, yelled after him, “Please remember to write if you find work.”

Sporty heard something entirely different that day. Don’t bother to write if you don’t find work, because there’s no room left for you here at the orphanage. We have more hungry mouths to feed each and every day.

He hitchhiked across the nineteen miles from Wake Forest over to the bustling capitol city metropolis of Raleigh where he soon owned a burgeoning repair business named Carolina Electric Motors. The company grew rapidly and Sporty set about calling on the textile mills and lumber mills in the eastern part of the Tarheel state, endeavoring to sell his rebuilt electric motors. On one of those sales calls to the small sawmill town of Smithfield, regionally famous for its hams and yams, Sporty chanced to meet a fiery long-legged redhead of Welsh and Norwegian ancestry by the name of Grace Munsell Haug, whose father raised hogs, and owned several sawmills in the area.

She immediately liked this somewhat larger than life and relatively sophisticated young man from the comparatively big city of Raleigh. Grace was raised around farm boys and farm animals, and she didn’t see much difference between the two. Sex seemed like a pretty natural thing to Grace, so she vigorously gave her virginity to Sporty Waters. 

She’d seen enough pole barns, pine tar and pig shit to last her a lifetime, so when he asked her to marry him, she said, “Yes.”  But enough of the back story, let’s return to the beginning of our tale and my father’s conception in Raleigh on that hot humid July night in 1925.

***

“I gave John his medicine at seven thirty, and I read Elizabeth her story,” said the babysitter waiting up for them in the front hallway, startling both Sporty and Grace. He pushed some change from his pocket at the babysitter and ushered her out the door as she tried to keep on speaking. By accident Sporty also gave her a stick of his ever present Juicy Fruit gum. His doctor prescribed sugar for Sporty’s diabetes when the ailment afflicted him with the low blood sugar shakes, so he always carried the Juicy Fruit with him. The babysitter peered down at the piece of gum rather quizzically as he hurriedly invited her out the front door. She shrugged her shoulders and stuck the stick of gum in her mouth as she skipped down the front steps.

“Thank you, terrific job,” Sporty said, then closed the front door with a sloshy whoosh, and thumb locked it as Grace dropped to her knees right there in the foyer. She opened Sporty’s fly and went down on him with an exuberant enthusiasm seldom seen in the middle stages of marital intercourse, after the children have arrived.

Fellatio, the English noun, comes to us from the Latin fellatus, deriving from the past participle fellare, translated as, to suck, converting one would hope, a dangling participle into a mighty sword.

Grace paused, came up for air and asked, “Did you miss me?”

While she had Sporty’s member in her mouth, the only words he managed to get out of his mouth were, “You’re amazing Grace.” Any hints of chastisement had long since disappeared from his voice. After a few minutes’ worth of mind blowing head from his loving wife and fellatrix, Sporty seized upon the notion that a change of venue might be in order so they could more conveniently, and quietly, consummate their sexual congress.

They rushed toward the bedroom. She kicked off her heels in the living room as he tossed his coat on the sofa. Flying fingers unbuttoned his shirt and her blouse in between kisses and caresses and pinches and muffled sighs. Sporty flung his tie over a lampshade as he hopped through the bedroom doorway on his left foot while attempting to pull his slightly scuffed black wingtip off the right foot.

With a dexterity and focus necessitated by a so hard the cat can’t scratch it diamond cutter blue steel boner born of moonshine whiskey horniness and a week’s worth of business road trip loneliness, Sporty skillfully slipped a rubber onto his dick.

Putting a rubber on your dick reminds one of peeling a grape, only backwards, with the grape being roughly the size and shape of a cucumber. Regardless of what Thomas Jefferson wrote into various and sundry American documents, all men are not created equal. Some cucumbers grow bigger than others, and God endowed Sporty with a Wake County Fair blue ribbon prize winner of a cucumber.

Condoms have been around for several hundred years at least, made out of everything from fine leather to linen treated with chemicals, even animal intestines and bladders. A savage outbreak of syphilis erupted among French troops, not surprising really, and rapidly spread across Europe in 1494. As you might imagine, this deadly disease, which caused chunks of flesh to fall off the infected bodies and agonizing death within weeks, preternaturally accelerated the widespread adoption of condoms.

If you clapped a spotlight on the Catholic Church, you’d rapidly come to the conclusion that they haven’t gotten much of anything right from at least the time of the Inquisition forward. So of course, they labeled birth control as a sin too, condemning condoms as immoral. The rumor had it that the Cardinals of that era even engaged in feverish conversations to encourage an edict, a Papal Bull to excommunicate the condoms.

Sporty jumped onto the bed and into Grace’s eager arms. He enjoyed gently pushing her breasts close together so he could quickly switch back and forth, sucking first one nipple, and then the other. Sporty loved having a mouthful of Grace.

In an era when many married women merely tolerated sex as a means of providing progeny to seal the marital deal, Grace felt differently. Sure, she liked making love, but Grace really loved to fuck. Just her husband mind you, but she did enjoy the bump and grind with her true love one and only.

Sporty stripped, butt naked except for his sexy black socks held up by his even sexier black garters, and Grace disrobed down to her nylon stockings and garter belt, her outfit accented by only a single strand of pearls around her neck.

She employed an inspired interpretation of a southern redneck Saturday night wrestling move to throw him onto his back, whereupon Grace climbed on top of Sporty, straddled the saddle horn, and rode him cowgirl style. Yippee-ki-yi-yay.

Logically, we know our grandparents had sex. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have parents, and there would be no us. Still creepy though, thinking about your grandparents fucking. As kids we know them when they’re old and gray with these wrinkled up prune faces, even their teeth get crooked, stained yellow, and a few teeth go missing, or the whole set of replacement teeth repose gracelessly in a glass on the night table by the side of the bed. Our grandparents also reek of this perpetual science experiment version of bad breath that will absolutely melt your face when you find yourself nose to nose with them. We never think of our grandparents as young horny people getting it on and rocking each other’s worlds.

Sporty and Grace came to a relatively quiet, so you don’t wake up the kids, sweaty, simultaneous, gasping panting breathless orgasm and collapsed on the bed in a throbbing humped out heap of pulsating flesh.

A short while later, they sat with concentrated concern on the edge of their rumpled bed, staring down in disbelief at a broken rubber dangling precariously on the tip of Sporty’s dick.

“What do you mean it broke?” Grace asked, the gap between the concept of sex and the conception of a child narrowing by the moment.

Envision the scene as a week’s worth of sperm tunnel their way out of Sporty’s prisonous loins to motherfucking freedom. Approximately three hundred million sperm swimming toward the egg containing the other half of my dear old dad’s DNA.  Can you conceive of the competition amongst three hundred million swimmers, and only one aquatic champion gets the gold, which in this case would be Grace’s fertile egg? One sperm swam way out in front, leading the pack, or do we call it a school of sperm?

My dad entered this world through grace, or perhaps more accurately, through Grace, as the third of three children. If not for the birth control malfunction, he might not have been born at all. They say condoms are cheaper than children, but I guess old granddad bought a cheap condom, always a bad idea, or perhaps the contraceptive apparatus just couldn’t stand up to the pounding they gave it that night.

Sporty and Grace didn’t really want, or believe, they could afford a third child. Even in the womb Grace referred to my dad as her little champion swimmer. But, the rubber gave way and the dam broke, so at that point it became a matter of who could swim the fastest, and my dad, William Whalen Waters, Jr., could swim like a fish.

***

Fast forward to 1939, and my dad, age thirteen, strutted up to a kid who must have been three or four years older than him and half a foot taller. Dad put his clinched fists on his hips and said as he nodded toward the pool, “I’ll bet you a nickel.” Any day they opened the gates, my dad swam races at Hayes-Barton Pool in Raleigh, betting the older boys a nickel a go he’d swim faster than they could, any stroke, any distance. He rarely lost.

***

Now we’re up to 1944, and dad asked his rival in the next lane, Lloyd Blue, also his best friend since childhood, “You wanna put five bucks on it?” During dad’s days as a collegiate swimmer in Chapel Hill at the University of North Carolina natatorium, the swim gym, dad usually finished first in the fifty yard freestyle, the hundred free, and the two hundred free. Lloyd Blue won a race every once and a while, which kept the wagers interesting, but almost always, dad beat everybody. Dad seemed to be born standing at the top of a three-tiered victory stand with medals around his neck. The sportswriters selected him as a two year All American at Carolina. Dad was also chosen for the 1944 Olympic Team, but the athletes didn’t compete that year because of a fracas called World War II.

The year my parents met, the student body at Carolina voted him Most Athletic and Most Handsome. Dad gazed upon the world through big brown eyes resting above an aquiline nose, full lips and a big dimple in the center of his chiseled chin. His upper body was shaped like a V with broad swimmer’s shoulders tapering down to narrow hips joined together by washboard abs. The same student body named my mom as Most Beautiful and Sweater Girl. She rocked a pretty good student body of her own. 

Dad liked life fast so he bought an MG sports car he loved to drive on those winding tobacco roads late at night. Dad enjoyed liquids in all forms. He liked swimming in them, and drinking them too. Mixing fast cars and booze almost always causes screeching tires and sports cars that smash into trees on the side of the road.

My dad shattered his kneecap in the wreck. The doctors replaced his patella with a silver one. They said he’d never walk again normally, much less swim competitively. None of those doctors knew how driven he truly was. He rehabbed his knee like a man possessed. Soon, and to everyone’s amazement, he stood on the victory stand once again, accepting more medals, but this time at North Carolina State. Dad transferred to State so he could be closer to home in Raleigh, and the sportswriters made him an All American for two more years. After college, my dad went to work for Sporty at Carolina Electric Motors.

***

Let’s jump ahead again, a few years into my parents’ young married life. When mom and dad visited her hometown, they enjoyed clowning around by the sign at the edge of town, and taking pictures for their friends in North Carolina. Mom said, “Pull over, right there next to the sign,” as dad parked their car on the side of the road about fifteen feet in front of it. The sign had a huge set of longhorns on top with some howdy neighbor language underneath.

“Welcome to Pair O’ Dice, Texas,” dad said, reading the first line of the sign.

“Feelin’ lucky today, cowboy?” Mom asked, quoting the bottom line, as she posed seductively with the sign, and dad snapped her picture.

My mom, Mary Jane Lide, hailed from a little coastal town located about a half hour north of Corpus Christi, Texas. The elevation in the town of Pair O’ Dice rose up to a height of only seven feet above the ocean’s edge, one Wilt “The Stilt” Chamberlain above sea level. My great-great-grandfather, everyone called him Pearly Gates on account of his big smile and pearly white teeth, won the town of Pleasantville in a crap game at the Fort Worth stockyards way back in 1881. Old Pearly reckoned any winning streak that lucky should be honored, so he changed the name of the town to Pair O’ Dice.

There wasn’t much to the beach burg really, one blinking red four way stoplight and maybe 7,000 people on a good day, many of them busy ranching or farming, cows and cotton mostly. Some folks were thankful a few oil and gas wells speckled the landscape here and there, the heads on those pump jacks bobbing up and down like hungry black iron chickens pecking the ground looking for food. The old men sat around at Otis Mundine’s Barbershop waiting on an empty chair, or at the Chester Nimitz VFW hall hoping to holler bingo, or in the beer joints playing dominoes, the National Game of Texas, and talking about the weather, or whether the fish were biting, and if so, on what kind of bait. The women baked and gossiped and raised kids.

Pair O’ Dice pumped its drinking water from a brilliant turquoise blue artesian spring at the west edge of town. Town folklore held forth a theory the water contained a high lithium content, and that’s what smoothed out the lives of the natives. As for me, I figured there were about the same number of beer joints as churches, a more likely reason why things stayed on an even keel in Pair O’ Dice.

My mom’s dad, Earl Morrison Lide, served as the Mayor of Pair O’ Dice for decades. Earl was cornhole buddies with Lyndon Johnson, Sam Rayburn, John Connally, and that whole bunch of Texas politicos. My people didn’t belong to any organized political party. They were Democrats. Earl probably knew Will Rogers too, the Democrat who came up with that last quip about Democrats. Earl knew everybody. Granddaddy Earl owned the local Cadillac dealership, a few Lucky filling stations, and a little bit of real estate. Granddaddy had done well for himself, but the Gates family had the serious money.

My grandmother’s maiden name was Kathleen Pharr Gates, Pearly’s granddaughter, and the apple of his eye. The Gates family owned the First National Bank of Pair O’ Dice. My mom grew up at the corner of Shoreline Drive and Gates Street in what the town folk called the Old Gates Home. From the front porch of that house you could see all the way across Aransas Bay to San Jose Island, Saint Joe’s Island the locals called it, and the Gulf of Mexico out beyond that. Their phone number was 3. The Texas license plate on the back bumper of their cream colored convertible drop top rag roof next year’s model Cadillac…was 1.

***

Despite frequent and enthusiastic sex, mom and dad didn’t conceive right away. The doctors ran lots of tests, and said nothing was wrong with any of their plumbing. After five years of trying, mom finally got pregnant, and nine months later, I bawled my way into this world at about nine o’clock on the night of September 13, 1951.

Dad called me, “Nooner,” as I was growing up. When I got to be about nine years old, I asked him why? He said I couldn’t pronounce, “Junior,” when I was a little kid. That sounded pretty reasonable at the time. Mom told me much later in life that I was in fact, the product of a nooner.

***

My parents were the closest thing Raleigh’s tobacco road had to a Jack and Jackie Kennedy Camelot kind of couple. They occupied the trendsetter throne around those parts as the “it” pair. The shindig didn’t start until they got there and it ended when they left. They partied hardy in between too, drinking and dancing the night away.

Raleigh was then, and still is, a hidebound traditional town, nothing ever seems to change. They operated the machinery of state government there, grinding out compromises like so much legislative sausage: bought and paid for sellouts, tit for tat trade-offs, and half-baked half-hearted half measures that didn’t serve the citizens very well. Raleigh was a place where there was a place for everything, and everything was in its place. That was especially true of race. Every water fountain and water closet, the bathrooms, were labeled White or Colored. You would have thought they’d fought the Civil War months ago, that it was the 1860s, and not the 1960s. Southerners still couldn’t believe they’d lost The War of Northern Aggression, as they called it. The rallying cry of the stars and bars crowd did get funnier at least.

Save your Dixie Cups, the South shall rise again.

My dad worked hard and my mom became the perfect other half of a 1960s power couple. They built their dream house. This was anybody’s dream house in the mid-1960s. A 7,000 square foot house built in the shape of an H with the middle part of the H over Crabapple Creek. The house was wrapped in silver gray stained cypress board and batten siding. The roof consisted of cedar shake shingles with copper gutters and downspouts. Large picture windows surveyed the landscape from this enormous wooden edifice that appeared to have grown up organically out of the surrounding soil like a huge inhabitable angular structural mushroom. 

“Distressed,” mom said as she pointed at the yet to be stained raw wood mahogany front door leaning up against the side of our new house under construction.

“Distressed?” Dad asked.

“Distressed,” mom said again, moving her lips real slow like we were deaf, or stupid, or both, as she pointed to a picture in one of her magazines.

Mom devoured those House Beautiful, Town & Country, and Southern Living type magazines from cover to cover, and wanted our front door to be distressed. Dad and I finally figured out distressed meant old and beat up looking, like an antique. Mark it down in the books, the day we distressed that front door was one of our best father and son days ever.

“Choose your weapon?”

“Gimme that ball-peen hammer,” I said.

Dad and I pounded that front door with claw hammers, sledge hammers, and ball-peen hammers, threw rocks at it, scorched it with a blow torch, and even blasted it a few times with a twelve gauge shotgun.

“Fire in the hole,” dad yelled as he pulled the trigger.

“My turn,” I said, as dad handed me the shotgun.

When dad and I took turns shooting our mahogany masterpiece we used quail shot, and backed up quite a ways to make sure we didn’t blow a hole in that damned door. Hercules, our 90 pound black lab, and Honey, our beagle, went nuts. Honey howled, ready for the chase, but which way? When you fired shotguns Hercules expected birds to fall out of the sky, dove, quail, ducks, geese, something with feathers he could retrieve. No birds, no nothing, he didn’t get it. Hercules was pissed. Why were we shooting a door? Hercules ran around in circles, and even tried to retrieve the door. Honey kept on howling. But by God, we delivered a totally distressed front door to mom, with a few fresh canine teeth marks in it.

“Perfect,” mom said, “that’s exactly what I wanted.” They printed a wonderful article about the house in the Real Estate Section of the Raleigh News & Observer with pictures of mom and dad smiling, forced smiles as it turned out.

In the master bathroom copper hot water pipes were installed under the floor so the tiles felt warm to your feet. The tiles themselves were a variegated pastel lavender and cream color that reminded me of the clouds of a spectacular sunset, you know, like those Michelangelo paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel biblical sunsets, where God reaches out his hand to touch the hand of man. That’s what my bare feet felt like on that floor too, like walking on warm lovely luscious lavender and cream colored clouds.

We worshipped at the First Presbyterian Church on Overland Road where Reverend Carroll White preached the gospel from the pulpit on Sundays with his rich voice of God larger than life baritone presence. My mama adored that man. She worshipped the ground he walked on. Billy Graham, another North Carolina Presbyterian minister, dropped by to see Reverend White pretty regularly. One became a whole lot more famous than the other, but they were both just Carolina boys, friends who found God, and wanted to be of service.

I heard the calling too, and wanted to stand up in that pulpit one day, and tell folks what God meant in this chapter of the Bible when he said that, and in that verse when he said this. On my fourteenth birthday, September 13, 1965, Reverend White announced in the church bulletin he’d arranged a full academic scholarship for me to attend Davidson College in Charlotte so I could grow up to be a Presbyterian minister too, or at least that was our plan at the time. But sometimes…plans change.

Intelligence and beauty emanated from my mom. Dad strode upon the earth, and swam in its waters too, like some handsome Greek hero in a Homeric epic. They lived in the real world because they loved it, and it loved them back. The real world felt like sandpaper to me, a slightly above average looking kid, and a mediocre athlete. Early in life my nose overwhelmed my face. Mom pinched it trying to make it smaller, but that probably caused more swelling. My ears stuck out too much she thought, so mom would stick chewing gum behind them to make my ears lay flat up against the side of my head. As I grew into my later teen years, my head caught up with my nose, and my ears, so everything fit together better.

Thankfully, I was smart. I lived in my head, and I read, a lot. Other kids my age were reading comic books, or Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mysteries. I inhaled Hemingway, Steinbeck, and Faulkner. I laughed with Kipling, Twain, and O. Henry. I dreamed with Shakespeare, Milton, and Blake by flashlight under the covers when I was supposed to be sleeping. I never wanted to go to sleep, so afraid I would miss something.

I struggled to try and make sense of things. I needed to understand why an all knowing, omnipotent, and benevolent God allowed pain and suffering on earth. Like children dying of starvation in Africa? What about racial prejudice, and the American stain of slavery? Why do some people hate each other, even fight and kill each other? Where did we come from, and why were we here? Human beings seem to have caused most, if not all, of our own problems. So how do we turn that around? Why did people fall in love, and what made them stop loving each other? Was true love a real thing, or just some silly fairy tale? And even if it did exist, could somebody like me ever find true love?

***

A week before Christmas on December 18, 1965, mom and dad attended a wintertime Saturday night Carolina Shag dance at the Magnolia Country Club on Greenwood Avenue in Raleigh. The Carolina Shag originated on those endless strands of Atlantic waterfront between Wilmington and Myrtle Beach. Think of it as a laid back surfside version of the Jitterbug. This Shag dance featured one of those all white beach music groups in chinos and madras shirts covering hits originally released by the all black beach music bands in tuxedos.

At the table sat Lloyd Blue, and his wife Katherine, whose dad owned a big Chevy dealership, the main reason Lloyd married her in the first place. Not that she wasn’t pretty mind you, she was.

“Lloyd, I’m making Bill take Arthur Murray lessons, but he still can’t dance worth a shit, so whaddya say, let’s me and you do the Shag,” mom said, sounding a little bit tipsy.

“Sure, we’ll pretend we’re at the beach down in Cherry Grove with sand in our shoes,” Lloyd said, offering mom his hand. Lloyd and mom weaved through the tables toward the dance floor, as dad and Katherine watched them leave.

“I need to find a bartender fast,” dad said to Katherine.

“Ditto, mind if I join you?” Katherine asked.

“Lead the way,” dad said as they left the table. When they passed the coat closet in the hallway, dad winked at Katherine and nodded at the door.

“A girl can never have too many furs,” Katherine said as she turned the doorknob.

Once inside the coat closet, dad quickly locked the door, like he might have done that a time or two before. Katherine hiked up her dress and pushed her ass back toward dad who pulled her panties aside. Dad unzipped his pants and whipped out his dick. When he penetrated her, Katherine gasped and steadied herself by grabbing the lower closet rod with one hand full of mink and the other fist full of sable as dad did her from behind.

My dad had a problem with women. He was all the time getting caught with his cock in the cookie jar, but my mom always forgave him. I suppose women who marry handsome All American Olympic athletes should expect such little infidelity housekeeping issues. But how did dad get to be that way? Why did he cheat on mom so often?

I think dad felt unwanted, even in the womb. I overheard the Grace and Sporty broken rubber story the first time when dad told one of his buddies. He laughed his ass off, but it always seemed like a hollow laugh to me. Instead of the traditional love leads to marriage and then sex model, somehow my dad separated sex and love into two unrelated things, one an enjoyable event, the other an annoying emotion. I’m not sure he ever quite got the whole love thing. In a crowded room full of people fawning over him, wanting to be close to him, hoping somehow his star quality would rub off on them, my dad remained a very lonely guy, locked up in some weird kind of self-imposed solitary confinement, but only he could see the bars.

There were other monsters to battle too. One particular day, my dad stared down at a newspaper headline on the front page of the Wall Street Journal. The banner read, “General Electric and Westinghouse Accused of Collusion.” After dad inherited Carolina Electric Motors from Sporty, who died from diabetes in 1958 — so much for the Juicy Fruit cure — the business boomed for a few years, but then the Feds busted General Electric, Westinghouse, and a handful of other similar companies for price fixing, in what became known as the Great Electrical Conspiracy in the early 1960s. The legal settlement required those antitrust violators to reduce their prices dramatically. Overnight, you could buy a new electric motor from these big companies for less than dad could sell a rebuilt motor.

Dad’s business hemorrhaged money as it collapsed underneath him. We didn’t find out until much later how bad his business was, or that he had borrowed eighty grand from his mother trying to keep it afloat. That money amounted to the bulk of her retirement savings. Afraid he’d never be able to pay her back, he began taking lots of those little white crosses, amphetamines, so he could work longer and harder trying to save his company from bankruptcy, but nothing helped. The speed made him jumpy, so he drank more booze to smooth out the rough edges. The wheel started spinning round and round, faster and faster, in the wrong direction.

Dad encountered trouble on the home front too. Mom quit drinking, and swore the water wagon pledge via the twelve step program at Alcoholics Anonymous. The doctor prescribed Elavil, Triavil, and Valium to calm her down, and Seconal, Tuinal, and Phenobarbital to sleep, so she consumed her gin in pill form from then on out. She pleaded with dad to quit drinking too, which didn’t appeal to him worth a kiss my ass good goddamn.

The cumulative effect of his philandering had taken a toll on their marriage over the years. Once mom sobered up, she realized she didn’t much like the sound of those under handed, overbearing, low-rent high-heeled Raleigh bitches gossiping with their noses in the air about her husband’s numerous indiscretions. Those women had such stuck up noses they’d probably have drowned to death in a heavy rainstorm.

My parents separated and mom asked dad to move out of the dream house. I think mom decided she’d see how the other half lived, and had an affair of her own, probably with dad’s best friend, Lloyd Blue. Label that the classic revenge fuck. House beautiful got ugly. Mom always said she wanted to write a novel about their lives called, The Backyard Swing Set. Looking back fifty years later, and knowing what I know now, I don’t think her book was going to be about playground equipment.

***

Our world spun out of control on the night of November 14th in 1966. I was hanging out in my bedroom, which gave me a good view of the driveway, where I could see dad drinking from a bottle of Old Crow bourbon. He’d parked his midnight blue Ford Galaxie at a spot overlooking the front door of our 7,000 square foot house built in the shape of an H that never gave us a home.

This wasn’t a prearranged visitation day or time. Mom went to an AA meeting that night, like she did every evening while she tried to get off the alcohol. She wasn’t going to be any help with this dad drinking in his car in front of the house situation, the possibility of unpleasantness scrawled all over it in large letters. I thought I should go out and say something to him, but what? Dad never was the great communicator.

In retrospect, and even though he was widely respected as a gifted engineer, he must have been dyslexic, because he could write in longhand, as fast backwards as he did forwards. Then he’d hold what he wrote up to a mirror, and the scribbled gibberish on the paper became clear in the mirror’s reverse image, a great party trick, but not so useful in life otherwise.

I walked out to his car as he rolled down the driver’s side window. “How’s school?” Dad asked as he took another sip of Old Crow out of the bottle.

“Hey, maybe you should slow down on the bourbon.”

“Maybe I should speed up.”

“How about a game of pool?”

“Why not,” dad said as he put the cap back on, tossed the bottle down on the seat beside him and tried to climb out of the car, more than a little unsteady, so it took a couple of attempts, but he laughed it off. “And to think, I used to be an Olympic drinker.” We made our way down the steps from the driveway parking area, across the front patio and opened the front door. “Nice door, but a little distressed, huh Billy?”

“Perfect.”

Mom decorated the family room with some leather couches and chairs in front of the fireplace against the wall that looked out on an interior courtyard, and a card table at the far end of the room that opened onto a screened in porch. That meant he had to put the pool table at the other end of the family room closest to the kitchen, which was fine by him. High above the pool table he’d strung a wire from one side of the room to the other, with those black and natural wood colored scoring beads threaded along it. Dad usually raised his cue stick and reset the scoring beads to zero before we played pool, but that time he didn’t, which seemed odd to me.

“Rack ‘em rook.”

“Straight pool, call shot?” I asked, because that was dad’s game, the only real game of pool according to him. He’d often run two or three racks before I even picked up my cue.

“Nope.”

“Nine ball then, a good gambler’s game?” I had just turned fifteen, and I’d never beaten my dad in a game of pool, any game, ever. When he attended N.C. State, dad managed Captain’s Pool Hall over on Hillsborough Street in his spare time, and pocketed quite a bit of green teaching those other college boys a thing or two about the game of pocket billiards.

“Nope, let’s shoot some eight ball.”

“But, but, you never play eight ball. You said eight ball’s a game for losers.”

“There’s a first time for everything. You gonna rack ‘em, or do I have to do it?”

“I got it.”

“You wanna lag for the break?”

“Nah, you’ll just win the lag, so go ahead, break ‘em.”

Dad cut loose with one of his patented Thor’s hammer breaks that sent the solids and stripes careening all over the green felt of that pool table like big colorful atoms in a nuclear reactor. But not his usual great break so much, this was more for show than dough. It must have been the booze. I could tell he was off his game. He still sunk one stripe, the fifteen, and one solid, the six, which gave him the choice of going either way, high or low.

The problem was, the cue ball lay snug up against the rail and stymied by the eight ball right next to it, no shot in sight as far as I could see. Dad chalked the tip of his stick as he circled the table, and pondered his options.

“Well, well, well, wouldn’t you know it, behind the fucking eight ball. Same goddamned place I’ve been for the past three years, behind the fucking eight ball. I’m thinking the thirteen in the side pocket, three rails.” 

“What?” It took me a while to work out the geometry on this shot dad called, but there it was, clear as day, three rails, like he said, impossible for most people, but he had the best hand to eye coordination of any human being I’ve ever known. “That’s a real tough shot. Sure you don’t wanna play it safe?”

“Not my style,” dad said as he lined up the shot. He drew his stick back slowly, then stroked the cue ball firm and true. The white ball bounced off one end rail, the side rail, then the other end rail, and rolled straight as it glanced the thirteen sending it into the side pocket.

“That was amazing.”

Dad frowned as he looked down toward the corner pocket where the eight ball had come to rest. The cue ball scooted along with way too much life left in it, taking dead aim at that eight ball, and sweetly kissed the dark orb, just enough to tap the eight straight into the corner pocket.

“Scratch. Congratulations, you won.”

“That was the best pool shot I’ve ever seen. I don’t want this be the way I beat you in a game of pool for the first time. Come on, I’ll rack ‘em again.”

“Nope, I’m too far into my cups. Besides, take the win, you never know when you’ll get another chance to beat me. I’m a pretty damned good pool player. I’m gonna go wait in the car for mom. There’s something I wanted to talk to her about.”

“You sure?”

“Yeah, I’m sure.”

“Okay.”

“Son, don’t ever let life put you behind the eight ball.”

“I won’t, dad.”

He placed his stick in the cue rack. I accompanied dad back to our front door, we shook hands, and he trudged across the front patio and up the steps to his car. I closed the door and went back to my room.

I fiddled with the knob trying to tune in a station on my Zenith Transoceanic radio. I loved listening to what they called, “race records,” back then, Negro music, made by “colored” people. Music, particularly rhythm & blues, and rock & roll, helped me transcend the vagaries of my daily life, smoothed the ups and downs for me. It also meant there were other people like me out there somewhere, listening, to John R. spinning platters for Ernie’s Record Mart on WLAC Blues Radio in Nashville, Tennessee, or the WWL DJs broadcasting live from the beautiful Blue Room at the Roosevelt Hotel in downtown New Orleans.

As I spun the dial searching for some soulful music, I thought about the time I discovered dad was teaching young black kids the freestyle and backstroke at that swimming hole over in Copper Bottom. A black man named Moses Pinckney worked as a crew foreman for dad in the electric motor plant. He had a son, Avery Lee, about my age, so sometimes we’d play together when dad and Moses worked weekends. Avery Lee let it slip about what happened at Copper Bottom on the third Saturday of every month, so I made Moses and Avery Lee take me.

We stayed back in the trees so nobody could see us, as my dad showed a couple of dozen black kids of all ages how to swim. He convinced the coach at N.C. State to donate a bunch of old kickboards, snorkels, masks, and fins. They splashed around in that muddy creek water like crazy kids, and dad was cutting up like the craziest kid of all.

I’d never seen him so happy. I’m sure he kept it quiet so he didn’t catch any grief from his redneck friends. Still, it made me proud that he did that for those poor black kids. I never mentioned anything to dad about Copper Bottom. It didn’t seem right to barge into that space, if he wanted to keep that part of his life private.

After a little more messing with the dial, I found my favorite DJ, Loco Lobo, Wolfman Jack’s replacement hollering at me from XERF, the border blaster radio station down in Del Rio, Texas, known to its listeners simply as the X. Loco Lobo would say wild things like, “These records sound so delicious, I may just eat ‘em. Hey, somebody bring me some mustard.”

He howled, “Aaayooooo,” and introduced a record. “Rock & roll children of the night, let’s give a good listen to a new group from Los Angeles, California called Buffalo Springfield. The band recently recorded this song, ‘For What It’s Worth.’ If you ask me, I think it’s gon’ be worth a lot, ‘cause this song gon’ be a hit. But you can’t listen to this song with your ears brothers and sisters, you got to hear this song with your soul. This song crucifies me!”

From the window of my bedroom, I kept an eye on dad in his car while I listened to the radio. Dad turned on the overhead light in his car as he read the newspaper. I watched as dad carefully folded his newspaper and placed it in his lap. He finished off the bottle of Old Crow bourbon with a couple of long swigs.

Then a shot rang out. If you’ve ever heard a gunshot, there’s no mistaking the sound for a firecracker or a truck backfiring. It’s a gunshot. You’re certain of that with every fiber of your being, and the sound repeats itself, over and over again, echoing and ringing in your ears for a long, long time.

I ran screaming out the front door of the house, and toward my dad’s car. I yanked open the driver’s side door, and tried to pull him out of the car. He’d shot himself in the stomach and not the head. That’s why I never saw the gun from my window. Dad’s blood covered my arms and chest as I struggled with his body. Finally, I tugged with all my might, and he tumbled out of the car, falling on top of me. The gravel from the driveway stabbed into my back, but it seemed like I kept on falling…falling right off the face of the earth. I thrashed around trying to push his six foot long, 220 pound body away from me, but he was too heavy. We flopped around in the driveway like two big fish on dry land, gasping and trying to breathe.

Then I sensed it. I felt his heart stop beating. I thought my heart might stop beating too.

The .45 caliber handgun, and some newspapers covered in blood spilled from his lap onto the ground with us. Later, I realized it was the Journal story about price fixing, along with the News & Observer article about our house.

My most vivid memory of that night still remains to this day, nearly fifty years later, the strangely metallic scent of fresh blood. Fresh blood also smells like forever. When that odor of fresh blood fills your nostrils, you know your life has changed, forever. But what you don’t understand at that moment, is you’re going to have to change too.

A wrestling match with dead weight never has a winner, and the dream house became a nightmare. What could I have said, or done, to try and save a fish out of water?

I called the cops and they showed up about the same time my mom came back from her AA meeting. She took one look at dad’s bloody body, plus the blood all over me, and fainted, right there in the driveway. I wrestled with both my parents in the driveway that night. The cops helped me get mom inside and onto her bed. I put a cold compress on her forehead where she bumped it when she fell. Dr. Frawley arrived within fifteen minutes to check her out, and injected her with a sedative, which got me to thinking.

I removed my mother’s pills from her medicine cabinet. One parent was already dead, and I didn’t need for mom to be trying to get too much help from those tiny yellow pills, Valium, mother’s little helper. The bathroom cabinet had a mirror on the front of it and looking at my reflection, seeing the blood splattered on my face, I almost fainted too. I didn’t pass out, but it might have been a fitting way to finish off a really bizarre night, waking up on those heated floor tiles in her bathroom that felt like warm lavender and cream colored Sistine Chapel clouds.

For several months I made her come to me when she needed a pill, a strange arrangement, being my mom’s pharmacist, her friendly neighborhood drug dealer. I learned a lot about the big damage those little pills did to your body, and your brain. I read the warning labels, and the drug literature. I talked to mom about the drugs, but if the doctor prescribed them, it must be good for her, right? At least that’s the way she reconciled things.

Within forty five minutes over a hundred of their closest friends wandered around the house, trying to calm the waters by saying comforting things. “God works in mysterious ways,” Joyce Ralston said as she hugged me.

“Time heals all wounds,” Will Bonner said, one of dad’s oldest friends, and not a particularly religious guy either. Why do people trot out those truisms and run them around the track at times like that? What good does that do? The wives brought lots of food too, angel food cakes, banana cream pies, green bean casseroles, finger sandwiches, and then proceeded to eat it all, which turned out to be a good thing, because I wasn’t very hungry.

They say when you break a leg, or something terribly painful like that happens, you go numb because your brain short circuits when it can’t handle the pain. That’s the way I felt, numb, like some mummy wrapped in tattered rags stumbling through an old black and white Boris Karloff movie going through the motions, but incapable of true thought or real emotion. I didn’t even cry. I never shed a single tear.

***

Mourners packed the First Presbyterian Church to the rafters, a sold out crowd, standing room only for the funeral. People overflowed out of the sanctuary and onto the sidewalks outside, queued up and curled around the church looking way too much like a snake eating its own tail, an ouroboros of indeterminate origin. Mom left the casket open and forced me to look at dad in his coffin, so I truly understood he was dead. Of all the things confusing me at the time, that didn’t happen to be one of them.

I overheard one gossipy woman ask another, why he shot himself in the gut, and not the head, because usually suicides eat the gun as the cops say, put the barrel in their mouth, and bite the bullet. The other woman, who apparently considered herself an expert on such matters, sniffed knowingly, and said, “Vanity.”

Mom damn near brought the whole funeral proceedings to a dead stop when she spotted one of dad’s old flings sitting seven rows back in the pews, a cocktail waitress at the Angus Ranch by the name of Wanda Overstreet, with Anita Ekberg sized tits, slender hips and big lips that couldn’t quite cover her slightly bucked teeth. Her platinum colored bleach blonde hair swirled up on top of her head like a Five Points Drug Store soda fountain vanilla ice cream cone. Dad’s drinking buddies were gathered around us in the pews. Mom turned and hissed at them in a fierce whisper that could be heard halfway out into the church.

“Get that bitch out of here! Get that bitch out of here!”

Dad’s friends tried to shush her, but she was having none of it. Of course, mom didn’t point, that would be impolite. She just angrily nodded her head in the woman’s direction, so no one was sure exactly which bitch she meant. More than a few likely suspects huddled up in that section of the pews. The women glared at each other with that, well, it certainly wasn’t me so it must have been you, expression on their faces. Wanda didn’t budge, and mom decided staring a hole in her wasn’t going to work either. Finally, she turned and faced the minister, Carroll White, and his stern, but loving countenance settled her down.

We caravanned out to the cemetery on Highway 401, a long straight flat road leading south out of town. There must have been at least three miles of cars with their headlights on following the hearse. Folks said later they thought it may have been the biggest funeral in Raleigh history, certainly the biggest one any of them had ever seen. Still no tears from me though, as they lowered my dad into the grave, and threw the dirt in on top of him. Dead and buried. Sounds final, doesn’t it? But it wasn’t, not for me. What was I supposed to do now?

***

A few months later, sometime in late February of 1967, I remember splitting well-seasoned hickory, maple and oak logs at an open clearing in the woods behind our house. Because of the cold, my hands stung when the ax cleaved the logs. A light snow fell as I stacked the wood precisely, two split logs in one direction, and two logs perpendicular to build a funeral pyre. I stuffed smaller branches and twigs in between the firewood along with some dry leaves so the blaze would catch quickly. I squirted some lighter fluid on the pyre for good measure, and torched my creation.

Within minutes, the flames jumped ten feet high. I reached behind me for our family Bible which I’d placed on a nearby tree stump. I ripped the cover off that Bible and threw it on the fire. I tore the pages from that Holy Writ one by one, and threw them onto the bonfire. When the flames licked those delicate sheets of thin skinned Bible paper, the pages disappeared like flickering lightning bugs into thin air with a wisp of white smoke, and precious little ash considering the allegedly holy words that graced those pages.

We learned a week after dad’s death that he’d taken out a $300,000 life insurance policy a few years before his business started going south. In late 1966, with his business at the brink of bankruptcy, and no way to pay back his mother the eighty grand she’d loaned him, somehow dad became consumed by the notion that he’d be worth more dead than alive. That’s never true, for anyone. He could have found another way out of that financial jam, if he’d of stayed in the game, and just kept living. Looking back now, I think the bigger problem was the embarrassment of going broke. Everyone in Raleigh, and a good number of people all over the state, knew dad. He couldn’t face the public humiliation of a bankruptcy.

Dad killed himself. So was he the victim, and the perp in our family tragedy? Was it his business’ fault, mom’s fault, maybe even my fault for not seeing his suicide coming? When he killed himself, dad killed part of me as well. I felt like a vic too. I needed to blame somebody, but I had a hard time trying to figure out who should take the fall. I couldn’t quite bring myself to point the finger at dad, my earthly father, so I decided to pin the rap on my Heavenly Father. How could God let that happen to me? How could I grow up to be a preacher after that?

I didn’t just stop believing in God. It went much deeper than that. I hated God. I wanted eye for an eye, and tooth for a tooth, Old Testament revenge on God for taking my dad away from me. It seemed as though my dad and I were just getting to know each other, and then bang, he was gone, literally, fucking bang. I didn’t know any other way to exact my revenge except to burn that damned old family Bible.

A cloudy haze of cigarette smoke billowed around my mom as she sipped on her Coca-Cola and observed me through the window of our house in Raleigh as I did my Fahrenheit 451 number on our family Bible.

Mom watched me as she talked on the phone with granddaddy and grandmama down in Texas and said, “Ya’ll have got to help me with Billy. That boy has a full academic scholarship to go to Davidson College and be a Presbyterian minister, and here he is out in the backyard burning the fucking family Bible.” 

My mother possessed Shakespearean contradictions, or maybe they possessed her, the paradox from Pair O’ Dice. By turns she could be forgiving and condemning, generous and selfish, wise and childish, stunningly intelligent, and yet she did some really stupid shit too. We didn’t have a love-hate relationship. That would be oversimplifying it. Our interactions consisted more of a worshipping each other’s talent and brains on the upside, and disapproving of our respective shortcomings on the downside when we disappointed ourselves, and each other. We had a gift for thrilling one another, and pissing each other off, often at the same time.

“Oh, for Heaven’s sake, he’s hurting something awful. He’s mad at everything in the world, and everybody in it,” grandmama finally said into the phone at the other end of the line. My grandparents shared a 1960s modern avocado green wall phone in the kitchen of the Old Gates Home, holding up the handset between their two nearly touching heads so they could both hear mom. Two vastly contrasting heads too, granddaddy’s as bald as a big pink bowling ball, and grandmama’s hair still a vibrant strawberry blonde, and always would be too, as long as she ran around with her bosom buddy, Miss Clairol

Even in her sixties grandmama’s cute freckles sparkled in the glow of the kitchen light, while granddaddy viewed the world through a well-traveled acne scarred face that had been rode hard and put up wet way too many nights. She was still slim and fit too, probably because she practiced her religion seven days a week. Grandmama’s religion was fishing.

Granddaddy appeared to have been forged from lumpy old rusty barbed wire, clumps where the muscles used to be, his body not quite fitting together right, legs too long, arms too short, head way too big, and reminding me of that mythical Texas creature, the jackalope, a ten foot tall jackrabbit with antlers. He also carried suitcase sized bags under his eyes that added up to more than a full set of Samsonite luggage.

“I’m at my wit’s end,” mom said. The concern showed on her whole immaculately groomed, coiffed, and dressed body as she studied me through the window while the flames from the bonfire made strange shadows on my face. My mom began to cry and the mascara trickled from her eyes down her cheeks ruining her picture perfect makeup.

Like many American women in the 1960s, mom made a great effort to emulate Jackie Kennedy, the epitome of fashion in her opinion. But mom didn’t expect the sudden change in her attire, wearing black, the color of mourning, like Jackie had worn, without warning, only a few years earlier.

“Why don’t you send Billy over here for the summer? It’ll do the both of you a world of good to get him out of there for a little while,” granddaddy said with a voice as smooth and supple as the tanned leather of his well-worn favorite pair of cowboy boots.

“You’re right daddy, but then, you’re right most of the time. Billy’s got a swimming camp the last two weeks of June, but he can fly over right after the Fourth of July, and thanks, I need the break. There’s a couple of other things that have been bothering me too, and I don’t know what to do about ‘em.”

As I struggled with my father’s death and the meaning of life, I don’t know what bewitched my mom, a bee in her bonnet, or maybe the bird of Pair O’ Dice flew up her nose, who knows, but she became enamored by the notion that I could not reach my sixteenth birthday with an incomplete education concerning the facts of life.

“What’s that Mary Jane?” Granddaddy asked.

  “Well, you’ve been a bird watcher all your life, and you keep those bees out in the back yard. Those bees seem to love you.”

“And I love the bees back. Where are you goin’ with this?”

“Well, Billy’s almost sixteen, and Bill never had the birds and the bees talk with him. Could you do that for me, daddy?”

“Sure, honey, sure,” granddaddy said like he was trying to calm down a spooked mare.

“There is one more thing,” mom said as she chewed on her meticulously manicured, and perfectly painted fingernails.

“Yes?”

“Billy’s cussin’ like a God damned sailor. This is a boy who never said diddly squat or bull crap to anybody…ever. Now every other word out of his mouth is as blue as a well digger’s ass. Can you talk to him about his foul language? If he doesn’t quit talking that away he’s gonna drive me up a fucking wall crazy.”

“I do have some expertise in this area,” granddaddy said as he winked at grandmama. “So sure, I’ll talk to him about that too.”

The precedin’ passage was brought to you in part by some the world philosophers sittin’ around and shootin’ the breeze at Otis Mundine’s Barbershop, and includes the full text of Chapter One in The Gates of Pair O’ Dice.