The More it Changes
By Tom Bostock
I barely recognized the hardscrabble hills and dark, slightly forbidding woods that flanked either side of the road as I drove back home down that same old dusty country road that I had escaped down ten years earlier. The last time I saw it was as an angry child who couldn’t run away from it fast enough. I always had a temper but managed to keep it in check most of the time, at least until that day.
Momma was a workin’ in the kitchen, bakin’ a blueberry pie with the wild berries that my brother Caleb picked with the girls, from a patch in the woods. I was the oldest, so I was actin’ lazy and just lyin around the house as usual on a Saturday, my gangly sort of frame haphazardly draped across the couch, when the old man got home. He was kinda my stepdad I guess. Momma showed up with him one day, said “this is Homer” and that was that.
Homer was snake mean and drank like a fish. He was a big man with an even bigger belly and he let us know from the beginning that he was boss and wouldn’t be taking any crap of any of us. I heard him before I saw him this time; he staggered up the creaky front porch stairs with the loose board and kicked the door jamb when he almost tripped over it.
“How many times I tole you ta fix them damn stairs,” he shouted at no one in particular. “A body could break his neck over em.” If only we could be so lucky, I thought to myself.
“Boy, get over here and take off these here boots,” he growled at me as he fell into the overstuffed chair with the spring sticking up from under the cushion. As many times as he fell into it, he never once landed on the spring. I guess it’s right that the Lord protects fools and drunks, or so I had been told.
“And don’t give me no sass,” he added, cussing as he spoke.
I reluctantly got up from the couch and kneeled in front of him to remove his boots. As the second boot slowly slid down his leg, he lifted it slightly and, without any warning, kicked me in the chest and sent me and his boot to sailing across the room. He grinned and mouthed a silent “Gotcha.” He thought that was the funniest thing ever as I crumpled against the hewn log wall, loosening some of the chinking that filled the spaces between the rough-hewn logs.
My youngest sister, Kara Lee, who always wore her heart on her sleeve, ran over to me and, ever the peacemaker, helped me up while trying to keep me from yanking Homer out of the chair and kicking the stuffin out of him. I would have been happy to teach him some manners – I was always big for my age – but I didn’t want to aggravate Momma. He was worthless and she knew it when she actually admitted it to herself but to her way of thinking, he was better than nothing. He lived on our welfare check and made no effort to find anything but another bottle.
Momma dried her hands on her ever-present dish towel and ran over to her boyfriend, husband or whatever the hell he was; she tole him “it warn’t nice” what he did. I will never forget that sound. Smack! It echoed off the cabin walls as she fell in a heap on the floor in front of him. Time stood still.
“Woman,” he started to protest, prodding her with his foot, as I flew across the room and dragged him from the chair by his hair. His head hit the floor with a resounding thud. Five years of frustration and whippings poured out of me as I bashed his head into the floor. I punched him and I kicked him, letting out all of those years of pent-up anger. I probably would have killed him if Caleb hadn’t stopped me. Grabbing the drunk’s limp body by the shoulders, I threw him into the closet and slammed the door shut.
Momma was picking herself up off the floor as I reentered the living room, rubbing her cheek where he had slapped her.
“ Before you say anything,” I screamed, half hysterical, “I ain’t sorry. He had it comin for a long time now and you know it! He’s nothin but a bully and a lilly livered coward.”
Momma looked at me with tears in her eyes. “It was my fault,” she said. “I shoulda left him alone. He was just funnin with you. I shoulda knowed better. “
I stared at her in disbelief. “That piece of garbage hits you like that and you make excuses for him? You blame yourself? Are you gonna wait until he actually kills you before you do something about it? “What’s wrong with you, Momma?” I continued shaking my head, sitting back down on the sofa.”
“Where’s your Daddy now,” she asked with a resignation that confused and confounded me.
“He ain’t my daddy,” I shouted. “My daddy is dead and you know it! That piece of trash is in the closet with the rest of the garbage and if you let him out of there before I go, and I am going, he will be dead,” I screamed. “I promise you!” I got up from the couch and walked to the front door. Ripping it open, I stalked out and then slammed it behind me as I walked down the steps and out of their lives. I had no idea where I was going but I only knew I couldn’t be part of that anymore.
I slept in a haystack in an old barn on the Haycook’s place. Old man Haycook farmed the land next to ours and we were on a first-name basis so I was sure that he wouldn’t mind me bunkin there for the night. I even caught a ride with him the next morning when he saw me on the road.
As luck would have it, I caught my big break almost immediately; the circus was in town. They were looking for men to help erect the tents and unload the equipment. Because of my size and willingness to work, they hired me almost at once. I liked the hard work and did whatever was asked of me, more if I saw something that needed doin. As they prepared to tear down the tents after the last performance, the field boss walked over to me and asked me how old I was.
“Sixteen,” I said. “What’s on your mind?”
He looked at me kinda crooked-eyed, as if he was trying to decide. “How would you like to become a roust-a-bout with the circus?”
“A roustabout. Just doing what needs to be done. One day, you could be breaking down the tents. The next day you might end up shoveling elephant or lion poop. What do you say kid?” When he leaned over and whispered in my ear how much I could make, I was hooked; I joined the circus.
“Dang,” I said. “I ain’t never made money like that. You betcha, where do I sign up.” That began my career with the circus. I saw more towns and elephant crap than you could shake a stick at over the next 10 years, until today, when the circus returned to the town where it all started.
By now, I was in charge of all of the roustabouts and, after supervising the unloading of the supplies and making sure that all of the tent supports were firmly in place, I asked for a little time off to see my family. Over the years, I had told my boss about my family and the situation there; he agreed without hesitation. He even lent me his car to make the trip; he was just that kind of a guy. “Don’t forget we break camp at 6 sharp tomorrow,” he warned. “And don’t do anything I wouldn’t do,” he laughed, as he threw me the keys to his car.
“Aye, aye, Captain!” I threw him a mock salute and climbed into the car for the long drive home.
The sky had begun to cloud over and thunder rolled off in the distance as I cleared the final rise by the Haycock farm and my house came into view. The years had not been kind to the old ramshackle place and it seemed so much smaller now. The paint was peeling and the porch and steps sagged even more than I remembered. I would bet you a dollar that the same loose board was still there.
The front yard was littered with bottles and beer cans; the grass had finally given up the ghost. Bare spots of dirt competed with occasional weeds and the miscellaneous trash that had somehow accumulated over the years – a broken this and a twisted that, most of it unrecognizable. And something new had been added; a rusty, broken-down car sat on cinder blocks to the right of the porch. It suddenly dawned on me, after all of these years, I had been white trash poor!
Crossing the porch, I hesitated at the front door, wondering if I should knock or just open it and go inside. As I slowly opened the door, I was transported back in time. An older, smaller version of my Momma was standing in the kitchen, dishtowel over her shoulder, wearing a clean white apron. She had been baking a, you guessed it, blueberry pie that she had just set on the window ledge to cool.
“Hi Momma,” I said. “Guess who?” She turned slowly toward the sound of my voice, let out a whoop and raced to my arms. I could feel her body through the hug; she had lost weight and seemed so tiny and frail.
“It’s me Momma. How are you?”
“Well, I’ll be jiggered. You could just knock me over with a feather,” she added.
Not far from the truth, I thought, feeling her ribs through her thin day dress as I hugged her to me.
“Come, sit, sit, sit.” Tell me all about your life with the circus. Reckon you can stay for supper? When do you have to leave?” Her questions poured out like a like a corn liker bottle with a hole in the bottom.
“Where’s you know who?” I asked, hoping that he was finally out of the picture.
“Down with the boys,” ya know,” she replied, her excuse for out drinking as usual. “Now don’t start on him, there’s been a lot of water under the bridge since that time. He’s changed.” For her sake, I hoped she wasn’t just fooling herself again but I sincerely doubted it.
That question was resolved in less than a minute when his drunken, beer-bellied self staggered through the door and plopped down onto that same old chair. I crossed my fingers, hoping that this would be the time for the revenge of the chair spring but, no such luck. He stared, bleary-eyed at me; I watched as the recognition dawned on him.
“Well, well, well,” he snorted in derision. ”Look what the cat dragged in. Beaten up any other old men lately big man or was I something special to ya?”
You were special all right, I thought to myself, tensing at the remark. Momma, sitting next to me on the couch, could feel me beginning to get up. I turned and glared at him. With measured words, I told him, in no uncertain terms, “slap my Momma again and I find out about it. I guaran-damn-tee you that you won’t even be able to drink a bottle through a straw when I get finished with you.” He just glared at me.
Years of manual labor made me as strong as an ox and I decided to give him a little practical demonstration. I walked over and held out my hand. “Maybe I was being a little harsh on you after all these years,” I said. “Let’s shake on it and bury the hatchet.”
Eying me warily, he finally stood up and reached for my outstretched hand. As I closed my fingers around his hand, I squeezed as tightly as possible. I watched as sweat began accumulating on his forehead but continued to squeeze with a vise-like grip. I reveled in the pain in his eyes and leaned over and whispered in his ear. “This is just for starters.” Releasing his hand, I sat back down and watched him rubbing his fingers.
The rest of the visit passed uneventfully. I learned that Kara Lee had met and married a nice young man and they had moved down to the holler. Caleb was in the Army and the other girls had also married and moved away. I was sorry to hear the Mr. Haycook had caught the flu and died last year. The house was up for sale and they were hoping for a nice young couple to move in and be friends with Kara Lee and her new husband.
After a dinner that would have fed my entire circus family and, of course, a slice of that home-baked pie, it was time to go. As we got up from the table, I turned to Homer, noticing, with satisfaction, the tears still in the corners of his eyes.
“It was nice seeing you again, Homer. We’ll have to do this again the next time I am in town.” I held out my hand and he quickly pulled his back.
“Now Homer, you don’t be that way,” Momma said. “He’s just bein friendly is all.”
“Bye, Momma,” I said, giving her a final hug and thinking sadly that this might be the last time I saw her.
She leaned over, and on her tiptoes, whispered in my ear, “that was a nice thing you did with Homer, burying the hatchet and all. You be sure to come by again the next time the circus is in town.” I smiled mischievously as I thought about burying the hatchet …. In the back of his head.
The house slowly receded in the distance as I once again crested the rise by the old Haycook place. I don’t know if I put the fear of God into Homer, I thought, but it certainly had been a good start. I rolled down the windows and whistled as the miles flew passed.