In the seventh week of our series we pick up at chapter 11: “I’ll Fly Away”
If you’re just coming across this series, you can catch up from the beginning HERE.
From the trilogy
Somewhere Between This & That: An Absurd Journey
THE MAKING OF A NATURAL DISASTER
This is a work of fiction. Although it is written in the form of an autobiography, it is not one. Clearly, no reasonable person would ever consider this absurd story to be true. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or are used in a fictitious manner. With the exception of public figures and those with reputations of public renown, any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental. Full of salty language – This is intended for mature audiences.
I’ll Fly Away
“DON’T YOU BOTHER unpacking little missy. My daughter’s coming to visit and this is her bed, not yours. You’ll be going to Merle’s mama’s house directly.”
This bitch. I hadn’t enjoyed the plane ride as much this time. I slept most of the way across the country and now I had Bambi to deal with. I guess Granddaddy figured if he was going to lose his twenty-eight-year marriage over this whore he’d better marry her. I took comfort in knowing that on the eve of their wedding, he’d gone to my grandmother and literally begged her to take him back.
Granddaddy dropped me and Bambi off at their condo in Hilton Head so he could get back to the project he had going on there. Unfortunately, it would be a few days before I’d be heading to Myrtle Beach. Fighting back tears, I attempted to at least sort the contents of my frantically packed suitcase on the bed.
“DIDN’T YOU HEAR ME? I SAID YOU AIN’T STAYING HERE. NOW PUT ALL THAT JUNK BACK IN YOUR SUITCASE, DAMMIT.”
I ignored her. I knew my granddaddy wouldn’t stand for her treating me like this. Bambi started picking my things up, throwing them back in my suitcase, and I just kept pulling them back out. She pushed me and we both fought over the case until she finally just slammed it shut on my fingers.
Bambi poured on the syrupy sweet act at dinner. I could see that, at least for the moment, Granddaddy was whipped, so I kept my mouth shut.
I’d never been so relieved to see Nona and I was ready to be comforted by some real Southern cooking again. Aunt Slim was currently staying in the guest room, but none of us would be there for very long because Nona was selling her house on the oceanfront. Aunt Slim cared for their parents in their final years and Nona promised their father she’d always look out for her older sister. She’d invited her to move into the house on the oceanfront, but Slim missed her church too much. She attended services at the Pentecostal Holiness Church at the beach, but it just wasn’t the same as the one our family had been a part of in Conway for generations. Her parents, my great-great-grandparents, had been charter members of the congregation.
Slim was an extraordinarily devout woman. She didn’t wear makeup, didn’t own pants, and was by all accounts a virgin. She’d been deeply in love once, but while she was away at Bible college, Nona stole her boyfriend. From then on Jesus was the only man for her.
I’d always only known Slim as the tall spinster with tight gray curls and a few wrinkles on her kind face. Although she’d always had a lovely figure, in my opinion, I was completely taken aback when I first came across a picture of her in her youth. She was nothing short of striking with her dark sleek bob and steely blue eyes, almost appearing to be a cross between Linda Evangelista and Isabella Rossellini.
Nona took me out for what was supposed to be a big day of shopping after I got settled in. I needed suitable clothes for church and a few more things for school. Nona also noticed I was blossoming rather quickly.
“The first thing we need to get you is a brassiere,” she said on our way into the department store.
This took me by surprise. As far as I knew, none of the girls I’d gone to school with were wearing bras yet. I was excited and embarrassed all at the same time. The saleslady quickly sized me up and fitted me with an A-cup, but getting my first bra wouldn’t be the only rite of passage I would experience that day.
“Harmonie, Harmonie. Can you hear me, Harmonie?”
My browsing for new clothes was interrupted by my name echoing through the Jerry Cox store.
“Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.” I could hear Nona pleading as I rushed to the dressing room. That was never a good sign.
“Shush Nona, I’m right here.”
“Come in here, you’ve got to help me.”
I was only slightly alarmed, but not completely surprised, to find Nona half naked and stuck in a girdle that was at least two sizes too small. I’d heard tales of her and her girdles from the other women in our family.
I struggled as I tried to figure out how she even got this thing on. It was so tight I couldn’t even get one of my fingers in between it and her skin.
“Scissors, scissors.” She whispered breathlessly, looking as if she may pass out soon.
Like nearly every other woman in the Jepson family, it was now my turn to cut Nona out of a girdle she had no business even trying on. Our big shopping trip ended that day with the purchase of three bras and one destroyed girdle.
After Nona sold the house on the oceanfront, we moved to the same street my mom spent much of her early childhood on. It was in an area of Conway known as “Sugar Hill”. The area got its name after Hurricane Hazel blanketed the inland area with the white sands of Myrtle Beach, or so they say. Four generations of my family had already occupied houses on that street, and I would be the fifth. The road behind most of their houses drew a distinct line between the black and white neighborhoods in that part of town.
Nona purchased four adjoining lots with two homes, including the house she’d lived in when my mother was a child. While her new-old house was being remodeled, we briefly stayed just down the street in the small home that had belonged to Mammy and Pappy, my great-great grandparents. It had creaky slanted floors and a small garden windmill spinning in the yard. I’d seen old photos of Mom sitting on Mammy’s lap on the porch of this house, with that windmill in the foreground. I found the windmill and its history comforting. I was pleased when it came with us to Nona’s newly renovated home.
As usual, I slept with Nona in her king-sized bed. Just me, her, and the gun she kept under her pillow. We’d talk every night about all sorts of things. She’d often recite her will to me as if it were a bedtime story. She’d twirl her white gold and diamond jewelry and tell me about each piece. The large ring with three rows of diamonds was to be split amongst her three granddaughters, with the largest row going to my mother. Her solitaire diamond was to go to my grandfather. Her car and one of her other properties were to go to Uncle Trey. The house and her diamond earrings were to go to me, and so on. We’d say our prayers together and she’d scratch my head until I fell asleep.
Nona told me that since her house would be mine one day, I should put my initials in the newly poured driveway. Those initials recently changed. I left California in such a hurry I didn’t have my birth certificate and needed a new one for school. Around this time, I learned no step-parent adoption ever took place. Mom had just enrolled me in schools with Daddy-Keys’ last name. It was the same as hers, so no one ever questioned it, and schools were a little more loosey-goosey about paperwork then. I started using the name on my birth certificate, my father’s name, and carved my new initials into the driveway.
The school in Conway was like nothing I’d ever experienced. It smelled musty, there were countless “duck and cover” drills, and they implemented a policy of corporal punishment. On the day I enrolled, I saw the principal reach back to Cleveland with a large wooden paddle and deliver several loud swats to the behind of a boy bent over his desk. Almost every classroom had a visible paddle. Some overly enthusiastic teachers even drilled holes in theirs to make them more aerodynamic.
Having paid my dues to sit atop the totem pole as a 6th grader at elementary school, I was quite disappointed to learn this was a middle school of 6th, 7th, and 8th graders. I was back on the bottom of the food chain and the new kid again. The kids in my class weren’t so bad and I was even able to make one very good friend, a best friend. The older kids were awful, however, and the bus was by far the worst. The high school and middle school kids rode together, a horrible idea.
“I’m gonna get off at your stop tomorrow evening and whip your ass” this one bully would threaten almost weekly. She never did, but she and her friends delighted in making the bus ride miserable for myself and others.
There was also a boy at my stop who liked to pinch and slap my ass as we’d get on or off the bus. I told an adult, the bus driver, who did nothing. I tried to fight off his advances, but he was in high school and much larger than me. Since I was getting no help from anyone else, I took matters into my own hands and started bringing a large pair of scissors with me. The next time he grabbed my ass, I warned him to stop, but he kept it up, so I pulled out my scissors.
“If you touch me again, I’m going to fucking stab you.”
This got everyone’s attention, but he still wasn’t in trouble, I was. I was taken to the principal’s office as soon as we arrived at school and Nona was called. When I told her what had been going on, she called my grandfather. He drove from the beach and the three of us went down to this boy’s house later that day. After some excuse making and questions of my mental stability by his parents, my granddaddy had heard enough.
“Now, listen here, you lay so much as a finger on my granddaughter again and you’ll deal with me, son. Do you understand? Scissors aren’t what I carry. I can promise you, at the very least, I will walk right into this house and beat your ass in front of your own daddy.”
Rest assured, whenever my grandfather pointed his finger at somebody and said “now, listen here,” all bets were off. Whatever came next, for better or for worse, was a promise. He really meant, “now, listen, hear.” That boy never touched me again.
Weekends were a welcomed respite from the torments of middle school, especially the ones spent at the beach with all the friends and relatives I missed when I was away from here. I’d sometimes spend the night with my favorite cousins, Clef, Raven, and Wren. My cousin Wren and I were the same age, and Raven and Clef were older. Their mother, Aunt Dorian, was Grandma Viola’s younger sister and their dad, Uncle Finch, was the closest thing my granddaddy had to a brother.
In addition to Nona, I was fortunate to have my great-grandma Starling, my grandmother’s mother. Grandma Starling had kind eyes set back above her high cheekbones. Her skin was smooth and translucent. It appeared as though she’d somehow completely evaded the sun while living at the beach. Her daughters and granddaughters were lucky enough to have inherited many of her lovely features. Genteel in demeanor, Grandma Starling was every bit a fine Southern lady. In warmer months, Wren and I could often be found at her house eating ice cream.
I also had a good friend at the beach named Trudy. We were like two peas in a pod, riding our bikes, going to the beach, and having sleepovers. Trudy’s mother was from England. The only thing I loved more than hearing her talk was breakfast at her house. She’d make us soft boiled eggs and serve them in special little cups with toast for dipping. We’d drink warm Earl Grey tea, with sugar and milk. I felt very grown up while sipping my tea and dipping my toasted bread.
Meet the Hillwests
LIVING WITH NONA again meant that I could resume my covert visits with my dad. He took me along with his wife and girls to see his family in Aynor during the Holidays that year. When we arrived, a woman came running out the door and down the steps.
“Is that my long-lost grandbaby?” She yelled as she barreled across the yard.
“Yes, Ma’am.” My father chuckled.
This bright-eyed and fleshy woman nearly tackled me. She wrapped her large arms around me and squeezed all the air out of my lungs.
“Oh, my goodness, Strummer, there ain’t no denying this one.” She held my face in her hands. “She sure favors her daddy. Yes, she does. Well, come on, everyone’s excited to see this one right here.”
“Huh, I guess we don’t matter.” I heard my father’s wife say under her breath.
My grandmother, Nellie, enthusiastically rushed me into my aunt’s house. They’d come quite a ways from the old sharecropper’s shack they lived in when I was born. My father had eight brothers and sisters. I met aunts, uncles, and cousins I didn’t even know I had and saw that I bore a strong resemblance to a few of them. None of these people had seen me since I was three and their excitement was overwhelming. I can’t say I actually understood what all of them were saying in their deep Southern drawls, but they seemed to be a loving and hardworking bunch. These were good old salt of the earth country folk. They were far from the inbred savages Mom so often portrayed, and made fun of, in her storytelling. All I saw was a large family of people whose love I’d been denied for years. They were all very welcoming, but I knew none of them. Even though I’d sometimes wonder how different my life would’ve been with these people, I’d always feel I was on the outside looking in, a distant relation.
I went on a few overnight visits to my father’s house in Georgetown. I’d have a wonderful time playing with my two half-sisters, Stacie and Kora, but I got the impression his wife didn’t appreciate this little blast from the past intruding on her family. Shelly was the polar opposite of my mother in appearance, personality, and cooking skills. She was plain, quiet, and came across as rather meek, but with some passive-aggressive tendencies. Whenever my dad wasn’t around, Shelly would pry about my mother and their past together. She’d offer commentary on their relationship and how it ended, among other things. It irritated me that this woman had the nerve to talk about my mom, giving her opinion about a situation she wasn’t even a part of. Worse was the possibility she was a part of it and was just lying about it. Either way, I quickly grew tired of these little sessions and I finally told her to mind her own business.
My dad took me on a walk after dinner that night and scolded me. He told me I was welcome in his home, but this was his family, and being disrespectful to his wife wasn’t going to be accepted. There’s no way she’d been completely truthful about what transpired. I would see my father only a handful of times over the next decade or so.
The absurd journey continues in chapter 13: “Buh-Bye, Bimbo.”
If you don’t want to wait, you can purchase the paperback or eBook HERE
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