by Marie Lathers
Uncle Charles sat in the back and spread his hairy daddy longlegs over the entire seat. When I adjusted my miniature transistor radio he told Gram that I could not possibly know how to work that contraption. I had turned 13, but he treated me as if I were no more than ten. He had a stack of newspapers under his legs but they still fluttered so much in the wind that I could barely hear the church hymns. He also had a state map spread over his cypress-knob knees, and he was bothering Gram about a shorter route to Fernandina, even though she had been there a million times. And that included when Grandpa drove him, my mom, and Cousin Wes out at least once every year of their danged childhoods. He tried lighting up a Virginia Slims in the car but Gram said the Lord would strike him down if he continued. He caved in and threw it out the window, saying he didn’t care if the butt started a swamp fire. I jammed the radio against my ear and didn’t share it with Gram when our hymn came on because I figured what’s the use. But I couldn’t focus my brain on “I Come to the Garden Alone”— the dew on the roses and talking and walking with Him — when a live flesh and blood him was snickering and smacking on the filter of an unlit cigarette.
Thankfully, the cottage had a screened porch facing the ocean, where Uncle Charles could smoke and read the news about Nixon. Gram was 78 that summer, and she needed her rest. When I came down on the train from Maryland for my visit each year I helped her as much as I could, but her grown son couldn’t lift a finger. Her long gray hair, braided into two and rolled up like Danish pastries on either side of her head, had gone white as a result—from gray to white, in a matter of months. I knew future trips to Fernandina would include my uncle, since his wife had told him if he came back she’d send him to his maker, whoever that was.
I’ll admit I helped ruin the trip for myself when I stayed too long in the dunes on the first day and burned my face to a crisp. I spent the rest of the week inside with Noxzema slathered on my face. Uncle Charles had a field day saying that I was a numbskull and a northern ignoramus and didn’t “she” know any better than to sit out with no hat on. Gram didn’t get on my case about it, but that was because she was frazzled. We didn’t get up at dawn and collect shells because she wanted to stay in bed. She was tired in a way that I’d never seen before. Maybe the impending impeachment and the drive down had done something to her, on top of Uncle Charles’ nonsense. I rolled the TV cart into her room when As the World Turns was on, sat with her, and even paid attention. She said I used to have lovely skin, and that the Noxzema might make it lovely again, although she couldn’t promise anything.
When ATWT wasn’t on, the House of Representatives was charging Nixon with three crimes, what they called Articles. No one knew how long the hearings would last—I figured the rest of the summer. I couldn’t stand it. My social studies teacher and my hippie friend Carol would have been unhappy with me, but I couldn’t face any more of Watergate. It made me furious and being furious made me cry. Uncle Charles knew it and poked fun at me. Now that Nixon was facing the firing squad and my face was on fire, my uncle finally looked directly at me for the first time.
“You’re crying? Because your juvenile shows will be interrupted?” Then he honked his nose and shuffled to the TV to turn up the volume.
Uncle Charles did Gram a favor by napping during ATWT, but otherwise the cart was in the living room where he lorded over things. One of the only times I perked up during the impeachment business was at the beginning, when a black woman introduced the show. She said she wasn’t going to be an “idle spectator” to the destruction of the Constitution. I knew I shouldn’t be an idle spectator either, so I tried to pay attention.
Today I am an inquisitor. I believe hyperbole would not be fictional and would not overstate the solemnness that I feel right now. My faith in the Constitution is whole, it is complete, it is total.
She talked about more than Nixon, she talked about how she believed in the Constitution even though it took years for the Constitution to believe in her, since she was black. The other time I perked up was when another congresswoman talked, a white woman. She was one of the angriest people up there. I wanted to remember some of her speeches to show Carol that I was indeed maturing.
This Houston Plan which I read in anger twice or three times says that dissent is tantamount to treason and because it is tantamount to treason, the President has the right to bring to bear against any dissenter the force of the CIA, the force of the FBI.
I knew Carol was a dissenter and I hoped they didn’t tap her phone calls. The women convinced me to agree with Uncle Charles; they were right to be angry. But I knew if I let anger take me over then Gram would be alone in her support of the Houston Plan, the Plumbers, and the break-in. I had to tame my anger and be a calm negotiator between Charles and his mother. I gave up my anger — for Gram — and I gave up my TV shows — for Uncle Charles — which meant I gave up something for each side.
Still, it frustrated me. From day three on it rained. A Special Weather Bulletin interrupted the impeachment and said there was a tropical depression, which was fitting. I stared out the window at the gray beach and ocean, and ate Pop Tarts and Key lime pie from Winn Dixie. The TV was on despite the storm static. When poor Gram emerged from her room we worked on a jigsaw puzzle of Jesus giving the Sermon on the Mount. She said we’d glue the pieces together onto a board and hang it in the bedroom we shared in Waycross. She’d given away the Tree of Life, her most fancy shell picture, to the Waycross Christian Nursing Home because there wasn’t enough room in the dinky new rental house for it. But there was enough room for this shrimpy, fake Sermon. It made me sad that she thought glue would make the lines between the pieces disappear. The men droned on.
Man 1: Let’s get the specifics.
Man 2: The specifics would be in the … there would be more specifics in the report. You could be more specific if you looked at the summary of information that we furnished last week.
“Specifics, my ass.”
I was about to plop down Jesus’ left eye when Uncle Charles said the a-word. I froze. I wiped off my forehead because the a-word always made me sweat if it came out of a man’s mouth. My hand was covered with Noxzema. Gram made the pursing sound, but by that August she was making it so often that it was like the refrigerator humming.
“They want specifics. How many pages? How many hours of tapes? One million?”
It was good to know adults could exaggerate like me, but this was headed toward an explosion.
“There are eleven Republicans on that committee who would refuse to impeach if they saw live TV reports of Nixon streaking naked down Pennsylvania Avenue screaming for an IRS audit of his dirty dog Checkers. Specifics, my ass. Dictaphone, my ass!”
Sometimes the TV bleeped out words and a message said “expletive deleted,” but Uncle Charles felt required to fill them in.
“’Today I am an inquisitor,’ damned right!” He stole the black woman’s words, as if he had a right to all the impeachment words.
Gram pursed four times. I put down the left eye. It was blue, like the right one, but it didn’t face the same way. The right one was set on me, and the left was set on Gram. Jesus looked demented. I thought of drawing a pirate patch over one of His eyes with a black marker, to help Him out. Gram was mumbling the Sermon to herself, or maybe to me. Uncle Charles turned up the TV because he couldn’t hear the men talking over the storm. Or else he wanted to drown out the Sermon.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
You are asking the committee members to really buy a pig in a poke.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
The motion on the table is to strike the language of the Sarbanes Substitute in Subparagraph 2.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.
The time of the gentleman has expired. All time has expired.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
Some wise man has written that the truth is seldom pure and never simple.
Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.
The doctrine of impeachment is as broad as the king’s imagination.
Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.
I will ask unanimous consent to withdraw my perfecting amendment.
The men threatened to end things, but then they’d come back for more. The puzzle was done. We ended up breaking it up and putting the pieces back in the box.
When the hearings were over and Nixon lost, Uncle Charles went too far. He whooped it up by dancing —or what he considered dancing — around the living room and in and out of the other rooms. He’d slink into Gram’s room, whoop around her bed, and remind her of her ignoramus love of Nixon. He rolled the TV in and out of the rooms with the volume all the way up, even though it went off and on since he had to keep unplugging and re-plugging. In the car, he was still celebrating, and chewed up one filter after another.
My face was scabby by the time we loaded the car and headed home, but I still put on the Noxzema. I looked like a week-old plate of sliced tomatoes with dabs of mayo on them. The slices were dried up, and the mayo was going yellow. The Noxzema smell was the only good thing, and I imagined the Garden of Eden smelling like it. I couldn’t listen to the radio because I didn’t want to get crusty stuff on it. Besides, the batteries were almost shot, and I didn’t want to bother Gram about finding a store.
We were halfway there when Uncle Charles started whooping it up again. He was reading the Fernandina paper, which he said was hogwash, but that revealed a new detail about Nixon’s shenanigans. Gram said she had a headache and needed some peace, but he ignored her. No time for peace, he repeated, when the nation was still at war — the Watergate War. He was convinced Nixon would resign.
“Now the only problem is that moron Ford, who’ll replace him. He’ll pardon Tricky-Dickey all right, just give him five minutes in office and he’ll do it!”
“Charles, please. I need to keep steady on the road. I need quiet in both the front and back seats.”
I flushed under the Noxzema. I worked overtime at not making the slightest noise.
“Steady on the road? Mama, come on! You wouldn’t even try the smarter way, so don’t get going on and on about your headache.”
I wanted to investigate my scabs in the rear-view mirror and didn’t think that would make noise. I was worried about what the kids at church would say if it wasn’t healed by Sunday. I was so preoccupied with the dried tomatoes that I didn’t notice what was going on in the back seat.
“You could save at least a few dollars in gas if you take 95. It’s longer, but it’s faster. Are you even listening, Mama? No way to save for the future if you can’t save in the here and now. If I didn’t have to pay Barbara all that goddamn alimony I’d be living high on the hog due to all my savings.”
He was adding perfecting amendments to Gram’s shopping habits. It was true, no new Depression would catch him by surprise.
“You save a few dollars that way and you go to Winn Dixie and get some of that turkey that’s always on sale so we can have a meal without spending a fortune!”
We passed the gas station that signaled the beginning of Hilliard. When I was six or seven, I tried to use the bathroom there and was stumped by two words painted on the toilet door — “Whites only.” I was so confused that I didn’t go inside, even though I knew I was white. I was thinking about that bathroom now. Then Charles stopped in the middle of a sentence and I heard the sound of squirrels rattling around like they did in the eaves of the Maryland house. It was a determined sound, maybe more like the Okefenokee frogs in mating season.
“There are more gas stations on 95, so you can compare prices. Save us some money, for when the next Depression comes, which will probably be when Gerald F … “
He stopped on the “f.” I should have figured he was spitting out “Ford,” as in the Vice President, but I mixed things up and thought he meant Gram’s Galaxie Ford car. I thought he might be imitating the sound of a Ford car starting up. Maybe a way to rub in that Gram spent too much on gas and not enough on Winn Dixie sale turkey. But then he let out yelps and sputters, as if his mouth could no longer contain his spit. I turned around.
Gram didn’t look in the rear-view mirror, which was discombobulated anyway, due to my scab checking. She was paralyzed, facing forward, negotiating a shiny dead armadillo in the road, and bent on ignoring Uncle Charles. So I was the one who saw it live, like in a Special News Report. He was shaking from head to toe, and one of his arms occasionally struck out as if he was learning to box. His cap was off, and his head was twitching in all directions. His mouth was open, but not in the way mouths do when they form a half-moon or perfect “O.” It opened in spurts, and was crisscrossed, like a zipper on its side. His eyes were open wide, no blinking allowed, and stared out at no one. In the split second between glancing at him and responding to Gram’s scared look, I thought that if we, the women, just ignored him we could enjoy the rest of the trip back. We’d stop at Maryland Fried Chicken, eat on TV trays at home in front of “The F.B.I.,” and forget about saving money, Gerald Ford, and Highway 95. It would be like before Eve ate the apple, when Gram lived without her son.
Gram woke me from my daze.
“Jane, what’s happening? What’s happening to Charles? Oh, Lord, what’s wrong with Charles? Jane!”
“I don’t know, Gram. He’s shaking and groaning. Maybe we should stop.”
“I’m pulling over here, off the road. Oh, Lord, please protect my son! Jane, jump out and get help at the Mobil station!”
I hesitated, afraid to move, afraid to accept that the world was turning.
“Jane, I need you to run because Lord Jesus knows I can’t drive straight now. Get out!”
There were no cars on the road. Maybe we should have taken 95, where there were more cars because people heading north took it. I ran back towards the Hilliard station. I never ran so fast, and I thought my lungs would explode from the inside out and make a mess worse than my face. I still had the transistor in my hand, and I didn’t want to drop it because I knew that one day this would all be over and Gram would buy new batteries. I wondered what the Mobil people would think of my burnt meringue face. Maybe they wouldn’t help because they’d think I escaped from the Okefenokee Swamp. When I got there, I was wearing my new lime green flip-flops with the plastic flowers between the toes, but I was only wearing one.
A large man came toward me. His face was smeared with black car stuff, so at first I thought he was black. I wondered what bathroom he used.
“What’s going on, girl?” He looked beyond me, at Gram and the car. Gram was outside, sobbing and praying. She hung onto her purse, the bright blue one with the scallop shell clasp.
“It’s my uncle.” My voice was almost shouting. “He’s in the back seat. He can’t talk or move right.”
The Mobil man yelled at someone driving by in a truck. The family was only partly invisible through the dirty windshield and in the white sun. They backed up, and a woman and girl about half my age got out. The Mobil man had said someone was sick, and the little girl stared at my face as if I were the sick one. The two men sped off towards the Galaxie.
Gram must have finally looked in the back seat, because when the truck returned her eyes had switched from looking alive and scared to looking dead. She prayed while clenching her purse, as if it were a Bible. I was afraid the shell clasp would break and she would cut her hands. The girl gave up staring at me and stared at Gram. The mother leaned over Uncle Charles repeating, “Sir? Sir?” as if she were a nurse.
Riding in the ambulance, Gram and I didn’t say a word. She held my hands so tight her veins looked like they were in a pop-up book. Her purse was on the floor, and I noticed the shell was still whole.
Uncle Charles died of a brain tumor a few days later. It was the first time I knew someone who died of cancer. It was strange that he hated Nixon, since Nixon was both a “cancer on the nation” and had started the War on Cancer. Uncle Charles was the one who lost that war. I wrote Carol to tell her that I would be delayed coming home and might miss the first few days of school. There was a death in my family. My mother would drive down, and we would stick around and act like a family — mourn, pray, remember. It was like I was writing an official letter.
But Gram said only Aunt Barbara was coming from out of town. Cousin Wes arrived from just the other side of Waycross. He was a fat man with moles on his face and arms, and one eye kind of glazed over. Aunt Barbara smoked like a chimney, but didn’t seem to have anything else in common with Uncle Charles. She wore pants and bright colored tops, and her hair was long and put up in a different way every day. I didn’t understand why my mom didn’t come to her brother’s funeral. Later, she told me she couldn’t stand the idea of going to Waycross, even for a short visit.
Gram said she was depending on me, but the day after the funeral she asked Cousin Wes to drive me to Thalmann and put me on a train. She didn’t come in the car because Cousin Wes said there was no room, and she was too tired to insist. On the road, Cousin Wes and his moles made me feel creepy, so I concentrated on not moving one single cell of my entire body.
“You’re a big girl, Janie,” Cousin Wes kept saying in the car, until it made me feel like I was Alice, growing in all directions right there in the car. “These things happen. People get sick and die. Yep, lickety-split and they’re gone.”
I imagined I was alone and looking past him, into a future without men, without Tricky Dickies and cousins and uncles. But even though Uncle Charles was gone, I knew that Gram and I would never truly be alone in our Garden again. The world had made a bad turn somewhere. So that’s what being a teenager is all about, I thought.
The whistle blew, and the train began to move.
Marie Lathers is a university professor of French literature who has turned herself to creative writing after a career in academic writing. Although she lives in Ohio, her mother was raised in Waycross, Georgia, and Lathers spent her summers there. She has published fiction and memoir in Slow Trains, Marco Polo Arts Magazine, Bewildering Stories and Frontiers: A Journal of Woman Studies. She especially values writing about her travels, including in the South, and creating fiction about girls on the edge of adulthood.