I didn’t know how to read until well after I was born. My momma, serving a life sentence for shooting my daddy in the eyeballs when I was eight, was not around to read stories to me or enroll my hydro-cephalic head in the women’s correctional pre-kindergarten literacy classes. Additionally, daddy’s bullets to the eyeballs seemed to have created some sort of genetic issue which made me as blind as a bat (at least for a time). As I said, I couldn’t read.
Momma shot daddy one night on the front porch while I (in utero) and three lawn ornaments watched in amazement. Daddy drove the second shift Schlitz beer delivery route for the honky-tonks, strip joints, and low-budget funeral homes in Surry County. One might think, given the late nights he kept, a handsome and strapping man like my daddy, who plied the nectar of the devil could pick up any number of grieving women from places like the Neon Palace Funeral Home. It wasn’t the case.
Daddy’s eyes, the ones momma shot out, never strayed far from what he could see while sitting in his old recliner or the front seat of his delivery truck. The night he came home from his last run mama finally realized the beer truck wasn’t out restocking bars, drink machines or caskets all over the county. Looking outside the front door, there it was, parked right across the street in her sister Hazel’s driveway.
Three hours later, when he returned from his nightly delivery, the excrement hit the proverbial wind rotation device. Names were called, accusations were leveled, and Hazel admitted to being a slut. Mama was mad. She went into house and found the Prince Albert can; the place her granddaddy kept his old Confederate derringer. To paraphrase the old Afro-American spiritual, “she never said a mumblin’ word.” She shot his eyeballs out. One right after another, pop-pop. Hazel said one rolled around on the floor for a few seconds before the dog took it. Both eyes now reside on a shelf in the same Prince Albert can with the derringer.
None of this changed the fact I couldn’t read. Growing up in prison, I was first exposed to literature through boxes of donated books sent to the prison library. The books people send to prison libraries are those believed to be unreadable and unwanted in mainstream society. Because I couldn’t see, I went each day and listened to someone read me the titles of books. Because my memory is short, I can’t remember them all but many were by a man whose last name was “Patterson”.
When I was nearly 19, the prison doctors told me I didn’t have to stay there any longer. I needn’t be there at all. Even though I didn’t kill my daddy and possessed a certain fondness for my momma, it was important for me to move on with my life. I needed to go home. This presented a challenge. I couldn’t see. Since the day of my birth and hearing of my father’s tragic death I suffered from sympathetic blindness. One of the prison staffers, a medical orderly serving three to five years for breaking and entering offered me a life altering piece of medical advice, “Open you damn eyes, fool!” Thanks to this timely wisdom I opened my eyes and began my journey home. It was the day before my 19th birthday. I left prison with a box of books from the library, three dollars, and a letter from my momma to give to her sister. I didn’t read the letter from my momma but I have a real good idea what it said. I did read the first two words. They were “Go” and “to”.
Hazel, my weak willed and sexually indiscreet aunt who destroyed my life, would now raise me as her own child. The thought of living with my mother’s sister, despite all my father once saw in her, filled me with no amount of dread. The nit-witted daughter of a hare brained sharecropper, Hazel never mastered the use of flour in baking or fire in cooking. We needed to eat. I didn’t want the state to come and send me to live with my other aunt Jo Jo. Would I burn the books I brought from prison or teach Hazel how to make fire? I thought one of my prison books might prove helpful. It’s was a boys adventure story from the early 20th century. Written by a famous British author JBK Worthington, it was the story of the Royal Canadian Mennonites of Peace. These Mennonites, in their big black hats would travel the far north of Canada building fires and praying for people to use peaceful means of resolving conflict. By rubbing two sticks together, over a piece of dried wood or paper, the Mennonites would create a fire. I was almost certain the same thing could be accomplished in our stove.
It was a great idea, at least on paper. Take dried leaves, old newspaper, and dried sticks to make a fire in a stove. If it worked for the Mennonites outdoors, why wouldn’t work indoors for me? After twenty minutes, my fire tee-pee was ready to burn and I was ready to pee. Exhausted by reading and fire-making, I went outside to the outhouse. Hazel, however, had neglected to inform me, that during the period of my voluntary incarceration and blindness, gas was installed. I was unfamiliar with the word gas, the smell of gas, or the knob which read, “On and Off”. The mechanics of modern home appliances were still foreign to me. Before I could get back to the kitchen to finish my fire, Hazel came inside to try her hand at lighting the new gas stove.
Reports indicate the explosion was heard over three counties. Amazingly, I emerged unscathed, protected from the blast by quick thinking and a well-placed box of books. Hazel wasn’t so lucky. Bits and pieces turned up over the next week or so. Thank God for all of her tattoos or we would have never identified all of those little pieces. When it was all over, I decided to put her out back with daddy, right where she belonged.