Suicide Note‎ > ‎Volume 1‎ > ‎

5. Pappy's Ear

P

erhaps I was three years old that day.  I found a dead copperhead killed by a passing wagon wheel on a dusty road somewhere in the Kentucky hills.  In the summer of 1929, which must have been the year I found the snake, the Kentucky hills stood remote and green, closer to their primitive nature than they would soon become.  Between a cornfield and a creek, in a long-forgotten sunlight, on a dusty road with no other house in sight but my great grandmother’s unpainted clapboard frame with its dooryard patch of grass, I found the snake in the road and brought it into the kitchen to show the women.  The group of women fell apart in alarm, all except my great grandmother, fat and sullen, who kept her place silently in front of an iron cook stove.  “Dead snakes don’t bite,” she growled through the gravel in her throat.  I remember how dark and different her face was.  My other and lesser grandmother, memoried as the woman who brought me up, a white woman perfectly white without even hair under her arms, cried my name and shrank from the snake I held up to her.  My phlegmatic great grandmother was Cherokee, not African for all her darkness.  In the summer of 1929 along the back roads of gravel and dirt, or along some cinder lane that ended against a pawpaw patch at a mountain’s foot, the distinction between redskin and black meant something.  The Appalachian highlanders had been redskin tainted early and defended themselves by becoming proud of it.  The black people in the eyes of the hillbilly whites of Kentucky were the others, the progeny of Cain.  My Cherokee great grandmother lived within the pale.  She married into the Sizemore whites who lived up Chewing Gum Hollow.  She had a son named Blaine, the man known to my brother Dale and me as Pappy.

That Cherokee blood made of my maternal grandfather a half-breed.  Pappy never liked that term and got mean with men who called him that.  He would admit proudly to being a quarter-Cherokee, telling lies to get down to a respectable level of Indian blood.  All that is left of him today, other than the vague and dying memories in me, can be found stuck like a bookmark between pages, a small picture of a man’s head, swarthy and handsome with cold black hair parted in the middle.  Only I would find the little photograph and know the name of the man caught in the lens all those years ago.  What a man he was!  I remember him seldom sober.  The kindest memory sees him holding little brother Don in rocking chair, singing softly a three-note tune, mine buddy, mine buddy, over and over ten minutes at a time.  Then we lived in a box frame house on Park Avenue just off the Dixie Highway in Erlanger.  On that street I won all the tricycle races.  There a polecat tried to live under our back porch and several boys aged five would hide in a henhouse to take off all our clothes and stare at one another’s penises.  On a sullen hot morning in late August 1931, I remember being taken into the bedroom to see a new baby in my mother’s arms.  That was mine buddy, little Don.

The small frame house, so big to my eyes in those days, was where I first remember Pappy being drunk.  As a barefoot boy, I stepped on a bee and went indoors seeking comfort from my grandmother who was pedaling the Singer Sewing Machine that chattered a little tune as she guided the fabric through it.  Mammy, grim of face, was refusing to talk to Pappy who smelled funny.  Among the hillbillies, many a white grandmother or mom was called Mammy.  I did not know what the word “divorce” meant except that it had something to do with Mammy and Pappy and the way Pappy smelled that day I stepped on a bee.

Rent for a house could be a desperate expense for a working man in the early days of the Great Depression.  My stepfather Ira Dee, transformed verbally to RD, lives in my mind as the lumpenproletariat hero who kept a roof over our heads and biscuits and gravy on the table.  He never missed a day of work in all the years I knew him.  His one entrepreneurial act was searching for the lowest rent.  We kept changing houses every few months.  Pappy showed up in every one of them, always as a drunk. We moved to a narrow house on the Dixie Highway.  It was dusty from the roadwork that allowed my younger brother Dale and me to chew the sun-softened road tar like chewing gum.  Dale was easily misled.  One snide time I encouraged him to pet the puppies of a snarly bitch that bit my brother’s leg so badly that it made him bellow.  It even made me cry.  For the rest of his life, Dale had a pork-chop shaped scar at the back of one leg.  He wore diapers until he was nearly four and it fell to my duty to inform on him.  “Dale’s got a load.”  He was always behind me in life except for beating me into the war by being on Guadalcanal at the age of fifteen.  Pappy’s drinking made him less and less welcome.  His privilege as a sometime visitor ended when he broke the lock on the tool shed where RD hid a jug of dandelion wine when Pappy came around.  He was tossed for good out of our cottage on Madison Pike.  That little home was perched on a green hill for its yard and was the last house where Pappy came through the front door.  For a month or more RD would eulogize Pappy by singing “Who broke the lock on the henhouse door?”  We two brothers would cry out “Pappy!”

I never once saw Pappy the few months we lived next to a brewery and icehouse on West Eleventh in Covington.  A three-minute walk toward Pike Street reached a baseball lot where a batter slung a bat that knocked me out.  The guys on the bench revived me using a bucket of ice from the icehouse that served as the right field fence.  A Ma and Pa store across from our house sold ice cream and Baby Ruth candy bars and baseball cards.  A nickel got a three-dip ice cream cone or a big Dixie Cup of ice cream dumped upside down into the cone.  I smoked my first Lucky Strike in the adjacent brewery, shut down by the Depression and empty without even a watchman.  The Lucky made me so sick I afterwards hated cigarettes and only pretended to smoke them now and then.  On Eleventh Street, I could feel Pappy’s absence like a faint essence of dandelion wine on the afternoon air.

By the time we moved to East Tenth Street in Covington my grandfather had become a street person.  East Tenth had the best house of my childhood.  It must have been a pleasant glick in RD’s search for cheap rent, maybe because Mom worked in a tile factory and we had extra money.  The neat red brick had a small side lawn where lilacs last in the dooryard bloomed.  I felt good about that lilac bush.  I learned how to read in that house until I could follow the comic strips Alley Oop and Wash Tubbs and know what they said in the word balloons.  I sneaked Pappy into the front room and caught hell for giving him a place to lay his head.  It was the last time I saw him.  My grandfather, Blaine Sizemore, died a drunkard’s death about the same time J. Edgar Hoover killed John Dillinger and I was eight years old.  When Mom quit her job, RD’s rental entrepreneurship ended successfully in a slum house on West Ninth where the first-floor rent was twenty dollars a month for three bleak rooms and a kitchen shed attached to a grim bathroom.  The front room was special and across a hall, so mostly we lived in two rooms.  The only heat came from a coal-fired brown metal hulk with a stove pipe.  It was called a Heatrola.  I grew up in those two rooms, a kitchen shed, and a grim rectangular bathroom where a razor strap hung on the wall over the Saturday-night bathtub.

What about Pappy’s ear?  That ear took part in one of his marvelous episodes.  His life went by so like a fevered night of random dreams.  When he was young he worked in the coal mines.  He and Mammy took care of me after my mother broke up housekeeping with my father.  Dad was twenty-seven, driving a taxi up and down a coal camp valley for a piddling amount of money, most of it company scrip.  He ran off with my sixteen-year-old mother.  I may have been procreated in the back seat of a taxi parked in the dark at the edge of whose woods these are I think I know.  Mom’s two brothers hunted Dad down to pistol-whip him or worse.  The marriage license fended them off, but not Pappy.  The first time Dad showed up at the house with Mom as his wife, Pappy grabbed a shotgun and chased him into the night through a cemetery, blasting away.  I like to think he was missing him on purpose, for Pappy was good with a shotgun when not drunk.  My taxi father liked cars so much that he took my mother and Mammy to Detroit to work in a Ford factory.  His taxi however was a Dodge and Pappy called me the little Dodge during the years he and Mammy saw me out of my infancy.  Pappy bought me a tricycle and then complained I was ruining the furniture riding it inside the coal-camp house that belonged to the company.  He had bought me the tricycle to straighten my very bowed legs.  They were so bowed that a nurse told my grandmother she should have them broken and set in braces to straighten them out.  That’s how I got a tricycle instead and won all those tricycle races on Park Avenue in Erlanger.  My legs became so strong and straight that I was a star high jumper in high school and even made the basketball team for my kangaroo qualities.

Among the many stories about Pappy, I like two the best.  One Saturday night when he was still Mammy’s jo and they were first aquent and his locks were like the raven and his bonnie brow was brent, he came home drunk to a mountain cabin demanding a hot bowl of soup that Mammy was good at.  Not that night.  The local teacher at a one-room schoolhouse had come over for a visit.  The cabin had one bed with a feather mattress and a crazy quilt.  Mammy had never heard of Sappho and was innocently abed with her teacher guest.  Pappy probably would not be back until Sunday dawn.  Mammy told this story to me a dozen times with consistent details, crazy quilt and all, so the way I imagine it is close to what she remembered.  He woke the two women up to demand the soup.  When Mammy refused, he took out his pistol and waved it while yelling for soup.  The school teacher began to quaver and to make squeaks of fright.  “Lordy, he’ll kill us both!”  My grandmother knew better.  Pappy would never raise a hand to her.  She got out of bed wearing her usual white cotton ankle-length nightgown that made her look like a wingless angel with her wavy silken hair undone in a brunette cascade down her back.  She angrily shoved Pappy out the cabin door and told him to go sleep it off in the barn.  The two women whispered and laughed together in bed in the dark, hearing Pappy singing guttural songs and firing his pistol through the barn roof until he fell asleep in the hayloft.

The second of my favorite Pappy stories is about Pappy’s ear.  The violence on ground above the coal mines killed men, not as many as down deep in the shafts but dead all the same.  One of them trying to make a living as a scab got shot dead instead and had his ear cut off for a souvenir.  Pappy traded some of his moonshine for the ear, already withered.  He took pride in possessing that ear, kept it in his watch fob, and used it as a conversation piece.  Even in front of company, Pappy would embarrass my mother and grandmother by taking out the ear to show around.  In a parlor kept vaguely and just barely in my memory in a house—where?  Maybe in Whitesburg down in the hills, maybe Black Mountain (nobody will ever know).  My mother and grandmother whispered in a parlor while Pappy slept off a drunk on the couch.  One of the women sneaked the ear out of his watch fob.  They buried it in the backyard behind a bush.  Pappy looked for that ear, I do not know how long.  He neither found the ear nor whatever else he was looking for in his strange lost life of riot and dreams.