by Terry Barr
This fall I saw the most important college football game of my sixty years of fandom: Alabama versus LSU in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. The game itself turned very one-sided after halftime, mainly because Alabama held superstar Leonard Fournette to less than 40 yards rushing for the night. For me, a devoted Tide fan, while the victory was sweet and fulfilling, what I’ll remember most about the night occurred ninety minutes before kickoff in a Chipotle restaurant on the campus strip.
I had journeyed the day before to my mother’s home in Bessemer from my home in upstate South Carolina. For the past three years, I have taught Creative Nonfiction at a private liberal arts college, a course that has rejuvenated my teaching bones. Now that I am three times as old as my students, I wonder if I have anything vital to teach them, if we can relate at all to each other’s life experiences. When these experiences—pleasing a father, feeling alone at the college of your dreams, declaring one’s political or religious independence—click, sometimes I forget our age disparity.
Sometimes I feel twenty again.
My wife refers to my born-again relationships with these excellent, young writers as “distant crushes,” the distance, of course, being that I could be their grandfather. That description, my feelings: they’re all true.
So is my love for Alabama football; however, this game day brought torrential rain, and given Tuscaloosa’s history with tornados, I wondered if making this trip was worth it. Still, I bought a $2.00 Crimson Tide poncho, a beige and crimson Bama hat, donned my houndstooth sport jacket, and waited for my friends to pick me up. They had the tickets, the coveted parking spot. Our seats would be under the upper deck roof and we could stay dry there.
What I didn’t know was that one of the guys going with us was an LSU fan, dressed completely in purple and gold. I could hear my even more fanatical Bama daughter saying, “Karma, Dad! You can’t let that guy go with you!”
But I wasn’t commandeering this trip. The LSU guy was extremely cordial, it turned out. And very stoned. In fact, for the entire back roads trip from Bessemer to Tuscaloosa, joints were firing, beer was passing, though not through me. I like to watch my games sober and free. Afterwards, depending on the size of the Tide victory, I celebrate.
The coveted parking space cost $20; nevertheless, my friend Joe treated us to this 25-foot length of asphalt, and we began weaving our way through crowds and rain. Halfway to the stadium, Joe realizes that he forgot his flask and heads off to find a liquor store. The other two—Bobby and LSU Fan—and I decide that food outside the stadium would be better than nachos or dogs inside. Maybe Chipotle fits that bill, maybe not, but soon we’re in line waiting for tacos.
To my peripheral right, I see a girl in a #27 Bama jersey steadily approaching. She’s smiling right at me as she walks up, and I resist the temptation to smile back or to turn my head to see the college hunk she’s surely marking. Her eyes are glittering, though, and she’s getting closer.
I know she can’t be coming on to this old man. But then, as if I’m not who I am, she touches my arm, leans in, and then whispers what we all long to hear on game day: “If you let me break in line, I’ll buy your food.”
God help me, I let her break.
“You really don’t have to buy my supper,” I say. “I can cover it.”
“No way. I’m buying. I couldn’t live with myself if I broke in line and didn’t at least make up for it!”
I smile at her. “What year are you?”
“A sophomore.” Younger than my youngest daughter.
When the server asks “For here or to go?” this nineteen-year old student says, just a little too assertively, “Mine is for here. His, to go.”
I thank her nonetheless, and watch her gather her food and disappear somewhere onto the festive November strip night.
When I tell the story later, one of my friends says, “Why’d you let her break?”
“Because she was cute.”
He looks back at me, and just shakes his head. “Well, Roll Tide.”
Roll Tide indeed.
Terry Barr’s essay collection, Don’t Date Baptists and Other Warnings From My Alabama Mother, has been recently published by Red Dirt Press. His work has also appeared in The Bitter Southerner, 3288 Review, Hippocampus, Under the Sun, and Belle Reve Literary Journal. He loves in Greenville, SC, with his family.
Written by C. Cimmone
Art by Clinton Van Inman
My mother was nicer when we had company. As soon as she heard the tires crush onto the shell drive, her voice was higher, and I could rest assured my frog-catching excursions could reach well beyond bedtime.
Every now and then, my uncle and his wife, Dorothy, would pack up their clothes and my mother would pull fresh linens from the bathroom. The spare room would be lightened with the smell of the crisp materials; and my mother would dig out the bonnet hair dryer and the air mattresses.
My uncle was a precarious man, with odd hair, cut in a straight-line, all the way around. His words were careful and soft; and although not an exactly thin man, his jeans were always snug and his western shirt – always tucked. He smiled at arrival, at the evening news and at my mother’s frayed stories. His blue eyes were mysterious and laced with shreds of glass. I wasn’t fond of his hugs and guitar playing, but my mother’s adoration for him brought him back year after year.
My father enjoyed my uncle’s company, but my uncle’s hair-styling profession and clean fingernails set the two on opposite sides of the living room. My uncle would unzip his guitar case and my father would sit, with arms crossed, chewing his Red Man at his place on the couch. My uncle would strum his threads as the football game ran wild. My father’s silence was common, but the disappointment in his brow was something my uncle didn’t take notice of.
I would walk out the front door, cousins in hand, only to see my father follow behind. He would spit, wipe his chin and walk out to lean over his flat bottom boat as if he was apologizing for its uselessness on that particular weekend.
And always, as my cousins giggled and ran between the flower beds and Pecan trees, I would watch my father’s face fall into a still fate until the creak of our rusty back screen door broke his path.
“Well, hey there, girl!” My father would grin.
My aunt Dorothy would run over to him, arms in air and brown hair waving hello, with such kindness and grace that I would lean up against our old Oak tree and watch, as if nothing else in the world was ever going to happen.
My father, more fond of handshakes, would hug her up, as if he hadn’t seen her in years. His face would wrinkle and beam and his eyes would pace from hers to ground, and back around, until her greetings were calm and her questions about his boat tipped him over and found him pointing at steel and rope and bait buckets. She nodded in understanding, dainty hands held together at her waist and her long, white dress standing atop the freshly shaven blades of grass beneath.
I loved that my father loved my aunt Dorothy with such gentleness. He was never curt or impatient with my aunt Dorothy and when her 30th birthday came around, the weekend found us sitting around five Golden Corral tables, all pushed together.
I was displeased that my age sat me at the end of the celebration, with my cousins and my nieces, but I could see my father handing my aunt Dorothy a giant birthday card, which she struggled with. My uncle attempted to reach out for the grand envelope, but my father happily tugged at the card and upon revelation, my aunt Dorothy giggled and bounced up on toes to put her arms around my father’s neck. My mother smiled through her cigarette, my sister was laughing and my cousins were smashing cherry tomatoes under the tables.
That evening found us all exhausted; my sister and her kids had headed back to East Texas and my uncle hadn’t bothered to disturb his guitar. My cousins were crinkled up next to my father and my mother was on the back porch with her crossword puzzle and last cigarettes.
I cracked the door of the spare bedroom and watched my aunt Dorothy unzip her blue makeup case. She fiddled with the leather case and walked out of my sight. I pushed the door as gently as excitement allowed. I waited. The thin metal hangers in the closet tinged. I poked my head into the room and smelled the plastic of the air mattresses and the clean smell of my aunt Dorothy and all of her things.
I snuck into the room and sat on one of the air mattresses. My aunt Dorothy stood at the chest of drawers and shuffled things around and moved this and grabbed that. She turned around.
“What is that?” I asked.
My aunt Dorothy pulled at the top buttons of her opened dress. She held the container and small tube in her hand.
“This is my medicine.” She smiled.
I sat, in confusion, on the bare air mattress. I ran my hands across its velvety top. She turned and buttoned her dress.
“Would you like to go play some Go Fish before bed?” She smiled. Her green eyes were pure and kind and when she spoke to me, I forgot I was adopted, and I forgot my mother was right outside. I forgot there was anything other than her.
We sat at the kitchen table, under the only light my mother had left on for the evening; and my aunt Dorothy let me shuffle the cards and spread them out and straighten them up from their mess. I passed out the cards and she smiled and tilted her head,
“Thank you, Cimmone,” she spoke, “you do a fantastic job with the cards.”
I raised up on my folded knees, “You’re welcome, Dorothy.” I blinked and smiled and smelled my mother’s cigarettes sneaking through the screen door. We played Go Fish until we couldn’t any more and my aunt Dorothy giggled and hugged me goodnight. I went off to my room and drifted off to sleep with my mother’s coughing and my aunt’s soft voice.
Aunt Dorothy and my uncle hadn’t visited all fall and the Christmas lights blinked through the haze of our living room. Football was roaring on the TV and my father sat, as usual, on his end of the couch. The love seat found my comfort, and I watched the evening news report Santa’s whereabouts.
“Welp, he’s gettin’ closer,” my father advised.
I folded my hands under my chin and watched him chew and fold his arms. His work boots were still on duty and I wished for the plants to leave him alone. I heard my mother’s magazine pages turn and the flames on the floor-heater danced until they were sleepy and blue.
The house was warm and thick and the presents were taped up and the stockings were still. The cardboard silver-bells clung to the walls.
The phone rang.
I heard my mother’s kitchen chair shift and her footsteps across the floor held my breath with every push.
“Hello,” she greeted.
“Yes. Oh…no…” her voice dropped.
Pins and needles stabbed my arms and my neck and my legs were sweaty. I looked at my father. He chewed back and forth and turned his head to my mother, still standing at the telephone. She had not stretched the long, curly cord and headed back to her chair. She had not called my father’s name.
“Ok,” she finished. But the caller on the other end of the curly line had not finished, and she gently pressed the receiver back to the wall. My father grabbed the remote and the screaming football fans fell silent. My mother stepped into the doorframe of the living room. She waited. I stared at my father.
“Dorothy has died,” she spoke, “she died about twenty minutes ago.”
I heard my mother’s feet step across the kitchen floor, and I heard the creak of her kitchen chair accept her back in all of her woe. My father stared at the television.
The people on the TV were smiling and waving and we watched them as if we were standing on the moon – a thousand miles away – in a space of darkness and nothing.
I heard a page of the magazine turn and I watched my father pull his right arm from his side and hang his head. He pushed his glasses up and reached underneath with his thumb and his fingers. His shoulders, always hardworking, fell ill.
I looked away.
I felt the heat of the room push itself into me and my eyes were full and sore. I held my breath.
I looked at my father. His shoulders fell forward and I watched my father cry with such silence and such carelessness that the Christmas tree shrugged and the stockings sighed.
My father sat alone with his grief that night. And so did I.
New Year’s week brought back my sister and her husband, my nieces and one of my other aunt’s and her son. My father was smiling and picking on my cousin, Greg, about his music selection and my mother was whipping meringue and listening to my sister explain the ins and outs of her new diet.
My nieces brushed their dolls’ hair and my brother-in-law sat on the other end of the couch and laughed at the TV. The house was moving and the lights were yellow and warm and everyone was busy. I walked down the hall and stood next to the spare room. I looked in and saw the air mattresses and my pillow and my Baby Dog. I looked across the hall at my room. I walked across the carpet and pushed the door open. The room was dark and chilled and my plastic cash register and animal encyclopedias were tucked away in the bookshelves. My stuffed animals peeked from under the bed and the window cracked with the wind. I stared at the red and white playing cards on the windowsill. The rubber band was wrapped four-times-tight and the corners of the cards were confused.
I stood in the center of the room. I stared at the cards.
“Cimmone,” my mother spoke, as she CLICKED on the light, “you know you are to sleep in the spare room tonight.”
“You can go on to bed if you want.”
She shuffled back down the hall and my sister asked her something about someone and she was gone. I CLICKED off the light and headed across the hall. I stopped in the middle of the hall and stared at the lights and the noise. I sighed.
I shut the spare room door and grabbed my Baby Dog and pulled back the blanket and the sheet on the air mattress. I sat on its bloated top and it was cool and smooth through the sheet. I ran my foot across this dip and that one and stared at the thin light at the bottom of the door. A shadow went by and another one. I heard my nieces giggle and mumble. I rolled over.
The street light my father had hung at the end of the drive was white and bold. The branches of the Pecan trees smashed into each other and the shadows of the tall Hawaiian ginger slapped the window. I stared at the chest of drawers. The top of the chest was empty and quiet.
And I sighed.
I closed my eyes.
I thought about my aunt Dorothy and her long white dress. I thought about how clean all of her things smelled, and I thought about her smiling at my father. I thought about her asking me if I had any eights, and I watched her look into my eyes and tell me she loved me. I watched her tell me goodnight. And I watched her soft, brown hair fall all around, everywhere, as she stood in our front yard smelling my mother’s roses. I thought about my father’s boat and my uncle’s glass eyes smiling at my mother.
I opened my eyes and watched the branches and their shadows jump in every direction. I listened to the wind. I listened to the warm air and its breath on my face.
I wiped my face with Baby Dog’s ears, and I kissed his worn nose.
I looked out the window. I wiped my face.
I stared at the chest of drawers. I sighed.
The tension of my mind was moving and my shoulders were calm again and my stomach was soft. I blinked my eyes, slowly, still staring at the chest of drawers.
And right at the bottom of the chest, like it had been there all along, was a ball of light.
It was yellow and white and soft. It glowed. It moved gently. This way. And that way. Never far.
I watched the round light as it sat right above the tired carpet. It waited. The different bands of light swam between each other, patiently.
The wind blew and the ginger looked through the window.
And with the next strike of the shadows, it was gone – its softness, its light, its gentleness. It was gone.
For twenty years, I thought about the light I had seen that night. I laughed at friend’s ghost stories and I changed the channel at hauntings.
“I don’t believe in ghosts,” I would always explain.
And I don’t – I don’t believe in ghosts or in demons with long nails who lurk in corners of ceilings, but I do believe that sometimes, just sometimes, innocence is the gate…
to the other side.
C. Cimmone, a native Texan and deviant reader, credits her literary abilities to singers, songwriters and comics. After a college adviser suggested, "You should consider changing your major - writing is never going to get you anywhere," she signed up for a BS in psychology and an open mic call at an Austin comedy club. C. Cimmone's short stories won her a few books in college and a recent paper publication, who all sleep in her bookcase, alongside jokes smeared on sticky notes, a rock collection and a picture of a pug named after Jerry Seinfeld. Four of her short stories are scheduled for published this summer in Embodied Effigies, Jokes Review, Heart and Mind Zine and The Penman Review.
Clinton Van Inman grew up in North Carolina, graduated from San Diego State University in 1977, taught in South Carolina and is currently a high school teacher in Tampa Bay where he lives in Sun City Center, Florida with his wife, Elba.
Belle Rêve Literary Journal is a southern literary experience. Our mission is to capture everything that makes the South and its residents unique through the best contemporary literature we can find. We publish new works weekly.
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