South by Degrees









     I don’t know if I can tell it. I want to. No, I need to. But I don’t know if I can. Can a person talk about something that happened to them while they didn’t even exist? That’s how I felt, like a ghost or some sort of spirit. Most of the time it seemed like nothing was real, like I was there and I wasn’t there and everything was happening to someone else. It was like watching a movie about someone - someone like me. I saw what happened to her, except when I couldn’t look any more, and yet somewhere deep inside I knew it was me I was watching. I started to wonder if I had died but then when I was hurting I knew better. Still, it wasn’t much like being alive.

     Anyway, I’ve never been much of a talker, at least that’s what people tell me. It’s not that I don’t know how to talk, I just choose not to. Talking has gotten me into a pack of trouble and, well, I guess I learned my lesson. But I’m a downright motor-mouth compared to my uncle Theo. Back then, he was about as talkative as a piece of old driftwood. I could never figure out what was on his mind except by watching him. I finally realized that he said a lot without saying a word, just by the way he looked at you, the way he stood or the way he’d turn his head to the side. It was like a whole other language that you didn’t know existed until, all of a sudden, you saw it. Theo showed me that men do some of their most important talking by what they do rather than what they say. He taught me a lot else to, but it was a while in coming.

     My grandmother, Gessie was the opposite. She’d say whatever she thought no matter who you were. She’d speak her mind to the President himself without a second thought if she had the chance. Of course, we’re nobody important so that would never happen. Her sisters, my great aunts Ceely and Linny could give her a run for her money in the talking department too. Growing up, I didn’t know them like I did Gessie. I just knew there wouldn’t be space enough for a flea between the words the three of them could throw out when they got to going. 

     For a long time Gessie was the most important person in my life. I don’t know what I would have done without her. She was tough in a gentle way and would stand by me no matter what if I asked her to. I guess that’s why I didn’t tell her things. I knew she’d put herself on the line for me and that scared me more than I can say. I mean, the thought of something bad happening to her was worse than anything that could ever happen to me, so I kept my mouth shut. I needed her to be there for me and I’d fight anything that might change that.

     So, I had Gessie but I knew I couldn’t talk to her about what was happening to me at home. I liked Ceely and Linny but I knew they’d tell Gessie whatever I said if it was something important. And then there was my mom, who never believed a thing I said and wasn’t much better off than me. That’s when I started to feel like I was sort of alive and not alive at the same time. I didn’t think I was dead but sometimes I wasn’t even sure about that. I was walking around but inside I felt I was invisible – as if I didn’t exist. I guess that’s like being dead.

       Some days I would wonder why I was even born. Things in my life seemed to happen for no reason, and most of them were bad, so I just wanted to know what God had in store for me - if there even is a God. Half the time I think there is and the rest of the time I don’t see how there can be. Maybe God was punishing me for something I did, but I didn’t know what that would be. I knew girls that acted a lot worse than me most days.

     Still, I thought it must be my fault that bad things kept happening. I decided there had to be something bad wrong with me. But then, sometimes I knew that it couldn’t be all me. Some things just happen, like having a mother who picks boyfriends that like to hit you for no reason. How does she find them? It’s like she has some kind of perverted radar. She ended up in the hospital twice because she got beat so bad, but she still kept going back to the same losers. I know it sounds crazy.

     Then again, I’m a fine one to talk. I’d argue with her for no reason. I’d do the opposite of what she said, I don’t even know why. Can that drive a person to drink? She sure did her share. I wondered if she thought I was the reason my dad left. Maybe I was. I’d sometimes think if I had been better and not such a pain, he would’ve stayed with us. I thought maybe she was mad at me for that. But we didn’t talk much and when we did she was usually yelling.

     Mom was her own sweet self but Frank, the guy she married was something else. He scared me. He had a look in his eye like he could hurt you bad. I think he killed our cat. I never knew for sure, but I saw him kick at her more than once after he had lured her close with a treat. Then one day she just disappeared. She had never set foot out of the yard and then she’s gone. Frank tried to act all concerned about her but I knew better.

     So, there I was with no one I could really talk to. I knew people at school but I didn’t have many friends, and none I felt I could trust. And I was afraid of what might happen if I talked to the people I trusted. It’s no wonder I walked around in a daze. Even now, it gives me the creeps to think what might have happened if Theo hadn’t come along.