One Last Rockabilly Boogie

By J.D. Hibbitts

I.FINAL (1).webt’s late enough for Pops to know he shouldn’t be dragging in. Mommie painted her lips right after dinner and spun one of her old Johnny Horton records, waited for him to come back from a gig in Memphis. Pops’ band, name of Flamin’ Bones, plays rockabilly songs kids at my school haven’t heard of. Pops’ fingers stay callused from the upright bass and keep a coat of grime from all the merchandise that passes over the pawnshop counter he stands behind. This isn’t why he’s late. He clamps my neck, shakes it too hard, plops down across from Mommie. There’s an ashtray full of cigarette butts between them.

“Boy shouldn’t be up so late. Ain’t this a school night?” He shakes out a Virginia Slim. Lights it. Holds the pack out to me. I always tell him no in front of Mommie. It’s our little game.

“Not like he’s been going much lately these days anyhow,” Mommie says.

I say, “Tomorrow’s square pizza Friday. There’s a football pep rally too.” But I don’t plan to go.

Pops untucks his shirt, hangs his denim vest on the shoulders of the chair. He points outside.

“You get on to bed, but bring in them groceries I got first. I’ll get my bass tomorrow.”

When I’m out on the steps, I hear Mommie ask Pops why the need for band practice extends into late nights out at the Sugar Shack Bar & Grill, and, like he’s proven himself before, why Pops risks another DUI by rinsing his mouth out with whiskey. Though I can’t see it, I know he’s waving off her words and pacing, his back turned just enough to keep from having to look at her. Before I pop the trunk, I unlatch Pops’ case in the back seat, find the topless picture of Bettie Page he keeps in one of the velvet pockets. She winks at me in a way no girl at school has, no way I think any woman will wink at me. Her glossy face is as smooth as an unlit candle and crumples to the touch. She bows as I fold her over herself, saying goodnight. I hide what’s left of Pops’ Old Crow under my jacket. All the paper bags feel like sweat soaked t-shirts. The bottom tears out of one in the kitchen and I lose a gallon of warm milk and the whiskey. Both take on the look of gravy before it’s cooked down.

“Leave it there, boy,” he says. And digs those tree stump fingers of his into that patch of nerves around my funny bone. Gets enough pressure going to make my fingers curl. “Just leave.”

In my sleep, I hear him crash the LeBaron into a mailbox. It’s not until morning when I see the trunk folded in. It reminds me of the grill on an Edsel, a upright seam split right down the keyhole. It may as well have a welding bead on it. Over an eggless breakfast later, Mommie asks Pops to fix the trunk before the food he left in it spoils. And, to remind him about her birthday, she sticks a pair of ticket stubs from a Gene Vincent concert to the fridge with a magnet from one of Pops’ blown speakers. Beneath one, she attaches a piece of paper with the date of Gene’s own car wreck, the one Eddie Cochran didn’t live through.

Pops leaves it that way for three weeks. I miss several more days of school to ride with him to find a mechanic. Pops lets me stretch out in the back seat to smoke, but only if I keep close to the cushions so we’re not caught. It’s all smoke and the sulfur of broken eggs back there, but the tires peel the road like a soft orange when we get out of the neighborhood. Pops keeps the radio dial to an oldies station his guitar player DJs at. There’s a Ray Lewis song called “Come on Little Mommie” he snaps along to with his arm out the window, the rearview shaking like it could snap off too. It’s enough for me to see him this way.

On a day I make school, I hem this kid named Gregory Samson up against his locker for saying my hair needs an oil change. He’s taller than me, so I have to keep my forearm tight against his throat. The teacher who breaks us up gets a good smell of the tobacco on me. The man tries to lead me to Principle Jordan’s office by the almost healed bruise on my elbow, but I’m never caught twice by anything and get loose long enough to get another swing off. At home, Pops plays tooth fairy by leaving me a pack of his smokes under my pillow. He smiles to me over dinner while Mommie dries the dishes, flicks crumbs of the cheesecake I can’t have at my head. The wrinkles under her eyes look the same as her dishpan hands. They come out and sting my wrists when I pick a piece of cheesecake off my shirt and try for my mouth.

“I’m tired of raising two boys in this house,” she says, using her apron like a hand towel.

“Don’t mind her,” Pops says to me. Then thumbs his saucer. “She’s just a couple chords shy of being a song.”

I get another piece in my mouth before Mommie sends me to my room. Before her shift at the drugstore, she comes in my room, finds the pack I left out on my dresser. She calls for Pops to come up. Wads it up in front of him.

“I’ll get a ride from Ira tonight,” She says. “You stay and talk with your son.”

We watch her straddle our neighbor’s fence to get to Ira’s. Until we can’t see her anymore.

Pops takes me down and sits me driver side in the LeBaron. We roll down the windows and he gives me a cigarette from a pack in the glove box. My knees get to shaking and my palms start sweating. The only time I’ve had this happen before was on a Ferris wheel at the county fair that froze with me and Mommie sitting right at the top. I couldn’t open my hands and my legs didn’t bend the way they should. They’re stretching to touch the pedals now. I have to slide the seat all the way forward to feel them.

“Turn that key,” he says.

“I ain’t sure I’m ready just yet.”

“You let your momma or any woman keep you holed up and waiting ,” Pops says, “and you might as well rent yourself a room in a jail cell.”

I tap the dash a few times, turn the key.

“Besides,” he says. “Somebody’s got to drink safe around here.” Then he shows me a bottle of the Crow he’s hidden under the seat. Uncaps it. Lets me smell it before sucking all the whiskey out of the bottle’s neck.

Pops shifts into reverse for us. We circle the neighborhood until I get us up to thirty without swerving over any lines. I almost have us back to the driveway when Pops flags me to stop. He steps out of the car, leans in the window. Says, “Keep her under thirty and don’t leave the neighborhood. And get back soon so I don’t have to rat you out to your Mamma.”

“I will, dad,” I say.

“Leave it at Pops,” he says. “I called my old man ‘dad.’”

I make sure to stay under thirty all the way down the service road. Then I let everything loose. The trunk’s vibrating since whoever Pops got to fix it did a half-assed job. While I’m fiddling with the seat bar, I find another bottle of the Crow Pops had stashed away. The schoolhouse parking lot’s empty enough to sit and wait for Greg Samson to come to his car without too many people noticing. We bought our car off his dad who runs a used car lot down from Pops’ pawn shop. There ain’t a car off that lot that compares to the one Greg leaves sitting around like it fell out of some pop machine, and his daddy ain’t secret about who can and can’t make payments around him neither.

Soon I see Greg come down the cement steps from the gym. He’s wearing an Adidas track suit that looks like a set of curtains. I’ve got a few slugs from the Crow in me by now and feel like I could set his face on fire with my breath. Greg’s not looking my way, so I rev the V8 enough to rattle the frame. I’ve had Pops cassette of Gene Vincent on loop and twist up the volume knob until it stops. Greg keeps far enough away.

“Hey there Happy Days,” he yells. “You hiding Fonzie and Ritchie behind you somewhere?”

The first thing I do is bark the tires when I swerve at him. He’s faster than greased snot. He’s almost at his car when I nick him in the kidneys with the wing mirror. The LeBaron rubs off on the shiny metal on Greg’s car and the mirror catches on the rolled window and snaps off. Leaving the parking lot, I’ve got one foot on the gas with the other just above the brake for a quick stop.

But I don’t do that until I back in the neighborhood. It’s late. And I wait with the car running to see if Pops will come out. The top half of my stomach feels like it’s been ran through a sausage grinder. I drain what’s left of his whiskey while I’m waiting. When I realize he won’t be coming out, I lean into the door to open it, fall in the middle of the grass and pavement. Then notice I’ve ran both right tires in the middle of Mommie’s flower bed. I leave the car parked where it is and strip off my clothes on the way to my bed.

Mommie waits until I am good and hung over to kick my door. Her voice is soft and mournful, like one of her Everly Brother records, but it has enough sting in it to work my nerves.

“I’m cutting your tom cat ways short,” she says when I don’t get up. She balls up the jeans I left on the stairs and throws them on my chest. I cover my eyes with one of the legs.

“Them flowers will grow back,” I tell her.

“We’ll get to that. Right now, you’d better tell me how a piece of our car ended up inside that Samson boy’s. His father called me at work.”

“Don’t go all apeshit now.”

But that’s all I get out. Mommie rolls me out of bed by my ankles, doesn’t even let me put on clothes. I carry them out to our yard with the jeans over my undies hoping none of the neighbors notice.

“Get in,” she says.

I listen. She has the silence Pops does when he drives me around trying to pull out some words of advice from a song on the radio. I imagine he must be sleeping off more of the same. It did not make sense to me then why she got in Pops’ car without leaving him a note at least. Pops told me often that ripping it up was the only way to feel life’s notes coming over the airwaves and I didn’t want to have my radio dialed into the wrong station. Mommie keeps us on 64 all the way from Somerville to the exit ramp. She keeps the radio loud by pulling the knobs off of the metal pegs and sticks them into the apron she is still wearing from work. I get my jeans on not long after that. As I’m fixing my hair in the rear view, I notice the bulge of her flower print suitcase in the back seat. Then the pile of her shoes and makeup kit in the floorboards.

The whole ride to Memphis, I cool my head by leaning it against the window while she chain-smokes half-cigarettes from the tray. I try thinking of the times she’d driven Pops’ car, but don’t come up with much. The Mississippi’s pounding hard against the banks, almost as hard as my head, as we cross the bridge. I begin to understand some of what Johnny Cash means in his song “Big River.” She combs back her hair, checks her lipstick.

“You ain’t ready to see your daddy right now, Russell.” She is the only person I know who says my name. So much so that it sounds more like a kid I know than my own self.

We cruise past the first group of homeless people I’ve seen in my life and pull into a place called the Shangri-La Record Shack. She tells me to lock the doors and wait while she picks up something that she says will change my life. Both our lives. I think about asking her to buy me a Johnny Burnette album, but know better. Pops would think I wasn’t being frank enough, but Mommie had her ways too. Keeping my lips puffed and stiff long enough usually made her cave for me.

The brown bag she brings out with her looks light, but I will settle for a good 78 if the record store clerk cut her a deal.

“What’s in the poke, Mommie?” I ask, barely able to keep my cool.

“It’s a new phrase for you to learn Russell,” she says and smiles. “It’s called a job application. And I got some gum for your breath.”

“How do you expect me to drive here?” I ask. “I ain’t got a license.”

“Didn’t stop you last night,” she answers. She’s getting some sass in her voice now. “Only reason I brought you along is to let your daddy get good and passed out. Found him in the kitchen this morning stooped over in a chair like he’d been praying.”

“Maybe he was.” I get a piece of the gum out, try chewing it, but even my teeth hurt, so I leave it in a little ball under my tongue. Then I wad my poke, toss it onto the dash.

Mommie stops the car in the middle of the street near the group of homeless men. She slaps me. Hard. Then slowly unfolds the application and dumps it on my lap.

“Your choice,” she says. “You can wad it up again and stay with your daddy or you can show some sense and listen to me for once. You’ll be close enough to walk there after school.”

“Are we moving to the city so that Pops can be closer to his gigs?”

“You’re daddy ain’t coming, Russell,” she says. “But I hope you are.”

The rest of the ride home, I give Mommie the rest of the gum. She smacks it with her mouth open, letting me pop her gum bubbles. I shuffle the stiff paper against my lap and look at the yellow smears along the edges each time I can’t stomach the weight of it.

Pops is sitting out on our front steps polishing his low quarters. He’s had them since his days in the Army and always shined them on our front steps before shows. I keep up with his schedule and he’s not playing for another two weeks. When Mommie pulls in, I see another empty bottle resting in the middle of the driveway and she does a quick swerve to keep from running over it. From all of our combined driving experiences, I think that we’ll soon have the widest driveway in the neighborhood. We’re close enough to Pops to see that the polish on the tip of his shoe is over half an inch thick. He looks up at us, smears on another coat, and keeps making circles with his brush.

“Lock the door,” Mommie says.

I open my mouth but don’t know how to tell her I’m not worried.

“Russell,” she says. “Lock your goddamn door.”

Pops drops his shoe when he realizes we’re not getting out of the car. He leans over to pick it up, but staggers forward, and uses his face to catch most of his weight in the grass. When he rights himself, his slicked-back bangs dangle loose against his cheeks. He coughs hard while still on his knees and pukes up some liquid that looks like brown gravy. I finger the tab lock on my door for a few seconds before slipping out.

“Get out my car, Karen,” Pops screams before falling backwards into the lawn again.

Right then, I wanted to feel the weight of him on my shoulders. Let him know that, despite my size, I’d get him back to bed. But I don’t recognize his face when he looks up from his knees. Mommie’s out her door and gets between us before I have a chance to think on it more.

“Burt, honey, get in the house. We’ll talk about this when you’re able.”

Pops tries to look up again, but bows over and picks up his shoes. Staggers back onto the steps, propping himself up by his elbows long enough to blow out some air. Pops tries to flick back his hair to where he keeps it tamed, but the shoe polish on his hand smears across his forehead when he slaps down his bangs. Mommie and I both laugh.

Mommie opens the house door slowly. Stands behind it like it could stop bullets. I get my hands on Pops now. Mommie helps some. Pops’ weight is heavier than I thought and the side I have dips on me so much that we have to twist sideways to get him back in. We sit on the edge of the bed at Pops’ feet. My legs go jittery. I feel like we’ve been dancing as a family all night.

I tell Mommie that I’m straightening up the car for her. Wait for her to say no.

“Bring in his shoes,” she says. “I’m going to clean him up.” She licks the end of her thumb, combs down the loose hairs on my head and wipes a streak of polish off my cheek. I’m nearly as tall as she is now and I think this scares her.

The LeBaron is easier to park in the daylight and without the weight of Old Crow on my eyes. Pops’ shoes are at different ends of the yard, so far apart they don’t seem like they belong together. Polish clumps and covers both ends. I wipe off the excess with a shop towel from the shed. I spray the mess from Pops’ insides into the street.

Coffee is going in the percolator when I’m back inside. She left me a cup of orange juice and a seltzer out on the table. From where I sit, I hear her opening drawers and closing closet doors in my room. I think about telling her that I want to stay, that Pops needs more help from us than just a few steps back to bed. But I sit and let the seltzer settle my stomach. After I’m done with the juice, I check in on Pops, set his low quarters between his bowling shoes in his side of the closet. Then I walk into the hole where all of Mommie’s clothes used to be. I slink down the wall and watch Pops. Mommie’d tucked the covers under his armpits so tight that what’s left showing seems like one piece, just like the cement statue of Christ we keep on our back patio. His face still has a few grass blades and I go to wipe off what Mommie didn’t get to. He grabs me on the inside of my arm, tender at first, but his grip tightens.

“Where my shoes?”

I point to the closet.

He lets my arm go and grunts. I pull them out and drop them in the floor.

“Hand them here,” he says. “I’m gonna see what you did to my car before we settle up.”

“Mommie wanted you to sleep a while,” I say.

“What I tell you about listening to everything your mamma says?” He squirms until the covers shed off him like a snakeskin, knocks off a lamp swatting at me. Even setting his shoes down beside his bed aren’t enough. He reaches for my arm again, but I back into the hallway. Pops eases down and, before I see what he’s doing, flings his shoe at my face. There’s enough heat on the thing to sting my cheek, but I scream more out of fear than anything else. Pops reaches for his other shoe but rolls onto the floor. I jerk the door closed and bang against the hallway walls running to my bedroom.

Mommie had all of my shirts ironed and tied together on a hanger with bread wire. We both hear Pops cursing as he works at the door. Mommie yells for me to run outside. I get to the lawn soon enough to look back and see Mommie rushing towards their bedroom with the coffee, steam rising from her hands as though she’d just baked a pie for our window sill. Pops’ scream is a loud blast at first, then scatters through the house in softer whimpers. Though Mommie said to get in the car, I come back to my room. Pops has torn off my covers and has wrapped his face in my sheets, all the while his breath huffing like a train song. My clothes are all on the floor. Just the way I’m used to seeing them and it only takes a few minutes for me to get them together.

Mommie tells me there will be a room waiting for us. That this will be the last time we will have to see Pops. Unless I want it differently. And I do right now, but this is not the last time we will be leaving Pops alone in the house. This is not the last time I wreck the LeBaron. There are other schools ahead of me to not fit into. When Mommie doesn’t know it, and when I am old enough to not sneak into places, I sit far in the back corners of the rooms Pops plays in with his band. Keep him distant enough to look the way I want him to. Sometimes, when his bass and the guitars get going right, I let myself shake loose and roll. These are the days when the music’s moving too fast for me to hold on to him. All the ones after have been a slow dance of returning to him in memory.

 

___

J.D. Hibbitts is a native of Southwest Virginia. His most recent work appears or is forthcoming from pacific REVIEW, Reed Magazine, ThugLit, Poydras ReviewSugar House Review, and Prime Mincer, among others.


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