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Robert Shepherd
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paradiseyonder.jpg
Art by Noelle Richardson 2014

Paradise Is Over Yonder

by Robert Shepherd

 

Granny hated when the carnival came to town, with its geeks, its alligator man, its two-headed calf fetus in a glass jar. She hated the games of chance (nothing but gambling) and the moonshine sold from the backs of pickup trucks by the furtive light of kerosene lanterns. She hated the boys with their Elvis hair and the girls in their Daisy Dukes, parading down the midway with their hands where they shouldn’t ought to be. She hated the tattoos of panthers and snakes and hula girls on the knobby, dangerously muscled arms of the barkers and roadies and ride attendants. Most of all, she hated the farm boys lining up outside the burlesque tent to pay their quarters for a glimpse of something soft and pink. Granny would kneel by the cast iron lion’s paw tub in the bathroom and pray about the carnival until she wept tears of blood like Christ at Gethsemane.

On carnival nights, I would lie awake in my upstairs room, listening to the wind in the eaves of the tin roof and waiting until Granny and Pa were safely asleep. Then I would pull aside the quilts (Dutch Boy, Wedding Ring) and the scratchy army blanket like old men’s chest hair and tiptoe in my Dr. Dentons across the pine floorboards, starting like a roadside deer at every creak, for fear that they would wake. At last I would arrive at the window on the other side of the room and stare out it long and long, across the darkness of field and sky at the Ferris Wheel turning red and green and golden in a dreamlike distance. It is my earliest memory, standing at that window, yearning for a taste of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Once my mother had shown up, unexpectedly, saying that she was ready to take her little boy back to live with her. I remember her standing on the front porch in her tight white blouse and her tight black cigarette pants, her red hair gleaming in the sunlight. In half an hour, she packed my things, and we took off for Cincinnati, where she had a room above the bar in which she worked. I would sit in the bar, night after night, and the patrons would give me dimes for the jukebox and buy me Almond Joys in hopes of getting into the redhead’s favors. Or, on nights when she was out, I would lie upstairs on the threadbare coverlet of the bed next to the window looking out on the alleyway. I remember thinking that if I wanted to, I could just roll off that bed and through the window and crash on the ground below. At night, the neon light of the bar sign at the entrance of the alley would flash on and off, splashing red light against the blackness of the brick wall of the building opposite the apartment. Sometimes, I would have a babysitter--Uncle Jim--who smelled of whiskey and cigars and wasn’t anybody’s uncle. And sometimes, mama would come in late, a little drunk, crying over some man, and I would sit on the edge of the bed with her and she would say, “Who needs him, anyway. I got myself a little man, right baby?” And then she would hug me until I couldn’t breathe. I still remember the smell of her perfume and of the alcohol on her breath and the way her mascara ran down her cheeks and she looked, herself, like a little girl. A few months later, she met a man, Smokey, who suggested that life back on the farm might be perfect for a little boy who was pretty much in the way most of the time.

I sat on the floor of the living room at Granny and Pa‘s, between the sofa and the pot-bellied coal stove, idly picking at the plastic feet of my pajamas and watching dust motes play in the streams of light that came in through the window above the prayer plant. My cousin, Linda, said that the dust motes were angels, but I wasn’t quite sure. Perhaps angels could sometimes be really big, like the angel Gabriel behind the baptismal font in the church, and sometimes really little like a dust mote. No telling about angels.

A sparrow flew through the open doorway that led from the living room to the dining room. It landed on the curtain rod above the window and perched there, cocking its head from side to side in a quick, frightened motion. Its little chest was heaving. I wasn’t particularly surprised to see the sparrow. It was a ramshackle old farmhouse, and things got in--mice, katydids, rain. Granny said that Pa built better houses for people he barely even knew.

Granny appeared in the doorway wearing a cotton paisley dress and dusting flour off her ample hands onto her apron. She was a short, stout, no-nonsense country woman. I had once seen her grab a crow off a fence post with those hands and wring its neck. Her eyes went to the sparrow, and she blanched. “Git on upstairs and git yore britches on,” she said. Then she went back to the kitchen for a whisk broom to shoo the sparrow out.

Linda came over the hill later for some breakfast. Granny was in the kitchen, banging pots and pans. “What’s bothering Granny?” I asked.

Linda leaned in conspiratorially: “That silly, superstitious old woman,”  said Linda, “she thinks that when a bird gets into the house, somebody’s gonna die.”

Grandpa swelled up with pancreatic cancer. He lay on a tall hospital cot where the prayer plant had been, his arms and legs wasting, his belly distended and white like a Crenshaw melon. From time to time, the doctor would come and drain from his belly jars of fluid the color of mustard and tobacco spittle. The smell of Grandpa’s death filled the house, a smell like Listerine and rotting vegetables.

In his youth, Grandpa had been a philanderer. I got the whole story from Linda, who told me all the dirt from the very beginning. Pa used to tell Granny that he was going to get quail eggs, and he would head off in his green Chevrolet pickup with the big, round fenders to see Doll, his black girlfriend. Often, he would take her a big, yellow carp he had got off one of his trot lines earlier in the day. Doll wore red nail polish and red lipstick that stood out like brake lights against her chestnut skin. Once, when my mother was making one of her rare visits, Pa had caught her putting on lipstick. “Looks like a fox’s ass in pokeberry season,” he had said to her. He didn’t like lipstick on his little girl, but on Doll, it was different.

The ladies of the church had gossiped continually about my tall, thin, good-looking grandfather and his many ladies. So, one morning during a Sunday sermon on the subject of adultery, he had had enough of the knowing whispers and looks. He had risen into the aisle and intoned a line from St. Paul: “When a place is full of iniquity, knock from your feet the dust of the place and leave.” He had stomped his feet and then turned and walked out of the church and hadn’t darkened its door from that day on. After that, Granny and Pa fought like cats and dogs for forty years. One day, Granny was getting ready to lay into my back with a switch from the lilac bushes in her garden, an implement ideally suited for raising long, red welts. She was furious at me for squirming around during the interminable church service and for getting down under a pew to retrieve one of those fans from Grider’s Drug Store imprinted with a picture of the angel Michael leading a child across a broken bridge. On hot Sunday mornings, people used those fans to cool off during the service. Granny had pulled the fan from my hand and told me that I was going to get it later. But when Pa saw her about to punish me for a transgression that took place in that “holy roller snake pit,” he grabbed the switch from her and told me to go play in the yard.

After that, I took his side and he mine. We would go into the woods together, searching for morels or sassafras or, at Christmas time, for holly and mistletoe. And sometimes I would get into the pickup with him and go down the dirt roads to Doll’s, where I would chase the quail and chickens around the yard while he and Doll “visited.”

The day he died, Pa asked Granny to help him to the bathroom. I watched as she raised him up at the waist, turned him, lifted his legs from the edge of the cot, and got him to his feet. They took a few tentative steps, a macabre dance, toward the bathroom--the tall, lanky, emaciated man and his little radish of a wife. But they didn’t make it. There was a ridiculous, undignified sound like catsup coming from a bottle, and brown stains appeared all down the buttocks and one leg of his white long johns. I stared at his face and at the little fat woman holding him with all her might. Jack Sprat could eat no fat. / His wife could eat no lean. Pa had always been proud. But his last feeling on this earth was embarrassment.

Three days later, I stood at the doorway of the farmhouse with the screen door open, looking past the creek that ran through the yard and up the road to where it turned in the corn. “Close that door, Bobby Dale,” said Granny. “Yore gonna let the flies in.”

“Where’s Lost Angel Us?” I asked her.

“Los Angeles. It’s a far piece, child. Always across th’ country.”

“Mama said she was comin’ from Lost Angel Us for the fun’rul,” I said. “Said she would be here yesterday. She said she was comin’. She said she was.”

“Git in the house and stop your fussin’,” Granny said. “Yore mama ain’t comin’. Not yesterday, not tomorrow, not a month from now. Yore mama, she’s just like Pa. She’s no account.” 

 

 Robert Shepherd won an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Creative Writing at the age of 16 and hasn't stopped scribbling since. A prodigious ghost writer and textbook author, he has a publications list that runs to 12 pages single spaced. His interests include hermeneutics and literary theory, linguistics, philosophy of mind, epistemology, Continental philosophy, curriculum design, ancient religion, and the roots of jazz music. You can read some of his occasional pieces at http://bobshepherdonline.wordpress.com/.

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