When I moved to Baton Rouge in 2005, I was recovering from a painful divorce; and I did not expect to be here long. I worked for The Advocate while the offices were still located downtown; and from the newsroom windows, there was an unrivaled view of the Mississippi River Bridge.
The story “The Other Day” is close to my heart and bones. My own father was a paranoid schizophrenic, and I was constantly tossed back and forth between love and revulsion for him. There were many encounters with my father that inspired this story, in many locations, but I set Melissa’s tale in my adopted Baton Rouge downtown and mid-city areas—and the rough arteries that connect them—because there is a transient nature here that matched my restless insides. And because, ironically, it has been in this transient-spirited place that I stopped running from him and from who I am, my insides finally settled down.
- Sonya Kimbrell
After yet another move, I landed in Baton Rouge. I found a dingy little place to rent in the live oak-and-camellia-lined Garden District that was perfectly affordable and suitable for me despite the rotting floors and peeling paint. Ruby, Daisy, Chick P. and Calypso, my two dogs and two old cats, respectively, in tow.
I am a teacher by trade. My high school students would describe my new place as “ratchit” but I was at peace, and I was making my own way for a change.
I’m Melissa and I give you the story of the day that I saw my father Allen, for the last time.
It was a mild mid-February. I had just received this awful phone call from Meridian, Mississippi. His caretaker told me that he had insisted on being put on a bus to Baton Rouge. He had threatened to kill her and/or me, if he didn’t get his way. It was about 4 p.m. when she called and I knew I had about five hours to decide what I would do.
I could meet him or not. I knew that even if I didn’t meet him, I would be hearing from somebody else eventually. I was fairly sure he wouldn’t kill me, so I decided I would just show up and face the situation squarely.
I am getting a bit ahead in the story, but during what turned out to be the last time we would see each other, my Dad offered up a dream of his.
“I dreamed about Jack last night,” he said.
It surprised me really, to learn that he even had dreams. I guess I figured that someone who lived by day in an altered reality would sleep a dreamless sleep. My father was schizophrenic.
Jack’s story is not a trunk of memories I like to open. It is however the story of my family. It is full of sins and defects, weakness and hunger, mistakes and fear, selfishness and survival. It’s a tragedy that seems to have no bright spots, just unrelenting grief. It began in the tiny Mississippi village called Weir. It’s a rural place, green in the summer, brown in the winter.
Pearl, my grandmother, had brought Allen and Jack, her youngest sons, back to her hometown and people, after finally having enough of Dan, my grandfather. The Pearl I remember crocheted and cooked and taught me to draw stars and cubes to entertain me. Family stories tell another side of Pearl, though, who fell for the wrong man and couldn’t or wouldn’t let go when she had the chance. Dan was committed to the mental institution, Whitfield, and left her alone with a small son, her oldest boy, my uncle James. Instead of considering herself lucky and cutting her losses in her early 20s, Pearl waited and made sure Dan knew where to find her. She ended up with two more sons, Allen and Jack, that she ended up raising alone. I've looked at Dan’s picture. He is long and lean with hard, sharp, mean-looking features. I can’t see what it was about him that obsessed the soft-spoken and pretty Pearl so much. But, then, having my own experiences with obsession and lust, these things are not irrational.
Jack died on Christmas Day 1960 at the age of fourteen from an accidental gunshot wound. The story is convoluted, but how it goes is that Daddy, Jack, and a little colored boy went hunting. They had borrowed an extra gun from a neighbor, for the colored boy, whose name I’ll probably never know. When they were done hunting, they headed back toward home and my father traded guns with the unidentified boy, maybe so the owner wouldn’t know they were hunting with a black boy. I don’t know. It was 1960. My Daddy walked ahead to return the borrowed gun while their companion carried Daddy’s gun. It was Daddy’s gun that fired the bullet that killed Jack. He heard the shot and turned around to see what had happened. The boy holding my father’s gun apparently didn’t know that it was still loaded. He had turned it toward Jack and said, “bang-bang” and pulled the trigger, or so their story went. The bullet hit my Uncle Jack in the upper chest, blowing off part of his face.
It’s a shot I sometimes think I heard; it is a scene I feel like I witnessed. That day ricochets like a bullet through the ages. It’s one of those days in life that never really seems to end. It keeps opening and pouring itself into the thoughts and events of other days. That day changed my life because it destroyed my father and my family.
There is a way stories get told in most Southern families, like mine, over and over, like a litany.
Apparently, Jack didn’t die right away from his wounds; that Pearl, my redheaded grandmother, wailed for the entire two-hour ambulance ride.
That Dan, my crazy estranged grandfather, came home from New Orleans to bury his youngest son and wore a long, black trench coat the entire visit.
That Uncle James came home from the U.S. Air Force to bury his much younger brother.
That Allen wore his football jacket to the funeral.
They say after the funeral:
Dan went back to New Orleans to continue drinking and being crazy in his own way; whatever that happened to be.
James went back to the Air Force to continue serving our country.
Pearl and Allen were poor and tried to make their own way. They moved from Weir, to Jackson. They hoped for a geographical cure, something to which I can relate myself. There would be better job opportunities, and bigger schools.
Despite all that hope, two years later, Allen had his first psychotic break at the age of seventeen. Although it was years before the effects were evident, he didn’t ever really get any better. He managed to attend college and almost completed a degree in math. He managed to get married and to father me. And he managed to work a little while, before the real descent started.
My mother and I finally stole away early one morning, leaving him asleep in a Pascagoula apartment where we had been living. We went back to my mother’s family. Throughout my childhood, there were postcards, many of desert scenes as he traveled through New Mexico and Arizona. There were a couple of awkward visits, but he was gone from my life for the most part.
By the time my last meeting with him took place, there had been some very dark moments as he got sicker both physically and mentally, however, I don’t know that any of them were quite as dark as that unexpected visit, the other day I spent dealing with my sick father.
As I said earlier, on that particular day, he had arrived in Baton Rouge on a Greyhound bus. I drove several times around the bus station before I went inside. The bus station shares a few blocks with Baton Rouge Detox Center, a Popeye’s Chicken, a treatment center, a bread company, a soup kitchen and a gas station. There’s something about a bus station at night that feels like it’s the end of the world. At that point in my life I could not fathom bringing him home with me, but pick him up I did. I bought him two cans of Grizzly chewing tobacco and some food. On the way to the store he made fun of the way I drive. Meanwhile, I begged him to let me take him to Earl K. Long, the local charity hospital, where he could be treated for an obvious staph infection. But he wouldn’t have it.
It was getting very late, and we argued. At some point, I just threw the question out there.
I said, “Why did you come?”
He said, “I wanted to see you.”
“I can’t take care of you,” I said.
“I ain’t asked you to take care of me” he said.
“Well, what do you want me to do?” I said.
He said he didn’t care, and that he could get along fine without me. And so with no other viable options before me, I took him back to the bus station on Florida Boulevard. I left him there, telling him I would be there first thing in the morning to put him back on a bus to Meridian.
This is where I understood of what I am made. In the choice between him or me, I chose me. I am not a selfless, sacrificing-myself-for-the-sake-of-helpless-others kind of girl. This is not who I would like to be, but this is who I am, at core. I am not a victim. My sin is utter selfishness.
Nevertheless, I woke up with horrible remorse gripping me, so I went back the next morning as I had promised, looking for him everywhere, but he was gone. I wanted to cry. I did cry. I have since then searched unabated for an appropriate, accurate word or phrase to describe how I felt that morning searching up and down Florida Boulevard for my sick, crippled, penniless, mentally ill old father who I had abandoned in the middle of the night at a bus station.
I finally went looking for him at the Bishop Ott men’s shelter at the St. Vincent de Paul Center downtown. It was actually a very weird experience because I had looked around and didn’t see him, but when I asked about him a nice, tall, black man named Carl said yes, he knew right where he was. He walked me over to a spot I had already passed and there my father was, lying on the grass, next to a stop sign, soaking up sun, barefoot, but with two pairs of shoes beside him.
“I found those,” he said, pointing at a worn out pair of sneakers. I got him a bus ticket back to Mississippi leaving the next day, which left us with more time together. When I went to pick him up the next morning at the shelter they told me had already gotten up and walked to the bus station. I went there and looked inside and couldn’t find him. It’s not a big place. I got scared and went back to the shelter. Carl was there, so we walked the two blocks to the bus station, walked in, and there my father sat right in the middle of the bus station.
“I can’t believe I missed him,” I said, embarrassed, to Carl.
“Maybe you just needed a little help seeing him,” Carl said graciously, and he left my father and me to our last few hours together.
I felt a little relief at finding him and tried to enjoy his company. Despite all the recent evidence to the contrary, I loved him desperately. We ate fried chicken in the bus stop diner. We took a drive west on North Boulevard. There is an impressive view of the Mississippi River Bridge that crosses to the west bank in Port Allen. It never fails to grab your attention.
When Daddy saw it, he said, “I was on that bridge the other day.” Knowing he hadn’t or couldn’t have been anywhere near the bridge, I was confused.
Then he corrected himself. “No, it was another bridge. In New Orleans.”
Even more confused, I asked, “When were you on the bridge in New Orleans?”
He got impatient, and irritated, like he always did when I kept pushing to get behind the walls of insanity.
“I don’t know, Missy. The other day.” He always called me Missy.
I suddenly realized what he was talking about. He was talking about the other day in 1969, when I was two years old. He had gone to New Orleans to see his father only to find that he had been dead for more than a year. Depending on the source, Dan died in either an alcoholic or diabetic coma in a rented room on Lafayette Square in New Orleans.
Another one of those other days that keeps pouring its confusion out. It just stays open, spilling out its contents throughout other days randomly.
It’s then that I remember who and what I am; the daughter and granddaughter and perhaps great-granddaughter of men who, as-we-say-in-the-South, “just weren’t right.” I know that I am not quite right either. I wonder if people see it in my eyes, so much like his somehow. But I seem to have been saved from their fates. Maybe it’s because I’m a girl. Maybe my mother’s stout Irish and Cherokee genes saved me. Maybe I’ve just refused to give into it. Maybe it has somehow been diluted in me. Maybe it’s that I always end up choosing me. I don’t really think about it much and I forget about it sometimes. But I know who I am and where I came from.
He wanted to see my dogs, so I relented on my reluctance for him to see where I lived. I invited him to come in, but he refused. He said he was too tired to get out of the car, but demanded that I give him my sunglasses and go get my dogs and bring them out.
I have this sweet lingering image of him hanging out the window of my run-down Saturn, wearing my girly sunglasses, smiling and talking to my dogs. Then, he looks up, appraising Daisy: “She looks wormy.” It was just God’s grace that kept me from saying, “Well, have YOU looked in the mirror lately, you asshole? (Incidentally, a subsequent trip to the vet revealed she did indeed have a mild case of intestinal worms.)
That’s when he said, “I dreamed about Jack last night.”
I was careful in my response, because he had told me before he didn’t like to talk about Jack.
“What did he say,” I asked.
“Nothing. He was just there. James was there, too.”
James died in the 1990’s with a dark cloud hanging over him that included an accusation that he had killed his second wife and hidden her body somewhere in the woods.
In the dream, he said, James jumped on his back, pulling and clawing at him.
“He was trying to kill me,” Daddy said.
I just sat there letting that image sink in of my Uncle James on my Daddy’s back, pulling at him, while Jack watches, knowing there would be no closing of these days. I knew it would be another one of those images that would leak into my days to come.
Our afternoon together had come to an end. I hugged him goodbye and watched him get on the bus. In return for the sunglasses, I guess, he had left behind a mini flashlight that didn’t work and a full tobacco spit cup under my car seat.
He died eight months later.