Looking for Cassandra Jane

by Melody Carlson

Cassandra Maxwell has had a life filled with pain. Her mother died too young, her father is an abusive alcoholic, and she’s a misfit everywhere she goes.

After being shuttled between various foster homes, Cass struggles to find her identity and finds herself caught up with Scott Jones (aka “Sky”) and his group of friends who start a Jesus commune in California. But before long, the group is more interested in pot and sex than they are spiritual growth.

Once again, Cass finds herself trapped in unhappiness—and she longs for escape.

Will Cass find the life and love she craves on a California commune—with the charismatic Sky and his followers? Or can she fulfill her dreams—and find her real future—with her childhood friend Joey?

Chapter 1

My Daddy used to say I had the devil in me. My grandma said it was only because I was a highly spirited child, yet as time went on I figured my daddy might’ve been right after all—especially seeing as how he and the devil were already on a first-name basis anyway. I was fifteen years old before anyone told me that Jesus loved me—and even then I didn’t believe it.

I can still recollect my daddy’s face reddened by whiskey and rage. “I’m go’n’ to beat the devil outta you, Cassandra Jane Maxwell!” he’d bellow in a slushy voice. Then with his usual drunken awkwardness he’d yank off his leather belt and come after me.

Of course he only did this after the empty Jack Daniel’s bottle went spinning across our cracked linoleum floor, and that bottle gave me the advantage because it’s not that tricky to elude a drunk—especially if you’re fast. And I was fast. But even to this day I still sometimes see my daddy’s face when I hear a TV evangelist going on and on about the devil and evil and all.

This is not to make it seem that my daddy was a truly wicked man. The fact is, I mostly loved my daddy. And when he was sober he was a fine-looking and well-mannered gentleman. He liked wearing a freshly pressed shirt with a neatly knotted bolo tie and he believed in polishing his shoes. And his dark hair, like his shoes, would gleam in the sunlight, combed through with Brylcreem (just a little dab’ll do ya). And when my daddy walked through town he’d hold his shiny head up high, almost like a cocky rooster strutting through the chicken yard, and seemingly oblivious to all those quick side-glances or knowing nods coming from our fellow townsfolk.

Maybe this was his way of making up for all that was wrong in his life, or more likely he was telling himself that he would do better that day, that he wouldn’t give in to his weakness again. And like his hair and his shoes, my daddy talked real smooth and slick too, when he wasn’t under the influence. He sold top-quality used cars at Masterson Motors on Main Street, and on a good day he could easily best any other salesman on the lot. My grandma said Clarence Maxwell could charm the stripes right off of a snake—and she meant it as a compliment. But his life was full of sorrows. And his escape in those days was always the bottle.

My daddy used to say that I killed my mama. Of course he only said this when he was under the influence, but my best friend, Joey Divers, told me that whiskey never lies. And I suppose in some ways it was true, because if I hadn’t been born my mama wouldn’t have died. But then I never asked to be born and there were plenty of times when I surely wished that I hadn’t been. Although my grandma said that’s like wishing you were dead and it’s an insult to your Maker.

My mama died when I was only three days old, and years later I overheard my grandma saying that if my daddy hadn’t been out drinking he might’ve taken my poor mama to the hospital before she bled herself to death. But I would’ve never dreamed of saying that my daddy killed my mama. Truth is, I know firsthand how bad it feels to lug that kind of guilt around with you. I would never wish that upon anyone, no matter how pitifully wicked they were.

Since my daddy was pretty much useless after my mama died, my Aunt Myrtle looked after me some. I guess I was a real fussy baby and I suspect I was fairly trying for poor Aunt Myrtle, but I reckon the reason I was so cantankerous was because my mama was dead. To be honest I don’t remember that far back, although I’ve heard said that hidden somewhere deep in our subconscious we do remember such things. I do, however, remember my Aunt Myrtle looking at me with those pale blue eyes. The corners of her lips might turn up into something of a smile, but her eyes were cold and hard like the surface of the park pond those few times it froze over. And her smile, like that brittle veneer on the icy pond, was deceiving. As kids we always knew that even though the pond looked like it might support your weight, you never could count on it and only a plumb fool would go out beyond the edge. One year an unsuspecting deer wandered out and the ice gave way and the poor, confused animal went right down into the freezing dark depths below. And that’s about how I felt around my aunt.

Aunt Myrtle usually came over to our house to take care of me. She always had her hair fixed up and lacquered with Aqua Net hair spray you could smell before she even walked in the door. I think she fancied herself to be a Donna Reed look alike wearing all those shirtwaist dresses and high-heeled shoes, but now that I think about it those outfits don’t seem like the best kind of housekeeping clothes. She’d tie one of my dead mama’s aprons around her thick middle and do a little cleaning and cooking if it suited her. But mostly she just watched the television (shows like As the World Turns and Search for Tomorrow) or else she just walked around the house like she had a corncob stuck somewhere inside her anatomy. And I knew to stay out of her way.

My earliest memory of Aunt Myrtle was being scolded and pushed away from her long full skirt. My hands were probably sticky or dirty and she was afraid I’d muss her all up, but even when I was squeaky clean she always kept me a good arm’s length away. I don’t think she was ever real comfortable around kids, and although she did eventually marry, she never bore children of her own. Back when I was little I thought maybe she hated me because I had killed her only sister by being born. But later on I learned that my mama was only her stepsister and no blood relation at all. And as it turned out, my Aunt Myrtle never really liked her much anyway, and I figured that was why she didn’t like me either.

Joey Divers told me that his mama told him that my Aunt Myrtle had been in love with my daddy at one time. I couldn’t understand this because my Aunt Myrtle seemed like an old woman to me—almost as old as my grandma I thought when I was little. But one day I asked Aunt Myrtle how old she was, and she told me she was almost exactly the same age as my daddy and that they had even gone to school together as kids! The way she said this to me was strange, with those pale blue eyes of hers looking almost dreamlike. It made my skin feel creepy and I wondered if Joey hadn’t been right all along.

About that time I became fearful that she might actually be in love with my daddy still, and even though she’d been my mama’s stepsister, I didn’t for the life of me want Aunt Myrtle to become my stepmother. But perhaps her infatuation for my daddy might explain why she put up with me all that time, since I knew she could hardly stand me. And I remember how she’d go on and on, talking like she had my best interests at heart, but in the next breath she’d be telling me how I was a bad little girl and how I’d never amount to anything. I know she’d heard my daddy say I had the devil in me and naturally she believed him. But for all her hard work and self-sacrifice it never got her anywhere with my daddy. And I must credit him with that. In fact, although I know he was “involved” with a few women here and there, he never actually fell in love or remarried. In his own way I believe he remained true to my mama’s memory. And perhaps that was the main part of the reason for his sorrows.

My grandma would’ve taken care of me more of the time if she could’ve, but she had her little grocery store to tend to. Her first husband, my mama’s daddy, had built that store with his bare hands from scratch just before the Great Depression. It was an old, boxy wooden building not much bigger than a small house, but with a little apartment above. Situated on a corner downtown, its only windows faced the street, reaching from the ceiling clear down to the floor, and it was all shadowy and dark toward the rear. The store had the smell of oldness to it, as if the bygone years of apples and pickles and sliced bologna had somehow soaked right into its wood plank floors. But it wasn’t an unpleasant odor, and it always made me feel comfortable and right at home, like it was a part of me and my history. It was usually nice and cool inside, even on a hot summer day.

Grandma said they used to rent out the apartment before my grandpa died, but it was a real blessing for her to have it when she and my mama were left alone and the Depression set down upon them like a hungry, old bear. She said that little one-bedroom apartment gave her and my mama a safe haven and a roof over their heads, and I think those were happy times with just the two of them. I never quite understood why she upped and married Myrtle’s daddy just shortly after the Depression ended—just when things were finally looking up for her. And the saddest part about that “blessed union” was the way her second husband just emptied her cash register till, as well as her two bank accounts, and then ran off and left old Myrtle behind. But my grandma was a good woman and believed that the good Lord would see her through these fiery trials, and I never once heard her complain about getting stuck having to raise her stepdaughter.

Sometimes my grandma would tell me stories about my mama, and when I was five years old she gave me a framed photograph to keep as my very own. And I would look into those dark soulful eyes of the black-and-white photograph and think she must’ve been the most wonderful woman in the whole wide world. Her skin looked as smooth as my grandma’s favorite cream pitcher, and her hair was thick and dark and curly: And even though her dress is all out of style with those big, puffy shoulders, and no one ever wears their hair like that anymore, I know with a certainty in my soul that my mama would still be a knockout if she suddenly appeared on the street today. I used to think I’d grow up to look just like her. But like so many other dreams, it hasn’t really come true.

My grandma said that my mama’s daddy died when Mama was just a little girl, and that Mama never really got over losing him. It seemed to comfort Grandma that at least the two of them were up there in heaven together now.

However, I found no consolation in this. I’d have much preferred to have her down here on earth with me, because I’m pretty sure my mama and I would have gotten along real well. Naturally I came to this conclusion from looking at her photograph. I’d pretend to have these long, wonderful conversations with her, and she always said really intelligent things (like she’d been around some to know about the world instead of just growing up in Brookdale where everyone is pretty average and normal).

And since she was sort of exotic looking, I liked to imagine she’d been a princess from the Far East, kidnapped at birth and sold to my grandparents because she was so beautiful. She was sure lots prettier than old Aunt Myrtle. I suppose that’s why my daddy liked my mama better. My grandma told me I resembled her, but I still can’t see it. When I was little I’d climb up onto the bathroom sink and look into the murky mirror in front of our medicine cabinet, but all I saw was a pale, pinched face with two dark holes for eyes and a mop of black hair sticking out all over. My grandma said the black hair and dark eyes came from my mama’s daddy. He was full-blooded Cherokee, which makes me one-quarter. The first time I saw an old photo of my mama’s daddy, I was sadly disheartened. He didn’t have long braids or beads or feathers or anything that looked the least bit like a real, true Indian. Instead he had on an old-fashioned soldier’s uniform. My grandma said that was because he’d been in the army and fought in World War I a long, long time ago. I thought it would’ve been much more exciting if he had fought against Colonel Custer at the Little Big Horn, and I even told Joey Divers that he had. And Joey actually believed me—until he told his mama, that is, and of course she set him straight.

Joey then pointed out that I was a liar, and I didn’t argue with him on that account, but in my defense I did tell him that I had what my grandma called a very fertile imagination. Now I wasn’t exactly sure what that meant just then, and neither was Joey (although he did look it up later) but it seemed to smooth things over just fine. And Joey forgave me, which wasn’t surprising, because I was, in fact, the only friend he had.

Joey Divers was what my grandma called “a poor lame duck.” He had suffered from polio when he was just a baby and consequently had a useless left leg and was forced to wear a stainless steel brace connected to an ugly black shoe. And therefore he couldn’t run and play with the other boys, and sometimes they even teased him about it. But not when I was around. That’s because I was never afraid of them. In fact, I don’t think I was afraid of hardly anything—except for my daddy, that is, but only when he was drunk. Anyway I would stand right up to those stupid boys, fists doubled, eyes squinted up real mean, and I would tell them that I was one-quarter Cherokee Indian and that my grandpa had whupped Colonel Custer at Little Big Horn, and that I could beat up every single one of them!—one at a time, of course. Fortunately they never took me on. I suspect they thought they might get in trouble for fighting with a girl, especially when the fight was due to the fact that they’d been picking on a little lame boy. And I guess I was mostly relieved that they didn’t want to fight with me. Although I did get a reputation for being pretty tough and, I suppose, pretty weird as well.

That reputation helped me to get through a lot of hard times. After all, it wasn’t easy having a drunk for a father in a small town like Brookdale where everyone knows everything about everybody. And besides that, sometimes being tough is all a girl’s got anyway.

Chapter 2

I can honestly say I was a child of the sixties. Before starting first grade in 1960, I was like that little ant who wanted to move the rubber tree plant, and I had high hopes—high in the sky, apple-pie hopes! But it didn’t take long before I realized that life for me wasn’t going to be easy. And it seemed to start out with those ugly, brown, lace-up shoes that Aunt Myrtle insisted I needed for school.

Actually they were quite expensive (which in my opinion was an unfortunate waste of good money!). I can still remember how the young pock-faced salesman claimed they would “help” my feet (like he was a medical expert), but for the life of me, I couldn’t see any reason my feet needed help—why, I’d been walking on them just fine for at least five years! On the way home, I pouted in the front seat of Aunt Myrtle’s car, saying that those orthopedic shoes looked just like Joey Divers’s polio boots. Well, she told me I could just count my blessings and thank the good Lord that at least I didn’t have a stainless steel brace to wear with them. Leave it to Aunt Myrtle to find the sunny side of things. Anyway Joey liked my shoes just fine. In fact, I suspect it was those blasted shoes that really solidified our friendship back in the very beginning. And that was only because of Sally Roberts.

On the very first day of school Sally Roberts walked right up to me. And for a brief, hopeful, and slightly delirious moment, I thought she was going to invite me to be her friend. But then she looked straight down at my shoes and laughed. “You look just like Minnie Mouse.” She turned to her friend Lucy Marsh. “Just look at those skinny legs sticking out of those clodhopper shoes.” And they both laughed long and hard.

I turned and walked back to my desk, holding my chin in the air and trying to act like I didn’t give a whit about Sally Roberts or her friends, but all the while wishing that the knothole in the wood floor beneath my desk would just open wide and swallow me up whole so that I could simply disappear altogether.

By recess time I’d decided the sooner I could wear out those horrible shoes, the better off I’d be. So I climbed onto the merry-go-round, and when it got to going real fast, I let my feet hang down over the side, dragging my shoes thumpity-thump, thumpity-thump over the top of the rough blacktop. I hoped that by the end of the week I’d need a new pair of shoes—maybe something in patent leather with little silver buckles, or maybe even white saddle shoes. (As it turned out those orthopedic shoes were tougher than steel, and they lasted until I finally outgrew them the following spring.)

Joey Divers stood nearby watching my little shoe-scraping exhibition with wide-eyed interest until he finally came over and spoke to me. “Do you know that you might be wrecking your shoes?” he asked. Sheepishly I told him what Sally Roberts had said about me that morning.

“I think your shoes are very nice,” he said seriously as he leaned into his crutches. “I think they make you look intelligent.” I wasn’t sure if that was good or bad, or if I even wanted to know. So I just stared at him and said nothing. Then he told me that intelligent was just another word for “really smart.”

Well, at the ripe old age of six, being pretty still seemed preferable to being smart. And when I looked over to see Sally Roberts playing hopscotch surrounded by a group of admiring girls, her blonde curls bobbing-up and down as she hopped along in a fluffy pink dress, I felt seriously jealous. Of course I knew that her daddy was an important person at the First National Bank and that was probably why Sally’s shoes were shiny and black with straps so dainty you’d have thought all that hopping and jumping would just bust them right off. Those were the kind of shoes you wore to Sunday school or birthday parties (that’s if you were lucky!). It just didn’t seem fair that she was so rich she could wear them to school for everyday if she wanted to; and even her anklets were clean and white, trimmed with delicate lace along the edges. It was enough to almost make me cry, and crying was something I tried not to do much of, even back then.

I later asked my Aunt Myrtle if I could get some lace-trimmed anklets, and she just laughed. Then she told me I better learn to appreciate plain and sensible clothes because it wouldn’t be too long before I would need to take care of the laundry all by myself. Which of course turned out to be exactly true. The following summer, my Aunt Myrtle went off to work as a teller at the very same bank as Sally’s daddy. Naturally she could no longer help me or my daddy with our mundane household chores since she had to get herself really dolled up to go stand in that little caged box and hand money out to important people.

To tell the truth this was something of a mixed blessing. It did get Aunt Myrtle out of my hair, but at the same time it suddenly seemed that my daddy expected me to do all the cooking and cleaning and everything. And that seemed like a whole lot to ask of a seven-year-old girl, although my daddy told me more than once that he did as much when he was a boy (he’d been taken in by a farm family who’d only wanted a slave child). So I tried real hard not to complain, at least not when my daddy had been drinking—I knew better.

It wasn’t long until I got this notion that if I did everything just right, just perfect even, then maybe, just maybe, my daddy wouldn’t drink so much, and maybe he and I could finally be like those happy families that I saw on my grandma’s TV set (Father Knows Best and My Three Sons and Leave It to Beaver). Of course it never worked out that way, but that didn’t stop me from trying and hoping. I even wore one of my mama’s old ruffly aprons tied around my waist (it reached to the floor).

Getting everything done just right became a sort of superstitious game for me. I thought if I got all the dirty dishes washed up and the floor all swept and supper started by five o’clock, then my daddy would come home by six and be sober. Once in a while, it worked. Most of the time it didn’t. After a while I just gave up altogether and learned to do the minimum of work, and then just lie low. That’s when my daddy started calling me lazy and mean and wicked. He could get himself all fired up mad about things not being done just right around the house, but I soon came to realize that he’d get just as mad when things were done perfectly too—if he was drunk, that is. I finally figured if I was going to catch his wrath no matter what, why bother trying to be perfect all the time? And the less I did around the house, the more reason he’d have to get mad anyway. And that always gave me a real good excuse to just clear out of there.

It was during those years that I started my secret club in a shed in the backyard out behind our house. Our house was just a rental (we weren’t the sort of folk who could actually own a home) and I suppose I didn’t have any real legal right to use that old shed, but since nobody said I couldn’t I figured it must be okay. I can still recollect that sweet musty smell of old damp wood mixed with the lawnmower smell of old cut grass and gasoline. And that shed had lots of neat stuff inside it too. I knew they weren’t my daddy’s things, and I guess they belonged to our landlady, but since she was about a hundred years old and confined to her wheelchair I didn’t expect that she minded much that we borrowed them. Besides, it was just me and Joey in the club most of the time anyway, and usually we were real careful with everything. That is until we burnt the whole place down. But that was purely an accident, involving candles and a science experiment that went awry.

When we first started meeting in the shed, we cleaned it up as best we could, sweeping out decades’ worth of dust and thick spider webs. I told Joey that black widows lived in there, and it scared him so badly he wouldn’t come back inside until I swore on an old Bible that we’d found on a shelf that I had lied to him about the spiders. Then we set up an old wooden card table and two rickety chairs in the center of that dark, dank space. And for some reason we even put the Bible on the table. It’s not that we were religious or anything, but it just seemed like a good thing to do. And it looked nice sitting right there next to our dues jar, which was most often empty.

Of course we didn’t know exactly what the purpose of our club was to start with, but we both knew we needed a place to get away from our troubles. It wasn’t that Joey had a truly bad family or anything. In fact, his daddy went to work almost every single day, long hours too, and sometimes even on Sundays, although Mrs. Divers said it was a sin to work on the Lord’s Day. Anyway, Mr. Divers built small houses and additions and fences and such for people in Brookdale, and he hardly ever got drunk—just once in a while like on New Year’s Eve, and Joey said he never got mean-drunk, just goofy-drunk is all. Mr. Divers was a big, barrel-chested kind of man, with muscles that bulged right through his T-shirts. He’d been a Marine in the war and he walked with a swagger, and I’m sure no one in town ever crossed him. And I’m just as sure that he loved Joey in his own way, but I don’t think he ever knew how to show it real well, leastways not back then, when it really counted. I think Mr. Divers felt worried that Joey was such a fragile boy that he might actually break if he was handled too roughly, and so he reserved all his wrestling and roughhousing for Joey’s younger brother, Randy (a healthy child who was born after Dr. Salk invented his famous polio vaccine).

Unfortunately what Joey missed out on in attention from his daddy was more than compensated by Joey’s mama. Mrs. Divers babied and coddled him to the point where Joey said it sometimes actually felt like he couldn’t breathe (which even caused Mrs. Divers to suspect he might have asthma, although he did not). She didn’t want him to go to school, or to play with other children, or even to go outside much. Consequently, Joey started school later than most kids, but at least he’d spent a lot of time reading books and making models of cars and airplanes in his room.

So if our club had given itself a name, it might have been called the Misfits Club. We never called it that, at least not out loud, although I’m sure we both thought it from time to time. I suppose in some ways it was similar to what people these days might call “group therapy,” and in all likelihood it might’ve saved me and Joey from some additional psychoses in our later lives. Not that we sat around and whined about our problems all the time, but if we needed an ear we always found it in each other.

Most of our time was spent pretending and daydreaming. Maybe that’s what misfits do to escape the sad realities of their pitiful little lives. Our favorite dream was that we would one day invent something extraordinarily brilliant and consequently become rich and famous. And then people would point to us and say, “I remember when I used to know them back when they were just nobodies.” And because of my deprived economic state, we also spent a fair amount of time and energy on moneymaking ventures that would increase our club treasury (which we stowed away in an old canning jar that we kept hidden under a loose floorboard in the shed).

We had no pride when it came to making money, and we sold everything from hand-squeezed lemonade to All-American greeting cards. And we quickly learned (due to the stainless steel leg brace and the consequent empathy factor) that Joey made the best salesman by far. Folks would take one look at his limp and quickly shell out money for whatever it was we happened to be peddling that day, whether they wanted it or not.

The funny thing was, we never knew exactly how to use our earnings. Mostly we just squandered them on sweets and movies, and then we’d have to come up with some whole new capitalistic scheme and start all over again. One time we even sold stolen produce door-to-door. We’d sneaked into old Mr. Bernstein’s orchard and picked two of his peach trees clean (actually, I picked while Joey gathered). Somehow my grandma got wind of this, and we had to turn all our earnings over to Mr. Bernstein as well as work in his orchard for several days as restitution. Turned out he was a pretty nice guy, and he invited us to stop by and visit whenever we liked. After that, my grandma began giving us odd jobs in the store to make extra money, and our life of crime was narrowly averted for a while.

All during this time my daddy and me just drifted further and further apart. I stayed away from home as much as possible, slipping in and out like an evening shadow. Once in a while, if my daddy was on a really bad rampage, I would sneak out and sleep in the clubhouse, but I didn’t like it because I knew lots of spiders still lived in there. (Despite my promises to Joey, I wasn’t totally sure about my black widow theory. Somehow spiders and bugs just seemed to be everywhere in the darkness and I would imagine them creeping all over my face.) But I’d just pull my blanket tighter around myself and console myself with knowing it was better than facing my daddy’s rage.

For a long time, I never told my grandma about any of this. It seemed she had so much on her mind just trying to keep her store afloat, without any help from Aunt Myrtle anymore, and if I ever hinted at any kind of trouble her face would get all squinched up and anxious-looking. And I just didn’t like to worry her with my troubles.

My daddy was an orphan. He was born right after the big stock market crash in 1929. My grandma thought his folks must’ve come across some awful hard times, what with the Great Depression and all, and probably were so impoverished they had to give him up. She told me how lots of families got split up back then, and some folks were so poor that they just couldn’t keep their kids.

I’m sure that explains some of my daddy’s problems. It’s one thing to have your parents die on you, but it’s something else when they just up and give you away like an old, worn-out piece of furniture. I used to think that if I ever had a baby of my very own it wouldn’t matter how poor I was—even if I had to scrub toilets or sweep the gutters—I wouldn’t give up my baby for nothing. But like my grandma always says, you shouldn’t judge a person until you’ve walked a mile in his moccasins. (I used to think my grandpa, the Cherokee Indian, made that one up.)

One night when my daddy wasn’t drunk, and we were sitting on the couch together watching Gunsmoke in a nice, congenial fashion, I asked him why he didn’t ever try to find his family.

“What family is that you’re talking about, Cassandra?”

“You know—the family that gave you up for adoption.” That week’s episode happened to feature a little boy who’d been separated from, and then reunited with, his birth family. And when it ended everyone all seemed pleased and happy.

His face darkened with a frown. “I don’t know anything about those people.”

“Well, they might still be alive,” I said hopefully. “Even if they’re pretty old by now. And you know, I wouldn’t mind having an extra grandma or even a grandpa around.” I was thinking it might even mean getting more Christmas and birthday presents, and things were pretty slim pickings most of the time.

“Well, the fact of the matter is, Cassandra, if my parents didn’t care enough to keep me with them, then I sure as spit don’t care enough to go out of my way looking for them after all these years.”

Now I thought that was just a mite ungracious on his part. I mean, what if they had no idea where he was or even if he was alive? But I didn’t venture to say so.

“But what if you have some brothers or sisters?” I persisted, thinking I might have some aunts, uncles, or maybe even a cousin or two out there somewhere.

My daddy just laughed and said, “Well, if they’re anything like me, then who’d want to know them anyway?”

I thought about that for a minute or two and figured he had a point, and yet I still longed for more family and felt a mite curious at what might be out there.

I knew my daddy didn’t like to talk about his childhood. Usually he didn’t like to talk much at all, leastwise not to me, or so it seemed. So sometimes I’d slip behind the long, thick window drapes in the front room and listen while he was talking to someone else. Usually the best eavesdropping times happened when Charlie Fox and my daddy had both downed a couple of drinks but weren’t falling-down drunk yet.

I suppose Charlie was the closest thing my daddy ever had to a best friend, but even old Charlie got fed up with him sometimes. Surprisingly, Charlie was always real nice to me. I think maybe he felt sorry for me, probably ‘cause he knew my daddy better than most. But the older I got, the less I liked Charlie. I figured if he really, truly cared about my daddy he wouldn’t always come over and drink with him. I mean, it wasn’t like everybody in town didn’t already know my daddy had a drinking problem. Seems to me Charlie could’ve done his drinking with someone else. But as Grandma often said, “Birds of a feather flock together.”

It was later on when I realized that Charlie had a troublesome drinking problem himself. It took a little longer for it to catch up with him, but it finally did. When I was in junior high school, Charlie’s wife took his three kids and moved off to Florida. Poor old Charlie never got over it. Just one year later he drove off in one of Mr. Masterson’s brand-new Pontiacs—drove that 1968 Firebird straight into the levy and sunk it clean to the bottom. The town called it a drunken driving accident, but my daddy said that Charlie killed himself on purpose, and we kids didn’t swim in the levy that whole summer.

I always knew Grandma would help me if I ever really needed her. She was like my ace in the hole, my insurance policy. In the meantime I went about life carefully, staying out of the way most of the time, and when I didn’t, I ran fast. Looking back, I suppose I should have gone to Grandma, but I guess I thought that underneath it all, she must’ve known what my life was really like. I figured everybody in town must’ve known how my daddy got all ugly and mean when he drank too much. If only he’d been more like old Charlie or even Mr. Divers—those goofy sort of silly drunks—I think we could have gotten along just fine. In fact, later on in life, I used to wonder why Charlie’s wife had even run off like that in the first place. Sure, Charlie might’ve been an alcoholic and all, but it seemed to me that he never really hurt anybody. Not like my daddy, that is.

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