Friday, September 22, 2006

Goodbye If You Call That Gone: BY GROVER LEWIS

History and legend bind us to the past, along with unquenchable memory.

In the spring of 1943, my parents—Grover Lewis, a truck driver, and Opal Bailey Lewis, a hotel waitress—shot each other to death with a pawnshop pistol. For most of a year, Big Grover had stalked my mother, my four-year-old sister, and me across backwater Texas, resisting Opal’s decision to divorce him. When she finally did, and when he finally cornered her and pulled the trigger as he’d promised to do, she seized the gun and killed him, too.

A next-door neighbor of Opal’s—called “Dad” North because of his advanced age—witnessed the mayhem shortly after dawn on a rainy Monday morning in May. Big Grover was twenty-seven years old, Opal twenty-six, and they’d been married for almost eleven years. My father survived for half a day without regaining consciousness, and died in the same charity hospital where I was born. Opal died where she fell, under a shadeless light bulb in the drafty old rooming house where she’d been living alone and struggling to keep Titter and me in a nearby nursery school. No charges were filed, and a formal inquest was considered unnecessary since the police and the coroner’s office declared the case solved by mid-morning. My uncle Dubya Cee, Opal’s older brother, talked to one of the detectives involved and found out some additional information, which he shared only with the Bailey elders. Such, anyway, were the bare bones of the story as passed along in family history that soon blurred off into murky family legend. It was the sum of what I was allowed to know, although there remained to be answered, of course, questions I had not yet learned to ask.

Grover and Opal were strong, attractive, hardworking people with no history of wrongdoing. They’d started out as Depression kids who’d eloped from the working-class district of Oak Cliff in Dallas, where they’d both been youthful friends of the notorious Southwestern desperadoes Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, who’d died in a police fusillade six months before I was born. Like Clyde, my father was an unschooled country jake who fell—or jumped—into low ways in the big city. Big Grover and his two older, rakehell brothers, Lester and Cecil—“Leck” and “Cece”—had been coughed up by the dust storms of the 1930s and were among the first generation of Texas boys to grow up without the idea of the American West beckoning them to fortunes untold. By their time, America was “all took up.” Opal, like Bonnie, was a bright student who’d left school early to help support her family before meeting and running away with her first true sweetheart—a moral girl, everybody agreed, with high ideals. Like Bonnie’s, Opal’s main crime seems to have been picking the wrong man to love. In the end, she managed to save my father from everybody but himself.

The fatal events took place in my hometown of San Antonio when I was eight. By then, I had experienced at first hand such a numbing amount and so many varieties of violence that I was left with the choice between an invitation to death and the will to live. My sister, still only a toddler, was almost oblivious to the calamity and would forget our parents completely within a year or so, but complex guilt and mourning and survivor’s self-loathing gnawed at me without letup. In my foreshortened child’s perspective, I worried about my own culpability in the bloody strife that had descended on us, overcome with remorse that I might have been more watchful, that I ought to have tried even harder to protect Opal and stave off our fate. In the secret, nonverbal chamber of the heart where unquenchable memory takes root in childhood, I knew many things on a dim level—but I knew them well enough. In our year on the run and its desperate aftermath, I had stored up memories I couldn’t get rid of and memories I wouldn’t let go, including the awful knowledge that Opal had been betrayed by one of our own family circle—that news of our whereabouts had repeatedly been passed along in secret to Big Grover in his darkening rage by a man who had often sat at our table in happier times and pretended to love us all. In an icy flash, I understood the horrifying extent to which life is shaped by chance and happenstance, and how abruptly the unexpected can strike and obliterate everything you most cherish. Chaos, I sensed, lay hidden beneath the superficial order of the normal, where the solid rules of right and wrong were displaced by treachery, corrosive passion, and sudden death. I was, you must understand, just at the threshold of the age of reason, trying to sort out for the first time without Opal’s help the possibly true from the wildly improbable.

With Big Grover commonly understood to be the wrongdoer and the case closed, the bereaved families assembled to pay their respects, some missing a day or two’s work and driving in from such distant points as Dallas, the Red River Valley, and rural Oklahoma. The mourners made over Titter and me with tears and smothering hugs, but their faces, normally stoic and set, were seized with grief, astonishment, and anger that soon turned to muted discord, at least on the part of my mother’s people. Some wounds of the heart never heal, but leave a shadow and a scar and a family stain that even crushing sorrow can’t ease.

Matthew Bailey, Opal’s hot-tempered father, caravaned into San Antonio at the head of a posse of Baileys, all armed and bristling. When Matthew was notified by the police about Opal’s death, no mention was made of Grover’s condition, so the old man rounded up his clan with the idea of hunting down Grover and evening the score in the old-fashioned frontier way. At joint services held for Opal and Grover at a neighborhood funeral parlor—caskets were open for viewing—Matthew and his band stalked outside when the Baptist minister began intoning the obsequies for my father. The few Lewises present shifted uncomfortably and looked abashed—crushed, in fact—but they were, I am certain, just as aggrieved by Opal’s loss as by Grover’s, and despite the tenuous connections between the two families, they must have realized that Matthew was hopping crazy even on his best behavior. Later—I felt like I remembered it, but maybe I was just told—it struck me that Matthew and some of his brothers and sisters were actually glad that Opal had dropped her killer, proud of her grit and nerve and sure aim. Big Grover had been shot just once, squarely in the eye.

Because of my age, I wasn’t supposed to know or even find out such things, but the details, usually meant to pass over my head, seeped into my consciousness and became part of the tangle of facts and fancy and immutable mystery that marked my parents’ deaths. From our year of “running the roads” in fear of Big Grover’s wrath, I’d been exposed to an atmosphere heavy with whispered accounts as Opal and her younger sisters talked strategies of escape. By then, my mind was like a racing engine, and there was a part of me that was already a spy with an instinct for grown-ups’ hidden purposes, for shadings and nuance and that knowing adult tone that promises to reveal forbidden knowledge. It set me considerably apart from other children, along with my thick, gold-rimmed eyeglasses and some other eccentricities, and gave me a prissy, “know-it-all” manner that rubbed some of my elders the wrong way, not least Big Grover at our final meetings, when even I could see that he was hell-bent for destruction—ours or his, whichever came first.

In those last days, he was a man dusted with a certain odd mixture of innocence and menace, the hint that at any instant he could swing wildly right or wrong. What drove him beyond all normal bounds and left him nothing to break the fall was the thought that somehow he’d let Opal best him—belittle him, really—and because of her selfish, twisted-up thinking, he was about to lose everything he’d ever held dear, including his self-respect. No man worth the powder to blow him away could let that happen without a fight to the finish. Hell, he’d raised Opal, put food in her mouth and clothes on her back for ten years. The way he’d been taught, the family was sacred with the daddy supreme, and he’d sired not only a smart-mouth, half-blind son who was bound to be a burden forever, but a curly-headed little baby girl, normal and sweet as pie. He loved us all was the only thing that mattered. Oh, he’d messed up a few times like most men do, but overall he’d toted fair. Then, right out of the blue, just over a couple of silly arguments, Opal took it in her crazy Bailey head to leave him for good, taking his kids away with a court paper. What kind of happy horseshit was that? No woman was fixing to divorce him, take away his own flesh-and-blood.

Big Grover’s plans for getting us back never took failure into account. On our last outing together, a street photographer snapped a candid shot of the four of us walking along Travis Street, and in the picture you can see the fury in my father’s stride, the hard set of his jaw, the storm of rising blood. If love means to close all distance, death can accomplish the same end. That afternoon in downtown San Antonio was approximately two weeks before the killings.

The touchiness and mistrust between the Baileys and Lewises at the mortuary underscored their essential likeness. Opal’s relatives were Appalachian hillbillies who’d cotton-picked their way in stages to Texas to get out of the Alabama minefields, while the Lewises had settled in Texas before the Republic when the place was still called Tejas. On both sides, they were simple, unassuming people of limited skills and ambitions—white, poor, Protestant, “salt of the earth,” streaked with sentimentality and dark superstition. But the two clans were perhaps most truly kindred in having a deep sense of themselves as being “common folks,” not created by a vast and conscienceless society, but by a small, homely one in which human character bloomed in stages and by precept. In an almost tribal way, we knew where we belonged and to whom we belonged, and that our allotted territory was very small, ranging from forty acres of played-out shinnery to three or four city blocks on the poor side of town. Work and endurance, fortitude and self-reliance had seen both families through the hardships of the Depression and would get everybody through anything else that came at them. The Baileys and Lewises alike were insular people who lived in a world defined more by the past than the present, more toward the country than the city, more Southern than Southwestern. Drama, in the form of extraordinary events, had never touched either line with the exception of occasional disgraces best ignored or blessedly forgotten. Vide Matthew, the outrageous wild man of the Bailey side, and the outlaw Lewis boys, Cece and Leck—bank robbers, it was whispered, or anyway failed bank robbers—and the special case of my lost and fallen father, who had been a good provider and family man like all decent Lewises until he turned strange and departed the firmament of sanity.

We believed we belonged to that old marginal world because we belonged nowhere else. Old-timey—that’s what everybody boasted about being, still clinging stubbornly to country principles. No one I knew, with the sole exception of Opal, looked at living as a matter of weighing alternatives and then picking the best choice. You simply took the pattern that awaited—marrying one of your own kind and multiplying until death did you part, serving in the armed services if called, working the land or some menial town job into premature age if the bosses left you alone. A dab of reading and ciphering was fine if you had the time and the knack, but talking or singing or even fancy whistling served just as well when work was endless and recreation rare, and the real things you had to know how to read were the heavens and the waters and the forests. Our old unsung grandsires—hillbillies and Texians, all hide and bone like the longhorns—had opened up the country, and even when I was small, there lingered among us a poignant and powerful longing for that unspoiled America the elders had seen before urbanization, when the world beyond the horizon was nothing but dust and rumor. But those times were gone, fenced in or padlocked or clear-cut or blacktopped over. The power of caste rarely being generous, history was something created by Them that happened to you.

One of the most basic ties linking the Baileys and the Lewises lay in the fact that both families had been ensnared in a web of peonage since the Civil War and Reconstruction days. The Lewises, originally colonists from England, had pledged their prosperous Texas holdings to the Lost Cause—and lost everything. The Baileys, always landless and also on the losing side, were forced off their mountain hunting grounds to work as hirelings wherever necessity drove them. Inflexible as slavery, the caste system of the South in defeat decreed the sizing down of the person, the whittling away of the individual to fit the prescribed social and fiscal molds. Born poor and despised, three or four generations of my Southern ancestors experienced the imprisoning realities of subsistence drudgery through the institution of cotton sharecropping—endless stooping and picking along wormy turn-rows, dragging twelve-foot-long cotton sacks by a harness over the shoulder. Women and children were expected to drag and fill those sacks, too. Big Grover had just missed that kind of labor by a hair, but Leck and Cece had both pulled bolls on the shares until, as young, almost destitute men in the late 1920s, they’d thrown off their harnesses and gone “on the scout”—“running them ol’ hard roads,” as the Barrow Gang put it, in search of adventure and easier money.

If times were bad, ran the old-timey wisdom about such things, then a man’s real worth might not always square with what he was reduced to doing in a “tight.” Besides, as Oak Cliff’s own Bonnie Parker and that Oklahoma fellow Pretty Boy Floyd had proved, some thieves from decent working families weren’t half as sorry as “the laws” sent out to chase them. As boys, Leck and Cece had unaccountably “gone to the bad,” chasing down raw country girls and drinking liquor on the sly by the time they were twelve or thirteen. To their credit, they always excluded their beloved “baby bud” from their openly criminal pursuits. During that attempted bank holdup—whenever, wherever it took place—Leck had escaped, and Cece had been caught in a cotton field and sentenced to a cotton field. So went the family legend as whispered by the Baileys, and I assumed that’s why Leck was present in the Lewis pew at the viewing of the bodies, trying to comfort his mother, and Cece’s absence was never even mentioned. It was part of the immutable mystery that I wouldn’t be able to puzzle out for some time to come.

The Baptist preacher, hired by the undertaker, paced between Opal’s and Grover’s biers, talking about “estranged souls” and how some were called to the light and others to darkness. Grandma Annie and Daddy Will Lewis, my father’s parents, wept in shame and grief, all the more humiliated, I knew, to be showing their feelings in front of a roomful of strangers who seemed to despise them. They’d ridden a Greyhound bus south from the little Hill Country town of Lampasas, packing a sack lunch and bringing along a cake for us children. Next to Opal and Grover, they were the people closest to me in the world, and I kept wanting to run to their sides, but I was firmly wedged between Bill and Millie Cox on the Bailey side of the aisle, and Millie wouldn’t let go of me. She was my mother’s next-youngest sister, a woman I’d known only a short time but had already begun to fear.

“Goodbye If You Call that Gone” was the beginnings of the memoir that Grover Lewis was working on when he died of lung cancer in 1995. It is part of the collection, Splendor in the Short Grass: The Grover Lewis Reader, edited by Jan Reid and W.K. Stratton.


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