1943 – Conception
When Howell Madison Cobb returned home from Norfolk, Virginia, he was no longer the boy who had married fourteen-year-old Indella Sheeley; he was a man of twenty-two, handsome, lithe, and toned by nine weeks of basic training. Indella noticed the differences immediately: her husband had not smoked before his deployment, nor had he consumed alcohol, nor had he known what his true duty to his wife was or could become. Basic training had taken care of all that growing-up stuff. She had no cause to complain, except, perhaps, for the smoking and drinking.
Indella wasn’t the same little girl either. She was seventeen now, a woman, mother of a nine-month-old son named Junior who was called Howbo by all but her. She had not experienced basic training like her husband, but tending to the never-ending needs of a near-toddler was sufficient to create in her a mother and a wife, a woman with a girlish core, and a girl with an adult demeanor. More than that, she had become during Howell’s time away what he would with braggadocio call “a beauty.” For indeed, this is what she was: a beauty. I know. I’ve seen the pictures.
It was April, two weeks leave. He was to report to his commanding officer in Norfolk on Good Friday, at which time he was to ship out to points unknown, most probably London, where supplies were always needed, or maybe Tripoli, where supplies reportedly disappeared like water, or, who knew, perhaps Pearl Harbor and the Hawaiian Islands. It wasn’t his decision to make. The United States Navy was in charge of where to send its supply ships, such as the Circe, to which Howell was assigned as carpenter’s mate and which, unknown to him, was still in the process of being forged. Two weeks leave in early spring with a beautiful, caring wife, and a healthy nine-month-old son, and a spartanly furnished but dry, warm, and comfortable two-room, third-floor loft, and a pay check from the U.S. government. Life couldn’t be better, not for an almost illiterate sailor from Prosperity, Georgia.
It was a time of war, of course. This meant that the cotton mill, the largest enterprise in his home town, was constantly in need of strong backs to run the looms or haul product or empty overflowing trash barrels. The mill’s night manager hired Howell, knowing that two weeks was all he could expect of the young man, but two weeks was more than he had without him. Howell’s job was to move ginned cotton from the loading dock to the waiting looms. Heavy work, but his muscles were elastic and his joy at bringing home a second paycheck exhilarating.
Exhilaration. That was what Howell brought with him into his loft apartment on Wednesday, April 17, 7:30 a.m., drenched in sweat, with wisps of cotton stuck to his arms, neck, shirt, trousers, brogans, and eyebrows. He smelled of the mill. He reeked of the cigarette he had enjoyed on his walk home. He stank of the beer he had chugged in the street while lounging beside the mill canteen and sharing gossip with his fellow workers. He was exhausted. He was proud. He was a man doing a man’s job, working beside other young and enthusiastic men, and getting paid for doing it. Could life be any better?
Yes. It could. Once inside his domicile, he wrestled his soggy shirt over his head and dropped it to the floor. He slipped his feet free of his boots. He unbuttoned his britches and let them join his shirt and shoes. Then, in the semi-dark, he espied Indella, cuddled on the small, make-shift pallet under a curtainless window through which the early dawn illumined her mostly naked body with all its feminine allure. Howbo was at her breast, tugging with his full attention, struggling to extract as much human sustenance as he could manage and she could provide. Howell stood transfixed, still afoul of sweat, smoke, and beer. The image he beheld was his and his alone. No one else could lay claim to it or share his passion. A mother and his child, his wife and his namesake, the two loves of his life, ideally postured for his never-before-realized perfect love.
“Are you tired, honey?” Indella asked. She adjusted the top sheet to cover her exposed body.
“Was, not no more,” he said. He knelt beside the pallet and gently returned the sheet to where it had been.
“Why don’t you take a sponge bath,” she suggested, picking a piece of cotton lint from his upper arm.
“That can wait,” he whispered. He crawled onto the pallet beside her. He took her unoccupied nipple in his mouth and felt the warm liquid flow into his throat. It was tart, a little rancid, but once introduced to it, he could not resist the joy it evoked.
“Honey,” she whimpered, “what’re you doing?”
“Shhh,” he said. “Shhhhhhh.”
Nine months later, Howbo’s brother was born.
1944 – Birth
Sandra Ellen came into the world after a torturous eighteen-hour ordeal that left the young mother on the edge of not caring about anything and cursing the penis that had caused her so much anguish. Nine months of gaining far too much weight and eighteen hours of torment resulted in a child that was not Sandra Ellen after all. It, too, like its father and eighteen-month-old brother, had a penis. And it was ugly, not just the penis but all of it. It was bald. It screamed. It had teeth. Above all, it wasn’t the daughter Indella had envisioned. It wasn’t the perfect child built for pampering and cooing over and teaching all the female things that Indella wished she had been taught.
When the midwife presented the baby to her, cleansed of most of the birthing fluids and wrapped in a cotton blanket, she, Indella Sheeley Cobb, pushed everything away, including her own mother, who was on hand to assist her in making a full and fruitful recovery, and said in a coarse and broken voice: “That ain’t mine. Take it away. It ain’t mine!”
“Why, Della, honey, what on earth are you saying?” said her mother, Glory Bea Sheeley, while resisting the urge to slap the new mother across her cheeks.
“I already got me a boy baby,” Indella said. “What do you think I need another one for?”
“Why, chile, that’s the harshest thing I’ve ever heard.” Glory Bea turned to the midwife. “Give me that squalling boy. He just needs somebody to love him, that’s what him needs.”
The birth certificate, a requirement that both the law and the birthing doctor insisted be completed, was a bit messy since Indella wrote in ink the name “Sandra Ellen” in the appropriate blank. It was Glory Bea who later scratched out the “r-a” in the first name and the “e-n” in the middle name and wrote above them “e-r-s” and “i-o-t,” turning the child from female to male, from Sandra Ellen to Sanders Elliot, setting in motion the life that the rest of this document is dedicated to recording.
For the first ten months of its life, Sanders Elliot was paraded around the village by its mother, dressed in pink frilly dresses, with ribbons in its hair and a touch of rouge on its cheeks. “This is Sandra, my perfect little daughter,” Indella told anyone who ventured to ask. Sometimes she told those who didn’t.
“You’re warping that boy,” Glory Bea Sheeley said.
“Not a boy,” Indella insisted. “Can’t you see how cute she is?”
“Sanders is gonna grow up queer as a jaybird, Miss Silly, if you don’t watch your step.”
“Have you ever seen a more precious little girl, Momma? Ain’t she just so precious?”
Glory Bea, the two-times-over grandmother, gave up arguing with Indella. The new mother, still a baby herself, was a bit “tetched in the head,” and everybody knew it, especially the Cobb family, with whom Glory Bea wasn’t on speaking terms. Besides, she knew that Howell Madison Cobb would be returning home on leave soon and would take care of things and make them right. It was his child, after all, not hers. She washed her hands of the whole affair and left Sanders Elliot Cobb to the waywardness of a mother who dearly loved a child that didn’t exist.
1945 – Sex Change
The war was over, and Howell Madison Cobb, though he hadn’t won it by himself, returned home something of a conquering hero. Sanders was a whopping toddler of one and a half, almost two, when its daddy made its acquaintance. Howell hugged his wife, swinging her off the ground and causing her to struggle to breathe. He hoisted Howbo high over his head and tossed him, causing the four-year-old to squeal with delight. He embraced and kissed his mother. He shook his daddy’s hand, chunked his brothers on their shoulders, and mussed his sisters’ hair. Then he came to the little one, a child that everyone called Sandy—everyone except his wife, who called it “Sandra” out of pure cussedness.
He lifted the chubby tyke out of its crib. “Now who might you be, little buddy?” Howell said.
“Don’t call my baby ‘buddy,’” Indella protested. “You’ll hurt her feelings.”
“Her?” he said off-handedly.
He had obviously been warned. Rather than enter into an unnecessary argument, he hoisted the child’s skirt and yanked down its diaper. There it was, a perfect little penis with a nice set of testicles comfortably in place. He turned to his wife, still holding the baby with its nakedness showing. “Her?” he said again.
Indella had no response. All she had were tears. And they flowed, ruining Howell Madison Cobb’s return from the war, making it into something more in tune with a wake. She rushed from the small and dingy house that the Cobb clan called home, entered the outhouse, and locked the door. There she stayed for the rest of the afternoon. She knew what her husband was going to do, that he was going to do it immediately, and that there was nothing she could do to prevent it. Mama Cobb sent her youngest children to the store with orders to get themselves each a stick of hard candy. She could not fathom allowing her babies to listen to the wailing that was coming from inside the usually quiet and peaceful toilet.
Howell did what he had to do. He ran his fingers through the shoulder-length, curly blond hair on little Sandy’s head, removed the various ribbons and clasps, letting them fall with a clatter to the floor, removed the pink and frilly dress, slipped the dainty sandals from the baby’s feet, hoisted its diaper—which was all it was left wearing—and left his parents’ house in silence. He was “going downtown, be back directly, don’t hold dinner.”
By the time he came back, the silent baby still in his grasp, Indella had finally left the outhouse and fled to her own third-floor loft, where she lay prostrate on the pallet on the floor. This was where Howell found her. This was where he placed the baby, which, for some reason, once its behind had touched the pallet, began to scream.
“Hm,” Howell said, “that’s curious. Not a peep out of him, not all the while Sam Wiggins was cutting his hair. Now, this? Guess he wants to be changed. Think you can handle that, Della?”
Her eyes were dry even though her heart was breaking. Her daughter, Sandra Ellen, was no more. Instead, there on the pallet, waiting to have his dirty diaper replaced and his smelly butt wiped clean, was a bald-headed male child named Sanders Elliot. She could hardly control her loathing.
Howell leaned into his son and whispered, “You need my help again, little man, you just let me know.” He turned to leave. He had more homecoming events awaiting him, the main one taking place at the mill’s canteen. He stopped when he reached the door to the loft and took an envelope from his hip pocket. He tossed it to Indella.
“What’s this?” she asked.
“A little keepsake. Thought you might like it,” he answered, and left.
She opened the envelope. Out fell a handful of curly blond hair, baby hair. This remnant, after fondling it, smelling it, and kissing it, she returned to its envelope; then she licked the edge and sealed it. On the outside, she wrote “Sandra Ellen.”
Though she kept that remembrance for the rest of her life, carefully stowed in her chest of drawers, she was never known to refer to her lost daughter again.
1948 – Lake Louise
Sandy Cobb loved dirt. He played in it, ate it, spat it out, ate some more, and finally lowered himself into the mud and wallowed like a new-born pig. He didn’t understand why, but feeling soil with his toes and his fingers, his tongue and his nose filled him with delight. When Indella fetched him from the ditch in front of their rented house on Louise Street, Sandy yelled as if his mother were ripping his arms from their sockets. He didn’t want to leave his dirt. He didn’t want his hands and feet scrubbed clean or his clothes laundered or his hair brushed free of the out-of-doors. He wanted to be with Howbo, making mud cakes and digging doodle bugs.
Sandy, scrubbed and polished, was encased inside his crib when Howbo whispered to him, “Come on, Skinny, we gotta hurry. It’s gonna rain.”
Sandy needed no help securing release from his jail of spindles. It was time to retire the crib, Indella knew, but for her change was not an easy thing to accept. To her, Sandy was still only a year and a half old, not the four-year-old he had become. Without a moment’s hesitation or any cognizance of his newly washed and pressed shirt and shorts, Sandy darted out the front door in pursuit of his older brother.
The ditch between the Cobbs’ house and Louise Street was lined with hard and well-worn clay and was no more than three or four inches deep at its deepest. Howbo was already in the ditch, digging with a dowel he had found under the house. Sandy watched from the edge of the yard, unsure of what his role might be in this new game.
“Get you a stick, silly,” Howbo said. “Gonna rain, and we need to get ready for it.”
“Ready how?” Sandy asked.
“For the river that’s gonna come down this ditch. We’re building us a dam. Quick. Hurry!”
Sandy found a stick under the post oak tree and sat on the edge of the ditch, trying to dig. The ground was hard, the packed soil resistant. The stick wasn’t worth much. It kept splintering. “What do we need a dam for, Howbo?”
“Gonna make us a lake, you idjit. Lake Louise. Dig.”
They dug. They stacked the loosened dirt, forming a barrier across the ditch. It was hard work for a six- and a four-and-a-half-year-old, but it was worth it. The dam was taking shape. Howbo curved the edges, making it look like the dam his daddy had shown him the week before. That particular dam, just beginning construction, was being made of concrete, not dirt, and it would hold back the Chestatee River, a powerful flow of water draining the mountains in the North, making a lake like no other. Howbo was as enthused by his lake-making as he had been by creating a tunnel under the fence that separated their back yard from the Holloways’.
He watched his brother’s meager progress. “Don’t stop,” he said.
Sandy had stopped. For one thing, his stick had broken, leaving him with two unwieldy nubs. He had also stopped to say hello to Mr. Newhouse, who was sitting on his front porch across the street. “Hey,” he said, waving.
“Don’t talk to him. He’s an old man, a weirdo,” Howbo said.
“What’s that mean, weirdo?” Sandy assumed it meant something bad, judging from how his brother had spoken the word.
“Come, let me see you,” the man called, motioning. “Got something for you, a surprise, if you’ll come say hello.”
Sandy loved surprises. He was aware that surprises were always nice and usually connected to birthdays and Christmas. It was neither of those days. So what could Mr. Newhouse mean by having a surprise? Could it be that surprises were possible any day of the year? Was it logical to assume that an old man sitting on his front porch in the middle of the afternoon with a thunderstorm brewing could have a surprise that an almost five-year-old boy would find interesting? Sandy needed to know. Besides, Howbo was doing just fine, building his dam for Lake Louise. He didn’t need any help.
Sandy crossed the street after looking both ways. That’s what he had been taught by his mother: always look both ways. He had never spoken to Mr. Newhouse before. He didn’t know that Mr. Newhouse was his new neighbor, moved in only four days before. He didn’t care. He liked surprises. Nothing else was important.
“Come on up on the porch, young man,” Mr. Newhouse said. “Let me get a good look at you.”
Sandy did as he was bid.
“My, ain’t you a big boy. You must be all of eight years old.”
“I’m four and a half,” Sandy said.
“Four and a half!” Mr. Newhouse chuckled. “Can you beat that. Four and a half!” He had his right hand inside his loose-fitting trousers. Sandy was curious. What could his hand be doing in such an unusual place? Could that be part of the surprise? Did old Mr. Newhouse have something hidden inside his trousers?
“What’s the surprise?” Sandy asked.
“Come closer, little one,” Mr. Newhouse said with a mild chuckle. “Just a little closer.”
The old man moved his left hand to the front of his trousers and slowly unzipped his fly. He whispered, “Why don’t you say hello to Mr. Peter? Hm?”
Out of his fly came the middle finger of his right hand. Newhouse straightened it so that it pointed directly at the little boy and wiggled it back and forth as if it were trying to say hello. Sandy’s mouth flopped open. He gasped as only a four-year-old can gasp.
Then Howbo was by his brother’s side. Mr. Newhouse was cackling. The sound of his laugh was vile, vicious, irritating. Howbo realized that he still held his digging stick. He swung it as hard as he knew how at the offending appendage, turned, and pulled his little brother off the porch and across the street, failing to look either way. He just went. He couldn’t tell if Mr. Newhouse’s howl was one of pain or of victory. Howbo didn’t care which.
The old man went inside his house and did not come out again.
Indella stood in the front entry of her house. She called, “Is everything okay out here?”
“Just fine, Momma.”
“That’s good. You take care of your little brother. You hear me?”
“And don’t leave the yard again.” She returned inside to do whatever mothers find to do inside their cramped little houses.
Howbo completed his dam project with Sandy watching. It was almost done before the rain began to fall. It worked. It blocked the water flow, created a lake up the ditch that was at least four feet long, Lake Louise, before the make-shift dam burst and allowed the drainage to continue on its way.
That was Sanders Elliot Cobb’s first memory, the one he clearly recalled as he grew older: the dam and the lake it formed. The rest of it washed away, like most things.
The original title for my new novel was A History of the Atomic Age, but that soon went by the way, even though the concept of a year-by-year catalog in the life of a boy coming of age in rural Georgia helped to provide the shape of the work. The story begins with the boy’s conception in 1943 and continues through his birth, naming, youthful adventures, high-school graduation in 1962, and the beginning of his college education, the background always being the times that helped to shape him and the world he inhabited. His real name, Sanders Elliot Cobb, is replaced by a nickname, Skunk, that emerges from his time spent in public school: his schoolmates so name him because of the farm aromas that he is unable to leave at home. The nickname sticks.
We travel with Skunk as he discovers baseball, becomes a chicken farmer, assists with Civil Defense activities in his community, gets baptized in a roaring river, experiences the trauma of a tragic automobile accident, and falls in love with a girl a bit removed from his potential. Other characters in the novel are Skunk’s older brother, Howbo; his mother, Indella; his father, Howell; his maternal grandmother, Glory Bea; and his cousin, Alfie.
Skunk is intended for a young-adult readership, as it describes the coming of age of a strong-willed, intelligent, and sensitive kid who, when he grows up, wants to be a baseball player, a preacher, and possibly a writer. When Howbo asks him what he has to write about, Skunk’s reply is simple: “You.” He eventually finds himself on a college campus where, as a first-term freshman, he is forced to contemplate the impending nuclear holocaust created by the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Skunk is the first of a planned trilogy. The second in the series will cover Skunk’s college life through his first years as a classroom teacher, culminating in his marital vows. The third will travel from his wedding day to his divorce and ultimately his second experience as a husband. All in all, the series of novels is intended to provide a composite picture of life in America as experienced by a nuclear family in rural environs.
Kenneth Robbins is the author of Buttermilk Bottoms, recipient of both the Toni Morrison Prize and the Associated Writing Programs Novel Award. In addition, he has published three other novels, twenty-nine plays, and numerous essays, stories, and memoirs. Currently, he teaches within the Honors Program at Louisiana Tech University.