The thing I remember most about the trip back from Florida was how the station wagon smelled. They made me sit in the back next to Papaw in the jump seat. He managed to smell like chili beans no matter what he ate, and he always had a lit cigar in hand that he would forget to smoke. It hung between his fingers, smoldering away and making me want to vomit all over my parents’ car. Sometimes he would fall asleep with it in his hand as we rode along. I would ease it from his fingers and throw it out the window. Though I was only seven years old at the time, I had to be diligent, since he never was. I imagined it catching the car on fire and igniting the gas tank, killing the nine of us, all because Papaw thought having a cigar in his hand made him look like Ernest Borgnine.
There were five siblings in the car, not counting me: Kenny Ray, Wendall, Sharna, Beverly, and Dougie. Mom, Dad, and Papaw spent much of their time yelling at us to pipe down.
“Denney’s! Speed Limit Fifty-Five! Highway Nineteen! Marlboro! Tic Tacs! Marvin’s Melon World—We’ve got big ones!”
“Shut up, Kenny Ray. We can read,” said Mama. She was sipping on a big medicine bottle with a label so worn you could no longer make out the prescription.
“The little kids can’t read,” Kenny said.
“Let’s go to Marvin’s Melon World! I want to go there,” said Wendall.
“If you want to look at fruit, we’ll take you to a goddamn grocery store,” said Papaw.
Papaw began singing a song that began with the line “She threw me out on a cold, dark night…” It was the song he sang when he had consumed at least three beers. After the fourth one he would move on to “Didja, didja, didja ever see a wah-ha-ha-ndering fool like me-eee?”
“Lucinda, toss me another one,” said Papaw.
Mama took a Budweiser from the mini-cooler on the front floorboards and passed it back to Wendall, who held it over the seat to Papaw. Wendall sat next to my sister Sharna, in the prime smack-in-the-face spot of the backseat. Daddy could bloody your nose with the back of his hand if you sat there, so it was always the last spot taken. Of course my seat in the very back was the safest one, if you discount the possibility of death by toxic fumes or fire. Papaw rarely hit because he always had a cigar in his right hand, and his left one had been shriveled and useless since birth. He made up for not hitting by making obnoxious statements about what a sissy I was because I couldn’t throw a ball properly. He liked to brag about how, when he was a kid, he could out-pitch everybody in his end of the county, even with a bum arm. Just to be smart, I once asked him if he could play lacrosse one-handed, and he gave me a surprise cuff across my cheek. “Only faggots play lacrosse,” he said.
Beverly sat by the window behind our mother. Besides me she was the quietest person in the family. Her hair was dark, almost black, and her eyes were big and brown. The rest of us were washed-out dirty-blonds with nondescript eyes that fell somewhere just short of algae-colored. Beverly looked frightened most of the time, as if she’d been grabbed in a grocery-store line and added to our crowd before anyone noticed. She was born the winter after Mama tried to get Daddy to fix our lawnmower. He kept telling her he would get to it, and meanwhile the grass in our yard grew so tall we could no longer find our toys in it. Mama finally got fed up and said she’d take care of it herself. She took the mower to Hector Ramirez, a man who worked on small engines. Two hours later she came home with a perfectly working lawnmower and mowed our entire lawn like some junked-up heroin addict, hacking up my Glo-Worm and cussing Daddy the whole time. Beverly was born exactly nine months later.
Kenny Ray was the oldest, and he’d developed a perverse pride in the fact that his hormones had recently begun producing body odor. He would raise his arms and let the car wind blow his stink into the back toward Papaw and me. It mixed with the cigar fumes, the heat, and Mama’s cigarettes until I didn’t think I could stand it any longer. Wendall would punch him in the ribs to make him put his arms down, and Kenny Ray would grab Wendall’s head and shove it under his arm until he screamed. Daddy would reach back to hit, and Kenny Ray would jerk Wendall in front of his body so he took all the blows. Then Wendall would squirm free and light into Kenny Ray, and the real punching would begin. They had done that four times since we left Tampa. When Mama turned around in the front seat to try and pummel the two of them apart, she elbowed the baby next to her in the head. Dougie cried, and she told him to shut up, even though she was the one who’d made him cry in the first place.
We were all getting antsy from sitting so long, so Daddy promised to pull over at the next interesting place we came across, so we could stretch our legs and maybe get Cokes. We all craned our heads out the windows, trying to get a better look at what might be coming up ahead—all of us except me, that is, because the window in the rear of the station wagon did not go down, and even if it did I wouldn’t be able to see anything until after we had already passed it. I slumped down in my seat and listened to Kenny Ray read aloud every word he saw on every sign.
After a few more miles he piped up again: “Authentic Indian Village!”
“Let’s go there! I want to see some injuns!” shouted Wendall.
“Shut up. The exit’s not for another mile yet,” said Daddy.
“Didja, didja, didja ever see…” Papaw began.
Dougie started crying out of the need to join the general melee, I think. Everyone’s eyes were glued to the right side of the car, looking for teepees, smoke signals, feathered braves on painted horses, and flying arrows winging over the station wagon. For a good twelve seconds no one said anything, and then we saw the billboard—Indian Village Exit Here. Everyone shouted at once for Daddy to turn, and his hand went up in a threatening smack to the entire backseat. Wendall bounced in the seat and chirped about Indians until Dad gave him a mercy whack across the head to calm him down.
Papaw lit up another cigar. “Watch yourselves. You’re liable to get scalped,” he said. Everyone in the backseat instinctively slapped their hands over their heads, and Papaw started cackling. We drove through a log gate that was tied open against a fence post. In a gravel lot were two cars and a wooden booth about the size of a Fotomat. Daddy pulled in right next to it and got out to pay our admission fee. Inside sat a young man with a black ponytail and a Jethro Tull t-shirt, watching a tiny black-and-white television. He kept his eyes on the TV as he handed Dad his change.
“Why ain’t he wearing feathers?” Wendall said. “He don’t look like no real injun.”
“He’s on his break,” said Mama.
Dougie kept drooling on her shoulder. He must have had a tooth coming in because anything you waved near his mouth was likely to get sucked in and gnawed. Kenny Ray slipped him one of Wendall’s matchbox cars just to rile up Wendall, but Mama grabbed it and threw it across the parking lot.
“You want your little brother to choke on one of those little wheels? Huh, do you?” She asked it as if she really expected Kenny Ray to answer yes, he did, in fact, wish for his baby brother to die a horrible death from asphyxiation. But Wendall used to eat the little car wheels on dares from Kenny Ray, so the question didn’t have the impact Mama must have intended.
Over a knobby, green knoll were a few horses, goats, cows, and a sparse village of wood structures. A woman with braided black hair sat in front of one of the buildings, making a basket from a stack of reeds at her feet that looked big enough to hold Dougie. Next to her was another woman grinding some kind of plant with a stone. We figured the rest of the tribe was having a smoke break somewhere, so we stood there, waiting. I thought the thatched roofs of the building must let in water on rainy days, but I figured it would be rude to say so. Kenny Ray didn’t.
“Hey, why you got hay on top of your house?” he said.
The woman grinding the vegetable-looking thing stopped her work. “Same reason you have roof tile on yours. Keeps the sun and rain out.”
Kenny Ray looked up at Dad, expecting some kind of confirmation, declaration, verbal attack—I don’t know. The woman started her grinding again, then gave us her spiel about how she was grinding the zamia root to make bread flour. The rest of the Galen clan kept whipping their heads around, looking for something more interesting. In a large grassy area behind the buildings were stones lying around as if someone had thrown them at some target. Wendall and Kenny Ray took off toward them, and the rest of us followed like bored cows.
A man walked out from one of the rear buildings and waved to us. He had long black hair, the way God and everybody else knows Indians are supposed to have. I also noticed he was wearing Chuck Taylor high-tops, just like mine. He huffed a little as he walked and wiped his mouth, as if he’d just been interrupted from lunch.
He told us his name, and all I know is that it sounded something like “Sea Cow,” but that wasn’t what it was. He apologized for there being so few people in the village, saying there’d been a death in the family and most of the tribe was attending the funeral. Papaw said he’d pay good money to see a real Indian burial. Sea Cow told him it was being held at the McMahan Funeral Home in town and he was welcome to drop in.
“So what do you use this field for?” asked Dad.
“We play a variation of a game called chunkey. These concave disks of stone are rolled across the ground, and you throw a long pole to where you think it will stop,” said Sea Cow.
We all looked at the stones in the grass, waiting to see if he was going to say anything else.
“Where do you keep your horses?” asked Wendall.
“We don’t keep horses. I got bursitis in my knee real bad. Couldn’t do any riding anyway.”
When he said the word bursitis, Wendall’s eyes bugged a little. I understood why. Indians were not supposed to get things like bursitis in their knees. How the heck were they supposed to creep through the bushes and whoop and holler and shoot arrows at cowboys if they had to deal with crap like bursitis? Sea Cow must have sensed Wendall’s boredom because he started telling us stories about how his tribe, the Timucua, used to put human heads on long poles outside their settlements to discourage invaders. At this Kenny Ray’s ears perked up. Sea Cow then told us a gripping story of how they used to hunt alligators by shoving long poles down their throats when they opened their jaws. We were sure we were on the right track until he started in about how his tribe was mainly agricultural and grew pumpkins, corn, and beans. He pointed out the garden area and motioned for us to come and take a look.
“I reckon we’ve seen our share of gardens. Thanks anyway,” said Dad.
“You got a gift shop?” asked Mama.
“We have some postcards in our museum, and we’ve got a fine display there that explains our heritage.”
He sounded like one of those guys on the public television channel that we saw sometimes in school, when the teacher let us watch documentary specials. I had a guilty, embarrassed feeling for him, the one I got whenever I knew somebody was sinking hopelessly under the apathetic boot of the Galen family. Except for the NASCAR museum, my parents had never set foot in one.
“I want to see it,” I said.
“You’re just saying that. First-graders don’t know anything,” said Kenny Ray.
“You hush up. Woody’s so smart, he knows twenty-three out of the twenty-six ABCs. Don’t you, Woody?” said Daddy.
Sea Cow looked at the ground; I think he was embarrassed for me. If Daddy had set my head on fire with his cigarette lighter it would have hurt less.
It had been a mid-year test at school. I was confused. I had learned my ABCs by singing the song in my head. When we got to the part that sounded like “ellemeno,” I thought it was one letter. Mama got a big laugh out of telling everyone about it. Daddy had told me it was no big deal; kids like me didn’t need more than twenty-three letters to say what we needed to anyway.
Mama lit up a cigarette, and Dougie began to whine again. An older couple wandered up with a long-haired dog on a leash. It was one of those short-legged dogs that looks like it’s wearing itself out just by walking around.
“Oh, look at the dog. Isn’t he cute?” Beverly said. She tucked her doll under her arm and reached down to touch the red plastic barrette on its head. Kenny Ray, Wendall, and Sharna all hunched down over the dog with Beverly until you could no longer see it.
The old man and his wife patiently held onto the leash and let my brothers and sisters coo and slobber over their little dog, who flipped around like a circus monkey with all that attention. The couple announced to Sea Cow that they would love to see the museum, having walked up at the tail end of his announcement.
“We have an avid interest in indigenous peoples,” the man said. “Valdonia, how about if we let the children watch Cocoa for us while we take a look inside?”
Beverly sucked her breath in when he mentioned the possibility of us babysitting Cocoa. Kenny Ray and Wendall were already reaching for the leash as Valdonia handed it over.
“I’ll bet they’d love to, Marshall.” Valdonia leaned down to the dog, whose head was completely covered with grimy hands. “Now be sure and walk her gently. She’s just had her nails clipped, and her pads can be a bit tender, so keep her on the grass. She loves to be scratched here on her chest.” She demonstrated by zigzagging a long, pink nail just under her chin.
Dougie ignored the dog and stretched away from Mama’s arms, reaching for Valdonia’s pink, dangly ball earrings.
We were all babbling at once that we would take good care of her. I reached out, hoping to take a turn with the leash, but Mama said I had to take Dougie’s hand for a while. He was getting heavy, and she needed a bathroom break.
“Here, honey, you can wear this for a few minutes.” Valdonia removed her matching pink plastic necklace and put it around Dougie’s neck. He poked at it with a slobbery finger, trying to pull it up so he could see it.
I resented being stuck with a piss-smelly baby dressed in pink plastic beads with red candy stuck on the side of his nose, but after what happened next, I was glad. The old couple followed Sea Cow into the museum, and the dog crowd began trotting down the grassy field, with Cocoa panting along as best she could.
“Come on, Dougie.” I dragged him along, his chubby hand sweating in mine. The women sitting in front of the building swigged on Dr Peppers. When we approached, they tucked them inside the door of the wood building and resumed their cultural duties. Dougie fell over in the dirt beside me, and I watched the basket-making woman. Her hands moved fast, like tiny, nimble machines, and she barely looked at her work. She must have made a hundred, a thousand of those baskets, and probably sold them to tourists who could go home and brag to their friends that they had a genuine Timucua basket made in a real Indian village. She wore red, yellow, and brown beaded earrings, and around her neck hung a soft leather pouch with bits of shells sewn into the front. It had a flawed, dull beauty about it unlike the brightly colored, imitation-suede ones I’d seen in Running Bear’s Indian Trading Post.
“You like my pouch? I made it myself,” she said.
“Made up the bead design myself.”
“It’s real pretty,” I said.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
“Woody Boots Galen.”
“Woody Boots? That sounds like a tribal name.”
“I was named after Woody Guthrie and Boots Randolph.”
She snorted a little, trying to choke back a laugh. It didn’t hurt my feelings; I had always known I had a funny name.
“This is my brother Dougie.” I motioned to Dougie, who sat in the dirt, smacking his hands at clumps of dead grass.
“Where are you headed?” she asked.
“We’re going back home to Alabama. We went on vacation to Tampa. I got a sand dollar at the beach. Wanna see it?” I took the small white disk from my pocket and held it out for the two women to see. Each one gave sufficient oohs and aahs to be polite.
“I hope your brothers and sisters don’t run that dog to death,” the basket-maker said, motioning with a toss of her head to the fast-moving clump of kids circling the far side of the field. Cocoa looked like a bouncing mophead being dragged along behind Kenny Ray. Beverly followed with her hands out, trying to run and pick up the dog at the same time.
“Yeah,” I said. I wanted to explain, apologize, something. But I didn’t bother. I could never find the right words at moments like that. I’d spent most of my seven years with my family trying to squeeze inside the perimeter of life with the Galens. Somehow the essence of the family lay just beyond my understanding. Later I suspected there was some genetic gateway that I stood on the other side of, because I never seemed to be on quite on the same plane as the rest of them. Looking back on all the things following that day, I’ve come to understand that the separation was there for a reason.
The four of them and the dog disappeared behind the rise on the knoll. I longed to scoop Dougie up and go join them. He held a gray rock, smacking it at the ground.
“Don’t let him get that rock in his mouth. He’ll swallow it,” said the woman with the ground root. She pointed a finger at the other woman. “Remember when Tiny got a pebble stuck up his nose and we had to take him to the emergency room to get it pulled out? You’ve got to watch them every minute.” The two women exchanged warnings about the dangers of babies and their irrepressible urges to shove things in ears and up noses. I kept watching the knoll, but there was no sign of my brothers and sisters.
Then Beverly popped up from behind the knoll, clutching her doll and running toward the tree line. The dog-owners were just emerging from the museum with Sea Cow when a popping sound came from the knoll. A high-pitched howl sounded that made a warm wave roll over my body. Kenny Ray and Wendall ran like shot BB pellets over the top of the hill, and Sharna headed for the parking lot, shaking her head and shouting, “It was them! I didn’t do nothing!”
Cocoa topped the hill with the top of her head gray. A faint trail of smoke followed her. The red barrette was missing, and she ran so fast I couldn’t see her feet moving. She went straight for Marshall and Valdonia, who shrieked when they saw their beloved dog, her hair singed off the top of her head. Beverly was bawling at the rear of the knoll. Kenny Ray, Wendall, and Sharna had gathered around me in front of the wood building. Sharna kept barking at them that they were In Big Trouble Now, but they kept on snickering and laughing until they were on the ground, rolling around like people having seizures.
Mr. and Mrs. Dog-Owner marched straight for us, with Cocoa trembling under the man’s arm. Sea Cow lingered behind, scratching his head as if he weren’t sure whether he should referee or what. I looked around for my parents or even Papaw, and finally I spotted the three of them over by the car, smoking and eating the last of the Goo Goo Clusters, the ones Dad had forbidden us to touch until after dinner. When Dad saw the crowd gathering and heard the shrill Yankee voices of the dog couple, he wadded up his Goo Goo wrapper, threw it on the gravel, and marched over to us, followed by Mama and Papaw.
There was no such thing as sorting out the truth. When Galens were cornered, the rest of the clan gathered around and defended the accused whether they were guilty or innocent. Of course we did it. We always did it. If a Galen had been standing over JFK’s body with a smoking gun, the family would have claimed innocence. It was a hobby.
Woody Boots Galen embarks on an odyssey through America in search of his family, who accidentally left him behind years earlier while on vacation. Discovering that two of his brothers have grown up to be domestic terrorists, he reluctantly accepts the fact that he was better off, in his new loving home with the widow who took him in, than the rest of the group, who lived dysfunctional, miserable lives back in Alabama. Temporarily joining their inept movement of hate and destruction, Woody sees his brothers destroy themselves in their failed attempt to start a revolution.
The story is larger than just these three brothers and explores how their early childhood with alcoholic, angry parents set each of them on a dead-end path. Woody, because he was accidentally separated from them at such an early age, carries the vestiges of their dysfunction, but with the loving support of Ermadean, his adopted mother, he is able to navigate his way away from his family’s impending destruction at the last minute.
I wrote this manuscript after questioning why America seems to have become fertile ground for hate movements and terrorists doomed by their own stupidity. As a native of Alabama who left America seven years ago, I continue to be stunned and horrified by the regression of my home state. Though this book was conceived much earlier, much of my writing examines the stunted development of post-Trump America.
Cathy Adams lives in Liaoning, China.
Embark, Issue 9, July 2019