After Daddy died and Mamma put him in a barrel and rolled it out next to the others by the side of the barn, behind our Kentucky shot-gun house and just about at the edge of the bluff that overlooked the Ohio River, I began to realize that we don’t all live in the same worlds all at the same time. That those who believe everything is subjective can be right. And that those that think there’s a black and white might be right too. She just decided it was too much trouble to do all those things that come with death of a man—of no account, leastways as she saw it—and so she just trundled him off with the junk like everything else and that was that.
No one really asked any questions—not for a long time anyway. He hadn’t held a job for many years and everyone knew we were subsisting on her unemployment checks and social security and whatnot. Besides, he had been a drinker. Sure, it had been a long time since he’d played pool at the little gas station down the road or gotten in a fight with anyone—but they had forgotten about him long before he passed and she just didn’t see a reason for folks to notice him after he’d died of whatever heart attack or aneurysm was in store for him from the day he was born anyway. I didn’t see her actually put him in the barrel. But later I took my cue. I found his clothes neatly folded on the end of the bed the day he went missing, including his soiled underwear, and then I noticed the extra barrel out by the side of the barn, where my older brothers Darrel and Luce used to play basketball. At one point, I almost even asked. But in the end I didn’t. The morning after I noticed he wasn’t in the house, she made waffles and bacon and eggs and I ate them gratefully. They were Eggos. Those round toaster waffles like I’d seen on TV. An extravagance. After a few days, I still wanted to ask, but she hadn’t said anything so I didn’t say anything. Things were still the way they were—just as they’d been for a long time. Except she seemed happier. The house was cleaner. She did the laundry. She even hummed when she made the coffee and looked out the window at the sun’s rising. I looked up from my Eggos and saw a strong jaw for a minute and the crook of a smile right where a dimple never quite formed in her cheek. She looked pretty to me right then.
When the Sheriff came out to ask after him, I just took her story as my story. She said Daddy went out to get some starch so she could make a pie and never came home. “How’d he go?” the Sheriff asked. Momma said she didn’t know since the station wagon was still in the driveway. Maybe he walked, she said. “Walked to get starch?” the Sheriff asked. He was drunk, Momma said. I didn’t think he was really trying to help me make a pie, she said. Then she opened the larder to show the Sheriff that she had everything she needed but starch. The Sheriff looked at me, “You’re Joe Ellen, right?” I just nodded. He seemed he wanted me to say something else but I just looked at him.
That did it.
They named me Joyellen and everyone always pronounces it wrong—as “Joe Ellen,” like it was a boy’s girl’s name. Maybe because I favored Daddy. I don’t know. But I prefer to pronounce it JOY Ellen and I correct everyone in my head every time they mis-say my name.
No one ever came around again to ask about him. We lived in one of those houses on the main street in Carrollton, Kentucky, that somebody might wonder how it gets there. It’s on a half-lot in-between two other bigger houses that have been there since before the Civil War. Being so close to us you would assume the neighbors would know things or at least see things. But our neighbors didn’t look out their windows and see things; they looked out their windows and saw past things. For them, someone must have hit hard times to have given up a piece of their property and let some poor folk establish themselves on what everyone calls “Highland Street,” since it overlooks the Ohio River. If they looked, they looked out their windows past our yard—and maybe my mother rolling a barrel to the side of the barn—and saw right through us to the edge of their universe: the edge of the bluff, the Ohio River, and Indiana beyond.
At least we didn’t live in a trailer. They couldn’t help but see that. Besides, we had the barn in the back and we kept the yard neat. The barn wasn’t part of the original lot for the shot-gun, but somehow it ended up being part of our property—by osmosis, I guess—and we’d hung a netless basketball hoop over the door at some point and my two older brothers made some semblance of a childhood beneath it for awhile when we were growing up. I mainly watched—not because they didn’t ask me to try and play but because I was more interested in rooting pill-bugs from beneath rocks out of the clay-cool earth and enjoying the sounds of their innocence.
Not that I could have put it that way then. But thinking back, that’s what I decided it must have sounded like. My brothers are long gone. They weren’t around for Daddy’s exit nor Mamma’s. After high school, Darrel went down to Lexington and failed at trying to become a veterinarian. From there he went to Cincinnati and found his troubles. Luce didn’t wait to graduate even. He just up and headed south in the summer between his sophomore and junior year and landed in Louisiana where he made a life as a shrimper. He’s never come home again and I’ve never seen a Christmas card from him. Darrel sent one once from prison, but he was just asking for money. He drew a picture of Santa on it. But it didn’t really work out—looked like one of the elves and Momma neither sent him money nor taped his card to the refrigerator, like some folks do. Neither of my brothers were really bad boys—they just needed to get out. I don’t blame them. But neither of them ever showed us that men could end up better than daddy-in-a-barrel. Momma said it was because men are rootless. Seems to me some men just end up in the same place someplace else.
So, I stayed in that house with Momma all those years. And she just grew meaner and meaner. I’d seen pictures of her folk—I never met them—and after a certain age they all had that bag of whatever-that-was below their chins, like congealed lard in a turkey pan the day after Thanksgiving. Not like the nuts packed in a squirrel’s cheeks shoring up for winter—athletic and tight—but a microwaved Ziploc filled with warm fat, loose, dimpled, and pulpy. I don’t seem to have that feature. Neither did Daddy. Looking at Momma, sometimes I wanted to slit it with a knife to drain it just to see what she might have looked like when she was young. Just to see what might have attracted any man to her—let alone a man dead and upside-down in a barrel. I didn’t have any stories about how she and Daddy met. She never said anything about prom. Likely they met when Daddy discovered that Carrollton, Kentucky, was his same place someplace else. And if Momma did go to prom, I couldn’t picture her in anything but the shapeless potato sack dresses I knew her to wear everyday. Sometimes I wished I could see her yearbook—because I just knew she was wearing one of those sacks in her Senior Picture. Or maybe not. Maybe she had a nice periwinkle and white blouse with a matching bonnet and she smiled and there was laughter in her eyes and laughter in her life. I just don’t know. Can’t imagine it, though. Likely she was absent the day they took pictures and I’d find nary a trace in her yearbook that she even ever had a childhood. I didn’t get asked to my Prom. It was okay. I didn’t have a dress to wear anyway.
I went to the same high school as Momma though. But the graduation pictures in the hallways stopped before they got to her, so I don’t know what she once looked like. They ran out of hallway at 1958, so it was like time stopped that year. The schools integrated in the 1970’s but you couldn’t tell from the pictures. Mom graduated I think in 1961. Maybe she was wearing a potato sack in her Senior Portrait. That might be funny. In the 1940’s and 50’s, the pictures were individual—little oval black and whites, or sepia toned, and everyone looked proper and, I don’t know, very adult. But after a while, they turned into grand group pictures out in front of the school, taken in time-lapse, with a few kids always moving at the wrong time with their faces blurred. I always imagined that those kids were killed by some serial killer. Maybe the same one. Maybe by my mother. I never saw my Senior Picture cause we didn’t have any money to order one. I wonder if when someone else looks at it now my face is one of those blurred ones.
When I was in high school, there was a rumor of a serial killer in our area after Mary Alice Slenky, a sophomore, disappeared. I heard someone blue-lighted her on the “new road” and no one ever heard from her again. They found her car—a 1979 brown Camaro T-top—out at the end of Lock Road. But they never found her. The “new road.” That’s what we called it—any new road that got built was called the “new road” until the next new road got built. Then that one was called the “new road” and everyone would miraculously discover the name of the old “new road.” Last one I remember was “Gillock Avenue.” It ran along the north border of Butler State Park—the side they put the “ski slopes” on—and cut through from Highway 227 (the “new road” for my mom’s generation) to Lock Road where they found Mary Alice’s car—which ran all the way from Highland to the Kentucky River. “Avenue?” How the hell did Mr. Gillock rate himself an avenue for a two-lane that cut through a cow-pasture at the bottom of a hill? He did open a shoe store on the town square, three doors down from the Rialto Theater, but across the street—so, facing the river. It was the first one to sell those five colored high-heeled “Oxfords” for boys in the 1970’s. They looked like roller skates without wheels to me. Luce bought a pair for six dollars and thirty-nine cents. Don’t know where he got the money.
So, I’ve been working at the Parkview Market down the road for about six years now. Funny name. There isn’t a park within a five mile radius of the place—and it overlooks the Ohio River, so shouldn’t it be called Riverview? That’s either the result of a lack of imagination or too much of it. Mostly I work nights. It’s down from the corner of Highland where it turns into US 42 at the head of Lock Road. I walk there and back. It’s an eventful place to work as it’s one of the few places in town that stays open til 10pm, even on Sundays. It’s across the street from that gas-station kind of pool-hall place where my dad used to go. That place has closed. But the faded sign for “Mountain Dew” with a reclining Hillbilly still waves in the wind out front. McIntyre’s Grocery used to operate about three doors down from the Parkview Market on the right if you are looking away from the river. But it’s closed now too. My dad used to drink bourbon with the owner—along with the town’s veterinarian. The one called “Mac” and the other called “Doc.” But they are all dead now—neither Mac nor Doc in a barrel so far as I know. Once, my dad took me to Mac’s actual house where they had me mow the lawn. Mac lived on top of a very high hill that overlooks the Ohio Valley—the view was almost as sweeping as at Look-Out point at Butler State Park. He paid me five dollars. And my dad and him drank whiskey the whole time I worked the yard. I didn’t hate them for that since they seemed like normal folk for the day and I appreciated being part of that company. Plus, I got the five dollars. I bought a Honey Bun and a Jungle Juice for .48 cents at Mac’s. Spending it made it mine. I don’t remember what happened to the rest of the money though. Maybe I helped buy those shoes for Luce.
Momma passed away a few years ago. I walked into the kitchen and found her on the floor. Her skirt was hiked up so I could tell she was dead. I checked the freezer and didn’t find any Eggos. I fixed her skirt.
I’m not sure what she succumbed to. She’d been complaining of various ailments for some time. Diabetes. A gall-bladder thing? Cancer? I don’t know. She didn’t like doctors. I will tell you this—when I hoisted her into the barrel, I couldn’t see the lard in her jowls. She was upside down for a minute. She looked like she should have looked in her Senior Picture, had she ever been in one. Leastways the way I imagined it. Beautiful. I wish I’d had a camera. I hope she’d seen herself like that once. I’m glad I did.
I put her next to Daddy. I hope they are happy there together.
They can see the Ohio River from where they are situated, even if they are both upside-down. I’m proud of that. The Sheriff didn’t come to see me after she passed. No one remembered her, which is maybe the way she would have wanted it. I thought it was odd for a while. I’d seen movies in which daughters went to funerals. I thought I might do the same and wear a nice dress. I don’t really have one—but I can imagine the one I’d like to have worn: periwinkle blue and white in honor of the blouse I hope my mother once wore to a prom she never made and in a photograph I never saw.
But now when I sit in the kitchen, the acid smell of instant coffee mingles with honeysuckle at the open window and the view of pollen rising in the breeze up from a millennium of geologic time on the banks of a river that passes silently by countless meaningless human lives. Some of them ended. Some of them never really even started. Some of them lost in their same place someplace else. So, what do they matter? They are bits of carbon in a couple of barrels that might be discovered long after I’m gone. And maybe I’ll meet someone who will put me in a barrel next to them. They just lived and died. That’s all. Just like I’ll do.
Just like everyone does.