Barnaby wondered whether she would drink the liquor from a dirty glass or straight from the bottle. He pictured nothing but dust and cobwebs could be present in her old house as she didn’t appear to possess the energy to deal with matters of cleanliness he assumed seemed trivial to her at this point in her late life.
He was not ignorant to believe the house stood vacant. The building existed in such a state of disrepair that if she had any family at all, they would most certainly have removed her from such an inhospitable dwelling to one more befitting of the love they should have possessed for her. Then again maybe the stubborn, cantankerous old woman had no need for family and she only agreed to talk to people if they brought her alcohol. He did not look forward to his visit or the prospect of exacerbating her “charm” by supplying her with booze.
Barnaby drove down the rural roads of Mathews, not one of which was spoiled with a stop light, without hassle. The town of Mathews remained small because unless you lived in Mathews, one had little reason to visit. No major road passed through Mathews as it rested at a dead end on Tidewater’s middle peninsula next to the Chesapeake Bay. No outside traffic meant no outside money and so the town’s few stores and restaurants relied on the support of its local citizens.
People liked it small and uneventful. At least the older people in the town who appreciated the non-existence of a traffic light and who couldn’t care less if it took twenty minutes to get to the closest movie theater or thirty minutes to get to a decent shopping center. The population’s mean age was forty-five. The mean age for those with any decision making ability that could influence growth or progress was at least ten years older. So the town remained a haven for Mathews’ citizens looking to spend their retirement years fishing on the water and tending to their gardens.
He entered the local ABC store which he, at the given hour, disliked doing. The public’s presumption as to why one bought liquor at 11:30 in the morning was to get drunk. This then of course led to conjecture on why anyone would want to get drunk in the middle of the day. Job problems, marital problems, or were they just an alcoholic?
He hoped no member of his church would spot him buying alcohol at such an hour though to see him he determined they too would have to be in the ABC store as well which would prove equally embarrassing for them. Generally buying any alcohol in the gossipy community made him uncomfortable because drinking, if he chose to engage in it, was his business and no one else’s. Also he found that hypocrisy ran deep amongst gossips.
Barnaby wandered the aisles until he found a round bottle of brown spiced rum with a pirate on it which he found fitting considering the tales he hoped to soon hear.
He approached the cash register with a feeling of embarrassment when the bell above the entrance jingled. His father, a man the size of a black bear entered. Barnaby’s shoulders slumped. If he had a choice of running into him or the pastor of his church, he would have chosen the latter. Barnaby’s father was a beer swilling, tobacco smoking, Nascar watching, minority hating, redneck and if there were an order for such people, his father would be a grand wizard. Barnaby looked at the cashier and did his best not to appear disappointed.
His father walked straight to him, glanced at the liter of spiced rum and smiled, “That’s a bit strong for you isn’t son?” Barnaby smelled on his father’s breath a mixture of tobacco and alcohol that jump started his mornings and often kept him going through the day. Gin blossoms dotted his face and red lightning covered his eyes.
“It’s not for me though I suspect you will pretend not to believe me,” Barnaby replied with a sigh. His father always tried his best to get under Barnaby’s skin by misjudging or underestimating him. In fact his father’s mere presence irritated him.
Barnaby allegedly couldn’t play baseball because he hit and threw like a “queer”. He couldn’t cut the grass because monkeys couldn’t be taught to drive mowers. He would never have a girlfriend because girls like athletes, not “fags” who spent their time scribbling words on paper. Those were a few of the insults he heard on a weekly basis growing up with his father.
His father’s smile faded. “I’m just trying to be friendly, Barnaby.” His father feigned sadness and walked off. Barnaby noticed the cashier’s frown. His father had a knack for looking better than he was, and making Barnaby, who he belittled his whole life, out to be the inconsiderate jerk.
“Thank you very much. Have a nice day,” Barnaby said to the store clerk as he accepted his change, hoping his manners would somehow sway the clerk’s sour opinion of him.
He first thought to shout a “good bye”, flee the building, and get back to the old woman, but as always, the far fetched belief his father’s kindness might be genuine, crept back in.
Wearing a frown, he walked to the back of the room certain his father, who no doubt was buying liquor of his own, would hypocritically chastise him for doing the same.
He didn’t care to explain himself to his father. Barnaby was thirty-three years old, he left his home the moment he turned eighteen as though it were engulfed in fire and had made his own way for ten years. Long ago he reached a point where he no longer could look up to his father and shortly after that he stopped loving him. But he hoped in his heart the man might be redeemable. Not without intelligence, Barnaby had surpassed his father in wisdom and integrity, though to his chagrin not in financial good luck.
His father had a real knack for understanding the value of land in the county and so ten years earlier, had scooped up a number of waterfront properties which he had recently sold for five times the original purchase price. This allowed his father to retire early from working on the water as a clam fisherman and provided him both the time and means to drink all day. His financial success also allowed him, despite his vices, to feel superior to his son.
“So, how are things?” His father did not turn around and continued examining the shiny, branded bottles in front of him. He wore a shirt with a large graphic of a man fishing a marlin from the water and a baseball cap. His shirt, tucked into his shorts, strained against his beer belly.
“Things are very good. I just bought a new boat,” he turned and smiled like the grinch, “a thirty footer.” He went back to looking at the bottles. “Perhaps you’ll be able to afford a boat one day, even if it’s a small aluminum one.”
Barnaby rolled his eyes. The man never saw the value in being courteous at least not to Barnaby. “A thirty foot boat, huh? What kind of engine did you get?”
“Engines. Plural. I put two Yamaha 200s on her. That’s horsepower in case you’re wondering.”
Again, another insult. “Yeah dad I know what you meant or would you prefer I call you Calvin since we’re out in public! You know of course I’m not that ignorant. I did learn about horsepower in the eighteen years I lived under your roof!”
His father turned and looked down at Barnaby with a clenched jaw. His greater height gave his father a sense of superiority. His eyes dared Barnaby to back talk him again. They flamed with a desire to crack a liquor bottle against Barnaby’s skull.
Barnaby saw the seething anger in his father’s eyes. Years ago his father’s glaring animosity hurt him. He felt worthless and undeserving. Now he saw only an unloving, jealous, impatient man with no wisdom and no fear of where he might one day reside; hell!
His father’s face softened a touch. “Just because you are jealous doesn’t mean you have to take your anger out on me. I’ll take you and your wife out for a boat ride one day…that is if she’s still around.”
“And why wouldn’t she be around?”
His father pretended to play dumb and turned. “I don’t know. A man hears things amongst his drinking buddies. What do I know though.”
Barnaby thought about his wife having an affair. Was he paranoid? All the signs were there but maybe he’d been choosing to ignore them. And now his father hinted that rumors were swirling. What were they saying? What did they know? He couldn’t ask his father and give him the further satisfaction of throwing the details in his face. His father would love to point out that Barnaby was not man enough to hold onto his wife so he dropped it.
“Thanks but I’m not interested in your boat or watching you pee overboard.”
“Of course not,” his father smirked, “you never were much into those types of activities were you?”
“You mean sitting in the hot sun and drinking all day?”
“You know, manly type activities,” his father sneered. “Hunting, fishing, that sort of thing.”
Barnaby opened his mouth to argue but realized the foolish path down which the conversation headed. “I think we’ve had this conversation a dozen times over. It bores me.”
Barnaby turned, “Enjoy your boat, and enjoy getting drunk! Biscuits and beer! What a breakfast! Say hi to your boyfriends for me.”
His father moved to shout a volatile reply but held his tongue when he noticed the cashier watching. With each encounter, Barnaby and his father always sought to get in the last word as they knew if spoken strategically, the words could ruin the other’s day.
On this occasion, Barnaby’s poisonous, yet truthful shot concerning his father’s drinking problem and the false insinuation his father, a homophobe, was gay, would cause his father more irritation than even a bottle of liquor could alleviate. Though his father had always been a heavy smoker, he did not become a serious drinker until Barnaby’s mother divorced him for reasons neither parent would reveal.
He remembered every detail of the night she left. Only eight, he hid upstairs in his room while his parents’ argument shook the house. He didn’t move because he didn’t want them to know he was listening to them.
“You have to go to the police, Calvin!” she cried.
“I’m sure that’s just what you want, to get rid of me!” he shouted back. “Then you can raise Barnaby to be like you!”
“Don’t be stupid! This has nothing to do with that! This is about doing what’s right!”
“The right thing to do is for you to be my wife and keep your mouth shut! You are not going to say anything about anything!” he screamed.
They fought for an hour and finally he heard his mother shout, “I’m leaving!”
She stormed the stairs and burst into Barnaby’s room. “Grab your shoes honey! We are going!” His mother’s eyes pleaded with him to hurry. He ran and clutched her waist.
Moments later his father burst in and yanked him away. His muscles flexed as he grabbed her. “You are not taking him anywhere! He stays with me!” She grimaced in pain. Barnaby froze.
She tried to resist and grab Barnaby but his father dragged her screaming from the room, down the stairs, and pushed her out the front door. She fell into the yard crying. Barnaby ran down the stairs and saw her sobbing on the walk way . His father took his mother’s purse and threw it at her. He pushed Barnaby back inside the house, marched out onto the porch, and slammed the door behind him.
Barnaby ran to the window. His father stood over his mother and growled with a glowing red face but Barnaby could not make out what he said. She shook her head pleading with him but he could not hear anything. His father turned and stormed back into the house, slamming the door behind him. His mother, seeing Barnaby in the window, shouted to him with tears pouring. “I love you Barnaby! Mommy loves you!”
His father dropped the blinds. “Get away from the window!” he barked.
Barnaby jumped off the couch. When his father gave him an order, he did it and offered no back talk. He edged away from the couch one small step at a time as he listened to the sobs of his mother beyond the glass. His heart hurt from holding back the breakdown but he dared not show tears to his father.
That night his father snored in his recliner and Barnaby sat at the top of the stairs wondering if he might come up to tuck him in. He had never done so in the past. His mother had always handled that routine. She always sat on the edge of his bed, answered all his questions, said their prayers, and kissed him on the forehead. She left the door cracked just a little on the way out so Barnaby could hear her move about the house. He hoped his father might wake and rush upstairs to at least tell him good night, at least tell him all would be okay, but he didn’t stir.
Barnaby tiptoed into his room, closed the door just the way his mother always had, and flew back to his bed in the dark feeling vulnerable as his feet danced over the floor. He pulled out Mistletoe, his stuffed koala and best friend whom he hid from his father, and cried into his pillow. He could not remember ever feeling so alone and frightened before or since.
For a time Barnaby assumed his father wanted him to stay because he loved him, but he soon understood his father simply wanted to hurt his mother.
Eighteen came before he saw or heard from her again. He had endured years of living in a cold, hard relationship with his father. As a young boy he needed the nurturing and love that his mother so often provided. She cleaned his scraped knees and tucked him in at night. She packed his school lunches and met him when he got off the bus. She took him to the movies and to the beach.
All that ended the day his father threw her out the door. Each time Barnaby set the table, fixed dinner, cleaned the bathroom, raked the yard, cleaned his own wounds, packed his own lunches, and stepped off the bus to an empty driveway and house, he thought of the look on his mother’s face as she stared at him with despair from the yard. The pain from that inescapable image and the anger towards the man responsible festered inside him.
The day he turned eighteen he fled his home as though it were ablaze. He hadn’t heard from his mother in ten years but he hoped within her she could find room to love him again. He clung to the memory of her trying to remove him from his home; to protect him from his father. He found her only two towns away. She opened the door and when she recognized the grown man standing before her she grabbed the doorway to keep from falling into his arms. They both wept.
Barnaby’s father had intercepted all her letters and phone calls to him and out of spite he refused to allow her contact with Barnaby. His mother did not seek custody because she feared Barnaby’s father might hurt her or Barnaby and so she waited and prayed for ten long years.
Despite his father’s cold upbringing of Barnaby, he still felt betrayed when Barnaby left him and treated Barnaby as an ingrate who should have offered more respect. Barnaby never lived with his father again and his father blamed his mother’s influence on the fact Barnaby acted nothing like him.
Truly Barnaby did not hunt, fish, or engage in many activities his father would consider “manly” but even if he did he knew his father would still seek to out perform him; still seek to belittle him. He found little point in participating? They would never get along. Barnaby was too cold a reminder of his mother.
Why they argued and the cause of her expulsion Barnaby never discovered. He summoned the courage once to ask his mother, but with a worried sigh she said it was for his benefit that he not know. Fearing he might be invading his mother’s privacy, he let the issue go but the secret gnawed at him. He lost his mother for ten cold years because of it and he thought he deserved an answer.
Despite getting in the last word, Barnaby continued to argue in his mind with his father as he drove back to Haven Beach road. He sped down the slippery gravel road, grinding his hands into the steering wheel as he went. Why do I bother! What do I owe the man? Nothing! And yet I continue to try simply for the sake of it.
He punched the buttons on his radio until he found a station not playing commercials. His old car had no CD player
He took a hard turn onto the beach road and the car spun through the gravel. He uttered a panicked profanity and yanked the wheel in the direction of his spin. When he came to a stop he rested pointed at the woods buried in a cloud of dust. He took a deep breath. Thank you Lord! That could have been worse. He looked around. Thankfully no one had seen him. Feeling foolish he jumped out of the car and waved the grit aside. All four tires looked fine. The last thing he needed was a flat. He shook his head at how angry his father had made him. The man did more than irritate him. He rubbed raw inside Barnaby an anger he struggled to control.
He picked up a stone and threw it into the woods. The rock sailed through a plume of white smoke hovering twenty yards inside. Where in the world did that come from? He had heard no gun shot and dust from his car had not created it.
“Hello?” he called out but he heard nothing.
The smoke lingered like cigarette exhaust then fell apart with the breeze.
The uncomfortable sense of being watched crept over him but he paused a moment before climbing back into his car to avoid looking scared.
Moments later he skidded to a halt in front of the old woman’s house and stomped through her yard towards the porch.
“Don’t come up on my porch angry! The wasps don’t like it,” she scolded.
Barnaby hesitated and looked at the twenty or so wasps buzzing around, “What do you suggest?”
“Well calm yourself down of course!” she exclaimed with a chuckle as though the answer should have been obvious to him. “A man comes onto the porch with that attitude; these wasps think he’s intent on destruction.”
“Do you want this liquor or not?”
“Well of course I do. Do you want to hear my story?”
Barnaby would have proposed she step off the porch and they speak in the yard, but he didn’t want to trouble her old legs with such a simple endeavor and out of courtesy he thought he should accommodate her. He therefore took a moment to calm himself feeling much like a toddler who had thrown a tantrum in a room full of people as the old woman stared.
“Here you go,” he said after a minute and handed her the bottle. “I hope it will do.” He took a seat on the porch as no other chairs were available and eased back against a porch column testing its strength. As she removed the paper bag, he glanced up at the wasps huddled around their nests.
“You don’t feed them unwary travelers who come walking down this road do you?” he joked.
“No, I fed unwary travelers to my pet dog Aries, but he’s passed on now so you have nothing to fear. You’re awfully thin. I don’t think you would be much of a meal for them anyhow. Does your wife not feed you?” She handed the bottle back to him. “Would you mind opening that for me?”
“Sure.” He untwisted the top and handed the bottle back to her. “My wife is a wonderful cook!”
Holding the bottle in both hands, she raised it to her mouth with shaky arms and took a large gulp but didn’t shudder at the burn as he expected.
She licked her cracked lips and smelled the brim of the bottle. She smiled as one might when they look at old year book photos or wedding pictures . “I haven’t tasted anything like that in years. My husband and I used to sip on this.”
She set the cap on top and handed the bottle back to Barnaby, “Thank you.”
“You can have the whole thing,” he offered and tried to hand it back to her.
“I’m only a little old lady. I can’t drink all that!”
Barnaby’s shoulders sank. He could have bought dinner at the store for the money he spent.
“What’s got you so riled up anyway?” she asked.
“Nothing,” he mumbled. “Just some family issues.”
“Uh huh,” she replied, unsatisfied with his response. “You’ve got family here other than your wife”
“Yes. My father,” he muttered.
“And the problem is with him?”
Barnaby looked at her withered face and grimaced as though he beheld a sight painful to the eyes. She possessed no beauty, not anymore at least. She could consider herself lucky that Perseus didn’t voyage to her home to collect her head. She looked like a woman who should have died years ago from old age so he felt it remarkable she still possessed the strength to walk on to her porch. He wanted to hear her story despite her appearance so he did his best to be patient and polite with her questions.
“Hmph, Fathers!” she grumbled as though the word left a bad taste in her mouth. “I get it. Say no more.”
Barnaby looked at her with a raised eyebrow. He assumed she would have sided with his elder father or offered sage advice on how sons misunderstood their parents, but she did neither. Instead she looked at him and grinned as though he were the main course for her dinner.
“Now,” she flashed a wicked witch smile and leaned over towards him, her chair creaking as she did so. “You want to hear about the ghosts of Old House Woods!”